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ETOH: A EULOGY

Shortly after my brother Justin passed away, I began drinking regularly. Well, that’s not exactly true. At the time of his death from cancer at the age of twenty-two, I had been living with three of my best friends from high school, and as we were in our early 20’s, beer was always in the fridge; we’d go clubbing three, sometimes four nights a week on a quest for chicks, often starting the evening with a few shots of tequila before we hopped in a cab and let the night take us where it might; and, working at a fine dining restaurant, I had developed a taste for fine wines.

Before that, I hadn’t been much of a drinker at all. In fact, I hadn’t even tasted alcohol until the age of fifteen, and living at home for college I’d only been drunk a handful of times by the time I graduated, even with a six-week stint as a Sigma Chi fraternity pledge. But after living in a post-graduate frat house for about 330 days with those buddies of mine, at least half of which involved some sort of inebriant, I had quickly become a seasoned, shall we say, imbiber of libations. Tolerance takes time to develop. Like any skill, the art of holding one’s alcohol takes practice, patience, and there is a margin of error: I had done my time with vertigo and with vomiting into toilets and trash cans – once, I’m almost ashamed to admit, I even blacked out. Yep, after drinking a bottle of wine and a couple double vodkas I stumbled to bed and called a girlfriend with whom I had a lengthy conversation which the following morning I had no recollection of whatsoever. It was like I had been concussed. Talk about brain damage. Scary.

When my parents split up and my dad left the house six months after Justin left his body, I started drinking every day. Just sort of fell into it. It started with red wine and cigarettes at night after dinner; and then at a sushi restaurant, the same restaurant where my brother and parents and I had dined such a short time before, when he was alive and the family was together, alcohol took the place of lunch: While my friend wolfed down salmon rolls, I helped myself to generous quantities of beer and sake. Good ole sake bombs. Liquid food, I called it. To this I added a 40-oz bottle of beer at night, with or without a shot or two of tequila. Alcohol numbed me. At times it obliterated me. Which I seemed to need at the time. It became my constant companion, and as such made the loss of my nuclear family easier to bear. Maybe I should have just gotten a dog. It would have been a whole lot easier on my liver.

But it seemed so natural. Justin had drunk a lot of beer in his short stint on this earth. I used to watch with concern as the bottles of Mickey’s Malt Liquor piled up in the recycling container outside his room, but I never said a word. Live and let live, right? Now I was picking up where Justin had left off. And alcohol was so damn reliable. It wouldn’t die on me, or break up with me. Or be unavailable. Morning, noon, nighttime too, ETOH (the abbreviation for ethanol, which is the chemical name for alcohol) was always there for me. So we became friends. And since we hadn’t really gotten to know one another till after I had graduated college, I felt we needed to make up for lost time.

The first time I drank beer was at a party my freshman year in high school. Me and a bunch of guys I had just met became bosom buddies over a game of quarters, the game where you bounce a coin off the table and hope it lands in a glass of beer. If it does, you get a pass; if you miss, you get to drink. For boys wanting a buzz, there was not much motivation to make it. I loved the giddiness I felt drinking beer. I felt fizzy. Of course, it brought out a bit of the deviant in me. After the game was over and the beer had been drunk, I spent the remainder of the night trying to convince this cutie-pie of a girl (who my friend happened to like) to kiss me. Granted, my friend had a girlfriend, but so did I – not that I thought of this at the time. A shot of selective amnesia and a dab of disinhibition and there’s no telling what you’ll do. The girl didn’t go for me. It was probably for the best.

The following year I went on a double date with a buddy and two older girls from the local public high school. Since we attended the not-so-local all-boys parochial school, we were super-excited for our first real date. We went to a Thai restaurant famous for not carding minors, and I made quick work of two Long Island ice teas. They just tasted so good! Never mind that all the sugar masks the gargantuan dose of several varieties of booze in a Long Island. Well, mind. I spent the rest of the night on my date’s lap, in between bouts of emptying my stomach’s contents into whatever receptacle presented itself. Two years later and I hadn’t learned my lesson. Over double Greyhounds (vodka and grapefruit juice) that cost $5 at a trendy club in Hollywood – this was in 1990 - I told my first serious girlfriend that I loved her. And we were both so drunk it sounded like two stuttering idiots attempting to emote. Scarcely had I got the words out and I was paying homage to the porcelain god while the bathroom attendant encouraged me to “Get it all out.”  I threw up multiple times out of the car window as she drove me home. When the following day my father found out what I did with the $20 he had given me (I had bought 4 drinks total and hadn’t left a tip – silly me, but I was only 17!) he almost tore my head off he was so angry. No, that’s not quite true. Dad is not a physical man. But he has a tongue like a knife, and I got one big lashing. But such is the resilience of youth that a few hours later I was running all over the soccer field, feeling no pain.

My first taste of wine came as a waiter at an Italian restaurant, where I worked in college. After countless times serving house reds to couples in love and watching how after a few sips the female’s face flushed like a flower in bloom, I helped myself to a small glass of chianti just to see how I felt. I didn’t mind the tart, tannin-y taste, but I preferred beer, as most guys, and as most of my friends were guys, beer is what I drank.

But before my family broke up, drinking was never a habit. Sure, when alcohol was available, I’d drink it, often too much of it, just like a lot of fellas my age, but these binges usually involved others. Yes there were occasions when I’d drink alone, whether while reading a good book or trying to write a good book of my own, but for the most part I drank with company. It was just the thing to do. But soon I was doing more of it.

I explored drinking during the day, waking up and on an empty stomach polishing off a six-pack of hard cider, which is usually made with apples but can also consist of fermented peaches or pears, and has twice the amount of alcohol as beer. Nothing like beer on an empty-stomach. It’s like mainlining the stuff. Straight to the brain. While building my morning buzz I’d sit at the computer and try to write fiction, which was difficult once the words started blurring onto the page, as they always did approximately after bottle number two. (Drinking helps you sit down to write, makes the task less daunting - after all, it does ease inhibitions - but the writing itself suffers in a blunted, benumbed way, leaving you to question whether writing while drinking isn’t just a waste of effort. I wouldn’t begin to wonder this for a long, long time.)

I experimented with other types of alcohol, becoming a regular ole connoisseur. I drank port, which my father denounced as a wino’s drink. I found it too sweet and heavy. It made me rather tired. I bought vermouth because I liked the look of the fancy bottle, not knowing at the time that it is generally used to make a martini dry, and for that purpose only a drop or two is needed. I drank it by the glass. By the time I had finished the bottle, it tasted like what I imagined paint thinner to taste like, and I vowed never to drink the stuff again.

It’s amazing how quickly drinking can become a habit! It became so that I’d look forward to my trips to the store, where I’d saunter through the liquor section examining all the bright-colored bottles with tongue-twisting names (Cointreau, Gewürztraminer, etc.) and pick something new to experiment with. It was like being a kid in a candy store, only better, since alcohol doesn’t have as many calories as candy, so it wouldn’t make me fat, was my reasoning at the time. My parents separated in September of ’97, and by the end of the year, I was drinking every day without fail. If a day went by and I hadn’t had a drink, I felt somehow that life had not been fully lived. Therefore it followed that the more I drank, the more I lived. Drinking is synonymous with partying, is it not? I was young, so the untoward effects of consuming so much alcohol were unnoticed or nonexistent. I confined myself mostly to beer and wine for the first year, but while in Brazil I rented a room from a French artist who taught me a love for Scotch. Phase two in my drinking habit became a Scotch on the rocks at around noon just after lunch, usually 4 oz. worth of J&B, a brand I had encountered in the pages of Ellison’s American Psycho and whose light color and affordable price I appreciated, followed by some wine for dinner. I found I could write while drinking wine, which had other benefits, including helping me over breakups. After a few sips of the vino, the pain of separation just didn’t seem all that acute. When my Brazilian beauty and I parted ways, my mistress became a nightly bottle of shiraz. Red, red wine, stay close to me, don’t let me be alone, go to my head, to make me forget that I still need her so, as the UB40 song goes.

In 2000, three years after I had begun drinking daily, I met a woman from Australia who shared with me her yen for martinis, and so began my love affair with Bombay Sapphire gin. The relationship with Gillian barely made it to the new year, but gin martinis were a fixture for me until I started medical school, in the winter of 2004. Before that I had worked as a high school teacher during the day, and an English instructor at night. The night stint involved a lot of lecturing, which was a lot like what I imagined performing stand-up to be – just you on stage with a bunch of uninterested strangers whom you’ve somehow got to keep engaged in your subject matter or else lose them to attrition - and I couldn’t get through it without my trusty flask, which carried 5 oz of Napoleon brandy. Brandy is a great drink if you want to be cheery without seeming drunk. Too much beer makes a person dull, whiskey made me tired, wine makes you slur your words and gives that unbecoming reddish tinge to your tongue, but brandy, or its cousin cognac, is really underused as a cocktail. Unfortunately most drinkers relegate it to an after-dinner drink, the so-called digestif, saying it aids digestion, but really, with a full stomach, the alcohol in brandy is absorbed very slowly, diminishing its euphoric effects. After finishing my flask while lecturing on the past participles of action verbs, I’d come home to a big martini or a couple beers, and/or a couple glasses of wine, so that by the time I left for medical school my drinking habit had grown from binge drinking with friends through a four-drink minimum mixture of beer and wine, to six to eight drinks of various brands, flavors, and colors. Curiously I could never get into vodka, which many heavy drinkers (a term that could now be used to describe moi) adore for its colorless, odorless, flavorless qualities. Vodka always made me disagreeable.

I lived in the dorms for the first 4 months of medical school, which was odd for a guy in his early 30s who had never lived in the dorms in college, and in the dorms alcohol was forbidden. I could easily have smuggled some into my room but I am not a rule-breaker and so I confined my drinking to the weekends, either Friday or Saturday night, but never both. This meant that I’d go six days at a time without drinking, longer than I had managed to abstain since taking up the habit seven years before. Gosh, had it been that long? But when my roommate discovered that like himself I was a Scotch lover, he introduced me to various breeds of the classic Scottish whisky, Johnnie Walker, and on the island where we studied, since alcohol was not heavily taxed, we could get top-shelf versions – Johnnie Walker Gold, and Blue – for a fraction of what they’d cost in the states. So once again I began drinking more frequently, and in my med school years I abided by the work hard drink hard philosophy, capping off 12-hour days spent studying with a big brandy and a glass of wine, the equivalent of about 4 daily drinks. I often wondered whether drinking this much negatively affected my memory, and if my recall, specifically on tests, was compromised. Would I have been a better student had I been a teetotaler? As it was I was valedictorian, earning straight As. I don’t think it would have made much of a difference. Besides, those nightcaps gave me something to look forward to. Part of me believed that I was able to study so hard because I knew I could unwind at night with my libations. But why did my preferred form of relaxation have to be drinking? Why couldn’t it have been swimming, or tanning? Actually, I did a lot of swimming, running, biking, and suntanning during my school years. I even competed in a triathlon (hung over, of course) and still managed to place second. But drinking was different. Drinking had a mystique, and it was somewhat…naughty. And aside from the bottle my life was so clean and good. Like Cape Fear’s Max Cady, I needed a vice, to remind me I was human.

But it was in medical school that I began having difficulty sleeping. Sure, I could fall asleep quickly, but I’d toss and turn all night, never really hitting that deep stage. I assumed it was the effects of many mugs of coffee combined with the strains of studying so hard. I was too tired to rest, I reasoned, and paradoxically I felt wired! I didn’t think alcohol was to blame. Later I’d learn that mine was the characteristic sleep pattern associated with drinking alcohol, which decreases sleep latency (the time it takes one to fall asleep) but also decreases sleep quality, meaning you rarely reach that coveted REM sleep, and consequently never awaken really feeling refreshed. There were other problems. While many people have a cocktail to unwind, alcohol is anything but relaxing to the system. Sure, it dulls the brain, producing a glazed-eyed stupor that is often mistaken for relaxation, but alcohol is a poison. The root of intoxicate is toxic. And true to its term, alcohol is a potent neuro(brain)toxin and it taxes the liver and kidneys which must work overtime to metabolize and excrete it.

Nevertheless in residency my drinking continued to increase. It was cold in Denver, I was unhappy with the hospital life, and I hoped spirits would, well, enliven my spirits. After long soul-sucking shifts with terminal or near-terminal patients in a system designed to profit from their ailments (but don’t get me started on health care!) I’d come home to a 4-oz Scotch on the rocks (measured out in a Pyrex cup), followed by a Red Stripe beer, sometimes two, followed by a 5-oz glass of wine. In all, five drinks, six max. By then I was beginning to feel a little guilt. Moderate (safe) drinking is defined as two drinks per day for a guy, one for a girl. I was over double that, maybe even triple. My medical training had taught me all about the havoc wreaked by heavy drinking - cirrhosis of the liver, memory loss, brain damage, varicose veins, an enlarged heart and shrinking testicles. And of course I had read about alcohol addiction and dependency and recognized a few characteristics as my own. In med school they teach you how to screen for alcoholism by asking 4 questions. It’s called the CAGE questionnaire, CAGE being the acronym for “Have you ever: (1) felt the need to cut down your drinking; (2) felt annoyed by criticism of your drinking; (3) had guilty feelings about drinking; and (4) taken a morning eye opener?” Answering yes to 2 or 3 of the questions, the physician is taught, should give a high index for suspicion of alcoholism, while 4 affirmative answers is virtually diagnostic. I answered the questions: Yes, I often thought about cutting down on drinking; no, I didn’t feel annoyed by criticism of my drinking – basically because no one had ever brought up my drinking since I always drank alone (which itself is, in some circles, suspicious for alcoholism); yes, I had guilty feelings about drinking, which I felt was the same question as the first question – I wanted to cut down because I felt guilty; no, I never drank alcohol first thing in the morning, my preferred beverage being coffee, but there had been a couple times in my twenties that I had been up all night and continued to drink through the a.m. hours, and there was that six-pack a day before noon stint, so…maybe? Which meant I scored a 2.5, meaning I was … iffy. To hell with labels! I told myself. Alcohol is my friend! I could count on her. She’s always there for me when I need her, not like Justin who was gone, and my father who by this time had remarried, and my mother who lived several states away, and the job I despised, and the girlfriend I didn’t have. But I also could not ignore that many unsavory things, like a car accident and a sexually transmitted disease, had occurred in the setting of excessive alcohol consumption, so all was not hunky dory.

There was a time at the end of medical school that I had the sudden urge to quit drinking, and so one day I just put down my unfinished glass of brandy and stopped, cold turkey. It lasted for about three months. During this time, I became a faster runner, winning a half marathon in Mississippi, my performance on tests improved, and for the first time in nearly half a decade I was able to sleep through the night. But after graduating medical school I had a celebratory glass of wine, and a couple glasses later I was once again a confirmed drinker. As many athletes will say, alcohol, especially beer drinking, seems to complement working out, it’s in line with the work hard play hard vibe, and the sedative effects of alcohol seem to provide a nice counterpoint to the morning jolt of coffee. And as I had learned in residency, when I began keeping a journal of my daily experiences, a glass of Scotch seemed somehow to make the process of self-expression smoother and more meaningful. As the drinks flowed, the words would flow more easily. It got to the point that I could not write unless I had a glass of Scotch in hand, or at least taken a few sips of wine. Classic dependency. I used to say that the highlights of my day were coffee in the morning, and Scotch at night, that everything in between was crap, and so I quit medicine and soon I gave up Scotch drinking. This was followed by the inevitable hiatus from journaling.

But then, when I met my sweetheart, alcohol seemed a fitting addition, a way to celebrate our love. We’d have a beer or two while making dinner, cooking being a pastime beloved by us both, and then share a bottle of wine with dinner. One night we had guests, one of whom was a very lively 15-year-old girl. She was the wittiest little thing, didn’t miss a beat, and there was a moment in the conversation where she and I were going back and forth, rapid fire, classic banter about something, I forget what now, and I paused to as they say wet my whistle with a few sips of wine. Then, as the alcohol made its way to my brain, I could no longer keep up with her. I had lost the flow. I had instantly become stupid!

This got me thinking. Had I been blind to other untoward effects of drinking?

I have always been an avid reader, especially of novels, which I like to peruse for an hour or two after dinner, and I picked up the novel I was currently reading, opened to the page where I had left off, and read the passage that came just before, and what did I notice? I couldn’t remember having read the words. It was if I had never seen the page in my life! Since reading followed dinner and dinner always involved a few drinks, I always read with a buzz, and either I was developing early dementia, or alcohol was dimming my recollection to the point that reading under the influence was worse than not reading at all: It was a total waste of time. Sure, I got the novel’s gist, could write a passing book report if need be, but the nuances were what I had missed. And it’s the nuances that separate the skilled reader (and writer) from the novice – or, as I now recognized, from the drinker dulled by too much booze. I thought back to the (few) times I had attempted to study while buzzed in medical school. I never could. To the occasion or two that I had gone on a run after having a few drinks. And hated it. Even the delicious act of coitus is always less, shall we say, pointed, after having too much to drink.

And I realized: all the things I love to do - run, read, converse, make love, sleep - alcohol makes difficult, or unenjoyable, or both.

And I realized then that I didn’t so much like the taste of booze, or even the buzz, which I always found a bit disorienting and somewhat stultifying: I liked what alcohol represented. Good times, parties with friends, dinners with loved ones, throwing caution to the wind. Alcohol seems to attend all festive occasions – weddings, shindigs, sporting events - but by dulling you with a buzz, it really is only a buzz kill, making you less able to enjoy said events. Yes, it disinhibits you, but often the things you do while disinhibited – crash cars, write drivel, go off at the mouth, possibly have sex with hookers – you or I probably shouldn’t be doing in the first place. But alcohol represents youth, because most of us try it when we are young. And it is a way of clinging to the risk-taking behavior and irresponsibility, the raging hormones and lusty bravado of being a kid. Yes, I had drunk deeply of the cup of youth, but what I was left with now was only drinking’s downsides – a heavy-headed, leaden-limbed, puffy-eyed vestige of the kid on his first binge. And I realized: I haven’t been the success in life that I had envisioned, if success means doing what you love, doing it well, and getting paid for it, which is my definition. I wondered if my failure to meet my own expectations was due at least in part to my relationship with alcohol. It is, after all, a depressant, kills brain cells and deadens sensations, and makes you do things you possibly shouldn’t - and if while intoxicated I couldn’t run as fast or far, nor retain what I read, nor enjoy the boon of mutual climax, perhaps my drinking habit was causing my writing to suffer as well. And for all of 2012, every time I took a sip of alcohol, this thought, of sabotaging my own success, was first on my mind, and it sapped all the enjoyment that a heady drink used to provide. I read over the pages of my journal and saw that the desire to stop drinking was expressed on nearly every page. It wasn’t drinking that obsessed me, but the awareness that I needed to give it up!

So in 2013 I resolved not to drink anymore. I’d stop for the year, and then see how I felt. I made it through the first half without the remotest desire for a drink. Even if my sweetheart wanted one, I had no urge to join her, nor resentment that she’d allow herself to indulge. Alcohol and I had broken up, no hard feelings, but it was best to move on. In July, after I participated in a 5-hour long sporting event, I rewarded myself with a couple drinks before dinner, and over the summer there was a period of 3 weeks, mostly while travelling, during which we had 2 or 3 drinks a night, usually beer or wine. Oh, and a shot of Schnapps on her birthday. But by then alcohol had lost its appeal, and the spell was broken. Since becoming a regular drinker in 1997 I had never gone more than a couple months without a drink, and rarely more than a day or two, but the 7 months that started 2013 set a standard, and now that the year is over and I can drink to my heart’s content if that is my heart’s desire, I know that those days are dead and gone. If in the future I choose to drink, it will only be on those rare occasions when I am seized by some inexplicable urge, as for a walk down memory lane, but those memories are dim.

It’s funny, though. When I quit drinking, my first thought was my life would instantly improve. I’d have more clarity, more energy; I’d be emboldened by a renewed zest for life, and would make more (or at least some) money skillfully doing what I love, which (for now) is putting words on the page. Remember my definition of success. None of this has turned out to be true. But ceasing to do something that is not good for you is an end in and of itself. Maybe had I quit drinking and subsequently written the next great American novel, I’d put the two together, and if my sophomore effort weren’t a success, I’d return to the bottle for support. This way I know that regardless of what happens, my life is better for the mere fact of having one less bad habit.

Kids go to parties without libations. Their treat of choice is candy. Why is it that adults have to get all lubed up to socialize and have fun? Is it because candy is not served at adult gatherings? Maybe it should be. As a molecule ethanol is closely related to sugars, which are merely carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms clumped together. Instead of gathering around the punch bowl maybe we should all just share a plate of fruit. There probably would be far fewer cases of STDs in the world. Car accidents, too.

While a medical resident I did a paper on addiction, and as part of my research I visited a local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Denver. But really it was to see whether I was one myself – an alcoholic, that is. They wanted me to speak at the meeting but I didn’t offer much information about myself or my purpose for attending. Even if I was an alcoholic, I didn’t agree with the idea of branding myself as such, which would rule out the possibility of change. I know that it can be hard to escape a label. I saw it with Justin. He worked hard to create the identity of happy go-lucky stoner/drinker/drug user/joker, only to find that no one took him seriously, and that he had become a prisoner of the vary persona that he had worked and drunk so hard to create. I am always prepared to be amazed by my life. Two months before medical school I was a writer and a teacher who never thought he’d go back to school, and then a mere 60 days later there I was studying organic chemistry on an island in the West Indies. If we avoid coming to conclusions (about ourselves, about others, maybe even about right or wrong) we can enjoy limitless possibilities and always be amazed, and often for the better.

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