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Drink And A Man

Drink And A Man

When does craving become addiction?

Only two things have I ever craved as much as life itself: drink and a man. To save my life, I had to give up the drink. To give up the drink, I had to give up the man.

My desire for both was total, visceral: passion seeking its own DNA. The bond was physical, emotional, spiritual, chemical—drink, man, and I locked in a menage a trois.

It began, however, as a folie á deux. Alcohol was my first love: a constant, if feckless, companion in negotiating the scary home life of my teens. Early on I fell into the addict’s faulty logic: I felt “normal” only when I was high.

For a while, it worked. A few drinks and I was prettier, sexier, more assured, less bookish and aloof. In no time, the desire for that state of mind became a craving for the only vehicle I knew could get me there—alcohol. By age seventeen, I was hooked.

In a sense we’re all hooked, the Buddha taught. Not on alcohol but on a desire to be happy—which often means a desire for things to be other than they are. According to the Second Noble Truth, desire, or craving (tanha in Pali, trishna in Sanskrit, translated as “thirst”) is the source of dukkha, dissatisfaction. For an addict or alcoholic, that thirst is literal and all consuming. (A Chinese proverb describes the cycle: Man takes a drink; drink takes a drink; drink takes the man.) Overdoing alcohol, drugs, food, or, for that matter, gambling, sex, shopping, even TV-watching, Net-surfing, and checking e-mail gradually erodes choice, until we’re left with little more than our desires and our efforts to satisfy them.

But where is the line between ordinary human longing and addictive craving? Even among specialists, what constitutes addiction remains a matter of debate. Narrowly defined, addiction is “chronic or habitual use of any chemical substance to alter body or mind states for other than medical purposes.” Certain substances—cocaine, nicotine, and the painkiller OxyContin, among them—are known to trigger tenacious physical dependence. Alcoholism runs in families, and a genetic link has been established. But there is a saying in Twelve Step circles: “Alcoholism comes in people, not in bottles,” suggesting that addiction is more nuanced and holistic, and in large part as the Buddha saw it: a mental affliction. The Fifth Precept, one of the ethical guidelines originally set our for monks and nuns, calls on practitioners to “refrain from intoxicants that confuse the mind, causing heedlessness and lack of restraint.” That is precisely why I drank: to be more spontaneous and uninhibited. As I saw it, more alive.

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