Looking back, I like to think I always knew I would one day have to stop drinking. I don’t know this is true, but it would explain why I drank hungrily, greedily from the time I was 13 until I was 37. Maybe I feared for that inevitable moment when I knew I’d have to cut myself off. More likely I was born with faulty wiring and that’s just how I drink. I don’t have much alcoholism in my family, but one close relative drank himself to death in his 50s. We make the choices, but our genes and environment limit a lot of the choices we have to make.
One weekend night two summers ago I said to my husband, “I’m going to quit drinking on Monday and I want you to leave me alone until then.” I wanted to drink without concerned looks or disapproving words, which is probably every alcoholic’s favorite dream.
Why was that weekend different from a thousand before? What was the proverbial straw that broke me? I wish I knew but I kind of like that I don’t. It feels like divine intervention and I do believe there is something larger at play in all of us. Maybe I just said that to get my husband off my back and it stuck. Who knows.
I wrote about Saturday night of that last (lost?) weekend here, and I don’t remember much about Sunday, but Monday came and I was not physically ready to quit. I woke up with that familiar nausea and shakiness. The antidote to the poison was a little more poison, slowly administered through sips like an IV drip. The point wasn’t to get drunk again but to feel a little less like I might die. I remember the days when I woke up after a night of heavy drinking and the thought of drinking more made me feel worse. Those days were long gone.
The Monday I was supposed to quit drinking but did not was a strange day. That morning I passed a main road that was blocked off by a police car with flashing lights. Then I read a story online that Ryan Dunn had driven off that road and exploded his Porsche into a tree, killing himself and a passenger. His tumblr account showed a picture of himself with friends at a local bar just before the crash. He was holding a beer and some silly drunk pose that no one would have thought much of if the night hadn’t ended in death. Second-hand reports poured in of just how much he’d had to drink. A test showed his blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit.
This crash and death of people I didn’t know isn’t why I quit drinking. It happened to be a powerful backdrop on the day I weaned myself off of alcohol* so I could quit for good. I thought “Drinking did that and it can never be undone.” The crash drove home that my own drinking was headed to some dark point of no return.
I didn’t have any car wrecks or outward consequences from my drinking, but I was something of a hot mess at the end anyway. Because it was important I save face, I drank secretively. I gulped drinks in private so I could drink at a more normal pace in front of others. I’d say I did this on and off for about the last six months to a year of my drinking. I avoided eye contact and even talking if I’d had too much to drink. I was not a blackout or reckless, wild drinker. I just drank more and more and earlier and earlier and kept on drinking until I “went to sleep”. Some nights I even read in bed (with one eye open and never remembering what I read, but still).
The first drink of the day had become more medicinal than recreational. I waited for it to kick in and the shame and guilt to leave. The normal I was seeking then was a lot like how I feel every day now without alcohol. I just wanted to escape feeling bad about myself. It wasn’t always that way, but it helps to know we all wind up in approximately the same spot if we’re alcoholics and we continue to drink. Some of us get their faster or more spectacularly, but none of us are spared.
Alcoholism is a progressive disease. It only gets worse over time, never better.
I think if and when we make the decision to stop boils down to how much we are disturbed by our own drinking. I could lie to myself and hide in the safety of comparing myself to other heavy drinkers, but never convincingly. My drinking always bothered me. The way I obsessed and worried over when and how much. The way I hid the amounts and how slurry it made me. I even had to hide the hangover the next morning because who gets a hangover from the two glasses of wine I was supposedly drinking? And oh the stupid things I did when I was drinking!
I drive by the Ryan Dunn crash site so often I usually don’t notice it. For awhile fans came in steady streams and left makeshift memorials with handwritten signs and teddy bears and once a bottle of bourbon that was probably later taken by another fan. But almost two years have passed, and people have moved on. The other day I was driving past the point in the road that still shows where he missed an exit and skid into the woods. It was a disturbing moment because I felt how it might have felt for him to lose control. One night of drinking and errors in judgement, never to be undone. I was able to shift back into my happy little world with my kids in the backseat and a life I’m grateful to wake up to every morning. I am so very grateful for all of this.
*I was only beginning to show signs of physical dependence, but no one should attempt to wean themselves off of alcohol without medical supervision. Talk to your doctor if you want to stop. Seriously. They aren’t going to throw you in rehab without your consent (my fear, apparently).