While I was crossing a street in Chicago, a parked car backed into the crosswalk and stopped just short of taking me out at the knees. In anger, I slammed my fist down on the trunk of the car and shouted some obligatory curse words. The driver pulled forward into the parking spot, put the car in park, got out and punched me in the ear so hard that I had to puree all my food in a blender for the next two weeks. I thought he owed me an apology. He valued his car over my right to be disappointed with his driving. That was twenty-four years ago, and I haven’t made uninvited contact with another person’s car since.
There were few worse sentences John could have slurred into the phone, his voice broken down into bits and pinging across six hundred miles worth of cell towers before reassembling itself in my horrified ear.
“No, you’re not.”
There were few sure things in that moment, with the physical miles separating us suddenly the shortest distance between us, but that was one thing. My previously calm Maine evening had been taken hostage by unbidden images of piles of unfortunate, unsuspecting, and quite dead delivery people at our doorstep, not to mention the thought of my own bespattered demise on attempting to rouse him from a signature catatonic state at just the wrong time.
He absolutely was not going to bring a gun into our house.
Rules. Discipline. The ever-popular, yet mystically elusive mythology known as human willpower. I just needed to try harder. I just needed to establish a realistic drinking strategy and follow it. Drinking alcohol was far too important a component of my happy and successful life for me to give it up. I just needed to unlock the secret to controlling my drinking.
Here is my top-ten list of drinking rules I adopted at various times in the last decade of my drinking career. As you read through them, see how many you have tried. Are there rules on this list that the drinker you love has used to try to control his drinking? Keep track of the number of rules you recognize, and I’ll give you my take on what it means at the end.
Have you ever cheated the alcoholic death you deserved? I have. I can tell you fuzzy, intoxicated stories about at least a dozen times when I should have died. So when I talk about my sobriety saving my life, I am talking about two things. I am talking about a return to health and the reversal of the long, slow, gradual slide toward my alcoholic demise. But I’m also talking about the fact that I no longer cheat certain alcohol-induced death.
That second one – the acute, not the chronic – that’s the kind of alcoholic disaster that we don’t think or talk enough about. That’s the kind of death that our friend, Cheryl Kuechler, stared in the face a couple of weeks ago. That’s the kind of sudden, tragic, immediate, heartbreaking death that Cheryl’s sobriety saved her from.
I hope you’ll stick with me. I’ll get to Cheryl’s story in a minute. First, I want to talk about you and me.
While playing soccer last weekend, my son pointed and laughed at me. We were running around on a frosty morning, and I had developed a string of snot dangling from my left nostril. I thanked my son for drawing my attention to the booger chain (while drawing the attention of everyone else, too), and made the very classy move of grabbing it with my hand and wiping it on my leg (why I didn’t wipe it on the grass is a mystery to me). Other than some exclamations of, “Oooh yuck,” and, “Gross,” it was over and we played on. Luckily, in the age of COVID, there were no handshakes or high-fives for the other players to awkwardly avoid after the game. I did notice no one wanted to rub my leg in celebration.
The cinder-block-sized, first-generation cell phone rang disturbing the quiet concentration of the fifth floor of the Indiana University library. My friend, Eric, picked it up from the table we shared as we studied. “Yeah,” he said as everyone on the floor listened agitatedly to only Eric’s side of the conversation. “I told you not to call me on this line…What!…That can’t happen…Get the shit back, and kill him!” With that, Eric slammed the foot-long phone back down on the table, and returned to his economics book as though nothing had happened. I tried to stifle my laughter as I, too, put my head back down and pretended to study. The rest of the students on the fifth floor whispered anxiously amongst themselves, and stared in our direction in disbelief.
A good friend told me she was participating in a sober October program. I told her that would have been terrifying to me when I was still drinking because of how much I used to love, LOVE, to drink on Halloween. She told me she cheated. She started her sober October on September 30th so she could drink on Halloween. That kind of defeats the purpose of exploring sobriety across the various aspects of your life, doesn’t it? Doesn’t that make the entire last week of the sober challenge useless as anticipation builds toward a night of costumes and parties and drinking?
I don’t think she has a drinking problem. I know she wishes wine wasn’t so inextricably linked to all facets of our culture, and she’s probably curious about how she will feel after a month of abstinence. Probably. But then again, no one knew I was an alcoholic before I quit drinking and told them about my disease. I sure was good about manipulating the rules I established to control my drinking. Isn’t drinking on Halloween just a sober October rule manipulation?
This old guy at our church used to lecture us about calling the holiday by its proper name: Independence Day. “Calling it the Fourth of July diminishes it to nothing more than a box on the calendar,” he would explain indignantly. He was annoying. He always had something to say and seemed to rarely listen. A collective groan could be heard throughout the sanctuary when he raised his hand during announcements.
But in this case, I think he was right. Independence is something to be revered and cherished. We have to fight for independence, and the cost is brutally high. Celebrating independence should be solemn and sacred. What we do on the fourth day of July each year, I think, misses the mark entirely.
Often, the contrast between drinking and not drinking is dramatic and obvious. Like the time my next door neighbor called over the fence for me to come try a new whiskey he found at the mega liquor store. He found a winner this time, and he invited me to share it with him and his friend who was visiting from San Diego. I don’t remember the brand, but that would be beside the point, anyway. My neighbor bought it because it was distilled with liquid smoke, and it smelled like we were drinking a barbeque grill. It was delicious, but that was beside the point, too. The new and interesting blend and the friend from out of town were just excuses for the three of us to drink most of a bottle of whiskey, with some beers mixed in, and become numb to the rest of the world around us.
“I wanna go back to Tommy’s and get belligerent drunk,” said the guy at the trough-style urinal next to me at the Indy 500 on Sunday. “I don’t even want to go back into the race and watch the rest. I just want to go back to the house and get belligerent. Do you know what I mean?” He was talking to his friend on the other side. He wasn’t talking to me. But I knew. I did know what he meant. When I was in my fearless and invincible 20s, I felt exactly like that, too. All this public social drinking, even at the Indianapolis 500 where mild intoxication was the respectable minimum standard, was not enough. What the stranger to my right longed for was neither mild nor respectable. He wanted to go to some safe place and drink without rules or boundaries. Becoming belligerent wasn’t an insult. It was the euphoric goal.