Sunday, January 13, 2019

Goodbye, Alcohol

tl:dr - I liked to drink. It wasn't doing anything for me, so I decided to quit. It didn't work as expected. This book helped me accomplish what I wasn't capable of doing on my own.

Note- I do not like preachiness, and I know precisely how this post will be perceived by my readers who drink but have no desire to quit or have a sense that they may have a problem. Don't read this unless you've come to the point in your life where you secretly (or not so secretly) have started questioning your drinking habits. If you do not have that concern, you're not ready to hear this message. Skip this post. For the rest of you, this is the post I wish someone else had written years ago.

The night started off like countless others. Shelly and I decided to go out to dinner. Applebee's. Don't judge. We were on Christmas vacation and needed a few hours away from the kids. I was drinking beer, a somewhat rare occurrence these days. Over the last two years, I had noticed beer made my hangovers significantly worse. Must be a function of aging, right? Wine had become my preference.

Shelly was also drinking wine, but her partaking was an experiment. She was in the beginning stages of planning to participate in an online fitness challenge (we like doing shit that pushes us past our comfort zone.) She would need to quit drinking as part of the challenge, and had been recommended a book that could help. This experiment was part of the methodology outlined in the book.

Me? I was just drinking for enjoyment and a mild stress reliever. The fact that I felt I needed a stress reliever while on vacation didn't seem amiss at that time, even though the most stressful thing I did that day was scold the dog for eating poop.

Anyway, after three beers, we headed home. We decided to stop at the liquor store and get a bottle of wine just in case we decided to have more. I ended up buying three.

Later that night as I was lying in bed, I replayed our dinner conversation in my head. Despite the drunken stupor, I resolved to quit drinking. Never again would I feel what I was feeling at that precise moment. I was basically having the same conversation I have had with myself hundreds of times before. This time felt different, though. I was experiencing an emotion I hadn't felt when having these self-talks: Hope.

Alcohol had always been like a friend to me. Not necessarily a good friend all the time, but a friend nonetheless. I could rely on her to make me feel less stressed. I could rely on her to loosen me up in social situations. I could rely on her for a good time. She was a fun friend. She also caused a few problems on occasion. But that's just who she is, right? You gotta take the bad with the good.

At least that's how I had always perceived her.

Historically, I've always had a little concern about my alcohol consumption, but I felt like I could regulate it well. Yes, I probably used it as more of a coping mechanism crutch than I should. It did, after all, seem to genuinely help alleviate symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. And it did seem to help deal with life's stressors when they became a little too overwhelming, which allowed me to focus on more important matters. And, of course, alcohol was a necessary antecedent to having fun.

I was never really concerned because I had the ability to quit at will. Which I would do fairly regularly. I'd feel like I was drinking too much, quit cold turkey, endure the two or three days of physiological withdrawal, then go about my business. For about two to four weeks. Invariably, something would pop up that would lead me to the "Man, I could really use a drink right now" point. I'd have a drink or two without giving it much thought. Within a week, that slow trickle of alcohol would increase to the point where I was before deciding to quit.

I never fretted over that "relapse" because I never resolved to permanently quit. We were just on a break.

Over the last few months, the seeds of doubt began to sprout. We had moved from San Diego to Colorado, which was supposed to be the first step in creating the life Shelly and I have talked about for years. I did not expect to need alcohol as a coping mechanism. I had optimistic ideas of quitting once the move was finished and never looking back.

It didn't work out like that.

Instead, I'd try quitting. Just like before, I'd get through the withdrawal symptoms and enjoy a few days of sobriety. Just like before, something would invariably arise that would lead me to making the conscious decision to just have one or two drinks to take the edge off. Or help as a social lubricant at parties. Just like before, I'd be back to drinking nightly during the week and getting pretty drunk at least one night on the weekend.

Seemingly independent of the alcohol struggle, I had noticed a few weird, somewhat disturbing trends. Normally, I'm pretty laid-back and chill. I rarely let shit get to me. But it started to seem like even the tiniest life stressors became disproportionately unmanageable. And my tolerance for social interaction plummeted (I'm an INTP; I love interacting with people but also need solitude to "recharge".) The REALLY disturbing part, though, was an almost imperceptible, slowly-developing ahedonia. Shit I used to enjoy became just kinda "meh." Objectively, my life was finally bearing the fruit of a few years of dedicated goal-setting and hard work. Why the hell didn't I enjoy these things I had thoroughly enjoyed in the past and had put so much time and effort into making a reality?

As I was lying there in bed after the drinks at Applebee's + three bottles of wine, I felt hope because I knew alcohol had become a problem that, until that moment, I didn't think I could overcome without resorting to A.A. or some equivalent. That terrified me. As an atheist (higher power? WTF.) who despises meetings, treats addiction like a disease, self-disclosure to strangers, and being told I'm "powerless" against something as stupid as a cup of colored liquid, that thought had always resulted in feelings of revulsion. From a psychological standpoint, it makes zero logical sense to make yourself hyper-vigilant to something you're trying to avoid. If you're basically relying on willpower to avoid something, you're gonna experience a whole lotta mental anguish if you constantly focus on what you're trying to avoid. It's like telling someone to not think of a white elephant. I fully understand the rationale behind their methodology, and, when it's all said and done, A.A. really does the same thing I'm advocating here only it takes a much longer, stupider route. And their efficacy doesn't help their case. They themselves acknowledge only about 40% of members stick with it for a year. Batting .400 is phenomenal if you're playing right field for the Yankees. Batting .400 for a self-help program is embarrassingly bad.

Fuck that shit. It's great for some. Not me. Sorry, not sorry, A.A.

</anti-A.A. rant>

Anyway, I started reading the book the next morning.

Holy shit.

After the first chapter, I knew I found my solution. More on that later; I want to outline my personal experiences with alcohol. If you want to skip my long-ish alcohol biography, scroll down to the "Back to the Book" heading.

Exposure to Alcohol as a Kid

My early exposure to alcohol was fairly limited. By the time I was old enough to remember, my mom rarely drank and my dad drank in moderation (one or two cans of Natural Light most nights, with the occasional over-indulgence at hunting camp.) Other than that, I just saw the same alcohol messaging we all see as members of society. My maternal grandfather was, from what I've been told, a pretty horrible alcoholic. If we buy into the "addictive personality" and genetic predispositions to alcoholism, that's probably not good.

My first actual taste of alcohol came when my father and I were in the middle of the woods building deer blinds for the upcoming season. I was around ten or eleven at the time. It was hot and I was ridiculously thirsty. I didn't bring anything to drink. All we had was a few cans of beer my dad had brought along. After listening to me bitch an moan about being thirsty for an hour, he finally gave me a drink of his Natural Light.

Jesus was it disgusting.

I probably drank a quarter of an ounce, but it was enough to prevent me from desiring alcohol again for many years.

The Second Drink

When it came to partying (with alcohol), I was a pretty good kid. Despite living in a small, rural town (pop. ~5,000) where it was common for teens to develop full-blown alcoholism by ninth grade, I abstained from alcohol until the summer before my senior year. I was at a bonfire party in the middle of nowhere participating in one last hurrah before football season started. The previous year, two of our starters got busted with an MIP (minor in possession) charge during season, and our coaches ripped them a new asshole... along with the rest of the team. We were really good, and I took our coaches' warnings (and threats) about consuming alcohol in season seriously.

A friend had his older brother buy me a pint of Popov vodka. I had planned on drinking it straight. Once the party got started and I took a few sips, I could barely keep from gagging. So I cut it with the only thing I had - a half-full can of Vernor's ginger ale. It still tasted like gasoline (I siphoned a lot of gas as a kid), but at least now I could choke down enough so the intoxication distracted me from the taste.

Needless to say I got piss-drunk.

I only vaguely remember the party and someone driving me somewhere later. I remember running through trees at some point. I talked to a girl who was flirting with me, but I didn't realize it until much later.

I woke up the next morning in a girl's room. No, there was no girl with me. Sadly. I felt like death. I had no fucking clue where I was; I had never seen this room before. I stumbled out of the room and found one of my recently-graduated former teammates, Tommy T. I'm grateful he took care of me.

I was definitely done with alcohol at that point.

And I was. Until homecoming.

Despite our coaches' warning, a bunch of us threw a house party after the homecoming dance. One of our teammates was responsible for procuring alcohol for the party. He had a lot of "connections" (which was code for the 21 and older male townies who would go to high school parties to fuck drunk high school girls... yay small town!) and was supposed to get beer a few days before.

But he didn't. After the dance, we all showed up for the party. And there was no alcohol. People were pissed. Luckily, the dude had taken his of-age brother's ID... despite a spurious resemblance. So we had to go to the store and buy alcohol right then. For some reason, I was nominated to drive him. We went to a party store on the outskirts of town. The store clerk was, rightfully, very skeptical as to why two very young guys dressed up on the town's homecoming night were buying eight cases of beer. But he sold it to us.

That night went about as well as the first party in the woods. About 30 minutes into the party, another teammate talked me into playing a drinking game. Later, I'd find out he was intentionally getting me drunk because his former girlfriend, who was also at the party, liked me. Eliminating the competition.  Dick move, but smart. So 60 minutes into the party, I was once again piss-drunk. I passed out shortly after.

After football season, there were a few parties here and there until I left for college. I think I got drunk maybe two or three times, but it wasn't a great experience. Still, I was equating alcohol with fun. That association would last right up until about ten days ago.


My college experience was, relatively speaking, somewhat lame. The first university I attended I flunked out of after one semester (due to Madden '94, not partying.) Afterward, I lived at home and attended a community college for the next two years. Aside from occasional road trips to friends' universities, I didn't drink. However, this was the period of time where I witnessed one of the weirdest experiences of my life. I was visiting a friend at Michigan Technological University. We got hammered. I was in a dorm bathroom puking my guts out. Another dude came in, said hi, then ripped a toilet out of the wall in the stall next to me, said goodbye, and left with the toilet.


Anyway, I didn't really start drinking regularly until I was around 21 (I had friends who turned 21 earlier and would buy for me.) After turning 21, there were maybe twenty or so drunken experiences, but I didn't drink regularly. At that point, it was still an prerequisite to fun.

And, subjectively, there was fun. Like jumping in Lake Superior in February when the air temp was -10°F with wind chill of -40°F. Okay, maybe "fun" is the wrong word.

After college, I got married to my first wife for whom I had dated throughout college. If you've read my other posts on this blog, you know I was a "Nice Guy" who did not understand how men and women work. I had inklings that she wasn't the right person for me, but everyone just expected us to get married. I didn't know how to back out. Needless to say, I was a goddamned mess inside. This marked the first time in my life I used alcohol as a coping mechanism. It helped me live with the fact that I had been unconsciously living a lie since puberty, and awareness of that lie was bubbling to the surface.

Coaching Football

I loved football. In high school, it changed the trajectory of my life. for the better I originally became a teacher just so I could coach football. But football also exposed me to football coach culture. At the time (early 2000's), it was common for the football coaches in our area to go out to bars after our Friday night games and get absolutely hammered. During the offseason, we'd attend football clinics around the upper Midwest. Those were basically flimsy excuses to, once again, get piss-drunk. I was 23 at the time and was having a blast with my fellow coaches. Once again, alcohol became a conduit of fun. There was the time I puked up mushrooms in the hotel sink. There was the time another coach and I went to the seedy strip club in South Bend and I got a few lap dances from the stripper who gave birth like three weeks earlier. There was the time we got last stumbling back to our room in Battle Creek. And so on. I loved the camaraderie and brotherhood of coaching, but I used it as an excuse to feed my growing habit.

Note- not all football coaches around me did this; but it was certainly the vast majority. 

Of course, my binge drinking at the time also served as a temporary reprieve from my personal life, which probably seemed just fine on the surface. What can I say, I'm good at compartmentalizing. By the winter of '02-'03, shit came to a head. That was the point where the old me started the process of dying and I started discovering who I really was. Long story short - I got divorced, met Shelly, and would begin the very long process of self-improvement that eventually led to this blog.

The Next Decade or So

Early in our relationship, Shelly and I established a pattern of drinking on a regular basis. We'd have a drink with dinner, maybe a drink or two after. Of course, we'd also do a fair amount of hard partying (we share the same hedonistic streak.) Drinking was back to an antecedent for fun. And man, we had a lot of fun.

We also had a lot of embarrassing moments. There's almost too many to count. There was the time we slept in a bar parking lot in the middle of the afternoon while we sobered up to drive home. There was the over-the-top drunkenness at the Woodstock trail running festival (where we got kicked out of a naked 5k.) There was the drunken fight in front of our good friends while vacationing in Hawaii. There was the time I got black-out hammered after some of our teammates' mma fights. And many other times interspersed between those events.

Drinking was, for better or worse, just part of our lives. I was perfectly fine with that. After all, it did seem to help me cope with shit whenever I needed a brief reprieve from the stressors of life. And it did really seem to make shit more fun. Being the research dork I am, I was confident I wasn't making horrible choices because, as I discussed earlier, I could and did stop for significant periods of time. Addicts can't quit, right? Ergo I can't be an addict.

And yes, it would have been accurate to say we were codependent.

Living in the City

I love visiting cities. The buildings, the cars, the people, the excitement... it's infectious.

Unfortunately, I hate living in cities. I grew up in the sticks of Northern Michigan. I had like three people who lived within a mile. AND I'm an introvert. As much as I love socializing and being around people, I need a regular diet of quiet solitude.

After traveling around the country as barefoot ultrarunning hobos, we settled just east of San Diego. The original plan was to stick around for the winter. But we discovered jiu jitsu. Really, we fell in love with the coaches and teammates at our mma gym. Despite not enjoying living in a densely-populated region, we stuck around for about five or six years. Within about three years of dealing with the complete and total lack of seclusion, I increasingly relied on alcohol as a coping mechanism.

About two years ago in the midst of one of the most serious bouts of seasonal affective disorder I had ever experienced, worry started to creep in. I was becoming increasingly concerned that I was drinking too much. But we had a plan to escape. It would just take time. So I gave myself a pass.

Sidebar: It's worth noting, throughout all of this, I've maintained a very high level of functioning. Had kids, earned degrees, held down a few full time jobs, ran a bunch of stupid-long foot races, did an mma fight, stayed in very good shape, etc. My close friends probably saw I had a problem, but the outside would probably didn't suspect much unless they were attuned to he "tells." That's kind of the nature of the beast.

Anyway, our plan to escape came to fruition. After years together, Shelly and I were finally actualizing the lifestyle goals we set wayyyyy back when we first got together. I should have been on top of the world.

When we arrived in Colorado, I was excited and the novelty was cool, bu it didn't take too long to realize the things I thought I would thoroughly enjoy were just kinda blah. I had a creeping feeling that something was wrong. Very, very wrong. I was constantly tired, which I attributed to aging. Or work. Or a lack of good sleep. My old routine involved getting up, working out, working all day, coming home and spending time with the kids, then training jiu jitsu or whatever my current hobby happened to be. Weekends usually involved doing something fun. Now all I wanted to do was come home and relax. Or sit around the house. Working up the energy and motivation to do anything was a Herculean battle. That sucked, considering I'm now surrounded by almost unlimited awesome outdoor adventures.

I also had a vague feeling like my nervous system was fucked up. I was constantly irritable. I had little tolerance for people. I had zero desire to be social. As I mentioned in the beginning, I was rapidly developing a bad case of ahedonia. Pleasurable things were no longer pleasurable. It was like the volume on life had been turned down. Like most guys, I ignored it and put my nose to the grindstone. "Shit'll get better" I told myself.

It didn't.

But I was surviving. That was good enough, or so I told myself. As you can probably guess, I did not stop drinking. I tried. Twice. For the first time in my life, I couldn't function enough to get through the withdrawal symptoms to the clarity of sobriety.

Not once, despite my grave concern about my inability to quit drinking, did I make the association between the lack of joy I felt and the long-term consumption of alcohol. So there I was, lying in bed after the Applebee's night. The discussions with Shelly about the book she was reading were running through my head. I had a sudden epiphany. What if all these issues weren't seasonal affective disorder? What if I weren't getting old and falling apart? WHAT IF ALCOHOL IS CAUSING THESE PROBLEMS?!? Like most epiphanies, I felt really, really stupid for not making these connections earlier.

Suddenly, alcohol was no longer that friend I had come to rely on so much. Now, alcohol was a motherfucking succubus stealing all that I hold most dear. That shit doesn't fly with me. I was done. I cannot explain how or why, or explain the exact change of reference, but just like that, alcohol was dead to me.

I knew I would be in for a nearly impossible challenge, though. I had no reason to believe a single epiphany would push me over the hump that had caused me to fail so many times before, even if I finally wanted this to be permanent. Shelly, who had just finished that book, seemed to be at peace in a way I had never seen her before. Most of those times I "quit", she quit, too.

The Book

The next morning, I woke up. I would like to say I started reading the book immediately, but I didn't. I spent four hours nursing my hangover. Once I started feeling marginally better, I cracked it open. I read the preface. I had to put the book down.

Every once in awhile, I encounter something that radically alters my world view. True to my INTP personality, I'm annoyingly logical (though I do often trust my instincts and pay close attention to emotion.) Most world view changes come slowly and methodically. Like what happened with the development of this blog... it was a decade in the making. But those five or six pages literally changed everything.

This isn't a book review, so I'm not going into the details, but that preface spoke to me on a level I did not expect. Shelly had told me enough to get me excited. In retrospect, that's probably the reason the epiphany the night before felt so... different. The book helped me reframe alcohol in a way that I had never even considered.

Specifically, it helped me come to the realization that alcohol was not the stress-reliever and coping mechanism I perceived it as. It also wasn't the social lubricant I thought it was. That helped me recalculate the "benefit" side of the cost/benefit analysis. It also helped me realize ALL of the costs of alcohol, which was far more numerous than I had long-believed. That helped with the "costs" calculations.

Over the next few days, I read through the entire book. The preface proved to be just a sampling of the amazing shit contained between the covers. Despite some repetitiveness towards the end and some somewhat clumsy discussions on the science, this book provided the exact framework I needed to say this damn succubus.

The Experiment

For eleven days, I didn't drink a drop. Each day, I felt better and better. It was really bizarre. It was almost like I was awakening from a long slumber and realizing the miracle of life again. I *almost* felt overwhelmed by all the amazing things everywhere. Teaching became awesome. Lifting felt *really* good. So did running. Food tasted better. I literally started noticing the sheer beauty of the mountains around me. Interacting with everyone, including my kids, became a hell of a lot more fun. Sex was better. Risking hyperbole, it was nothing short of amazing.

It was weird, man.

There was one problem, though. I'm curious to a fault. I needed to drink something to see just how accurate these perceptions really were. Was alcohol really responsible for all these problems? Was alcohol really a shitty stress-reliever? Did alcohol actually inhibit my ability to socialize?

Experimentation is my jam, so I went to work yesterday (at the time of writing, it's the morning after. I bought two bottles of chardonnay, eliminated all extraneous variables like TV, food, etc., set up a webcam, and recorded Shelly and I drinking most of those two bottles.

The most part tells you all you have to know. On a Saturday night, we've been known to polish off a three liter box of wine. Sometimes even a bit more. But it was hard to choke down most of those two bottles. The wine, which had long been refreshing, delicious goodness in fermented grape form, now tasted a lot like that Popov from high school. In the cold light of reality, the entire experience sucked. There was no warm feelings. There was no captivating conversation. There was no fun. There was just a vague feeling of fogginess that annoyingly fucked with my ability to compose and verbalize thoughts. I switched to tea about an hour before bed hoping the feeling would pass.

It didn't.

I had the shittiest night of sleep I've had since our kids were babies. I tossed and turned. Every time I'd wake up, I was acutely aware of the utter shittiness I felt everywhere. By five, I couldn't stay in bed. I felt really nauseous. Everything hurt. My head is kinda foggy. I'm slightly dehydrated. My muscles were unusually sore from jiu jitsu the day before. I'm crabby and irritable. I'm not motivated to work out. Even this post has been a chore to write. What I was feeling was several multitudes worse than the hangovers I routinely woke up to over the last two decades. Why? Because I had nothing else to attribute the feelings to other than those bottles of wine.

The facade of alcohol is gone. The desire to drink is gone. The withdrawal symptoms will be here for a day or three, and the physiological urges will persist for a few days beyond that. But the mental urge?

It's dead.

How can I be so sure? Because I now understand I have way more effective stress-relievers that alcohol, and they actually have good long-term benefits (like exercise, reading, etc.) I also understand alcohol has inhibited me socially. Despite being an introvert, I'm not shy. I have good charisma and charm, and I've been inadvertently sabotaging that in social situations by believing I needed alcohol.

Mostly, though, I've come to realize the cost of alcohol has been immense. The downward spiral I was in was starting to get rather perilous, and would have led to some really, really bad places in the not-so-distant future.

Fuck that.

I have an awesome life, and alcohol has already prevented me from enjoying way more than I would ever tolerate with anything else. Will I change my mind down the road? Maybe, but I doubt it. I'm rather ruthless when it comes to dead weight, and alcohol has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be just that - dead weight.

The cool thing - this killed my desire to drink at a very deep, fundamental level. Alcohol no longer feels like something I need to use willpower to avoid, which means being around alcohol is a non-issue.  I don't have to reformat my lifestyle to avoid people drinking, which is good given the pervasiveness of alcohol in our culture. 

So... how do you know if this book I keep referencing is right for you?

First, you'll probably need to be at a point in your life where you've come to your own conclusion that alcohol does or may be having a negative impact on your life. If you genuinely believe alcohol is great, you're probably not ready for this message. For me, this book basically allowed me to honestly (and brutally) assess the REAL costs and benefits of alcohol. I can handle the physiological withdrawal and the temporary physical urges. It was the mental part that caused me problems. That's why you have to be ready to accept that alcohol might not be so good... you're going to have to admit some uncomfortable and possibly painful truths to yourself.

If you think you're there, click on this link below or stop by your favorite bookstore.

"This Naked Mind" by Annie Grace

If you found this post useful, please share. Even if it resonates with one person, my goal will have been accomplished.