Trying Out Sobriety

My entree into the world of heavy drinking was as slow as my exit was abrupt and unexpected.

I can find notes in journals that go back as far as the 80’s where I was making resolutions to cut back on my drinking, but it wasn’t until the past 15 years or so that I developed into a much more heavy and habitual drinker.

I can’t offer a substantive reason for how it developed, but there was a confluence of events that influenced me.  In 2000, my son left for college, and I felt a seismic shift in my life as I saw my role as “dad” begin to shift and, in my mind, diminish.  At the same time, I discovered the comfort one could find in being a regular at a local pub or in the bar of a local restaurant.  I liked bartenders knowing my name, knowing my drink, making space for me at the end of the bar, fronting me a drink from time to time, giving me attention that I felt, for that brief moment made me special, a friend.

Living in San Diego a new brewery began to open up almost weekly and so frequent trips to visit those spots weren’t drinking; they were research.  It seemed important to have tried the latest beers to keep up in conversations with other beer geeks. Beer festivals became a monthly diversion.

I did not, and do not consider myself an alcoholic, but my habits surrounding my drinking became more and more unhealthy.  Four beers a night felt like my ceiling and I felt cheated when I didn’t get there.  That meant happy hour had to get started earlier on some days, and that, at times, I would ditch my night-time walk to sit outdoors in the cold and enjoy a 22-ounce beer, alone, and content with the isolation and the quiet.  If I was feeling good, I didn’t mind breaking through my self-imposed ceiling.

I told some friends that I was aware that I was “drinking like there was no tomorrow” and I meant that literally.  If I felt good at the moment I was drinking, it was easy to convince myself that an extra beer or two would not hurt me in the morning, no matter how many days I’d wake up with a bad stomach and have to fight through dizziness for most of the day. No matter how many plans I made to cut back, they all failed.  As soon as I began to feel better, I was good to go again.

In the back of my mind the bigger “tomorrow” of how I might be affecting my health always pinged at me too, but to a lesser degree.  I had developed a kind of fatalism as I grew older and seen younger, health-conscious friends and colleagues felled by accident and heinous diseases.  I became convinced that if I was going to get sick or disabled, it was going to happen if and when it was going to happen, regardless of my drinking.  In fact, it was more reason to enjoy what I liked while I could.

What made me change direction was a doctor’s visit that was prompted by increased heart palpitations that I was having.  It is a condition I’ve had for years and I’ve been through every test and monitoring protocol that they offer with no definitive result.  Caffeine and alcohol were certainly potential triggers, but so are dehydration, exertion, stress, anxiety–take your pick–I’m prone to all of these things.

However, I was frank with my doctor about my drinking habits and he just cut through the bullshit and said, “I think you should quit–entirely–so we can see if you feel better without the nightly alcohol.”  I was a little scared at the thought.  I wasn’t sure I could do it.

That was six weeks ago.  Friends and family members had urged me to moderate my drinking for years, but I suck at moderation.  Quitting, it turns out, I can do.  Moderating, not so much.

While I found I did not suffer from any physical withdrawal symptoms, I spiraled pretty quickly into a depression that was full of self-pity and anger–anger at having to change my ways, anger that I hadn’t changed sooner, anger that I might have actually done physical damage to myself that I’d now have to deal with.  I felt fearful that I’d resolve to make this change and quickly slide back into the well-worn ruts of my long-established habits and disappoint myself and the people closest to me.

I felt like by making this decision I had created a void in my life–no more breweries, no more happy hours, no more wine tasting, no more catching the game at my local sports bar.  I couldn’t imagine doing those things as a non-drinker.

I think what hurt the most though was knowing I was leaving behind the thing I liked best about drinking.  It was the sensation that I would sometimes get, especially when I was out somewhere on my own, sitting outdoors on a warm day, that there was absolutely nothing to worry about, that all was truly right with the world.  The hazy, carefree numbness that alcohol gave to me was its greatest gift.  It somehow took away the worries I carry, the sense of always needing to be responsible, the sense of needing to always be doing something.  With a couple of beers under my belt, I could put my headphones on and be thoroughly content–at least for an hour or two.

In working with an addiction medicine therapist to help me navigate this change, I’ve gained a lot of insight. She has helped me to shift my concentration away from what I felt I was losing to what I was gaining.  First off, I discovered that I had not created a void by giving up drinking.  The void had been with me for a long time.  Alcohol had simply helped me paper over feelings of isolation or purposelessness or inadequacy.  Now, I need to confront those feelings for what they are and see what kind of growth can come from that.

I discovered that my denial that drinking had become a problem for me had become a huge burden, one that I could now unload.  I had no idea how exhausting it had become justifying my excesses to myself.  I didn’t realize how much guilt I was carrying around until I no longer needed to do so.

I thought social events would be troublesome, being around so many other who were able to drink with impunity while I was having to walk the straight and narrow, but again I found a sense of relief.  Throughout the night, I didn’t have to think about how many drinks I had consumed, or how many more I might be able to allow myself.  I didn’t have to worry if I’d be OK to drive.  The one down side was that I found it hard to simply relax without the aid of a few drinks.  I guess maybe that will come with time.

It’s only been six weeks.  Six weeks of sobriety after 800 weeks of indulgence give or take.  I honestly don’t know where this all leads for me.  It would be so very easy to slide back into my old habits.  I’m not trying for life of pure abstinence.  I expect that there will be some cheating going on from time to time.

And that seems OK to me.  But for now, I like where I am.  It feels good to be able to change.  It feels good to be on a new pathway. It’s why I liked the quote I chose for the beginning of the post.  I’m not expecting some kind of sudden perfection.  I just want to keep moving forward.


Paying Off The House

I thought there should have been fireworks.

Six weeks ago, my wife and I walked into our credit union late in the afternoon, waited patiently for a teller, and then told her we wanted to pay off the balance of our mortgage loan.

It was not a spontaneous decision.  I had begun planning, over a year ago, to begin making double payments and make a push to get the final payment made in November, thirty-seven years (almost to the day) after taking out our original loan.

I guess the confetti canons and bubble machines were in storage because rather than celebration what we got mostly was confusion.  The young teller had to call over a supervisor.

“He wants to pay off his mortgage.  How do we even do that?”  She was staring diligently at her computer looking for the “paying off the mortgage” icon.  It wasn’t there.

The supervisor only knew that they needed to call the loan servicing department to ask them what to do.  Apparently, this happens so seldom, they just aren’t very familiar with the process.  We finally jumped through all of the hoops and settled up with them.  They were very happy for us and offered their congratulations.  I just had one question.

“Don’t I get something that says that I now own the house–sort of like the pink slip on a car?”

There was a hesitation.  The supervisor jumped in with, “Yes. The loan department will send you something official in a few weeks.  I’m pretty sure.”

I chose not to worry about the details. I had an expensive bottle of champagne chilling at home and was anxious to get back and sip it slowly with my wife and savor the moment.  There was a feeling of satisfaction, something akin to the feeling I had in seeing each of our kids graduate from college knowing that my wife and I had found a way to make that possible without sinking them or ourselves into debt.

Our home is a modest 3-bedroom house in a suburb of San Diego.  We bought it in 1980, a spec home that was immaculate on the inside and barren of any kind of landscaping on the outside.  Getting the yard fully landscaped has been a 37-year pain in my ass that still goes on today as I tackle previously untouched areas and try to revitalize parts that need re-landscaping.

However, every day I can enjoy my three towering pine trees planted early on from one-gallon containers, mere twigs that I stuck in the soil some 35 years ago.

And there are 20 relatively new iceberg rose bushes that now rim our lawn, the same lawn that provided room for softball and soccer practice for so many years.  I visit my vegetable garden every morning, which produces year-round now that I’m retired, and marvel at the beauty of home-grown food.

The inside of the house seemed firm enough when we bought the place but turned out to have a certain elasticity to it that I could not have imagined back in 1980 when Mary and I moved in.  It seemed huge at the time–3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a living, dining and family room with a two-car garage just for the two of us?  Are you kidding me?!

Then in ’82 when Nico was born, it got a little smaller, shrunk a little, now having this tiny person sleeping across the hall from us.  When Emily came along in ’87 our study evaporated and the house continued to contract as the kids grew bigger and simply sucked more air and space out of the house.  We nearly reached critical mass and thought long and hard about moving to a bigger place, but decided to sit tight and wait for the kid’s planned exits to college to give us more space again.

And the magic happened.  Nico headed off to UCSB in 2000 and Emily departed for UCLA in 2005, and late in the night I could actually hear the house give off a sigh as it stretched and once again grew to the size it had been when we first moved in.

So yesterday, when I sat down to do the bills, for the first time since I moved out of my parents’ house in July of 1973, I had no one to whom I needed to give money so that I could continue to live in my place.  It truly was my place for the very first time.