The first time I talked with a bunch of alcoholics about recovering from alcoholism, it was in a room full of mostly grizzled men who looked like bikers. I felt very out of place. It was smoky and grubby, and the bikers vibe wasn’t my imagination.
The relationship between socioeconomic class and alcoholism and addiction is complex. While many alcoholics and addicts commit crimes, the poor among them are disproportionately punished by the justice system. Middle-class or wealthy alcoholics and addicts also can afford to keep their mistakes while wasted private; poor people rarely have that luxury.
Of course, alcoholism and addiction is a reality for millions of people regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds or financial realities. You couldn’t look at a room full of people and identify the alcoholics or the addicts. I know I couldn’t. Who would look at me and guess I’m an alcoholic? Even before I stopped drinking 18 years ago, people I knew intimately didn’t guess it about me.
This column, typically about issues related to socioeconomic class and my experience of being “newly poor,” was born from a very dark time in my life a few years ago. I touched poverty and visited worlds I had never known before. I began to understand how little I knew about living in poverty, how arrogant my assumptions were about what would help poor people, and how lucky I was to survive all of it.
All of these hard times happened while I have been sober. When I imagine what it would have been like if I had still been drinking on top of all the other challenges, I think of my children. I can’t bear thinking what it would have done to them. We might not all be here today.
Logic — like the importance of keeping my children safe — isn’t related to why I drank, though. I drank because I’m an alcoholic. I have alcoholism, the disease. When I take it into my body, an overwhelming feeling of craving starts, and all I feel is “yes, more, more, I want more.” An alcoholic’s mind isn’t capable of remembering the fact that she is allergic to alcohol. If I don’t rely on a strength I find beyond logic and will power, I will think it’s OK for me to drink.
This week 18 years ago, I was staying in the house of my parents’ friends in St. Paul, Minnesota. Everything I owned was in my car. I also had with me a cat I had adopted on a recent three-day attempt at living off the land here in Maine. Right about then (18 years ago), I celebrated being not an alcoholic — I had successfully stopped drinking for three months, and it had seemed easy — by drinking vodka lemonades until I blacked out.
In an AOL chat room the next day, some stranger talked to me and told me everything was going to be OK. This stranger told me there were alcoholics who had figured out how to quit drinking and that they could help me.
That’s how I arrived at what felt like a smoky back room at a biker bar. I learned from other alcoholics how to stop drinking. I also learned how to fill that gap in my brain that tells me it’s OK for me to drink.
In the last few years — undoubtedly some of the most difficult of my life — I’ve uncovered socioeconomic class divides that are much deeper than I realized before. People living in poverty speak different languages than people living in affluence. Successful communication across class lines is far too rare. We are a divided people in so many ways.
Also in the last few years, I’ve been reminded of how there are places where socioeconomic class doesn’t divide people. When I talk with other alcoholics interested in recovering from alcoholism, I’ve found class differences don’t block personal connections at all.
Money and socioeconomic class issues surely affect people who suffer from alcoholism and addiction in unjust and nearly criminally different ways. But alcoholism and addiction, it turns out, can also be a source of some of the most powerful and authentic ties between people who otherwise wouldn’t understand each other as well.
To find substance abuse resources, call 211.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.