Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Wrong Way.

So, alcohol.

I've had an interesting relationship with the world's favorite drug. I can't say it's always been a good relationship.

I think I've been kidding myself about it for a while though, that I either didn't have a problem or that I could handle it. Sunday July 10th clearly showed me that I do have a problem, and I can't handle it.

What I'd like to eventually explore is what it is that I was looking for in drinking, and especially drinking to excess.

Looking back, I started drinking because I was curious. My parents drank and had parties, and my friends and I started by sneaking some Michelob beers and hiding them in the forest behind my house. When we got around to drinking them, they were more or less frozen, so we drank our beer slushies and got a little tipsy, I guess. Being in a small mountain town, drinking beer just seemed the thing to do. (Until wine coolers came along. Then we all found out what a sugar hangover felt like and went back to beer.)

I drank beer pretty much exclusively through college and beyond. I suppose drinking was a way to cut loose a little, lower the social inhibitions. Why I needed to lower my social inhibitions around a bunch of my guy friends whom I'd known for years, I'm not sure, but we did. A lot.

The first time I knew I had a problem was when my girlfriend asked me why, after I came home at 2am from my shift at the billiard parlor, I felt the need to drink a 6 pack of beer. I told her that I needed to relax & unwind. That was the fastest way for me to go to sleep. I don't think I told her very often that I sometimes had a 20 oz beer after closing, before leaving work. One? Sometimes two. Almost never three.

I could see she had a point, though, so I cut down considerably. That is, until I had a panic attack in the summer of '92. Then I cut out drinking completely for a while. A couple of years, maybe. I needed to get control of my emotions and figure out what was going on in my head that was causing my panic attacks. Looking back, it could have been that my body was reacting to the onset of my ulcerative colitis, which manifested itself over a couple of years. It also could have been the fact that I was exhausted by the summer, as my chiropractor pointed out. Incessant traveling, a good bit of drinking, a little drugs, and my body may have just said "Ho-o-old on there, tiger. Slow down."

I started drinking again when I was in my band Tucker in 1994. First a beer here or there, not a lot. I got married the year after that and was drinking a bit more, I guess. It was when we bought our house in '96 that I felt a bit more emboldened to drink alone at home. I was a homeowner! Isn't that what people who own their houses do? Sit around and drink a 6 pack of beer (making sure to have 6 more, just in case) in their house?

My wife has never been much of a drinker, to her credit and my health. I'm not sure when she first observed that I could never drink just one, though. If I had one, I had two, then the 6 pack (I tended to drink "good" beers that typically came in 6ers, I wasn't buying & drinking a 12 pack of shitty cans). I knew in the recesses of my soul that she was right, though.

In 2004, I began a strict diet to help with my ulcerative colitis, cutting out refined sugars, starches, uncultured dairy and, lastly, grains. So much for drinking beer. Wine was allowed, however, as were spirits. It took a couple of years, but I finally started drinking some wine, and also developed a taste for Bushmills on the rocks.

The past few years leading up to 2011 I have gotten more into wine, fancying myself a wine drinker. "Former beer snob, now becoming a wine snob" or something like that. I also would turn to spirits if there wasn't enough wine around. Whiskey on wine/wine on whiskey - didn't matter.

The Tipp(l)ing Point

In 2008, I started meditating & getting into Buddhism in general. The ideas had always appealed to me, and I have a good friend who is Buddhist, so that made it more accessible. I began listening to podcasts and all of it made so much sense. It still does.

Like many ancient religions, things are organized into lists, because lists are easier for people to remember when they haven't invented a system of writing yet. One of the lists in Buddhism is called The Five Precepts. They are as follows (with my clumsy commentary afterward - there is *much* more to the precepts than this, I'm just trying to give a basic idea of their meaning):

1.     I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life. (In very simplistic terms, this means no killing. Ok, check.)
2.     I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given. (In very simplistic terms, this means no stealing. Check.)
3.     I undertake the training rule to abstain from sexual misconduct.  (In not simplistic terms, this means what it says. Faithfully married, check.)
4.     I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.  (In very simplistic terms, this means no lying. Check. I really do try to adhere to this one.)
5.     I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented drink that causes heedlessness. (Easy. No alcohol. Wait, what?)

So, I do my best to adhere to these. My friend wrote about these and other precepts much more eloquently here. All of these I didn't have a problem with, except #5 obviously. The thing is, when I read these, I knew that someday I'd give up drinking. I didn't know when, but I knew that my drinking caused people other than myself suffering. I didn't really get hangovers, not like I used to when I drank beer, the headaches and all. I'd like to point out that my drinking never caused me to miss work. I didn't drink much on weekdays, because I knew I had responsibilities that getting drunk would get in the way of. I had also driven drunk a few times, but my wife set me straight on that by pointing out that if something happened to me, I would be letting my family down (being dead is definitely letting them down), and that didn't sit well with me. Because the last time I drove drunk, I was pretty drunk. So, recently, I'd arrange for a driver, or she would drive, or I would stay wherever I was for a few hours longer.

This year, there have been at least three times that I've gotten drunk and ended up being sick. Reverse drinking, as it were. July 10th was one of those. Once was at my sister-in-law's house. I forget when the other time was. Two times were at my parent's house.

What I did was, I was looking for reasons to drink. Any special occasion. Any time we went to my parent's house. Anything. And any occasion started to become a special occasion. I would look forward to weekend nights that I didn't have anything going on that night or the next day.

Recently I won an online contest that provided money to throw a party. I arranged for a caterer and then set about buying the alcohol. I bought a couple of cases of wine, and I asked some friends for recommendations on good spirits to buy. I wanted top-shelf stuff. I've never had more than whiskey, mostly - not a big vodka drinker, or gin, or tequila. Actually, mostly what I would drink (if not red wine) was coconut rum & pineapple juice. But, as mentioned before, Bushmills was my spirit. After all, it was Irish and I am too (my last name is, somewhat, at least). I wanted to go beyond Bushmills and purchased 5 or so bottles of spirits for the party. A party where there would be maybe 10 couples and a bunch of kids running around. My wife called me out on it, wondering why I needed so much alcohol. I told her I wanted to have nice stuff for the people. I didn't throw half-assed parties. Some excuse like that. In truth, she was right. I was buying to "stock up," overbuying for the party, knowing that there would be plenty left for me to consume in the months to come.

The weekend of the party came and I drank so much the night before that I didn't feel like drinking much the day of the party. I had a few drinks, tasting from many of the bottles that I had bought. I shared and enjoyed the spirits and wine with my friends and my parent's & sister's friends. Everyone had a great time. We went to a bar that night to watch a band play and I was supposed to be meeting some people there, possibly. I got in and bought a drink - something I wouldn't normally do, because I typically don't have the money - but my dad had stuffed some change in my pocket for the cover charge. My wife and I were discussing her surprise at me having bought that drink and I told her "I just wanted to have something in my hand in case I saw someone." "That's dumb," she said. I was irritated by that and it soured my mood for the rest of the night, which didn't last too long, because I was tired from the long day. I couldn't believe she had called me dumb over just one drink.

"Consuming" for me meant getting drunk, though. I have a pretty extensive group of online friends who drink and write a bit about it. I never would write too much online when I was drunk, at least, I wouldn't let on that I was drunk.

Again, weeks would go by where I didn't touch a drop. But when I drank, I would drink to get drunk. There seemed a thrill of it. At times I would hide it from my wife a bit, knowing that she disapproved that I drank so much.

Then came July 10th.

We were up at my parent's house again. I had had a lot to drink the night before, again. I was out golfing with my dad and brother-in-law. We were set to only play 9 holes, and we did. Around hole 8 the cart with the drinks on it came by, and I got a Jameson's. It was a generous pour.

I don't know why I ordered a drink. I just felt that I should. I was going to be driving home later that day, and I could have a drink now & be fine to drive in 6 hours time.

I drank it quickly on the last couple of holes and on the drive home. I still had the cup with some ice, so I added more ice and went to the pantry and poured a little Bushmills in there. Just to top it off and have a good buzz for the afternoon. The afternoon of sitting in the sun with my family, parents and aunt.

I snuck back in for a couple more drinks, each time pouring them in the privacy of the cupboard. I didn't have much to eat that day aside from the big breakfast before we went out for golf, and a few handfuls of nuts in the pantry. Oh, and cherries. My daughter and mom, aunt and wife were all in the kitchen cooking dinner for that night, we were going to have another big meal.

I don't recall much after that until I was getting sick. Lying on the floor of the bathroom in the basement, then the upstairs bathroom. I got sick upstairs and was horrified at the red liquid coming out of my mouth. I panicked that I was throwing up blood (and very well may have been), but upon inspection I realized that it was cherries, at least for the most part.

After getting sick and feeling like I could survive the drive home, I began the task of stumbling around, making sure I had everything that I needed - my work laptop & phone, the food & dishes I had brought up, that sort of thing. The drive home was pretty frosty. I got home and paid some bills after putting away the food we had brought home. I felt like I had let some people down - my daughter, my wife. I couldn't believe I drank so much. For no reason.

There was one memory that came back to me from that day, however, and it's the memory that disturbs me even now. I was standing in the kitchen, drinking deeply from a bottle of wine that had been opened the night before. No glass, from the bottle.

That memory scares me.

Despite all the whiskey that I had that day, despite how drunk I was, there was something in me that was saying it wasn't enough. There was something in me that felt the need to grab the bottle, remove the stopper and swig from it, in front of everyone.

I don't know what drove that. I still don't.

Enough was clearly not enough.

"Insatiable" in the thesaurus has many synonyms, the most apt one being "unquenchable." In drinking alcohol, I was going about it the wrong way. I wasn't drinking to have fun, or to loosen up, or as a beverage with dinner. I was drinking to get drunk.

In 2004, I went on a strict diet for my colitis, to see if it would help. When I saw the results in about 2 weeks, I was amazed. I have never gone back to eating the way I did before, hardly a crumb of any of the unallowed items have passed my lips in over 7 years. It was as if a switch had been turned off. Once I saw the results (which have stayed to varying degrees), I was done with those foods. People have asked if it's difficult, because donuts just taste *so good*. Yeah, they do. And they would send my digestive system around the bend. So I don't. Swich: off.

That's similar to when I stopped drinking after my panic attacks. I needed to get ahold of my mind. Drinking wouldn't help that. Switch: off.

When that memory broke through the fog later that night of July 10th, I knew. I knew that as much as I liked drinking, I was done. Now, I never say "never", I don't have a crystal ball. I don't call myself an alcoholic, although plenty of people will. I don't identify myself by the things I am, nor by the things I am not. But I knew that the time had come to adhere to the Fifth Precept. To end my suffering, and to end the suffering of the people around me. My wife told me that she was telling my sister that I was passed out on the bathroom floor. My daughter, standing behind my wife, said "Again?"

That is a painful thing for a father to hear.

I apologized to my daughter that night and told her I was done. I told my wife I was done the next day. I have caused them worry. I have made my wife angry. Whatever might be in my mind that needs pickling, it's not anything that is more important that my family, or my marriage.

In my life, I have tried to understand what it is that keeps people returning to their vices, whether it's cigarettes or food or drugs. Or alcohol. I've always felt superior to those people, that I couldn't be trapped by some outside "thing." Why can't they just stop if they know it's bad for them? If it's killing them? If it's going to kill them? Why are they so weak?

I don't know what was in my mind, urging me to drink. I will continue to look at that.

I'm better than that, though. I'm stronger than that. I will not let my life be ruled or controlled by something inanimate. By a liquid. By a drug within the liquid.

My body and my mind make the rules. My body and my mind make the decisions.

On July 10th, my body and my mind stopped drinking.


  1. Powerful post Sam. I must say that I resemble many of the sentiments and battles presented here. I was able to swear off all hard alcohol, and now I'm working towards being a more responsible beer drinker. Thanks for sharing this experience, I'm sure I'll be coming back to it for encouragement from time to time. Stay strong my friend!

  2. Thanks, Tekee. We all have things we work on. I'm glad you're working on good stuff, too. :)

  3. You have your head screwed on straight, so that's awesome. For whatever it's worth, you ever need an ear I'm around.

  4. Thanks, Wendy. I'm hoping my head unscrews a little, I think I was spending too many brain cycles on thinking about alcohol. This should free up some time & space for other pursuits, hopefully music. :)

  5. Sam, I finished this and I am worried. I often look to "finish" the pack, or "top off" the night. Sometimes I just get (sorry) "fucking hammered" to "forget the day"

    Thank you.

    I need to really evaluate my "engagement" with alcohol.

  6. Good. Music is good. Music saves. I really believe that. I've never thought about alcohol much. It's swallowing liquid. I have a few once a month or so but I never "want" alcohol. I was with someone for 6 years who would grab a six pack instead of me. I can't honestly remember a night he wasn't drunk the last year or so we were together. But I definitely understand the compulsion. My issue is nicotine. I get upset, I want to smoke. I get stressed, my head hits an 8, I want to smoke. I want to smoke. I'm smart. I don't want to die. I shouldn't smoke. So recently I turned to guitar. To yoga. To my friends. It's...a process.

    Thank you for your post and sharing. Gave me a lot to think about.

  7. @ellem - Yeah, I think there's a difference between "a nightcap" and "piling on". A nightcap, to me, is a drink late, after you've had say, a drink or two with dinner. Not another 2 or 3 drinks after you've already had 3 or 4 or 5 drinks with dinner.

    I definitely piled on.

    I like the end of the M*A*S*H episode where Hawkeye stops drinking for a week and has a particularly rough day. He goes into the officer's club to get a scotch and people are kind of getting on him for having a drink before the week is up. He says "I need this drink!" and goes to have it and before he does, says he'll be back when he wants it, not when he needs it.

    Something like that, but that's pretty much the gist of it.

    I kind of feel the same way, but...not sure I'll want it again.

  8. @Wendy - Yeah, I think I've replaced it for the time being with watching Doctor Who. :D

    It can be a process. For me though, as I wrote, it's kind of a switch. Once I decide the switch is off, it's off. But I understand that's not how most people operate. I wish I knew why.

  9. I took an amazing course last year that asked the question, "What am I pretending not to know?" Awareness is a place of strength from where we can make the best decisions for ourselves. Good on ya, Sammy!

  10. That's a great question to ask oneself, Eric. Thanks.

    If we can't be honest with ourselves, who can we be honest with? :)


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