The Myth of “I’d Never Do That”
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The Myth of “I’d Never Do That”

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This post was originally published on July 16, 2014.

One of the phrases that I’ve learned to absolutely strike from my lexicon since being in recovery is this one:

“I’d never do that.”

This phrase applies to all sorts of common addiction related behavior that civilians would find troubling, such as, “I’d never stick a needle in my arm,” “I’d never trade sex for drugs,” “I’d never rob my own relatives” or “I’d never drink rubbing alcohol/Listerine/perfume.” I’m pretty sure that most of the people who engage in those activities would have been horrified by the thought that they would ever do those things—right up until they did it once and then began accepting it as just another part of their life. Because I have also found that once you cross that line and do something that you once considered inconceivable, it becomes a lot easier to do it again; addiction often trumps self-disgust.

The first time I drank Listerine, I was repulsed with myself. But it worked. It took away the shakes and allowed me to keep working that day. It wasn’t long afterward that I would take a long pull on a bottle whenever I used someone’s bathroom—whether I “needed” it or not. It was as routine as smoking a cigarette, and I got a little buzz to boot.

But one of the reasons that most people, even many of us in recovery, have so much trouble believing we would sink so low with our behaviors is that we still have alcoholism and addiction on a moral plane and don’t believe “good” people do things like that. I think it’s more a case of not fully comprehending what “powerless” over drugs and alcohol really means. I have ample evidence of that powerlessness based not only my own failed “I’d never do that” experiences, but also those of countless other people I’ve heard share their stories at meetings. And I hope I never again make the mistake of underestimating the power of addiction.

I say this not because I need to keep myself (or you) in fear of picking up again (although it helps), but because I’ve accepted the reality that if I do, I shouldn’t be shocked when things that I could never have imagined myself doing become a routine part of my existence—say, serving time in jail (a very real possibility given my previous DUI convictions).

I was reminded of this the other day after a meeting when a small group of alcoholic and addicts were talking about the morning drink. “Ooh. I’d never do that—that’s gross,” said a 20-something woman who was no stranger to blackouts and routinely engaging in insane behavior when she was drinking. “Never say never,” one of the older guys advised. “If you kept drinking, or if you pick up again, there’s no telling what you’ll do.” She didn’t look convinced, but why would she be? Most addicts and alcoholics don’t ever think they’ll get “that bad.” But the truth of the matter is that “low bottoms” are usually just “high bottoms” that worked at it a little longer.

One of the great things about AA, NA or other recovery avenues is that you don’t necessarily have to hit bottom in order to get here. “You can get off the elevator on any floor you choose” was something I heard when I first came in. But given that denial is the presenting symptom of addiction, most of us aren’t going to come into recovery at the first sign of trouble, even if all the indicators (blackouts, family history, legal and work problems) are in place. “I’ll definitely stop if I ever get that bad,” I’d say about someone who I thought was far worse than me. But I just kept crossing those “I’ll never do that” lines, and continued to lower the bar of acceptable behavior until the bizarre became routine.

But it’s not like I went from being Charlie Brown to Charlie Manson overnight in terms of “things I’d never do.” You’ll hear recovery people talk about the “boiling frog” metaphor—that if you throw a frog into a boiling pot of water, he’ll immediately jump out. But if you put him into a pot of cool water and then slowly increase the temperature, he won’t notice until he’s boiled to death. I’ve never tried boiling a frog to test the scientific veracity of this claim, but the metaphor certainly applied to me, and I did nearly cook my insides to death.

I also need to point out that I wasn’t always on the lower end of the drunk/addict spectrum. I had to slowly earn my degenerate stripes. I was well qualified for AA in my mid-to-late 20s, got worse, then stopped drinking for a couple of years (I just smoked weed and did pills occasionally). I picked up again and was just a heavy drinker for a year or two before burrowing my way to hopeless drunk right after my 47th birthday.

As a matter of fact, the first time I came to AA in 1999, I thought I had a high bottom compared to the other poor slobs. I had only been arrested once (only a drunk would brag about that); had never been to a detox; had never gotten high on Listerine; had never stolen from my wife’s pocketbook; had never financed a cocaine deal with a credit card; had minimal (booze-related) health problems; and had only been shut off by a bartender once in my life. By my second time through, four years later, I had a much more “colorful” story as all those things changed. Two more DUI arrests; cirrhosis and debilitating neuropathy; a ton of credit card debt; a couple of detox stays (in the same month); and a healthy appreciation of Listerine, cooking sherry and vanilla extract as breakfast cocktails.

And I’m a lot like other people in the rooms who did things they thought they’d never do. I have a handful of friends that were previously straight up alkies who became heroin addicts after they turned 40 (a couple of them after being sober in AA then relapsing). Same thing with crack. Two booze-only people I know picked up crack after the age of 50, and the woman did what most women do when they want crack and have no money.

I’ve also watched people who were convinced that they were solely addicts, not alcoholics, pick up booze late in life and nearly drink themselves to death, including one guy I currently sponsor. Just because I don’t think I’ll ever do something doesn’t mean I won’t. This is especially true when you cross that line from binge drinking and drug abuse to chemical dependency. I became chemically dependent on booze and benzos the last few (okay 10) years of my using, and knowing I was going to get very, very sick without booze or pills caused me to do a lot of things that I’m not proud of. As a heroin addict once said to me when I first got sober, “You’re a nice guy and you’re my friend. But if it comes down to my being dope sick or you keeping your wallet. I’m sorry, but I’m taking it.”

The first time I came around, I laughed when people would say, “If you drink, you’ll pick up where you left off. Then it will get worse.” And I paid a price for not heeding that warning.

This time I’ve paid attention to the adage that “every bottom has a trap door.”

I just hope I never find it.

Photo courtesy of Mike Mozart [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons (resized and cropped)

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About Author

Johnny Plankton is the pseudonym for a freelance business and comedy writer/editor (and recovering alcoholic) who lives in Boston. He is also a grateful member of America’s largest alcohol recovery “cult” as well as Al-Anon.