As an Alcoholic, I’m Smarter than You (Sort of)

As an Alcoholic, I’m Smarter than You (Sort of)

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This post was originally published on December 5, 2014.

In case you don’t know it, let me tell you that I happen to be very smart. I also happen to be an alcoholic—which, according to studies, may be no coincidence. Research indicates that while heavy drinking definitely doesn’t make a person smarter, there’s likely to be a positive correlation between intelligence and alcohol consumption. In other words, smart people are likely to drink more, as well as experiment with drugs.

I think I’m one of the “drunken geniuses” these studies are talking about. Sensitive and creative, overeducated and ambitious, even in sobriety I can think past the point of obsession, and so for a long time I used alcohol to dull my sense of worry, to tolerate boredom and to deal with people I deemed to be morons. Sure, I maxed out my credit cards buying booze, drank myself sick and endangered my life, risking my health while abandoning my goals, but the disease of addiction isn’t about what you know. In some ways, what you know might even hinder you.

Perhaps the biggest problem that intelligent alcoholics and addicts face is thinking that our thinking is incompatible with recovery. At 27—the age I was when I got sober—concepts like humility, powerlessness and surrender sounded like the shit they talked about on Touched By an Angel and not what I needed to hear. It was my final semester of graduate school and my life was a constellation of wrong when I found myself in a musty church basement drinking weak coffee from a Styrofoam cup. A true bottom and I needed serious help, but “One Day at a Time” and “First Things First” were not things that a smart girl liked to be told. Again and again. By some guy named Bob who had stumbled over the words when reading the preamble aloud. Really, it’s incredible how elitist I suddenly became. A woman who’d initially set off on a career in social service but who’d abandoned that to sell sex was suddenly judging everyone around her, as if we weren’t all the same garden variety drunks.

I was different. This shit might work for you, I thought, but it wouldn’t work for me. And besides, I was an experiential learner. I went to a college, I needed to explain to whomever would listen, where students alternated academic terms on campus with terms of accredited work or volunteer experience anywhere in the world. I had traveled, seen the world, graduated with an expensive degree. I’d held fancy titles at important employers. Of course, I had none of that when I walked into the rooms. Even so, I was skeptical of “Keep it Simple.” Why, I was complex! Tell an alcoholic like me to not date in the first year and we’ll go ahead and get married. Apparently we like to learn lessons the hard way.

In the end, I learned that who we know matters more than what. I may have known a lot about experimental fiction but I didn’t know how to stay sober until I followed the advice of the people I’d just met, strangers from all walks of life who refused to be hosed by my bullshit. No matter how illogical his words initially seemed, Bob’s folksy slogans saved my ass.

These days, I worry less about drinking and more about my thinking— which, if I’m not careful, may not be so different than when I spent three quarters of my waking day drunk.

At seven plus years sober, I know in my heart that it’s time to redress some of my financial issues. I know it’s time to say hello to my deferred student loans but all I can think is Fuck you, credit card debt in my name that really belongs to my abusive ex. In sobriety, I know I can’t just say, “Fuck you.” I know that being an adult means addressing things I’ve long ignored, including the needs of others. Including the needs of institutions like Chase Bank, who—even as I write this—a part of me wants to tell to go to hell. A part of me wants to tell all my lenders to go fuck themselves, and spend the rest of this essay going off about how the terms and conditions upon which poor people are lent money are disproportionately punitive compared to the terms and conditions upon which the rich lend money to the rich. That part of me is right, of course, but for the sake of my sanity I know that I can’t. Thanks to sobriety I know the difference between being right and being happy. Being happy means doing the right thing, regardless of who’s right. I have debt and I need to repay that debt—if only because there are negative consequences if I don’t.

In sobriety I’ve learned that I want and deserve to be happy, and I’m not made happy when I intellectualize my pain, which is what I’m doing when I spiral into resentment over credit card company interest rates or shit my mom did to me 20 years ago. Intellectualization is what I’m doing when I’m assigning psychological terms to everything I think is wrong with me (Repetition compulsion! Emotionally avoidant! Narcissistic!), or—even more fun—everything I think is wrong with you and the rest of society (Heteronormative microaggressive systems of oppression!).

Intellectualization is a defense mechanism in which a person argues, sometimes with themselves, over logical flaws, over-analyzing insignificant details so that they can avoid the obvious. Obvious like an unreturned phone call. Or an unpaid telephone bill. Intellectualizing pain is an old coping mechanism of mine, a strategy for avoiding reality. In the case of an active addict or an alcoholic, it’s when we convinced ourselves we didn’t have a problem by dissecting the definition of an alcoholic and dwelling on the parts of our stories that didn’t seem to fit. Sound familiar? I intellectualized my having sex for money so skillfully you can read my sort-of-true-sort-of-bullshit published in fancy academic books. Never mind my actions were causing me pain—an obvious indication that something was wrong; I kept on doing it so long as I could justify it.

It’s hard to admit but sometimes the pain we refuse to acknowledge is an indication that something needs to change. Sometimes even today, what’s right on paper is not what feels right and so I have to abandon thinking and trust. In recovery, I’ve learned that certain things are not to be approached intellectually.

One of the major goals in recovery is to develop emotional intelligence; in short, this means learning to deal with your emotions, and developing practical coping skills to manage the stresses of everyday life.

To be emotionally intelligent means recognizing and managing your own emotions, being able to quickly reduce your own stress levels while confidently resolving conflicts in a positive manner and masterfully communicating non-verbally. A tall order for a smart-ass like me! In recovery, we learn emotional intelligence by discovering how to empathize with other alcoholics and by allowing ourselves to recognize and deal with stress. The most emotionally intelligent people in the room are the ones who know how to listen, and use humor to deal with the difficulties of life.

Emotional intelligence has been linked to lower rates of stress and depression and better overall satisfaction with life. Also—surprise, surprise—emotionally intelligent people are less likely to abuse alcohol or use drugs.

In the end, I couldn’t outsmart addiction. Like many “drunken geniuses,” at the age of 27, it was quit or die, and so by the grace of who-knows-what, I put down the drink and accepted help. It was a smart move. In the words of one fellow smartypants blogger: “I think of myself as a bright person, bright enough that I thought I would never let any substance get the best of me. But I was wrong.”

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Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for NY Magazine, The Guardian, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, xoJane, The Fix and elsewhere. She is the founder of Becoming Writers, a community organization that provides free and low cost memoir-writing workshops to new writers of all backgrounds and experiences.