I’ve had a wild, whirlwind romance with alcohol since I was about 15 years old. At first, my drinking didn’t seem any different than that of my peers; when you’re in high school, your limited access to the stuff means that when you do have occasion to get together with friends in a gravel pit, or in the woods behind someone’s grandfather’s shed, you binge drink like a monster. College isn’t much different, except suddenly, you can all pile into someone’s car and drive to the liquor store yourself. And even in my early 20s, the after-work all-night social drinking I was doing seemed in line with what my friends and colleagues were doing.
Somewhere along the line, however, my drinking began to change. Less and less of it was happening outside of the home. More often than not, I would wait until my wife and two children would go to bed, and I would sit up, alone, late into the early morning, pouring glass after glass of bourbon into a rocks, and then a pint glass, until I blacked out (which at the time, I thought was “sleeping”), only to wake up the next day, feel terrible, and do it all again.
I spent about 15 years on this cycle. Work, drink, sleep, hangover, repeat. When friends would visit, I would always be the last person to go to bed. I was the person that was bringing twice as much alcohol to a dinner party as everyone else. I took all of the classic steps to try and control my drinking, in an endless series of bargains with myself. I would only drink strictly on weekends, say, or I would only drink when out socializing with friends. I would only drink at weddings (or divorces), or otherwise only in situations where NOT drinking would create more of a social issue than drinking. I made a million bargains with myself, desperate to find a way to keep it all under control, and failing each time.
My drinking had become problematic. It was a fact that I accepted, but that I didn’t pay much attention to, because in my mind, there weren’t any consequences. I was an alcoholic, sure. But who should care? I’d never missed a day of work, due to hangover. I’d never thumped on my wife or my kids, or been otherwise abusive. Was it really alcoholism, if it didn’t bear any consequences? Wasn’t this just what “being an adult” looked like?
On March 3, 2017, that all changed, after I was arrested on a nonviolent misdemeanor charge, following a night of heavy drinking. It shook me to my foundation. In an instant, I had to confront all of these made-up “truths” that we as adults construct about our lives, face the threat of being separate from everyone and everything that I love, and acknowledge that I had let my dependence on this one substance grow to a level where alcohol was making me capable of forgetting about my family, my safety, and my responsibility to my community. I couldn’t let it go on any longer, and on that night, I took the last drink that I’ve had in one year, as of this writing.
I’m not the first person to write a post like this. There are lots of articles floating around the internet with titles like, “Here’s What Happens to Your Body After a Year Without Alcohol.” They’re encouraging, but they also tend to focus on how fantastically squared away your life will magically be after taking an extended break from the sauce. But while the experience has been positive overall, it’s also been one hell of a bumpy year. I wanted to write about both the positive changes I’ve experienced in a year of total sobriety, as well as some of the unexpected negative consequences that have caught me off guard.
Let’s get started, shall we?
Dramatic Weight Loss
The thing that people who haven’t seen me in a few months notice first, is a marked weight loss. I don’t own a scale, so I can’t be certain, but I’m estimating it somewhere in the 20–25 pound range. One thing I do know for sure is that my clothes stopped fitting, and I went from wearing pants with a 34-inch waist, down to 30-inch waist, which is about where I was in college. It feels like a return to the body type I’ve had most of my adult life; I didn’t realize just how puffy I had become, packing about 190 pounds onto my 5’10” frame.
I think there are a few reasons for this. First, obviously, are the bloating effects of alcohol. But I’m also exercising for the first time in a decade, in part because quitting drinking has increased my overall energy levels and attitudes about my physical self (more on this later). When you cook for a living, and you spend all of your time cycling between being at work, being drunk, or being asleep, your non-drinking periods tend to be filled more with cheeseburgers and laying down, than military-style calisthenics.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not ever going to be the kind of guy that celebrates “quad day” at the gym. But paying even the most basic amount of attention to my body, performing a few perfunctory exercises at home, and watching what I eat seems to have undone a lot of the damage I had chalked up to aging and a slowing metabolism. Alcohol, and the steady diet of nachos you adopt to try and blunt its after-effects, was largely to blame.
When you’re dependent on alcohol, you tend to start to accept a lot of the things that are physically wrong with you, as just being “the way things are.” While everyone knows that alcohol is extremely disruptive to normal sleep patterns, I had settled into believing that I suffered from some sort of rare, incurable insomnia. When it came time to go to sleep at night, I used a healthy drink to ease me into unconsciousness. And if I woke up in the middle of the night, or even the very early morning, pacing the house alone in the darkness, I knew that a half a bottle of wine would be just the thing I needed to help me get back to sleep. I truly believed that without drinking, sleep was impossible for me.
To my surprise, alcohol was to blame all along. Within a few days of giving up drinking, I found that I was falling asleep fast, staying asleep all night, and waking up without an alarm, feeling refreshed and ready to face my day. Once again, alcohol had made me believe that it was the solution to a personal shortcoming, which it in itself had created.
Improved Mental Clarity/Emotional Balance
This is the kind of thing that you don’t really notice, as it’s happening, and it’s only in a year of looking backward, that you see how much has changed. I realize now that my ability to reason, make meaningful decisions, and work out the day-to-day issues in my life had become drastically dulled. Similarly, my emotions were growing more and more unpredictable, with big swings between deep depression and pure joy that again, I just chalked up to the pressures of adulthood. It’s hard to explain what has changed in the last year, other than that there seems to be a bit more of a balance in my thinking, an ability to analyze the situations we all face each day, and to make decisions that will positively impact the way in which I interact with the world. It’s a sharpness, I guess, that I didn’t realize was being slowly eroded away.
So far so good, right? Here are some…other things that happened this year.
Old Addictions Reappear
I smoked cigarettes until my 30th birthday, eventually getting up to about two packs per day. I finally managed to quit, thanks to the drug Chantix, which I credited with saving my life. I spent almost ten years not even thinking about cigarettes, being disgusted by the smell of cigarette smoke, and wondering how I had given up so much of my life to such a stupid and addictive chemical.
Then…something happened. A few months into my sobriety, what started as a few cigarettes out back behind the kitchen, commiserating with my staff over whatever most recent restaurant pratfalls we were all navigating, turned into a few more. Inside of a week, I was back to smoking a pack of cigarettes per day, to my complete and total surprise.
It was frustrating. In one area of my life, I had made so much progress, successfully putting down the bottle, but only to begin clinging to the crutch of another substance. Years of drinking had rewired my brain to become entirely dependent on experiencing chemical highs and lows, in reaction to the events of my life. Have an experience, introduce a chemical, have a feeling. It didn’t need to be alcohol; as it turned out, having anything artificially introduce those peaks and valleys in my brain’s chemistry was something I craved.
I’ve made the break from cigarettes again, though I am embarrassed to admit that I suck on an electronic vaporizer with all of the intense ferocity of a 15-year-old boy at his first Avenged Sevenfold concert. It seems less risky than cigarettes, but it’s still pretty unappealing. I try and reason that unlike alcohol, though, you can still be fairly high functioning, while maintaining a nicotine dependency. Until, of course, you die of cancer. I’ll work on it. One addiction at a time.
Some Relationships Crumble…
Choosing to quit drinking brought another major casualty, in the form of my marriage of ten years to the wonderful mother of my children. I’m not going to try to unpack ten years of history on these pages, but I do think that sobriety was a big factor. I was burying a lot of bitterness, pain, and resentment under a thick, creamy layer of margaritas, and the time I was spending alone, drinking late at night, began to feel like the only time that I was “really myself.” It’s a patently ridiculous notion, looking back. But I do believe that when you’re using alcohol to dull your emotions, and then you suddenly stop doing that, you’re left to confront a lot of truths about your relationship that you were choosing to ignore, sometimes for years at a time.
It’s hard. It’s hard on both of us, and it’s hard on my young daughters. I listen to a lot more Lou Reed now. Ultimately though, I think this difficult reset in our relationship will end up being good for all four of us.
…While Others Get Stronger Than Ever
When you’re bargaining with your addiction, you enumerate all of the reasons that it’s okay, and under your control. If you have children, you convince yourself that your drinking doesn’t affect them. After all, if they’re making it to school every day, they have a warm jacket to wear, and they don’t have any unexplained bruising on their backs, you must be doing something right, right?
While my girls were always well cared for, what I can see now is that while I was drinking, I was still cheating them. Maybe not out of love, or care, or the things they need. But there were certainly days where they were not getting the hundred percent version of myself, even if that only manifested itself in my not being totally engaged with them, or not wanting to play dress-up, or build a blanket fort in the middle of the afternoon. While I was performing my parental duties, I wasn’t always THERE, with them, in the way that I am now. You don’t think they notice. But they do.
A Nearly Insatiable Appetite for Candy
Sour Patch Kids. Bargain-bin sugary fruit slices. Strawberry M&M’s like woah. Since I gave up the bottle, I’ve noticed a craving for sugar that would be enough to render a healthy person diabetic, and make a five-year old your best friend for life. My best guess is that when you are a regular drinker, you become accustomed to consuming buckets of sugar with every cocktail, and when that’s suddenly cut off? Pixie Stix for everyone!
These next two items may fall into the “too much information” category, but I think they’re worth noting.
Heartburn and Indigestion Cured
I was starting to suffer from some pretty ruthless heartburn. I’ve always had a fairly cast-iron stomach, with a steady diet consisting mostly of jalapenos, cheese, and Belgian beer. My wife noticed though, that I was spending more and more time wandering around the house with the palm of my hand pressed firmly against my sternum, in an unconscious effort to quell the fire that began to rage in my guts any time I ate almost anything.
I’d also begun vomiting myself awake in the middle of the night, a mouthful of stomach acid refluxing itself back into my esophagus as I slept, waking me with the distinct sensation that I was drowning in my sleep.
It was not awesome. It’s completely gone, now.
This Weird Urethra Thing
Here’s one I only noticed, as I was reflecting on this last year. It’s gross, and I won’t go into any more detail than necessary. If I had been drinking, and engaged in any sexual act, either with a partner, or myself, I developed an intense burning sensation immediately afterward, that was painful enough that it wouldn’t allow me to sleep. Instead, I would pace the house at night, taking showers, trying to urinate more, and eventually, drinking more to silence the pain.
It never occurred unless I had been drinking, and I still don’t know medically quite what was going on, since as you’ve no doubt surmised by now, I am not a trained urologist. My best (totally) uneducated guess is that my drunken sperm had a decreased motility, and were getting stuck in my urethra, where they were competing for space with all of the domestic beer that I was also trying to force out of that tiny tube. I know. I’m sorry. But just know, that it hasn’t happened again, since I stopped drinking.
Allowing Myself the “Self Indulgence” of Therapy
I’ve spent almost 40 years sneering at the idea of going into therapy. It seemed like so much navel-gazing, when what I should really be doing was going to work and sucking it up. I started therapy when I quit drinking, and what started as help with substance abuse, has turned into an overall program of working on myself, alcohol issues or otherwise. Therapy has helped me to identify patterns in my thoughts and behavior that I never would have noticed on my own; in my case, a resistance to self-reflection had led to an even greater dependence on alcohol, and now, at my advanced age, I’m finally figuring out how some of the pieces of my life fit together, and how to deal with them in a less self-destructive way. Nobody has the ability to be 100% neutral and objective in evaluating the events of their own lives, though alcohol can certainly help you to believe otherwise.
It’s been a transformative year, and I certainly am a long, long way from having it all worked out and resolved. And I have absolutely no interest in preaching the cult of sobriety to anyone. The language of twelve-step programs hasn’t proven very useful to me, so far, and I don’t think it’s my duty to recruit anyone. Nobody loved bourbon more than I did, and I would never tell anyone that they had to give it up. As I’ve outlined above, for every positive change I have seen in the last year, there have been negative repercussions associated with giving up the bottle.
If you’ll indulge me in an incredibly hackneyed metaphor, it’s this: Sooner or later, every addict comes face to face with the edge of a cliff, with a huge canyon just beyond it. A lot of people toe right up to the edge, maybe even letting one foot slip before they decide what to do next. Some back slowly away, before turning and running as fast they can in the opposite direction. Others, convinced they can make it across if they just jump hard enough, push forward to their death.
Here’s all I’ll say, in conclusion. If you think your drinking is becoming problematic (and if you’re thinking that, it probably is), but you can’t imagine going a week without alcohol, as I couldn’t a year ago, I want you to know that it gets easier and more natural. The things that you initially feel like you’re missing (Wild nights out with friends! The way beer tastes with Buffalo wings! Margaritas on the beach!) start to become secondary to the other things in your life that are overwhelmingly positive.
Slowly, the decision to start drinking again, starts to feel like you would be giving all of these other, truly wonderful things up. If I start drinking again, it will be me making the conscious choice to be less healthy. To have a less satisfying and fulfilling relationship with my family and loved ones. To be, physically, kind of a mess. To be less able to function day-to-day, at the best of my ability. And when the decision to stop drinking starts to feel more like the decision to start drinking and lose those other things, it really doesn’t seem like much of a choice at all.