The Allergy

I’m not allergic to much. But what I am allergic to can kill me.

And I’m not talking about my Paba allergy that I discovered one summer when I broke out in hives on a routine trip to the beach. I’m also not describing a peanut allergy. I wouldn’t know how to use an Epipen if my life depended on it. I’m allergic to alcohol, and as this post discovers, much more. The allergy, as alcoholism is often understood, was made famous by Dr. Silkworth’s influential relationship with Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

It’s an allergy of the body, loosely defined as, “once I start, I can’t stop.” It provides an easy out for the sober alcoholic at parties:

“Want a drink?”

“No, thanks. I’m allergic.”

“To beer?”

“Yeah, I break out in handcuffs.”

Real hardy har har, laugh-to-keep-from-crying-cuz-it’s-true stuff. The break-out-in-handcuffs bit is almost part of the Creative Commons of recovery at this point, along with “One Day at a Time” and “Let go, Let God” and “Don’t Quit Before the Miracle Happens” and the rest. (The Slogan Series describes some from experience.)


The Allergy has been on my mind lately because my dog’s allergies have been killing her.

Poor Riley. If I had known what I know now when I got her, I would have named her Murphy because everything that could have gone wrong with her has. She’s a mess.

The problem for her is, even with some allergy medication, she still scratches. She scratches long after the itch goes away. It appears, oh if that dog could speak, that she scratches simply because she’s developed the habit of scratching. She doesn’t stop when she starts. She’d sooner draw blood from her ear than stop scratching.

We all have an itch to scratch. Some of us just can’t stop scratching once we start, or so my dog taught me last month.

We all can relate to that mosquito bite. The small one that will heal in a day if we let it. But we don’t let it, do we? We give it the four-finger nail-file treatment. We scratch the bite like it’s a winning lottery scratch off. While it’s not what will take the itch away, we scratch in spite of sound advice. We scratch beyond all reason.


It feels good—for the moment. And that’s enough.

The momentary, sometimes, is enough to kick us into an ill-advised, short-term course of self-destructive action. But, it’s just a mosquito bite, after all.

Itches need scratching. And some scratch harder and for a longer duration than others. I always did when it came to drugs and alcohol. I know what a perpetual itch felt like. I feel the compulsion to scratch long after the itch subsides. The itch goes away, the desire to scratch does not.


The first time I smoked pot was out of a bat, a one-hitter.

Just a couple hits that didn’t hit me for a while. I walked with my friend into town to grab a slice of pizza. That’s when it happened. The molten cheese, the rivers of marinara, the pastry crust. It was just a slice of nasty pizza from our crap pizza joint—why did it taste like an artisan slice from New York’s Little Italy? And the fountain coke? The fountain of youth more like it. The bubbles danced their way down my throat.

The first use of pot created an itch I had to scratch going forward. (Here are all “First” posts) And when marijuana stopped working for me, when it stopped creating that masterful explosion of the senses and started making me anxious and paranoid—I still felt the itch. I couldn’t turn it off. Eventually, like our dog, I was scratching in spite of blood and pain. I just scratched because the habit felt good and right.

Some people get that way over drinking and drugging. Alcohol is the friend who can find that sweet spot on our itchy back. It is the missing piece of our baffling life’s puzzle. It is the one thing we can rely on when we can no longer rely on ourselves. But why?

Getting sober has helped me understand my allergy from a different angle. People have shown me that scratching the itch won’t take the itch away. I’ve got to stop scratching altogether. And once I do—like the newcomer who eats chocolate at every meal—new itches surface. It seems my allergy to alcohol never was about the alcohol at all. I am allergic to anything that gives me control over how I feel.

I’ve been writing lately a lot about how uncomfortable I felt in life before I started drinking. I believe it’s the urge to fix how I feel that has always triggered my allergic reaction to drugs and alcohol.


Somewhere in the recovery process, I learned about satisfaction. Feeling good and feeling satisfied are emotions on two different planets. Like, I feel really good eating McDonalds in the moment, but I’d be more satisfied that night if I had eaten raw vegetables for lunch. Satisfaction, I’ve found, comes from a hard day’s work. Satisfaction is the lasting self-esteem we feel from service work. It restores self-trust.

I’m going to get hooked on something. I’m constantly tinkering with how I feel like a mad scientist who can’t quite reanimate a corpse. So, I do my best to focus on what brings me long-term satisfaction. Teaching is a prime example. I don’t have a rush of dopamine when I see my paycheck every two weeks. In fact, it’s best if I don’t focus on my finances for too long. But, at the end of each day teaching, I am exhausted. I am satisfied because I did everything I could to convince those agnostic teenage minds that there is more to life than they originally thought.

Part of the process is understanding that, while the long-term satisfaction thing sounds good, the urge to scratch, the short-term good stuff, never goes away. It surfaces daily, even without the drink and the drug. For me, it’s a three-headed dog: anger, lust, pity.

That dog has six ears, and each one is always itchy.

8 Responses to “The Allergy

  • I like the distinction between feeling good and feeling satisfied. That is such an important fact. I so appreciate your posts

  • Or like poison ivy…. you scratch it and it itches MORE! It’s

  • So important to stretch ourselves and learn (and it is learning) the ability to let go of the moment when the one thing we think we need is screaming out to us- to find the courage to sit with the desire, the urge unattended- until we get to the other side- where the greater, more rewarding thing awaits us. True reward, not empty, muscles are toned up for the next time. Excellent post Mark.

    • Thank you Elizabeth. “the urge unattended”–I love that. It is the part of sobriety I continue to fail at. The whole, pausing to let it all pass. I’m not just accustomed to behaving like that. It ain’t easy. But, it beats the alternative. Thank you for your generous feedback.

  • Anne Marie
    6 months ago

    Hey Mark

    That’s a great post thank you. My road to recovery has been long and I’ve done more research than a neuroscientist trying to find the ultimate answer to “disease model versus choice”. At the end of the day the answer remains elusive and is now irrelevant. To you: was told by two amputee friends and one one blind relative “pity is a drug”. To Elizabeth; your post kind of confuses because so much therapy advises us to live in the moment? Still I agree that one must learn to feel difficult moments and pain and understand that if we just ride them out there will be new moments of pleasure and happiness. Thanks both of you and wish me luck. Here is a diatribe I started in March if you have time to take a look :Everyday and moment is a struggle for me coz happiness and success trigger me just as much as pity and sadness, damn! 🙂

    AM’s Recovery Rant

    31st March 2017

    Five days ago I slipped a turquoise hair scrunchy around my wrist. It’s bright and highly visible sitting along side the other permanent residents; a plain chunky solid silver cuff bracelet and three slim silver bangles. I stole the idea from a British documentary I once watched about convicted paedophiles and their monitoring after release. And it seems quite apt. For after paedophiles, is anyone as reviled and vilified by society as alcoholics and addicts? My answer to that question is perhaps only the females and the black ones even more so. On that subject dear reader (1), please let me recommend Chasing The Scream by British writer and journalist Johann Hari. This book provides a harrowing account of the persecution of Billie Holiday by the US authorities (2) together with the history of the global war on drugs and subsequently addicts. There is a particularly horrifying and poignant chapter on Tent Prison in Arizona, USA, as well as the true story (which literally couldn’t have come out of the imaginings of Hieronymus Bosch) of a woman who was burned alive in a cage by prison guards at the same facility (3).

    So anyway, on with the show. Upon release the paedophiles were installed in “safe houses”, electronically tagged and obliged to continue the therapy they’d undergone within the prison system. Part of that therapy was to wear an elastic band around one of their wrists and whenever they felt their illness becoming triggered (for example seeing a child to whom they felt attracted getting onto their bus) to immediately ping the elastic band. This was employed as a means of reminding them of their sickness and of their absolute resolve to control it using the cognitive behavioural strategies they’d learned.

    And so here I sit admiring my turquoise hair scrunchy.

    I am, thank the universe, not a paedophile nor do I have terminal cancer. It’s not quite that bad dear reader because usually nothing in life is ever actually quite that bad when examined. I’m just another alcoholic, a female alcoholic. If I were a paedophile, I’d truly be reviled by society and living permanently in fear, not only of my illness, but also of group vigilante attacks. And, if I had terminal cancer, well I’d receive a lot more support, kindness, empathy and understanding but I’d be dying and dying with no ifs, buts or second chances. So yeah, I guess I’m lucky to be an alcoholic.

    I presume you’re thinking I’m wearing this turquoise hair scrunchy to remind myself I’m an alcoholic and to ping it whenever I have a trigger or urge to drink. Well, it’s not quite like that. You see, I’m wearing this because I’m an alcoholic in very, very early recovery for the first time. Wow! Yes, that’s right, I’ve entered recovery and still can’t believe I’m saying it, because you know what? “What?” I hear you reply, trying to disguise the ennui in your voice.

    Well, I’ve attended meetings on and off for 1.5 years now and I’ve counted sober days. Yes, that’s right, I’ve counted sober days. I’ve counted sober days and busted and then I’ve counted sober days again and busted again; and then I’ve counted sober days for just one last time this time in fact, and busted. Repeat over and over like a reoccurring divisional number dear reader. The truth is, I’ve busted more times than “Ä” grade bubble gum. But hey, those lovely AA people, did they beat up on me about it? “No”; Were they disappointed and sad for me? “Yes”; Did they still keep trying to encourage me? “Yes” ; Did they ask me to keep coming back? “Yes”; Did I keep going back? “Yes”; Did I take breaks after my busts? “Sometimes, sometimes not”; Was there anything my AA fellowships could have done to stop me busting over and over like a drunk at a black jack table? “No”. The statement of fact is there was absolutely nothing they could do except to continue welcoming me and asking me to keep coming back. You see, unlike friends, family and addiction specialists, well meaning as they are, they got it because they too are alcoholics. They know that alcoholics don’t give up, whether that be trying to drink or trying to stay sober. Thank you beautiful AA people (4) (5).

    The sweetest thing I remember was a lady at one of the meetings (I used to like to go to lots of different ones as they’re all different – so if you’re ever in Sydney, Australia, I tell you the meetings are the best!) who said to me “You know what, you’re so cute when you stand up and say Day 5 again!”. I think I liked that because my favourite Aunt once told me when she’d come racing out of her art studio, one school holiday afternoon, to yell at us early teenagers for sitting and smoking on the trampoline, everyone took off except me; I just stayed and sucked it up. She’d also found that to be cute, Ha!


    (1) Forgive and indulge me here but I cannot describe the pleasure it gives me to finally name you dear reader.

    (2) After reading “Chasing The Scream” I fell into a deep melancholy . My resolve to remain sober went totally out the window and I spent two weeks getting intoxicated and listening to “Strange Fruit”” over and over.


    (4) I’m no longer a full on AA’er and my on going posts will refer to them with both positives and negatives. However, I absolutely credit AA for starting my journey on the long road to recovery and shall be eternally grateful.

    (5) I’d like to dedicate this song by “The Hollies” to every AA fellowship on the planet:

  • Mark I love your blog. I’m in recovery and attend meetings and work the steps, they’ve changed my life. Life can still be hard, but it’s life on life’s terms and I love the description you give iof long term satisfaction rather than instant hits which I constantly and can still seek out. Take a look at my site and blog I’m going for a overall more lighter look at women and mothers in recovery.

    Bless you and keep coming back ????

    • Hey Clare!

      Saw your blog. Thanks for linking it. Looks like something really cool is starting there! If you need any help or guidance, let me know. I’ve been at the blogging thing for about 18 months, and I’ve learned a lot from it.

      More importantly, congratulations on your sobriety! What a great gift that we get to share our stories of hope where we used to share stories of despair.

      I appreciated your thoughts on sober festival going. I just got back from a camping trip (not quite as extensive) with my boy. It was a blast. So much to be grateful for.

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