Three years sober

4533192657Around this time in 2010, I went on a weekend-long bender. At the end of it, I experienced severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms that made me realize that if I kept drinking like this, I was going to die. And it was not going to be one of those genteel F. Scott Fitzgerald-type deaths that would strike me somewhere in my middle age. No, I was pretty sure that I was going to die, like, next year.

Previous attempts to control my drinking had taught me that moderation wasn’t an option for me, so I knew that I had to quit entirely. And I did. I’ve been alcohol-free for three years.

It was the best decision I ever made. My life almost immediately became much easier. When I quit drinking, there were two non-functional cars outside my house: both had dead batteries; one had a broken axle; another had a broken serpentine belt. For weeks, I’d just stared at them with this feeling of helpless dread. It was my responsibility to fix them, but I had no idea how to do it.

A month after I quit drinking, I had a Sunday free, so I called AAA and had the cars towed. It took a few hours and a lot of money, but the whole thing was shockingly easy. It was an out of body experience: my life was fixing itself.

On February 3rd, 2010, I started writing again. Before that, I’d had 14 days of writing (9,4000 words) in the previous three months. In the next three months, I wrote for 76 days and produced 79,000 words (including the story that would become my first sale to Clarkesworld). My writing productivity shot up (it doubled in 2010 and then doubled again in 2011).  During the years before I quit, I wrote around 400,000 words and I only wrote on around 1 in every 5 days. In the three years since, I’ve written about 1,400,000 words and have written for about 17 out of every 20 days.

Within a few months, my time horizon had expanded. I stopped living month to month and starting planning for my own future. My emotional health improved dramatically. I stopped feeling so angry and resentful and worthless.

And my social relations improved. Almost immediately, people started to treat me better. It was like everyone had always wanted to treat me like a functional human being who could be trusted to take care of himself and other people, and the moment that became possible, they were happy to do so. None of the sorry, disreputable things I did have ever come back to haunt me.

Oh, and my work life became substantially better. I no longer felt as overwhelmed by all my tasks (although it still took me years to learn how to hit my deadlines).

None of this was a simple or easy process, of course. But it also didn’t take that long. Within three months, sobriety had dramatically reshuffled my life.

And now I’ve been sober for three years!

Since I quit without any kind of formal program (I never did any kind of rehab and I don’t attend recovery meetings), the temptation is to say that I wasn’t really addicted to alcohol. But I’ve still never met anyone who drank in the completely out-of-control way that I used to. Even the sheer quantities were mind-boggling. In any case, there is no doubt in my mind that I was addicted to alcohol (whatever that means) and that if I began to drink again, it would soon spiral out of control and destroy everything I’ve gained.

But that won’t happen. Although I’m frequently around alcohol (since quitting, I’ve been to hundreds of parties and bar-room gatherings, held peoples’ drinks, bought liquor for parties and kept it in my home, etc.), I rarely feel tempted to drink. When I look at alcohol, I don’t even think: “Hey I could drink that.” I go weeks and weeks without ever thinking about how I don’t drink.

But sometimes I feel shocked by what’s happened to me. Alcohol has killed so many people who were much smarter and had much more willpower than me: the canon of American literature is a list of brilliant writers who were mastered and then destroyed by their drinking. I cannot explain why I escaped. The closest I come to believing in God is when I think about that day, three years ago.

Of course, I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in miracles and I do have a few explanations.

  • I stopped drinking after I left college, lost my community of fellow drinkers, and entered a social milieu where drinking to black-out was much more unacceptable.
  • It also happened shortly after I started working and waking up every morning; the structure of my life meant that drinking got in my way to a much greater degree than previously.
  • One of my best friends had also recently quit drinking (studies of social contagion show that people tend to quit drinking in clusters—when you quit, your friends are almost 100% more likely to quit as well).
  • The frequent travel for my job meant that I adopted a sober and binge cycle (it’s hard to drink when you’re working every day) that exacerbated and prolonged the negative effects of alcohol on those occasions when I did drink (meaning that drinking became much less pleasant).
  • While drinking, I read tons of the sobriety literature and slowly took in the idea that total abstinence was a good method of avoiding the effects of alcoholism. I think that people who try to quit drinking in isolation often tend to repeatedly fall into this trap of trying to moderate their drinking, succeeding for awhile, and then losing control, until they eventually die.

Notice what is not on this list: willpower. I don’t believe in willpower. Willpower means expending energy trying not to drink. I mean, sometimes, you need willpower, but it should be absolutely your last resort. Willpower has saved me maybe a dozen times in the last three years (and most of them were very early on). If you’re relying on willpower, then eventually, maybe one in a hundred times, you’re going to fail. And then you’re kind of screwed.

No, quitting drinking feels more like a structural problem. If you build the right systems into your life, then you don’t need to try to do it. For some people, this means avoiding alcohol. For me, it meant the opposite. Whenever I didn’t drink in a situation where I normally would’ve drunk, I felt like I was overwriting the programming that would’ve led me to drink. I’m also proactive about telling people that I don’t drink and, if it comes up in discussion, I don’t mind if people learn that I used to have a drinking problem.

Anyway, that’s all a subject for another post.

Sometimes I think that it was almost inevitable that I would quit drinking. So many factors were in my favor. But, of course, it could’ve gone a different way. I could’ve learned to downcycled to a form of daily drinking that allowed me to get to work on time; I could’ve quit or lost my job; I could’ve died. I don’t fully understand why those things did not happen.

But I am awed and grateful by the way that things turned out. I haven’t mentioned it on my blog until now because I’ve been in the working world and the timing didn’t feel quite right. But I do have tons of things to say about alcohol recovery and, since I belong to no sobriety communities, I have had no one to say them to. From now on, I will say them here.

Notes:

  • Occasionally, I’ll have a friend who, upon learning that I used to have a drinking problem, takes it upon themselves to police me. They start asking, “Is it okay if I drink?” or they won’t invite me to a gathering because “It was at a bar.” There is no need for you to do this. First of all, I am literally never bothered by other peoples’ drinking. Secondly, I find it very easy to avoid or escape from social situations that I’m not enjoying. Thirdly, you have absolutely no responsibilities vis a vis my sobriety.
  • Similarly, there is no need to be concerned—you know I am talking to you, Mummy—that this confession will hurt me on the job market. Any employer who thought “Oh, I don’t want to have an employee with this really healthy character trait” would be a huge fool. Also, if they acted upon that thought, then they would be breaking the law. Alcoholism is a protected condition under the Americans with Disabilities Act.