It was exactly 10 years ago tonight that I had my last drink. I’d been stopping and starting for a year or two. I’d get sick of myself getting sloppy drunk again and again when I’d only intended to have a civilized glass (or two) of wine with dinner, so I’d pull the plug and stop cold turkey.
The first couple days would be awful, but by the third or fourth I’d be feeling pretty good, and by the fifth and sixth, I’d be on top of the world. Should have done this years ago, I’d tell myself, and by the seventh and eighth days I’d be telling everybody else, because by then I was feeling distinctly superior to the mere mortals who were still slaves to alcohol.
By the ninth day, I’d be getting a little irritated that my Nobel Peace Prize hadn’t arrived yet, and a little annoyed that so many people – friends, relatives, colleagues and strangers – showed no sign of appreciating what a marvelous accomplishment it was that I hadn’t had a drink in over a week.
And on the tenth day or thereabouts, I’d be starting to annoy myself. Hadn’t I proved that I didn’t have a drinking problem? Not just that I didn’t have a drinking problem, but that I was a human being of rare and impeccable moral character. How many people, after all, could go ten whole days without drinking alcohol? Practically none, as far as I knew.
In fact, I thought, wasn’t it possible that I was overdoing this whole temperance business? Moderation in all things, including moderation, wasn’t that how the saying went? It wasn’t that I wanted to get drunk – why, it went without saying that I was never again going to get drunk; only weaklings and moral defectives did that – but surely a beer or a glass of wine now and then wouldn’t hurt. In fact, it would probably help.
Not for my sake, of course, but for the sake of others that I had to get along with. There was such a thing as being too perfect, my reasoning went; now that I had licked my alcohol problem, er, I mean, proved I’d never had one in the first place, it would make perfect sense to have a single celebratory drink – or maybe two very small ones – in an appropriate social setting.
Heck, why wait until I got into the social setting when it would be more efficient to have that drink before I got there; that way, I’d arrive relaxed and affable and ready to slip into the swing of things. Okay, two drinks, just in case it was a tough crowd. Sometimes that drink or two would open the floodgates and I’d instantly be back on an idiot’s drunken binge; other times, I’d just have the one or two and wait another couple days before descending into full-fledged drunkenness.
But the end result was always the same. Regardless of my intentions, regardless of the most fervent efforts of my will, I’d end up drunk again, depressed again, with my physical and emotional well-being deteriorating alarmingly, and increasingly unable to see any value or point to going on with the sort of life I was living.
The tail end of summer, 2001 was especially tumultuous and disturbing. I’d stopped drinking in mid-August, fallen spectacularly off the wagon during the Reading Festival on the last weekend of the month, then cleaned up again in the wake of September 11, when after drinking myself into a sodden, jellied mass of protoplasm plopped in front of the TV for the first couple days following the attack on the World Trade Center, it occurred to me that I didn’t want to be such a helpless mess should the terrorists turn their attention to Notting Hill (not a likely prospect, as you’ll know if you’re familiar with the place, but rationality was not my strong suit at the time).
So the next ten days were sober ones, and as usual I grew in wisdom, strength and grace while I contemplated the glory that would be mine when I led my neighborhood defense committee in turning back the terrorist menace. And I had no intention of drinking again, I was quite sure, until I heard that my old friend Danny had arrived back in London from a year-long hitchhiking and backpacking trip around the world.
He had been pretty much my best friend in London, and we’d spent many a happy hour sitting around pubs talking over the day’s crucial historical, political and social issues. Pubs being pubs, we’d generally lubricated our discussions with a few pints of beer.
Danny wasn’t much of a drinker; he’d typically only have one or two pints, which I found both inexplicable and exasperating. If you were going to drink, I figured, then you should drink, and not lollygag around sipping a little beer here and a little there, sometimes not even finishing your whole glass.
The worst thing, though, was that it cramped my style. I couldn’t very well down two or three pints for every one that Danny did. Well, I could, but it wouldn’t look so great, would it? So with great pain, strife and forbearance, I’d match Danny’s drinking pace, and then, once I’d said good night to him, rush home or to another pub where I’d make up for lost time by drinking everything that I would have drunk if I hadn’t been so worried about what he might think.
Obviously Danny – like most normal people – couldn’t have cared less how much I drank, or even if I drank at all. As long as I didn’t vomit on him, or shout too loud at him in public places, he was content with me consuming as little or as much as I chose.
But now, with our first meeting in a year looming, I felt horribly torn. I wanted it to be like the old days, a couple of highly civilized gentlemen having a highly civilized conversation over a few pints, but at the same time, I was worried sick that if I made even a one-night-only exception to my no-drinking rule, I’d be back in the soup again.
In the middle of going back and forth over this, the phone rang; an old punk rock friend who’d been sober for years was calling to see how I was doing. I told him about my dilemma, and he said, “Well, you’re free to do whatever you want, but instead of worrying about not drinking again for the rest of your life, why don’t you just focus on tonight? You can always change your mind tomorrow, but just for today, try making a decision not to drink.”
That made sense, and I promised him I would try it, but I knew all along I wouldn’t have the nerve to tell Danny I was going to have an orange juice or a 7-Up instead of a beer. We went to the pub, had two pints each, and were busily catching up on what had happened in the year since we’d last seen each other. Around 11 pm, which was the hour that most pubs closed, it became apparent that this pub had a late license.
We could – if we chose – carry on for another three hours. I got up to go to the bathroom, and on my way there, realized, thanks to my leaden feet and sluggish mental reactions, that I was already as drunk as I needed or wanted to be. It was impossible, I protested. I’d only had two pints, a fraction of my normal intake. But it was undeniably true.
So I had a choice of sitting there for another three hours drinking nothing, sipping soft drinks, or telling Danny I’d had enough and calling it an early night. You can probably guess the choice I made: three more pints of extra strong lager, and by the time we parted company I was in enough of a state that I still don’t know how I made it home from Kentish Town to West London.
I woke up the next morning with the worst hangover of my life, and the pain was only exacerbated by the knowledge that I hadn’t drunk nearly enough to merit this sort of suffering. Why, I’d downed ten pints and a bottle of whiskey and felt better than this. But logic was of no avail; all day Saturday and all day Sunday, I lay there in agony, cursing alcohol for turning on me and myself for having turned back to alcohol.
It was Monday evening before I felt well enough to leave my room, let alone the house. I was still shaky, but I’d already racked up my first three days of sobriety. Since then, I’ve counted 3,649 more (including leap years), and today I’ve reached what once would have been the unimaginable milestone of 10 years without a drink.
And what do I have to show for it?
In a word: everything. I probably wouldn’t be alive today if I hadn’t stopped drinking when I did. At least half a dozen people I know weren’t so fortunate and did in fact pass away during the time I’ve been sober. More than just being alive, though, I have reasons – abundant reasons – for wanting to be alive. That wasn’t always the case. I enjoyed some material blessings, and some of the trappings of success, but they were never enough to give my life purpose or meaning. For most of my adult life (and the bulk of my childhood as well), I was one of the most miserable, unpleasant, arrogant, sarcastic and insensitive sonofabitches you’d ever not want to meet.
It probably goes without saying that during most of that time I was deeply depressed, frequently to the point of seriously contemplating suicide. I may not have completely freed myself from the arrogance and insensitivity, though I think I’ve made progress, but the depression is almost completely gone, and without the use of shrinks, psychiatric drugs, or anything else more remarkable than a substance-free existence and an assiduous effort to clear up the wreckage of my past.
I laugh a lot these days – not always at things that “normal” people would consider funny, it’s true – but though I’ve still got many of the same worries and problems – especially in the finance and romance departments – that I had 10, 20, 30, even 40 years ago, they just don’t seem to faze me in the way they once did. My writing is getting better, my music is getting better, but most of all the quality of my life and my interactions with my fellow human beings is increasing by leaps and bounds. For the first time in my life, I can unhesitatingly say, on almost any given day, that I am enormously happy and grateful and thrilled just to be alive.
Do I miss anything about the old days? The jagged romance of hanging out in late night boozers, of staggering comically into oblivion, the poetic mystique of the beautiful but doomed loser drinking himself into the grave over lost love or unfulfilled ambition? Sure, there’s a certain dark charm to all that, but it’s one that I can live – and have lived – very happily without. Once – and for a very long time – I didn’t know anything else, but now I do, and it’s nothing short of awesome.
So it’s a day for celebration, but also a day for quiet thanksgiving, for remembering those who weren’t so fortunate and didn’t make it. And, of course, to acknowledge the people who offered me a helping hand, some useful advice, or just a kind word or smile over the years. Some of you know who you are; others of you may have no idea that some seemingly insignificant thought or gesture on your part played a vital role in saving my life and making it shine. To all of you, thank you so very much; I could never have made it without you.