Drink, Drank, Drunk No More

Getting From There to Here

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They say no little kid says “I want to be a drunk or an addict when I grow up.” Well, that may be true for toddlers but the pervasiveness of alcohol in our culture can certainly turn the worm at an early age. I am not sure of the exact time I first tasted alcohol, but it was probably at a family Sunday dinner, possibly at my paternal grandparent’s home – and it was absolutely not later than when I was in 1st or 2nd grade. I immediately liked wine – back in those days the Italians were downing a lot of sweet rotgut – Lambrusco, Cold Duck and “Riunite on ice – that’s nice.” The warm feel of the light buzz from my little glass, the sweetness and the “adultness” of it all were very appealing to an 8-year old who always saw himself as an adult.

Through my childhood I always looked forward to the warm sensation provided by alcohol as it traveled through my body – but I never got drunk until my teens, I still enjoyed the feeling at an early age. Whenever the chance arose to have some wine at a family dinner, or split a beer with my father or grandfather I leapt at the opportunity. I would hazard a guess that most of the beer splitting was my idea – not my elders. This early interest in “sauce” would only grow as I headed for my teen years.

I certainly may have liked the idea of looking cool and fitting in, but I needed no prodding from my peers to drink. I wanted to drink. The first couple of times with the guys were camping adventures in the woods near my childhood home – the first one was a few slugs from Seagram’s bottle while the second one was an adventure that led to many tall tales being told back at school.

The second incident took me and my best friend out through the woods to a liquor store on a highway where we were able to get a total stranger to purchase a case of Bud Talls. Minus getting a comb, a magazine and a pack of gum this entire episode was very American Grafitti-esque. Being the consummate organizer and planner I stashed the case of brew into a trash bag I brought along for camouflage purposes and me and my buddy ran about ½ a mile down route 1 and darted back into the woods where our two compatriots were waiting for us. To the best of my recollection I drank my six beers in less than an hour and was vomiting soon after – the story continued after I trekked home the next morning where I continued puking and foolishly thought I convinced my parents that I was sick because I over ate while camping. At some point in my late teens or early 20s I realized that they were probably just humoring me – but they knew. There was probably nothing that they could have done to stop me short of military school at that point in my life.

The events continued – rarely at first – a post-basketball season party; a theater company party; in the parking lot at the Boston Garden before a heavy metal concert or at friends house in the afternoon of an early dismissal school day. Then towards the end of senior year it began to be that the drinking was the event in of and itself. I was not aware of this phenomenon until many years later when I realized I did not want to go to events or gatherings where there would be no alcohol served. This behavior also manifested itself in my “little strategies” of being sure there was alcohol available – like showing up with my own six-pack or the ever sneaky “we really should bring a bottle of wine as a gift.” I also made sure I got the last glass of wine out of any bottle served and one particular low point was when I brought an expensive bottle of Scotch as a gift and I drank the entire fifth alone – some gift. I often used having guests over to our house as an excuse to stock the house – “you know, if Uncle Bill once had a certain type of beer or liquor it would be damn rude to not have any in the house when he comes over.” Yeah, right – who did I think I was kidding?

My twenty-plus adult years as a drinker were full of ups and downs. I was lucky in the sense that I never had a physical addiction and only had things like the shakes once or twice. But that aside, I still used alcohol as a crutch and it certainly had socially and psychologically addictive qualities that affected me. Whenever I took one of those tests to assess my drinking I generally scored in a reasonable way, but I knew the real situations that indicated some level of a problem. Drinking alone; drinking until vomiting; drinking large quantities; never wanting to be the first one to leave; all social situations revolved around drinking (you were not going to a Red Sox game – you were going out to have drinks.) Having a couple of gigantic Scotch on the rocks (6- 8 ounces each) at home while watching television really is not necessary or good.

I used to employ all sorts of crazy rhetoric to support my drinking  – “beer comes in a case for a reason” and “I do not trust people who do not drink” – all part of the vicious game. So what made me throw all of this away you ask? There comes a point in many people’s lives when you ask yourself “what am I doing this for?” That moment happened  while at a professional conference in St. Louis (perhaps the worst, most dangerous city in America) when I found myself staggering around the desolate streets of a dead city at 3 am after drinking myself into a Dewar’s hell all evening at an open bar event. “What the hell am I doing this for?!”

The next day on the convention floor, after the requisite 6 am vomit session was highly cathartic. I was paying for my behavior with a horrid 24-hour hangover. I did a lot of thinking that day – I have a nice family – my two boys were 4 years old and three-months old at the time and I felt they deserved better than this – and I was not doing my body any favors. I was sick and fed up with it all. My level of drinking was heavy, but I was not physically addicted so I never really thought much about seeking help. I tired of my routine and decided to move forward. At first I was casually quitting – I believe I had a glass of wine on my flight home – as I always drank on airplanes. Interestingly – I did not enjoy it at all. Later that summer I got two beers over the course of a long wedding and did not finish either of them – how unusual. Over the next fifteen months I would allow myself to have one beer after finishing a hike in the White Mountains – by the fall of 2007 that had lost any appeal it may have had – I found myself having a sip or two and pouring it out. I was done.

My non-belief in higher powers made me uninterested in Alcoholics Anonymous. I am well aware of the success that program has had for so many people, my friends among them. My feelings have always been that the power to do or not do is within me, but different people have different operating systems. I am very glad a number of my friends have found AA and have had great success with the program. I have subscribed to the idea of talking about my problem with others – that is a very valuable and cathartic experience. I found comfort in reading, viewing and talking. Some of the books and films that meant the most to me during that period are listed below. Reading about others battles and struggles is reassuring. I am glad with my decision not to use alcohol any more in my life and I am very lucky to be someone who does not miss it at all – although I will still joke about it. I feel fortunate that I was not further down the path I was headed on when I made my decision to stop.

Books on the subject that resonated with me:

Hamill, Pete. A Drinking Life: A Memoir.

Knapp, Caroline. Drinking: A Love Story.

McGovern, George.

Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism.

Moran, Molly Hurley. Finding Susan.

Some films that show a lot of drinking, the life, the ups and the downs – as someone who did not go to the nth level before quitting I would say that Sideways was the one that resonated the most with me – like Myles, I was certainly visiting the dark side:

Leaving Las Vegas

Sideways

The Barfly

The Days of Wine and Roses

The Lost Weekend

The Verdict

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

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19 Responses to “Drink, Drank, Drunk No More”

  1. Annie Says:

    kudos.

  2. Denise Says:

    This was so interesting to read….Good for you~

  3. Sandy Diersing Says:

    Mike – kudos! It can be an insidious beast.

    My maternal grandfather died before I was born; my mother had to drop out of school around 9th grade to take care of four younger siblings while her mother worked, because her alcoholic father abandoned them. My grandmother married two abusive alcoholics in a row, as a matter of fact (both died young of related causes); none of her children have had easy or very happy lives, and her stepson is a tightly wrapped package of neuroses; I chalk a big chunk of our family’s effed-up dynamics to drinking.

    I lived in New York for a while in the mid-80’s and found myself going out for two or three or four drinks two or three or four nights a week. I liked it. I began to fit in, in ways I never had before. And then I realized that all of my social facility was being fueled by alcohol. I stopped drinking, and found that I no longer wanted to be with the people I’d found so entertaining before. I moved out of NYC and ended up in Denver, and found a social milieu where “party” meant there was much more talking and much less drinking. At this point, I have a small glass of wine a few nights a week, but it may soon be time for even that to go away for a while again. I don’t screw around with the chance that I will get accustomed to drinking, or that I will forget how easy the habit is to get into.

    On a related note, I wonder, if and when we get a decent universal health care system, if it will then become apparent that many drinkers are self- medicating, and could do much better for themselves if their chemical imbalances or other demons were addressed competently and without stigma.

    • sapblatt Says:

      Sandy –
      First and foremost thanks for reading – I truly appreciate it. The family stories that come up here and on various Facebook walls point to just how insidious alcoholism is. It is deep rooted on our culture, country and families. I am certainly not preachy on the subject – a great many people can manage what they do better than I did – my freinds who drink do not drink 16 ounces of Scotch alone on a week night (nor did I daily) and they gave up drinking to they puked many years ago – so if they enjoy a drink now and again good for them. For me it got to be no fun and “why am I doing this?” and “what am I getting out of this?” The best answers I could come up with were habit and nothing. So for me it was easy. I am glad you are aware of how you drink – that to me is the key. You knew the NYC situation was not healthy and you handled it.
      Again, thanks for adding to the discussion – it means a lot.
      Take care
      Mike

  4. Johnny Pedini Says:

    As the guy who was with Mike on that fateful night in St. Louis, I can attest to his eminent moral strength despite his professed condition. Never once did he display any sense of impropriety, like throwing bricks through abandoned downtown storefront windows or succumbing to the temptations of the local transvestite prostitute population.

    I think he even answered a few reference questions and signed up two new members…

    And as the bass player for Frank Booth’s Car, he practices what he writes under extreme duress every week. 🙂

    As the great Exene Cervenka once observed, “We start out with a shot glass, and end up with a measuring cup.”

    Johnny P

  5. Gary Says:

    As I learned from having an alcoholic parent who still struggles.

    Everything in moderation. And to much of a “good thing” is usually bad for you.
    Cliche’s that seem to work for me so that I don’t repeat the cycle.

    If you can’t control your ability to manage your vices, best to remove the vices all together. Some people learn that rule, some people don’t.

    Nice piece.

  6. Kerri Says:

    Very cool, Mike xxx

  7. Karen R Says:

    Great story, Mike. I can certainly identify. You have your power within you.

    Hugs,
    Karen R.

  8. Paul Says:

    Nice piece Mike.

    It’s funny how you described your drinking and how you lost interest. I never really drank as much but i too have lost the taste from time to time. I can’t remember the last time I had a hangover and I sure don’t miss it. I will drink a few now and then but I usually stop at two. A 12pk will be in my fridge for months. It is more of a social thing these days than something I want to do.

    I had no idea the depth you had sunken but it’s nice to know you climbed out. For you and your family.

    Paul

  9. Sean Thibodeau Says:

    Brave piece, man. Good for you.

    I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend two other great books about the devil of alcohol which I found very enlightening.

    John Barleycorn by Jack London
    Recovery by John Berrymore

  10. marla calandro Says:

    Bravo! I have a 28 yr old son and I’ve been going to meetings since he was a baby. AA is where I get my recovery and NA is where I go to socialize and see all my friends. Since I became an Atheist (last year) I don’t relate to the program (steps). And people in the rooms shy away from me. Could it be because I walk into the meeting wearing my “There Is No God” tee-shirt? lol Thanks for sharing Mike. You are a powerful example. Hugs, Marla

  11. kenilorac Says:

    So glad you are sober and healthy. Your new course of fitness has inspirede tremendously.

  12. anjshaw Says:

    May I add http://www.rational.org to your reading list? It’s a great read, a free website one only needs to read once, and helped me work my way through my quit ten years ago. Like you, AA was not for me, but rational helped me put my thoughts about my drinking in order. I highly recommend it!

  13. Samantha Brady Says:

    Thank you Mike for sharing your story! I myself, come from a family and a very long line of alcoholics. I fortunately learned to stay away from alcohol, and learned a bad taste from watching others as I grew up. I dated an alcoholic who was to a point where he was about to die if he didn’t clean up his act and started to get very physical with me during his “Black out” phases. My brother recently just went through a lot of issues because of his drinking and had been brought to the hospital with near death experiences from too much drinking. He recently just hit his 90 days sober and I hope he continues. It’s stories like yours that make me feel that there is always hope for those who struggle with the disease.

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