Do I have a drinking problem? This is a question that must now be asked. The hesitation that lies within me typing it–which is worse than considering it within the confines of my own brain–reveals the deck. If I didn’t have a drinking problem, it would be an easy question to ask, and an even easier question to answer.
But here we are.
With adherence to all psychoanalysis, and nearly every superhero origin story, let’s begin at the beginning. The first time I got drunk was off Smirnoff Ice’s in my childhood basement with some friends. I remember an awkward first taste, a queasiness in the stomach, and a headache the next day. But I don’t remember particularly hating or enjoying the experience. I do remember showing up to high school parties with a pint of vodka, and taking massive swigs from it in the bathroom to well up the courage to deal with the social situation. It was frightening because I felt like I was different than the people on the other side of that door; that my thoughts and the way I viewed the world were fundamentally from a different point of view than my peers. So much so, that anything I injected into a conversation revealed how different I was.
And while I loved to be different in areas where I was confident, I desperately wanted to be normal in the things I felt insecure about.
But given any random small talk conversation amongst peers, I just couldn’t say anything normal. Everything I said belied a truth I felt about the world–that our school rewarded conformity over free thought, that our military unjustly killed millions, that Bush had stolen the election in 2000. And this extended to personal things I saw in passing; that I felt the sadness of our balding effeminate history teacher who still lived with his mother; or the mask of strength an acquaintance would put on in front of his younger sisters as his mother brought home a different man each month.
My empathy was ratcheted up too high, and it made my interaction with the world a tormenting experience as I tried to don the coat of confidence and assurance around this heart-on-sleeve feeling–an unabashed, directionless, murky and squishy feeling. This was compounded by the fact that my own particular gender prison told me not to feel anything at all, and especially not to voice this. This was 16 years ago, where I was called a “faggot” for writing poetry, for not eating meat, for expressing anything outside of the normal masculinity that dominated North Carolina culture at the time.
(Side note: I understand that other genders have battles far worse and more complicated than my own, and I am not discounting their experience nor the privilege I receive as a white male. I am simply stating my own experiences for the purposes of this piece).
So nature and nurture both served to create a persona that was highly tuned to recognizing and coping with highly emotional situations. And this was not something I could turn off. It was always there. I felt things when I saw an old person, back hunched, patches of white hair floating atop their head as they waited for the bus–I felt how alone they were, how everything was just a memory to them, how there were no more moments to be lived that were going to be remembered fondly. It was all a matter of counting down the days, in a perpetually tepid emotional state until they were hooked to machines and allowed to pass away in the agonizingly slow method that’s become standard in our culture.
I have thought and continue to think things like this, accompanied by deep feelings of sorrow and saudade, on random Tuesday afternoons.
How do you go from feeling that, to talking about high school gossip? I didn’t know then, and while I think it’s possible now, I’m not sure if it should be done. But either way, there I was chugging shitty vodka from a plastic pint in a suburban middle class bathroom so that I could manage the conversation that waited for me on the other side of the door.
In college, I drank for a similar reason: I still didn’t know how to talk to my peer group. While the conversations were technically more mature or somewhat different in content, they were still this explosive strapped Rubik’s cube of small talk that would detonate in five seconds if I didn’t figure out how to solve it. Inevitably, I wouldn’t solve it in time, and blurt out something about how the meat industry is unethical and worse than all energy consumption combined in terms of greenhouse gases–while we all ate pork at a BBQ.
I can still hear the ensuing silence on that autumn day, the awkwardness drowned out by the slurp of Busch light as I turned my can to the sky.
I couldn’t figure it out. To me, that kind of topic was interesting. We needed to talk about how we were destroying the environment. Beyond that, my thoughts couldn’t be evicted from the condos of existential crises or the artificial constructs of gender, and I simply couldn’t bring myself to care about the college football team. On the other hand, I wanted to fit in—and, to be completely honest, I wanted to have sex—so I dumbed myself down and forced myself to be a part of those conversations. And alcohol greatly helped me do that.
And I didn’t just drink. I drank a lot. I think the most I got to was about ¾’s of a fifth of spiced rum a night. Even though I’m down to far less than that now, to some extent it’s not about the amount—it’s about the effects on the brain and the body. And due to the unrelenting beast of time, it now takes less alcohol to make me feel drunk.
Regardless, I felt like I didn’t have a good social group, and this compounded the drinking. I had nothing to talk to those guys about, and I drank to cover up the fact that we weren’t friends if I wasn’t drinking. And this taught me one of the worst lessons a person can learn: that drinking is the point of going out, and the people you do it with are secondary. What matters is that you’re drinking.
This unfortunate lesson shaped the friends I would chose over the next few years of my life, until I moved to Portland. Before that, I chose friends that liked to get drunk. And we would get drunk together. We didn’t really do much else, because our hobby was drinking.
(Side note: It wasn’t all negative. I had many good times with those guys –it was fun to be young and drunk and do stupid shit and get away with it. But the question that bothers me now is: what happens when the pages of the book of life keep flipping and you find yourself in a new chapter which requires new habits–but you’re mired in the psychological dependencies you developed when you were young?).
After college, I took a job at a company I morally despised: a defense contractor. A company that fraudulently bills the government for products that rarely work and always come in over budget and are used exclusively to kill humans, destabilize countries, and grow giant gardens of sorrow across the globe.
This did not help my drinking habit.
I hated myself for working for that company. It was more than, “I don’t want to be doing this for the rest of my life.” It was, “I didn’t ever want to be doing this at all and here I am.” I was actively helping and taking a paycheck from one of the worst institutions mankind has ever created. I was a hypocrite. I was full of shit. And while I tried to use my free time to grow and learn, it was impossible to deny or overcome how I was spending the best 40 hours of my week.
Looking back on it, and speaking to the spiritual side of myself, I’m not sure if there’s a worse choice I could have made. The job did save me from the crushing debt I had at the time after college, and gave me one of those oft repeated silver linings that people utter when they’ve learned a lesson the long and hard way, which is: I learned what I didn’t want. The problem is I knew I didn’t want it going in, but I still did it. Regardless, the money argument offers redemption and I forgave myself through it: we live in a capitalist world, and I simply would have been financially incapacitated for a very long time if I hadn’t taken that job.
Anyway, while I worked there, I would get very drunk with coworkers on Thursday nights through Sunday’s fundays. We had money, and Baltimore had happy hours. The people that worked at that defense contractor were not bad people. They were not villains, and they were definitely not stupid (analytically, they were all very intelligent). But creativity and thinking outside of the status quo were not their strongest assets–although I doubt these could be anyone’s strongest assets at a defense contractor. The employment has a prerequisite of holding beliefs about America’s place in the world similar to those of Steve Rodgers/Captain America. But the point being, I fit in as well at the defense contractor as I did in rural North Carolina, which is to say: poorly.
And so, the years passed, and I drank a lot and had one major life event after another. And I learned that there was another use to the drink that men and women have known since it’s been brewed: the drink provides support when no one else will.
I have been alone and suffering through heartbreak caused by girlfriends, by betrayals from my family, and by wrongdoings caused by trusted friends. Combining this with the emotional inexperience that comes with being a young twenty-something, and the complete lack of the infrastructure of family that paints my life, and it’s easy to understand why I leaned on the drink. No one else was there for me. I could sit and get drunk and feel better and not so alone. I don’t blame myself or anyone else who uses the drink this way. Some people have nothing, and the drink, for all its flaws, is something.
And so, the uses of the drink multiplied as the years passed. When I needed confidence or charm for a date, I drank. When I needed support from the world, I drank. When I wanted to believe that I was friends with people, I drank.
This was also the stage in life where my abusive relationship with alcohol became a functioning relationship. Despite the hangovers, the sickness, the negative side effects to my health, I made it work. I didn’t get fired, I went to the gym, dated, wrote poetry and novels, and so on. I did these things in spite of alcohol. I was successful in whatever way we’re defining it here in spite of the drink, not because of it. But I know I could have done more.
Do I think I am an alcoholic? No, but the reasons are my own creation and could arguably be described as essentially semantic in nature. I can easily say no to the first drink; it is the second and fifth and tenth that get me. I enjoy being sober; but it is those other things, the things we suppress and look away from and avoid that urge me to drink. Once it was social friction. Now, with a beautiful community of friends, it is habit or boredom or the responsibility of my family or existential dread (“What am I doing with my life?”). Or even when I’m content and happy, I still want to get drunk because I’m out with my friends and lovers and life is short so why not just say fuck it and get drunk with people you care about?
And recently, with the death of a close friend, I have leaned on the drink as a means of comfort and support. It numbs, it comforts, it makes the pain distant. And when you’re hurting, this is a godsend. Even the hangover is welcomed, in a way, because the physical pain becomes an embodiment of the spiritual pain. It’s like I’m punishing myself through the drink for all the things I never said or did. Regret and wondering what you could have done, or what you never said, crawl over the sphere of consciousness like a swarm of neurosis, and the alcohol keeps them at bay–temporarily. But the problem is that when you sober up, all your problems are still there. The alcohol did nothing to solve them; it merely weakened the skills and strength we have to address them. My friend is still dead, and all the bourbon in the world will not bring her back. This is the fact of the matter.
And yet, I hope that my problem is not yet at the point where I have to give it up completely—it’s still highly possible that my future will consist of a few drinks a night for the rest of my life—but this is the final question, isn’t it? The cards have been put on the table. I will abuse the drink at the cost of my own health, at the cost of my own reputation—but I can manage it. But will it reach the point where I have to give it up completely in order to save myself from it? Do the nights of my future contain AA meetings in basements or a firm two drinks over dinner? Because the drink has destroyed the lives of many men throughout history, and I am flirting with this same destroyer that has consumed so many of them.
Donovan James can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org