Confessions of a Reformed Drinker

July 15, 2010 § 2 Comments

I know, I know. You’re probably thinking you’re about to be subjected to the Catholic rantings of a self-congratulatory lune who’ll pretend to be your friend but end up making a desperate attempt to convert you.

Please: Don’t panic. I don’t care if you drink.  I’m reformed, not a reformer, and I’m no goodie two-shoes.

As much as I’m enjoying the sober life (and this is a non-fiction confession – I really have given up the drink, forever), I don’t for one instant believe it’s the right choice for everyone, and I enjoyed my boozing days (they were long, intense, and many) enough to understand the pleasures of the bottle.

If anything, being sober is a lonely experience.

This is particularly true if you’ve spent your entire adult life (and most of your teen years) pursuing a never-ending succession of thrills offered by bars and clubs and parties. Bars were once a reliable, comforting retreat from the world. Suddenly, they’re fairly boring spaces where your drinking friends all appear to be having a lot more fun than you are. As nights (or afternoons) wear on, they also, mysteriously, become less interesting, less coherent (okay, not so mysteriously), and a whole lot less important than that book, or DVD, or etching you’ve been meaning to get finished. Only problem is…you’re now stuck in a public house, and there are few truly meaningful activities to help pass the time.

So, gradually, I’ve stopped hanging out in bars. Habits developed over the course of my entire life have begun to to lose their grip over me. In the beginning I would come up with (work-related) excuses , but now I’ve grown up and use the hard-tack line, “I don’t really go to bars anymore. Have a great time.”

I’ll admit that it can be a bit like sucker-punching your social life. But then I remind myself of all those drunken conversations where no-one can remember the point of what they’re saying and someone inevitably keeps repeating themselves.

And then there’s drinking and driving, satanic hangovers, and slightly regrettable sexual encounters. They were always on my list of thing I can do without. Although, sadly, even non-regrettable sexual encounters are down (which makes me worry that I may be more interesting – or, God forbid, desirable – when wasted).

So. Am I tempted to let myself off the hook and dive back into the social mainstream?

There are “friends” who persistently encourage me to have a drink. “Just one,” they mutter, knowing full well I’ve never, ever had “just one.”

Friendship, as an extension of alcohol-related vice, is a great temptation. Because I always loved drinking – and getting drunk – with my friends. I loved going to the bar for the next round, or insisting on “just one” round of tequilas. I always knew, though, that the second tequila went down better. For my thirtieth birthday, dear friends from my hardest clubbing days bought me a silver cactus-shaped ornament engraved with the sobriquet “King of Tequila.” I guess I should have been worried.

There are also some friends I don’t see anymore. Ever. Which is a little scary, because the more I think about it, the more I realize that the only thing we had in common was the ability to get drunk together. Now they see me as a turncoat, committing the worst kind of betrayal, abandoning a way of life that was meant to go on forever. And I see them as a long-winded and stultifying impediment to getting home to a good book or getting on with a writing deadline. Are these the same friendships depicted in Castle Lager commercials?

I’ll confess that I miss sharing the delicious slide into  self-inflicted madness that typically came with excessive drinking. Generally, I was one of those drinkers who didn’t seem to pose a threat to himself or anyone else. That’s because I kept the scariest moments all to myself. Only my dearest friends knew about the spells of depression that came at the wayward end of a long, hard day of drinking. Few ever saw me lose the plot thanks to an irrational, inexplicable wave of anger, rage, and self-loathing.

Only a few knew to start worrying when I climbed into my car and raced away from the scene of alcohol-induced anxiety with dark, twisted thoughts in my head. I kept the negative aspects of my drinking hidden from public view, and when everyone else is more wasted than you are, there’s no-one to remember your transgressions, anyway.

Throughout my drinking days, I tried various “cures”. I would spend a month or three detoxing. Or restrict my drinking to weekends. I gave up spirits during some purification stints, and limit myself to wine (so much more civilized) at other times. My longest alcohol-free stint happened during my final year of high school: I managed six months before the pressure of final exam preparations got to me. Bizarrely, as a teenager I managed to give up red meat for five years, but alcohol was almost always a part of my diet.

So, 18 months down the line, and even I am pretty impressed with my will-power.

I have almost zero desire to drink. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have to keep an eye on myself. A few months ago I did two wine-tastings as part of a book project on the Cape Winelands. The first tasting went quite smoothly, but during the second episode, I underwent a moment of serious panic. I tasted an especially lovely wooded Chardonnay, and felt a strong desire to grab the entire bottle and down its contents. I’ve calmed down since then.

If I tell people I don’t drink these days, they’re usually taken aback. Some people just assume that if you give up alcohol, you must be an alcoholic. Sometimes it’s best to let them believe that. It can be hard work explaining that I’ve stopped doing something I once loved, something that is perfectly acceptable in normal society, for the simple reason that I’d had enough.

Some people want to know how I’ve managed to quit. If they knew me before, they’ll be quite surprised. Hardly a soul – not even my closest companions – ever imagined I had a drinking problem. Only I knew I had a “problem,” because the problem affected me, and me alone. It wasn’t that I drank too much (I was never that extreme and never got obnoxious or out-of-control), or that I drank all the time or first thing in the morning (at times, I did), or that I felt incapable of stopping (I have plenty self-control). The problem was that I liked drinking too much. I looked forward to drinking, and looked even more forward to my next drink. Taking a breather from drinking (for a few months, or during the week) was simply a form of delayed gratification.

I’ll never forget the sensation brought on by alcohol. That slow-quick slippage into an altered frame of mind. I could actually feel myself transitioning, becoming lighter, less saddled by reality, less coherent, oblivious to the constraints of time, more at ease with the world and all the people in it – everyone loves being tipsy, and I knew it as a superb, fuzzy sensation, a happy place where I always felt welcome. I guess I would have loved to stay tipsy forever, but only a fool imagines this a possibility. I always lusted after another drink, and that warm, fuzzy, tipsy feeling would soon be usurped by inebriation. And then, in my case, there was no turning back.


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