All Addiction Is the Same

Tragedy and Comedy

For standup comic and TV personality Paul Gilmartin, the problem was alcohol, but as we know, addiction is the same phenomenon across the board, and the substance is almost incidental. His other problem was that he had no problems, a paradox he explained as a guest of Aisha Tyler’s “Girl on Guy” podcast.

Despite success in the entertainment industry, in his mid-30s Gilmartin was diagnosed with clinical depression. He dealt with it by extensively self-medicating with liquor, which included such side effects as dangerously irresponsible drunk driving. Treating freeway journeys like challenges in a video game was only one of the ways in which he manifested his disconnection from other humans.

He had a great marriage, a great career, great income, a lot of validation from the world, and the pleasure of seeing his own face on a Sunset Boulevard billboard (his personal definition of “making it”). The fact that there was, ostensibly, no reason or excuse for his depression only made it more debilitating. This successful and wealthy man would find himself crying for no reason, and suicidal thoughts visited him daily. There was an embarrassing incident one night when he was drinking in a bar and begged someone he had only known for an hour, “Please don’t go, I’m so lonely.”

His wife would “gently and occasionally” suggest that something was wrong. Eventually, she said, “I’m only going to tell you this once, but I think you have a drinking problem.” Agreeing that he needed therapy, he visited a psychiatrist, who told Gilmartin he couldn’t treat him until he quit drinking. Again he agreed, and says:

I could feel something in me breaking…. Every night my mind would come up with a reason why tonight was going to be the last night I was going to get loaded.

Getting sober at 40

Gilmartin tells of being unable to quit drinking until one morning that seemed at first like any other morning. Waking up, he immediately chastised himself for lazily sleeping too late while the world passed him by. Thinking of all the things he had to accomplish that day, he felt his stomach tighten into a familiar knot. He was struck by the chilling realization that getting drunk was the only thing he looked forward to: “I just said out loud, ‘God help me. I can’t do this anymore.’ ”

That same day he entered a 12-step program. He says:

The first time I went to that support group, I knew I was at a fork in the road. I was going to kill myself, or I was going to throw my lot in with this new thing. I decided to treat it like a science experiment and say, ‘I’m going to throw my lot in,’ and then look at the results and decide whether or not to go back to my old way.

That is a very important concept for anyone who contemplates either delaying suicide or reaching for sobriety. If you put off killing yourself, you can always do it later. If you try going straight and it doesn’t work out, you can always return to addiction. These ideas may sound horrifying to a healthy person, but they are what someone in this position needs to cling to. Keeping the options open is a perverse but comforting insurance policy.

Like many others who decide to unhook from their substance of choice — be it alcohol or junk food or heroin — Gilmartin imagined a grim and joyless future of “white-knuckling it,” just trudging through an endless succession of gray and pointless days. Much to his astonishment, quitting alcohol made him feel infinitely better. He says, “The desire to get loaded went away maybe a month or two into sobriety, and it’s never returned.”

When this interview was recorded, Gilmartin had not had a drink for 10 years. Of course, psychotherapy helped too — delving into the issues created by an uninvolved, alcoholic father and a pathologically overinvolved mother. He also notes that he treats his addiction by a commitment to serve others, including the production of his own podcast, “The Mental Illness Happy Hour.” He gives enormous credit to his wife, and this too is a hint worthy of special attention:

She couldn’t have handled it any better. Because I think if she had hounded me, I might have kept drinking out of resentment…. Eventually, I knew I had a problem. I didn’t go [into treatment] for her, I went because I knew that was the truth. Something in my life was wrong.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Girl on Guy #129,”, 03/04/14
Image by Tim Green

One Response

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