Permission to Grieve

Before I begin, I want to say, categorically, that I’m not going to pick up a drink. When I think about the escape that alcohol provides, I can’t help but remember the emotional prison where it held me hostage for so long.

But I’ve been thinking.

Thinking about drinking.

Mostly it’s grieving. Grieving for things I can’t have right now.

I’m remembering the times when booze was fun. When I didn’t really have a problem with it. My 20’s. That sweet time after college when I had few responsibilities and just enough money for a little fun, when a spring day meant a mountain bike ride around Loch Raven culminating in a spontaneous barbecue in the alley in the Charles Village.

I’ve been thinking about these things, because COVID-19 makes them impossible. I can’t have friends over. I can’t go on a mountain bike ride with friends and have a barbecue afterwards. I can’t even see my family.

And while booze is something I’ve decided I can’t have (and I am quite certain about that) I have found myself going back to memories of easier times — fond memories of spring days like the ones we’ve been having here in Maryland and those memories involve beer and friends.

But the grief really isn’t about the beer. It is about the lack of connection with friends. It’s about how absolutely awful things are right now. The days blend together making every day feels the same. Every day has a background buzz, a continuous stream of bad news. Every day is more news about death, the spread of the disease, and our federal government’s abject failure to respond to the crisis appropriately.

Thank God for our governors. Real leadership is taking place at the state level and filling the vacuum created by the current federal administration’s complete and utter failure to lead. One shining star in this crisis has been my state’s governor, Larry Hogan. Today he announced that he’d brokered a deal with a South Korean firm to get 500 thousand test kits for Maryland.

In all of this, my mental state has been deteriorating. I’ve found myself sleeping later and longer than usual. I’ve found that I’m not motivated to do the things that bring me joy. I haven’t written a post here in over a month. I’m not playing the guitar. I’m less motivated to cook. I haven’t been running or cycling.

I recognize these as classic signs of depression setting in.

So today I made a bit of a change. I got to the end of the day, things felt incredibly heavy. My wife had picked out a dish for dinner that was in the latest Bon Appetite. I was feeling kind of grumpy about making it to be honest. So, at 5:30, I did the one thing that I know will make things better pretty much every time.

I went for a run.

I went out for a run with no specific training regimens in mind. Not intervals. Not a specific distance. No fucks given about my heart rate. I just ran.

And it did make things better.

When I got back, I talked with my neighbor for a few minutes, and that made things better too. Then I went inside and cooked these amazing shrimp tacos. We had a great dinner and I hit the shower and then a Zoom meeting.

I’m making a commitment to myself to do more runs. To make some phone calls. To cook more adventurous meals rather than subsistence cooking just to get calories in the body. I’m going to work to make life as close to normal as it can be while things are decidedly not normal.

And at the same time, I’m going to work to go easy on myself and my family. To wear life as if it were a loose garment.

We have to recognized that things are not normal. We have to recognize that we need to be gentle with ourselves. We have to give ourselves permission to not be firing on all cylinders every moment of every day.

And we have to be able to grieve. Even if that grief is for things that we no longer really want — because this is a fucked up time that we’re all living through.

August is the Cruelest Month, Mr. Eliot

It’s August. That’s part of it. I’m approaching four years of sobriety and I can feel the squirrels prancing around in my brain.

I didn’t recognize it at first. I knew that something was off, but it didn’t occur to me that this “offness” could be rooted in the fact that I’m nearing in on 1460 days without a drink. Actually 1461 because of leap year, but who’s counting?

There’s something about mountains and craft beer. They seem go go together. When we were in Oregon I was somewhat overwhelmed by the number of craft beers on offer that I’ve never heard of before. Yes, I still look at the tap handles, and still look at beer menus. Maybe that’s not wise, but I do it. In talking with my therapist about this last week she observed, “beers and beards, where there’s more of one there’s usually more of the other.” And there were a lot of beards in Oregon.

I like to think that I’m generally immune to the prevalence of booze on offer in the world. It wasn’t always like this, but as I got more comfortable in my own skin, more comfortable with my sobriety, I found that I really wasn’t bothered by the presence of booze in many situations. Part of it is that I work in a sales job, and so, there are often functions that I must attend where others are drinking. I’ve actually had a bottle of whisky in the house since the day I quit, unopened. It’s a relic from my grandfather’s stash with a Maryland Tax Stamp still in tact from 1961. It’s also Canadian Whisky, which isn’t really whisky, it’s more like rot gut.

And for the first few days in Oregon, it was the same. But then we took a drive down the coast to Newport to go to an aquarium, which just happened to be directly next door to the Rogue brewery. I’d be hard pressed to tell you which Rogue brews I’d fancy today, but I really enjoyed Rogue Dead Guy Ale when it first arrived on the shelves in MD. And I was flooded with memories of good times. Memories of the early days of the craft beer revolution and exploring and learning about all various different styles of beer. No longer was I stuck with American Pale Ale Pisswater.

I know that this is beginning to sound like I’m romancing the drink. And I am to an extent, but I also know that my struggle with alcohol was really a slow burn. I drank for nearly 20 years normally and only developed a problem after trauma was triggered when I became a father. So, I have a lot more time in the rear view where drinking was fun, light, social, than many others who have surrendered to the fact that they cannot drink normally. But when things turned, they turned fast and I found myself in a misery that I never want to experience again.

So, I was rolling around the coast of Oregon for a week, and slowly I started to find myself thinking, “What if?” — What if I had one beer and I was cool? What if I didn’t find that I wanted to get wasted after one? What if I have addressed the trauma and done enough therapy that I wouldn’t abuse the booze? What if I didn’t drink whisky, only beer? What if, What if, What if.

I did this in silence. My wife and son had no idea this was happening to me. I’m good at secrets.

As we were standing in line at the airport, about to get on a flight home, I found myself looking up a particular statistic about the risk of relapse in people who have been sober for 5 years. It’s fairly well documented that the risk of relapse is about 15% whereas the risk of suffering from AUD (Alcohol Use Disorder) is about 13% for the general population. Did this mean I was coming in to the home stretch? Could I drink like a normal person again in another year?

These are the insane thoughts that ran through my head at 10:30 PDT on August 10, 2019. And they scared me.

I know what 12 Step tells me would happen, and I know it’s not pretty. I also know that there are many people who do return social drinking after they address their trauma. I have family members who remained sober for over a decade and then returned to normal drinking. The truth is, I don’t know what would happen if I were to have a single drink.

What I do know for certain is that my life has immeasurably improved as a result of getting sober. My health has improved and I have the blood work to prove it. My weight has improved, and my scale shows it to me every time I step on it — even if I’m not where I want to be. My physical strength and stamina has improved — I began running at 45 and now run 3 times a week and I’m about to run a 10 mile race in a week. My relationships with my friends and family have improved — I can be depended upon and while I can still pull out my “asshole card,” I do so much less often than I once did.

In short, I know that I’m better off not drinking.

I’ve been struggling to figure out where these thoughts came from. I know that it’s been a very difficult year for me emotionally. I have felt a bit like a kid caught in the rough surf at the break point in the ocean, as soon as I stand up another wave crushes down on me. And all the turmoil of 2019 cannot be discounted. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ve been driven to seek escape.

But that’s not the entire story. As I said at the beginning of this post. It’s August. And while T. S. Eliot claimed April as the cruelest month, for me it’s August.

Subconsciously and consciously, there’s a lot going on in August. August always represents the end of summer. It is generally the peak of misery in terms of weather in Maryland. And it’s the month immediately preceding my sobriety date.

The squirrels run wild in my brain this time of year, and no one but me knows it’s happening. It always takes me a while to recognize it for what it is, and I go through some fucked up thoughts, but I don’t pickup a drink. I suspect that the squirrels might do this in August for the rest of my days. Every year, I make a promise to myself that I’ll remember this next year. And every year, I forget.

Living in Clear Text

A little over a year ago I had become a master at hiding my reality.  I wouldn’t answer the phone after a certain point in the day.  I wouldn’t make calls before a certain point in the day.  I didn’t want to be seen by people who knew me.  I spread my liquor buying habits out among several stores.  I buried my empties deep in the recycling bin.  I hid what was really going on from the rest of the world.

Only my immediate family could see how bad things were externally, but even they didn’t know the true depths of despair that were the result of my daily drinking.  That’s because I didn’t speak about what was going on.  And when I did, I spoke in broken code and half truths. Continue reading

Remembering the first 30 days…

When I think about the first 30 days of my sobriety today I have an overwhelming sense of relief.  I don’t ever want to go through that again.  I mean, it was incredibly difficult to simply turn it off and stop drinking daily.  But that’s what I did.  I stopped.

I remember overwhelming fatigue.  Fatigue that hit hard in the middle of the day.  Most days of that first 30, I was down for the count for a solid 1 to 2 hours in the middle of the day.  Thankfully I work form home and so I got away with it.  I don’t know how I’d have dealt with it if I were in an office or on a job site.

I remember not wanting to cook dinner. Continue reading

Nine

Facebook has a remarkable way of reminding me exactly how crazy things had gotten in my life. You know those “Memories” that it shows. Many of mine are related to what I was drinking that day. Either a picture of a drink, a check in on untapd, or even more disturbing a post about how much I was looking forward to having a drink.

It’s been nine months and one day since I took my last drink. Continue reading

Binge Drinking & Alcoholism — Questions from a Brother: Vol I, issue 2

Are binge drinking and alcoholism related?

I’m sure there are people far better qualified than me to answer this question, but I’ll share some insights that I’ve gleaned from my own reading and I’ll share my own experience.

Let’s begin with a definition of binge drinking from the CDC’s site:

Binge drinking is the most common pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above. This typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks, and when women consume 4 or more drinks, in about 2 hours.

NIAAA doesn’t discuss “alcoholism” but refers to the problem as Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).  NIAAA categorizes AUD as having three phases, mild, moderate, and severe as defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (currently DSM-5).  A diagnosis is made based on the number of positive answers to 11 questions regarding a 12 month period.

Severe AUD is probably the stage that most people think of when they here the term Alcoholism.  It certainly was what I thought of as the Alcoholic.  Picture the guy in dirty clothes on the street corner with a cheep bottle of booze in a bag.  Picture the person who gets up and starts the day with a drink instead of coffee.  Picture the person who can’t stop shaking without a drink. One of the later stages of alcoholism/AUD is physical dependence upon alcohol.  That’s when your body can’t function without it.  That’s what most people think of when they hear the term “alcoholic.”

But here’s the thing:  The CDC says that most people who binge drink are not alcohol dependent

So, binge drinkers are not necessarily alcoholics. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a correlation between binge drinking and alcoholism or AUD.

In October of 2015, Scientific American published a blog post titled “Why Binge Drinking May Wire the Brain for Alcohol Dependence.”  In this blog post, the author discusses protein bonds that are formed in the brain as a result of binge drinking.

 “Neuroscientist, Amy Lasek, at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and colleagues, report that after binge drinking, neurons in brain circuits responsible for alcohol addiction become encased in a protein material, called a perineuronal net. The impenetrable coating cements neurons involved in alcohol addiction into a circuit that is extremely difficult to break.”

When I look at the definition of binge drinking above, I can’t help but think that this describes ALL the drinking I did in college.  And it was in college where I learned to drink, and it was all binge drinking.  Though there were times in my life when I could drink without binging, they were rare (very, very rare).

Did binge drinking cause my alcoholism?  I don’t know.  The truth is, science isn’t clear on what causes this problem.

Did it contribute to my alcoholism?  Most definitely.  In the end, I was binging daily.

 

 

Reflections after 31 Days without a Drink

Update:  This is a post from another blog.  I migrated it to this blog because it’s an important part of my story.  This was posted just over three years before I fully surrendered and accepted that I am an alcoholic.In September 2015, I began abstaining from alcohol and attending regular meetings.

When I started my alcohol fast, I was not sure that I’d make it a day or even a week – let alone 30 days. Those first few days were not easy. I struggled. The 5 o’clock routine of grabbing a drink was ingrained, and felt like it was etched in stone, but it wasn’t. With a great deal of self coaching, I got through it each day. Before I knew it, a week had gone by.

Over the past month, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and learning about alcohol as a drug, and alcoholism as a disease. The term alcoholism carries a great deal of stigma and it really shouldn’t – it is a disease that is caused by physiological and neurological responses to alcohol in a subset of the human population. There are a number of factors that are believed to contribute to alcoholism which include insufficient enzymes in the liver and brain chemistry, decreased numbers of dopamine receptors in the brain, and genetics. And yet, there is no single test that can determine whether a person is or is not an alcoholic.

When I began the exercise of a 30 day break from alcohol, I was concerned that I may be an alcoholic. I never declared that I was an alcoholic and I have not been to an AA meeting or to see any counselors on this topic – though I have discussed it in the past within the context of counseling. The truth is I really don’t know if my drinking was the result of habit or disease. I tend to think that it was habitual stemming from something other than physiological addiction. I base this on the fact that I did not have significant withdraw symptoms when I stopped drinking on June 24th.

I learned a lot about myself and my drinking:

  • I learned that I didn’t have to be a slave to booze.
  • I learned that I could find other things to do to relax and that not drinking gave me a feeling of liberty.
  • I learned that I have a lot more patience for my 5-year-old son when I don’t have booze in my system.
  • I learned that I sleep a shit-ton better without booze in my system.
  • I learned that I communicate better when I’m not drinking.
  • I learned that I can and do have a good time socializing with people (who may or may not be drinking) without drinking myself.
  • I learned that I generally feel better without drinking.

So, here I am after 30 days (31 actually) and I’m thinking that soon I’ll be ready to test the waters. I never said I was planning to abstain forever – though the thought has crossed my mind on several occasions. I would like to be a social drinker – someone who can have a few drinks with friends over dinner and not end up as a total mess a the end of the night. I would like to limit my intake to be with the recommended number of drinks per day for a man (2–3), but I do not want to be a daily drinker.

Time will tell how this plays out. It may play out well, or it may become a problem again. If it becomes a problem again, it may be an instant problem or it may become a problem over time. I don’t know how my body will react to the drink at this point.

What I do know is that if it becomes a problem, abstinence will decidedly be on the table for consideration – and that wouldn’t be nearly as horrible as I once thought.

25 is not 30

Having a Laugh with Schwinger
Having a Laugh with Schwinger
Photo by Marvin Joseph

Update:  This is a post from another blog.  I migrated it to this blog because it’s an important part of my story.  This was posted just over three years before I fully surrendered and accepted that I am an alcoholic.

Calculations have never been my strong suit. When I announced my plan to go on a 30 day alcohol fast, I didn’t look at the calendar. Today is July 20th. Day 25. It’s also my fraternity brother’s surprise 40th birthday party with the boys.

When I first realized that I would be 5 days shy of the 30 day goal, I panicked. How the hell was I going to get together with my old crew – a crew with which I’ve got many hours days years of drinking history — without taking a drink? Early on, I discussed it with Mrs. TKD and even she said, “Maybe you should give yourself a break on that day.”

I thought about it. I admit it sounds like the wise choice. Why set myself up for failure? What would one day hurt? I’d be close to 30 days – a number that was arbitrary anyway. And I could pick it back up again on the 21st. Maybe extend an extra day to make up for it?

All of this was rationalization.

When I started this, I recognized that I’d been putting it off for a long time because there was always “the next big event” and I was stymied the Fear of Missing Out. I recognized that there will always be something on the calendar that would normally involve a drink or two six and that I needed to just commit.

Roundstone-by-Andrew-Spell-sm
Roundstone, by Andrew Spell

And so, I made the commitment and announced it to the world.

I’m sticking with this commitment today. While I would love to share a cold one with buddies today, or enjoy some of the fine rye whiskey I bought to commemorate my friend’s joining LONLYBNO (league of no longer young but not old), today is not the day. Today is day twenty-five.

25 is not 30.

An Important Call and an Update

crossUpdate:  This is a post from another blog.  I migrated it to this blog because it’s an important part of my story.  This was posted just over three years before I fully surrendered and accepted that I am an alcoholic.

Sunday night, I had a relatively long conversation with a friend about my drinking. My friend has been sober for quite some time after coming to the realization that he was an alcoholic. He told me that I was doing a good thing by taking some time off and offered that there might be some good in exploring A. A.

I admit that I’m highly resistant to the idea of A. A. for a number of reasons. First, I’m not sure that I’m an alcoholic. I do understand that many alcoholics are also unsure or unwilling to admit to the disease. I’m also keenly aware that there are people who have a habit of heavy drinking who are not physiologically addicted to alcohol. These people are generally classified as problem drinkers rather than alcoholics.

Secondly, as I have reviewed materials publicly available on the A. A. site and as I understand them, A. A. has a strong basis in religion and I’m not entirely comfortable with this. Six of the twelve steps make reference either to a higher power or God (Source: This is A.A. An Introduction to the A.A. Recovery Program):

  • Step 2 “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
  • Step 3 “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him
  • Step 5 “Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
  • Step 6 “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”
  • Step 7 “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”
  • Step 11 “Sought through prayer and mediation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to cary that out.

I’m sure that there are other benefits to the program, but frankly, I am not a man of strong faith. I am a firm believer in Free Will and personal responsibility. I cannot accept that a higher power is responsible for the direction of my life. As such, it seems very unlikely that I can rationalize working on this problem within the confines of the AA program.

Still, after talking with my friend, the I have not ruled A. A. out. He shared his story with me before asking to hear mine and he told me how A. A. is helping him. I know that the program has benefitted millions of people since it was started in 1935.

I truly appreciate him calling, in fact he was one of the first people to call me about this and that says something, because while we are definitely friends, we don’t particularly know each other well having only known each other for about five years.

My friend also recommended a book, Under the Influence: A Guide to the Myths and Realities of Alcoholism, which I ordered immediately from Amazon in paperback (my iPhone didn’t show it as a kindle book, but I found that it was available on kindle the next day – so I bought it twice).

The book was written in the 1980s, and so at first glance it might appear to be dated (it refers to BAL rather than the more modern BAC), but it is a fascinating read that discusses the science of how the body reacts to and processed Alcohol. I’m about a quarter through it at this point and looking forward to getting through the whole book.

In particular, there is a chapter dedicated to the discussion of problem drinking versus alcoholism. I’ll be very curious to read this and see if it informs me more about my own situation.

I can say that I’ve not had any significant withdraw symptoms. In the first three days, I had two migraines, but have been migraine free since then. At least one of those migraines can be attributed to a nightmare scenario at work. I have had the urge to have a beer at the end of the day, but this hasn’t been a compulsion or an overwhelming craving – and I have beer and bourbon (as well as other less desirable choices) in the house. So, if I really wanted to have a drink, it wouldn’t be that difficult.

Thus far, I have maintained true to my conviction to fast from alcohol. I set an arbitrary number of 30 days in the beginning because a month seemed like a goal that was not too short, but not to long and had meaning. Having said that, I am no longer counting down the days to my next drink – rather, I’m counting down to the day when I will decide what my next step will be.

It may be to have a drink, or it may be to keep going. I’ll decide that when the time comes.