Sunday, March 07, 2010

How I Allowed Something I Love To Almost Kill Me

First, let me be clear about one thing. I am not the kind of person who will use my personal experiences with alcohol as an excuse to get on a soapbox and start warning anyone of the need to abstain from the "evil" of it. I will save that soapbox rant for cigarettes. Or for things with which I have no personal experience, like heroin or meth.

txrad and I were smokers and drinkers when we met back in 1990. I'd only been smoking for less than 2 years, and only picked up the habit while hanging out all night in Denver coffee shops because... well, sitting around in a bohemian environment guzzling coffee and chain-smoking cigarettes seemed pretty cool.

We both started working at an advertising agency headed up by a vegetarian who was hostile to cigarette smoke. That proved to be a good fit for us because within months, we had both quit smoking and drinking, and had given up meat for a vegetarian diet -- something I'd tried several times previously and unsuccessfully.

We maintained this for years.

In 1997 we moved to Austin and we spent $0.00 on liquor, beer, wine and cigarettes. In 1998, while at a company picnic, I decided to have a glass of wine. It wasn't to celebrate anything. I simply felt like getting a little buzz going because I could see the writing on the wall regarding the company's future. Thus began some light and occasional drinking that year.

In 1999, my premonitions about the company were becoming reality. The future was uncertain, barely two years after packing up and moving from Los Angeles to Austin. Drinking increased although certainly not at any outrageous level.

The rest speaks volumes about me and how I chose to handle the stress of an unstable decade ahead.

There is something else worth noting in this chart. From 1998 through 2001, a lot of the alcohol expenditures were with meals while dining out, so the cost relative to the amount of alcohol consumed was high.

By 2002 we had largely quit dining out during the week. We were spending far too much money eating out almost every night of the week, and we decided to start cooking at home to save money. We figured we'd also save money by drinking at home. Pretty soon, what we were spending on booze far exceeded what we'd been spending on restaurant meals.

I would venture to guess that 2004 was the year when drinking excessively every night of the week became the norm. That was also the year I started my own company, and by the end of 2006, that was also, for all practical purposes, needing to be shut down due to lack of clientele and clients unable or unwilling to pay their debts. My company was insolvent; I'd loaned tens of thousands to the company to keep it floating, all of which I had borrowed, and there was nothing to show for it.

And I was aware, even in 2004, that moderation with tequila was difficult for me. I tried this:

Nice try. It didn't work. So, party on! Forget about it, at least at night.

2007 brought on some new employment for both txrad and myself, but that didn't stop the drinking which by now was a well-established part of our nightly routine, and one which accounted for the 2nd largest percentage of our budget, right behind the mortgage payment.

Yes, you read that right. We have essentially been drinking (and smoking, since about 20% of this is for cigarettes) a 2nd vacation home payment every month. Or a Maserati Quattroporte payment. Pick the guilty pleasure of your choice. And this had been going on for 5 years at roughly the same level.

Trust me, I knew what we were spending. If I was able to pull together a 10-year chart from Quicken in a matter of minutes, you know I've been monitoring my spending month-to-month. I was appalled by it. But I kept telling myself I could take corrective action "next month."

It hasn't been a great decade on the political front either. And I used liquor to numb that pain as often as I could. A Bush speech was a guaranteed night of severe intoxication resulting in an inability to absorb the last half-hour of whatever he was blathering on about. Same for election years: tie one on real good at every state primary. I'd get rip-roaring drunk on Friday and Saturday. I'd get ripped on Thursday because it was Friday-eve. I'd get trashed on Wednesday because it was Friday-eve-eve. Sunday was ripe for ripping because the weekend was over. And Mondays were a perfect excuse to let hell break loose because it was simply Monday.

What I failed to grasp is that this excess would eventually take corrective action with me if I didn't act first. The first evidence of this was in March, 2008 when txrad fell down a flight of concrete stairs and landed on his head on cement. He suffered a concussion, fractured ribs, a dislocated shoulder, and a speech impediment, all of which required several months of recovery. And to this day he still has a slight slurring of speech when saying certain words.

There were medical expenses he incurred which have yet to be paid, aside from what the insurance company covered. That was the same night I wrecked my car trying to drive home which was another $2,000 out-of-pocket for repairs because I was too scared to file an insurance claim given that my bumper and license plate were missing in action and probably sitting in the parking lot of an apartment complex where I plowed into a retaining wall of rock.

But the heavy drinking continued.

I always thought alcoholics and people with alcohol-dependencies were the types of people who wake up in the morning and need a beer or a cocktail, and continue drinking throughout the day and into the evening. Because I never wanted a drink in the morning or afternoon, I figured I had to be OK. I just wanted to get drunk at night.

And it wasn't enough just to get a buzz. It wasn't enough to be sloppy drunk. Something about me had to go that extra mile. You know, the point where you wake up every morning and have no idea what you watched on television the night before, no remembrance of eating dinner that was so carefully prepared, and no idea of conversations we had. Basically there was a black hole for the last hour of each previous night before I collapsed into bed. Some life, huh?

I don't think it helped that I was drinking premium tequilas which minimized hangover conditions. I rarely would have a headache the next morning. Rather, there was a dull numbness looming over me which would dissipate by mid-afternoon. I could get through the most trying workday, only to go for a replay in the evening. It had gotten to the point where I had no idea what it feels like to sleep well, to have multiple dreams, to wake up refreshed, and to have energy during the day.

And then came my accident last Monday evening in which I had an intimate moment with the concrete patio. What I apparently didn't learn in March of 2008, I think it got me this time around. I guess it wasn't up close and personal enough to witness txrad's trauma and take corrective action then. I had to go through it for myself in order to break this pattern of destructive behavior.

Tuesday night was rough in terms of breaking the habits. I was standing around in the kitchen watching txrad prepare food, and didn't know what to do with myself or my hands. When I'd reach for some water my hand would inevitably go to the spot where the shot glass has sat for the past few years. Sometimes my hand would instinctively go there when I wasn't reaching for water. And it wasn't like I wanted a drink; I felt too crappy for that. It was simply habit, as well as knowing that I didn't feel as good as I should be feeling at 7pm, and 8pm.

This scenario replayed on Wednesday night. I felt frustrated. I didn't know what to do with myself. Everything else was the same: same TV shows, txrad busy preparing food in the kitchen, but no beer on the coffee table in the living room and no shot glass of tequila in the kitchen to reward me for getting off my ass to go in there.

By Thursday night I had realized that I needed to keep a glass of water on the coffee table in the living room where I had previously kept my beer. My habit was to have a drink there within easy reach.

Saturday night I had come to the realization that I needed more changes here to keep me distracted. It's not enough to simply abstain from alcohol while doing every thing else exactly as I have done for the past 8 years or so. Watching the same TV shows wasn't cutting it because I associate almost of all of them with a steadily increasing intoxication level as the evening progresses.

I decided what was needed was a serious distraction. Something we haven't done in awhile. I put in a James Bond flick, Casino Royale. I needed action for distraction and I needed duration to keep me awake past 9:15. It worked because I stayed awake until 10:20 and managed to finish the film. And I didn't need to jump up every 15 minutes to do a shot. (I did need to jump up every 15 minutes to pee from all the water I'm drinking, but that's OK.)

I don't even remember how long it's been since we sat and watched a DVD without losing track along the way due to intoxication.

Am I completely done with alcohol? I will probably resume having a glass of wine or two at some point. A couple of beers some nights. I don't want a bad tequila experience to ruin an appreciation of lighter adult beverages which I enjoy, but don't render me shitfaced. The problem is having tequila in the house. Even when we'd open a bottle of wine at night (which was getting increasingly infrequent), we'd move on to a beer after finishing the wine, and then a series of tequila shots until I had achieved the black-out phase.

The most-recent warning sign I should have heeded was when we discovered jumbo sized 1.5ml bottles of premium tequila at a great price. They would have been a great deal if they had lasted a month instead of 3 days.

Even some fine scotch in the house didn't get abused. I had 2 bottles of scotch sitting in the pantry which lasted for more than half of 2009 and into 2010. That was something I enjoyed sipping and savoring once a week, or sometimes once every 2 or 3 weeks. I would pour only enough for 5 or 6 sips... to warm the cockles, so to speak. But then I'd move on to the beloved tequila.

The only nights when responsible drinking would take place were those nights when there was no tequila present. And I usually went to bed feeling incomplete. I can hardly believe I allowed this to control me for so long, and at such an expense: on the finances, the "repairs," and the health.

It has also had an impact on my social life. I felt chained to the house because it was a "safe" space to drink. I didn't like going to parties because I knew I'd get drunk, and then there's the issue of driving home safely. In retrospect, I think this also had an impact on visits to my mother. I would limit my stays to one or two nights at most because I was ready to get back to my drinking and smoking routine. As a 40-something, the idea of sneaking around my mom's house or yard, trying to get a sip of booze (which I never did), or a quick drag on a cigarette (which I did do) seemed ridiculous.

I think the best plan would be to transfer the monthly filthy-fucking-cigarette budget to beer and wine. We'd be healthier and our finances would be healthier. I like beer and wine; I enjoy both. But I don't love either of them. By the 3rd glass of wine I'm pretty tired if it. Same with beer. But with tequila, an adequate amount was insufficient. Too much was never enough. For some reason, I wanted enough to escape life.

I've come to realize that life isn't that bad. I have a pretty damn good one and there is much to be thankful for including a job I love, a partner I love, a house I love, a city I love, and friends I love.

2010 is a year of change. I may not feel like it's going to be positive change for the country politically, but it can be positive change for txrad and me. Both need to happen, and I have far greater control over one than the other, so it might as well start here, at home.

Feel free to discuss. Berate me. Chafe me. It probably won't be anything I haven't already said to myself. I'm weak, but I'm getting stronger.

I may even pull out another movie tonight.

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