Alcohol in and of itself isn’t bad. It just is. It helps to lube up the social interactions of the world. It helps to turn down your inhibitions, which can be a good or bad thing. It feels good to be buzzed. In the right company it can be downright fun. Boozing is a backdrop to society, like the curtain behind the play. I can’t go to a kids birthday party, college football game, after work event, or really any social gathering without seeing alcohol along for the ride. Having something in your hand while socializing seems like a national pastime. For many it is just that, a fun addition to fun times. But I would also venture a guess that every reader out there has had alcohol negatively impact their lives through either their own or someone else’s actions. According to National Institute of Public Health, 7% (about 16.6 million in population!) adults aged 18 or older in the U.S. has Alcohol Use Disorders (defined as when drinking causes distress or harm, a pretty broad definition with classifications of mild, moderate, and severe)- nearly 10% of men and 5% of women. Of these less than 8% went into treatment.
I’m here today to tell my story, and to share with my own situation today as it is one of those “It’s Complicated” relationships for me. Let’s start with some history.
My dad is a good Samaritan, nice guy. Like writer/director Kevin Smith’s dad (and millions others I’d imagine), my dad hated his job at the U.S. Post Office. But it was a steady paycheck and gave us the opportunity to grow up in a stable middle class life. My parents were afforded the opportunity to move out of the trailer that they lived in when I was first born to a humble 3 bedroom ranch. Dropping out of college due to excessive partying (big change of lifestyle going to a big city for that teenage farm kid), he graduated with a tech degree he never used. The partying lifestyle changed when he had kids,but the drinking didn’t. He would get home from what must have been a soul crushing job, and crack open a beer or three as he unwound from work. He’d putter, work on car or house stuff, until dinner, then he’d switch over to hard liquor like rum and cokes. Mostly he stayed out of everyone’s way, holler at us or spank us on occasion, but mostly just escape into his recliner reading his newspaper or watching TV. Absentee parenting, just checking out on a daily basis.
I’m not sure how old I was, maybe 12(?) when he went into rehab. Unbeknownst to this pre-teen boy, my mom wasn’t happy with that sort of husband. Husband-wife relationships are always complicated to a degree, and I don’t think kids really have a clear understanding of what goes on behind the scenes. Maybe general vibes if a divorce is eminent, or more overt signs like if their parents are fighting, but if the boat isn’t rocking too much, I think most kids are oblivious. Me and my brothers certainly were. So my old man went to an in-patient rehab for a week? A month? I don’t remember. I remember eating pudding cups while my mom and him visited. Was sort of like prison. Then we all visited together for awhile, then we left, with my dad staying there until the next time we came to visit. He got sober, and to my knowledge hasn’t ever drank again. His sobriety saved his marriage. It wasn’t like he then became parent of the year or anything, but he was more engaged and found enjoyment in other things in life, which I suppose is a major accomplishment in someone who was finding “enjoyment” in the bottom of a bottle.
Both my brothers went off to college lean and mean. Both were high school varsity letter winners, and my one brother had shot up to 6’6″ in high school and was set to be a football star before tearing his ACL. After four years of college and college partying, both came back 50 pounds heavier. After 10 years out of college, both were probably 100 pounds overweight. Drinking. They were drinking and putting on weight like no one’s business. My youngest brother stayed a bachelor, while the oldest had gotten married and had kids, one. Then two. For awhile, he was working to lose the weight. He got into biking and was making progress. But he was drinking, and depressed, and got in a vicious cycle of underemployment, depression, and alcoholism. His marriage was crashing and burning, and then they had an oops baby that kept their marriage going for a few more years before his self-destruction finally did them in. (his ex-wife certainly wasn’t without fault, but who wants to be married to an ornery, depressed, 100+# overweight alcoholic?) That crushed the older brother even more, spiraling ever downward. Jobs would come and go, with booze as a key factor I think. His liver was failing and slowly but surely he was starting to kill himself.
My relationship with him at that point in life was nonexistent. I felt helpless and he wasn’t the person I once knew. Any message or life preserver of hope I floated out there was shot down immediately. He was already dead to me before he went into the hospital to die with liver failure. But something amazing happened. First he didn’t die. He had some semi-permanent thing installed that let him drain some nasty shit out of his body like a spigot in a maple tree, but he lived. And maybe more miraculous was he finally got sober, and it stuck. Like my dad, it was a treatment place, then a half-way house. His ex-wife, once one of his most hated enemies, became one of his key allies. It was a crazy time – to go from being on a list to receive a liver transplant (let’s just say this list is very long), to starting to heal up from the inside – slowly, but nonetheless, progress. He’ll have permanent health issues from this journey, but he’s living. He’s been sober I think over 2 years. Coming back briefly to my youngest brother – now pushing 4 bills (400 pounds), he had a scare that landed him in the hospital. He too got sober as that was a contributing part of his issues, but was more an outpatient therapy place. I think he’s coming up on two years sober as well.
I didn’t drink until I was maybe 16 years old, and then probably only a few times while in High School. Later in college I didn’t drink that much, at least during the school year. I had a fake ID (Adam Rodd, from Nebraska – it was awful) that got me into places, but it was a social thing mostly. I’d go to parties and tie one on from time to time with my closest friends, but it was never to blackout drunk and only a few times was I ever really hung over. Sure, I made some really dumb-ass decisions a few times with alcohol playing a central party of those, but those were more anomalies than anything – typical college shit. Moving to New Jersey for my first real job, it was the same. We had to drive a lot of places, and drinking and driving wasn’t something I did. I don’t recall regularly buying beer or liquor while we lived there, though we enjoyed a pint or two with newly minted friends after work on occasion or watching NFL on Sundays.
Moving back to the midwest this pattern of life continued. I had taken up smoking, and had put on a few pounds -certainly wasn’t the height of my physical prowess. We got married, bought a house, and ironically I remember more frequent beer drinking after I started getting into Ironman training. I think it was easier to justify a beer or two when I knew I burned through a metric shitton on a bike ride. It was usually at home, not out at the bars with friends. We didn’t go out to the bars that much to be frank. Then we had kids. It was a stressful time and while I don’t remember specifically if I started drinking more frequently, I believe I did. I was fit, in shape, was running 20 miles a week still, and having beers or wine to wrap the day up many days of the week. It wasn’t a problem then, life was good, but patterns were starting to emerge that would continue and start exacerbating for years.
Fast forward to three years ago, when I have more clear recollection. This is prior to some of the events with my brothers. I was working in a job that was just the fucking worst. The people I had to deal with were soul crushing (see anything that sounds familiar?), and I started drinking as a matter of course just about every day. I wasn’t necessarily getting drunk, but was surely getting buzzed and feel good about my life and forget about the stressful assholes I dealt with on a daily basis. Sometimes I’d overindulge and feel crappy the next day, but I kept my shit together. Did a good job at work. Was still a good dad, thought I was still a good husband. I had started my Average Married Dad journey and blog and was working on lots of things as part of that and life. Holly usually enjoyed a glass of wine or two with me. All of these things weren’t necessarily indicative of a problem. As I mentioned, consequences and other scoring determines if it is indeed a problem. Sort of: it’s not a problem until it’s a problem.
About that time I wanted to prove that it wasn’t a problem, so for several years I did a ‘dry January,‘ where I would be sober for that month. The first couple years it was easy, not much thought given to the fact I wasn’t drinking. One year I went to Holly’s January Christmas party sober as a Mormon and had a blast doing karaoke to Snoop Dogg’s Gin and Juice. While everyone thought I was drunk, I was just having a great time with good friends and experiences. But this last year, I was counting down until I could imbibe again. Something had changed. I hated my job so much and it was like a dark cloud over me. Despite my brother having nearly died, I was falling into similar trappings. I was overstepping self imposed limits (big strike), while checking out (big strike two, just like my dad), with a vicious cycle of alcohol feeding depression feeding drinking. I kept my shit pretty together, was the designated driver when we went out or to friends’ houses, but it was becoming a problem in my own mind and taking up way more headspace than it should have been.
On the Fourth of July I had too much to drink and disappointed my wife and Birdsnest since my condition resulted in canceling a planned event. Holly simply said she was really disappointed, and I had to explain to my daughter that “I wasnt’ feeling good.” I felt like complete shit. I dumped out all the booze we had and haven’t drank since. It’s been easy being sober, but has resulted in a lot of introspection and “figuring shit out” as they say.
Like everything in my life, I self examine and learn and improve. That’s where I’m at. I’m not sure what alcohol means to me long term, but I don’t want it in my life right now. Doing everything I could to learn more and evaluate my situation, I dropped into a couple of AA meetings. I took a class called “The Fundamentals of Addiction” that talked about the brain and body physiological aspects of addiction. Through these classes and meetings I learned a lot and had the opportunity to meet and learn from a lot of people, many of whom really hit the bottom of the barrel (OWIs, broken marriages, trouble with the law, etc.). Two of the key ingredients to growing in this life is being humble and learning from anyone and everyone, and I have that in spades. As the statistic at the start of this post noted, most people who have alcohol use disorders don’t get help. They can’t be talked into help either, it has to come from within.
During the podcast I did with Matt Forney, we talked about this topic. Matt had recently did a sober experiment as well, going sober for 30 days. We had many of the same observations. Felt better. Had more money in our pocket. Didn’t really impact the social fun at events. More time and headspace to pursue more worthwhile events. Weight loss from fewer excess calories. Overall you feel a lot better. I believe I was depressed, and the combo of getting a new job and stopping the boozing has made me feel so much better. I fight boredom and checking out in new ways and engage more. Now I wasn’t doing bad while I was having a few beverages at night (say, I was maximizing 75% of my time and doing cool shit), but now I am maximizing my time and happiness to a much higher degree.
So that’s my on-going story. I don’t want to be the person who has to drink at night to wash away their pain and ignore the ghosts in my brain. Instead, I want to be the person that acknowledges that life isn’t perfect, and lean into that pain or those issues, and deal with them directly. Maybe having a beer or a glass of wine at social events may be something I add back in, maybe not, but going back to having alcohol be a focal point or a daily part in my life is something that won’t happen.
If you or someone you love has an issue with drinking too much, I encourage addressing the situation. Going 30 days sober is a good start. Looking at yourself honestly is hard. If you set boundaries with drinking that you keep overstepping, you may have an issue. There are many resources out there, and it is much better to take the proactive approach (when it’s a minor annoyance) than letting it pile up and destroy your life. It happens. You’ve probably seen it happen yourself to someone you love. Drinking is usually a symptom and not the root issue, but covers up those issues so they’ll never be addressed as long as you’re on the sauce.
Disarming someone who has a problem is another situation that is difficult – to tell them you are concerned for them or disappointed without them getting defensive. I think it’s important to do that. Without my wife telling me in a gentle but powerful way what she thought, I probably could have kept lying to myself. There are resources out there – click here (NIAAA/NIH resources). I thought AA was dumb, but there were other resources I learned about that work for those who aren’t into AA such as SMART recovery, and mindfulness/meditation approaches to addiction therapy have been gaining traction as well.
Anyways, alcohol is only a problem when it’s a problem. I don’t know if it is a long-term problem for me, and only you can decide if it’s a problem for you or your loved ones. All I hope to do as a life voicepiece is to encourage improvement, in myself and others, whatever that improvement may be.
Best of luck to you on your journey!