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.

…and odd months

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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.

It’s now 12 to 1

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I still remember the first time I got drunk, back in the summer of 1984. Between then, and the last time I drank in the Summer of 2011, I consumed more alcohol than I would ever be able to quantify. I never got arrested or got into a fight or lost a job over alcohol, but it was a constant in my life. It’s a constant in our society, and big money is involved on all sides of this.

But I never once, in all the 27 years that I was an avowed “social drinker,” considered myself as an alcoholic or a drug user. Good things called for alcohol, and bad things called for alcohol, but as long as I didn’t throw up on someone’s carpet, everything was fine.

And then one day I got it into my head that I didn’t need it anymore. I never needed it in the first place, really. I had spent untold sums of money, and done untold damage to my body internally, and I had nothing to show for it but some drinking stories. OK, lots of drinking stories. But that’s not enough, given everything that I’ve donated to the distillers of the world.

I didn’t need therapy of self-help, but I admire those who seek it out for themselves. It’s not easy to give up the most widely-used drug in our society. All the cool kids drink, you know. Those social pressures rarely have to be vocalized, either. As Christian Slater’s character in Heathers pointed out, if you haven’t got a brewski in your hand, you might as well be wearing a dress.

I’ve now been wearing that dress–metaphorically speaking–for all of 27 months. And that was an important number to me, since my drinking career lasted for 27 years. For every month I’ve been off of the booze, I once spent a full year on it. For every dry month, there’s a wet year that goes with it. And everyone will tell you that 12 to 1 is a serious mismatch. Some would even call it a rout.

But I feel great, in a way that I never did in the late 80s, or the 90s, or the aughts, or the first year or two of this decade. Watching TV doesn’t mean a beer has to be in my hand. In fact, I’ve pretty much given up TV watching, which I also feel great about.

I can now go into a restaurant or a bar, order a diet Coke, and feel like nobody cares what I’m drinking. The truth is that nobody does care, and if they do care, they need to think about more important things than what I put into my body.

I’m not saying, directly or indirectly, that drinking is bad. The whole “sermonizing dry drunk” label does not apply to me. Alcohol was a long-time companion for me, but it was never my friend. And now I can live just fine without it.

I wish I had never started in the first place, but teenage culture and alcohol go hand-in-bottle. Just like nobody starts smoking after they turn 18, it’s silly to think that nobody takes a drink until they’re 21, either.  By 21, you’ve already developed a taste for it, and you don’t have to worry about getting busted for it anymore. That was my experience, anyway.

My teen years and college days were like an alcoholic training camp, and by 21 I was ready to turn pro. And it wasn’t until my 40s that I realized what a dumb move this was. The damage has been done, and the money isn’t coming back, but at least I’ve earned the right to celebrate my new direction in life.

The radio is enough

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The BCS title game is about to kick off in Miami, and I’m hoping for a competitive game. But the truth is, I won’t be watching it. My cable package doesn’t include ESPN, so I can’t watch it at home. I would feel strange nursing a Diet Coke in a bar, since I’ve committed myself to not drinking any more. So here I am in the car, listening to the game on the radio.

Times change, and people change, too. So TV and beers are out, and radio and writing for my blog are in. It should have happened a decade ago, but better late than not at all.

Here’s to a game worth writing about tomorrow.

UPDATE: It’s 21-0 Alabama right now, and things aren’t looking too good for Notre Dame. So what does the picture have to do with anything? Nothing, really, but it was the coolest thing that I could find on my cellphone as I was typing this out. That counts for something, doesn’t it?

UPDATE 2: Final score was 42-14 Alabama. Not too many saw that coming, I’m sure. Notre Dame is getting pummeled on Twitter, too. Funniest tweet may have come from @KateUpton, who said this: “It’s okay Notre Dame this happened to the Jets every week.” Ouch!

Notre Dame had an amazing season and deserves credit for being a far better team than most people thought. I’m sure that’s cold comfort this evening, though.

CYW/OB Accomplished

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Last summer, I wrote a piece about being by myself in a house on Cape Cod. At one point in my life, that would also have meant consuming alcoholic beverages throughout the evening. I never considered myself to be an alcoholic, but I never passed up the chance to have a drink, either. Alcohol was a part of my life, and I thought that was never going to change.

And then, beginning in late 2010, it did change. I gave up drinking for good in the summer of 2011, and passed the one year point without any alcohol sometime last summer. I wish I had done it a decade or two earlier, but what’s done is done. May my liver not take it out on me at some point in the future.

Now that 2012 is over, I’ve just completed my first calendar year without booze (or CYW/OB, as I’m calling it), since either 1982 or 1983. That’s nearly 30 years which–I don’t think I have to tell anyone–is an awfully long time.

My goal at one point in life was to live somewhere–anywhere–longer than I had lived in my hometown of Springfield, Illinois. I passed that goal a few years ago, and I haven’t had a similar one since, until now. Since I once drank for almost 30 years, and now I don’t do it any more, I’d like to go at least 30 years without having a drink. That’s something that could very well take me to the end of my life, and I’m willing to commit to that if that turns out to be the case.

Going through a calendar year without having a drink isn’t such a big deal, when viewed through this lens. But I’m going to mark it anyway, in the hope that there are more years just like it in my future. And there certainly were enough years that went the other way for me.

What margarita?

Alcohol used to be one of my favorite things in life. I was, let’s say, a young guy when I started drinking, and it was a constant in my life for a very long time: A beer while watching TV, a glass of wine at dinner, and of course a healthy bar tab at restaurants or social functions. I did it without ever giving it any thought. It was as automatic as drawing breath.

Margaritas were easily one of my favorite drinks. The stronger the drink, and the bigger the glass it came in, the happier I was. Salted rims, lime juice, you name it, I was always up for it. After all, you can’t enjoy Mexican food without it, or so I thought.

So when I was able to resist ordering a margarita in a Mexican restaurant recently, it felt like a small victory. OK, more like a large victory. And it turns out Mexican food is just as good without a side order of lime and booze. Who knew?

At the end of the dinner, I spied a half-finished margarita on the table (and no, I didn’t order it). The urge to pick it up, give it a sniff, and possibly have a taste of what I’ve been missing never entered my mind. I’ve put my liver through enough already, and now I’m hoping that laying off the margaritas, and everything else with alcohol in it, will allow my internal organs to keep on working like they should. That’s the hope, anyway.

A change for the better

Friday night in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. The local drive-in theater had switched its weekly double feature to two movies that I had no interest in seeing. That’s really not so hard to do, anymore. I begged off from the drive-in outing that my wife and other relations were planning, and, as a result, I had the summer cabin all to myself. There were two dogs around to keep me company, at least.

Two years ago, the last time I was here on Cape Cod–and every other time that I’ve ever been here in my life–I know exactly what that would have meant. There would have been a trip to the local liquor store to pick up a 12-pack of Corona and a lime. And I would have spent the evening working through as many of those 12 bottles as I could.

My guess–one based on decades of experience–would be that two (or maybe three) bottles would have made it to the morning unopened. Finishing off all 12 would have been a distinct possibility, too. I wouldn’t have thought twice about doing this, either, because I wasn’t getting behind the wheel of a car. With my apologies for the golf analogy, knocking back the better part of a 12-pack over the course of four or five hours was about par for the course.

But over the past two years, things have been different. I decided that drinking for more than a quarter of a century was finally enough, and that cutting alcohol out of my life was the right thing to do. And, other than a couple of incidents in 2011, I’ve held to that. By the time I leave Cape Cod next weekend, it will be a full year for me without any alcohol. I’m already thinking of it as Y W/O B (or Year Without Booze), part 1. Last night, if not exactly the one year anniversary of my last drink, was certainly the emotional climax of this process.

The last time I went a full twelve months without introducing any booze into my system would have been in the early 1980s. It’s not quite 30 years, but just about that long. I was probably not even seventeen before going out on the weekend meant obtaining, and consuming, any form of alcohol that I could find.

The hard truth is that I never missed a chance to have a drink, all throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and the first decade of this century. Did it affect my life? I can’t think of anyway to suggest that it didn’t. How could anything that’s done over the course of so many years not have an impact?

A year after giving up drinking, I don’t feel too much different, physically. I don’t even think of this as “sobriety,” to be truthful about it. But psychologically, I feel so much better than I ever have. I’m also setting a positive example, I hope, for my children to follow as they get older.

I’m happier not knowing exactly how much money that I’ve given to various brewers, distillers, bars, restaurants, package good stores, and other social and business organizations for my fleeting bursts of intoxication over the years. Now I’m doing other things with that money, instead. Even if I’m just putting it all into the gas tank, it’s a financial boost, just the same.

This is not, in any way, meant to disparage anyone who decides that drinking is the right thing for them. I’m not a sermonizing dry-drunk, and I don’t want my motivations misunderstood. I loved drinking, for reasons I can’t understand and won’t even begin to explain, but I eventually changed my position on it. I adapted, or evolved, or let the winds of changes blow until they knocked me off my long-established course. It happened, and I’m willing to share that with anyone who happens along into this space.

As for how long this will last, I don’t have any idea. Maybe I’ll start drinking in a responsible manner someday, and maybe my last drink is now behind me. But last night’s absence of drinking–which once would have been unimaginable for me–certainly feels like a move in the right direction.

A big change over the past year

Last fall I went out of town for a few days on a business trip. And one of the things I typically do on the road is go to dinner with some colleagues. For the last night of the trip, I hit Yelp! and started looking for a brewpub. For me, the actual food type was less important than the beverages that came with it. And when I found a place with 23 beers on tap that also happened to serve barbecue, I knew where I was going to dinner.

I bring this story up because it preceded, by a couple of months, my decision to stop drinking alcohol. This led to several months without a drink, and then a couple of relapses for good cause (as I saw it) and then one final relapse earlier in the summer. I won’t go over that again here, but it was the final straw (no pun intended) in my determination that alcohol and I were finished.

My sweetheart of over twenty-five years hadn’t changed her ways since she first seduced me with wine coolers and Budweiser in cans and strawberry schnapps (and not all at the same time). No, she keeps doing what she’s always done. And I went along with with more intensity than I probably should have. Weekends were made for whatever beer happened to be on tap. In college, the weekends all started to run together, and some weekends never ended before the next weekend got started up.

All the while, I told people that I didn’t have a problem with drinking. But every time I told anyone a story about something that had happened to me, there was always drinking involved. If there was a way to have fun without alcohol being involved, I never tried very hard to find it.

Until one day last fall, on the heels of a drinking bender at a football game, I came to the realization that I had lost a large chunk of my life–and probably some part of my liver function–and I didn’t have anything to show for it. I never got convicted of anything I did when I was drunk, never got into a physical altercation when I was drunk, and–most importantly–never caused physical damage to myself or others as a result of my drinking. I spent untold thousands of dollars on alcohol, and probably acted in ways that I wouldn’t have if I had something healthier than booze in my system. But I challenged myself at that moment to make a change for the better, and right now I seem to have done it.

Word has come down that I will likely be going back to the same city this fall. My restaurant choices won’t be shaped by my drinking habits this time around. Some of my colleagues may want to return to the brewpub, since I was quite vocal in praising the beer selection and/or the food. And if asked to go along, I may join them. Or I may not. It’s too premature to speculate just yet. But a change has certainly come to my life in the past 12 months and, other than the birth of my children, it’s probably the best thing that could have happened to me. It’s certainly worth devoting a few hundred words to here.