It was the midsummer of 1990, and I was still jet lagged from the trip all the way from Dallas to Frankfurt. I was sitting on the outside deck of the Kreuzberg Abbey, a few kilometers southwest of Fulda, taking in the fantastic view of the midsummer greenery of central Germany. It was an amazing day, brightly sunny and warm but nice and cool in the shade I was sitting in.
My Aunt was a teacher on the military post in Fulda, a civilian but with a military grade. My parents had given me a choice when I graduated high school: I could have a used car or I could spend a month in Germany with my Aunt touring around Europe on a Eurail pass. Knowing I would probably get my father’s car, I easily chose Germany.
My cousin Katie and I had arrived the previous day, and after some recoup time my Aunt set about her first most important order of business: introducing us to German beer.
In high school I didn’t care a whole lot for beer. Or even alcohol for that matter. Most of what we could afford was crap and most of what we could pilfer from parents’ stores was usually either crap or too refined for the average 15-16 year old. So I never really got the beer thing.
With a thick clunk on the solid wood table a glass of pitch black beer with a foamy head was placed in front of me. Immediately I was intrigued. Beer that you could not see through? What sorcery is this? The monks at the abbey have been making the ale the same way since the early 1700’s from a recipe created in the late 1500’s when the monastery was formed. My Aunt was giving us a history of the abbey and the beer as she drank hers and I took my glass and took a drink.
And suddenly I understood. I understood beer. The flavor was complex and rich, the temperature of the beer was cool not ice cold. It was thick and felt like you were eating something rather than drinking it. That was the moment, sitting there in central Germany on a warm summer day just out of high school and not yet in college, that I feel in love with beer.
I was 17 years old.
The trip to Germany spoiled me so much on beer that when I did drink beer in college it was exclusively Shiner Bock, a staple of south Texas beer. South Central Texas was mostly settled by people of German and Czech descent so the crafting of beer was very important to them. I rarely drank to extreme excess, a couple of times a year I would get “College level” drunk, but for the most part I was more a steady state style drinker.
Once I left college my drinking moderated significantly as I began working at Microsoft in a standard corporate job (albeit with 12 hour days). For most of the 90’s I would say I drank perhaps three times a week at most, and even then nothing harder really than beer. But in the late 90’s I discovered Cognac. And things sort of began to unwind from there.
Cognac, like that first true beer I enjoyed in Germany, was a real sensory experience. It’s not just the complexity of the flavor, but also the aroma. Not to mention the science, history, and overall craftsmanship that goes into making something so refined. For my 40th birthday I shared with my friends a bottle of cognac distilled in 1724 and decanted in 1974. That’s 350 years of aging. The bottle was easily worth many thousands of dollars.
From Cognac I discovered Scotch, and found a slightly less intensive but every bit as interesting level of craftsmanship, chemistry, and history. The interplay of flavors depending on the region the Scotch was distilled or the barrels used or pairing it with a cigar all interested me on a million levels.
All of these enjoyable aspects were independent of the intoxicating effects of alcohol. For a long long time it was more a sensory experience than a drinking experience. Until the past few years. I had a startling realization a little while ago that I had probably become an alcoholic.
What led me to this realization was simple: I was drinking every single day, and I was doing it to feel “normal”. I never got drunk, or blacked out, or drove drunk or anything. My drinking was a steady thing through out the day or night, never really getting drunk just maintaining a strong buzz. The issue became clear when I realized that over the course of a night I could put away a half a bottle of Scotch, or a six pack of extremely strong beer, and I was doing it without any consideration at all. Then I realized I had been doing that for years. Somehow, alcohol became the thing I needed. And I needed it every day.
Go to lunch with friends at work? Beer. Hang out for an hour after work? Scotch. Go home and watch a movie or play video games? Beer and Scotch. Saturday day off? Why not have a beer at 11am while I write, which turned into drinking through the entire day.
The glass sitting next to me became too important, an extension of my mind where its absence would make me agitated.
Alcohol was still a sensory experience for me to be sure. I appreciated the beers I drank and looked forward to trying new ones and new variations. I especially enjoyed drinking the beers my friends make, because they are actually really good at it and also beer.
But that glass next to me really began to bother me. I didn’t get blind drunk and do something dumb, I didn’t “crash” in the classical sense when people come to this realization. But chances are I was going to. Chances are I was headed down that road.
The opening to Ringworld Engineers finds Louis Wu a slave to his Droud. He wakes up, exercises, eats, showers, and puts on the Droud and sets a 10 hour timer. It goes off, the Droud shuts off, he eats, exercises, showers, and goes to bed.
That’s his life. Every time I read that chapter it shocks me. How could someone let themselves get to that state? I’m not saying I was anywhere near there, but I was exploring the border of it and realizing that made me unhappy.
I quit alcohol. To stave off withdrawal I used a “Tapered Detox” which worked really really well. It’s been a little while now and the things I was scared of are all turning out ok. I was scared writing would be different (it isn’t) I was scared playing games or watching movies would be different (nope.) Most of all I was scared I would miss it so much I wouldn’t last without it (I’m ok!)
I’m making this public because I know too many people to tell individually, and to anyone out there in a similar circumstance I’m here to say you can do it. I feel much better mentally and physically and there is plenty of help and support available either medical, social, spiritual, etc to help you do it.
Some quick points:
This was my own realization, there was no inciting incident.
If you’re a friend of mine and you drink you do not have to walk on eggshells around me. Enjoy your drink. I have gone out now a couple of times in drinking situations and done just fine. Please don’t feel you are making me uncomfortable. I had a problem I didn’t like and did something about it that satisfied me that I addressed it. I still want to go to my favorite places with my friends. That’s what’s more important to me now.
Will I ever drink again? No idea. I have to assume I will want to, because that helps me put in place the will power. I do know this, if I ever decide to make the conscious decision to have a drink it will not be alone, I will never have more than 2 beers or 2 drinks in a day, and I will never drink two days in a row. But for right now, I’m off alcohol completely and plan for that to be true for the foreseeable future. I quit smoking a long time ago and can enjoy a once a year cigarette sometimes, but I gotta get far away from that guy who needed the glass next to him before I could even consider it.
I’m happy to write up a blog entry on my taper regimen if people would be interested in that. Alcohol withdrawal can kill you, especially when you are over 40 like me. And I drank enough for me to at least factor that into the process of stopping. Tapering is basically avoiding detox drugs (which have their own side effects and nastiness) to achieve the same goal: weaning the body off alcohol without the full side effects. I repeat it was very effective for me but it requires some very specific physical and mental adjustments.
I understate in the above how much better I feel. My blood pressure is down 20 points, I’ve lost weight, I have more energy and it reinforces just how much I was in a cloud with my body over drinking.
So there’s that. If you have any questions about it please feel free to leave a comment. :>