DRUGS AND ALCOHOL: How Much Is Too Much?
After forty years of experience in the substance abuse field, I have finally decided that there is a simple answer to the question of drugs and alcohol, how much is too much? I will assume that a person asking this question of how much is too much is one that is looking to optimize his or her potential to grow emotionally and spiritually and to enjoy excellent mental health. My answer, therefore, is an optimum one.
The simple answer is that even one could be too much. Alcohol and drugs are attractive because of their abilities to, in various ways, ease people through social and other situations, in lieu of having the experience of walking and working through the fears of those situations and growing from those experiences. The only thing learned, when using these substances, is that the cure for social ill-ease is using more of them.
I am sure that the majority of the people who use drugs and alcohol will never become addicted to a point where they will need professional assistance. I am just as sure that their emotional and social growth will be stunted in proportion to the degree of use. Much of what I do when I am working with former users, is to assist them to grow up emotionally. The rule of thumb is that when they started to depend on drugs and alcohol, their emotional growth stopped. If a person is now 38 years old and started to use at seventeen, the chances are that that person is dealing with the world from the emotional perspective of a seventeen year old. A disastrous situation, for instance, if that person happens to be a father of three or the CEO of a large corporation.
Everyone has the potential to be an addict or an alcoholic. Proclivity has a lot more to do with environmental factors than genetic ones. By environmental, I mean such things as how a person is taught as a child to cope with life; if friends and associates encourage and approve of use and abuse of mind altering substances; the frequency of opportunity for use; and, most important, how they feel about themselves.
Very seldom, when listening to the life stories of recovering former addicts and alcoholics, do I hear that they were addicted after the first experience. They usually report that it was extremely pleasurable and that the usage gradually increased until they crossed a line where stopping became a difficult or impossible task. Where that line is, is impossible to predict and is different for each person. What is insidious is that the process happens so gradually that only in retrospect, after stopping, is it even apparent that such a line even existed. This is why I believe that using drugs and alcohol at any level, even “recreationally” can be the equivalent of recreationally juggling dynamite.
My mind has been conducting a debate with itself as I have been writing this article. The debate is between the part that cries out for a moderate liberal stance and the absolutist part, which has been doing the writing up to now. The liberal part argues that there is nothing wrong with having an occasional glass of wine with dinner, or an occasional marijuana joint after dinner or at a party, and that a person who might have a drink or a joint once a week is running a very small risk of becoming an alcoholic or a drug addict.
The absolutist part concedes that the chances are real slim. It then suggests that if that occasional drink just happens to occur on “special occasions” like dinner with an important client or that joint just happens to be smoked when first getting to know a new love interest and that the drink or joint sort of takes the edge of the tension of the moment, like its supposed to, then, at the least, it is impeding the person’s learning how to relax and walk through such situations. At the worst, it is letting the person’s sub-conscious, or as I now like to call it, “the inner mind,” know of a really neat way of not having to deal with similar tensions.
The inner mind does not know pasts and futures and just accumulates experience in the present tense. For this reason, each of these “occasional experiences” become an increasingly more powerful alternative solution that the inner mind knows it can call on. For the person who ends up as an alcoholic or an addict, the inner mind does call on that alternative with increasing frequency, while justifying it, consciously, as “just an occasional drink”. That is what the process of denial is all about.
So the absolutist part still insists that none is best and those who dabble infrequently should still be aware of the risks…. I, the judge in this debate, matched up the arguments with my experience and agree with the absolutist part. I think it would be irresponsible to give anyone the assurance that alcohol or drugs in any quantity is effect or risk free.
I also feel I need to point out that the infrequent users of marijuana are probably at the greatest risk since it is unlikely that they will just take one toke of the substance. They will, usually, smoke until the euphoria is felt (usually referred to as “being stoned”). The equivalent of this in drinking terms would be if the occasional drinkers drank until they were drunk.
The euphoria of being stoned is a powerful experience for the inner mind. What makes marijuana even more potentially addictive is that, since there is little chance of there being any negative physical side effects, gradually increased usage can be easily rationalized under the guise of fun or, at least, the absence of any obvious negatives.
Marijuana is the only substance where people who are addicted to it have no realization of just how much it controls their lives until they stop using for a while and look backward. Marijuana addicts seem to themselves to be operating super-functionally, when in fact the opposite is true.
As I stated in the beginning of the article, I am writing from the point of view of how to get the most out of one’s life experience. My bottom line advice for the person who insists on using alcohol and/or drugs recreationally is to be ruthlessly honest with themselves by doing the following self-test at least once, preferably twice, a year: For a period of a month, abstain from all mind-altering substances; drugs, alcohol, poppers, all of them, while you carry on your life as usual. Go to your business lunches, your first dates, your cocktail parties, do all the sex-type things you normally do, and make that after dinner speech. The only thing that will be different is that you will be doing everything without alcohol and/or drugs.
If your use of drugs and/or alcohol was strictly a recreational want and not a need or dependence, then you will have found no difference in your stress or tension level when you did all those activities drug and alcohol free. If you experienced increased stress the tension, it is a sign that, for the activities where the increases were noticed, you have been relying on those substances to get you through. The more stress and tension noticed, the more you were relying on them and the greater the risk of becoming dependent on them. This gives you a way to decide for yourself what level of usage is right for you. I am not saying “don’t use”, just keep your eyes open to what is going on and then make your decisions.
If you could not stay alcohol and drug free for the entire length of the test period, you either are, or are about to be in serious trouble. Incidentally, if you are actually someone who is using mind-altering substances addictively and has been denying to yourself that fact, your mind will come up with all sorts of good reasons why it is O.K. to stop this test prematurely or, maybe even why there is no need to even take it in the first place. So, for the purposes of this test, there is no valid reason to start using your mind-altering goodies again before the entire period you committed to before the test started is over. If you will not even consider taking the abstinence test, you might already be in deep water.
It is my experience that people who are addicted to mind-altering substances build huge walls of denial to rationalize their continued use. Occasionally, addicts and alcoholics will have a moment of clarity, when it will become obvious how addicted they really are. These moments sometimes occur immediately following a particularly bad experience, such as an overdose. At other times, it can be just a spontaneous insight after reading an article such as this one. These moments of clarity are truly “moments” and if assistance is not sought out quickly, the window of opportunity will slam shut as the rationales and denials come flooding back in. If you can relate to this last section, please seek assistance quickly for it might be a painfully long time before your next opportunity. You can call your local Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous,.Cocaine Anonymous, Crystal Meth Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous offices. Call information and ask for their central offices. You can also contact me. Just click on my name, below.
©1986, rev. ©2016, Jason Wittman, MPS
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*About The Author*
Jason Wittman, MPS, LAADC, CATC-IV (aka Successful People’s Secret Weapon) is the former Executive Director of Los Angeles Youth Supportive Services, Inc. ( http://www.la-youth.org ) and has had a private practice as a Counselor and Coach for over 40 years. His practice, http://Stage2Recovery.com focuses on coaching and advising business and professional clients, who are recovering from alcoholism and addictions, to work and live at their exquisite best. He is an expert on teaching and coaching the “getting-on-living,” self-esteem building and spirituality parts of recovery. He has his master’s degree from Cornell University in counseling-psychology and is certified as a drug & alcohol counselor, a clinical hypnotherapist and a practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or