Why I Feel OK About Falling Off The Wagon After Years Of Sobriety

    Here's to moderation in 2014.

    Nothing terrible ever happened when I drank. At least, as far as I'm aware, it didn't. My high-strain endurance boozing at even the most civil and daylight-tinged gatherings never seemed to yield any irreversible fallout. Merely bad things happened, of course. I'll probably never look certain people in the eye again; certain doorways, I've likely darkened for the last time. But as far as lost jobs, injured bystanders, or jail time are concerned, I quit drinking in May 2010 with a clean record.

    A little over a year ago, I started again.

    People don't know how to react when you tell them you've ended a lengthy period of sobriety, particularly if the interaction occurs while you're clutching a decanter of amber liquid. Your nuclear-grade smile and giddy tone should provide context clues, but these details might be misinterpreted as a sarcastic celebration of failure. Some of my friends certainly took it that way. They greeted the news with concern and reprehension, responses ideal for when somebody has fallen off the wagon. "Somebody" hadn't, though. What I had done instead was a comprehensively debated, intentional dismount from said wagon. Admittedly, it was anybody's guess whether I'd stick the landing.

    My reasons for quitting drinking would sound rather boring in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I know this to be true from having gone to meetings with and for other people, but never myself. My personal definition of an alcoholic was always "someone who drinks in the mornings and/or alone," and as long as I was guilty of neither, I was OK. I was just someone who looked for reasons to introduce drinking in any situation, and pushed it as far as it could go. You can imagine how I felt about the concept of brunch.

    It was, in fact, a standard-issue brunch that led me to stop drinking after less ambitious slow-down efforts failed to take. Following a Mother's Day summit of Bloody Marys and omelets, I scratched a big red X through the calendar day, in terms of getting anything done. I bid my brunch group good-bye and met another friend at a bar to keep the fun going. Much later, on the way home, it occurred to me that I could either while away the remaining Sunday hours alone, actively dreading my copyediting job the next day, or I could stop at the bar near my place and go toe-to-toe with oblivion. In a day of bad decisions, what's one more?

    When I woke up the next morning, I had to email my boss and apologize for being late. Once I threw up in the shower, saw my own bloated cadaver in the mirror, and actually smelled liquor in my pores, though, I emailed again to say I couldn't come in at all. (It was "a stomach thing.") Then I crawled back into bed, literally hating myself, until the idea of not drinking for the following two weeks started coming into focus. Having a simple guarantee against this feeling for a set period released a palpable surge of relief. And after those two weeks were over, I just kept going.

    My problem with alcohol had always been a problem of knowing when enough was enough. It wasn't just with alcohol, though, but with everything. I have a compulsive personality. I am an apex predator of More. Be it alcohol, food, sex, or unread tweets — my life revolves around itches not scratched.

    This insatiable appetite crescendoed in college, when I topped out at over 300 pounds, and drank like I wanted to jailbreak my bodily form and become pure energy. Although more than a full third of that weight is long gone and I no longer do keg stands, food is something I still struggle with. Over time, it became easier to sustain the macro eating decisions that delivered me from a deadly weight level. What turned out to be much harder, though, is remembering, moment to moment, to rein in compulsion when I lay eyes upon a generous serving of something I want — whatever it is.

    On the surface, I didn't like the attention when people found out I didn't drink; old friends attempting to goad me into a relapse, first dates looking at me like there was a red flag stitched across my face. But I'm a writer: Obviously, I crave attention. I hoped people would regard me as they might Iggy Pop or Slash or any other iconic figure whose latter-day sobriety was an interesting turn in a long saga. Nobody did, though, nor should they have. Mostly, it turns out, people don't care what you do if it doesn't affect them directly. And anyway, I wasn't after anybody's admiration; I just wanted their company. Aside from all the events I missed out on by intentionally skipping, I felt left out at the ones I attended. There's an incredible loneliness about being the sober one. You can be physically at the party, and still not really there.

    In New York, and for media people in particular, alcohol is even more thoroughly entwined with the culture. Not only are deals made and interviews conducted around alcohol often, there are also author readings, book parties, storytelling shows, bull sessions, and good-bye-to-all-that send-offs just about every night. Heaven help you if you're a karaoke enthusiast to boot.

    Two and a half years in, sobriety had not taught me self-control, it had merely institutionalized self-deprivation. I was no closer to conquering the underlying infinite thirst than I ever would be without confronting it head-on.

    The first time I considered a formal return to drinking was in March 2011, less than a year into sobriety. I was traveling alone in Europe, on a trip paid for mostly in phantom alcohol-bucks. Having left my digital devices back in Brooklyn, I walked around just thinking for long, uninterrupted stretches. Without any distractions or company, it's easier to actually think about the stuff you always put off thinking about — like what to do with your life in pretty much every respect. One idea that kept flooding toward the forefront of my thoughts was that, at some vague point in the future, I might want to start drinking again. This sobriety streak was never supposed to last forever. Ending it was just a question of when.

    After Europe, I did a lot of quiet waiting. I went to parties sober. I went on dates sober. I even went to a bachelor party in Las Vegas, where the air is so thick with the fumes of alcohol, desperation, and horniness, it's a miracle anyone can even see the undead army of strip club promoters hovering at the periphery of everything. I was at home, though, by myself, when I finally made the decision that it was time.

    November 2012 had been a blur of complex assignments, weddings, family stuff, and Hurricane Sandy. The idea of straight-up skipping Thanksgiving was an eleventh-hour breakthrough that I pounced on. With nothing to do for a few days, except the odd visit with fellow stragglers, I seriously contemplated the end of my sobriety for the first time in nearly two years. The dry years had been among the best in my life for a lot of reasons. I now had a budding writing career, a comfortable living situation, and better health. Much of these changes were directly due to sobriety. How much would dousing myself with firewater change who I had become?

    Finding reasons in favor of drinking again did not require deep meditative analysis. What did, however, was the question of whether I was ready. One conclusion I'd reached long before this rogue Thanksgiving was that if I were to go back to drinking, I needed a plan. The one I decided on involved instituting a maximum number of drinks — three to four — with a loophole built in for special occasions. No more endless refills; instead I'd keep track like a data scientist. The caveat was that these special occasions had to be premeditated. I wouldn't allow myself to just say "fuck it" on any random night and get turbo-hammered — it would have to be a measured, organized chaos. Those were the rules. They would be my own personal Konami code for winning at alcohol.

    I had my first drink a couple days after Thanksgiving, as soon as my housemates returned from their respective families. I hoisted a sweaty glass of Maker's Mark to mouth-level and stared at it, heart racing. Everyone would understand if I backed down. We would sit in the kitchen and play Uno, everybody buzzed except me, and it would be like any other night. Instead, I leaned my head back and took a sip.

    The whiskey was warm in a familiar way. It blazed a winding path to the pit of my stomach, like a lit fuse. As the warmth spread and my tongue loosened, I thought, I remember this. The others seemed a little nervous. They were right to be. When my third drink turned into slivers of ice, I felt like I could keep going. Nobody else was stopping either. But the new order of things was three or four drinks and done, and it seemed better to not hit the maximum amount the very first time, so I stopped and enjoyed the transgressive thrill of being tipsy again. Overall, the dynamic of a typical hangout changed very little that night, except now a lightly pulsating thundercloud had enveloped my consciousness. I wondered through the haze whether I'd made the right decision.

    The holidays were coming up. A sudden onslaught of colored lights and festive music contributed to the feeling that a period of mourning had ended. Soon there would be a batch of parties famously sentimental and uninhibited all at once. During this year's merry-go-round, I would surely be more in tune with the social climate of each event than I'd been the last couple seasons.

    When you're a perennial sober party guest, some people eye you suspiciously. Not always, but it happens. Your unimpeded memory functions like a video recorder, capturing every potential embarrassment, and so serial misfits avoid you accordingly. You also discover that a lot of things people say to make each other laugh sound like context-free jibber-jabber to the sober ear. It can feel as though you walked into a shitty Adam Sandler movie halfway through, and some of the audience suspects you of bootlegging it.

    When I started going to get-togethers again as a drinker, I realized how resentful I'd become toward people who dared to have fun in my presence without overtly including me. I'd been so aggrieved in my sobriety that I'd reflexively acquired some of the superiority that drunken eyes seemed to accuse me of harboring. Even though I felt closer to the eye of each party's storm now, I also understood that the distance when I wasn't drinking perhaps had more to do with me than with alcohol.

    At one final bash of the season, I met the person who wound up becoming my girlfriend months later. It felt liberating to go out for a drink with someone new, without the sobriety reveal looming like a scythe on a pulley, an unfettered implication of damage to cloud the night with doubt. This change, however, did not summon some sort of dating deus ex machina. One facet of awkwardness may have disappeared, but that was it. Now there was just everything else that could go wrong.

    My elevator pitch for ending sobriety had been "moderate social drinking without ever blacking out again." Before May 2010, I used to black out three or four times a year, which was perhaps above average for someone closing out his twenties. This habit of going into autopilot mode, for an overly self-conscious person, is an actual living nightmare. You have too many drinks and suddenly, for an unspecified spell, the mere shell of yourself takes over — and unlike you, he isn't worried at all about how he's perceived. The next morning, the self-conscious you returns, just in time to be mortified.

    The last night of 2012 was the first time I invoked "special occasion" status and exceeded the three-to-four-drink limit. I guzzled heartily, keeping up with the other revelers, without ever crossing over into the murky headspace where that thundercloud starts disgorging behavioral bolts of lightning, and apologies are required. This minor victory gave me confidence, and over the next couple months there were plenty more like it — nights in which I stopped drinking right on schedule, brunches that didn't turn into all-day affairs. This must be how normal people do alcohol, I thought.

    But buoyed by my New Year's Eve experience, "three to four drinks max" soon translated to "four drinks almost every time." Meeting a friend for a drink or having wine with dinner rarely resulted in four rounds, but almost any given night out did, and that happened once or twice a week. Testing the elasticity of the rules, I got semantically Clintonian about what constituted a drink — with two beers equaling one whiskey. The program had devolved into fuzzy math. It began to feel like a formality to keep track or to even have a pre-set cutoff point at all, so I just stopped.

    The first time a night got away from me was in March. Having a night "get away from you" is a euphemism for alcohol-induced partial amnesia. There was a big asterisk affixed to this instance, though. I'd flown in from Cannes on zero sleep the previous night. After a day spent in transit, I went immediately into drinks with friends. In the morning, I had no memory of how the night ended. There were assurances that "nothing bad happened," as though not remembering weren't bad enough. I wrote off the incident as a fluke, though, attributing it to a mixture of exhaustion and alcohol — and perhaps a soupçon of denial.

    Not drinking at parties can make you feel like you're not even there, but at least you still have agency. You'll never be ambushed the next day with evidence of things you did or said; things that, in the light of day, make your skin crawl. You'll never have to untag yourself from someone's Facebook photo, and Memento a grotesque image into nonexistence, despite the fact that everyone else still knows it happened. Well, actually, even sober people have to do that last one sometimes.

    In many ways, the rest of the year was an unqualified success. The novelty of drinking again took a long time to fade. While it lasted, a lot of totally ordinary situations took on the feel of social experiments. ("Hypothesis: If I meet X person at Y event and have Z to drink, how hard will it rock?") There were drawbacks, of course. I'd gained several alcohol-pounds, spent a princely sum of alcohol-bucks, and left a regrettable impression or two. As far as changing from the person I was the previous Thanksgiving, though — I hadn't. My writing career progressed, while I enjoyed the best romantic relationship I've ever been in, and I'd taken some memorable travels. Sobriety had provided the catalyst for changes that couldn't be undone by drinking now — not unless I became some kind of Bukowski-style bar-monster, which I hadn't. In other words, nothing terrible happened.

    The first time a night got away from me without any asterisk whatsoever was at a holiday party a few weeks ago. I remember the party itself in full Technicolor panorama, and I remember leaving and getting into a cab afterward. I also remember bringing along a red Solo cup filled with accidentally double-spiked Adult S'mores beverage. Beyond that, it's all a blur.

    I woke up the next morning in a dead panic. It had happened! Exactly what I dreaded! The plane had crashed into the submarine, or whatever! My girlfriend assured me it wasn't as bad as all that, though. According to her, I'd become a mushy broken record who danced when no music was even playing, but that it happened after we'd left the party. She teased me by dispensing sound bites in dribs and drabs throughout the day. Clearly, she was nowhere near as shaken up about it as I was, but some of the things she said made me want to cut out my tongue with hedge clippers, so that I could neither talk nor consume alcohol ever again.

    I'd fucked up, for sure. Part of trial and error, though, is error. One day, it may sound unbelievably, heartbreakingly naïve to have written these words, but right now, what feels best is finding a way to continue drinking. If I give up alcohol again, it needs to be for the right reasons — like general health or the suspicion that I've formed a physical dependence — not as a stopgap for dealing with why I'm compelled to drink too much in the first place. My problems with alcohol are secondary to my omnivorous thirst for more everything. Abstaining from one won't make the other go away. It's a Band-Aid for a bullet wound.

    Epiphanies lose their impact with repetition. Realizing you have a problem may be the first step to solving that problem, but unfortunately for those of us set in our ways — roughly everyone ever — it's not the last step too. There are only so many times you can pat yourself on the back for concluding it's time to make a change without following through to the finish. Not drinking for two and a half years gave me the gift of never having to think about controlling myself. Starting again brought back the recurring epiphany that I need to be more present and aware in all my appetites. I haven't figured out exactly how yet, but maybe learning to do it with alcohol will force me to do it with everything.

    Read more from the Fresh Starts series.