During my time as a counselor, I have seen innumerable different situations and stages of chemical dependency and drug use. From the teenage marijuana user who used as a way to “enhance the Bible” to a client who drank a gallon of vodka a day — yes, you read that right. One gallon of vodka a day.
What I have come to realize is that no matter the amount of drugs or the amount of years the person has been using them, it is only relative to their experience. What I mean is that regardless of the quantity or duration the person has/is using, they have their own hierarchy on which they judge their use in a negative and positive way.
Relativity is often what gets misunderstood, not heard at all, or confuses the parties affected by the use. For the remainder of this article, I will talk more about the idea of relativism and alcohol/drug use and how it relates to the user and their loved ones.
Also, as a small disclaimer, I will be discussing fictional case studies that are actually amalgamations of many clients I have seen or knew of in the past.
Let’s start with the individual I mentioned earlier, Mr. Gallon Man. We’ll call him “Joe.” When Joe first came to see me, he was primarily interested in therapy for his anxiety and depression. He told me that he drank every night, but that he wasn’t too worried because he didn’t drink as much as his family members do who also live in his house.
After further discussion, he informed me that drinking was prevalent in his family and that he had started drinking daily by the time he was 13. Day drinking, morning drinking, late night drinking — he grew up with drinking as normal as putting your pants on in the morning.
It became even more interesting and concerning when he started to describe his own drinking habits. Joe worked as swing shift cab driver, and after getting off from work around 9:00 pm he would drive to the liquor store and buy a gallon of vodka. Once he arrived at home, he would climb into bed, prop the bottle on a pillow, and drink the entire bottle while watching TV before he would black out or fall asleep.
For the average person, the mental image of a grown man lying in bed with a gallon of cheap vodka propped on a pillow so that he can drink without lifting his head is probably distressing. I know that I was certainly concerned and distressed by his story.
I began seeing Joe for the next three months, and during our sessions we discussed his alcohol use frequently. During each session, Joe would appear as if he had a fever. He would sweat profusely and his hands would tremble.
In every session, Joe exhibited numerous physiological signs of alcohol withdrawal. I was also working closely with his primary physician, and she too had enormous concerns about his health.
After a month of sessions discussing his drinking habits, Joe finally asked why we spent so much time on something that wasn’t a problem in his life. Although Joe was experiencing numerous negative physical and psychological effects as a result of his alcohol consumption, he did not see the link between alcohol and his symptoms.
For Joe, alcohol was the reward he gave himself everyday after a long day’s work. It was a happy and fun thing. Joe’s inner circle and family used alcohol in similar ways, and the idea that alcohol was or could be a negative was beyond the realm of possibility. Joe was living in a world where his use was approved and condoned.
During my last session with Joe, he informed me that he had been in the hospital for three days that week because of someone poisoning his alcohol. It was later disclosed to me by his primary physician that he had consumed 2 ½ gallons of vodka and was found in an alleyway unconscious.
It was explained many times to him in the hospital that he was lucky to be alive and that his alcohol use was going to kill him if he didn’t get help. Eventually Joe did get help, but to this day he is still bewildered why alcohol is a problem.
Maybe you have known a Joe in your life, or have encountered a friend of a friend who is going through a parallel or similar situation. It can often, if not always, be exhaustively frustrating to watch someone destroy their lives purposefully and without regard. It can also make the people around them feel inadequate and helpless to their spiraling situation.
For Joe, he had a deep and powerful mistrust for the medical community at large; and it wasn’t until later I found out that his family also subscribed to this philosophy. It wasn’t until Joe’s grandmother told him he might have a drinking problem that he seriously considered the possibility.
Many times in life we are told the same thing repeatedly by friends, family, etc. and by some miracle we hear the same idea from the right person at the right time and we have the proverbial “light bulb” moment.
It may be that the person was not ready to hear the information or that the speaker had all the right nuances to get the idea to permanently land, but for some reason it worked and we are thankful. What we do know is that has to be relevant to the person. No matter the context or the content, relativity to the person is the key.
Let’s focus on another person for a moment. “Chris” was a 17-year-old who grew up in a Christian household and reported to me that his faith was strong. He was at odds with his parents because of his marijuana use.
Chris’ philosophy was that marijuana was natural and that his use drew him closer to the Lord. Chris was a very smart and polite young man who got good grades and appeared to be a model example of a teenage boy.
Chris preferred to ingest marijuana through edibles as a nighttime routine before reading his Bible. Chris was unable to understand why his parents disapproved of his use because he was not using it in a dangerous location or buying it from seedy individuals. He was using it to enhance his experience when reading Scripture.
It’s probably not hard to imagine, but Chris’ parents did not share his same view on marijuana. They were very concerned about his current use and his future. His parents assumed that Chris was using the narrative of using marijuana as an enhancement for reading the Scripture as a clever ruse. I too had assumptions on the story. Nevertheless, Chris was about to turn 18 and his parents wanted to get him help before the choice was solely on his shoulders.
Chris made it crystal clear throughout our sessions that he had no plans to quit, and that he was preparing to increase his consumption the moment he turned 18. He was planning on enrolling in a college in Colorado and use legally while attending school.
He had airtight reasons for his future use and it was obvious that he devoted a considerable amount of time putting fastidious thought into current and future actions. He is growing up in a generation that thinks very differently about marijuana use and with states legalizing recreational use such as our own, he was well within reasonable thought to have his opinions.
What became relative is that his parents were cut from a different generational cloth — one that viewed marijuana as a dangerous gateway drug and caused young men to grow into lazy and stupid people.
A week before Chris turned 18, he saw me one last time. He told me that he just liked to use marijuana sparingly with friends, and that he was tired of hearing his parents’ political views and antiquated thoughts on drugs.
His elaborate story of edibles and Bible reading was just that — a story. What was relative for Chris was that he felt his voice was being stifled by his parent’s will. Chris had no real plans to increase his use or even use marijuana in college; he was just playing a strange role during a strange season of life.
The following week, his parents met with me and were ready to ship Chris to an inpatient drug facility. They begged me to sign papers or get him involuntarily committed. This was the last stand for the parents and they were convinced that their son was a helpless drug addict on the verge of a life of turmoil and strife.
A year later, I heard that Chris was doing quite well in school and that he and his parents’ relationship was stable and healthy. So what was the point of this story? Or both stories, for that matter?
Relativity is the point. Chris was an angsty 17-year-old boy who wanted more freedom and used manipulative and elaborative stories to confuse and battle his parents. Joe was an extreme alcoholic who was unable to see his drinking as a problem due to his environment and family culture.
During a crisis, it is often difficult to see the scope of the problem or understand the context of the situation. It normally is not until the dust has settled that we are able to see the full complexity of the why’s and what’s. Sometimes it takes months or even years to see and understand the complete picture.
I want to leave you with a challenge. A challenge to look at yourself or the family member or friend around you who is raising red flags knowing or unknowingly. Why are they using? Do they know what they are doing to themselves? Do they know how this is affecting you? Are these really the right questions to be asking? They are cliche questions that often receive blank stares.
An animal that lives in a zoo is subjected to its environment in a way that is different from those living in the wild. When looking or analyzing an animal’s behavior, the environment is equally if not more important to study — the food sources, the other animals surrounding it, or the stage of life the animal is in.
What is affecting the animal in the here and now moment that is relative to it? For a 17-year-old boy, the future is normally not that relevant, so discussing their choices in a future-oriented dialogue may be irrelevant. When that boy turns into a man, he may come to his parents one day and say, “I finally understand now” — but that day isn’t now.
When speaking to people who are truly struggling with chemical dependency we need to speak their language and meet them where they are. If they are sitting in the gutter, then sit down there with them.
I heard a pastor once say, “If you want to be a missionary, be sure you can cross the street before you cross an ocean.” It struck me as profoundly then as it does now. It is not easy to speak to someone on their level when you have a large agenda on how they should clean up their act. It takes a sharp and open mind to see through the layers and see the relative words that may have the impact we so deeply wish to give.
“The Sea Life”, Courtesy of Anastse Maragos, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Neon Drinks”, Courtesy of Stephan Valentin, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Weed”, Courtesy of Panos Sakalakis, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sitting Around”, Courtesy of Clem Ononjeghuo, Unsplash.com, CC0 License