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One of my favorite drinks is a simple Jack and Coke. It doesn’t take much to mix one up. Just pour the whisky in the glass, plunk in a few ice cubes and follow it with Coca-Cola. That was my “wedding drink” during all those years when my friends were getting married. Sometimes Rum and Coke took its place. Or lots of beer.
I didn’t have my first taste of alcohol until the middle of my junior year in high school. Until that point, I was adamantly against drinking or smoking of any kind. Then a bunch of friends picked up a six-pack of Stroh’s beer. Somewhere in the middle of a football practice field with the lights of the stadium throwing manic shadows across the grass, I took my first swig of beer. I hated it. It burned my throat.
This isn’t a tale about how, from that point on, I secretly descended into a private alcohol hell that I’ve kept concealed from friends and family for years. Gladly I’ve avoided such a fate. Yet in many ways it has still been a long, strange trip with drinking alcohol.
The boys and I admittedly drank a bit in college. No doubt about that. For a bunch of skinny guys who ran 80-90 miles a week, we could sure pound the beers. Some of those college running teammates even struggled with drinking. One of them ultimately died of alcoholism. We used to go for runs around town on Sunday morning to find his car after a night of his drinking. Few of us connected these seemingly collegiate habits with genuine problem drinking. But they were real problems. Many of us flirted with them.
After cross country season during my freshman year, our team held a massive party with a giant vat of booze mixed together from all sorts of high-alcohol-content liquor. I drank too much too fast and wound up having to be carried back to the dorm room where I lay collapsed in an overnight stupor. It was a blackout. I awoke with a soreness in my back that I’d never experienced before. That was pain in my liver. I could have easily died from alcohol poisoning.
I had one other incident like that when a college girlfriend got me wicked drunk one night out of spite that I spent so much time running. That was obviously not a healthy relationship, and I broke it off not long after that.
Incidents like these didn’t really recur after college, and I’ve never struggled with anything close to alcohol addiction. Yet recently, the habit of having a drink every night struck me as something more than a treat. It felt like a habit. I caught my brain thinking, “Oh boy, it’s almost 5:00. You can have a drink then.”
That made me re-think my habits because it was a warning sign I take seriously. Some people might say, “Well, that’s a natural product of the pandemic. Everyone was just trying to cope.” Others might say––and they might be right in my case–– that drinking was a rational response to the brain-numbing idiocy of Donald Trump.
I’ll buy that. The stress I felt the last four years to the madness of insurrection… welled up from an underlying sense of betrayal to an anger that I found hard to reconcile. I care greatly about social justice and all I could see out there in the world was a selfish brand of evil and blatant cognitive dissonance that was sequentially being denied through gaslighting. In the face of lies like that, it actually made sense to have a drink now and then. I sincerely wish Trump had turned out to be a good person. I really do. But he didn’t, and that’s because he’s addicted to one thing far worse than drugs or alcohol. Himself.
The reason I take potential warning signs about drinking so seriously is that I know drug addiction is a serious problem. Once it gets in front of you, it is hard to push out of the way. Good people close to me in all stages of life have dealt with drug addictions of one kind or another. On the basis of my own experience, I view each of these situations without judgment. My only instinct is to help people any way that I can. And yet, it is hard to know what to say to people you care about when they’re in a cycle of disruptive drinking or drug addiction. Everything feels at risk.
It takes a village sometimes. At one point a close friend called me to ask for help with a mutual buddy. “I’m too close to him,” he admitted. “He’s out of control sometimes. Can we get him to some counseling?” What happened next was valuable and instructive. That hard-drinking friend accepted help because it was offered in kindness. He took steps to moderate his drinking. But as every person with an addiction can tell you, the hard work of sobriety is never through.
The most classic case of addiction denial is the singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse. Could there be any more heartbreaking story (and name) than hers? The lyrics to her song Rehab are indeed sobering:
I don’t ever want to drink again
I just, ooh I just need a friend
I’m not gonna spend ten weeks
And have everyone think I’m on the mend
And it’s not just my pride
It’s just ’til these tears have dried They tried to make me go to Rehab
But I said no, no, no
Yes I’ve been black but when I come back
You’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time
The reasons so many people choose to drink are manifold.There is no doubt that drinking is a form of self-medication. That’s the first thing one needs to realize. Last winter I was having fun each night downing a glass of Fireball cinnamon whisky to ward off the cold winter chills after walking the dog through two feet of snow and temps of five-below-zero. A couple nights I imbibed with a second glass, then a third. One night wound up a bit drunk. I walked smack into a chair on the way to the kitchen, and stopped to consider what that meant. That’s when I started to moderate that drinking, and eased off considerably. When the Fireball ran out, I said, “Enough’s enough.” I didn’t buy another.
Since that time, I’ve kept a closer eye on alcohol consumption. We all should. Today’s Chicago Tribune published a lengthy article about the fact that women are now tied 1:1 with men in having drinking problems. The ratio used to be 3:1, advantage men. So while women are catching up and passing men in many worthy categories of life, that is one category in which gender equality is not that desirable.
The article shares that women have unique challenges in coping with alcohol addiction. Some are physical. Others are social. Studies are being done to ascertain the source and symptoms unique to alcohol consumption among women.
Avoiding habit drinking
So I’ve done my best to keep away from habit drinking. I write instead. I’ll admit that I do have a writing habit. I have three blogs, a Medium page, articles on Linkedin, and work as a writer for a living. So I’ll say it clear: I am addicted to writing. That is one confession I’m here to make. When people in writing groups say that they don’t know what to write about, a voice in my head goes, “What the hell are you talking about?” I can’t not write.
Problem: my writing spills into social media. That can be an addiction unto itself, along with my iPhone. I know that some people in my life see that as a problem. They’ve told me so. I’ve also made mistakes getting into arguments online. Oversharing is a problem. I’m aware of that. It’s hard to quit. But like all things in life, I’m almost tired of the weight it brings. It may self-resolve. So here’s apologies to all I’ve offended, if need be.
To that end, some people in my life are actually estranged and no longer engage with me. Some of those I miss, but others not so much. It’s a product of the times we live in.
My “excuse” for writing so much is that writing helps me deal with anxiety and to process life in general. I write about religion and politics, the environment and nature, caregiving and character. Writing helped me through fifteen years of caregiving for my mom and dad and my late wife. Despite massive amounts of help along the way, there were many times when I felt entirely alone in those endeavors. I struggled making the right decisions along the way. Such is the case when the life of someone you love is on the line. Writing helped me sort all that out. For that process, I feel no need to apologize. It’s called “dealing with it.”
Productivity matters. Over the last year I’ve completed work on two books scheduled to be published in the coming year. So while my writing leads me in many directions, it also has a central focus. My dream is to become a well-known writer. If I don’t achieve that, I’ll die trying.
Relaxing into it
This weekend, while my wife is away visiting her mother, I plan to drink lots of ice water, do some running and riding and swimming, and walk the dog in pretty places. This is also part of my concerted plan to reduce a bit of weight around my gut that I credit to years of ingesting too many carbs (an old runner habit) as well as alcohol. I have friends that cut out booze entirely (Hello, Carolyn and Forrest…) and have lost 10-20 pounds of excess weight. Let’s be honest: beer and wine and spirits are nothing more than liquid calories. Borne of sugar and intensified with the brain-pleasing effects of alcohol, we grow fatter by degrees. I hate unnecessary fat.
There were times when I was too skinny as well. At one point in my late 20s, I realized that I was a bit addicted to running. My body fat percentage was 3% because my running habit consumed nearly 100% of me.
Whenever things went wrong in life, I’d turn to running in an “I’ll show them” state of mind. For many years, it did help me cope with exasperation and anger wrought from earlier experiences in life. There was an approval-driven motivation that vexed my soul. I worked through that and collared those instincts eventually.
Now I run and ride and swim to build balance in life because they make me feel good physically and emotionally. Those activities are proven tools in helping people deal with anxiety and depression. They also promote better physical health. My resting heart rate is 47. My blood pressure, 118/78. My cholesterol just got checked and it is right where it should be. I just want to lose ten pounds of fat around my middle and back.
Without those physical releases, perhaps the drinking thing might have more control over my life. I would no doubt regret that. History shows that many great writers struggled with alcohol addiction. We all need extra balance. Some got that through booze. As this Psychology Today article notes, others actually wrote while under the influence.
The article observes: “One psychiatrist actually did a study to try to figure out why so many great American writers drank like fish. Donald W. Goodwin of Washington University argued that there could be a genetic link between writing ability and alcoholism, with manic–depression perhaps the common thread. Fitzgerald, who was the poster child for the image of the imbibed author (he called alcohol the “writer’s vice” and was known to introduce himself as “F. Scott Fitzgerald, the well-known alcoholic”), appeared to suffer from the condition.”
Writing a different story
I may not be a “great writer” (yet) but I know some of my limits and how to drink socially without going over the line. That said, like many dopes, I’ve done and said a few stupid things “under the influence” over the years.
Over time, it is important to realize that relationships and life are much too important to let drinking or drugs get out of control. That goes for pot as well as booze. As pertains to pot, the term “addiction” carries too much cultural weight and throws people off the fact that while not technically “addictive” that drug can still formulate the mind around a desire to use it.
To its credit however, pot is a medically-approved and now legal drug in many states across the nation. It has been persecuted for decades as a supposed “gateway” drug, but much of that was a political jargon to disguise efforts at filling profit-oriented jails and to fulfill wrongheaded (and racially charged) assumptions about certain cultures. Now, one of the best athletes in the world is being prevented from competing in the Olympics because she smoked some pot to cope with news––delivered by a stranger––that her biological mother had died.
Lying to ourselves about drug use is one thing. Lying about the reasons why some drugs (like alcohol) are culturally tolerated while others are used to punish people is utter hypocrisy. Sha’Carri Richardson should be running in the Olympics because she proved herself worthy on many levels. Not just athletically, but honestly. There’s a major lesson in that for all of us.
Thinking about all this gives me even more empathy for people caught in cycles of their own habits. I have my daily struggles with life’s complexities just like everyone else. But here’s an offer. If any of you reading this feels like you’re in that space where you wish you weren’t, reach out to me. Know that you have a person who cares about you whether we know each other already or not. If you want to talk, email firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m serious as heck about this. We all need each other. I’ve been given so much help in life. My offer is made in gratitude and sincerity.
Because we’re all in this long, strange trip of life together. It’s a road trip of sorts, and it’s never safe to drink and drive.