I remember the first time I entered a grocery store when this pandemic situation began, way back in March. The air was electric with anxiety. It was a human pheromone wonderland. As soon as I walked in, a wave of shared anxiety ripped through my chest. It was so incredibly strange. Before I entered the building, I was strangely excited, perhaps riding a wave of “this hasn’t ever happened before, I wonder what the outside world is like.” But as soon as that grocery store air hit me, all of my primal “fight or flight” instincts kicked in. My behavior didn’t change, but my mood certainly did. I understood suddenly why people were buying in bulk. People felt a primal need to gather supplies to survive, and I was a part of that.
I didn’t go on any shopping spree or anything that day; I mainly made sure there was enough food for my kids. Hell, I even scoffed at all the other people with shopping carts overflowing with toilet paper. I still don’t get that, either. Here we are, over two months in, and I still can’t find toilet paper at the grocery store. This pandemic is all a hoax put on by Big Poop to sell toilet paper, I swear.
The one thing I didn’t understand was the alcohol aisle. When I approached it, I figured it would be stripped. People kept posting over and over about how much they planned on drinking during their own quarantine, and my wife and I certainly planned on partaking plenty. It was a stressful time, after all. We had to drink, right?
So, I did my part. I bought a bunch of beer and wine at the grocery store and then visited the liquor store (which was still an essential business that was allowed to stay open) to stock up on rum, mostly. I brought it all home like some prize. “Honey, I brought alcohol home! Oh, and some food!”
I was far from alone. People were doing plenty of bragging about their alcohol consumption on all the social media forums. Why not drink? We had to cope, right? Hell, we still do have to cope, so let’s keep drinking, right?
And that’s actually understandable. The United States is a drinking culture. Hell, booze is mentioned in the constitution twice because we were once so committed to quitting that we put it right there, a “permanent” amendment for all to follow. But, we were so drenched in alcohol that we became criminals in order to keep making it and drinking it. And then the Great Depression hit, and what everyone agreed upon was that we totally needed a drink. So, we put in another amendment to correct the previous amendment. Nope, just kidding. America really needs the sauce.
We’ve never looked back. Though, the relationship with alcohol has been weird in this country. In many places, whether you can buy it or not still depends on what day it is, what time it is, and what county you live in. I went to a small college for a few weeks way back in 1999, and that school was in a dry town. No alcohol was to be purchased or consumed anywhere. This dry town was located next to Ohio State University, which, a quick internet search of “OSU football DUI” will tell you, is no stranger to booze. Peppered around just outside the border of this dry town were plenty of stores that would sell booze to anyone who didn’t look like they were in middle school. And damn, I don’t think I’ve ever drank so much in such a short time in my entire life. Dry towns and other restrictions on alcohol almost seem like a challenge for Americans to overcome. And we do.
I’ve come to be identified as a beer guy, I think. And why not? Beer is a man’s drink. A man has to earn his beer, somehow. I got into the whole craft brew craze that took over Northeast Ohio several years ago and never looked back. Why drink beer that tastes vaguely of urine that requires ten cans to get drunk when you can drink beer that is expensive and has a new-found “connoisseur-ish” label attached to drinking it? I became one of those people who self-labeled an “IPA guy” because I “liked the bitter, yet citrusy” flavors of those beers.
Nah. It was good and all, but let’s face it. IPA drinkers want a faster buzz. IPA’s are generally higher alcohol content, and they even come in “double” and “triple” forms, that are, respectively, higher and higher alcohol content. I’d drink IPAs that were nine percent alcohol, not because of the flavor and “complexity,” but because they were nine percent alcohol. I mean, man…my head enjoyed a nice, cool buzz after just one.
And I know I wasn’t alone. Not by a long stretch. The demand for IPAs has only risen over the past few years and the varieties of high percentage beer have become virtually uncountable. People want to go to the grocery store and buy some high-octane beer whenever they damn well please, thank you very much. And why not? Locally, you still need a special license to sell wine on Sundays, which cracks me up. The local Target can’t sell wine on Sundays, for example, yet they can sell beer. The wine, which is typically between ten and fifteen percent alcohol, isn’t allowed one day of the week. However, beer, which is available at the store up to thirteen percent alcohol (though that stuff is really expensive), is available at all times and is sold in unlimited quantities. Huh.
Anyhow, I digress, as is typical. This post is, as they all are, really about me. Back to the subject at hand.
I’ve used alcohol as a crutch and a coping mechanism for a long time. It started out as the fun, adventurous, forbidden thing back in my teen years as it does for tons of American teens. We’d water down friends’ parents’ liquor, snag beers, have older siblings and friends buy us stuff, and attend parties with older kids just to have a fun time. And it would have been cool if my relationship with it stayed fun. But it certainly didn’t.
When my mom and my best friend’s stepdad died in the same year, when I was only nineteen, I was introduced to the art of “drinking to cope.” Since these tragedies were unprecedented and the adults around us were fully aware that I wasn’t a stranger to alcohol, I was given permission to drink. I had to cope, after all, and America isn’t a country that deals with death well, if at all, so our mainstay coping mechanism is loads of alcohol. I could’ve done a keg stand at my mom’s wake and no one would’ve stopped me. They would’ve simply looked on, sighed, and perhaps commented about how they felt bad for me. And probably even commented that I earned that keg stand.
And perhaps for many people, the drinking to cope thing stops a little while after the funeral. It didn’t for me. I was still grieving, and still college age. I tried going back to college, but of course ran into a lot of enabling with drinking, and I was so lost I neglected to even withdraw from school. I just stopped going to class and was dismissed for failing everything. I still have that report card on my official college record and had to submit it with my graduate school application this year. I played music and put all of my energy into making music, which led me to audio engineering school in Orlando, where gallons of rum at the time were only sixteen bucks. I gained a lot of weight during that time.
The permissive/encouraged relationship with booze continued throughout my twenties. My dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Time to drink! One of my good friends died. Time to drink! Friends and family were getting married. Time to drink! I got married. Time to drink! It was a day of the week that ended in “day.” Time to drink!
But I knew a certain limit. I never became that guy people would stop from drinking at parties. I never got violent. But I would always go for a certain threshold of drunk to hit at minimum. Part of this was inspired by the fact that I ended up thinking I’d be happy as an ER/trauma/ICU nurse. I was good at it, I’d say. I’m good at plenty of things when I focus my mind on them. But, what I didn’t realize about this line of work was that I’d be traumatized by it.
I’d go through shifts thinking that my only issues were fatigue, but I had been exposed to a lot of bullshit. Some things that were physically traumatic, but a ton of things that were reminiscent of how I lost friends and family. The images of events kept creeping up in my brain. The nightmares came in waves. I’d get visions of horrible things happening to my family at random intervals. I started staying up late to keep from sleeping and having the nightmares, and when I’d stay up late, I’d drink. Not just to cope with my emotional shit, but also to make sure that I could sleep.
The amount of alcohol I began drinking was not healthy. A six-pack of nine percent beer knocks me on my ass, and that’s what I would strive for. Soon enough, my wife was telling me that I was buying beer too often or that I was drinking too many in an evening. She was aware that things were getting to be a bit of an issue, and she was trying to help in the only way she could. Naturally, I was defensive of my natural, American way to cope.
I still heard her message that I had a problem I needed to work on, so I got into therapy eventually and was diagnosed with PTSD. I was surprised and skeptical of this diagnosis at first. I mean, soldiers on the front lines of war get that, right? Not ER nurses. Right? What didn’t help my skepticism was the fact that my therapist wasn’t concerned about my drinking. Four to six beers after a shift wasn’t considered excessive; I was a normal, American man. No problem there. Also not helping was the complete and total lack of emotional support for healthcare workers going through trauma. My first brush with this incompetence was the first time I had a young child die under my care. Our ER team worked our asses off to save that kid, that young baby, but we just couldn’t. The images, the sight of the child’s body, the screaming of the parents…it all came back to haunt me time and time again. What did our hospital do to help us cope? They put a sign-up sheet in the break room, for all to see, for anyone to request an appointment with a therapist. Other than that, you know what else I was offered in terms of comfort after that event? My manager put a hand on my back as I was clocking out and said, “Go home and have a few beers. You deserve them.”
For fuck’s sake.
But I followed that advice, because that’s what alcohol became: medicine. But the doses I needed only increased. Nothing that was “excessive” by American standards, to be honest. I usually would have three beers minimum (higher percentage, mind you), six beers maximum. But my wife, in all her good love and friendship, would call me out when she noticed I was buying them too often. I’d get defensive. I’d try and hide a few extra beers around the house. I’d get caught. We’d fight about it. But then we’d be okay after I promised not to hide beer anymore. This happened a few times. I never did anything more, anything that typically comes with the story of what most people picture to be an alcoholic.
I went to therapy again at the start of this year and was confirmed two things: I have PTSD, and no, I don’t drink to excess. I even tried convincing my therapist that no, I do drink to excess. I told him about the percentage of the beers and how often I drank them. I even got into the times I would hide them. I wasn’t advised to quit. I was advised to keep it under control. If I could manage my PTSD symptoms in other ways, I could still drink “in a healthy way.”
And I think my wife was on a similar page. She’s not much of a drinker at all; she’ll maybe drink wine occasionally, but we would drink on our dates, and we would enjoy some wine together sometimes after the kids went to bed. Like so many other couples, alcohol was still very much present in our romantic life. So, even during the times when she caught me storing extra beers somewhere, she never said that I should quit. It was the lying that hurt her, after all. But she still loved me and wanted dates and stuff, which inevitably meant we should still have the option to drink.
Which brings us back to the present, basically. The start of the pandemic brought with it a highly socially-acceptable relationship with drinking excessively for basically everyone posting anything to any social media account. We had plenty of alcohol in the house, and it seemed like a good idea. Culturally speaking, having drinks every night during a pandemic was one of the more American things we could do. Then, my wife found two beers I had hidden under the kitchen sink a while back. These were beers I had thought I’d lost. At the time when I hid them, I was too clouded with alcohol to remember where I put them the next day. By the time she discovered them, I had actually forgotten about them altogether. That shocked me. It gave me some major perspective.
I had that “moment of clarity,” I suppose. It all seemed suddenly simple, yet kind of complicated in many ways. But the decision was easy. It was time to quit drinking.
I wasn’t afraid of it, finally. Six years ago this month, I quit smoking, and I remember all the times I tried to quit smoking and failed. And each time I failed, I was still scared of what my life would be like without cigarettes. I was afraid of the withdrawal, the headaches, the need to use cigarettes to cope. Most bad habits come from shitty attempts to cope, and alcohol was no different than cigarettes.
But quitting alcohol feels much different than quitting smoking. With smoking, at least, it’s becoming unacceptable by most. There’s been a cultural shift in the past couple of decades. People think cigarettes are disgusting (they are), and immediately understand when someone wants to quit. Alcohol is far, far different.
People tend to think that some major event causes someone to quit drinking, like a car accident, spousal abuse, or the emptying of a savings account. I’ve performed this level of judgment myself. I’ve heard people refuse alcohol and say, “No thanks, I don’t drink,” and I’ve assumed that they are either religious or have some awful event in their past they don’t want to talk about. Let’s face it, it’s almost un-American not to drink. As someone who wasn’t actually physically addicted to alcohol, it almost seems illogical for me to quit. I could easily go for a long time without drinking, physically speaking. But socially and psychologically, I’ve been tethered to booze in one way or another since my teens. The hiding was bad, and definitely not a sign of a good relationship with the stuff, but oddly enough it wasn’t bad enough for anyone to ever suggest that I quit drinking altogether; not even two separate therapists thought so.
My drinking was, from the limited survey results from my wife, friends, family, and therapists, not a problem. So why did I quit?
Because it was a problem. It was getting in the way. It was preventing me from sleeping normally. It was preventing me from addressing my PTSD directly. It was keeping me from focusing on things that I actually care about. It was making me eat extra food and gain extra weight. It was keeping me from being a runner. It was keeping me from feeling healthy. It was holding me back and holding me back and holding me back.
I can’t even tell you in words what happened in my brain when the decision to stop altogether locked in. It just fit together like that one puzzle piece stuck under the couch, but finally found. The picture was complete, and there was no going back without disrupting the puzzle and/or ignoring how good it felt to complete the damn thing, finally. Luckily, despite the influence, cultural pressure, and the fact that I “didn’t have a problem,” I stopped.
That was two months ago today. I know it doesn’t seem like a long time, but it is. And there’s no reason for me to even consider that I will end up starting to drink again. In the two months without drinking, this has happened:
-I’ve lost 28 pounds
-I started running again and can do a 5K in 27 minutes
-I’ve become a morning person (who knew?). I get up at 5:30 every morning and get busy working/creating/running
-I’ve almost completed all the demo work on my first album in a decade and reconnected musically with my best friend
-I restarted all my important writing projects, including this website
-I am within a couple of months of releasing my first novel as well as my first children’s book
-I’ve felt consistent emotionally, despite all the world’s stress
-I’ve played with my kids more than ever
-I’ve been more available to my wife and family
-My sleep is so much better
-I haven’t had any flashbacks or nightmares or any other PTSD symptoms. I know I will get them sometime, but I genuinely feel better equipped to handle them now
And the list goes on and on.
I’m no longer a drinker. I’m much better off without it, and I know that even if I have a little, it will put me off the track I’m now on. I’m not even going to play with the stuff anymore. I’m just too much better off without it, and this is only two months sober. I’ve spent my life with it since my teens, and I turn 40 this year. That’s long enough, booze. We had a run, didn’t we?
This isn’t to say that I’m turning into some vegan-like militant anti-alcohol person. Everyone should do what’s right for them, and that’s for everyone to discover on their own. I’m not so weak as to not tolerate anyone drinking around me, either. Drink away, enjoy it. I will not judge nor will I stop you. I’m still the same guy; we just aren’t going to drink together anymore. That’s all.
I’m free. I needed to bust out. I’ve done that. This changes nothing but the liquid I sip on.
But if you are stuck with the booze and need someone positive to support your decision, I’ll always be happy to talk about it and support you. I went through the cultural criticism in this post because it is a serious obstacle. This country is not an easy place to simply consider being sober without some major event or problem attached, but that is an actual option, believe it or not. So if you just want someone to talk with about it, I’m here. Hell, email me at email@example.com if you need to. I’ll do my best to get back to you, I really will.
Mainly, the reason I’m writing this here is for it to be not only an official declaration but also to be a mile marker. I’m not going to be talking about alcohol much from here on out unless it has to do with some story from my past that’s worth sharing. But after this post here, I want to see all the writing, art, music, and happiness I create. I’m going to stay more productive, more myself. I’m going to see a change. Perhaps you will, too. So this is my official mile marker.
Thanks for reading this far. This is an important subject to me. It’s not anti-alcohol as much as it is pro-me. I’ve done something major for myself, and I’m proud of it. In turn, I’m thankful for any and all support.
Take care of yourselves, everybody. It’s well worth the trouble.