Friday, May 12, 2017
The Ethanol Demon
After my recent medical emergency, I found out that I have Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome; a rare, and luckily not life threatening, genetic condition that causes supra-ventricular tachycardia. In short, it can flare up and randomly make your heart feel like it's about to jump right out of your chest. Alcohol and caffeine can trigger these flare ups.
On March 19th, I sat there in a bed in the emergency room, a seeming thousand wires and tubes curling around my body, and was told that the doctors were going to stop my heart. Hearing that really shook me to my core. I legitimately thought there was a decent possibility of me dying that day. Of course, as I mentioned above, this isn't life-threatening, but I sure as hell didn't know that as I sat there scared out of my mind. Death, it seems, has a way of focusing the mind.
During this freak out, I whispered to my partner the words "I need your help to stop drinking. Drinking is going to kill me." Why, you might ask, was drinking going to kill me? Because like many people, I've let drinking become a lazy habit and that habit was negatively affecting my life. It was a habit that I'd been in for years and hadn't ever wanted to face. I hadn't ever wanted to deal with the fact that I knew I drank too much.
For years I had five, six or seven drinks in an evening. And I did that every single day. For years. As soon as I got home from work, I'd crack open a beer. On weekends, my partner and I would go for adventures and routinely stop for a couple of pints along the way. When we went out with friends it was invariably for drinks. When I'd host parties I'd drink way to much to the point where the hangover basically killed my entire next day. A drink was there to relax me, to celebrate anything and everything, to accompany every dinner in or out. I'd sit and surf the internet or play Civ and drink one after another all night. Then I'd turn around and lie to doctors when they asked the question "how much do you drink?" When I'd make out a budget, I'd realize that I was spending hundreds of dollars a month on alcohol, shrug it off and then throw it all under a category like "groceries" or "other." So why did I do this? Why did I drink every day for years? There were a number of reasons.
Firstly, there's the fact that I've long dealt with social anxiety. As an introvert, I'm often happiest on my own or hanging out with one other person. Large groups make me tense up so much that I won't talk. Often all I can think at parties is "how long before I can leave?" Nothing makes me happier than when the other person cancels plans at the last moment. I am not, as they say, a social butterfly. But with alcohol I could be.
Having a drink or two or three in a social situation would wash away my anxiety. It would loosen me up so that I could talk and interact with people and enjoy myself. Alcohol became the only way I could relax when meeting a new person. Then from there alcohol became a way to relax after a long work day. After all, there's nothing quite like a cold bitter pint to ease the stress of a work. Then after you've had one it's easy to have two, then three and four or more until it becomes a regular daily habit. Your tolerance grows so bad that you can drink six pints in a night and not feel a thing. You end up spending hundreds of dollars a month, consuming hundreds of extra calories a day and experiencing some gut wrenchingly bad hangovers. So there are so many negatives, why didn't I stop?
For one, it's not all bad. I enjoyed the bitter hoppy taste of a good IPA. I relished the relaxation and the little celebratory moment of the day's first beer. I loved getting dressed up and going out with friends for cocktails. I enjoyed being a connoisseur of craft brews, I mean, I do live in Brooklyn after all. There was joy. But joy wasn't the only reason I kept drinking habitually for years.
One major thing that kept me from stopping drinking was, ironically, fear that I wouldn't be able to stop. The last thing I wanted was to discover that I was unable to stop drinking. So I made sure that I always had alcohol in the house or that if I went on a trip I'd always have suitable access to booze. I didn't want there to be a situation where I didn't have a drink ready at hand. Because what if I found myself in such a situation? What if I tried to stop only to discover that I couldn't? Would I then start to experience the shakes, the anxiety and hallucinations of alcohol withdrawal, or even life threatening delirium tremens? If I stopped drinking would I suddenly discover that I was a bonafide honest-to-god alcoholic?
Being an alcoholic meant having to take part in that whole recovery scene. You know, we've all seen the movies and the TV shows where they show a sad, sick recovering alcoholic culture. That was the last thing I ever wanted. I imagined a bunch of loser people in their depressing church basement AA meetings, beating themselves up over every failure, clinging desperately to their little plastic coins and leading sad, pathetic lives of sorrow, forever gripped with fear that the ethanol demon was waiting around every corner ready to drag them back to drinking. Or I imagined being at a detox center, lord knows I couldn't afford a celebrity quality luxury detox, so I'd be in there with the freaks and junkies, sitting in group meetings listening to toothless meth heads recount their own deep litanies of failure. No, I was not one of those people. I just enjoyed drinking. A lot.
I was not a sad, pathetic alcoholic. I just enjoyed drinking socially or alone to relax. For many years, from about sixteen to thirty, I smoked cigarettes. By the end I was up to a pack a day. I smoked first thing in the morning, last thing before I went to bed, upon exiting any building, any time really. Before flights I would sit in those dirty smokers' lounges and chain-smoke one after another. Then, when I was finally good and tired of smoking I quit. I quit cold turkey and was fine. I honestly never felt a single withdrawal symptom. Quite the opposite, I actually felt kind of high — something I attributed to my brain finally getting the right amount of oxygen after a decade. I never looked back. I was happy to have quit smoking.
And I figured just like smoking, I'd quit drinking when I was damn good and ready. And quite frankly, I wasn't good or ready yet. Maybe one day I'd be, but in the mean time I'd drink a six pack of cold, hoppy IPAs every night, enjoy a couple afternoon drinks on the weekend, and then party with friends until I got trashed and nurse a hangover whole the next day. It was fine and I wasn't an alcoholic, I tried to tell myself.
Except there was this small part of me that knew the truth, even if I didn't want to admit it to myself. I know that my partner knew as well, though neither of us really wanted to talk about it. She would do alcohol free months and go long periods without having any alcohol in the house. I never even tried those things. While I worried about my heath and got depressed about my weight I kept drinking. When I let my mind wander, it would take me to dark places; would I drink myself to death at a young age? Was I going to need a liver transplant at some point only to be turned down for my years of boozing? Would I drink too much, do something stupid and get myself arrested? Was I, at best, going to end up one of those sad, pathetic ex-alcoholics?
Those feelings were pushed down and I did my best to ignore them. I ignored them even as doctors suggested treatment programs, even as blood tests came back showing increased ferratin levels possibly caused by excessive drinking. I pushed them down and lied to myself even as my partner worried about me and tried to reach out to help. She even helped me get appointments with a couple of therapists. I met them once, only once each time, and then came home and cracked open another bottle. I partied, I drank, I nursed hangovers. But I still didn't want to give up my drinking.
Then one day I felt my heart racing in my chest and I feared that I was going to die of a heart attack. Paramedics came to my house, put me in an ambulance and took me to the emergency room. They stripped me down, put me in a bed, put needles in my veins and hooked up wires all over me. They told me they were going to stop my heart from beating and if all went well, it would start up again. I sat there, reluctantly accepted my fate, fearful that I might die, not in the future, but right here, right now. These might have been my last moments on earth. I felt fear, sure. But the overwhelming feeling was one of intense sadness that I wouldn't get to spend any more moments on this earth with my partner Kath. I didn't want our time together to end. I wanted a lifetime more of moments with her, adventures and love and support and life with her. I wasn't ready to go.
And that was it. That was the moment when I made my decision. I didn't want to die. I didn't want to let the alcohol or my Wolf-Parkinson-White syndrome to kill me. In the literature that the hospital provided me, it said that caffeine and alcohol can trigger flareups of my supra ventricular tachycardia. So that meant no more caffeine and no more drinking to excess. I decided that I had to quit. And so I did.
Fearing withdrawal or DTs, I took it slow. It was better to go down mellow. I started by limiting myself to only two drinks a day. There were no more six-packs of beer in my house. I changed to having two glasses of wine a day. This was surprisingly easy. Instead of drinking beer or wine all night, I began drinking loads of seltzer mixed with juice. It's a funny thing. Just having a beverage at hand made it easy to eschew alcohol. I found myself drinking seltzer after seltzer each evening and realized I didn't really miss alcohol.
About a week in, we had friends over for a game night. These friends don't drink and so instead of having my usual two drinks, I had seltzer and juice all night. There was no awkwardness. The whole night I hung out with friends with zero alcohol in my system and had a good time. I didn't need a single beer or cocktail to be social. It ended up being my first day in maybe eight years where I hadn't had a single drink. There were no withdrawal symptoms, no anxiety, no hallucinations, no DTs. In fact, I felt great. I could do this. The next night we went out to a friends birthday party where I managed to limit myself to only two drinks even while hanging out and being social, even while taking to complete strangers. When I felt a slight temptation to have a third drink, Kath was right there, handing me a seltzer. It's like she knew. She's awesome like that.
The absolute best part was that after as I let my drinking taper off, I slept better than I had in years. Seriously, when I was heavily into my drinking I had felt like I needed booze to be able to sleep at night. And yet, without any alcohol in my system I ended up out like a light. My sleep was more prolonged with fewer interruptions and I slept deeper that I even knew I could. Seriously, I don't remember sleeping this deeply ever. Instead of dragging myself out of bed, bleary eyed and groggy after the fourth snooze, I woke up early feeling refreshed and fully awake. It was amazing.
May 2017, I decided, is my no alcohol month. As I write this, I'm over one week in. Seriously, I've managed to go a full week without so much as a drop of alcohol. There's been no withdrawal, but there have been some temptations. On stressful days I've come home from work feeling "I could really go for a beer." After a big work event I planned and executed, I felt the same way. Before I would have always celebrated such a moment with a drink, but this time a cold seltzer with lime when I got home was good enough to take my mind off it. There have been a couple other moments when I felt myself salivate at the thought of an expected drink, but I've found the temptations mostly easy to ignore. They say it takes six weeks to get into a habit, so maybe by mid-June I'll be over those sort of auto-pilot moments.
We'll see how it goes. It's going to be a journey. I'm over a week in and doing great. And I never thought that would be possible. Not only am I sleeping better, but I've already lost some weight. I need a new belt and one of my skirts was slipping the other day. While I'm not looking forward to the expense of a new wardrobe, I am looking forward to attaining my goal weight, now only about ten pounds away. Maybe I'll even be able to rock a real bikini this summer. Can you imagine? In late May, I look forward to being able to go to my doctor for my regular checkup where I can tell her that I've haven't had a drink in almost a month. I look forward to knowing that I can have one drink and control myself. And most of all, I'm looking forward to being healthy and having many more adventures with my amazing partner.
This is a highly personal thing and it's not something that I'm proud of. The reason I wanted to write this is in case anyone else in a similar situation may find it in any way helpful to know that they are not alone. We all have the same brains and the same bodies. Addiction is a physical problem with our bodies. It's not a moral failing, it doesn't mean we've screwed up and it doesn't mean that we are bad people. We can all get addicted and we can all get into unhealthy habits too. And we all have the capacity to overcome those habits and addictions as well.
Often our addictions are about fear. I know mine were. Fear of the unknown is often what keeps us continuing on these unhealthy paths. It was fear of withdrawal that kept me smoking. It was fear of finding out I was an alcoholic, fear of being a social outcast, that kept me drinking. But ultimately, I was able to make a decision to change and luckily I had the support around me to help me along on that change.
Addiction is a human experience. But it's the things that make us human are also the things that allows us to overcome addiction. That frontal lobe of ours, that uniquely large and wrinkled part of our brain can overcome the fears caused by our old reptile brain. Our social groups can help us through the rough patches. We all have the ability.
So, if anyone is reading this and my struggles sound familiar, then I hope you can realize that you are not at all alone, and that you are more powerful than your habits and your addictions. Don't be afraid to face the unknown and don't be afraid to reach out for help.