“You need to quit”

DSC_6639July 24, 2012: Before I get into the meat of this post, I want to say that I generally dislike the human habit of labeling people with generalizations. Demographic stuff that has a pretty tight meaning? Sure, I’m a white male Ohioan. But am I photographer? Maybe, depends on your definition, and how I’m feeling that week. Am I a liberal? That depends on your characterization (or caricature) of liberal political philosophies. Am I an atheist? Yes, I think of myself that way, but do my definition and your definition coincide?

Yes, I understand that labels are shorthand ways of understanding things about people. Unfortunately, they are also ways of assuming things about people. Does my liberalism mean that I think all companies are evil? Or that the government should take care of all our needs and desires? No and no. But some people would assume those things given the shorthand label of ‘liberal’. These shortcuts and assumptions tend to gloss over the intricacies of who we are as humans. We’re all very complex, with varied histories.

So with that said, I’ll explain the title of this post. On July 11, 2012, my wife said to me “You need to quit.” I was drinking some cheap brandy (that we’d historically used for cooking) in the living room while reading a photography book. It was my 7th or 8th drink that evening–I’d started with a few pints with a friend at a local pub after work (a relatively rare occurrence), had a couple of beers with dinner with my wife and kids, then came home and had a couple more drinks. My wife was aware of all of this, and was concerned that I had resorted to the brandy because I’d already killed off a 12-pack that I’d purchased two days prior.

Seven or eight drinks from 5PM to 11PM. I was not drunk, but definitely was enjoying a bit of a buzz. That was a high-water mark for me as well–a typical evening had become four to six drinks. On the weekends, if I thought my wife wouldn’t notice, I might have seven or eight between 4PM and midnight. Clearly I was self medicating. Clearly I was dependent (mild, according to this survey) but I was not falling-over-myself-drunk. I’ve had dry spells, but more often than not, I was killing a 12-pack in 2-4 days.

So now maybe you have an idea why my “labels” aside led this post. For me to say “Hi, my name is Rick, and I’m an alcoholic” conjures up images in most peoples’ minds of winos, domestic disturbances, sweaty wife-beater t-shirts and a piles of empty PBR cans scattered throughout the family room. That wasn’t me. That wasn’t the severity of my problem. But don’t get me wrong–I did (do?) have a problem. It just isn’t what most people think of as alcoholism.

From Wikipedia:

Alcoholism is a broad term for problems with alcohol, and is generally used to mean compulsive and uncontrolled consumption of alcoholic beverages, usually to the detriment of the drinker’s health, personal relationships, and social standing. It is medically considered a disease, specifically a neurological disorder, and in medicine several other terms are used, specifically “alcohol abuse” and “alcohol dependence,” which have more specific definitions

So, as best I can tell without actually consulting a professional, with my most honest confront-my-own-evils answers, I’ve scored “mild dependence”. I’m definitely not in the alcohol abuse category. But enough of that, I’m not writing this to try to defend myself. My wife was right–I needed to quit.

And I did. I’m currently writing this July 24th–13 days later. The moment my wife confronted me, I poured the brandy down the drain, and I’ve not had a drink since. I’ve been OK not drinking, but I was hoping for a more dramatic lift in my mood. I had assumed that I was in a cycle: drink->poor sleep->foul mood->drink->poor sleep…. and that once that cycle was broken that my mood would be better. It might be just a little bit better.

I’ve been working to change my own internal identity, telling myself that I “don’t drink” kinda like I have the identity of “non-smoker” and so far it seems to be working. I’ve been to a bar twice since the 11th, and both times I wasn’t tempted at all to have a drink. I just had coke and sprite. And walking out of the bar (I was shooting bands, go figure) I felt a new sense of power and freedom. I didn’t have to wonder, “am I safe to drive” or “was I a jackass” (maybe, but not because of alcohol) or “do I want to add to the buzz when I get home”. I was me, and I was in control.

Some days I’ve wanted to have a drink. But I know that if I have that one, I’ll probably want 3 or 5 more. And that’s a problem. This blog post is a promise to myself–I’ve scheduled it to appear July 11, 2013–exactly one year after I quit. And if I have a drink before then, I’ll publish this post with an explanation of why. I’ll also be adding additional thoughts along the way as I struggle with (and hopefully overcome) my problem. [See the update at the bottom for why this has now been published]

Update July 28: Over the last couple of days, I’ve had a few moments of minor temptation.Recently a friend said something to the effect of “we need to catch up. We should grab a beer when I get back from vacation.” At first I contemplated explaining my problem and goal, but decided that it wasn’t really the time. And besides, the beer would just be a subtext for gossiping about our wives, and wouldn’t actually be a requirement, though I think I would be OK for him to have one if he wants.

Second, after picking up our daughter from camp yesterday, we went to Barley’s Smoke House which has great barbeque and great beer. While standing in the lobby I contemplated ordering a pint. In that moment I figured, what the heck–I’ve proven my point; I’ve not had anything to drink in over two weeks. And then I remembered my promise to myself: either go one year, or publish this post and rationalize why I couldn’t make it. I ordered root beer instead.

Finally, today was a crazy day. It started at 3AM with my wife practically doubled over in pain (‘a lot like labor’) from a gallbladder attack. Eleven hours later, she was resting comfortably in a hospital bed, sans gallbladder. After bringing the kids home and eating dinner, I considered that I could have a drink and my wife would not be able to tell since she was spending the night in the hospital. But that isn’t really why I’ve stopped. She’s not policing me, and it isn’t out of fear of her reaction that I’ve quit–I’ve done it for myself. My promise is to myself–no one else knows about the promise. So the thought quickly passed out of my head.

Update August 8: It has been nearly a month since I’ve had a drink, and I’ve had a couple of instances recently where I actually handled beer, but didn’t feel like I wanted to drink any. The first was immediately after a wedding I was shooting last weekend. I was riding with the bridal party in their limo/bus on the way to a photo shoot, and they had a cooler full of Bud Light that they were working hard to get through before they arrived at the shoot. Due to my location in the bus/limo, I was handing out beer to the partiers. They said I could help myself if I wanted. My response was “I’m not drinking today.” I was really pleased with the simplicity of the statement. It was perfectly factual, but didn’t require any further detail that may make them feel uncomfortable by having me handle the beer for them. And to be clear, no one intended for me to pass the beer to them, it just happened that way, and I was happy to do it because having the cooler behind me meant it wasn’t prominent in the images. At no point during the trip did I feel tempted to have a beer, for a couple of reasons: it was Bud Light (which I never liked), I was ‘working’, and, most importantly, I really felt no desire to have one.

The second instance was yesterday–I bought a twelve-pack for the painters who were working on our house. I brought the beer back for them as they were getting ready to clean up for the day as a ‘thank you for your hard work’. They really appreciated it, and there were only three cans left after they were gone. And again, I had no desire to drink it. In prior months, I’d have opened the 12-pack and had a few right with them. Not this time, and it was really easy to walk away from it.

Update September 23: It has been over two and a half months, and I’m feeling pretty good about not having anything to drink. Not drinking has definitely gotten easier. We went to Byrne’s Pub last night, and when I went to the bar to order drinks (Sprite for me, Pumpkin Ale for Anne) I really had no desire to drink anything. More than anything, I was struck by a subtle wafting of a vomit odor at the bar. Fortunately it was very subtle.

There have been a couple of times when Anne has had something to drink recently, and I haven’t. And despite some of my original concerns, these were not difficult moments for me in a will-power sense. I felt about as jealous of her beverage as I do when she has tomato on her sandwich.

Speaking of Anne, I told her about my year-long commitment back in August. She had noticed that I had cut way back, but didn’t realize that I was completely abstaining. It felt good too and just a little scary to share my promise with her. Good because I knew she would be on my side and supportive if I needed her. Scary because now there was no way I could renege on my promise. She knows of the blog post, and will help to hold me accountable.

The one thing I miss at this point is not being able to share a drink socially. We had dinner at Anne’s mom’s house tonight, and she served wine with dinner. I opened the bottle, and set the glasses on the table for all the adults except me. Anne’s mom will probably have noticed, but was much too polite to have said anything about it at the table. Especially not in front of the kids.

The kids. That’s something else I’m surprised about: neither of the kids have said anything about me not drinking. Going back to the lead of this post, it’s not like I was falling down drunk all the time, but I had a beer with dinner more often than not. And if I had a can of beer, my son’s ears would always perk up when I opened it, hoping that we actually had pop in the house (a rarity). Now I’m having soy milk, water, or juice with dinner. I thought that one of the kids would have noticed by now. I’m glad, in a way, that they haven’t–it means it hadn’t become a big part of my identity to them, and that its absence was simply nothing of note.

Update October 2: Last night we had my wife’s cousin over for dinner, and she brought a six-pack of beer as guest contribution for the evening. It was a nice gesture even though I’d said (as is customary) that she didn’t need to bring anything with her. Anne had one, the other five remained in the fridge for the duration of the evening. I was a little worried at having them stay in the house, so I tried to send them home with our guest. She declined, saying “Those are for you guys”. I tried to get a gauge of my will-power and decided to not worry about it. This evening, I didn’t feel the slightest temptation to have one. All five remain in the fridge. Since Anne drinks beer infrequently, those bottles just might be waiting for me at the end of my year…

Update November 22: Today is Thanksgiving, and it was decidedly the the most difficult day for me to resist having anything to drink. Actually, the resistance challenges started last night when my grandfather called to give his regrets at not being able to attend Thanksgiving dinner. The stress of that situation really made me want to have a beer or something… anything. And that feeling lasted, to some extent the rest of today. There were a couple of times where I seriously contemplated having a glass of wine. But Anne did the right thing for me: she poured wine in glasses, but not in mine, prior to us sitting at the table. That way I didn’t even have to answer the question (like if my dad were pouring).

It surprised me that the temptation was so strong today (and last night) given other recent ‘accomplishments’.  A few weeks ago, Scott came over to catch up, and brought some beer with him. I poured his in a pint glass, then poured myself some grape juice. This prompted an extended conversation about what I was doing, that went very well, and didn’t feel uncomfortable to me at all. Scott was very understanding and supportive, and it was a good conversation. I made sure to point out that I really didn’t mind being around people who were drinking, and that I’m most concerned about people feeling uncomfortable around me. I really don’t want people to feel like they can’t have a beer (or three) just because I’m not drinking.

And that turned out to be the case when Scott and I had a game night with a couple of other guys. We played a variety of games, and everyone but me (I think) also had a couple of beers. Scott very graciously brought some root beer for me. The best part of the night was that I had a great time without the slightest bit of a buzz. It really was a great time, and was a good reminder to me that I didn’t need alcohol to have fun, and to be fully engaged in the good times.

Update November 28: Last night I had my first dream about alcohol–I dreamed I was in a bar, ordered a beer and took a drink before I remembered that I wasn’t drinking. In my dream, I was mildly stressed about a) deciding if I should publish this post, and b) having to discard 90% of a beer.  I’m sure the dream was the direct result of writing this post just before bedtime.

Update December 26: I’ve made it through Christmas despite a couple of temptations. What’s struck me the most of the last couple of weeks (and has been percolating for a couple of months) is the pervasiveness of alcohol consumption in our culture. Now that I don’t drink, I’m keenly aware of how much drinking is woven through events and gatherings and music and TV and movies. I imagine that I’m feeling a bit like vegetarians feel as they are constantly bombarded with the fact that they don’t take part in a large part of our social construct. In fact, I’m sure it is more difficult for vegetarians, but I think I now have a taste of what it must feel like to be somewhat silently on the outside.

I was a bit surprised by some responses to a recent status update that I posted on Facebook: “Now that the shopping and wrapping are done, what to do now?” Of the 7 people other than my wife commenting, 3 specifically suggested drinking. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not mad or offended by those comments. This is simply our culture, and alcohol plays a major role in being a social lubricant (and relaxant in times of stress). And I’m still playing along, not making it obvious to anyone, except for a few confidants, that I’m not consuming.

Update January 13: Over the holiday break, I talked with my daughter about my alcohol consumption. She told me that she never noticed anything as a problem, and had noticed that I didn’t seem to be drinking as much. She didn’t realize that I wasn’t drinking anything at all. We had a good and honest conversation, and I was glad to have had the chance to talk with her about it. I want her to be aware of the hazards of alcohol consumption, and to feel comfortable talking about it with me if she ever needs to.

I’ve now made it beyond the six month mark, and  the last couple of weeks have been, I think, some of the most difficult so far. More than anything, I think I’m wearying of the abstention. I feel like I’ve demonstrated that I’ve got it under control, so why bother with the rest? I’m keeping with it to say I stuck with my goal. But the last couple of weeks, I’ve actually wanted to have a drink more than I’ve wanted to prove that I don’t need to.

Update February 27: The fact that I don’t drink really has just become sort of “matter of fact” at this point. I had a conversation with my son about it a few days ago, and he acknowledged that he had kinda noticed that I wasn’t drinking anymore, but, as with my daughter, hadn’t really seemed like a big difference. We talked about why I had stopped, but he rapidly lost interest, and wanted to go play minecraft some more.

Yesterday I was on a flight from Atlanta to Columbus, and my very outgoing, gregarious, and slightly drunk single-serving friend offered to buy me a drink. I contemplated my response very quickly and discarded the “I’m not drinking today” or any other vague equivocation for fear that my friend would think it a slight that I not have drink with him. So I said matter-of-factly, “No thanks, man. I don’t drink.” He didn’t miss a beat, and kept being an outgoing, gregarious person. Jokingly, I suggested that he could buy me a drink, but that I would give it to him to consume. He then used this as an excuse to order a double vodka tonic from the flight attendant.

So, really, nothing of any significance has happened since the last update. I simply continue to not drink while many around me do. And it isn’t a big deal.

Update May 4: It has been almost ten months since I started this journey. I used to count the months, marking the 10th (or is it the 11th) of each month, if only in passing, as one more month closer to my goal. Now, I don’t really think much about “not drinking” in much the same way I don’t think about “not smoking”. Sure, I notice other people having a drink, and I’m looking forward to completing my goal, but not because I’m desperate to have a drink. Mostly its because of the mild isolation that “not drinking” brings.

I discussed this topic with one of my friends, Matt, who has been dry since some time shortly after college. He has a phrase that he uses regarding his own alcohol consumption that I can sympathize with: “nothing good ever came of me drinking”. That’s his mantra and a wonderfully non-judgmental way of explaining his choice succinctly  While we were talking about my year long commitment, I told him that I had noticed a bit of isolation–that it felt like my social life (for what its worth) had changed a bit, and without the metaphorical social lubricant, that I wasn’t hanging out with friends as much as previously. Since I don’t think many people know (more on that in a moment), I’m pretty sure that the isolation is at least mostly self-inflicted.

A few days after this conversation, I came to learn about a gathering a friend had held recently, that, as I understand it, was either a keg-tapping (he brews) or a general beer tasting. And I wasn’t invited. I fully understand why–I wouldn’t invite Matt to a wine tasting–but it is frustrating that I wasn’t invited at all. I might have gone, just to hang out. But that might have made others uncomfortable. Or something. Truly, I’m not mad at not being invited–it just seemed a poignant example of the mild isolation that this induces in me.

As for my journey not being well known, a work-friend recently joked on a late-night conference call that after my work was complete I could go back to relaxing with a glass of wine. I laughed along, but didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable by explaining why I wouldn’t be doing that. And this happened after she and I had been to a couple of recent after-work events where several (but not all) people were drinking.

Again, I’m not hurt or upset that she doesn’t notice I’m not drinking (we rarely do anything socially). It has simply become clear to me what a persistent and pervasive social construct it is. And that’s part of why I didn’t want it to be well known–I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable around me, or worry that the mere mention of wine will cause me to “relapse”, whatever that would mean.

What I’m looking forward to, most of all, is sharing a bottle of wine with my wife.

June 2, 2013: I’m coming up on 11 months, and today I’m publishing this post–not because I’ve had a drink, but because… well, allow me to explain. Some friends to whom I’ve not explained the situation have expressed some confusion to my wife. These friends new that I had enjoyed beer and other adult beverages in the past, but that recently I hadn’t. They seemed to wonder if it was the beer choice they had on offer, or if I was mad at them for some reason, or something like that. They didn’t, for whatever reason, ask me. They asked my wife, and that put her in an uncomfortable position. As she and I talked about her reaction, and my continued silence on the matter, I started to realize something that I hadn’t admitted to myself previously: I was embarrassed. And the pattern of whom I’ve told seems to bear that out. Also, one of my original intentions was to keep awkward situations to a minimum by not telling too many people, by not making them worry that they might do something that would ‘set me back’ or something. What I realize now that that by going so long, I prompted the opposite–my silence has caused awkwardness, and I don’t want that to continue.

Well, I’m done being embarrassed, and making my friends and family feel awkward. This is my public admission that I needed to quit. It is also an acknowledgement that I don’t want to have July 11 be a momentous occasion. I don’t want to reach my goal AND publish this post on the same day. I want to reach my goal quietly, matter-of-factly, without anyone but me (and perhaps my wife) noticing, and having something scheduled to happen on that date was only going to make it more obvious.

So, awkward as it may be, I’m telling the world, today, that I needed to quit drinking alcohol several months ago. I’m still not drinking, and it is no longer, for me, a question of whether or not I’ll reach my goal. I will. The real question is what will I do next.

If you’re a friend or family member, you need not worry about serving or drinking in my presence. I won’t even be offended, worried, or concerned if you offer me a drink. I may decline the offer, or not, depending entirely on the decision I make that day. I am in control, and my new goal is to remain that way.

[I made the self-portrait up top today, June 2, 2013, using the exact bottle of brandy, which has remained in our cabinet, untouched except for cooking.The glass has iced-tea.]

3 thoughts on ““You need to quit””

  1. “Kudos!” to you on your decision not to drink. You are to be commended for this. Alcohol has slyly pervaded our culture and social interactions to a point where it seems “normal” to have a drink in your hand with every social interaction. It takes courage and self control not to have that drink when everyone else is drinking. My hope and prayer is that you will continue to not drink once you reach your goal and that your witness to this decision will continue. Your example may just be the catalyst that touches someone else to have the courage and determination to stop as well.

  2. I’m proud of you, for your daily decisions and for posting so clearly about them.
    Love you, Mom.

  3. Great post Rick, and kudos to you for voicing your decision and the reasons behind it. I wish you well on your journey and with the control you have taken over your lifestyle.

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