“Physicians who are familiar with alcoholism agree there is no such thing as making a normal drinker out of an alcoholic. Science may one day accomplish this, but it hasn’t done so yet.”
This statement, from the “More about Alcoholism” chapter in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, is often read as part of the preamble in AA meetings. I am acutely aware of this because every time I heard it, I thought to myself, “come on, science — accomplish it!”
Well, there’s a possibility that science has. Reports have been swirling about a drug that might do just that: make normal drinkers out of alcoholics. I’m sure I’m not the only alcoholic who is intrigued by this notion. After all, if you have an illness, wouldn’t anyone want to take a pill to make that illness go away?
The pill in question is actually a blood pressure medication called isradipine. Researchers at the University of Texas trained rats to associate either a black or a white room with the use of an addictive drug. Subsequently, when the addicted rats were offered the choice of going into either room, they nearly always chose the room they associated with their addiction. After taking the isradipine, however, the rats no longer chose one room over another.
In a news release about the findings, lead researcher Hitoshi Morikawa, an associate professor of neuroscience at the university, said, “Addicts show up to the rehab center already addicted. Many addicts want to quit, but their brains are already conditioned. This drug might help the addicted brain become de-addicted.”
Would You Take a ‘Magic’ Pill?
While the effectiveness of this particular drug needs further research, there’s an interesting question at the root of all this: If I could take a pill and magically become “un-addicted” (though, to be clear, the researchers of the isradipine study promise no such thing), would I take it?
The easy thing here would be to say that absolutely, no, I would not take a pill to make me a normal drinker. I should say that I am so comfortable and happy in sobriety that I wouldn’t take a pill to make me any other way, even if such a pill existed. A large part of my brain (the more rational side) believes this to be true. The reasons for not taking such are pill are overwhelming. I got sober at the last possible minute before alcohol killed me. Yes, my personal and professional life was a mess, but my physical health was also hanging on by a very frayed thread. So the correct answer to the question is that, were it to exist, I would never consider taking this magical pill.
But I am an alcoholic. And being an alcoholic, the idea of a “get-out-of-alcoholism-free” card has some appeal. I vividly remember trying, and failing, to drink like a “normal” person. To be able to get to that perfect place of happy drunkenness — the light, giddy buzz that I was sometimes able to maintain for a handful of minutes before falling over the edge, freefalling into slurred words, clumsy movements and blackouts. Is that what an “un-addicted” pill might offer me? The ability to hang on to the warm and fuzzies without crossing over that edge?
Dealing With the Desire to Escape
There’s a second part of my alcoholism that an “un-addicted pill” would need to address, however. It wouldn’t be enough to just prevent me from entering blackout land. I’m an addict because, from the first time I felt those warm and fuzzies, I wanted them to last forever. That’s what I was trying to achieve every time I drank — not just reaching that perfect state of intoxication, but maintaining it. For me, that’s the essence, the very core of my addiction: the constant desire to always be a little bit more numb, a little bit happier, a little less real than reality. That’s a desire that existed in me long before I picked up a drink. Discovering alcohol just gave me the illusion that my desire could be realized.
That’s the real reason I wouldn’t take an “un-addicted” pill if I could. There’s a fundamental part of myself that was an addict long before I discovered substances. It’s not just the memories associated with my addiction that an “un-addicted” pill would need to erase, but something at the core of who I am, who I have always been. In sobriety, I have learned that I can’t simply shut that part of myself off; I have had to learn methods to deal with my desire to escape reality. Those methods are the tools that the 12 steps have given to me and I am eternally grateful that I have been able to learn them, despite the fact that I had to learn them at great cost to my family, and my friends, and myself.
I am in no way opposed to the use of medication for mental or physical problems. I have been on antidepressants since getting sober and I credit them with saving my sobriety and, by extension, my life. As any psychiatrist will tell you, antidepressants don’t magically make a person “undepressed” (at least they haven’t for me). What they have done is decrease the frequency and severity of my depressive episodes. When it comes to my alcoholism, though, decreasing the frequency or severity of my binges is far too dangerous a game for me to play. When I drink, there is no telling what might happen or where I might end up. I simply cannot risk a change in treatment. The question of whether I would take a “get-out-of-alcoholism-free” card is irrelevant. I do not have the luxury of giving such a card a test run.
I believe that people should do whatever they need to do to get and stay sober. What works for me might not work for someone else; for another alcoholic, an “un-addicted” pill could be lifesaving. As long as what I’m currently doing is keeping me sober, however, I don’t dare mess with it. It may not be for everyone, but I am glad I have a solution that isn’t entirely dependent on a prescription. And I can double the dose any time I please.