Arguably, my longest relationship has been with alcohol. This was almost natural, since I went to high school in Wisconsin where we started constructing beer bongs before we could drive. As a fourteen-year-old, I remember a friend’s dad mixing me hot toddies at the bar in the basement (which also functioned as a taxidermy studio). He used to make koozies out of squirrels, which will give you a real good picture of my roots and the cornerstones of my cultural heritage.
Alcohol and I have a long and tumultuous relationship, one that has inspired heartache, but also some winning times. Needless to say, a post-break up narrative on the subject is a little tricky. It’s like pouring through an old photo album, and like those pictures of an ex, it’s easy to dismiss the fights and romanticize what were undoubtedly some hazy, but first-class nights.
Booze and I…we have traveled the world, walked on beaches, sat on rooftops, lazed on river banks, warmed next to fires… For every really terrible drunk story, there are at least as many, “best night of my life stories.”…but for addicts, “chasing the dragon” is real. You always want that one amazing night back.
The older you get, drinking stories start to blend into the same. Everything starts out great, you have some laughs, nothing too substantive happens, but your night will usually involve at least one incident of regret, possibly lost keys or some inexplicable bruises, followed by a couple days of anxiety and pizza. After years of this kind of drinking, your conscience is so burnt out, it cannot be taken seriously. In fact, mine became so immaterial, that it started to sound like a Disney character.
Rock bottom stories: These are good. Some rock bottom stories involve a DUI or some blacked out wife beating. Maybe you whipped out your penis at an office party or passed out with your pants around your ankles on the bathroom floor, when your wife walked in to find porn streaming on your iPhone. One friend of mine had sex with a stranger under the Brooklyn Bridge because she was so drunk, she thought that the guy had a bit role in The Wire (as if that were a good enough sober reason). Another friend of mine hit rock bottom after he spent his entire paycheck at a strip club, got kicked out for asking a stripper to pee on him, then woke up in an alley after doing crack with a homeless prostitute.
Birds of a taxidermist feather. Yes, these are my friends. And, well, let’s be honest, we all have our fair share of, “Don’t ever repeat this,” stories.
My rock bottom happened on Christmas Day, which puts me at a little over three months sober. For hard drinkers, holidays are a kind of invitation for hot hot mess. One year I did my Christmas shopping with a thermos mug full of Jack Daniels. Another year I got drunk at my company Christmas party, left a trail of boa feathers all over the office and made out with my boss. Last Christmas Eve I got into a drunken argument with a guy I was traveling with, at which point, he left me in the middle of moatville Chiang Mai without a tuk-tuk or a baht to save my Thai-panted ass. I had to schmooze with some English teacher from Kansas to get a spot on his apartment floor for the night.
I would say that in comparison, this was not a bad Christmas. After getting drunk and losing my car and my wallet, I was sitting at the Marriott pool drinking a Mai Tai with an adorable pink umbrella. Alone on Christmas in San Diego, I had to take stock of the events leading up to my boozy, solitary, celebration of Christ’s birth. With moments like this one, I had to confront the reality that, yes, my life really did look like this. Despite how much I hate holidays and family functions, the entire thing just seemed kind of pathetic.
In any event, I made my decision, left my drink at the bar, and also snubbed out my last cigarette. It seemed like a good way to end my affair, nothing dramatic, like that final night with a lover, the one you know it is going to be your last. In the morning, you give a short hug, there isn’t even a fight. You both just kind of understand that, things just aren’t what they used to be.
I used to go to AA meetings when I was a teenager which, upon looking back, seems entirely premature. This was Wisconsin, so per custom, I got stuck in a room with a bunch of townies all hurling competing versions of domestic assault, DUI and bar fight stories I couldn’t relate to. One guy had beaten his son so badly, he broke both his arms. Another drove his car through his garage and nearly killed his wife. Most of them had been heavy drinking their way through jobs, wives and necessary organs for decades. I was an amateur. I remember this conversation vividly:
“Have you ever hit your wife when you were drinking?”
“Are you sure? You’ve been convicted of domestic violence.”
“Well, okay… only once. But I had to! You woulda done the same thing if your wife was fucking a nigger!”
Needless to say it was hard to get on board or relate, especially when that woman with the coffee, cookies and cankles referred to this group of middle-aged, racist wifebeaters as my peers. I was sixteen and this particular round of rehab was court ordered.
I did the time, but I didn’t learn much.
As an adult, I learned that heavy drinking is acceptable or at least overlooked after you get an advanced degree and do it in cities like New York, L.A., London or Tokyo. Despite my passing illusion that education and a stable job somehow took me out of the rough-riding alkie-boat, I soon realized that for the most part, my nights were nothing special. Undoubtedly, you will wake up feeling the same kind of shitty you would if you had been drinking all night in nowhere-town, Middle America… only it’s noisier and the lights are brighter (yeay).
I have never been a supporter of AA, but I appreciate the idea of reckoning and marked transition. Quitting drinking can be a hardship, for a lot of unexpected reasons, especially when drinking seems more stable than anything else you have come to know and love. Giving this whole process some thought and after years of therapy, rehab, and even a year of being sober in my twenties, I came up with my own version of the 12-Step-Program:
Step ONE: “The Break Up.” In AA, you will hear, “Admit you are powerless to alcohol.” First of all, alcohol is awesome. If I didn’t think so, I probably wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place. I would equate alcohol to that asshole you fall in love with, and you know you should leave him, but you keep going back because you can’t help yourself. You desperately want him to change.
The truth is something you already know: he’s only gonna keep breakin your heart.
But, would your mama say that you are “powerless” to him? Hell no! She would say you are too good for him and that you can do better. So, alcohol, while I love you, and will probably continue writing about you in my journal, doodling my first next to your last name, and wondering what our children would look like, I am going to have to say goodbye, because, like mama said, I can do better.
(Wipes tear…turns on country western station).
Step TWO. “Embrace your irrelevance.” One problem with big drinkers, I think, is a preoccupation with the self. In AA, they offer hope in a “higher power.” I think the idea here is to kick your narcissistic ass with hubris and humility. Beyond any antiquated religious nonsense, I do like the idea of things being bigger than me: art, history, evolution… time travel, stuff like that. So, like, last weekend, I watched that movie Splice where Adrien Brody plays this twisted genetic scientist who mixes human and animal DNA then ends up having sex with his dinosaur-tumor-bird-creature-man-woman. Things did not end well, lesson being: know your ontology.
I remind myself of the age-old man versus nature conflict. Ahab and Moby Dick. The point, I think, is to diminish the self. My idea of a greater power is remembering that we are specks on a rock that is flying through space, a.k.a. very minor pieces of shit in the grand scheme of things, so there is really no reason to get too worked up about very much.
Okay, this is blowing my mind a little. Moving on…
Step THREE. “Get a life.” As soon as you get sober, you realize the ludicrous amount of time you have wasted either being drunk or hungover. And, while it does open you up for a lot of productivity, it can also make you crazy. Imagine waking up and instead of there being 24 hours in the day, there are now 100, and you have to be awake and accountable for every single one of them. It’s terrifying and it sucks. So, the only thing to do is find a lot of things to occupy your time. Normal people have kids. Or careers. Or both. The first time I got sober I started sewing, painting, playing guitar, but now I have moved on to the mundane: I read the back of cereal boxes, I watch Spanish television… I count things. I have considered helping others, but I don’t think I was put on this earth to be an altruistic person, which leads me to STEP FOUR.
Step FOUR: “Admit you are an asshole.” In AA, Steps FOUR through ELEVEN pummel you with the notion that you are a total asshole when you are drunk, and most likely, even when you are sober. It is time to acknowledge that you probably are that guy (or girl, in my case). Unfortunately, like I said, alcohol is awesome, and if I could be drunk all the time, I would. When we are drinking, we think we are amazing human beings (hence, Step TWO). The only thing that would make us more amazing is a mogul-sized pile of cocaine.
I don’t find the AA “shit-on-yourself” exercises entirely productive, but I do think there is value in remembering that drunk people, in general, are total assholes. And if you are an alcoholic, you are probably an asshole A LOT.
This is why I turn to Intervention, the demoralizing reality show that exploits OTHER addicts. As a healthy reminder, I watch this, and think, “God, those people are such losers. Glad I was never like that.”
Step FIVE: “One Friday Night at a Time.” For the first couple weeks, I called it “Freak-Out Friday.” Sobriety was sort of irrelevant until Friday came around. It was the only day of the week when being sober made absolutely no sense. Not only did I want to get retarded with everyone around me, but there wasn’t much else to do. Sober activities are not very convincing—if you don’t believe me, check out the sober group activities on Meet Up… also give a quick glance over your new sober “friends” and you will see what I mean by “not convincing.” The truth is, six months ago, you would be hard-pressed to wrangle me into doing much else than going to a bar on Friday. After about a month, I realized that if I could get through Friday night, Saturday mornings were such a breath mint, that I forgot what I didn’t miss. Usually I was so grateful to NOT be hungover, that I made it through the weekend intact. And I was usually fine, until the following Freak-Out Friday. But, Step FIVE also lead me to STEP SIX.
Step SIX: “Get to know your non-alcoholic beverages!” Did you know that there are more than six varieties of electrolyte infused energy drinks, excluding Gatorade? Also…A & W can be purchased in adorable plastic bottles and they are still making Cherry 7-Up, now with antioxidants? I had no idea what kind of beautiful offerings existed in the non-alcoholic aisle. Up until now, I thought that Pabst was a thirst quencher.
Step SEVEN: “Get a membership.” The week I quit drinking, I joined a gym, but, this turned out to be a mistake when I realized that people who work out a lot seem to hate themselves, possibly more than addicts. Seriously, I think there is a self-hate competition going on at the L.A. Sports Club. It started to get depressing. Then I discovered a new kind of membership… at my neighborhood video store. Did you know there are still establishments that allow you to borrow a physical digital versatile disc at a flat rate which you then return after a fixed duration of time? I know it sounds anachronistic, but it is an exchange worth considering. When you need as much stimulation as I do, Netflix by snail mail won’t cut it, and let’s admit it, Netflix on demand is no better than basic cable.
Step EIGHT: “Learn Sober Kissing.” One of the more interesting things about quitting drinking is learning to do things sober that (as an adult) you would normally do with alcohol tidal-waving through your bloodstream. These are the things that are just easier after you discover alcohol—first dates, family events, work functions—essentially any activity you would otherwise find awkward or unpleasant. I realized I hadn’t had a sober “first” kiss since high school, but this is just another way that being sober makes you feel like a child again. Sober kissing is awkward, but for a moment, you will remember what it is like to be 14, an amusing thing to experience when you are 30.
In general, being sober also inspires youthful spontaneity. This isn’t the, “I’m high on life” portion of this treatise, but, when you are bored and sober, you will remember how to do some cool shit… like constructing a rope swing or building a fort out of blankets in the living room.
Step NINE: “Take the Self-Inventory Cold Shower (Get In and Get Out).” In AA, you are told to make a list of all the people you have hurt and then call them to apologize, which I think is a bit ridiculous. If you are a real alcoholic, you have probably fucked over or at least insulted a lot of people. Now, do you think that they want to hear from your sorry ass? Probably not. You should do them the favor as I have, by proactively leaving those folks alone (and if you’re reading this, you know who you are).
I did, however, learn to make amends with myself. When I first quit drinking, my favorite sober friend told me that the hardest part about being sober is getting used to being alone. Here, you could have a spiritual awakening, read some self-help books, or just embrace the fetal position. I think the best way to handle this is like a cold shower: do it, but do it quick, cry if you must, then move on to Step TEN…
Step TEN: “Count Your Blessings.” In my opinion, being sober sucks enough, you shouldn’t have to sit there and wallow in mistakes and regrets. Instead of reminding myself of all the terrible things I have done in the past, I like to remind myself of all the terrible things I didn’t do. Like, “I’m so glad I didn’t get pregnant in a public bathroom last night!” and “Wow, great job on NOT getting that aggravated felony DUI!” (Pat, pat, pat on the back).
Step ELEVEN: “Shut the Fuck Up.” Heavy drinking and the life that goes with it, is noisy and distracting. I think, for a lot of people, this is the best part of drinking—you don’t have to think about anything, past, present or future; even your morning regrets become a constant distraction. Being alone and being quiet can be overwhelming (see Step NINE), and I think this is probably why I started drinking in the first place. When you are sober, you don’t really have a choice, but to hear that voice ALL THE TIME. Step ELEVEN for me was learning how to turn this voice OFF. Yoga helps. I also listen to a lot of NPR. Incidentally, my inner voice is starting to sound a lot like Terry Gross, Ira Glass and the guys from Car Talk.
Step TWELVE: “Get Over It.” If alcohol fucks with your life and you can manage to survive sobriety, there is no reason to pussyfoot around the fact that you are probably better without slurring and stumbling your way through the week/end. Being sober isn’t a communist insurrection. It’s not going to take over your whole life. Sometimes it sucks to have to explain it to other people and that may involve some self-deprecation, but if you can get over it, most other people can too. You ordered a club soda, big deal. I also realized that my not drinking only bothers people who have a drinking problem. I know that because I really used to hate going out with people who didn’t drink…
In AA, Step TWELVE is, “Carry this message and help other addicts.” To be clear, I am not advocating sobriety. It is kind of boring and you will end up doing what I do most of the time: substituting your addiction for other ridiculous and unhealthy things like, M&M’s and TV (Law and Order, Dateline, 48 Hours Mystery). Seriously, I’ve turned into a TV whore. But, really, it is not as bad as it sounds, and if you are like me, you will probably start appreciating the simpler things, like… hydration and memory.
A friend of mine asked me recently, “Are you going to be sober forever or do you think you will ever start drinking again?” This is probably the hardest question and the reality I hate the most. If you love drinking, it is difficult to tell yourself, you will never have another glass of wine or toast champagne at your best friend’s wedding. I also worry that I may never take tequila shots with a midget again. I had to pause for a second before I answered. I told her, “I don’t know. But, I think I am a better person when I am sober. And, I think I am kind of happy. And I like it.”
It is strange and different, in a good way.
After I got sober, one of my favorite drinking buddies said to me, “Ah well, on the wagon, off the wagon…they both sound like an adventure.” This is true, especially considering that no one ever knows, exactly what side of that expression they are actually on.