A Sobriety Essay

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Deciding not to drink was one of the scariest decisions I’ve ever made in my life, and it’s so dumb, because it’s a completely internalized fear.  Quitting smoking was technically harder for me to do, but making the decision itself was easy.  No one wants you to die of lung cancer.  Quitting smoking isn’t some failure on your part… it’s the best possible decision you could be making for yourself, or for your health.

Quitting drinking, though, is an admission of having a problem, and no one wants to do that.  The reason I don’t drink alcohol anymore isn’t because I think it’s stupid—I have a problem with alcohol, and the problem isn’t that I have a moral qualm with it, it’s that I can’t have just one drink.  My own relationship to it was unhealthy and we had to break up.

I quit smoking after I quit drinking, and when I was going through that process, I thought it was funny how no one gives you shit for not being able to just smoke one or two or three cigarettes a day.  “Smoke like Europeans do,” said no one.  “They usually just have a couple cigarettes with dinner.”

Sobriety is looked at, in so many areas of life, like a huge fucking bummer, and I can’t recall how many times I’ve sat there, drunk, not entirely sure if I even had a problem because everything, everywhere, is so booze-centric.  The way I would look at things, it was like if there’s nothing else to do, that’s fine because you have beer!  And it had always been that way.  During every major event in my life, I was probably at least a little drunk.  It took a lot of self-discovery to find out that I did.  It took a lot of fucking up and a lot of failing, too.

When I first announced that I was giving up drinking, I had this mental image of me on Christmas, missing my go-to drink on the morning-of:  Bourbon.  I could go New Year’s Eve without champagne.  I can go weekends without downing beers.  But Christmas without bourbon on the rocks?  It felt like a piece of me, a piece of my identity was going to be stripped out.  It’s such a simple image, but the idea of me without it was crushing, like I would be frantically trying to fill that void.  Not just for that day, but for the rest of my life.

I could easily go weeks or even a month without drinking and be like, “See?  I don’t have a problem!” but when I got back to it, I could never just have one drink with dinner.  Or, if I did, when the drink wore off I’d feel like shit and wish I hadn’t even had it at all in the first place.  For me, if I was drinking, the only way it was pleasurable at all was if I was getting drunk.  If I was only getting slightly, slightly buzzed, or drinking just for the flavor of it, it wasn’t enough.  I wasn’t happy until I was shitfaced.

That’s not to say I wasn’t happy in other aspects of life.  I wasn’t drinking because I hated life so much, or that I needed to cope, I was mostly drinking because alcohol was making me depressed.  It was this vicious cycle starting back from god only knows when, however long I’ve been drinking regularly.  I’d get drunk, which helped me feel good, which fucked with my internal chemical balance, making me depressed because I drank too much, then I’d drink in order to escape that sort of self-imposed misery.

Remember that line from The Simpsons where Homer refers to drinking as, “The cause of and solution to all of life’s problems”?  It’s actually a lot like that.

It became this habitual thing with me and it was taking a toll on my health.  I was sleeping like shit, I was sweating booze, my skin was breaking out in pimples, it was tearing up my guts to where I couldn’t even eat spicy food without waking up at 3 a.m. clutching my guts on the toilet.

And I was never considered a “heavy” drinker, either, which was a big part of why I never thought I had a problem for so long.  Usually, I only drank once per week, sometimes twice if it was a difficult week.  But because I wasn’t drinking every day, hiding a flask in my desk at work, it never occurred to me that I had an unhealthy relationship with drinking and alcohol.  It didn’t matter to me that I was counting down the days until I could drink again, because I thought that’s what everyone did.

A lot of materials that I had read are so skewed toward the heavy end of the spectrum, focused on absolute rock-bottom misery, that it did a lot to convince me that I didn’t have a problem.  I was totally convinced that being conscious of how many beers I was drinking, timing them for maximum elongation of my buzz, was a normal, healthy thing to do.  I figured that if I wasn’t on my third DUI, I was doing a lot better than the people who had “actual” problems.

The fear I had in admitting that I was possibly the dreaded “A”-word alcoholic kept me from ever admitting it to myself, much less to anyone else.  I dreaded telling anyone.  Telling my wife, I cried.  She was the first person I told and she was, of course, supportive.  Even though her reaction should have been indicative of how everyone else was going to react, a part of me still believed, “She was just supportive because she has to be!”  The shitty, pessimistic part of my brain honestly had me believing that my wife, would think lesser of me… for not drinking booze.  It’s these kinds of absurd beliefs I held onto for years.

I was genuinely kind of shocked when everyone was really supportive of my decision.  Even though I was so afraid of being seen as a fuck-up, I never had anyone give me shit for deciding not to drink anymore.  I never lost any friends who only wanted me around as a drinking buddy.  I never had to explain, awkwardly, to anyone else or justify my decision to them.  My average “I’m sober” conversation will usually go a little something like this…

My Friend: Hey, wanna go out for drinks tonight?

Me: Sure!  Just to let you know, I’m not drinking anymore, but I’m down to hang out.

My Friend: Alright, cool!

If I’m meeting a friend at a bar, I grab a soda or a bite to eat and just hang out.  The only thing that’s changed is that I’m not drinking alcohol anymore.  I’m still me.  I’m still into the same things, have the same passions and have the same friends.

In fact, sometimes not drinking is really liberating, because I can hang out until whenever, 2 a.m. if it’s a late night and I’m having fun, but I need to get up early the next day, that’s fine because I’m not going to have a hangover.  And plus, drinking is goddamned expensive, so however much I’d have ordinarily spent at the bar, $40 or whatever, I can spend that on dinner and a movie ticket.  Or a new pair of pants if I feel so inclined.

I had trepidations about quitting because I think we, as a culture, do a lot of frowning on people with substance abuse problems.  They can’t handle their shit.  They’re weak.  Whatever.  The fact is, we’re all wired differently and we all have different levels of addiction.  I wasn’t getting drunk, spending my life savings on drugs and getting fired from jobs all over town.  I was secretly getting drunk and lying about it so it wouldn’t seem like I had a problem. I didn’t want to admit I had a problem because I didn’t want to admit to being the guy that I had spent so much of my life looking down my nose at.  You know what, though?  Younger Me can go fuck himself for being such a judgmental little asshole.  I’m not here to please the kinds of people who’d look down their noses at me, anyway, because what the fuck do I care what they think?

Deciding not to drink, like deciding to quit smoking cigarettes, depends a lot on what your mindset is.  If you think not drinking is going to suck, it’s going to suck.  If you decide that not drinking is going to be fun as hell because of all the benefits it presents, you’re going to have a great time and you’re going to enjoy a lot of benefits pretty much right away.  For me, the money I saved was a big one… if you go out to eat, if you’re not getting two drinks, you can just get something slightly more expensive on the menu.  Get that steak, why the hell not!

We’ve all known sadsack alcoholics who are clearly not pleased that they had to give up drinking, but never wanted to, and they are not fun to be around.  I was really glad when I found out that I didn’t have to be That Person.  I didn’t have to be angry and bitter or even uncomfortable around drinking.

One of these cultural images that I keep coming back to is this idea that drinking is “tough.”  We equate strength with consuming booze.  Biker bars, slamming a shot of whiskey without a chaser, just grimacing through it.  But you wanna see tough?  Try dealing with shit without numbing the psychological pain with alcohol.  That’s hard-fucking-core, man.

I’ve never been “less me” by not drinking, or less fun to be around.  I haven’t sacrificed an integral part of my personality.  I’m letting myself be me without having alcohol sort of soften the edges or muffle the intensity of reality.  Sometimes, in sober life, shit gets raw.  It can be tough to deal with, but as the days go on, turning to alcohol becomes less and less of an option.

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