The First Drink or Drug


Rehab devoted a great deal of attention to the “first drink or drug.” Resisting it was crucial because once we had one we’d lose control over everything that happened next. We’d find ourselves back where we started before treatment. As one counselor put it, “I never heard of anybody getting drunk if he didn’t have that first drink.”

To me, this was as new a thought as there had ever been, a radical departure from my world. The first drink had always been the beginning of the solution, not the problem. If I had a drinking problem, I thought, it was that I was determined to stop at two or three but found myself going on to lose count.

I’d never considered the first drink in any more detail than knowing I wanted (and later needed) one. Partly, this was because I was never after just one. Even in the early stages of my alcoholism, I was so tolerant I didn’t get much relief from a single drink. At a bar I never ordered anything less than a double. At home, the first drink was a large glassful which I rationalized wasn’t that much once you subtracted the volume of ice. Later, after dispensing with ice, then the glass itself, it was five or six glugs directly from the bottle. No matter how large, however, the impulse was entirely automatic. When you know that even the stiffest first drink is going to provide only minimal solace, what’s the point of pondering its implications? The first drink was nothing more than a necessary way station on the road to the second, third, and fourth, which I knew from vast experience was what I needed just to begin to feel normal.

In later-stage alcoholism, you have to have that first drink in order to even think of doing anything else. When you wake up, or more accurately come to, you’re in withdrawal even if you don’t realize it. You have an ever-present headache. Your stomach feels like it’s been turned inside out. You’re as dehydrated as a 55-gallon drum of Tang. Your balance, memory, self-respect are all shot. Perhaps worst — it certainly was shocking to me — is how badly you shake. Your fingers tap out a spastic rhythm to the beat of an erratic metronome. No matter what you do, no matter how intensely you focus on the task literally at hand, nothing stops them from quivering.

Except having that first drink. The warm rush as the drink descends into your stomach signals the beginning of a sense of command over your rebellious body parts. You have to have that drink, then two more, to regain full control, stop the shakes, dull the headache, settle the stomach, and squelch the fear. And, as counter intuitive as it is, to think straight.

Against the certainty of this repeated experience, rehab instructed, “Forget everything you think you know regardless of how deeply you feel it to be true. It’s wrong. All a result of your diseased mind deceiving you. From now on, every tool you learn and every resource you have has to be devoted to preventing that first drink or drug.”

They added that once you have the first one you lose control over how much you’ll drink because when it hits your brain it produces cravings for more that are so strong they can’t be resisted. That was certainly my experience.

Making the 180-degree turnabout from seeing the first drink or drug as the solution to regarding it as the root of all problems requires a revolutionary change in your attitude. That’s why denial is so strong.

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