The Sobering Truth

Mood: sunny-side up

OF ALL THE TRADITIONAL MILESTONES I’ve reached—leaving home, graduating from college, backpacking Europe, skydiving, getting married—today marks what is and will continue to be the most important milestone of my life:  sobriety. I had my first drink when I was seventeen years old on July 4th, 2003. Watching the fireworks show at the county airport with two friends from high school, I filled a Little Caesars cup with nearly boiling-hot whiskey that had been stored in my friend’s trunk. I raced to get all the liquor in my belly before the alcohol ate away at the wax bottom of the cup, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I wasn’t a child. Over the next three or four years, I drank more than any of my peers, but it still seemed to be within the acceptable realm of college binge drinking. I tried to regulate my drinking with various combinations of seemingly foolproof methods:

  1. Not drinking two days in a row
  2. Avoiding hard liquor and only drinking beer or wine
  3. Avoiding wine and only drinking beer
  4. Avoiding beer and only drinking wine
  5. Just drinking whatever the hell I wanted as long as it was after 4PM
  6. When I couldn’t do any of the above…well, I was out of ideas

I could never keep track of the number of drinks I had in a day, which always surpassed ten or twenty, sometimes thirty.  But I could count on lighting the wrong end of my cigarette, and that’s when I knew to stop for the night.  And I could count on the ceiling spinning in faster and faster accelerating circles if I tried to stare at a fixed point, and that’s when I knew to stop for the night.  Soon enough, my limits became my goal.  I wouldn’t stop drinking until I got to the point where I was laying on the ground with the rotten smell of a cigarette filter on fire in my nose and the world falling down on top of me. I reached a point where I would rather have been a functional alcoholic than have failed one more time at attempting to achieve sobriety. For the next five years of my drinking, I can count on one hand how many days I was sober.

Would I have not become an alcoholic had my father not been an alcoholic?  Would I have not become an alcoholic had I not been raped just three months after my first experience with alcohol? I will never know. I could place the blame in a million different places, but nothing changes the fact that alcohol destroyed my life, and even though genetic predisposition, trauma, and other things that were out of my control may have primed me to drink, it was still my responsibility to clean up the mess and learn to live a healthy life—for my own sake and for the sake of everyone around me. My last drink was on June 25th, 2013. I had an endless number of “last drinks” during those ten years, but now with an entire year behind me, I am finally willing to identify myself as sober. People always ask me how I was finally able to stop drinking, and I never know what to say.  It was the most difficult thing I will probably ever do in my entire life, but one thing that finally made sobriety possible was to be open and honest with myself and everyone around me about what was going on.

If I think about my life as a palm tree (because why not?), sobriety was a coconut at the top and I was lying face down on the ground—probably passed out in my own vomit.  I would occasionally get up, get a running start, and try to jump up and grab one of those coconuts, but I would always fall on my face again.  If I was going to get to those damn coconuts, I needed to build a ladder, which for me meant figuring what was causing me to drink in the first place, finding support groups, getting professional help, and being open with my friends and family about all of this. Ultimately, it meant that I had to be honest with myself and everyone around me for the first time in my life.  But I was terrified of what I would find if I uncovered everything I had been hiding from myself for so many years.

I’d like to say that I had this moment of revelation where I gathered an enormous amount of inner strength and decided once-and-for-all that I was going to get my life together and get sober, but the beginning of my sobriety came from deciding once-and-for-all that I was finally going to give up.  I had been waiting to hit some unidentified rock-bottom that I thought would suddenly bring everything to an end, but I had already busted through so many rock-bottoms on my downward spiral and there was always another one waiting for me.  I knew I was going to die if I kept up with my current lifestyle, but I also knew that I couldn’t live without alcohol. So after 5+ years of a constant drunk, a constant haze, I just gave up.  I gave up on drinking, and I gave up on living. The alcohol withdrawals were in full-swing when I woke up the following morning.  I didn’t realize what was happening to me, but I had never felt so physically or emotionally agitated.  I always had a generally placid demeanor, but I had turned into a short-tempered monster overnight.  It was like there was another creature inside me clawing its way out through every pore on my skin.  I could feel the blood pulsing through my veins, and it felt like poison.  It was like every cell in my body was erupting.  I was confused about what I had done that day and what I was supposed to be doing.  Time seemed to have stopped.  I don’t know if I was ever able to sleep or eat, as those next three days were a blur.  I aimlessly wandered around campus wondering what I was doing and where I was going.  I wasn’t able to tell if anything that was happening was actually real or if I was dreaming.  I thought I was going to die any minute, but then again, I couldn’t be sure that I wasn’t already dead.  I was nauseous and sweating and afraid—and completely alone.  It never occurred to me that I was going through alcohol withdrawals; I thought alcohol withdrawals involved “the shakes” and were just a physical craving for alcohol that probably felt like needing a cigarette really badly. The five days following my (first) last drink were some of the most confusing, disorienting, emotionally disturbing days of my life.  I felt like I was being physically tortured, but I could handle that; it was the emotional turmoil that was so distressing about alcohol withdrawal.  I felt like I was falling backward into a black hole, and nothing could possibly rescue me, not even alcohol.  Eight years of desperately trying to not feel any pain left me absolutely, completely numb all the time, but now I was feeling every possible emotion all at once in a terrifying way.

When I finally felt like I wasn’t going to survive another second, I stumbled into the counseling center on campus, and all I could say was, “I need help.” It was the first time I had had sought professional help on my own—not at my mother’s urging, not as a legal obligation—and after going through countless doctors and counselors who couldn’t help me because they didn’t think I looked like I needed help (I guess if you’re trying to get help for a substance abuse problem, it’s best to not shower for a few days and maybe quit your job first so you look like more of a mess—this is a serious problem with this system and our society’s perceptions of addiction), I finally found a group of healthcare professionals who took my problem seriously and gave me hope that I could recover. My doctor told me there was a 35% chance I would have died during my alcohol withdrawals, and that risk would increase with every subsequent time I go through withdrawals (a neurological process called “kindling”). I started going to therapy 2-3 times a week, AA meetings, the whole shebang—but I still “failed” or relapsed or whatever you want to call it more than a hundred times during my first year-and-a-half of trying to get sober. After the first week of withdrawals, it wasn’t about some uncontrollable urge to drink for me; it was about not having an identity amongst a group of people—a world—that had never known me sober.  I was rarely sober between the ages of seventeen and twenty-six, and I just didn’t know what the hell to do with myself if I wasn’t drinking.  I didn’t know how to cope with any of life’s normal stressors, let alone all the traumatic shit from my past that I was trying to deal with. Some people would tell me that I was more fun to be around when I was drinking, so I kept trying to “drink socially” or “drink normally,” and for a while, I really felt like I was in control of my drinking. The feeling of having power over alcohol was almost more intoxicating than the liquor itself, and all I wanted was to be in control. But I just couldn’t do it. I always ended up facedown in the gutter. The only thing that finally gave me the impetus to really quit drinking was to allow enough love into my life, the only force that can outweigh the power of alcohol (I know that sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true).

I had been dating my now-wife for sixth months, when she went out of town for the evening to visit some friends.  We had just moved into a new house together, and I stayed home to clean and get some boxes unpacked. It took about five minutes of cleaning before I was walking down the street to the corner store to get beer. I didn’t even have to think about it—drinking and cleaning (I called it D&C), that’s just what I always did.  I knew a 6-pack of beer wouldn’t be enough, but I thought 12 might be over-doing it a bit.  Should I just get 12 and only plan to drink 10? I knew that would be impossible. Then, I saw a 6-pack of 16oz. cans and I got my phone out to calculate 16×6=96oz. divided by 12oz. =8.  Eight!  Perfect, that’s like 8 regular cans of beer.  More than 6 but less than 12.  I really knew how to set my limits now. I did my D&C, listened to music, and had a great time. Until the beer was gone.  Then, I had a massive inner-struggle to decide if I should walk back down to the store or just try to go to sleep so I could stop thinking about wanting to drink more.  I was pacing around the house, back and forth and back and forth. And then my wife got home, and I looked at her and didn’t feel my usual excitement of seeing her eyes light up, I didn’t feel the pull to wrap my arms around her, I didn’t care to ask her if she had fun with her friends, and I didn’t want to talk about my evening. I just wanted to be left alone. I wanted to feel her love, but I just couldn’t. I couldn’t feel anything. I was completely empty.

The next morning, I realized that drinking had killed all of the good things within me.  My ten years of drinking before that had served its purpose because it killed (or at least dampened) all of the horrible and traumatic things within me, but now I had more good than bad to live with. Thereafter, every time I wanted to stop at the bar for a shot or two before heading home from work, I would ask myself if I would rather have a drink or feel the excitement and comfort I always feel when I walk in the door to see my wife after a long day. Every morning I woke up and wanted to have a beer just to be able to face the day, I would ask myself if I would rather have a drink or have breakfast with my wife. Every night that I wanted to sneak out of bed to grab a case of beer and sit in the basement to drink until morning, I would ask myself if I would rather drink or feel my wife’s arms around me in bed. And now, it’s been many moons since I’ve even had the urge to drink. I just have too much else to live for. Ending an addiction isn’t just about “not doing it anymore,” it’s about completely re-defining who you are, identifying the reasons you drink or use, learning new ways to cope with stress and pain, and ultimately, letting love into your life. It’s just not something you can do alone.