What is alcoholism? Am I an alcoholic?
I grew up seeing men sitting contently on “their” barstools in dark quiet bars, playing the football pool, getting each other to help with construction jobs or house repair, shooting the shit, and letting loose. Bars and booze were the vital source of adult life and freedom outside the family and home. It’s where guys seemed to gain control of their destinies, it’s where connections were made, it’s where mastery was professed and shit-talking occurred. Alcohol was maturity. Alcohol was masculinity. Alcohol was comradery.
My dad would take me around to bars with him on weekends when I was a kid. It was the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. He’d buy me a cheeseburger and give me some quarters for the jukebox or to play pool. We’d meet his friends – Billy the roofer, Louis the bricklayer, Mike the fisherman, etc. One time he paid a guy to dress up like Santa and give my a hockey stick during the holiday season. We’d hit 2 or 3 haunts, “visit the guys”, he’d give me a sip or two off his $1 shell of Stroh’s beer or let me eat the booze-soaked cherry from his manhattan. I liked spending time with my dad and this is how he like to spend his downtime. He also took me to my sports things as a kid, drove me to friends’ houses, and was a good dad in most other respects. But this was our weekend ritual for years. I don’t know why my mom didn’t intervene. She didn’t like it when my dad drank but always justified his behavior in that he wasn’t nearly as bad off as his brothers. He would be the guy who’d have to go to his brothers’ houses and talk them down from blackout insanity.
I was honestly surprised to learn that none of my other friends did this with their dads. And it never really dawned on me that I was the only kid ever in the bar. I just assumed the other guys didn’t have kids. But I also somehow knew instinctively to not really talk about this with friends. I knew it was somehow weird, but I thought it was special – like I had access to something they didn’t.
I remember an uncle telling me in my early 20s, “I’m so god-damned glad you drink beer”. I was proud of that. I think my dad was too. That uncle is dead now and, I’ve since learned, was a life-long alcoholic, a weak man, disliked and disrespected by many, including his own kids. Alcohol was shame. Alcohol was sorrow. Alcohol was loss.
What was the difference between my dad and my uncle? Was one an alcoholic and the other not? Or were they both alcoholics to varying degrees? Is alcoholism a disease that can only be cured by attending AA meetings?
Any scientific reality behind the disease concept of alcoholism should be left to debate among doctors. What I can say is that I’ve become a person who can no have longer have just one drink. Something has fundamentally and chemically changed in me. Before I stopped drinking I was stashing mini bottles of cheap sweet wine and sneak-swilling them all day. I’d go to the store and typically buy maybe a six-pack and 2 bottles of wine. I’d tell myself: a nice bottle of wine for my wife (which she never asked for), a second bottle for us to split during the dinner I was never going to cook, and a 6 pack of beer for me (a kind my wife might also like). Very thoughtful husband, no? An easy weekend of buzzed drinking, maybe a good dinner. Ah, what plans.
I drink wine like shots of liquor. In big slugs. And I drink beer like someone is trying to take it away from me. So when I’d get home from this shopping trip, I’d open a beer and have the first one gone in the time it took me to open the unsolicited bottle of wine for my wife. Two giant slugs from the wine bottle, then a glass for her. Crack open another beer and graciously bring my wife her first glass of red. By this time, I’ve consumed one beer and the equivalent to one large glass of red wine in maybe 3-5 minutes.
With the second beer in hand, now I’m down to 4 beers and nearly half a bottle of wine gone. I start to get a little nervous. I’m counting the drinks in my head. Quick math. The night is young. That beer is going to go quick, I know that much. Will prolly have to break into that second bottle of wine. Oh well, smart me for buying it. I’m a good shopper. “Here’s your glass of wine,” the thoughtful husband offers, glassy-eyed and a little asymmetrical.
Drink down beer two, get a third (only 3 left! queue nervous sweating) – another quick slug off the wine. Ahhhh… ok, relax. Now I can sip the third beer like a gentleman. See, I can drink normal!! See!!
I graciously offer to refill my wife’s empty glass. How the hell is this wine bottle 3/4 gone! She only drank one glass! Strange. Oh well, no matter, open the second one. Need to give my $8 bottle of wine some time to breathe. And so the night would go….
In that typical night, I’d end up drinking upward of a bottle-plus of wine and a six-pack of strong beer. On rare occasions, I’d go out for more (and piles of nasty fast food). Though more often, I’d pass out with a few empties at my feet and the Netflix menu on the TV. My wife – 2 glasses of wine. Sometimes 2.5. She’d leave the third glass finished and go to bed.
Sacrilege. She just didn’t like to have “fun”.
Am I an alcoholic? No, I’m alcohol-free! I don’t have that madness and sickness in my life today. I don’t ever want to go back to that. I don’t let the thought of a drink through the door. If I do I know that the siren song becomes a quiet but persistent whisper … until you take that first drink. Then its a constant deafening howl, until you find yourself debased and desperate enough again to try to stop. Thank you, I’ll stay sober.
I don’t care if I’m an alcoholic all I know is that I’m ready to stop. And when you’re ready—really ready—you’ll do everything possible to confront and silence that whisper. You won’t nurture it, you won’t ignore it. You’ll call it out, shine a spotlight on it, and reckon with it every hour of every day. If I do whatever it takes to not drink the first drink, I retain my power to choose how I want to live my life. If I have a drink, a restless, unbalanced, physical and mental response happens, and my whole body and soul cry out for more. It’s the unscratchable itch. All the electrical circuits of my nervous system short circuit and start misfiring. It’s profoundly uncomfortable and alcohol is the only thing that will set it right. Is that a symptom consistent with disease? For me, don’t know, don’t care. But given this understanding, I treat it like one.
Am I an alcoholic? All I know is that I can’t have just one drink.
And so I don’t.
Sobriety is maturity. Sobriety is masculinity. Sobriety is comradery.
If you’re “sober curious” … If you are drinking too much too often and want to stop or take a break…or if you have stopped drinking and are trying to stick to sober! Talk to Us. Join us Alcohol-Free Today.
How did I go sober? How do I stay alcohol-free ? I pull out all the stops. I go to AA daily and I interact online in an independent forum called BOOM Rethink the Drink.
The internet has been around long enough to temper my wonder at this, but some days it just floors me that I have this network of sober travelers from different cities, states, countries, hemispheres! This fact coupled with the fact that we all drink, lie, hurt, and recover in much the same way brings me such a comforting sense of normality it’s hard to describe. It’s not a leap to think that a guy who grew up in Midwest USA about the same time I did might have drunk like me. And don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of comfort and recovery in that. But to see men and women of varying generations, cultures, backgrounds, etc, all drinking, hiding, relapsing, recovering like I did, it really loosens the death grip of shame and isolation like nothing I’ve ever known or could have imagined.
Thank you Boomers for all your honesty, all your stories, and all your recovery. It doesn’t matter what alcoholism is and if it describes us or not. All that matters is that together we are fighting to stay alcohol-free.
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