Change of Heart

A short version of how—and why—I changed my relationship with alcohol.

I’ve had a lot of relationships, and although I really do want to write about all of them, there’s one in particular that inspired me to begin writing in the first place. More specifically, it was the end of my longest relationship that allowed me to remember that I’ve always thought of “writer” as what I hoped to end up being, and to finally begin to become that person.

Part of what’s been keeping me from telling the whole story is the feeling that I have to have it all straight before I can write it down. I’ve finally started to figure out is that writing is how I understand myself, and that, as Melissa Febos put it in Body Work, all that we need to begin is the “change of heart. A shift forward, or away, or perhaps a desire to return to some truer version of myself.”

The “relationship” that I’m talking about is not with a person—it’s with alcohol. I say relationship because that really is the right way to think about it. A love story⁠ that ended over four years ago, resulting in a separation. Like any relationship, there’s more to it than we used to be together, and now we’re not, although if you want the one-line answer, that does pretty much sum it up. We’re definitely not a thing any longer, and I wouldn’t say we’re friends, but we have a healthy respect for each other, and we’re still in touch—only now and then.

What’s most important is that I’m not the same person that I was when we were together—for so very, very long. And in fact, that change in who I was is was led to the change in my relationship with alcohol, not the other way around.

I was a steady drinker from junior high school into my late forties, at which time I went overnight from drinking every day to only quite rarely. It did take me thirty-five years to get there, but it was an easy quit⁠ when it finally happened. The change was not the result of any program or through the dutiful application of willpower—it came over me quite suddenly, as a result of my own my inner work that had been in progress for at least a decade.

One night at home alone, drinking as usual—a couple of tequila cocktails and a bottle of wine—a long-standing truth came to the surface, like a bubble finally breaking the surface of a murky midwestern lake. In that moment, I saw that alcohol was the last thing keeping me tethered to my recurring experience with depression. It had never really occurred to me before that they were connected, but all of a sudden it became clear to me how much alcohol had kept me sinking back into that dark water, again and again. Perhaps it’s even what took me down in the first place.

All of the changes that I’d already made to my life to become more of who I wanted be—and to become less depressed—had…worked! I had become a different person, and that person no longer had the time or energy for drinking. After that realization, my interest in alcohol largely disappeared—and it happened overnight. It was just like waking up next to a lover and realizing—this has already been over for a while. Time to move on.

Perhaps most of all, it makes me happy on a regular basis that I’ll never have another hangover. I had so many that, still, when when I wake up a little earlier than I’d like, my heart rate goes up, my body remembering with fear the feeling of opening my eyes to a head-full of hurt—and then I have this huge sense of relief and gratitude that that was just a playback, a memory of how it was so often in the past, and that instead, I blink twice, and there’s no headache, no blurred vision, no sick feeling, no weakness or desperate sloth. Instead, the world begins bright, every single morning. It’s a shock for a minute—and then—amazing. Perfect.

In those moments after the panic of remembered hangovers, I feel the beauty and the peace that, I guess, I didn’t feel enough of as a kid. It just didn’t get into me, and so now that I know what it feels like, I’ll take that a thousand times over any kind of drinks the night before. I need that peace and beauty. I need it to have my head straight. I need it for my sanity.

That said, I’m still more anxious than I’d like to be, and I can feel more acutely the pain that drove me to what I now know as addictive behavior in the first place. I was addicted to alcohol for a very long time, as I have been in varying degrees to porn, shopping, sex, adrenaline, social media, gambling—call it “investing” if you like—and even travel. These addictions are all attempts to compensate for a lack of care, connection and identity⁠ that I’ve felt since my early years.

I do still find myself trying to escape just being me. All that talk about enjoying every sweet moment of life—I didn’t used to feel it, or only in glimpses so rare that I fully believed that the idea of any lasting, joyful satisfaction could only be propaganda spread around by members of some brainwashed cult. Having unburdened my sensorium from a constant bath of cortical depressants, I do actually—I swear!—feel pretty fucking good a fair bit of the time! It turns out that the pain of not being is even greater than the suffering that I was so often trying to escape.

Sometimes it even seems true to say that I no longer suffer from depression, although that heavy pattern is still wired so deeply into me that while it can disappear for days and weeks, I can also find myself back there again, floating on the surface of the black, poking at it like a massive, oily blob, knowing that if I stay there too long it will swallow me back inside. That darkness feels like forever—and it serves me well, in that when I do, now and then, think back to that shimmering wall of bar-back bottles, I’m reminded straight away of the succubus that serves the drinks, and my suffering at her hands, and that’s enough to keep me well away.

Here’s about where I figure you want to ask, well, did you stop?

It’s not quite so simple.

I didn’t quite stop like never again, straight edge, one-hundred-percent sober. I stopped drinking every day. I stopped drinking by default. I stopped drinking, with some exceptions. There are months that go by when I don’t drink at all, and then there’s a week or three in Europe where I had some wine with dinner almost every night—and then felt the desire to do that slip away entirely even as I was on the train to the airport in Rome.

I don’t count years or months or days, but as I write that, I do imagine that you are doubting my resolve. Some of you are thinking, well, buddy, you didn’t really stop—and when you have a problem, you have to stop. You can’t be mostly sober. You have a problem, and you can’t expect to fix it by half measures. You gotta stick to the program. You have to be strong! You have to use your willpower. I’m imagining that you’re imagining that like so many other lifelong drinkers you’ve read about or known, I get on the wagon and then fall off of the back in a heap of fumes—that I continually regress to my frequent-and-heavy drinking past, and then fight my way back to short-lived sobriety, only to repeat the cycle again. I imagine that you think that I’ve deluded myself. That I haven’t really changed.

I’ll stop trying to think for you.

It’s worth noting here that the idea that we’ve been attached to for the last century or so—that only some people can become addicted to alcohol and that the only cure for that compulsive attachment is to never drink again—is just straight-up untrue. We all have the potential for addiction within us, and habits, even deeply wired and chemically-enhanced habits, are, for many people, easier to change than we’ve been led to believe. There are many people who drink less-than-catastrophically and still much more than they would like, and there are also many people who successfully stop drinking or otherwise heal their relationship with alcohol without necessarily abstaining entirely, or forever. There are many ways to change, and many people make all sorts of changes.

It’s also true, however, that as I work to explain how all of this is true—and not just for me—and that I like having the freedom to choose, I don’t need that freedom as much as the much greater and truer freedom of not having to choose. Just about every time I do drink any alcohol, I’m reminded that I no longer enjoy the actual effects. What I like about alcohol is the taste of beer, and wine, and pretty much all the booze too—and the feeling of the first few seconds or minutes. After twenty minutes or so, the effects becomes negative, even for just a glass of wine. I know full well, and from years of my own hard-won experience, that adding alcohol doesn’t add to my experience of life. I’ve already tasted plenty of delicious wines and beers—so many!—and I don’t to try anything else just to see if it might be so delicious as to justify the nasty side effects.

Just to present yet another contradiction, I will say that if I am going to drink anything, it would be a glass or two of one of the delicious natural wines that are becoming more and more popular. These wines often have a slightly lower alcohol content, more like 11-12%, and natural methods and lack of sulfites seem to produce fewer side effects.

Still, I can imagine coming to the point, perhaps quite soon, where I do draw a hard line and step across. Part of my resistance to doing that has been my long-standing attachment to making my own way in the world, and it’s become clear to me recently that if I insist on following no-one at all, it’s hard to get much of anywhere. It’s sort of exhausting to have to explain all of this in such a complicated way. It would be a lot easier—and perhaps even more believable—to be able to say that we split up, and we’re never going to see each other again, period.

All of that gets back to why I’m telling the story again right now. As a friend said to me the other night: I’m still in it. That’s true. I’m still digesting this chapter of my life. It’s is a little complicated, and, all that really matters is that I did have a change of heart⁠. I set a boundary, as we so often fail to do in relationships. I took control of my relationship with alcohol, and I did it in a way that emerged from my own personal development. As I found my way more and more towards myself, I found myself less and less interested in drinking.

That change is still happening—and I know that I don’t have to do anything else to earn the right to tell it. So, here it is.