Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Confessions of a Middle-Aged Ex-Drunk

In the 9 1/2 years since I quit drinking, I've had a lot of time to reflect on my life as a drunk. Sometimes during those nights when I can't sleep for some reason, I've wondered how and why I spent over twenty years and several thousands of dollars living a lifestyle that was slowly killing me. Looking back, with my patented 20/20 hindsight, I ask myself, "what was I thinking?"

Like most people, my drinking started during my teens. Back in 1978, you could buy beer and wine at age 18 in the DC-Maryland-Northern Virginia region where I grew up. Having reached legal age in the middle of my senior year in high school, I became the guy my younger brother and our neighborhood buddies came to to buy beer for the weekend. As an awkward kid who was never popular, I was suddenly in demand and I liked it. Overnight I went from being nerdy Richie Cunningham to The Fonz.

It was so simple, why hadn't I seen it before? Beer = Popularity. That simple equation set the tone for the next twenty-one years of my life.

Beer became my god and I prayed in bars, taverns and night clubs five or six nights a week. (Sunday was my day of rest). When I was drunk, I felt born again. I could be funny, smart, uninhibited and free. I could forget all about the childhood of daily beatings from my overwhelmed single mother of six or the father who walked out of my life, who I wouldn't see again for ten years. My nightly Baptism-by-Beer made all the pain go away, if only for a few hours.

Fast forward to August 1999, Roanoke, Va. and a trip to the doctor's office for a burning sensation in my gut. Having had a serious bout of hepatitis-B at the age of twenty-two, I knew what liver pain felt like. After a series of tests and an ultra sound, my doctor informed me that I had Fatty Liver Syndrome (FLS), a build up of fatty deposits in my liver.

He explained that what was wrong with me had nothing to do with the amount of fat in my diet. In his matter of fact, clinical way he revealed that there are only two known causes of FLS, diabetes and alcohol abuse. He then added, "You don't have diabetes."

As the doctor described the likely progression of cirrhosis, liver cancer, transplantation and/or death, my life on a bar stool flashed before my eyes. I was somewhat comforted when he advised me that the liver is the only organ that will repair itself, if the damage isn't too severe and if caught in time.

On the drive home, in my stunned, deer-in-the-headlights frame of mind, I knew what I had to do. I got back to my apartment and immediately collected up all the beer, vodka, tequila and all the other toxic ambrosia I had stockpiled and poured it down the kitchen sink, thinking all the while, "you don't have to tell me twice, Doc."

But it wasn't as simple as just cleaning my apartment. Over the years, my drinking had gotten expensive. I was making a decent salary, but never had quite enough money to pay my bills. My solution was to take a part-time job -- as a bartender.

I've never been a big fan of 12-step programs, so I never went to an AA meeting. I just couldn't accept the notion that I was powerless over my addiction. I couldn't bring myself to quit my job, because I needed the money. I decided to use it to my advantage. Every night as I mixed drinks and drew beers from the tap, I focused on the sad lives of my fellow drunks and said to myself over and over, "that's not gonna be me."

These people that I had called friends for years were now serving as my own worst-case scenario:

The successful business man who would rather spend his life in a dark, smoke-filled bar then with his beautiful wife and children, who drank from the moment he woke up hung over, until the second he passed out at night, was my constant red flag.

My 40-something friend who bemoaned that fact that she couldn't get pregnant, oblivious to the jar of pickled eggs staring at her from two feet away, was a reminder to me of what I had done to my own health.

Gradually, my life started coming together. I met my partner of nine years a few months later and gave up my bar tending gig and bar life altogether. My liver has healed and my health continues to be fine.

As for my bar-fly friends, I never hear from them any more, but that's okay. They unwittingly did more for me then they will ever know, and I love them for it. They helped me through my loneliness and gave me something to do to keep my mind off my problems. Without knowing it, they taught me a valuable lesson: If you want to know who your friends are, quit drinking.

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