There’s an old AA mantra that goes something like “You can tell when an addict is lying, because their lips are moving.” Lying goes part and parcel with being addicted: in a society that stigmatizes and legislates against the addict, lying is often simply a matter of self-preservation. But why is it that when we break the cycle of addiction, the lies often follow us into our sober existence?
When I was 22, I landed in a drug treatment center for the first time following a disastrous three-year heroin and cocaine run that had ruined my health and resulted in homelessness, brushes with the law, and the kind of bleak desperation that could fuel 100 recovery memoirs.
Amongst the many characters I met during that stay, “Mike” was one of the most memorable. Mike was an older alcoholic with a whole host of health issues—a missing leg, trouble with his lungs, and some kind of cancer that was eating him away from the inside. He was frail and sickly looking but underneath the fragile surface was a simmering volcano of rage and hatred. He told me that immediately prior to landing in treatment, he’d been living under a bridge in Las Vegas, having lost his family, his home, and everything he loved to the bottle. I related to Mike’s cynicism and anger, and we became good friends.
“Ask an active alcoholic what time it is, and 9 times out of 10 he’ll lie to you…Why? Basically, to stay in training. It’s the Liar’s Disease.”
Mike was no fan of the government. He told me that he had once been in the aerospace industry, working on a secret project for the US military that involved developing a new kind of paint that would render military aircraft invisible to enemy radar. The secret project involved working with some pretty heavy chemicals, and soon many of the workers had come down with various cancers. The army denied that the paint was the cause, and the legal battle dragged out so long that most of the workers were dead before the Supreme Court ruled in the workers’ favor. Though he survived, Mike had also developed cancer, necessitating the amputation of his leg. Disfigured and depressed, his drinking started to get out of control and, he said, he drank the compensation money as a form of slow suicide. His wife left with his two kids, the family home was repossessed, and Mike ended up on the streets. By the time Mike had finished this awful tale, his eyes were brimming over with tears.
“Now do you see why I’m so fucking pissed off all the time?” he’d asked me. “Now do you understand?”
When I left rehab 30 days later, I told Mike—who was getting out in a week—that we should meet up. He asked me if I was planning on staying clean, and I lied straight to his face. “Of course I am,” I said, “one day at a time.” I didn’t think too much about this lie; it was almost a reflex. The reality was that in my head I was already high, already imagining how good that first taste of dope was going to be after 30 days of nothing stronger than caffeine. I left the center, hooked up with my girlfriend who had also spent the past month in a different treatment center, and we rented a room in the shitty part of Hollywood. Within 24 hours, we were shooting speedballs again.
“Addicts lie because they think it might keep them safe,” says Christopher Murray, a licensed clinical social worker who also teaches substance abuse counselors at The Alcoholism Council of New York, “Lies are alternative realities about the past, present or future that the liar thinks will be better than reality. They’re a short cut to dealing with our anxiety about the dark side of what yesterday reveals and tomorrow promises.”
When it comes to addicts and lying, Stephen King wrote something in the aftermath of the James Frey scandal that I have always found to be pretty spot on: “Yeah, stewbums and stoners lie about the big stuff, like how much and how often, but they also lie about the small things. Mostly just to stay in practice. Ask an active alcoholic what time it is, and 9 times out of 10 he’ll lie to you…Why? Basically, to stay in training. It’s the Liar’s Disease.”
Or, as Christopher Murray puts it, “Addicts need to be safe because they did in fact steal the coke from their friend; they lie to be secure because they have low self-esteem and have acted self-destructively so they say they went to Harvard Law. They need to have the esteem of their peers so they lie and say their day count is 57 even when they really slipped over the weekend.”
The urge to fabricate the truth is something that I also noticed at the AA meetings I attended. Fairly quickly, I figured out that the most popular speakers—the ones who were asked back again and again—were often not the ones with the most time clean or those who “worked the best program”: it was those who could most effectively turn their experiences into convincing, inspiring narratives. Over time, you would see the same speakers again and again on the circuit, and observe their stories becoming a little more polished, a little more shaded-in to milk every nuance for maximum inspirational effect. Even just in regular sharing, I observed what Jerry Stahl called “one-downmanship”: everybody had to have the ugliest, most depressing story possible, and “my-rock-bottom-was-further–down-than-yours” macho bravado often ruled the day (especially in the men’s stag meetings). I remember one old timer telling me, “You ain’t an addict unless you’ve lost at least a couple of teeth.” And sure, I lied in meetings, too—mainly to keep myself interested.
Still, 12-step programs can help people to face unpleasant facts about themselves—including their relationship with honesty—and make changes. “My lies were never outrageous—I was just a major exaggerator,” says a girl I know who’s now over a decade sober through AA. “But when I started working a program, I noticed that when I was exaggerating, I was just trying to make myself seem more important or exciting than I really felt like I was. And I noticed that it usually backfired by making me feel worse. Now sometimes, when I catch myself doing it, I’ll stop and say, ‘Oh wait, it wasn’t six years, it was actually six months,’ or correct whatever it was I was saying. I’m sure it doesn’t make a difference to anyone I’m talking to but it makes me feel better.”
According to Christopher Murray, her experience isn’t unique. “By being willing to take the incredible risk to tell the truth about who they are and what they’ve done, many addicts heal in a way that helps them to accept reality and not have to distort it in order to feel okay.”
As for my rehab buddy Mike—well, few weeks after my post-rehab relapse, my cell phone rang. I was expecting a callback from a dealer, so I answered.