Tuesday, November 28, 2006

alcohol & nicotine

Bernardus' post over at Maelstrom reminds me I've been meaning for a while to say something here about addiction ... b-but what? The day before I went back driving this time, in July or whenever it was, I deliberately went and bought a packet of cigarettes. This after not smoking for the previous six months or so. Or only smoking casual OPs. Why? It was something to do, I now think, with a feeling of failure associated with going back on the road. This failure allowed me an excuse for self abuse, perhaps. Masked as indulgence in a pleasure. In the same way a disappointment, as much as a success, suggests alcohol as an agent towards, or away from, that emotion.

Chinese medicine associates diseases of the lungs with disappointment, of the liver, with anger. I remember saying this to my father once. He, a slave both to alcohol and nicotine for much of his adult life, gave me one of those bald looks that used to make the kids he taught quiver in their shoes. That's interesting, he said. Remarkably, he gave up both addictions towards the end. I was impressed by the fact that, when he stopped smoking, he left half-filled packets of Black & White, his last brand, lying around the house. He seemed to stop drinking with the same ease, observing, without fuss, the house rule in the old people's home he spent his final months in: a glass of sherry once a week on Wednesday mornings, otherwise, nada.

Like him, I've been a smoker and a drinker all my adult life. But recently, after a conversation with my son, I decided to experiment with not smoking while driving. The context for this was a desire to test my pathetic conviction that cigarettes helped to get me through a shift. Well ... guess what? The pains I suffer in my legs from long hours sitting at the wheel are about ten times less acute if I don't smoke through a shift. Call me naive, but I was so astonished I worked through a shift smoking to see if they got worse again. Yes, they did. It's the effect of cigarette smoke on the circulation I suppose. Furthermore, the headaches I vaguely ascribed to inhalation of exhaust fumes - they're not nearly as bad either. Plus, I sleep better without the artificial heart accelerant that cigarettes also are.

Now, alcohol. I'd been in the habit of having a few glasses of red wine after finishing a shift. When I say a few, I mean two or three. Half to three quarters of a bottle perhaps. Helped me sleep, I thought. Helped me wind down. After I stopped smoking on the job, I also tried not having these few relaxing glasses of wine. Again, the effects were immediate and obvious: better sleep, better digestion, feeling better when I woke up in the morning. I held to this regime until Monday night, when there was a bottle with a bit in it left over from the weekend. So I supped it that night with my supper. Well, d'uh. Though it was less than what I used to drink, I felt even more dreadful next morning.

Everyone knows, I guess, that when our habituation to the toxicity of the poisons we voluntarily take wears off a bit, they strike with greater force. Smoking and drinking, in other words, is like a kind of anti-fitness, the more we do it, the better we are at withstanding these toxicities. Recall John Birmingham writing in one of his books (the one about marijuana, I think): I wasn't fit, but I was piss fit. On the other hand, that urge to damage yourself through intoxication runs so deep as to be almost unexcavatable.

In my own case - and I'm not sure if this is general or not - I think it arises in part from a desire to hurt myself which, in turn, comes out of disappointment or shame or anger; but it isn't only that, because there's a pleasure in the effect as well, especially with alcohol. Tobacco is slightly different, because (recent experiments have convinced me) it only becomes pleasurable once you have managed to re-addict yourself. Another peculiarity is the relationship between these two drugs and stress. Both are seen as de-stressing agents and yet both in fact act to increase physical stress. The same might be said of anxiety: alcohol and nicotine, it seems to me, don't so much relieve anxiety as answer it with the physically induced anxiety their consumption brings.

So what am I saying ... ? Perhaps I'll keep away from the cigarettes for a while (it's hard for me to say forever), and I'll certainly refrain from alcohol on the days / nights I drive. But I don't think I'm quite ready yet to swear off it altogether. I'll probably continue to, as they say on the labels, enjoy wine in moderation: which means, of course, that I will also continue to stray onto the path of excess now and again.

PS The title comes from a Gary Clail song, the chorus of which goes: Like alcohol and nicotine / The truest lovers there's ever been ...