How Do You Know When You’re Done?

Thinking about my own personal history of drinking is a lot like Bernard’s story line on Westworld (if you don’t watch Westworld, I don’t know what to tell you. Get your shit together). Every time I think I have figured out when one chapter of my drinking ended (i.e. the blacking out phase) and another began (i.e. social drinking phase), I realize there were no clear or definitive ways of me relating to drinking, they all sort of happened at once, and I had no real idea what was going on, nor can I trust my memory or point of view to accurately portray the past.

So that’s fun.

It’s important to me that I try to present a cohesive narrative, even though it will inherently always be a bit misleading. I want to be as thorough as possible, because people want to talk about this, and want to hear about this. Don’t get my wrong, I don’t necessarily think that people want to hear about this from me,  but there is clearly an interest in the topic: my last post on alcoholism generated 671 views. For contrast, the posts on depression garner between 150-350 views.  Part of the curiosity, I imagine, is some sensationalism: the way we talk about addiction and alcoholism in our culture follows a particular script, largely because the path of addiction follows a certain progressive and destructive script, and when people share their stories about addiction, I think we have a collective morbid wonder: how far did it go? How bad did it get?

I think that’s human, to want to know more about the dark parts, and to do this exploring in private. I just watched a documentary about El Chapo in the dark, for example. I don’t recommend that.

I also think that addiction and alcoholism are everywhere; mostly all of us have been affected by it, and we are hungry to know more about it, and we are desperate to know that we are not an alcoholic ourselves, and many of us can’t stop wondering if we are.

And that’s where this story resumes.

After I was honest with my then-therapist about my concerns about my drinking (side note: I had also told a different therapist previously that I had concerns about my drinking, and when I described why, she said “Oh, everyone has nights where they drink too much.” So, I guess, one piece of advice moving forward is, make sure your therapist isn’t an active alcoholic?), she encouraged me to go to a 12-step meeting. No, no, no, I told her. That wasn’t necessary. I had a plan: I would just control my drinking for a year and re-assess after that.

At first, she challenged me around this. Why would I want to try to control my drinking? If something needs to be controlled so rigidly, why do it? What’s the point? There’s no enjoyment in there.

I had absolutely no idea what the hell she was talking about when she said that. That made absolutely no sense to me. Of course my drinking had to be controlled, alcohol consumption in general had to be controlled, had she not been listening? Was she not alive? Was my therapist actually dead?

Of course, what she meant was that people who don’t have drinking problems don’t need to control their drinking. They just don’t overdo it, naturally. But I didn’t have that concept because that way of existing while drinking was foreign to me. Most people I knew – or, I should say, most people I drank with –  had these incredibly complicated, covert operations and game plans when drinking in order not to blow their cover, lose their shit, or suffer the consequences: if I eat at 5, have a few cocktails to start, make sure I drink a few glasses of water in between, and switch to beers by 9, I should be fine. There were a number of variations of this, including but not limited to: switching up bar locations throughout the night, drinking with your less crazy friends instead of your bender friends, introducing an “upper” substance to help keep an equilibrium, promising to go home after one or two beers, making your friends promise that you would leave by 11.

For me, sometimes having a game plan worked. Sometimes, it dramatically failed. And sometimes, I didn’t need to worry about it, because I could have a glass of wine at dinner and not even finish it. (As I did some research into the marks of alcoholism for different people, this one came up a lot: a lot of self-proclaimed alcoholics were flabbergasted that non-alcoholics could just leave a cocktail or beer that still had booze in it on a table and walk away. What a waste! That, the joke went, was alcohol abuse).

The troubling thing is, I never knew which one it would be, which situation would come to fruition. Some Saturday nights I would have fun with my friends, get some sleep, go for a run in the morning. Some Tuesdays, I would get so drunk that I needed a friend to drive me home, where I ended up singing showtunes, hysterically crying, in their parked car. And the year that I decided to examine and finally, absoutely control my drinking, this unpredictability got far worse, with exceedingly harsher results.

But back to that day in the therapist’s office. She pointed out that trying to control drinking is no fun at all, I countered that not drinking is way worse. She suggested I incorporate 12 step meetings in my year of exploration, I told her those meetings were for old man alcoholics. She started to push back, and then said, with a smile “OK! So that’s the plan. Simple. You are just gathering information about your drinking this year.” Her tone was light, encouraging. Her eyes said: you’re fucked.

She was right. And, she was wrong.

So I took off on this adventure of controlled drinking with my head held high, sort of like The Fool in the classic tarot deck, confident, optimistic, and likely to walk right off a cliff. I was pretty sure that I could learn how to manage my drinking, finally. After all, the only reason I even got as drunk the last time I drank – when I realized I needed to control my drinking or stop drinking indefinitely –  was because I was on vacation, with other big drinkers, and I hadn’t been drinking that much in a long time and the time before that, it was because I was at a wedding with friends from college and I think that I have muscle memory of drinking like a maniac in college and before that, I was with a bunch of people from high school and I get really anxious in big crowds, especially with people from high school, and before that, and before that, and and and and.

I didn’t have the perspective that I do know, that all of those explanations were simply excuses.


So, that year, I started really paying attention to and interviewing people who didn’t have drinking problems and who were my friends. I started with my wife, and asked her what it would be like for her if she could never drink alcohol again. She considered this, tilted her head to the side, and said, “I don’t think it would be a big deal. I don’t drink that much.”

Um, nope. Couldn’t relate to that.

Then, when my best friend for life and I would go out to get drinks together, I would quiz her about her drinking and general relationship to alcohol. She liked alcohol, she explained. No, she doesn’t black out.  No, she doesn’t over-do it. Sometimes she wonders if she should stop drinking in the house so that her daughter doesn’t think people have to drink to have fun, or have to drink with dinner, or anything like that.

I could understand parts of that. I told her that I was worried about my drinking, that I was pretty sure I wasn’t an alcoholic, but that I did have a tendency to drink alcoholically. I just never learned to drink, you see. Plus all my friends were big drinkers. She was sympathetic. She nodded. As always, she indulged my dissecting myself and my mental health needs for 3+ hours, taking breaks in the conversation to stop and make fun of someone from high school. (I don’t mean it when I do it!! It’s just my social anxiety. Also, high school was psycho).

The year continued, and the grapefruit-sized knot in my stomach got bigger and bigger as I began to let myself wonder if I was, in fact, an alcoholic. I would usually only allow myself to consider it fleetingly, and then I would distract myself with another thought. My favorite game to play that year because “who else in my life is an alcoholic” and I would spend a lot of time explaining to my wife why so-and-so was an alcoholic and why they really needed help, and also all of the contributing factors to their alcoholism.

I remember feeling both really bad for the people I had decided were alcoholics, and really annoyed that they weren’t getting themselves help, even after I had clearly suggested that they should to my wife.

I blacked out a few times that year and didn’t fess up to anyone about that, even though that was the deal I made with myself and my therapist. I think what was most frustrating to me is that I never, ever wanted to black out when I did – I hear a lot of people in recovery say that they drank to get obliterated – but I never wanted to lose control. I wanted get drunk, because that was the whole point, to relax, get a little tipsy, make jokes, enjoy life. But I never wanted to make a fool of myself, I never wanted to drink too much, and I especially never wanted to black out. And yet, so often, I did. And especially that last year of my drinking, this frustrated me to no end. I had no desire to drink like a crazy person, I just wanted to drink like a normal person. Why couldn’t I slow down?

Towards the very end, I went to a concert with some friends, including my aforementioned best friend who is fun and responsible and can drink normally, like a nerd. By this point, my drinking was getting uglier and messier, and I was getting drunk faster, and I was wanting to drink more, seeking out excuses to stay out later and drink. It’s like the alcoholism knew that there was only a limited time left, and wanted to get every last bit out of me that it could. I would later find out that alcoholism is a progressive disease, so this is quite common – I was just experiencing it suddenly, and speedily, within months – but no matter what, my alcoholism was always going to get uglier, and messier, and more dangerous.

But anyway, we are at the concert, and it’s fun, and Fat Joe was there (the rap artist, that’s not a nickname for someone from high school), and I finish my beer and ask my best friend if she wants another drink as I’m going to the bar. And she says yes, and then stops herself and says, “Actually, no, I’m done.” And I asked her how she knew that. And she said “What do you mean?” And I asked – genuinely, earnestly, even eagerly – “How do you know when you’re done drinking?” and she was smiling, but her eyes were a little surprised, and she said “I just do. I just know when I’ve had enough. And then I’m done for the night.” Oh, I laughed. That doesn’t happen for me. And then I got another beer.

I thought about this moment a lot after I stopped drinking, a month or so later. It was so illuminating, and one of the first glimpses I had into what “normal” drinking looked like. My best friend just knew to stop because there was a point when she was done. There was just something inside of her that told her “No more. You’ve had enough.” I had no idea what that was like. I never knew I was done. Sure, I stopped drinking, sure I walked away from a half-full glass of wine, but 9 times out of ten, I wanted to drink more. I just didn’t. I didn’t have this off-switch that other people had, that my best friend and wife apparently had. I had been searching for almost a year, and I still hadn’t found that thing inside of me, the thing telling me that I had had enough and I was starting to think – or know: I was starting to know that I never would. *

*Because I want to give this topic the respect it deserves, and because it is so complicated and there is so much more to say about it, I am going to continue focusing on alcohol and quitting drinking, and the first few months of sobriety, for a few more blog posts, as a series. Sort of like a Drunk Babysitters Club. 












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