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What it was Like.

16 April 2012

Everyone’s experience with alcohol is different. However, most alcoholics all recognize something in each other’s stories. That’s one of the reasons, I think, that AA works so well. We are a group of people who have no other thing in common. And no need for one. We are rich and poor and bright and dim and old and young and wise and foolish and members of every race and gender there is. We have only one thing that binds us together. We seek out others like us, to help us, because we have a desire to stop drinking. There’s no rule for “how far down” we go prior to entering recovery. In fact, the very concept of “hitting bottom” is poorly understood by the non-addicted world.

My story is unremarkable. I began life the child of a psychologist mother and unemployed father. I love my father dearly and he has many fine qualities, but as I have said many times, I am not inspired by his example of industry. My father has his own demons in life, possibly including alcoholism, I don’t know. I know he likes to get drunk. Mostly, he has always suffered from intractable depression. Because of these things, and others, my parents divorced when I was six. But I don’t want anyone to think that I blame my alcoholism on them, or on that. No, dear friends, I was already a drunk.

I took my first drink when I was five. I secreted a bottle of my parent’s creme de menthe, and got drunk one morning before church (At some point I’ll discuss all the complicated religious factors in my family. I want to keep this post under 40,000 words.). I threw up in Sunday school. I kept the bottle and hid it behind a spare mattress in the alcove in my room. I don’t remember what happened to it. I don’t remember getting drunk again until I was nine.

My mother remarried when I was nine and I got trashed at the wedding. That’s all I remember, really. I don’t have any strong memories associated with the event. My mother’s second husband was not a good man.

With onset of puberty came the onset of a ferocious sense of self-righteousness, and of right and wrong. Something in me decided that drinking was “wrong”, and I stayed away from it, almost entirely (I never became intoxicated, and was primarily a teetotaler), until my senior year of college. I’m incredibly grateful for that period of unwavering self-assurance and arrogance. Without it, I’d have descended into alcoholic despair during critical formative years of my life, and would have been unable, or at least much delayed, in pursuing the education that I now value so highly.

I began drinking in earnest around 21. I went with a friend to Great Britain, hitchhiking, staying in hostels, and getting drunk every night. I started graduate school. The next summer I went with another friend to Europe and Russia for three months, on a circumnavigation of the globe. Again, I drank, heavily, every day. And I had the best time of my life. My travel partner drank a lot too, though not as much as me. We met wonderful people, saw an enormous part of the world, and I learned more important things on that trip than I did in any other three months of my life.

The problem was, when I returned from that trip, I couldn’t leave the booze on vacation. I began drinking daily. I felt proud of myself that I never drank in the morning. It didn’t occur to me at the time that when you sleep until noon, and then start drinking at two, you’re drinking in the morning. But I went to my classes, and I did my homework. And my research. I had a couple of long-term relationships with women who deserved far better than I was capable of giving them.

There’s a stereotype of the raging alcoholic. A person who is ordinary and polite and socio-normative until they drink, whereupon they become angry and wrathful and violent. The stereotype is a stereotype because it is the most visible and impactful form of alcoholism. The drunk at the bar who starts a fight, or who hits his wife and children, or, just as common, who hits her husband and children. But it’s only selection bias that this image is so prevalent. I was not a raging alcoholic (for which I am very grateful).

I was a vanishing alcoholic. I liked nothing more than to pour myself a massive glass of bourbon and watch a movie I’d seen a dozen times. Or go to a bar and drink a dozen beers and watch the baseball game and then drive home drunk. I drove drunk many more times than I can count. And I’ve never met an alcoholic who didn’t. It’s one of the things we do.

I graduated. I nearly quit first, but my advisor, who treated me like a son, didn’t let me. He dragged me through the process, chapter by chapter, of writing my dissertation. It was excruciating and humiliating, to have spent so long working on something that I considered indefensible. But defend it I did. And then I was done. I had recently met the woman I would marry.

I got married a year after I graduated. To a lovely and deeply co-dependant woman who had a ten year old child. We had cohabited for a year. I had had to hide my bottles. She didn’t drink much. I concealed as best I could how much I did. I traded drinking and watching movies for drinking and reading books in the bathtub. I didn’t have a job. I tried to start a consulting company, but I was in no condition to make it a success. The sole contract I had a real chance at I mucked up rather spectacularly, giving a presentation with a raging hangover.

I was, by this point, deeply depressed, and drinking somewhere around a bottle of vodka a day. I had switched to vodka thinking the smell was harder to detect. You will hear a lot of alcoholics say this, if you go to the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. I don’t know why we think this. It’s patently absurd. My wife was planning to leave me. I felt useless, pitiable, and disgusting. And I felt that I saw my life stretching out in front of me.

I saw a life like my father’s. My father is a brilliant man. But he has never made a contribution to society. I didn’t want to live a life of poverty and charity. I thought highly of my own mind, and what I was capable of doing with it. I felt that I had been groomed from childhood to go on to academic success, to follow in my mother’s and her uncle’s (a National Medal of Science winner) footsteps. But I found that now that I had my doctorate, I didn’t know what to do. All I cared about doing was drinking.

We were seeing a marriage counselor. I was denying my drinking. Not that I drank, but that I had a problem. I remember saying: “I just want to be able to have one drink without being attacked.” I never had one drink. I never knew how many drinks I was going to have. Because I never counted them. I simply started drinking around three in the afternoon, and drank until I went to bed. The marriage counselor told us one day that there was no hope for us, because we weren’t really looking at our issues. She said that the only hope she saw, the only crack she felt she could exploit, was to address my drinking.

That hit me very hard. That with all the problems I saw in my marriage, that I imagined were my wife’s fault, and this professional counselor whom I respected was saying that none of that was addressable, because of how I drank. I knew I needed to do something then. And I knew of one person who could help me. Two years prior, I’d been arrested for drunk driving. I’d attended alcohol education classes, and passed with flying colors. But I knew that now, if I was willing to be honest, that instructor would know what to do.

Tomorrow, I’ll write about what happened then. Now, finally, I want to address how writing this makes me feel. Once again, I’m terrified. So many people I care about and respect do not know this story, and are learning it here. My family, my close friends, and the readers of my old blog who’ve made the transition with me, they know. I am torn between feelings of exposure and embarrassment, and feelings of weird pride at having survived it all and begun an entirely new life free from all that agony.

Fundamentally, I feel that it is critical to me to write and re-write and tell and re-tell this story from time to time. It can be too easy to forget the pain I felt, the pain I caused, the shame and the damage done. I need to keep those things close. Because they are part of my treatment. Without regular reminders of whom I am when I drink, what I do, the selfishness and narcissism, I know that I could drift back towards a drink. Because I’m an alcoholic. Drinking is what we do.

But I am an alcoholic in remission. And what we do is focus clearly, honestly, and without omission, on what we are, our inventory, and allow it to keep us squarely in center of recovery. These are the tools of my therapy. So that I can concern my daily life with moving forward. With the slow regular progress of a life lived with purpose.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. bronironi permalink
    16 April 2012 11:13

    I admire you for opening up about all of this, and it makes me sad that you are ‘terrified’ about sharing it with folks you consider friends. But I tend to be of the philosophy that real friends will stand by you regardless, and people who can’t handle you if you have a history are not worth your time, because we all need support, not others blaming or challenging.
    You can’t blame someone for having a disease. I think it’s easier to say this as someone who wasn’t impacted by your lifestyle, but I’ve known a few alcoholics in grad school and I still feel the same towards them – I don’t enable them, but I also don’t shun them when I see them in professional settings. And while I can understand your feelings about what you did, don’t let any negative opinions of others who weren’t there and didn’t experience it have too much hold over you.

  2. 16 April 2012 19:01

    I don’t believe I have ever heard your story before. Thank you for sharing it. I”m changing my link to you. Let me know if that isn’t OK. Thanks.

  3. g2-64b7ff43a0015f8b17fcd238950f6808 permalink
    16 April 2012 19:46

    It’s a compelling story. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. 16 April 2012 19:47

    No idea why my name comes out as some weird code ….

  5. 17 April 2012 04:41

    That marriage counselor sounds good. She was honest and to the point. The one we went to beat around the bush for months (at $50 for 50 minutes), until we both quit going because of the pointless waste of time.

    I find blogging about my experiences scary…but more therapeutic than the marriage counselor in the end.

  6. furtheron permalink
    17 April 2012 06:12

    We are so alike – there are whole bits of that I can relate to… not being a raging drunk, the endless denial, the not drinking in the morning, drink driving daily, etc. etc.

    I read this and too there is an element of fear in my head – I can’t deny it is there gnawing at me since I know that is really the default lifestyle for someone like me and to go back there takes a second – the second in which I pick up a drink. Luckily so far today that hasn’t happened, I’ll keep working hopefully to ensure tomorrow is the same

  7. 31 December 2012 02:16

    Wonderful post! Well written… And, again, very glad to have found your blog. I was/am the raging type, but also quite high-functioning (science degree, master’s in journalism from Columbia — drank heavily throughout the latter, but that’s what journalists do, right?), so I can totally identify. Thank you… and, I look forward to reading more of your “story” through your posts.

    • 31 December 2012 08:49

      Thank you so much! Do you mind my asking how you found Infactorium?

      • 31 December 2012 18:11

        Yes! I was up at 4 am searching out new blogs on WordPress; I just typed in a few terms and I think for yours, it was “sobriety” or “alcoholism.” One of the two…


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