Withstanding an urge

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When I started writing this blog a little more than four years ago, I had no idea what it would become. And looking back at well over 1,000 posts that I’ve written, I’m pretty happy with it. It’s essentially a clearinghouse for some of the words and ideas and images that otherwise would have died inside my brain, unable to escape that dark place in between my ears. So I’m grateful on that front.

One of the earliest posts that I wrote announced to myself–and anyone who may have stumbled upon it–that I was giving up drinking for good. I had made that vow to myself dozens of times before, usually while I was in the throes of a nasty hangover of some sort. But putting it into words that could then be sent out for the world to read made it official. It made it into a type of electronic oath that I dare not violate. And my blog has, over the years, reflected my commitment to sobriety.

But about a week ago, that commitment was severely tested. For the first time since I made the decision to stop drinking, I was gripped by an urge to have a drink. The circumstances behind it don’t really matter, and I’ll suffice it to say that my old habits wanted to get the better of me. There were some nasty old beers that have been sitting in my downstairs fridge for a long time, and they would have done the trick.

There’s a mostly-finished bottle of Jack Daniels in the basement, which I’ve written about before in this space and would have welcomed me back into the fold. It was a fold that I lived in happily for 27 years, in what sometimes feels like another life. It is the fold that most of our society inhabits, in one form or another. It is where we are led to believe, through advertising dollars and a generally unspoken societal norm, that we should be.

Whenever there’s good news, we pop some champagne corks, or buy a round of drinks for our friends, or generally go out and live it up, with alcohol in some form or fashion. And on the flip side, when things don’t go so well, we drown our sorrows and drink until the pain doesn’t seem so bad anymore. I was laid off, with dozens of my colleagues, from a publishing company several years ago and off to the bar some of us went, drinking shots until the uncertain future looked hazy, and so did the uncomfortable present. All that for $20 or so. A bargain, if you want to see it that way.

Giving up drinking wasn’t hard for me. I decided that I didn’t need it anymore, and that was it. It showed me that I never really needed it in the first place, but still I went along with it. But the urge that gripped me for about a half an hour a week ago was the first time in my life that I ever felt a physical pang for something.

Taking one drink–any drink at all–would set off a blaze that I wouldn’t be able to control. Most people have an internal mechanism for “knowing when to say when.” Some beer company genius thought that one up, I’m sure, to reinforce the idea that one or two drinks is all that a person needs. Ten bucks in a bar, depending on where you are and what you’re having. Hand the bartender or the waitress a little bit of cash, or a credit card, and you’re on your way. No worries, mate.

But I’m missing that mechanism. One drink can turn into two, and then five, and then forget about it. I never kept track, because I didn’t care to know. And after four years of living without it, I have no faith that I could somehow find the mechanism that I’ve never had before. The only way to live with booze, at least for me, is to live without it.

So I resisted that urge, and I felt good about it. The scoreboard still reads 27 years to 4, in favor of the liquor manufacturers and distributors and bartenders of the world, but it’s still trending the way I want it to. I doubt that I’ll live the 23 years I still need to even up the score, but life is a big question mark and we’ll just have to see how everything turns out. But I received a test, and I didn’t fail. I feel very good about that.

It’s the thought that counts


My next door neighbors are good people. I think of them every time I hear some people on TV railing about “illegal immigration.” It seem like a bigoted, racist term directed at people that the speaker doesn’t know the first thing about. “If they speak Spanish and have brown skin, get them outta here.” It’s antithetical to what America is, at least in my mind.

One day earlier this summer, as I was grilling up some dinner, my neighbor offered me a beer. I’ve drank more Corona in my life than I want to know about, but gave it up three years ago. But still, it was a thoughtful gesture, and one I didn’t refuse.

I took the cap off and made a pretend show of drinking the beer. I knew that taking a sip was a bad idea, because I’ve harmed my body in ways I’ll never realize by drinking so much through the years. But still, I wanted my neighbor to know I appreciated his offer. I wanted him to see that not every Anglo-speaking person wants him and his family to leave the country. And I wanted him to see that sharing a beer–as old of an American tradition as there is–is something that neighbors do with each other. In many ways, it was the best beer I never had.

The King no more



It was thirty years ago that I had my first beer. And now, all these years later, I wish that it hadn’t happened. While I never really needed it, there was a time in my life that I wanted it, and spent whatever I had to in order to acquire it.

It’s now been more than three years since I last drank a beer, or anything else alcoholic. A quarter of a century of enthusiastic boozing relieved me of more money than I care to think about, and harmed my liver and my health in ways that I will probably never appreciate. But there was another cost, too.

I spent decades under the delusion that alcohol made good times better, and also made bad times better, and even made uneventful times into something pleasant. It was a win-win situation, so long as you owned a brewery or a place that sold their products.

Our society favors drinking at every turn. Big money is spent on promoting the stuff, and in turn the money flows in like a beer running from a tap. As I was once fond of saying, you can’t buy beer, but you can rent it. And I rented quite a lot of it through the years.

The decision to ban alcohol in this country failed miserably, as it should have. People will drink, and trying to break this up was a fool’s errand. But the realization of what alcohol really costs–both in money and in other, less tangible terms–took decades for me, and probably never comes at all for many people.

I would never begrudge anyone the right to have a beer or two or 20. Freedom’s a great thing, after all. But whoever crumpled up the Budweiser can and threw it on the curb–just as I once did–is paying a higher price for their decision than they might realize. They might even discover some day that they can get along fine without it.

Be the best you can


This morning brought an old favorite from Mellencamp on the radio. I’ve written about “Minutes to Memories” before, but hearing on a cold and rainy morning in Chicago made me scream out the lyrics as loud as I could.

The line that really hit home for me is “You are young and you are the future, so suck it up and tough it out, and be the best you can.” Wise words, indeed.

Four years and a lifetime ago


I remember it well, that New Year’s day in 2010, when Northwestern played the Auburn Tigers in the Outback Bowl. It was the first bowl game of the day, and I was ready for it with a mountain of alcohol. It was rare for me to start drinking before noon, but this was a big game and, well, football. That was all I needed, really.

By the time the game had ended, with Northwestern losing in overtime, I was already hammered, and the day was just getting started. By the time the last game ended late in the evening hours, I had watched a ton of football and consumed a ton of alcohol. The two had a symbiotic relationship with each other, to be honest about it.

I haven’t had a drink on New Year’s day since then. I’ve also just about cut television out of my life since then. New Year’s day this year consisted of two or three plays of the Wisconsin game (whichever bowl game it was) and–much more importantly–no alcohol whatsoever. It’s a decision that I’m comfortable with, because beer and television once had a long run in my life, and now I’m on to something else. Everything changes, after all.

Here’s to another year with little television, and even less liquor. And also to another year of wondering how I ever lived that way. I have no desire to go back to it, that’s for sure.

…and odd months


Last year I went to see my older daughter onstage in Romeo and Juliet. I was taken in by the story, in a way that I never had been before. There are so many phrases and expressions that we use every day, and yet Shakespeare first put the words together, in a way that sounds good to this day.

A phrase that stuck with me–and it’s far from a well-known one–occurs in Act one, scene three. There is a question of how long it will be until a festival called Lammas-tide, at which point Juliet will be 14 years old and presumably old enough to be married. The answer to the question is “a fortnight and odd days.” I don’t know why it stuck with me, but for some reason it did.

I particularly like the “and odd days” part, because it’s not important how many of them there are. The fortnight–two weeks’ time–is the main thing, and everything else is not so very important.

The thought came to me today as I was walking home. It was a longer walk than I’m used to taking, and at some point I thought about having a beer when I got home. There are a couple of beers in the refrigerator downstairs, for the purpose of offering them to guests.

Here’s where the “odd days” part comes in. It’s been more than two years since I stopped drinking, after many, many years and many, many drinks. I was surprised by the beer thought during my walk, because I have found that not thinking about drinking leads to not wanting to drink. It’s pretty simple, really.

To offset this thought, I started thinking about how long it’s been since I had anything to drink, of an alcoholic nature. I came up with an answer that Shakespeare himself could have written: Fifty two fortnights and odd months. I never thought I could go so long without it, and putting it into terms like that made it seem like a real accomplishment.

For hundreds of fortnights, literally, beer was my friend. And margaritas were my friend. And gimlets, too. It didn’t really matter what I drank, so long as I drank something. Our society approves of this, and encourages it at every step. Turn on a football game and see how long it takes for a beer commercial to come on, if you don’t believe me.

I happily followed this path from the mid-eighties until the summer of 2011. And since then, I’ve gone a different direction. My liver is happier, I hope, and I feel as if I’ve managed to tame something inside.

This is not to say that those who drink are doing a bad thing. People can make these choices for themselves. But as for me, I made the wrong choice for a very long time. And in the years and odd months since realizing that, I’ve been much happier with myself. That’s something I never found inside any bottle.

The day my life changed


Twenty five years ago today, my life changed forever. The Cubs had announced that they would play the first night game ever in Wrigley Field on Monday, August 8, 1988. It was going to be an event, and I wanted to be a part of it.

I had put myself in position by spending the summer of 1988 on the Northwestern campus. It was the first time I had spent any significant time away from my parents’ house (the first two years of college didn’t count, in my mind, because I was supposed to be on campus then). In hindsight, it was the start of moving away from living in their house, and toward living on my own. It was a transitional summer, for me and for the Cubs.

Since there wasn’t an internet back then, the tickets for the first night game were sold by phone. I remember calling and calling and calling, over the course of two hours, to no avail. The high call volume crashed the ticket servers, but somehow all of the tickets were sold, and I didn’t have any.

No problem, though, since there were watch parties set up in Chicago. I was planning to go to one with a friend of mine from the dorms. But, as always in those days, libations had to be procured first. There was a liquor store in Chicago that delivered to campus, and an order was placed with them. As my friend and I awaited the arrival of our dear uncle (as we referred to him back then), she indicated that a sorority sister of hers would be joining us for the evening. That’s fine, I said, the more the merrier.

The liquor delivery never arrived, and the game started but was eventually rained out, and the girl that was my friend’s sorority sister became my girlfriend and then, four years later, my wife. We’ve now been married for 21 years, and have known each other for 25. I tell my two daughters that it was the all-important day that set their existences into motion.

Night games at Wrigley aren’t uncommon anymore, and those who remember otherwise will one day become a vanishing breed. But that first night game will stay with me the rest of my days, and I’m so very glad that I wasn’t able to get any tickets for it.

With all my thanks to Roger Ebert


Roger Ebert died today, and as a Chicagoan of 25 years’ standing, that affects me a great deal. I watched his television show with Gene Siskel for many years, but it wasn’t until after Siskel had passed away, and the show went on with someone else, that I realized what made that show work. Ebert and Siskel were two passionate, knowledgeable people with their own views and their own opinions. Sometimes they agreed, and sometimes they didn’t, and neither was afraid to tell the other why he was wrong about a movie. In the end, neither man succeeded in changing the other’s opinion, either. There wasn’t a “Ebert wins” or a “Siskel wins” determination made. If you wanted to break that tie, you had to go see the movie and decide for yourself, which is the way that it should be.

But I owe something to Roger Ebert, and it has nothing to do with his film criticism. I still remember how it felt to read a blog post he wrote called “My Name is Roger, and I’m an alcoholic.” When it appeared, back in 2009, I had been a devout drinker of 25 years. I never once considered myself an alcoholic, but after reading Ebert’s piece, I came to realize that I probably was one. The idea of only having a single drink was my problem. And Ebert wrote about this, too. When you take the first drink, he said, the second drink takes itself. And he hit the nail right on the head.

I can’t say that I stopped drinking immediately after I read this piece. It actually took about a year before I finally went all in with the idea. The behaviors that had begun on weekend nights in high school–and had persisted in a thousand ways ever since–weren’t going to just disappear right away. But an important seed had been planted, all the same. And just like a seed that needs time and sunlight and water in order to germinate, Ebert’s suggestion that life without alcohol was not only possible, but even preferable to life with it, needed some time to take root. But take root it did.

I first gave up drinking altogether in November of 2010. I didn’t go to AA, and I didn’t seek any medical or spiritual help. I just decided that life without drinking was how I was going to live. And I made it through the holidays that year, and past the Super Bowl, and all the way up until the NCAA tournament in March. It was only a few months, but I was very proud of myself, just the same.

I went to a sports bar with some friends one night to watch the tournament, and didn’t have the strength to resist having a margarita with them. I had one, and part of a second, and left the bar with a sense of disappointment that I had failed. I drank again in June of that year, having several mojitos and other drinks at a friend’s 40th birthday party. I bought him a 40 ounce malt liquor as a birthday gift, and it seemed hypocritical to do that if I wasn’t also going to drink that night. So I did. And I felt even worse about this than I did about the margaritas in the sports bar.

In between the sports bar margaritas, and the birthday mojitos, I had started this blog that I’m writing on now. I had always liked writing, but never pursued it seriously in all of the years that I was drinking. Now that drinking was being edged out of my life, I wanted to replace it with something that I enjoyed even more. So writing became my new drug of choice, I suppose. And after 900 and some-odd posts, and nearly 400,000 words written, I’m still at it. It simply would not have happened if I was still drinking, though. I can guarantee that.

There was one final coup de grace that had to come before I could be forever turned away from drinking. It happened on Canal Street in New York in the summer of 2011, and a night of drunken revelry with an old and dear friend from grammar school left me convinced that terrible things had happened. It’s a long story, and I’m so grateful that it turned out the way that it did, but at the end of it, I knew that alcohol and I could not coexist together ever again. And nearly two years later, I’ve held to that.

And now I’m writing, and happy, and very grateful that I was able to read Roger Ebert’s essay before my liver decided to give out on me, and before I got behind the wheel of a car when I shouldn’t have, and before I let anger and booze combine to get the better of me and make something happen that I couldn’t take back.

I feel as if I’ll live, for the rest of my time on this earth, without the things that alcohol brought to me from 1984 in Springfield, Illinois until 2011 on Canal Street in New York City. And I will be forever grateful to Rogert Ebert for planting that seed in the first place. By writing as I do–and trying to bring some joy into the world, as he suggested we must–I am doing my best to repay my debt to him.

Thanks very much, Roger.