When I was in my twenties – fearless and thirsty – alcohol was the glue that kept me bonded to my friends. In beer we found laughter and silliness. Vodka gave us courage and lowered our inhibitions. Shy, private individuals became a loud, extroverted community of fun seekers when we shared our lubricating beverage. We were like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. When we drank, we fit together.
With the encouragement of my community, I shaved my head except for a strip of long hair running down the middle from my forehead to the back of my neck. It was my junior year in college. I would be interviewing for a job soon, and I would need to look professional. This was my last chance to have a mohawk, and I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity.
My hands trembled as I approached the betting window at the casino’s sports book. The man behind the glass wouldn’t accept my $600 bet. When he explained that it exceeded their limit for a single bet on an over/under, I hesitated momentarily. Reason and maturity tried to take control of the argument in my head, but rational thought was washed away by my elevated blood alcohol level. My pulse raced as I pushed the money back toward the man and asked him to place two identical $300 bets on the under.
I wasn’t being greedy. I just had to get back to even. I hadn’t showered or changed clothes or slept much, really, in over 40 hours. The thing I had done relentlessly for the past two days was drink alcohol. Lots and lots of alcohol.
As I drove west out of Denver on Highway 6 toward the mountains, I wasn’t seeking a particular destination. I was seeking an answer. The 19 miles between Golden and Idaho Springs twist and weave through Clear Creek Canyon. It is among the most breathtaking stretches of pavement in the country, but I barely noticed. In Idaho Springs, Highway 6 joined Interstate 70 and I continued into the mountains through the Eisenhower Tunnel and into Silverthorne.
The top was down and the windows were open on my Jeep, but I still felt like I couldn’t catch my breath as I drove aimlessly through mountain towns surrounded by people eager to hike or mountain bike or relax in mountain retreats. I was as far from relaxation as I’d ever been. My mind swirled as I tried to make sense of what seemed a cataclysmic predicament.
The frozen, desolate, grey rocks shoot vertically from thick layers of untouched white snow making a majestic contrast. The bitter cold and howling wind give the peaks a deadly and isolated feel, while my proximity – just a few hundred yards away – give the tippy-top of the mountain an uncomfortable accessibility. The clear sky is a rich, dark blue reminding me how close I am to the edge of the atmosphere. The last thirty seconds of the ride on the Lenawee lift at the A-Basis Ski Area is one of my favorite places on earth. Getting so close to such uninhabitable beauty should not be so easy. The splendor is never lost on me.
Christmas leaves me feeling like shit. It has for at least a couple of decades. I’m not talking about Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. I’m talking about the month or so that follows Christmas. It’s easy to point to January as a long, cold month devoid of major holiday festivities, and for many years, I blamed my post-Christmas blues on winter. A lot of people do. But that’s not it. Short days and cold temperatures don’t have much to do with it, really. My January dreariness is because I’ve been doing Christmas wrong.
When I quit drinking, I didn’t go to Alcoholics Anonymous because I was too ashamed – ashamed of my disease and embarrassed to be tainted with the stigma that is persistently and unfortunately associated with AA. I didn’t go away to a 30 day rehab because I couldn’t wrap my brain around letting go of my family and business responsibilities for a whole month. I took a different path to permanent sobriety.
I read. I read book after book after book about alcoholism and recovery. I read clinical books about how the body processes alcohol and the many diseases and biological dysfunction heavy drinking causes. I read books about neurotransmitters and other detailed explanations of brain function. And I read memoir after memoir written by alcoholics who had visited the same depths of despair where I wallowed, but made it out and had the strength to tell their stories.
New on the Untoxicated Podcast – Jason and I talk about my dance with addiction.
It started with sips from my dad’s beer when I was young, grew to experimentation in high school, graduated to constant binge drinking in college, developed into a daily habit in young adulthood, and metastasized into alcoholism as I plummeted into the pit of debilitating alcohol-induced depression.
I was watching a college soccer game last weekend, and it filled me with shame. My alma mater was playing, and playing very well. Indiana University was winning and looked like they might be well on their way to their ninth national championship. Soccer played at this high level should bring me joy, but instead, it shined a spotlight on my regret.
As I watched these players in pursuit of what I consider a noble goal, I couldn’t help but think of how I spent my time on that very same campus 25 years ago. I graduated in the spring of 1995 from the business school at Indiana with a 2.99 grade point average. How utterly poignant is that final GPA. It’s just a hair below a wildly underachieved B average. Of course, I always rounded it up for job interviews, but the truth is, it is a perfect symbol of time wasted wasted.
If you love to drink alcohol like me, there is no time of year quite like the holiday season. There are holiday-themed work happy hours, neighborhood Christmas potlucks complete with BYOB, booze flowing secret Santas, wine-centric cookie exchanges, appetizer and cocktail parties with church friends and lots of family gatherings with spiked eggnog and warm cider. You eat and drink your way through the busiest, often most stress-filled, time of the year. And it’s great…until it isn’t.
Do you want to know how to make an alcoholic feel like a normal, responsible drinker? You normalize his gluttonous behavior. This normalization is what separates alcoholism from other drug addictions. There is not a circumstance under which smoking meth or shooting up heroin looks normal in my world, but drinking robustly is often the norm among people who do not consider themselves alcoholics. And there is no situation that welcomes drinking to excess, even for the responsible, quite like the holidays. In fact, holidays make an active alcoholic feel normal. “I don’t have a drinking problem. Look around. I’m just like everyone else. Alcoholic? Not me.”