At 3am in Las Vegas, vomiting Asian Lettuce Wraps and Don Julio tequila into a hotel bathrobe, four words came through my drunken fog loud and clear: I need to stop.
Four little words that I recognized, even in the blur of inebriation, as vital. Words I would remember long after my once-per-decade overindulgence had ended.
It wasn’t drinking that I needed to stop, at least not entirely, it was the reasons why I was drinking that required my attention.
I am blessed and cursed by the inability to become addicted to just about anything. Aside from writing and physical fitness, my addictions tend to be intense but short-lived. I thrive on novelty and even the biggest and most exciting vices end up boring me eventually.
I say “cursed” because my need for The New Thing also keeps me from committing to more virtuous long term endeavors.
Alcoholism is not something I have ever worried about and it’s not a vice I’ve had cause to question in myself. My parents drank, sure. Dad had a bar in the rec-room, like many dads of that era, and he loved to play bartender, but he rarely drank to excess. Neither did my mom. They were both social drinkers and even when they did overdo it they never morphed into angry, mean or depressed drunks. Like just about every other teen, I experimented with booze but it didn’t hook me and thanks to my family I knew what “responsible drinking” looked like.
My first marriage was a crash course in what irresponsible drinking looked like. Having watched a man who frequently could not stop himself from drinking until he passed out, I was convinced that my occasional cocktails or glasses of wine were far from a desperate plea for help or an illness.
During my ten years in the film industry I rarely even tipped a glass of wine. I needed to be as fit and thin as humanly possible and ready to work even if the phone rang at 9pm on a Friday night. Alcohol did not lend itself well to that career or lifestyle.
The tropics loosened me up a little—hey, flavoured rum was cheaper than juice in the Bahamas, and boy was it soooooome kind of tasty! Even so, most times I was too busy to dull my senses more than a couple of nights out of the week.
Later, I switched to martinis—okay, gin on ice—to keep my sugar intake to a minimum. A wise decision, since straight alcohol takes more time to drink (at least until you get used to it) and the slower you consume alcohol the more aware you are of just how intoxicated you are becoming.
All this is my way of saying that over the years I have been acutely aware of what and how much I drank. There have been moments when I stopped and asked myself if I had a problem but, inevitably, life would get crazy and I’d put aside my martinis to focus on something more interesting.
Lately, drinking has become a habit. I don’t overdo it more than a few times a year but every night for at least two years has seen me filling a tumbler with ice and pouring in a few ounces of gin. At least twice, per night and sometimes more. Every night.
If you’re wondering, yes, it bothered me. But then I would think, ‘Well, it’s not like I’m hiding it or don’t have an Off switch, like my ex.’ Once I’d satisfied my self-created criteria for What Constitutes A Drinking Problem, I would let it go. And I am well-versed in the old adage that stating you don’t have a problem is often a sign that you do, in fact, have a problem.
I don’t have a problem.
Let me rephrase that. I have a problem but it’s not *that* problem.
What is my problem? Let’s go back to Vegas to answer that.
I have never thrown up from drinking too much alcohol. There are a few times in my youth that I wanted to but my body hates and fears throwing up and shuts down the possibility whenever it can with a fierceness that is wondrous to behold. But this night in Vegas was no ordinary night.
I had not just overdone it, I had legitimately poisoned myself. Two martinis in the room, a mojito at dinner (the Asian Lettuce Wraps I would revisit later), followed by countless (yes, I lost count) glasses of Don Julio tequila while playing Four Card Poker. One of our tablemates was supplying the drinks and we were all having so much fun I didn’t slow down for even a moment to wonder if maybe I should. . . well, slow down.
When Prez and I left the table at 2am I left behind two glasses of tequila I had not yet even touched.
As I told Prez later, “I was fine and then I was definitely not fine.” So, I barfed up booze and dinner and could have easily chalked it up to the kind of crazy drunk I have maybe once every ten years. (The last time was a friend’s 50th birthday, not quite a decade ago but close enough). But those four words—I need to stop—rang in my ears and would not cease.
Apparently, you can have an epiphany even while you’re gooned. Who knew?
What those words drove home for me was that I was no longer enjoying alcohol, I was using it. Using it to numb myself, to avoid pain, to avoid conflict, to avoid unpleasant truths, to avoid All the Bad Things. Drinking wasn’t the problem; why I was drinking was the problem.
As I emptied my stomach, I did not vow to quit drinking and live a clean life from that point forward. I did promise myself to stop hiding and avoiding. I promised myself I would be brave. I don’t mind admitting that scares the hell out of me right now.
My epiphany happened on December 23rd. Since that time, I have had one martini, which is about 20-25 less than I usually would have had by now. (The math makes me queasy). I’ve had some glasses of wine with dinner but several nights have been dedicated to water, tea or freshly-squeezed orange juice (I love you, southern California). I don’t feel deprived or anxious. I feel no burning need to “hit the bottle”.
The hard part is the rest of it. Slowly, I am facing the things that made me choose liquid anesthetic. Of course, the loss of my father and sister rank right up there. I have made a conscious decision to move forward in (not from) my grief. I need to look after me for awhile and get myself back on the path of hard work and optimism. There’s still room for missing my family, but now my grief needs to move to the back seat and let me do the driving.
Other problems will be tackled as I go along. I’m a realist to the core. No one changes overnight. This will be a long road and I’m content to know I’m on it and my wheels are rolling.
I am forgiving myself for faltering. I wasn’t strong enough. It happens.
If we’re together, don’t be surprised or offended if I turn down your offered martini. If you’ve bought me drinks or bottles of gin in the past, don’t feel as if you contributed to my problem. I did what I needed to do to protect myself and the martini you bought me may have saved me a night of crying alone in my room. It’s all good. If you see me drinking, don’t assume I’ve “fallen off the wagon”. As I said, my goal is not to quit drinking or get clean, my goal is to tackle the reasons I’ve been drinking. When I’m finished with that, I imagine the volume and frequency of my drinking will return to a normal level without much effort on my part. Don’t think that you can’t drink around me—this is not about temptation and even if it was it’s up to me to be a responsible adult. Don’t worry that I will lecture you about your drinking. I won’t. Don’t worry that I won’t be as much fun at social events; I’m a goddamned laugh factory even when I’m 100% sober!
My 2016 has begun with a challenge for me to be better. Wish me luck but, more importantly, wish me strength. I think I’m going to need it.