What Do You Do When A Drink Won’t Make It Better Anymore?
Back in ’91, I saw a doctor who told me I had liver enzyme levels of a sixty year-old chronic alcoholic. The enzyme levels told the doctor that I would be dead in eight years, give or take, if I kept drinking. It would be just more than a year after that day, and a whole lot of trouble, before I finally decided (with the help of the People of the State of Michigan) to quit drinking. I was 22 years, 4 months and 11 days old when I put the jug down.
The thought of quitting so young terrified me, even though I knew I only had seven years left. Give or take. I was afraid of losing fun, of relegating myself to the ways of old men before I’d really started living. That may seem stupid without context so allow me a second to explain. Drinking was all I knew. As sick as I was drinking, as much of a train wreck as I made of myself, drunk was the only way I knew how to relax enough to have fun. Alcohol was the definition of the double-edged sword. In the haze it looked like this: I have to quit, but if I quit I’ll never have fun again.
It’s not as stupid as it reads when you’re living through it. The very first time I had more than a sip of wine I got hammered. I out-drank two of my “of age” cousins at a wedding and sent one to the john puking her guts out – and I felt alive! I was barely 16 years old. The second time I had more than a sip of wine at the dinner table at grandma’s house, I got hammered. All of the chaos in my head stopped – all of the negativity, all of the feeling that I was less than, uglier than, skinnier than, dumber than everybody else stopped by the second drink. All of a sudden I was ok with myself to be somebody. When I was sober I was struggling to fit in. Drunk (or even buzzed on the way to being drunk), I had all of the self-confidence that I should have had sober. Drunk I dated models – technically you can’t call that dating, but whatever. Sober I couldn’t figure out why they’d want to be with me.
After a while drunk just didn’t work anymore though. Mainly because I could see death catching up with me, I think. Drinking turned me into a loser far worse than what I once dreaded I would be sober. The spiral out of control was messy to be sure. I alienated my family – especially my parents – after getting caught doing some incredibly stupid things. The best way to describe myself was as a one man trainwreck. If you’ve ever seen the movie Leaving Las Vegas, that’s pretty close – I cried watching it, three years sober. Being at the bottom, where you don’t get any relief – drunk, buzzed or stone cold sober – is altogether sucky. I went through a period of almost a year where everything sucked. Everything I did had a negative impact on an already shitty existence. Utter hopelessness. Technically I don’t remember any of my 21st year on this planet – nothing… Not one day or event out of the 365 in the year, but I do remember how that year “felt”.
At 22, you might begin to get the idea of why it was so scary. The way I saw it, I was giving up the awesome me, that I’d been for years but for some reason just couldn’t find anymore, for a life-long battle as the loser. From where I sat, it’s what we would come to call a lose-lose proposition. I was screwed either way.
Finally the pain got bad enough that it was either kill myself or quit – and I picked out the tree I’d crash the car into more than once (often multiple trees on the way home), that quitting was scarier than death should give you a clue as to where I was mentally. I quit wearing a seatbelt when I drove, so if I did crash I’d have less of a chance. Then I landed in treatment. On entering, I was thoroughly convinced of two things: First was that I would do my time for the People of the State of Michigan and second, that I was not about to quit drinking. I fully planned on going back to the bottle when I got out – because sober as a loser was still seemed a lot scarier than drinking.
Then my miracle happened. I was two weeks into treatment, in the middle of the night, on the top bunk just a shakin’ and a sweatin’ away, wide awake. I had a thought pop into my head that maybe (just barely maybe) if I gave being sober a try, my life could get better. So there I lay, sicker than a dog, and I made my deal with God. I said something to the effect of, “God, I know I’m supposed to be more than this, but I don’t know how to get there. If you’ll help me, I’ll give this a real shot. I’ll quit”.
I never looked back – and never had to. From that moment on, there have been plenty of moments where I thought about picking up a drink. There were drinking dreams (you literally believe you got drunk – often you wake up with slurred speech and the whole nine yards), there were temptations, there were rude awakenings… There was even a stupid decision or two (hundred), but through the whole ordeal, I did one thing right. I didn’t pick up a drink, because in this game it’s not the caboose that kills you, it’s the locomotive. I can remember seeing a guy talk in an auditorium in Ann Arbor about getting sober – I had about three weeks, he was celebrating his first year, and I can remember thinking, “One day that’s going to be me”. One hour turned into a day, turned into a week, turned into a month, then three months, and six and nine. On my 1 year anniversary, I gave that talk and it was absolutely awesome. There was my story, then tears of joy and happiness – much like any other drunk who’s found his way back to life, and then there were cheers. And there I was, just me – no booze or drugs – and not a loser in sight.
19 years later, there’s no doubt I’ve won – I am recovered. Alas, there is no rest, sobriety is all about one day at a time. My recovery, my life, is a daily reprieve based on the maintenance of my sobriety and spirituality. If I rest, even for a moment, that old life, the one I walked away from so hesitantly 20 years ago, is waiting patiently for me to come back – so the job can be finished.
In the circles I run in, we refund misery. I’m welcome to have the train wreck back, it’s sitting in a brown bottle on a shelf.
I’m into the 9th day of my month-long celebration. I am sharing the abridged version of my story with the hope that it might help – either someone with the disease, or someone who is touched by it.
Make it a good day because nobody will do that for you.