There’s a tipping point in my afterwork drinking ritual. I’m halfway through the second glass of whatever I’m drinking, when the back pain and stress of the day are mostly gone, my anxiety disorder is effectively numbed, and I have exactly the same two thoughts every time I reach this point: “Life is pretty awesome,” and “I am an alcoholic.”
What’s striking is that for the first two thirds of my life so far (I’m thirty), I didn’t expect to have either of these thoughts with any regularity, and certainly not every weekday between 7:00 and 7:30pm.
This regularity is part of how I can legitimately prepend “alcoholic” with “functional,” but I am an alcoholic nonetheless. It helps that I’m a friendly drinker: I never get belligerent, I rarely break things, I go home if I start stumbling, and my speech stays steady, although it picks up a mild medley accent equal parts Maine, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. It sounds exactly as awful as it sounds. But I never cry, unless I’m already crying, I never try to determine what a stranger’s problem is, and I never try to get in the middle of a strangers’ conversations to tell them how much I love them and why they’re awesome for not punching me in the face while I’m groping them. My entire drunken narrative is relaxed, content, happy, happier, really happy, super happy, back to content, stumbling, laughing at things that aren’t funny, tired, unconscious or throwing up. I almost never get past happier, and I’ve learned to recognize back to content as a warning to go home.
Over the years, various psychologists and doctors have described my habits as self-medicating, and I see no reason to argue. After all, it’s a well known medication with extensively documented side-effects and several thousand years of testing. Since I got a permanent tremor from a prescribed medication I took for three months (admittedly, it was an anti-psychotic, and needed at the time), and most anti-anxiety medication is dangerous and addictive, I’m hard-pressed to accept that my pain-killer, social-lubricant, muscle-relaxer, and pain-reliever in one solution is the worse option. The best option, I’ve come to accept, would be a combination of yoga, vitamins, meditation, quitting smoking, and daily exercise, but then I’d be spending time around… those people.
Aside from my xenophobia, there’s a subtler force at work, which is habit. I dislike the phrase force of habit, but I like the phrase momentum of habit, and these suggest equivalent things, except that force suggests the habit has taken on a life of its own and is propelling you, whereas momentum is just what’s happening, and you can let it go, put on the brake, or wait for the next hill. I think the second interpretation is more valid, because for every time someone puts on the brake, someone else just drifts into different habits. And that’s how I became an alcoholic, and why I’d probably stop if I were in a different situation.
Granted, I’m not so physically addicted to alcohol that my life is in immediate danger, but if I moved back to the woods for ten years, it would probably get to that point. I can make some guesses as to how I got to the point I’m at, and I think the story runs approximately like this: I telecommuted for three months when I first got to Brooklyn, and was stiffed the paycheck those three months were supposed to earn me. I was trying to budget, so I rarely went out to have a beer, but it was nice to have a Jameson and ginger ale at the end of the day, so I kept a bottle nearby. As the work got increasingly frustrating and the pay remained at zero, I started having more Jameson at the end of the day, since I equated it with relaxing and I needed to relax more and more. By the time I realized I did not, in fact, have a job, I was just working for free, I had blown through most of my savings trying to maintain a bare bones city experience. After several months of begging my family, the good graces of my roommate (which took on an understandable edge near the end), I had copped a savage drinking habit. At this point, I was also getting free beer from the downstairs bar.
Finally, I got a job and a steady girlfriend, both of which gave me something better to do with my time than sit in an empty room and try to guzzle whiskey without crying, so my drinking eased off considerably. More so when I realized I could down eleven mixed drinks without getting drunk, and quit hard liquor. After a while I would just forget to drink. I was running to teach a class, running home to study and do freelance work, then running back to the city to see my girlfriend, because I live in the sticks of Brooklyn it’s hard to get people to come out.
I did pretty well for the next three years. My free beer and pool bar closed down (possibly because I’d drunk so many free beers there) so I had to find a new bar, and they at least made me pay. When my graduate student girlfriend finally left me, I lost half my social life in an instant, because I’d been running to the city every night to hang around with her graduate program friends, and now I had no excuse to see them (and I didn’t have their phone numbers). So I spent more time at this new bar, a little depressed, and drinking a little extra, because of two things: I was now making a lot of money, and the new bar, for some freak reason, was filled with people around my age whom I really liked. They became my friends, and that’s where we saw each other. Still, I was coming later in the evenings because I worked late and liked to go home and take care of things.
Then, suddenly, my life went to shit. My fiance started attacking me in the night, and my job got more egregious every day, as I floundered with ignorant people who thought they were Einstein’s love children, and passive-aggressively disrespected their employees every day, sometimes through obliviousness, sometimes through naked contempt. I recently read a quote by Bertrand Russell which goes, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” This is wrong: most of the people running the company were quite intelligent, and as cocksure, or dickconfident, as anyone I’ve ever met. The trouble with the world is people who divide the world into smart and dumb and place themselves on one side or the other. Suffice to say, my health deteriorated, my eyes and back watered and ached more each day, and I saw no escape from an endless semi-corporate hell with no HR department. Every evening, I went straight to the bar, and would only feel good after three drinks and a protracted bitching session.
At some point I realized I hadn’t felt good in months and was putting down eight to twelve drinks a night, aggressively, without any interest in being social about it. I’d gone from drinking while socializing to socializing while drinking.
I started coming back from this a few months ago. Not the day I quit, but on the day I knew I was going to quit. I’d just received another nasty little email from my CEO about arriving fifteen minutes late for a job I could do from home but was required to sit in an office ten hours a day to do, and usually ended up there ten and a half hours anyway. When I read it, I suddenly knew, “I work for a horrible person, and I don’t give a fuck anymore.” I immediately took a twenty minute stroll around the block and felt good about myself. In the following months, I slacked off to the point of rendering my employment more of a metaphor than an economic transaction. I made an extra effort to be exactly on time, and was quietly praised for it, despite achieving next to nothing. This new found good spirit made drinking less important, and since I had to be on the ball for interviews, I generally got my act together.
Now I’m progressively drinking less and less, but it’s still deeply ingrained in my lifestyle. My habits are not under there own power, they are a reaction to whatever else is going on in my social and professional life: how long is my commute, how happy am I, what is my relationship like, where are my friends and what do they do with their time, etc. Most of all, drinking is not an isolated habit, it’s a feature of the habits that grow out of the structure of the rest of my life.
For instance, in one sense, my life is the same as it was three years ago. I hang out in the city a lot, I eat out a lot, I spend weekends with my girlfriend, I go to work, etc. In another sense, it’s totally different: the friends I see regularly, with a sole exception, are all different people. I have a different girlfriend who likes to do different things. There’s an entirely new set of restaurant and coffee shop employees who know me by name. I do something significantly different for a living. Those theme and content changes have an enormous effect on my habits, from eating to shopping to drinking to nightlife, even if the bird’s eye, structural view of my life is almost identical. The changes in habit have an effect on want I want and thus what I decide to do with my time, or, in other words, the reactive habits I cultivate to enjoy or cope with the lifestyle from other habits.
Weaving comfort out of habits is what most people do, and there’s always the suggestion (particularly from those tiresome people who read The Secret, or any book that starts with “The 7 Habits…”) that you can magically organize your life and create habits to make everything okay. This is backwards; habits of any kind, conscious or not, are what automatically form from your efforts to stay alive and deal with your surroundings. Attacking, or worrying over a habit as a thing unto itself won’t work in isolation; it will just obscure the other elements of your life that generated the habit. I’m not going to get into stressors or psycho-causal agents, but absent a vicious spiral like “I drink because I have no money, I have no money because I drink,” the situation can actually be even worse: “I drink to much, I worry about drinking too much, I’m going to focus on worrying about it,” which is the non-spiral that kept me from quitting my job, because I was fruitlessly trying to get healthy while I hated my life. A good spiral hits the bottom, and at least you have to change or die at that point.
Most of us are running on some kind of auto pilot without knowing it, and our introspection is as worthless as it feels. Right now, I don’t worry about my drinking, since it’s not vicious circle and it’s drinking while socializing. My drinking will take care of itself, ideally before my liver gives out. If my liver does give out, it’s because I became a rock star or life became not worth living, and both of those are decent excuses to drink yourself to death.
I’m not sure what the moral is. Maybe, “if you think you drink too much, you should quit your job.” Or get a job. Depends.