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On Clean Living
I’m sharing an ‘experience’ post that has to do with a surprisingly insignificant change in my life - going from being a moderate drinker to a non-drinker - and reflecting a bit on that. At, writes on Ito Jakuchu’s scrolls.
ON CLEAN LIVING
The way my work has played out, I seem to have spent much of the last few years on the “addiction beat,” thinking about opioids and alcoholism, usually in connection with trauma and PTSD.
Last summer I was at a center for veterans with PTSD, was sitting at a table with counselors as they spoke very honestly about their struggles at that particular moment. When the conversation got to my place in the circle, it felt polite to say something or other, and, as I was talking, said “I have a relationship to alcohol.” I was surprised hearing myself say that, and struck by the counselors’ knowing nods - and it did seem like the right formulation. I was far from being a full-bore alcoholic - I’d just sat through some really harrowing AA sessions at the facility, which gave me perspective on what drinking could really look like - but alcohol was coming to be intertwined with more and more elements of my life. The reward for a hard day’s work was a drink; the way to acknowledge the end of an unsuccessful day was a drink; travel was a spur to drinking, as was socialization. Anything good that happened was celebrated, as a matter of course, with a drink; and anything bad could be properly commemorated only by drinking.
During the time I was at the center, I made a point of not ordering a drink at dinner - much to the surprise of my cameraman. I really felt for the vets and their struggles with addiction; I wanted, in a private way, to show solidarity. But that was surprisingly difficult. For the film, we followed one of the vets home. He had been a monster alcoholic, had found Jesus at the center, and we watched him settle back into his crummy house in a nowhere town and could almost see the thought bubble forming over his head that he would now have to live the rest of his life without a drink. I was trying to not drink out of solidarity with him, but I was exhausted from travel, and going through my own issues, and, the night after the shoot, ended up having three stouts in the hotel bar. I found out later that the vet’s sobriety lasted about as long as mine had: he had his first drink around noon the next day, around the same time that the cameraman and I were celebrating a successful shoot with drinks in the Minneapolis airport.
The night at the hotel bar bothered me, made me feel like I might have crossed some threshold, and my will wasn’t quite able to match the drive to drink. But in the fall, I started to think about the relationship to alcohol in a different and, really, simpler way. I noticed, in a word, that I didn’t like it. My body protested against alcohol. A couple of times, I wanted to throw up after a few sips of beer. I felt miserable the next day. And, most strikingly, on nights I drank I had lousy dreams. Not even nightmares especially, just stupid, like poorly produced, dreams; I’d wake up in the morning feeling let down, like I’d just seen some bad movie.
So I quit drinking. I’d been spending enough time around AA and world-class alcoholics that I expected sobriety to be some momentous event - expected, really, the craving for alcohol to claw into me like a demon, to start playing all kinds of tricks on my mind. But, actually, nothing happened. I had no particular desire to drink, and as time went by, I had even less. I thought that social gatherings might be a problem, but they really weren’t. At the moment when a table ordered drinks, I had to say that I didn’t drink, and if it was a little annoying to have to repeat the same explanation over and over again, and if people looked at me in a particularly penetrating way, like they were waiting for the bottoming-out story, it really was no big deal. It was just kind of a funny thing that at a certain point in the evening people suddenly started getting sloppier and more emotional, and, like an alien visiting earth for the first time, I had to make a mental note that what was happening was that these people were drunk and the reason they were acting strange was because they were drunk.
My body had had such a signal success with drinking that soon after that it started to persuade me to give up coffee. To me, this was really dispiriting news and felt greedy on the part of my body. If I was pretty definitely a moderate drinker, there was no question that I was a coffee addict. I was a regular at a couple of different coffee shops in the neighborhood - the baristas would prepare my order as I was walking in and got actually really annoyed if I ever tried to change it up. I spent much of the morning debating with myself whether I wanted to have a second (or a third) cup. And, often, my last thought falling asleep was looking forward to waking up so that I could have coffee again. But, as part of my body’s temperance crusade, I suddenly started getting very enervating headaches; suddenly felt sick as I was drinking coffee and had crashes in the afternoon.
So I quit coffee. Suddenly, I felt like I was in a completely different dispensation. My day was no longer structured along the coffee-alcohol matrix and its adrenaline-filled, boom-and-crash cycle. Suddenly, it seemed like the day was much longer and also far more even-keeled. I was able to do work deep into the evening where, before, my brain would have abruptly switched off around 6pm. And if there was suddenly a fresh element of boredom in my life - the activities of getting a drink and getting a coffee disappeared without clear replacement - that was more than compensated for by the feeling of being less of a slave to urges, of suddenly having a greater ability to sculpt my day.
What I was experiencing was something that we didn’t quite have a vocabulary for as a society. There was the great swathe of drinkers and addicts, which was almost everyone (especially if you include the coffee addicts), and then there was this odd abstemious minority of people who were ‘in the program,’ who were assumed to have some problem with impulse control and therefore were denied the mildly addictive pleasures that everybody else had. What wasn’t in the conversation at all really was that a mild or moderate drinker could, for no very profound or traumatic reason, switch camps and join the renunciates. And doing so wasn’t some abrupt shift of values - I didn’t accept a higher power or make amends - but it did give one a very different vantage-point on society-as-a-whole.
Abstemiousness turned out to be a slog. It wasn’t so easy to find productive things to do with the entirety of a day; and it wasn’t easy to just relax and do nothing. I didn’t have recourse to altered states - didn’t drink, didn’t smoke weed, didn’t amp myself up with coffee or cigarettes - but there were addictions throughout the day. I had a gaming addiction. There was a compulsive quality to the way I sometimes did work. And I probably checked email several hundred times a day, even though I knew perfectly well that no email saying anything important had come in. I suppose that some part of myself had hoped that sobriety would open some mysterious portals to happiness, but that wasn’t the case - a basic restlessness was still there although no longer buoyed by substances.
Still, going sober was an amazingly good decision. There was nothing of the high drama of AA - no ‘hitting bottom,’ no ‘come to Jesus moment.’ I just had a feeling that my life would be better, that I would be more fully myself, without alcohol and without caffeine and that was exactly the case. What sobriety did was that it enabled me to step outside of my usual patterns and see myself as if in outline. Alcohol and caffeine really did affect my personality: they made me angrier, more irritable, more depressed. And sobriety enabled me to see so much of myself as a series of addictions - the way that I checked my phone, the way that I played my Internet games. To get to a true self really did involve dismantling each of those addictions one by one, involved really learning to be comfortable facing empty time.