This will be my tenth New Year’s Eve without drinking, my tenth consecutive year doing something that for most of my life I never would have believed was possible, let alone desirable.
I’ll be spending it with some dear friends, many of whom will be mildly, moderately or even extremely drunk. Some will be having the time of their lives, while others will be wistful, melancholy, or downright miserable. Some will wake up tomorrow full of excitement and enthusiasm for the new year to come, others will pull the pillow over their heads and wallow in remorse, regret and despair.
Friends often think I’m some sort of anti-alcohol crusader, but nothing could be further from the truth. I like to see people enjoying themselves, and if that enjoyment involves a few, or even quite a few drinks, more power to them. I’ve even been known to buy a round now and then, even when my own tipple is nothing stronger than ginger ale or seltzer.
But let’s be honest: I do worry about my friends, and even about people I barely know, when it starts to look like their “enjoyment” is no longer that enjoyable. When a night of revelry ends with them crying their eyes out or puking their guts out or swearing that they’ve learned their lesson and from now on they’re going to “take it easy” on the whole drinking thing.
The trouble is, I have no way of knowing which of these people are having real problems with alcohol, and which are just going through a phase, a bad patch that they’ll momentarily snap out of. I’ve learned from painful experience that one of the fastest ways to alienate a good friend is to suggest that drinking might be having a negative effect on his or her life. Even when it seems blatantly obvious, when for instance they’ve just been arrested for their third DUI or their spouse is leaving them or they’re on the verge of becoming homeless because they drank the rent, it’s not the kind of thing people want to hear from someone else.
Personally, I never got a DUI (at least partially because for much of my drinking career I lived in places where it was seldom necessary to drive), romantic partners who left me usually had plenty of reasons besides my drinking for doing so, and I haven’t been officially homeless since 1967 – okay, maybe, 1971, and that was more to do with drugs than alcohol. Even at the end of my drinking my externals looked reasonably good: I had a great place to live, money in the bank, and was pretty much free to live life however I wanted.
What people couldn’t see, though, was how I felt inside, and how those feelings made a mockery of any good fortune I might have appeared to enjoy. Sure, I had the money and the free time to travel around the world if I chose, but I was so riddled with fear and depression that a five-minute walk to the corner for food or another bottle of Jameson’s was often more than I could handle. People marveled that I looked young and healthy for my age, but a close look in the mirror revealed otherwise: red blotches breaking out on my face, my skin taking on a clammy pallor from so rarely seeing the sun. I was sick a lot. Whether it was physical or mental or a combination of the two, I had no idea, but the net result was that I was spending more and more time in bed or slouched in a chair wishing that something, anything would change, while simultaneously convinced that if it did, it would be for the worse. To put it as bluntly as possible, I was dying: spiritually, mentally, and physically.
That might sound like hyperbole. I remember a time when I thought people who described the battle against alcoholism as a life and death struggle were getting a little carried away. But I’ve attended enough funerals to know differently now. A couple years ago I held the hand of a dear friend – a friend who drank less than I did and for far fewer years – as she breathed her last breath at the tragically young age of 37. I think it’s pretty likely, perhaps even certain, that if I hadn’t stopped drinking in 2001, I myself wouldn’t be alive today.
The inevitable smart ass will reply, “Quitting drinking doesn’t make you live any longer, it just makes it seem that way,” implying that the inevitable alternative to regularly getting sozzled is a life of boredom and discontent. I know this because for many years I was that smart ass, and I was not trying to be controversial, either. I genuinely couldn’t imagine how anyone could enjoy life without drinking.
Now I’m going on ten full years without drinking and the world looks like a very different place to me. I can unhesitatingly say that in all my years I’ve never been so happy to be alive, so hopeful about the future, so excited and pleased with what life has given me. It’s bizarre: there have been times when I was making ten times as much money, lived in far more luxurious homes, got far more attention and affection, and yet I was not only incapable of appreciating what I had; I was depressed to the point of being downright suicidal.
Today I have a small but very comfortable apartment that I love, I live in a neighborhood that fills me with pleasure every time I walk through it, I know dozens – hell, maybe hundreds – of wonderful people, I get to travel to amazing places, and I don’t have a single enemy in the world. Some of this, all of this could change tomorrow, but at this moment, in this time and place, I feel like the luckiest man alive.
Does that mean I think you should stop drinking as well? Not at all. Some of you will be able to go on drinking for the rest of your lives and never suffer any serious consequences. Others among you will drink yourselves into lousy lives and early graves. I have no way of knowing which will be which, and – especially if you’re still at an early stage of your drinking – you might not either.
All I can tell you is that if you think you have a problem with alcohol, talk to someone – or several someones – about it. There are all sorts of resources and all sorts of help available. If you’re enjoying your drinking, carry on. If you’re not, then there are people everywhere – I’m one of them – who are more than ready to help you stop. Whichever you are, and however you choose to celebrate tonight, please allow me to wish you the happiest of new years and an awesome rest of your life.