Semi-Permanent Midnight




 

"In most cultures, alcohol is the most frequently used brain depressant and a cause of considerable morbidity and mortality. At some time in their lives, as many as 90% of adults in the United States have had some experience with alcohol, and a substantial number (60% of males and 30% of females) have had one or more alcohol-related adverse life events (e.g., driving after consuming too much alcohol, missing school or work due to a hangover). Fortunately, most individuals learn from these experiences  and moderate their drinking, thus avoiding Alcohol Dependence or Abuse"(APA 212).

 

As I’m sure is the case with most everyone, I originally quit drinking more than a year before my 21st birthday, thus “avoiding alcohol dependence”.  Or so it seemed at the time.  In hindsight, the behaviors that caused me to quit that first time were relatively benign.  I had (and have) a long-standing problem with social anxiety and having a few drinks had an almost miraculous effect on my ability to interact with strangers[1].  I also had (but no longer have) a similarly long-standing problem with insomnia, that is until I figured out that liberally soaking my brain in my parents’ ever-present, bottom-shelf rum put me right the fuck out.  Unfortunately, my parents had presented a fairly shitty[2] liquor-consumption model throughout my childhood and I took to it like… well, like a child takes to his environment.  Or his genetics.  Take your pick.  So I started drinking during the day if I didn’t have anything else to do and the quantity of liquor I was consuming began to grow and pretty soon, my mother and father were (rather hypocritically) telling me I had to quit because I had a “drinking problem.”  So I did.  I took them at their word, labeled myself “alcoholic” and just stopped one day.  No structure, no withdrawl, no muss, no fuss.  That was easy!

A little… too easy?[3]

That was when I was 19, and it stuck for almost five years.  I developed new and different workarounds for my social anxiety.  I became re-accustomed to functioning on three to four hours of sleep a night.  I became a valuable commodity with my drunken coterie of friends because I could always function as the designated driver.  I didn’t really do a lot with that time, just kind of dicked around, worked various jobs, dated various women, and experienced life in various Chicago neighborhoods.  Until the day came that I asked myself what seemed an obvious question: “Am I really an alcoholic?”

The ease with which I’d quit, the subsequent substance free years, and a more grown-up understanding of my parents, not as all-knowing authority figures, but as fucked-up (if well-meaning) adults convinced me that the answer was, “No.”  That may well have been a rationalization, I mean, I am an addict, but it seemed, at the time, like the right answer to a valid question.  And I really wanted to get in on all the fun it looked like my friends were having.

Thus began what amounted to about a year of consequence-free, albeit increasingly unhealthy, drunken debauchery.  Most of my friends hadn’t been around for the first go-round and reacted positively to the lifestyle change.  Looking back on it, what kept my consumption in control for so long was that I was, and had been prior to the (fateful) decision, living a relatively regimented life.  I had a nine to five, Monday through Friday job.  After the job, every weekday, I’d go to the YMCA in Evanston and work out for two or three hours before driving back to my apartment in Lakeview.  I’d made a deal with myself that if the drinking had any effect on my professional or personal life, I’d stop immediately, and so I made sure it didn’t… (cliché time) at first.  I didn’t really have the time or energy to get hammered on weekdays, which left the weekends.  And only doing so on the weekends left me ample recovery time.  I established a balance so delicate that it was inevitable that something upset it.

I got laid off.  As a result of which I got depressed.  I could say that I started drinking more as a coping strategy in response to my depression and maybe it was, but the rational, sober Me of today thinks I probably would have found a reason to do so anyway.  And unfortunately for me (odd to say) I had been making enough money that when I started collecting unemployment I was still making as much or more than many of my friends, negating any strong financial impetus to get out and look for a job.  As such, I bummed around.  I read books.  I played video games.  I was getting started earlier and earlier in the day, and sometimes having a cocktail in the morning as a hangover cure.  At some point I crossed a magic[4] line, gave up, and devoted myself wholeheartedly to drinking. 

In “Alcohol Withdrawl, Dependence, and Relapse”, Dr. Howard Becker describes alcohol dependence as a process during which the continued presence and influence of alcohol on the brain throws the pleasure center out of whack, which results in an escalation of alcohol consumption, which throws off the equilibrium further, the final result potentially being, “excessive, uncontrollable drinking (Becker 350).”  Another study on the effects of long-term alcohol abuse upon the brain by Dr. Fulton Crews showed that although it has a negative impact (from a reduction of function up to and including the permanent death of neurons) on the brain overall, it has a more acute impact upon the parts of the brain responsible for “attention, impulse inhibition, and… reflective decision processing (Crews 380).”  If I may be permitted to distill[5] this information into as simple a form as possible: alcohol abuse leads to increased alcohol tolerance, which leads to increased abuse, which begins to impair self-control and decision-making, which… well, you get the idea: abuse begets Abuse begets ABUSE.

Needless to say, my life began to degenerate pretty quickly.  Although quickly is a relative term.  It actually took the better part of two years for me to sink low enough that I was willing to do something about it.  Things were horrible enough that I couldn’t even begin to enumerate the ways in which I made life unbearable for myself and the people around me[6].  I had a single experience that wasn’t much at the time, just a shitty moment in a shitty day, but that later, looking back, I viewed as really symbolic of that entire period of my life.  I was living in a studio apartment in Lakeview that became, towards the end, a fucking mental altar to my despair.  Just thinking of that place makes me want to cry.  I came to consciousness[7] sitting on the floor, leaning against my bed, handle bottle of Jim Beam still open next to me.  I was disoriented to an extent that I can’t even describe but that had become familiar.  This is simply what happens after a blackout.  There was a horrendous rotting smell[8] and, after a moment, I became convinced that it was coming from me.  And I began to weep because I literally thought that my body was rotting from the inside.

And that was when I decided it was time to clean up my act.

Nah, I wish that was true.  That story actually ends with me drinking the rest of that bottle of Beam.  But it sums up most of that period of my life.  I existed in a perpetual state of delirious despair.  I didn’t want to stop, but I desperately wanted to stop and I didn’t think I could stop.  I frequently thought about killing myself, but I couldn’t work up the nerve.  I think if I were even a little bit less firm in my atheism, I probably would have done it.  A glimmer of hope that I would be going to an equal to or better place would have been enough.  As it was, it’s not that I was afraid so much as I didn’t want my last moment of consciousness, you know, like… forever, to be experienced through a lens of addled despair.  A few times I hoped that I would die while I was asleep, have the decision taken out of my hands[9].

Like I said, it was a bad time.  And as perhaps befits the mental state I was in, although I made the decision to check myself into rehab, it wasn’t actually on my own behalf.  As a result of my mother calling 911 and landing me in the ICU at Lake Forest Hospital, I sobered up some.  They hydrated me, sedated me, and kept my withdrawl symptoms to a minimum, which enabled me to think… not clearly, really, but at less of a deficit.  When they didn’t lock me up in the psych ward[10], I was able to sit down with her and have a relatively clear-headed conversation, during which I was pulled out of my self-obsessed, depressive stupor long enough to realize not just the effect that my behavior was having on the people who care about me, but that I was having an effect at all.  I know it hardly seems like the makings of an epiphany, but like I’ve said, my brain was functioning at, like, -75% capacity.

And so I set out to check myself into an inpatient alcohol rehab facility, for no other reason than guilt inspired by my realization that other people had continued to exist while I’d been wallowing in booze and despair and more booze.  My mother and father were happy to do the legwork, which was for the best, because I exercised my impaired impulse control and decision-making ability less than two weeks after I got out of the hospital.

Getting into a reputable rehab facility isn’t an instantaneous process.  Addiction is pandemic, and any facility is going to have a finite number of spots available.  So when my mother got a referral from her friend Susan, the psychiatrist, she gave me a number to call.  When I called the number, they did an “intake assessment”, wherein they asked me a variety of questions about my health and history[11] and then told me that no beds were available, and although they would put me on a waiting list, the waiting list was based on severity of need.  They had a hierarchy of substances via which they gauged this (as well as days since using), and alcohol and marijuana were smack[12] on the bottom, not to mention that a lot of their patients were mandated from state facilities (IE, prisons and jails) and that those people got first crack.  Would I be willing to say that I was doing cocaine or abusing prescription drugs[13]?  I wasn’t up for that.  Did I have $4,000?  I did not, nor were my parents willing to cover it.  So I put myself on the waiting list and was told to call back every day to see if a bed had opened up.

After about a week of that, I got into my father’s car (I was staying with my parents), drove to the nearest grocery store, and bought myself a bottle of Captain Morgan’s rum[14].  I only drank a little of it, enough to become filled with self-loathing, pour it down the sink[15], and tearfully confess to my parents, upon hearing which my father decided that he was going to pay the $4,000 to get me into the place immediately.  Interesting fact of which I hadn’t been aware until that point: a history of recurrent episodes of alcohol withdrawl can prime your biology, so to speak, increasing your “susceptibility to more severe and medically complicated withdrawals in the future” (Becker 352).  Over the course of that awful year and whatever of pickling in my own rank juices I hadn’t really detoxed on purpose, per se, but I’d gone into withdrawl quite a few times.  And, for drinking what probably amounted to two or three ounces of rum, I got to do so again.  Poetic justice, really, but when it happened outside of the hospital it was not fucking around.

From “The Journal of Rational Recovery”:

"Alcohol withdrawal can be, but rarely is, a medically dangerous undertaking. Most people who stop drinking, therefore, will do fine. Common unpleasant physical symptoms include nausea, a slight increase in body temperature and tremulousness, or a sense of shakiness. Other common symptoms are two to five days of sleep difficulty and (don't be shocked) irritability. Rarely, reported as 1 in 10,000 (0.01%), but probably less, delirium tremens occurs in alcohol withdrawal. This includes seizures, hallucinations, and high blood pressure. This is usually predated by the above noted symptoms and is associated with one or more of the following risk factors: over age 45, long-term consumption of over 12 oz. of liquor per day or its equivalent, history of head injuries, and poor nutritional status" (Dahl 10).

            Yup, I got the DTs.  As diagnosed by my sister’s boss, the physician, who was willing to see me for free.  A mild case.  I had a fever, I had the shakes, my blood pressure was well into the realm of hypertensive, and I experienced mild hallucinations of the type I’ve always associated with getting a migraine.  The doctor prescribed me Valium, which I didn’t think was much of an idea until he explained that it was because my blood pressure was high enough that I was in danger of having a stroke.

            That took the better part of a week to go away completely and, funnily enough, though my father had gone and taken $4,000 in cash[16] out of the bank, the rehab place wouldn’t take me in until the withdrawl symptoms had subsided entirely.  By the end of that week, I had a reason other than guilt to get cleaned up: to never experience that level of withdrawl again.  It would rank below the previously detailed quagmire of self-pity and self-loathing and suicidal thoughts on a hypothetical list of the worst things I’ve ever experienced, but not far below[17].

            Rehab was, to put it simply, terrifying at first.  I had no idea what to expect and I was being exposed to a buttload of new people.  Maintaining order was paramount, so almost every moment of every day was strictly structured and there were rules pertaining to everything, but they’d decided the best way for newbies to internalize said rules was to allow them to do something not okay and then freak out on them.  Out of their 110 patient capacity about 105, at any given time, were serving part of jail time or a prison sentence in the facility, as mandated by a judge, which was something for which my upper-middle class suburban ass was simply unprepared.  That, I got over.  And I got to know some really interesting people.

            The program was located in a rather rustically idyllic cluster of buildings on Fox Lake that were clearly converted from a sleep-away camp of some sort and that sort of works to describe the experience.  It was like an amalgamation of camp and what I imagine a minimum security prison would be like.  The staff was a mix of addicts in recovery themselves, psychologists, and social workers.  We spent a good portion of every day in group therapy, we each had a “job”, from cooking and cleaning to expediter, which meant, essentially, that you walked around looking for people doing wrong so you could narc on them.  Otherwise, our time was devoted to Twelve-Step classes, meetings, and Step-work, which is just what it sounds like.  And therein lay the main problem for me.

            It was about five minutes into my first Step Class that I wondered, “Wait, are they telling me that I need to pray to the Baby Jesus to take away my urge to drink?”  I asked my counselor, Susan *redacted*, LCSW, at the first available opportunity.

            “No, not Jesus,” she replied.  “Your higher power.”

            “I don’t have a ‘higher power’,” I said, making disdainful quote marks around the words through the power of my voice alone.

            We went back and forth for a little bit until she, her tone suggesting I was a gigantic asshole, said, “You don’t believe that there’s anything greater in the universe than yourself?”

            To which I replied, “How do you mean?  Like… the president?  The sun?  I believe the sun is greater than I am, but that doesn’t mean praying to it is gonna cure me of being an alcoholic.”

            The word she then chose to jump on was “cure”, which convinced me that I was in the right, because why else would she be deflecting?  But we “agreed” that I would read the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, after which we could revisit the argument.  In the meantime, I was to do my best in Twelve Step classes and meetings.  And that’s how, for a week in 2006, I became a sun-worshipper, kind of.  One of the things that got to me was that nobody really savvied to the fact that I had chosen the sun for its inherent absurdity as it relates to the Twelve Steps.  Take a look:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs  (AA 59)

            Obviously, the Alcoholics Anonymous powers that be had heard complaints of the sort I was making quite a bit and had done their best to address them, but the way they did so, with the words, “As we understood Him,” demonstrate a fundamental lack of understand of the source of the objections.  At least my objections.  Over the course of my reading of an ancient, first edition copy of the Big Book, I came to understand where the fundamental disconnect was happening.  I am not, in any way, a spiritual person.  I don’t believe that there’s any guiding intelligence nor fundamental purpose to creation.  The people to whom I was airing my concerns, on the other hand, though coming from diverse spiritual practices and belief systems, were all spiritual people to some extent.  When I walked in and got all existential on them, they were unable to grasp the anti-metaphysical epistemology[18] that was causing the disconnect between what I was diggin’ and what they were duggin’.  When I was finally able to make this clear to Susan, we had a serious discussion about what I thought I was going to be able to take away from what is, essentially, a recovery program based upon the Twelve Steps.  I made the decision to stick around because I thought the structure, the psychotherapeutic aspect, and being locked up[19] five miles away from the nearest source of alcohol would be enough for the time being.  Susan was also kind enough to get me special dispensation regarding my attendance of Twelve Step meetings and classes, first letting me come and hang out in her office when they were going on and then recommending me for the only patient job that required my presence elsewhere during most of that stuff.

            Now, I’m describing this conflict as if it was an intellectual exercise I created for myself, but I was initially despondent about it.  I hadn’t really been familiar with the tenets of the Twelve Steps before then and I had honestly been hoping that they were going to give me information and tools that would serve as a framework upon which I could build a sober life.  This program had been my shining beacon of hope and it turned out to be faith-based (among certain other things I thought were fairly wrong-headed).

            I wasn’t really sure what to do.  I felt as if I was in a holding pattern that could last indefinitely.  I applied for and received state aid, meaning my room and board amounted to about $5 a day, to be paid after I checked myself out of the program.  While trying to formulate a plan, I did a lot of reading and writing.  I talked with each of the various psychologists and social workers employed there, asking each of them if they had any wisdom to impart regarding my situation.  One of them gave me a copy of Rational Recovery, a book by an LCSW named Jack Trimpey that is, at its core, a rebuttal to the Twelve Steps.  Trimpey’s program is, at its core, similarly gimmicky.  It advocates that a person learn the “Addictive Voice Recognition Technique”, where they actively identify any thoughts or feelings that are pushing them to use and immediately quash them.  I thought that was unnecessary horseshit.  Before he gets into that nonsense, however, he makes a compelling argument that the addict is not powerless, that they in fact should accept responsibility for their actions in pursuit of and under the influence of their substance of choice, and that they can and should therefore take responsibility for and make the choice to improve their own life (Trimpey).

            It sounds pretty obvious, I know.  At the time, as my brain function and health were beginning to return and I was learning to appreciate both what a piece of shit I had been and how to appreciate myself and my life without mood-altering substances, it was a revelation.

            After exactly sixty days, I checked myself out with Susan’s blessing.  I moved straight into another studio apartment in Chicago, this time in Lincoln Park, because I’m fancy like that.  It’s not like I was cured.  I thought about drinking a lot at first, but it wasn’t that difficult to compare the (at least slightly) better version of me that was to the crazed, suicidal, subhuman creature I’d been just months before and make the choice to stay sober.  Time passed, I couldn’t get a full-time job, but I found an agency that threw me a lot of temp work, I spent a lot of time with my friends and my family, I was a groomsman in a wedding, and eventually, as I got to liking myself better, the idea of having a drink became anathema to me[20].  It’s hard to explain the mental process, but I think it mostly amounts to how much I hate that guy I used to be.  I guess I also like me now, most of the time.

It’s been about four years, and although I don’t like making definite statements about anything ever, I’m about as positive as I can be that I’m never going to drink again.

 

 

Cited

AA Services. Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book Online. Benei Noaj, 2007. Web. 1 Dec. 2009.

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV-TR Fourth Edition (Text Revision). New York: American Psychiatric, Inc., 2000. Print.

Becker, Howard C. "Alcohol Dependence, Withdrawl, and Relapse." Alcohol Research and Health 31.4 (2008): 348-61. Academic Search Premier. Web. 5 Dec. 2009.

Crews, Fulton T. "Alcohol Related Neurodegeneration and Recovery." Alcohol Research and Health 31.4 (2008): 377-88. Academic Search Premier. Web. 5 Dec. 2009.

Dahl, Jim. "Physician Advice for Withdrawl from Alcohol and Other Drugs." The Journal of Rational Recovery 13.5 (2001): 10. Rational Recovery. Web. 7 Dec. 2009.

Trimpey, Jack. Rational Recovery. New York: Pocket Books, 1996. Print.

[1] Just like in the commercials!

[2] Translation: Unhealthy.

[3] *SPOILER WARNING*…… Yes.

[4] And by “magic” I, of course mean “neurological”.

[5] No pun intended.

[6] The more sensationalistic moments included my fainting in a PetSmart and the ensuing argument with paramedics and eventually Chicago PD as to whether I was going to allow them to take me to the hospital (I did not), as well as another occasion when I passed out drunk at my parents’ house and my mother called 911 and told them I’d tried to kill myself in the hope that the doctors at Lake Forest Hospital would have me involuntarily committed (they would not).

[7] I don’t want to call it “waking up” because I wasn’t really “sleeping”.

[8] Just food in the sink, but I didn’t know it at the time.

[9] It occurs to me as I’m typing it that I’ve never really spoken about that aspect of it with anybody, even my closest friends.  Of course, I’m getting choked up just thinking about it, I can’t imagine how I’d handle looking someone who cares about me in the face as I described it to them.

[10] My mother said she thought I’d taken an overdose of pills, evidence for which, given that I had no health insurance, they went looking in my blood.  When they discovered that I hadn’t ingested any pills, just enough liquor to present with a 0.34 BAC, they couldn’t get rid of me fast enough.  Oh, and yes, if you’re wondering, they charged me $20,000, give or take.  America has the greatest healthcare system in the world.

[11] The lady on the phone was totally unimpressed with my substance of choice.  I said, “Alcohol,” and she said, “Uh-huh, what else?”  I said, “That’s it,” and she said, “Just alcohol?”

[12] No pun intended.

[13] Yeah, that really happened.

[14] Interestingly, my parents’ house was, is, and always has been packed to the gills with liquor.  Why did I go and buy my own?  No, I’m saying, do you know?  Because I have no idea.

[15] Let me reiterate: there were still eleventy-billion gallons of booze in the house.  I guess it was a symbolic gesture.  I was out of it that year.

[16] He also had an awesome fight with the intake staff because they wanted a cashier’s check or money order and he demanded that they take cash.  It was oddly reminiscent of a bad retail experience.  They’re all, “No, no, because…” and he’s all, “I’m offering you hard American currency, you have to take it.  It’s the law.  Case closed.”  In his defense, they did take it eventually.

[17] Like: 1) quagmire, 2) near-fatal pneumonia, 3) this one particular breakup one time, 4) DTs.  To give you a little perspective, I’ve had a non-specific bacterial infection of my prostate, was once administered an overdose of ipecac syrup, was sunburned so badly in Florida I had to go to the ER, and have fractured a vertebra.  I know what you’re thinking: colonoscopy?  Also yes.  That’s both yes I’ve had one, and yes I know you weren’t really thinking “colonoscopy”.

[18] I was able to awkwardly insert some words from my philosophy textbook!  Hooray!

[19] So to speak.  The artificiality of our restraints was demonstrated aptly by Brian, my “Big Brother” (he showed me where stuff was and filled me in on social etiquette) when he walked out of the dorms one night and went on the lam (he had been mandated to the program from a prison sentence he was serving).  This actually happened after I was gone, but I ran into him on the street right outside Union Station a few months after I got out.  He didn’t choose to fill me in on the particulars of his situation, but I told someone who was still in the program that I’d seen him and she said, “Really?  Brian ESCAPED!”

[20] An illustration: last year I ordered a Diet Coke in a restaurant and when I took a giant gulp of what they served to me my brain told me I’d just swallowed some amount of rum with my Coke.  I had a borderline panic attack for about thirty seconds and then just cold high-pressure sprayed it out of my esophagus.  As it turns out, it was Diet Rite.  Yes, yet another reason to hate Diet Rite.

 

 

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