Aug 16, 2008

On Drinking Alcohol, Sobriety, and Quality of Life

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For much of my life I was never much of a drinker. Sure, there were some wild parties as a late teen and young adult in which I drank to excess, but by the time my first child was born I was all but a teetotaler when it came to booze. I never bought it, rarely consumed it, and lived a life of relative sobriety.

Except for the very rare night out when I would drink too much and pay for it the next day, that is. Some call that "binging," but I just thought this was just "letting off steam" or something.

Yet somewhere around the end of 1998 - what I like to call "the year of pain" due to the high number of traumatic and life-changing events I endured that year - I began to use alcohol as a relaxing, sleep-inducing ritual, and after a year or two I was drinking every night to go to sleep. No longer was I having a glass of wine or two, but I was probably drinking two fifths of vodka a week.

But hey, no problem, right? I never drank before sundown, and I only drank to relax, and my usual routine was to pound a couple of tall snorts from a hidden pint under the front seat of my car just before getting home, so I could rationalize my drinking by saying that "the alcohol has not reached my brain, and I must therefore still be sober behind the wheel." I never racked up a DUI, never caused an accident, and I kidded myself that I thus did not have a problem with my drinking.

But near the end of my drinking career I remember getting ready to leave a restaurant at which I worked, and walking to punch out while carrying a nice, tall, icy glass of Stolichnaya. I slipped on the wet tiles, and my main concern as I was heading to the floor was how I was going to save that glass of hooch.

BAM! CRASH! SPLASH!

In my efforts to protect my precious distilled spirits, I managed to collect 30 or 40 shards of glass in the palms of my hands. Blood trickled down my arms from the numerous punctures, and this should have been a warning sign to me: the booze was more important than my safety.

Then there was the time around 2001, right before 9-11, when I was getting some serious headaches, and I naturally turned to extra-strength Excedrin to deal with my pounding skull. Little did I know that I had bleeding ulcers, and that the aspirin and alcohol were making the ulcers worse, and that my headaches were a sign that I was anemic. When my wife finally drove me to the hospital, my hemoglobin count was down to 6.9 gm/dl (for reference, a healthy adult male should be somewhere between 14 and 18 gm/dl).

In short fashion - over just a couple of years - my unhealthy living was starting to kill me.

Now, I would love to wind up a Hallmark-type story here, with that the intravenous transfusion of two pints of blood waking me up, but by then I was well along the way to being a full-time drinker. It was only a matter of days before I pronounced my ulcers healed, and that I would rely upon a better diet and no aspirin to allow me my nightcaps. It took my wife's insistence that I change before I made the move.

Was I an alcoholic? Who knows. I certainly used alcohol in a self-medicating fashion for 2-1/2 years, and when I was drinking my uninhibited self was game for whatever other inebriants were around. I did not experience any withdrawals, but it was clear that the psychological dependence was well on its way. If I was not yet an alcoholic, I was probably only a year or two away from being a full-blown drunk.

I sit here, look back on the preceding paragraphs, and ask I myself: "Why are you writing this?"

Part of this post is an exercise in demon-exorcism, coming to terms with the person I was (and in some ways I still am). I have not consumed booze in over six years, but I occasionally still get a mild urge for a drink, especially after a stressful day. Yet I fear that even one drink will make it okay for me to have two, and then four, and then ... you get the picture.

But part of my reason for discussing this in a very public forum is to do what friends of Bill W. call "carrying the message." Maybe I wasn't an alcoholic, and maybe I was, and maybe I still am, but I know that my life is a hell of a lot better without alcohol than with it. I'm more productive, healthier, and most importantly: happier.

So, to those of you reading this post: take a moment to decide the reasons why you drink, and ask yourself if booze is causing problems in your life. Maybe you are just feeling guilty because some ex-drunk is hitting a raw nerve, but maybe your mind could use some housecleaning. Or maybe you are one of the "normal" folks who have an occasional social drink and who never progress to the self-medication stage.

If so, God bless you: not everyone has booze-related demons.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Whoa! Heavy stuff.

historymike said...

Hmmm... to me it seems matter-of-fact, because I am comfortable with who I was and who I now am. Even when I quit and hung out with friends of Bill W., I was not really much concerned with what others would say or whisper: "My GOD - he was a WHAT?"

But for some folks, introspection can be terrifying, even when done by someone else.

Anonymous said...

CAN YOU SAY 'HYPOCRITE'???? YOU SURE WERE QUICK TO CONDEMN MICHAEL GAGNON:

http://historymike.blogspot.com/2007/12/sorry-bro-drunk-kills-five-injure-three.html

CAST STONES MUCH IN GLASS HOUSES, PUNK?

ProfessorSeal said...

No asshole anonymous, HistoryMike is not a hypocrite. There is a huge difference between posting a heartfelt, introspective post about alcoholism, and discussing a total waste of space and oxygen like Gagnon who killed an entire family and showed no remorse. Now why don't you grow a pair and come out behind the anonymous.

historymike said...

Heh.

Anonymous:

While I certainly was a heavy drinker, I was usually a responsible one. I did most of my drinking at home or on the short drive home from the liquor store.

There were certainly times when I flirted with the .08 range beind the wheel, but when I was smashed, I had someone else drive. And I never even THOUGHT about driving when I was so shit-faced that I would be inclined to drive the wrong way six miles on a freeway, like Michael Gagnon.

Heck - I can't even remember the last time I was that drunk - maybe 1985 or something.

My booze game was simple: 6-8 ounces of vodka in the hour before beddy-bye. If I was working that night, there would be a long swallow or two from a pint just before I got home, so I could hide the quantity of my drinking from my family. Of course, this game started off as a single nightcap, but rapidly progressed to a higher habit.

Besides, "hypocrite" would only apply if I were actively engaged in the behavior while condemning it.

I might agree with "sanctimonious," though, for my tone in the Michael Gagnon post. I did come across as "condemnatory," too, just as I would with any killer of most of the members of a young family.

historymike said...

Professor Seal:

Thank you for your kind words and your defense of Anonymous, who sounds like one of those Michael Gagnon groupies that used to visit the site after his arrest and trial.

microdot said...

Wow, the instant reaction of the Gagnon supporter...It takes guts to reveal intimate biographical details about yourself. You usually walk away a lot stronger for it.

I have a lot of friends who have been real alcoholics. I think I have gone through periods of my life where I definitely was on the edge. I can truly say that I am not that person anymore.
I still like wine but I hate to drink too much and I enjoy learning about how great wines are made and participating in the process.

Anonymous said...

How do you like "Duma Key" so far? As soon as the Main Library got the book I borrowed it (also helped that I worked there!). Stephen King's character dialogue is sooooooo rich!
- MrsPhoenix

historymike said...

Microdot:

I think that even if I went back to certain beverages like wine - which I used to drink to complement a meal - I would rapidly begin to use it for the buzz. One glass would become two, and so forth.

Still, a hearty cabernet sauvignon with a medium-rare filet mignon is one helluva taste combination.

historymike said...

Mrs. Phoenix:

Great book! I read Stephen King a lot as a kid, and then stopped reading him in the mid-to-late 1980s.

His newer material is much less focused on the kind of horror he once wrote, and King has developed into a unique literary talent, a true voice of Americana. Bag of Bones, Hearts in Atlantis, and On Writing are my recent favorites, and are some of his best books.

McCaskey said...

Enjoyed the post, Gagnon groupie aside.

Carol said...

Mike - you are a brave soul for revealing your vulnerable side. I applaud you.

I can remember about 12 years of my life where there was not a day that went by (or night actually) where I did not consume at least 6 - 10 drinks. 7 days a week. I had a real problem.

And one day I woke up and didn't know where I was, how I got there or why my truck was parked outside.

I stopped - right then, right there. It scared the crap out of me. For weeks I wondered if I had done anything bad (aka criminal) other than driving while I was so drunk I couldn't see. I stayed scared - and to this day am VERY careful what, if anything, that I drink.

I think I may have had 4 margaritas in the last 5 years. But I have to make myself stop at one because they taste so darned good. I'd keep going, but I'm still scared.

Scared of the hold that the "devil in the bottle" had on me.

Mad said...

Nice post, Mike. Some years back I decided to become a real party animal and did so. I remember making a conscious decision to spend as much of that summer as I could partying, drinking and smoking pot. It was a lot of fun, but the people I met somewhat shallow.

At the end of the summer I quit and started a different career. It's been many years since I've been drunk, and in fact I never bought whiskey, beer or wine when I was poor. I couldn't afford it, you see. So I don't think I have an addiction.

Smoking, now, that was tough. I've been free of the tobacco habit since about 1990.

microdot said...

I stopped smoking cold twice..once when I was 21 and I started smoking again when I was playing in a band in Quebec City and everyone was hand rolling Gauloise tobacco....
Then one day in a bank, I was in line smoking a Gauloise and a woman turned to me and said the smell was making her sick...this was back in the days when you could smoke in a bank. I realized that it was doing the same to me and I haven't had a cigarette since.
My wife hasn't had a drop of alcohol in over 25 years and that is a real moderating influence on me.

Self revealing autobiographical writing can be a real liberating experience. I had to contribute a piece recently to a book coming out about a "Camping Trip" that occurred 40 years ago involving 250,000 people. I didn't have a problem with the personal details that were revealed for mass consumption, but the real sticker in my brain was ...what are my friends going to think?

With that, I'd like to recommend an autobiographical book that is a current best seller by a friend of mine.

A Freewheelin Time by Suze Rotolo.

It is a very personal glimpse into a specific time and place...New York City in the early 60's and a relationship that has spurred endless pages of speculation by many others.

Anonymous said...

Mike,

Just as a resource, this is considered a pretty reliable screening tool to determine an individual's dependence on alcohol.

Michigan Alcohol Screening Test (MAST)

http://counsellingresource.com/quizzes/alcohol-mast/index.html

I commend you for sharing your personal struggles and triumphs here Mike. Thank you.

JQ said...

Most days I have one—four beers. I usually don't drink on the weekends while at home with the family. Overall I say I drink about five days a week. Sometimes I crave a beer, other times it's a total turn off. I can however, drink upwards of six beers and not feel very buzzed. Do I have a drinking problem? Perhaps. Am I a functioning alcoholic? Perhaps. Do I like to ask questions and then answer them. Perhaps.

Robin said...

I don't drink alcohol. Well, every once in awhile someone will offer me a sip of their drink. Never really have been attracted to it. I think the most alcohol I've ever consumed was a couple years ago, when I had to take some cough syrup. Didn't like the buzzy feeling, so I stopped taking it.

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