I gave up drinking when my pancreas exploded.
In early 2014, after celebrating a job loss with a two-week bender, I spent a sunny Sunday with a knifing pain in my gut, vomiting so hard that I ripped my gastrointestinal tract. My mom gave me a ride to the emergency room, and I spent a week in the hospital. A doctor told me that if I kept drinking, I would die.
And I had to think about it for a second.
If you’re not blacked out, is life worth remembering? Would I rather live in sober mediocrity for four more decades or be a kickass rock star for four more months?
When I was drinking, my life was a mess — but I didn’t have to find things to do on weekends. I couldn’t honor my commitments, so I didn’t have many commitments in the first place. I had lots of free time, but I had high-powered explosives that annihilated boredom. I could sit back and watch the explosions in my brain.
I thought sobriety would be a fresh, clear-eyed start, but sometimes it feels more like an endless homework assignment. There’s a reason you don’t see long lines or velvet ropes in front of AA meetings.
The first few months of sobriety are dangerous and challenging, and the first few years aren’t much easier. Recovery is less like the hero’s journey than it is like a car ride through Nebraska with nausea, a headache, and AM radio. I keep going with it mostly because I want to get out of where I am.
I don’t want to strap on those rose-colored goggles again, but I’m not doing anyone any favors if I lie and pretend that alcoholism didn’t have its advantages. I don’t remember much from that era, but a few things stand out.
1) I had a social life
When I am sad, I reminisce about a Thanksgiving dinner at Waffle House, dodging bottle rockets in Northwest Indiana, or making out with a friend in a filthy alley as we scouted the right SUV for her to piss on.
Even now, these memories feel warm and fuzzy because I was having fun.
I never thought of myself as an alcoholic. When I was drinking, the word I used for it was “happy.” People like to be around happy, confident people, especially with the thrill of knowing a scathing rant or crying jag could happen at any time for no reason. So, when I was drinking, I had an abundant social life.
The key to building a social life is to experiment and pursue your interests in public. When my only real interest was happy hour, I had no problem making new pals. Conversation flowed freely and the stakes were low, since we all knew we probably wouldn’t remember most of what was said. We bonded over how brilliant and hilarious we felt, not how asinine we sounded.
I thought I would have an easier time socializing when I could talk without spitting, slurring, and losing my temper. But I lost a lot of my thoughtless, stupid confidence, and it turned out that was a crucial part of my charm. I don’t have as many friends now. Even internet marketers have stopped checking in on me. When I stopped drinking, I realized I no longer had anything in common with the people I’d surrounded myself with, and staying in touch with them became depressing. I’m still alive, but I’m not sure who else is.
2) I had a hobby
When I was drinking, I knew that no matter how humiliating and pointless my work day was, I had somewhere to go at 5 pm. And I knew that, under the neon and Christmas lights, watching baseball and sipping watery domestic would be enough to make me feel like my life was worthwhile.
Now, I have to go out of my way to find things to do, and I often do them alone. I tried doing stand-up comedy again, but I ended up talking to myself on the subway.
Alcoholism is a dull hobby, but it’s popular. Drinking gives you a ready-made group of friends complete with slang, perspectives, and inside jokes to run into the ground. It’s like a theater group with an edge, or the military without a purpose, or a less obnoxious version of people who watch way too much South Park.
My creative endeavors were crap, but there’s always an audience for trainwrecks. Instead of mentors and collaborators, I had a peer group held together by stories about breaking furniture and vomiting. It was a shallow sense of belonging, but we weren’t in the position to think deeply about anything.
3) I could become a different person
Transforming your personal core takes years or decades of frustration, persistence, and hard work. Getting wasted takes a credit line of $10. I suffer from chronic depression and loathe myself a lot of the time, so I was always looking for shortcuts to feeling like a different person.
My interior monologue is a drill sergeant. It knows all my sore spots and heaps abuse on me whatever I say, do, or think. If I am suffering, it’s because I am too sensitive, too weak to handle the harsh truths of the world, which means I deserve to feel bad. If I am not suffering, I should be. If I don’t like myself, it’s because there is nothing in my insignificant mediocrity worth liking. It’s a repetitive, cliched stream of insults, and I sit there and take it, because I must be too weak and stupid to defend myself. As with any bully, to engage is to concede. If I ante up for its game, I’ve already lost. The joke is on me, and I’m not in on it.
When I was drinking, I dissociated from myself, I behaved like a pathetic jackass, and I had nothing to be proud of. But at least I didn’t have to listen to that torturous commentary.
For the inner bully, a shot of Cuervo was a punch to the gut, a rag in the mouth, and a time-out locked in the basement, where it grew even more resentful and vindictive. But at least I got nights and weekends off.
Now I’m sober, and I worry that I screwing this up, too. I returned to work too soon. I never properly righted my wrongs, mourned my losses, or experienced the right cheesy epiphany. I can’t do anything correctly. I am bad and wrong and I will never be okay. And now I am beating myself up again, because I am stupid and weak and bad. It’s pointless and endless.
The people who are still in my life see the good in me and challenge me to be better. They are firm but fair. They help me laugh, grieve, and heal. I have learned to respect the humanity of others and seen a glimmer of faith in my own. But, sooner or later, I am alone with my thoughts.
Since I stopped drinking, I’m not as much fun to be around. And now I have to be around myself all the time.
4) I didn’t have to work hard to achieve my goals
Somewhere in the back of my mind, there was a low hum of regret, and a droning, deadening sadness I didn’t have the creative wherewithal to call out by name. But it’s easy to blot that out when you’re rocking as hard as I was.
I can form complete sentences now, but there isn’t much to talk about. I have a few projects going, but my progress is slow and lonesome. The past decade flew by, and I feel older and slower than I anticipated. My career is sluggish, my best friends are tumbleweeds, and I’m not even getting enough app notifications.
Nevertheless, I am working a lot harder than I have in years.
Addiction funnels all the little problems into one big problem. When you’re focused on getting wasted, you don’t have the patience for trivial matters such as making a living, meeting the basic obligations of citizenship, or treating those around you with dignity. You sweat a lot, but you don’t sweat the small stuff.
It was easy enough to stick to my drinking schedule, and I didn’t think I was missing anything. I didn’t think, or do, or dream much at all. When I did, all my dream characters were wasted, too.
5) There was plenty of drama
No one watches TV shows about healthy relationships. Except for Roseanne. My drinking career was not as well drawn as Roseanne. But it had plenty of drama.
When you’re sober, you may find health, wealth, and fulfillment, if you’re willing to work for it. But you’ll never experience the thrill of sending dozens of incoherent text messages to people you met once during the first George W. Bush administration.
Things are never stable at home, which keeps you on your toes. There are constant screaming fights to keep the adrenaline pumping. There is the looming threat of losing jobs or the humiliating hunts for new ones. There are tensions with neighbors and scrapes with the law. There are blistering hangovers, nasty flesh wounds, and emergency room visits, the touchdowns of alcoholic achievement.
You may be cutting short your life expectancy, but while the ride lasts, you really do feel alive. What’s the point of living if you’re not burning bridges, screaming at strangers, and almost dying?
Thank you and goodbye
Bono of U2 has an anecdote about eating dinner with Johnny Cash. “Johnny said the most beautiful, most poetic grace you’ve ever heard. Then he leaned over to me with this devilish look in his eye and said, ‘But I sure miss the drugs.’”
When you’re wounded, numbing the mind has a magnetic allure. One sip of booze right now would send me down the royal road to misery and oblivion, and I still miss it. Recovering alcoholics use the phrase “one day at a time” because, even after years and decades, contemplating 25 hours without the sauce is too ambitious.
Before alcohol wrecked my health, my bank account, and my pancreas, it helped me have a lot of cool conversations and adventures I may not have had otherwise. It helped me learn a lot about my weaknesses and what I don’t want to be anymore. It helped me bury a lot of emotions I wasn’t yet ready to process. And I once used vodka to get a nasty wine stain out of a friend’s white carpet before he even saw it.
So, thanks, booze, even though we aren’t friends anymore. When we were, I humiliated myself, but at least you helped me forget about it. I owe my life to sobriety, but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a daily pain in the ass. It requires relentless honesty, so let me honestly say that, sometimes, I sure miss alcoholism.
This article is adapted from a post that originally ran on Medium.