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.

Advertisements

I Like Myself Just The Way I Am–Except For This One Thing

willpower

I imagine that the issue of New Year’s resolutions has been blogged to death and dropping another on you after February 1 is probably bad form, but I have my reasons.

The delay was due in part to the lingering effects of a bad cold and severe case of post-traumatic holiday syndrome. I was literally paralyzed for a week once the dust settled trying to sort through my feelings about this time of celebration and all of its attendant disappointments, unfulfilled expectations, guilt, and family drama. Don’t get me wrong, there were some very nice moments, and it’s always lovely to get to spend time with my adult children, but it was about one week into January when I exhaled, not realizing I had been holding my breath since November.

But I smugly began the new year with a leg up on most “resolvers,” those who make resolutions that they will not only not fulfill but if asked a year later won’t even remember what they resolved in the first place!

The remembering has never been a problem for me because I’ve had the same three resolutions for years: exercise consistently, lose some weight, write more. It just so happens that I achieved all of those goals this past year for the very first time. It is a rare day that goes by that I don’t get out for my 3-mile walk, or hit the gym for a swim, or spend an hour doing yoga. A direct result has been that I have dropped about 8 pounds, regained a notch on my belt and now fit into some clothes that I was about ready to donate so they would not spend all of their time taunting me from the depths of the closet. Then, beginning this blog in March provided the inspiration to produce 25,000 words, give or take, neatly packaged into 20 distinct articles.

The most shocking part for me about the writing is that I actually have readers, to whom I am grateful beyond belief. Thanks to the info that WordPress keeps, I even know where in the world my readers are primarily located. It turns out that there is group of crazy Brazilians who frequently read my stuff. And I want to know who you people are so please, drop me a comment and let me know why you don’t have something better to do than follow this blog!

However, no matter the self-righteousness that I feel I have earned over the past year, I also feel compelled to tell you that I do have a resolution for 2015. It’s a secret. Please don’t tell anyone about it. I am not confident at all that I will make a dent in this one.

beers

Truth be told, I like to drink beer. I like to drink more beer, more often than some of my relations, my doctors, and conventional wisdom think is appropriate. Since it gives me pleasure, I know instinctively that it must be bad for me and that I should cut back. Cutting back, I have found, is hard. In fact, I suspect I would have better luck giving up alcohol altogether than to try to be consistently moderate. Being moderate just sucks. However, cutting back is my resolution for 2015.

Let’s face it. Medically, it makes all the sense in the world to reduce my alcohol consumption. Anything that can eventually destroy my liver is a bad thing. However, I have gotten very mixed signals from my doctors when we have talked about this. My GP suggests “just one or two per night” but then warns me not to cut it out altogether because it could adversely affect my blood pressure. My therapist said to quit worrying about it, that at the level I was drinking if I were to cut off a couple years of my life they’d be the worst couple of years of my life anyway (I like him). A cardiologist I met with gave me a fish-eyed look and said “one.” He looked like a man who took pleasure in taking away the pleasures of other and instinctively I did not trust him. One final health professional confided in me that actually 3 or 4 drinks is now considered “moderate” but that no doctor will actually tell that to his patients (I like him).

So I need an additional motivation. Not wanting to be a slender guy with a prodigious beer belly is certainly one of them. At 150 calories per 12 oz bottle of premium beer, consuming an extra 300 or so calories per night must mean I’m in a constant battle to maintain my weight, right? But, in fact, I’m not. I’m very conscientious about my diet and I exercise religiously. As I have looked for beer substitutes, something to sip on that will be satisfying, tasty, but not alcoholic, I discovered that virtually all of them have just as many calories and many throw in the evils of processed sugar and caffeine. If it’s not water, it’s not a good trade-off. Also when I have given up beer for a week at a time and maintained all of my other good habits, I expect the pounds to just absolutely fall off of me. I want to see my weight drop at least one pound a day to compensate for the pain of abstinence. It just doesn’t seem to work that way.

And there is the WTF factor. I do not live each day to the fullest and in fact, I don’t think anyone actually does. Many days are full of trips to Target and the dry cleaners. Others to grocery shopping, cleaning and paying bills. It’s just life, and I’ve been lucky to have enjoyed an awfully good one for 62 years. On my way to the sports section, I can’t help but glance at the obituaries and take ghoulish pleasure in the growing numbers of complete strangers that I have outlived.

Sadly, I have also lost former students, friends, and colleagues who died far too young, taken by accident and disease. I’ve seen young friends felled by stroke and brain tumors. Being aware of life’s capriciousness has not exactly made me fatalistic, but what the fuck? Knowing that I can get taken down by some kind of heinous disease at any moment, I’m less inclined to follow the arbitrary rules of healthy beer consumption. Besides, it tastes good—really good.

And, it feels good to be a little bit bad. I was an altar boy as a young man, a fanatic rule-follower. I don’t think I knowingly broke a rule until I was 34. I am the guy who will stop for a red light at a crossroads in the middle of the desert at three in the morning, waiting for the light to turn green. To my great frustration, I will not allow myself to commit adultery even in my in my dreams (“Gosh, sorry, ma’am. I’m awfully flattered, but it just wouldn’t be right, me being married and all. I hope you can understand”). An extra beer at night feels like a small revolution, a salute to independence, a raised middle finger to all of the conventions I have followed for so long.

And there is an illusory effect that beer has on me that all experiences are enhanced by drinking. Television is better, music is more profound, the book I’m reading is more moving when accompanied with my favorite IPA. I am absolutely certain that the sunset is more vivid, the moonrise more spectacular, and that the fire is warmer and more captivating sitting outside by my outdoor firepit welcoming the night with a cold one. Likewise, when writing, the words seem flow more easily, my mind races with ideas, synapses are firing that I didn’t know existed, and at times I’m convinced I’m pouring out nothing but brilliance as I sip on my drink. This is before I humbly proofread my work the next day in the very sober light of the following morning.

These are all of the reasons that I will fail miserably with my one resolution for 2015. Here is the reason I will succeed.

I like to feel good when I wake up in the morning. I like to wake up and lie in bed planning out my day without a dull headache, a hazy memory, and a rumbling stomach. When I get up in the morning after a non-drinking night, I feel cleansed and righteous. I feel the same way I used to walking out of the confessional as a youngster knowing that my sins (which were nothing close to sins at all) had all been washed away. I feel more alert and have more energy as my day begins with that glow of well-being filling my soul.

We will see, in 11 months, if that is enough to turn the course of a deeply-rooted habit–a habit I really enjoy. Not giving it up, mind you. Just cutting back.