The worst lies are the lies we tell ourselves. We live in denial of what we do, even what we think. We do this because we’re afraid.
– Richard Bach
It has been one year and nine months, almost to the day, since I last wrote in this blog. For anyone who is still reading out there, it must beg the question – what has kept me from writing for this long? And why am I bothering to write in it again, today of all days? After all, why not just delete the whole damn thing and start over from scratch?
It’s not that I haven’t thought many times about doing just that, and it surely isn’t that I haven’t sat down to try writing something – anything – that would seem like an honest segue from my last post. Although I never intended to write on a personal level about yours truly, there has actually been a lot to say about the events of the past nearly two years – including a new job, a new love, and yet another stint of unemployment in this ever-shrinking economy. More importantly, there have been stories to tell about other Major Dudes out there who have successfully navigated around the shoals of midlife and have a lot to teach the rest of us by their examples. I just haven’t been able to write about them, because by doing so, I would have had to pretend that I was successfully steering my own ship. And that would have been a lie.
The unvarnished truth is that there has been this giant, stinking elephant in the room this whole time, and he never fails to pull up a chair beside me and read over my shoulder whenever I sit down to write – about anything. Depending on the subject matter, I have sometimes managed to ignore him and write anyway – but just not in this blog. Not a single word, much less a sentence or a paragraph. And the ugly bastard has grown fatter and smellier with each passing day that I have allowed him to take up residence, without charging him a single penny for rent.
I can’t describe for you his complexion or skin tone, since he lurks in the dark and I have done my best to avoid looking at him – but I’ll state for the record that he is definitely not one of those pink elephants that you may have heard about. It’s best to say this up front, since the question is sure to come up sooner or later. Oh, if only he were a figment of my imagination or a mere hallucination, I could just wish him away, or simply stop imbibing whatever potion that was making him appear in the first place, in order to make him quietly disappear without a trace so that no one else would find out he was ever there. Unfortunately, though, he is all too real, and the measure I must take to eradicate his presence can be neither simple nor discreet.
Today, in the form of this post, I am serving him with eviction papers and kicking his fat ass out, effective immediately. It’s humiliating as hell to air this notice in public, but I’ll gladly endure this mortification if it means that I can finally get on with writing – and living again. There is actually an entire laundry list of possibilities that will open up with his departure.
To begin this procedure, I first have to admit an ugly truth. It was me who invited in the beast in the first place. First, I set out a neon welcome sign when I proclaimed in my last blog post that I had attained “total sobriety.” Even if I had stayed completely “dry” and never so much as taken a sip from another alcoholic beverage to this day, I now know I didn’t have the faintest understanding of what the term meant when I wrote that. A true state of sobriety involves so much more than mere abstinence from drinking, and it cannot be measured by just its duration, or the ease or difficulty with which one manages to abstain.
The welcome sign brought the elephant to my doorstep, but to his credit, he never attempted to bust in. Instead, he paced slowly back and forth for several more weeks, waiting for it to open.
His patience was finally rewarded when I made a brilliant decision one day. I decided that, since I had successfully gone so many weeks without drinking or even being tempted to drink, I had been set free from the overwhelming yearning for stupefaction and numbness that overcame me during The Winter That Wasn’t. It couldn’t possibly hurt to treat myself to a nice vintage of cabernet to go with the porterhouse steak I was throwing on the grill that night. After all, I had come to a clear realization of why I had been drinking to excess, off and on over the years. It was all about anesthetizing my pain (epiphany of epiphanies), and at that moment, on that day, I told myself that I wasn’t feeling any. In fact, I felt truly happy and content, which was a real milestone for me after struggling with profound loneliness in solitude for so many years since my first divorce. It seemed only right to celebrate the fact that I was finally okay with living alone, for the first time since I was a bachelor in my twenties. More than okay. In fact, I was happily indulging myself with episodes of Three And A Half Men and frozen pizzas while hanging out in my skivvies, and skipping morning shaves on the weekends. A fridge full of beer was all that was missing from my new happy go lucky, Oscar Madison lifestyle. Of course, I knew better than to go out and stock up with a case of Silver Bullets, but what could a little wine hurt, just for one night? And besides that, it wasn’t like anyone would ever need to know. I was a free agent, beholden to nobody. That’s what being a solitary man is all about, right?
Perhaps the two glasses I drank that night wouldn’t have hurt anything, as long as I could have remained in that moment in time and managed to live a painless, trauma-free existence for the remainder of my days here on this Earth. And indeed, for many months that followed, things did continue to look up. Hope sprang eternal. But of course, it was a delusional fallacy to believe that the hard times were all behind me, and only blue skies and happier days lay ahead, simply because I had recently endured such a prolonged living hell.
Anyway, I felt so great the following morning after that steak dinner, without the slightest trace of a hangover, I sprang out of bed early the next morning and headed straight for the gym. A few nights later, I decided to try it again. And again, on the following weekend after that. In time, I was drinking every week, but I stuck judiciously to a rule of drinking only on weekends, since I took a new job and was working twelve to fourteen hour days. For a few months, I felt completely okay with drinking just a beer or two, or a couple of glasses of wine, and leaving it at that. I felt absolutely no remorse or shame. In fact, it was just the opposite – I was proud at what I had accomplished with my newfound discipline. At my favorite bistros, the bartenders called me “Mr. One And Done,” since I would nurse a martini or whiskey on the rocks for over an hour before asking for the check.
For the first time in ages, I was once again drinking like a gentleman – a man who could handle his liquor – as I had been able to do in my younger years. I had always admired men who could do that, and in spite of what I’d said in a previous blog post, I was happy to be able to once again call myself a “normal” or “social” drinker. I was well aware that it impressed women, too. Ever since I began dating after my first divorce, I learned early on that it seemed to make most gals uncomfortable if I ordered a non-alcoholic beverage while they ordered a glass of wine on a first date. On the other hand, it usually impressed them when they saw that I could slowly sip on a glass or two of wine, or even gin or whiskey, and then be done for the remainder of the night without the slightest slur in my speech or swagger in my step.
I remember one woman I dated a few years ago, for whom this was a crucial litmus test that I unwittingly passed with flying colors. After just a couple of dates, she exclaimed out loud how relieved she was that I was immune to the dreaded disease she’d seen in her ex-husband, who could never manage to control his drinking once he got started, and had nearly managed to ruin her life before destroying his own. In spite of the horrific ordeal that he put her through over two decades of marriage, though, she made it clear that she preferred to date a man who could hold his liquor than one who chose to not drink at all. I didn’t get that then, but I do now. In her mind, you either have the disease or you don’t. It’s something you’re just born with, and if you are, you are helplessly under its control. (Hmm… now where did she get that notion?) Unlike him, she repeatedly assured me, I most definitely did not have a problem with alcohol. In time, I came to see that she had her own issues with drinking, but was unwilling to address them since she was also comparing herself to her ex, and fixated on his picture of what an alcoholic looks like.
I don’t need to spell out the rest of the story of my relapse, but I’m sure it’s not too different from the stories of millions of other self-proclaimed “moderate drinkers” who support the burgeoning wine and liquor industry with their hard earned money on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis. Habitual, steady drinking can easily lead to heavier drinking for anyone, in the good times as well as the bad. Everyone knows this – we are taught in high school phys-ed class about how the brain develops a tolerance to alcohol. The regular drinker forgets this information, however, or manages to ignore it as it sneaks up on him over time. And when hard times come, as they do for everyone, his happy elixir of choice quickly becomes a readily available medication with which to ward off stress, anxiety, and sadness.
The marketing campaign for the liquor and wine industry is diabolical and insidious. How many times do we see stories likes this (http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/wine-how-much-is-good-for-you) broadcast in the news like regular public service announcements that drinking a single glass a day can do wonders for the heart and circulatory system? Over and over, we hear stories about how the French live longer and better, presumably because of their daily wine intake, until it is practically inferred that complete abstinence poses a health risk that may shorten our lives. These same medical journalists fail to point out the numerous other differences between the lifestyles of the French and Americans, and almost never write about the addictive nature of alcohol, even in small doses, or the psychological danger of making its consumption a daily habit.
As I listen to the stories of so many others who have faced their own addictions to alcohol, I have found myself envying those whose problems were so out of control and over the top, it was impossible to deny it even to themselves. After all, getting busted with a DUI, followed by the suspension of one’s driver’s license, is a pretty clear and irrefutable indicator that one has a problem. So is coming home to an empty house and finding a note from one’s mate, explaining that one drink or bottle too many had finally sent her or him packing. Partly by the grace of God, and partly because I have historically done most of my imbibing at home, I have never lost or had anything taken away from me as a direct result of my drinking. Not until recently, that is. And very few people have ever taken the trouble to voice their personal concern to my face that I may have a problem with alcohol. So I was able to keep lying to myself, and by my silent omission of the truth, also to those who were closest to me.
I just wasn’t one of those hardcore drinkers that ever binged on hard liquor for days on end or reached for an eye opener before getting out of bed in the morning. I never missed a day of work, and always met my responsibilities. The only thing that was irrefutably obvious about my habit was the large pile of wine bottles that I set out for recycling each week, and the large chunk that it took out of my budget each month. Even those were relatively easy to sweep under the rug and keep out of sight. The real dirty secret that I kept to myself and worked hardest to hide was the fact that, more often than not for the past twenty-some years, I have rolled out of bed feeling like shit warmed over.
Today marks exactly two months since my last first day without a drink, on Independence Day of all days. It may not seem like a very long time, but in a way it already feels like a past life when I think back on my habit of drinking wine nearly every day, and going to bed only after the bottle was emptied.
So what makes this time different from the last time I quit – and another time a few years before that, which lasted more than nine months? Well, for starters, this is the first time that I have really considered my breakup with alcohol to be complete and my abstinence to be a permanent condition. In the past, I have always held onto the unspoken confidence in the back of my mind that I would someday be able to handle drinking at least just a beer or two, or just one glass of wine when called for to toast a special occasion, or with a special meal. After this last turn, I am completely disabused of the notion that can ever happen, because I have educated myself on the brain science that essentially makes moderation impossible for anyone who has ever crossed over the line into chronic, habitual drinking as I have. I have also done quite a bit of research and learned why drinking is just not a healthy choice under any circumstance, and how its impairment of the brain can last long after the hangover wears off. [http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/how-even-moderate-drinking-may-negatively-affect-your-brain.html]
I now understand that drinking again would throw a switch in my mind, which I presently keep firmly fixed in the OFF position. While it remains there, my thoughts of having a drink are few and fleeting at worst, and cravings are almost non-existent. I have finally learned, however, how easily this switch can be thrown back to ON with just one drink, and why it is not to be tampered with under any circumstances. So every day, I apply a fresh layer of duct tape over it so that it can’t be accidentally bumped or mindlessly flipped, and I remind myself that it is always there and will never go away. Alcohol is my kryptonite, and it will rob me of my superpowers until I am finally rendered weak and helpless – physically as well as mentally.
For the first time, I have also admitted to myself that I need help, and that I don’t have the strength or wisdom to achieve or maintain lifelong sobriety all on my own. This is not the same as saying that I am “powerless over alcohol,” however, as Step One of AA’s Twelve Step Program so strongly decrees. I categorically reject this doctrine, because as a Christian, I know that I do in fact have enormous power, because I can do all things through Jesus Christ, who strengthens me (Phillipians 4:13). I also don’t believe that it will do any good to simply turn to God “as we understand him” (Step 3), since this is too vague and terribly inadequate. There is only one Creator God for the entire human race. He has a name, and He has revealed Himself to us both through His word (The Holy Bible) and His son, who I’ve mentioned above. Any lesser god will prove powerless and useless at best for anyone seeking lasting recovery.
I have discovered that there are other sources of help available for treatment and recovery outside of AA, and it has been an enormous relief to learn that their doctrines have little to no basis in medical science. I don’t accept the idea that I will have to grapple with a desire to drink for the rest of my life, as most twelve-steppers believe to be their fate. I intend to enjoy life to its fullest, rather than resign myself to spending the rest of my days feeling deprived of the pleasure of alcohol. The truth is, there is a long list of things that I will now get to enjoy in its place that were unavailable to me before. At the top of that list is my health – mental and physical.
Finally, I have learned that the road to “total sobriety” is much longer and will require more mindfulness and work than I ever before would have estimated. It’s a hard truth to admit, but my brain has been damaged by the affects of alcohol, and it is going to take time and work to learn how to really think again and use it to its fullest potential. [http://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/10-things-you-can-every-day-benefit-your-brain.html]
Most important of all, I am learning how to handle my emotions, and really face my fears without the help of alcohol for the first time as an adult. Looking back, it would be easy to say that I was fearless in my youth, but I have learned that fearlessness is not the same as courage. In my younger years, I lacked the firsthand knowledge of how many things could go terribly wrong on the journey we call this life. I knew nothing back then of tragedy, or heartbreak, and I was able to love – honestly, selflessly, and without fear of rejection, or worse – betrayal.
Now that the elephant is gone, I intend to learn to love like that again…