Hahaha! Did you think that Threat Quality was only fun blog posts about comic books and movies? No! Also there is going to be painful, boring personal stuff that I will try to depress you with! Check back in later, I think Holland is going to say more stuff about comics tomorrow.
I am going to write about this one way or another. There are a lot of people for whom dealing with their problems anonymously is helpful. I don’t want to disparage that, I think if that’s what you need then good, it’s good that you have access to that. But I also think that you shouldn’t HAVE to deal with it anonymously, because you haven’t got anything to be ashamed of, and the only way that’s going to change is if people start talking about this stuff openly, regardless of the consequences.
I will take the hit on this one.
I gave up drinking on April 1st, 2013, but I didn’t tell anyone until April 2nd, because I was afraid they would think it was an April Fool’s Joke, and I didn’t want to deal with that. I gave up because the day before was Easter Sunday, and we went to my wife’s parents’ house for Easter lunch, and then to my parents’ house for Easter dinner. I am not Christian, but I am free-mealian, so I was moderately enthusiastic about the whole enterprise.
Anyway, I drank an entire bottle of red wine on my own that afternoon, and then a half a bottle of bourbon that night. I’d have drunk more, except there was only a half a bottle left. The next day I was so hungover I had to leave work early.
I liked to blame my drinking on social anxiety, and there’s a certain amount of truth to that: I don’t like being around other people very much, and I don’t much like having my routine disrupted, and when that happens I can get very uncomfortable in a way that alcohol provided an effective balm. Certainly, in the past, I have used alcohol to assuage that anxiety, especially at parties.
But at my in-laws’ house? At my own parents’ house? Please. I drank because I liked it, and I didn’t stop because I didn’t want to. This has always characterized my relationship with alcohol: I drank whenever it was available; I stopped whenever it ran out.
There are other people who have it worse than I do, I don’t want to make any mistake about that. I never really passed that stage where I just drank whatever was around to the one where I was constantly seeking out more – though I did definitely take care at night to pour my drinks quietly, so my wife didn’t know about it. That’s a bad sign, I know, it made me feel like I was having an affair.
I am explaining all this for the purpose of context.
I thought I was managing pretty well, and then the other day I was at a friend’s house, and a mutual friend poured himself a drink, and I lost it a little bit. (I don’t want to level any acrimony at anyone involved here; I didn’t make a big deal about my having quit, and certainly didn’t say anything to anyone about it at the time – probably this is misplaced pride in the fact that I take it very seriously that I not disrupt another person’s household; possibly I am a little embarrassed about the whole thing; possibly I just felt like my problem shouldn’t be someone else’s. Whatever the case, no one else did anything wrong.)
(Furthermore, I don’t know if you noticed this – I have definitely started noticing it – but America is a culture saturated with alcohol. I am never not going to be around people who are drinking, or talking about drinking, or where drinking isn’t available. I’m going to have to learn to cope with it eventually; I may as well start now.)
He was drinking bourbon, and man but I was crying I wanted it so badly. I had to go outside and stand in the rain for minutes at a time, hoping the feeling would abate. I finally came back inside and drank a pitcher of lemonade, on the grounds that if thinking about bourbon could make me literally taste it, maybe tasting lemonade would make me think about lemons or something. It worked, eventually, and the craving passed, but it gave me a little bit of a better perspective on the word “craving.”
It’s not like having a taste for something, the way that you crave salt, sometimes, or ice cream. This was a kind of existential, whole-body yearning, coupled with a mad desperate hopelessness at the idea that I was never going to be able to have bourbon, ever again. It’s the kind of complete and intense and utterly involving experience that standing in the ocean and being knocked over by a wave and thrashed around in the surf is.
What’s interesting to me about it is that I’ve had an experience like this before. Back when I was in college, I was involved with a girl; the relationship ended, and I responded…well, let’s say that I responded very poorly. (I want to be clear, this was not a bad relationship — I’ve had those, too – where two partners sort of realize they aren’t compatible and are maybe sometimes kind of horrible to each other; this was the end of a relatively minor involvement after which I reacted very badly.) The experience was very similar: a kind of hopelessness, a sense of desperation, an emotional buckling that happened whenever I saw her around or (worse) when I saw her with other people. Obviously, I didn’t want to break down every time I saw her and have to go hide in the bathroom until the experience passed, but what was I supposed to do? Knowing that a feeling is stupid or inappropriate does not, apparently, obviate the experience.
So, I want to say that my experience with alcohol is like being in love, but that’s not exactly right. I don’t think what I experienced in college is what love is, even though “sleepless nights” “uncontrollable weeping” and “preoccupation to the exclusion of all else” are often cited as characteristics of that affliction. It was manifestly unhealthy when I was doing it, and I don’t think that, whatever love is, it’s something that’s unhealthy. It might be more accurate to call it an obsession, but we use that word so casually and pointlessly that it’s got no real meaning.
Whatever you want to call it, outside of my family, my relationship with alcohol was probably the longest successful relationship of my life. (Debatably successful, I suppose.) From about eighteen to thirty-two, that’s a good thirteen years, and I don’t think I ever realized how essential to my identity it had become. In retrospect, I suppose that was obvious – I’m pretty sure almost every fifth sentence I said in public was about booze – but I was not prepared for the profound sense of loss that would come with giving up drinking. There it is, though: the way that I responded to alcohol was exactly the way that I responded to the thwarting of my whatever-you-call-it. “Love,” “obsession,” that little bit of all-consuming insanity.
It seems like an exaggeration, I know, but the absoluteness of it is so intense –when you see a bottle of bourbon and you feel like you want a drink, and then you say, “no, I can’t have a drink right now,” your brain immediately starts to perseverate over the idea that you’ll never be able to have a drink ever ever again EVER — that if someone told me that this is what it’s like to have a limb chopped off, I’d believe them.
I’d believe it if this is what you told me it was like when your long-time girlfriend dies, only the key difference here is that I can start the relationship back up again whenever I want. Nobody died, no limb was cut off. I’m doing this to myself, and all I have to do to end it is to start poisoning myself again.
I guess that’s the point of all this. The point of it is, when you meet someone who’s an alcoholic, and you find yourself unsympathetic to their difficulties, or when they fall off the wagon, instead imagine their experience like this:
Giving up alcohol isn’t like giving up potato chips or coffee; giving up alcohol is like having your wife die, and then spending the rest of your life knowing that all you have to do to bring her back is to open up a bottle.