Addiction and “The Air of Elsewhere”

Russell Brand named my blog. I’m not a follower of his, but shortly after Amy Winehouse’s death, he wrote an essay for The Guardian about addiction and their relationship. It’s probably one of the best essays on addiction I’ve read, and I saved it for a long time on a secret Pinterest board, not sure what to do with it, just knowing I identified. There’s one paragraph that hits close enough to knock the wind out of me a little:

All addicts, regardless of the substance or their social status, share a consistent and obvious symptom; they’re not quite present when you talk to them. They communicate to you through a barely discernible but unignorable veil. Whether a homeless smack head troubling you for 50p for a cup of tea or a coked-up, pinstriped exec foaming off about his speedboat, there is a toxic aura that prevents connection. They have about them the air of elsewhere, that they’re looking through you to somewhere else they’d rather be.

I’m very familiar with the air of elsewhere. It permeated my family growing up and characterized most of my drinking life. No matter what happened when I started drinking, whether the night stayed light and happy or devolved into something dark and miserable, one thing remained the same: I wasn’t fully present. When I drink, my focus becomes alcohol: how much there is, how much others are drinking, when and whether it will be acceptable for me to drink more. I thought drinking made conversations flow more freely, but it turns out that’s only true when my glass is full. Once the booze-line dips below the halfway point, it becomes hard to focus on the people around me, unless they’re taking my drink order.

I think this should be the definition of addiction. The unignorable veil. The air of elsewhere. There isn’t a clear definition out there, which makes it easy to trick yourself. I’d tell myself things like, “Sure, I have blackouts. But isn’t that, like, a common plot line in network sitcoms? Even Ross on Friends had a blackout. Ross.”

But even in denial, it was hard for me to deny the fact that I found booze pretty distracting. I’ve sometimes been capable of having just one or two drinks, but it’s never a breezy, carefree thing for me, no matter how much I try to make it one. Even if I don’t proceed to a blackout, I’m consumed in a different way.

I don’t want to be consumed anymore. I want to be myself: alert to the world and fully present for my life. So I quit drinking on March 24th. I’ve been getting in-person help from the usual suspects, but I’ve also been reading recovery blogs and addiction articles and feeling somewhat indebted to the Internet for driving me out of the contemplation stage into action. Maybe the Internet will eventually make denial harder for people. Maybe not. But to be safe, I’m adding my voice to the virtual chorus.

This American Life did a show recently about drugs. I found most of it pretty vapid (Ira Glass has a lot of things going for him, but drug knowledge isn’t one of them) except for this one segment, where an adult son talks to his dad about the dad’s drug use while the son was growing up. At first, I thought it was going to be as blah as the rest of the show, since the dad was a pothead, and I don’t consider pot a particularly dangerous drug (it’s got nothing on alcohol, I mean). But it ended up making me cry. What made it so devastating was the way the son described his dad’s “air of elsewhere” back when he was using. Even though the dad wasn’t going on drunken rages, he was mentally somewhere else, and his son was highly aware of his absence. It’s worth a listen, if you need to be reminded how even the subtler aspects of addiction can hurt the people around you.

I need to be reminded of this. I need to be reminded regularly about how addiction affects the people around me, how alcohol affects me personally, and the reasons I’ve decided to quit drinking. I hope this blog can be a place where I can collect my stories and the stories of others, a reliable place where I can turn when I need to be reminded.


2 thoughts on “Addiction and “The Air of Elsewhere”

  1. I so love this. It is so true. My husband would say to me all the time, “Please, be HERE.” I am still like this sometimes. In fact I’m going to use “the air of elsewhere” as one of my barometers for whether I’m truly “sober minded,” as my sponsor would say, or just not drinking but engaging in a lot of my old mental habits and behaviors. Thank you.

    • Thank YOU! And yes, I agree “the air of elsewhere” makes a great sobriety barometer and also a good red flag for other addictive behaviors. I’ve been meaning to write a post about other places where it’s been cropping up in my life, since it’s definitely not gone entirely. But I don’t think it is for anyone; it’s just a little more obvious in alcoholics. 🙂

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