The void is a big deal. Filling the void left when the alcoholic quits drinking or the addict stops using is widely considered necessary in the recovery world if long-term sobriety is to be maintained. When drugs and alcohol go from a top priority to a missing chunk of an addict’s existence, something must fill that vacated time and space. Alcoholics who do not address the void are called, “dry drunks.” They might no longer drink, but their inability to find something positive to take the place of the booze leaves them spiritually and emotionally no better off than when they were active alcoholics.
I get it. The void is a real thing, and a force to be reckoned with.
But what if we are looking at it all wrong? What if the void is not the hole left behind when the alcohol is gone, but rather, the hole that was always there that alcohol filled with ease and comfort? What if rather than address the void in sobriety to prevent relapse, we address the void before we learn how good it feels to fill it with drink? What if the void is the cause of addiction, rather than its collateral damage?
There was no one specific moment when alcohol rushed in and filled the empty space inside me. It was as gradual as it was insidious. When I started college, alcohol became a higher priority in my life. My academic performance earned me B’s, when I knew with a little more effort I could have been a straight A student. You know the freshman 15? I gained 40 pounds almost overnight from a firm commitment to beer and pizza. It didn’t bother me at all. I received a ticket from two undercover police officers for underage possession of alcohol within my first couple of weeks of college. I viewed it as a hassle that stole some of my beer funds. None of it raised any red flags for me – my weight, my grades or my brush with the law – nothing slowed my pursuit of alcohol-fueled fun. As my motivation to learn – to succeed – was replaced by beer and mediocrity, I accepted it like it was my predestined fate.
What if the void is just part of the human condition, and we spend a lifetime trying to fill it in all the wrong ways? What if an alcoholic is simply a person who finds the solution to a problem he doesn’t know he has, but has been trying to solve since birth? What if one person’s alcohol is another person’s drug and another person’s sugar and another person’s sex and another person’s greed and another person’s quest for power?
I joined a beer drinking fraternity in college. I had legacy status at a different fraternity because my father had been a member at another college. A legacy received preferential treatment and was almost assured admittance into the brotherhood. I did not explore my legacy status because that fraternity had a reputation for significant cocaine usage on my campus. I wanted no part in that. I wanted to join the beer drinking fraternity because I truly believed alcohol could never hurt me. My father and grandfather loved beer, and I planned to follow in their footsteps. Cocaine would surely have ruined my life, but beer was the key to happiness. I had chosen my void-filling poison.
What if we are born with the void? What if the void is where we are supposed to put our purpose in life? What if we spend a lifetime unknowingly seeking that purpose? What if along the way we find shortcuts that ease the pain and challenge our purpose presents? The shortcuts work for a while, but eventually we find ourselves lost and directionless until we find our way back to the path of life purpose. Only then can we find peace and satisfaction.
The concept of a, “purpose in life,” was beyond my conception during my college and early adult years. I had everything I needed in life. Decent grades would lead to a mediocre job. The idea that I was underachieving never entered my mind. I found a girl with whom to start a family. Our arguments and growing resentments just felt like the unavoidable baggage of adulthood. My excessive weight and time spent drinking fell into the category of fun and leisure for me. It never occured to me that I was in poor health while I wasted gobs of what could have been productive, fulfilling time and experiences. My life without meaning or motivation felt normal. I simply didn’t know any better.
For me, alcohol was my void-filling shortcut to superficial satisfaction. The drink took an arrogant know-it-all and led me straight to the gates of hell (with lots of good times, and bad, along the way). It blinded me from a life of connection and empathy. Booze led me to abuse relationships and waste opportunities all in the name of keeping the party rolling.
My fate was sealed. I had chosen a life of mediocrity with alcohol as the headliner, and I didn’t even realize there had been a choice to be made.
There was no room for purpose and fulfillment. That space in my life was occupied. And as alcohol became more and more necessary for me to experience joy or stress relief or to calm the chaos in my mind, it cemented its place as the filler of the void. Alcoholism was my destiny.
What came first, the chicken or the egg?
It seems to me, the world is filled with unsatisfied people searching for something. They can’t find what they’re looking for because their shortcut keeps rerouting them from their purpose. Sugar, power, narcotics, greed, junk food, alcohol, social media, pornography, gambling – whatever. It feels good, but it’s really just getting in the way.
We’re all the same, really. We all have our superficial pleasures that prevent meaningful connections and experiences. The void is real. And it’s scary and important and unavoidable.
The void isn’t something to be addressed in sobriety. The void is something to be addressed in life.