The morning after my last night of drinking began like so many such mornings before it. The agonizing stress and pain of failure consumed me. It had happened again! I had allowed a minor stress – an unexpected and innocent change of plans from my teenage daughter – to throw me across the line from planned and limited Sunday night beer drinking to out-of-control, straight-from-the-bottle, warm gin guzzling in search of relief – relief from the stress, relief from the constraints of controlled drinking and relief from the shame of my failure.
In the pre-dawn hours of Monday, I stared sullenly into the bathroom mirror at the despicable, disgraceful drunk I had become. My eyes were puffy and my face was bloated and the sadness in my expression was beyond description. How did this happen? How did my absolute love for the drink transform into the most desperate emotional state of depression? This feeling of complete failure and mental distress was a condition I had for years described as descending into The Pit. I was in The Pit again, and it was deeper, colder and darker than ever.
I could not go on like this. I looked lifelessly into the mirror and knew what had to happen. I had to quit drinking this poison that was slowly but unmistakably killing me. I made the same pledge to myself I had made dozens of times before. I was done drinking for good. This time, I had to find a way!
I dragged my carcass through the shower and dressed for work. My wife, Sheri, and I own our own business. I had to go to our bakery and get the morning started. There was no such thing as calling in sick. Not opening our business at six-o-clock would create so many questions – so much drama for me to manage – that forcing my self-loathing body to go through the motions and open-up for the day was the easier alternative.
I did the bare minimum at the bakery, inadvertently spread my depression to my employees and customers and sulked back to the office where there would be no productivity for the day. No marketing projects would receive attention and no production plans would be finalized. I spent the morning in the grip of a paralyzing disease without an ounce of hope for recovery. Even though I had committed to myself a few hours earlier that I had taken my very last drink, I had no confidence I would keep that promise.
Sheri had gotten our four kids off to school and joined me at the bakery mid-morning to bake our whole grain bread and sell it to our loyal customers. Our house was empty. With Sheri taking charge at our business, I headed home to wallow in my own misery after a stop at the grocery store for Doritos and pizza rolls – both of which were way out of character for me. The junk food tasted like succumbing to my failure – like another nail in my coffin. I was determined not to drink even though I knew alcohol would temporarily erase my extraordinary pain. This was what I called a fuck it moment, when I would give up on work, personal standards and all but the bare minimum requirements of parenting and wallow in my own intense grief. Normally, I would drink heavily when I reached such a moment. Chemical-laden processed comfort food was not a suitable substitute for alcohol, but I mustered enough commitment to remain sober, so junk food would have to suffice.
And so began another desperate and hopeless attempt to end my 25-year love-hate relationship with alcohol. While I had made the same morning-after promise in the mirror too many times to count, I had made serious attempts to keep that promise only a half-dozen times. It always started the same way. After a few days of clawing and scratching my way out of The Pit, I would enjoy a brief few weeks period of peaceful hopefulness born from the fact that I was addressing – seriously doing something about – my addiction to alcohol. Alcoholics call this the “pink cloud,” and the relief from shame and remorse it offers is, in all seven of my experiences with prolonged abstinence, quite temporary indeed.
While I might have consciously wanted to quit drinking, my subconscious with its two-and-a-half decades of training would want nothing to do with my sobriety. My subconscious’ first strategy to return me to the bottle would be to lull me into a false sense of calm while it prepared its assault. That’s when the feelings of peace and confidence were replaced by a longing for a return to the great memories of drinking – the Saturday afternoons catching a beer buzz while mowing the lawn or margaritas with friends at our favorite street taco joint. Despite the utterly desperate Pit of depression that resulted from drinking time and time again, only the happy, fun memories would emerge from behind the “pink cloud.” I would then begin to doubt my own need to quit. I wasn’t that bad. Maybe if I tried harder – followed my strict set of rules about when and how much to drink – maybe then I could keep my drinking under control. And that’s when my subconscious would whisper in my ear, “This time will be different. Let’s try to drink just one more time.”
My selective memory of the truly joyous occasions that were enhanced with bitter IPAs or robust Cabernets or salty-sour margaritas or fizzy-lime gin-and-tonics or smoky whiskey on the rocks that warms all the way down my throat – those memories of my love of the drink would overwhelm fading memories of the shame drinking had caused me and I would be tempted to give it another shot. The temptation to drink would begin to occupy all of my thoughts and even many of my dreams. Contemplating a return to the drink consumed me. My subconscious mind, as it had a half-dozen times before, would launch its full and unrelenting attack on my conscious thought process. Every waking moment became a chaotic weighing of the pros and cons of drinking. Each day that would pass, the pro-drinking fond memories of great intoxicated times grew with clarity while the debilitating grief and shame faded into the shadows in the back corners of my mind.
Slowly, insidiously, my focus on the joys of drinking and my renewed sense of confidence in my ability to control it would mature into shame that I was not drinking any longer. Everyone else can drink beer after work on Fridays. All my friends drink wine when out to a nice dinner or champagne on New Year’s Eve or mimosas on Christmas morning. If I would drink, I was ashamed of my lack of control and overindulgence. If I would not drink, I was ashamed that I was not like everyone else – a drinker.
I had to find a way to break the cycle of shame. I had to find a way to clear these thoughts from my mind and remain committed to my sobriety. I had to flip my memories and replace my yearning for the good times with recollections of the less-frequent-but-still-all-too-common occasions when my alcohol-induced temper would keep me up all night arguing with my wife, or I would drink so much I blacked-out and had no idea the next morning what kind of trouble my booze-soaked tongue might have caused. To quit for good, I had to vilify and loathe everything about my beloved drink. I had to see it for the poison that it is for me – not for everyone – but for me, a 25-year heavy drinker inevitably turned alcoholic.
So that’s exactly what I did. I convinced myself that I am deathly allergic to the poison in a bottle that I for so many years embraced as the elixir of good times and happiness. My liquid lover had so often and so viciously turned on me. It was long past the time to end the love affair and turn temptation into fear and hatred.
I also had to come to the realization, helped in large part by the lessons from six previous failed attempts at sobriety, that my life had to permanently change if I hoped to stay dry. I could not simply do all the things I had always done just without a drink in my hand. Some things I used to enjoy would now be boring and awful if done sober. After-work happy hours, for example, are social events with the same people I am around for most of my waking weekday hours. They are not really social events, they are excuses for drinkers to drink. As a non-drinker, they now hold no purpose for me. They are a little tempting (the temptation to drink will never totally disappear), but they are mostly a boring waste of time. So I am happy to now spend that hour (or three) at home with my family.
It took ten years from the time I knew I was in trouble with alcohol until I took my last drink, and changing my mindset and finding permanent sobriety was no easy feat. Defeating my shame of feeling like a grotesque societal misfit was the hardest thing I will likely ever have to do. At long last, now I am sober and unashamed.