Harder Than It Looks
It’s been 30 days since I’ve had a drink of alcohol.
That’s an April, June, September or November without booze. It’s two days better than a February and one away from a January. It’s been a weird month, something I probably should have done a lot earlier. Taking a break from drinking wasn’t just a healthy decision, it was the right one. My liver needed a break and so did my bank account. This wasn’t a court appointed sobriety. It was merely the right choice for me at the right time.
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with drinking. I probably started too young and have definitely drank more than I should. Both sides of my family drink, some more than other. My mother’s side has something called the Davis Disease. This is just a nice way of saying members of the clan enjoy drinking vodka until they pass out in heavy-upholstered Barcaloungers. My father’s side always had a well-stocked liquor cabinet. It made for great family get-togethers but usually meant most people shouldn’t be driving anywhere at the end of the night.
I like alcohol. And it’s not just the euphoric effects from being intoxicated. I like the taste of bourbon. Cold Miller Lites on a hot day are fantastic. Gin cocktails during the holidays and margaritas during the summer bookend the calendar. The problem is I was enjoying alcohol a little too much lately. And by too much, it was every night and more than 1–3 drinks an evening.
Before I go all Brett Kavanaugh, I’ll say that booze has been good to me. Not only have I met a lot of lifelong friends over a beer, I’ve been a professional bartender for almost 20 years. Pouring drinks has paid the bills and provided for my family. Hell, I met my beautiful and dynamic wife at a bar. As a bartender, I’ve treated pouring drinks as a career. I am a professional. I don’t drink at work. I’m there to make money, not get hammered. There is no way I can be intoxicated and still provide decent service. Sure, I did do a shot with David Koechner and let him behind the bar one night, but how many members of the cast of Anchorman come to Keys On Main?
Alcohol has been the reward for a hard day’s work. But my relationship with it has been blurred over the last couple of years. It was becoming too much of a priority. I think I was ready for a change and I needed to serious reevaluate my drinking habits.
Taking a Break
I made the decision to hit pause on drinking alcohol after a fight with my wife. It was about money. I’m not going to go into details about the fight (get your own wife to argue with) but had I been sober, I could easily have explained what was going on. It was a Tuesday and I was on my third tumbler of Jack Daniels and water and I couldn’t answer a simple question.
Why was I hammered on a Tuesday? We weren’t celebrating anything or even commiserating. We had just finished eating dinner in front of the television and going over bills. I was on my third pint glass of whiskey cut with water and I couldn’t answer a simple question. It was embarrassing.
In that moment, I started thinking about other times I embarrassed myself because I was housed. There had been family functions, backyard BBQs, a Jason Isbell concert and countless other times I tied one on a little too tight. I shouldn’t be using a euphemism. I was drunk and out of control. I wasn’t looking into the abyss. I was just moving dangerously close to the edge with little chance to retreat.
Four days before the fight, I woke up with a crazy hangover. Was this my normal? Waking up feeling like stir-fried dog shit over and over? There was a laundry list of things I wanted to accomplish before the end of the year and the time it took me to shake the previous night off was getting in the way. I want to build a shed in the backyard. There’s a back patio that needs to be fixed. Install a fireplace insert, rough-in a bathroom in the basement and repair the backyard fence. My Sonny Boy Vegas Teaches the Bluesbook was only a pipedream. I wasn’t strengthening my legs for my upcoming knee replacement surgery and I looked horrible with my shirt off.
I talked with my wife and I told her I’m going on the wagon, oops, there’s another euphemism. I told her I was going to stop drinking alcohol. She was incredibly supportive. We both knew it was going to be hard, but it was definitely the right decision.
A Good Example
The single most accomplish person I know is my father’s brother, Paul. He’s a professional dentist who invented his own dentures, an artist, musician, woodworker, and philosopher. His home in downtown Sacramento is a living museum filled with his artwork and a wood shop cooler than anything you’ve ever seen. He enjoys a good tuna fish sandwich and tells a damn fine joke. There’s never enough time to do the things we want, and I surmised Uncle Paul stopped his evening cocktails to focus on the things he loved. This was over 20 years ago and in the last two decades, he’s done more than most would do with a dozen lifetimes.
I’m no Paul Raskin and neither are you, but his simple message resonated: life is short, cut out the distractions.
By and large, I’ve done my best to eliminate the distractions. I’ve never been a morning drinker. The idea of waking up and cracking a beer is out-and-out offensive. I rarely drink at lunch. I’m guilty of a beer at an afternoon baseball game but my early drinking was usually reserved for a beer or two after completing a ton of yard work or finishing a long hike. I’m a stick and carrot kind of guy which translates to delayed gratification. Get all your work done and you can enjoy your treat. But I was getting into an unbreakable pattern. I’d usually have a beer or two after work and quickly move to bourbon around 6:00 p.m. Once the floodgates opened, I’d have a tough time stopping.
Weeks before I decided to take a break, I looked up what makes an alcoholic. I took a bunch of these quizzes and I was surprised how low I scored on each test. The most I ever scored was about 3 out of 10. “Not bad,” I thought, but my three checkmarks weren’t great. I was planning activities around drinking. I was drinking in secret. And my tolerance was through the roof. I didn’t have the trembles or physical addiction, but I wasn’t living nearly as clean as I’ve been telling myself. I was spending close to $100 a week at the liquor store and probably couldn’t operate a car legally after 7:30 p.m. most nights.
Am I an alcoholic? I don’t think so, but I definitely have a messed-up relationship with booze. The fact that I was drinking upwards of 5–8 drinks a day, waking up feeling raw, and thinking about alcohol more than I should, I knew it was time to take a break. What could I do if I wasn’t hammered on a Tuesday? More yardwork, longer walks with the dogs, screwing around in the garage, playing more guitar, bike riding or actually being present for my wife? These things sounded a lot better than evening highballs in front of the TV.
The First Couple of Days
Believe it or not, the first two days were a snap. I was working at the club both nights and the idea of drinking was ridiculous. Not only is Keys a place of business, I still have to drive home at the end of the night. Utah has an 0.05 DUI law and I’m not screwing around with a beer before heading home at 2:00 a.m.
It didn’t hurt I was hungover on Day 1, but that wasn’t anything unusual. I grinded through the day at the Pill Mill and survived my bartending shift. I felt like crap, but it was mostly from the guilt of fighting with my wife, not the Jack Daniels. The next day was a little better but who’s to say? I’m usually sleepwalking through Thursdays and Fridays because of the late nights. It doesn’t help I ate like a stoned raccoon and I power through the days with coffee and drive-through fast food.
Things were better on Friday evening. I apologized to my wife and ended up having a better evening. I substituted my usual bourbon and water with about 8 cans of LaCroix. I drank tumblers of iced water with lemon juice and pissed like a race horse through most of the evening. When I finally went to bed around 11:00 p.m., I slept for almost 12 hours. I know I was tired, but in retrospect, I truly believe my body was exhausted.
Here’s what I’ve learned about sleep and sobriety: I’ve been sleeping like shit for decades. I’m a snoring, drooling, farting mess of a man between the sheets (mothers, hide your daughters!!). Drinking makes you sleepy, but it doesn’t really offer good rest. You’re putting a ton of stress on your liver to process booze during the night. I found for the first week that it took forever for my mind to shut down before I could fall asleep. I was a bundle of nerves. I wondered if it had anything to do with a FOMO of booze.
Even though I was really tired, it took well over a week to train my brain to slow down and start getting ready for bed. I would listen to boring podcasts or read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. Eventually, I’d fall into fits of crummy sleep. It wasn’t great sleep but at least it was sober sleep.
What was nuts was I was waking up feeling like I was hungover. I’ve never begrudged a hangover but spending the first couple hours of my day with a splitting headache without the privilege of knocking back a couple of Turkeys the night before was for the birds. It took weeks before I woke up feeling marginally human. The morning headaches slowly went away. I generally felt better once I drank some water and got moving. It was nice not having to sweat out the booze or having my body riddled with pain from booze.
For years, I was in power-through mode. Even if my head was nothing more than a bunch of Irish miners pounding rocks in my temple, I’d get up, shower, drink coffee and get to work. You can be hungover, but you can’t be a lazy lump of shit in my house. We don’t do lost days. No laying around on the couch, ordering Door Dash or moping around. Be a man. You did the crime, do the time. Get up and move. This meant doing more with less sleep at a lower level. Not a great way of going through life. Not drinking, I was sleeping better mostly because I wasn’t waking up every two hours to take a leak. I quit having insane, psychotic dreams and actually woke up with a curious amount of energy.
Also, I stopped having ridiculous bowel movements. Before quitting, my morning constitution was violent crime scene. Booze inflames your GI tract and I used to wake up making a 100-yard dash to the can. My gut was feeling every damn thing I was shoveling through it. After a week, my stomach didn’t feel like it just filmed an episode of Fear Factor. It’s probably because my desire for late-night snacks was almost eliminated. I wasn’t gangbanging a bag of cheddar pretzels at midnight or crushing a pint of ice cream. Inadvertently, I was making healthier choices simply because I was thinking before I’d eat something. And let’s be clear: I’m no Jack LaLanne. My diet has only been marginally better because I wasn’t tanked at night.
Because my weapon of choice is Miller Lite or a whiskey with water, I wasn’t destroying myself with calories. A Miller has 96 calories and 3.2 grams of carbs. Not bad. Even better, a Wild Turkey 101 over ice cut with water only has 69 calories and no carbs. A decent night of drinking, or a Monday, was three beers and two cocktails, so I might have been putting away only 500–650 calories with less than 10 grams of carbs. On paper, this isn’t horrible. Hell, I might even call this acceptable.
The problem was once the pots and pans were put into the dishwasher and I should be getting ready for bed, I was thinking about a second dinner. Booze made me curiously hungry at 10:00 p.m. and I rarely had the discipline to just go to sleep. My midnight snacks were becoming legendary: sleeves of cookies, bags of chip, or whatever I could quietly eat in the TV room. My sober eating calculus was very simple: the less I drank, the less I ate. In time, I really did stop eating crap after dinner and just went to bed.
On the second Friday of my sobriety experiment, I bought a 6-pack of Bucklers NA. I’ve drank non-alcoholic beers in the past. My power used to be ordering a NA and a shot of Bushmills. Somehow, I thought this made it okay to pound Bushmills because I was being responsible with the NA. Yeah, I made a lot of deals with myself.
Anyway, it was nice to be drinking something that tasted pretty close to beer. My first response to Bucklers was <<shoulder shrug>>, “Well, I’ve had worse. At least it tastes better than Coors Light.” It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t good. With that said, it was a nice change from LaCroix, and I liked how the bottle felt in my hand.
At this point, I realized that drinking alcohol is a lot more about routine then the intoxicated feeling. Instead of coming home from the Pill Mill and cracking a beer, I would pour a big glass of ice water and head out to the back yard or garage or get ready to take the pups on a walk. It wasn’t until I did something around the house and was getting ready to cook dinner that I would have a NA. And instead of chugging it as fast as I could, I just sipped it, kinda like Vin Diesel in Fast and Furious—the difference being I actually like the taste of beer. Because it wasn’t about catching a buzz, it didn’t make a difference how fast I drank it.
Here’s some booze math for you. Bucklers, and the much tastier St. Pauli Girl NA, have less than 0.05% alcohol per bottle. That’s about the same amount of alcohol you’ll find in a ripe banana. My beloved Utah Miller Lite clocks in at 3.2% alcohol. Doing some back of the cocktail napkin math, that means I’d have to drink over 6 NAs to get the alcohol content of one Utah Miller Lite. My tolerance for Miller Lites was around 7 beers before I shouldn’t be driving a car. That means I’d have to drink around 43 Bucklers in less than an hour to be intoxicated.
I’d have to drink two cases of Bucklers to catch a buzz. That’s 516 ounces of non-alcoholic beer or a little over 4 gallons of Bucklers in less than an hour. My bladder isn’t 4 gallons strong, so I’m not worried about the slight alcohol content of NA beer. I’d like to be the Wade Boggs of sober cross-country flights, but it ain’t happening.
I doubt I would have made it through the second weekend without NA beer. Because choosing not to drink is more about breaking habits, sucking down 3–4 non-alcoholic beers doesn’t violate the spirit of my sobriety. Stopping to drink was a decision to be present and accountable for my actions. St. Pauli Girl NA is just a fancy, expensive substitute and if they help me from missing the feeling of being drunk, all the better. I figure you have to use every tool at your disposal.
My wife asked if it was a problem that she drank wine while I was on the wagon. I expected the question and spent time thinking about it. “No, it’s not,” I told her. “This is about me, not you.” I wasn’t mad she didn’t quit alongside me. Frankly, I’m glad she was still able to enjoy a glass of wine or two at night. Her drinking wasn’t the problem and making my problems hers wasn’t very respectful or honest.
Also, I ‘m not much of a wine lover. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed wine, but mostly it’s just a means to an end. Of course, there is an exception that breaks the rule. Four years ago, we went to Napa and spent a lovely afternoon visiting wineries. We toured Cakebread Cellars (where I got into an argument with Alexander Haig’s former chief of staff—he was a dick), ate buttermilk chicken sandwiches and drank lovely cans of craft beer and tart sauvignon blanc at an outdoor market, and lounged at Honig Vineyard under pergolas laced with hops and scarlet honeysuckles. We saw the shadows of the setting sun as sprinklers created hundreds of micro-rainbows, saturating us with the smell of rich earth and unabashed appreciation for the lush surroundings. There was a charcuterie board of cured meats and smoked cheeses and we didn’t have a care in the world. Under the circumstances, even the most tea-toddling Mormon would have reached for another glass of Pinot Gris.
Granted, that was a pretty good day. While I appreciated my wife asking if it was weird if she drank while I wasn’t or that this entire process was predicated upon me being drunk, taking a break from drinking was my decision, not hers. This is about me. Not once did I judge or dismiss her for having a glass of wine. In fact, it was the opposite. I was more fascinated that she only had one glass of wine, not the entire bottle. Thoughts like these never happened when I was drunk.
I think the most startling thing I learned from a month away from booze is how I manage stress. And to quote Lloyd Bridges, “I picked a bad week to give up booze.” The first hiccup came from the Pill Mill. I was the butt of a prank that really put me on tilt. I’m not going to tell you what happened (get your own Pill Mill) but I was as close to balling up my fist and striking a coworker I’ve been since that time they ordered Jimmy Johns for a team-building lunch.
Jimmy Johns sucks. Not only does the owner kill elephants, his stupid sandwiches taste like a DVD copy of The Notebookdipped in week old mayo. If I can go a month without drinking, maybe you should go a lifetime without eating the worst fucking sandwiches on the planet. Anything made that fast is going to be horrific. Sandwiches and sex both need time to be good. Jimmy Johns is the premature ejaculation of hoagies. And just like good sex, you need to have mustard—something Jimmy John fails to bring mustard to the party. Fuck Jimmy Johns.
Anyway, I was pretty upset at some coworkers.
It was like Day 5 or 6 of not drinking, and I went home ready to punch a hole in a wall. Before my hiatus, I would have crushed three beers before I put down my bag. Instead, I took a deep breath, poured a big ice water and retreated to my perfectly appointed front porch. Surveying my palatial property, centrally located in one of Salt Lake City’s premium, historic neighborhoods with unobstructed views of the Wasatch Front and Utah’s original country club, I realized I needed to take a non-narcotic chill pill. Running straight into a bottle would only make the sting of their aggression worse.
I didn’t need Wild Turkey to deal with the pain of being savagely insulted at work. I just needed my two private driveways, three gardens, fruit orchard, detached garage, rolling field of green grass, decorative granite boulders and Weber Genesis gas grill to salve the pain. Also, who needs booze when you live on a golf course? They’ll get theirs and not at my hand. The Big Guy upstairs has plans for these knuckleheads and it probably involves not making it past the Pearly Gates. I’m just going to sit back, relax and take my extremely handsome dogs for a walk along Parlay’s Trail (I have very close access to the trail) while enjoying a solid return on my personally directed Roth IRA and brokerage account with full knowledge I’m heading to the Good Place when I finally cash in my chips. And if that’s not good enough, I still have my social worker/lingerie model of a wife waiting at home.
Yep, I actually thought and wrote that sober.
The second hiccup occurred when a friend came into town. He wanted to go out and paint the town red. I had to look up what “painting the town red” meant. The origin is from the 1880s when folks indulged in the available entertainment in town, such as nightclubs, bars, restaurants, or brothels. The red was the bonfires that illuminated the sky and to “paint the town red” meant to participate in wild debauchery during the evening. Because I wasn’t drinking, we avoided all of the bars and went straight to the brothel.
I met up with a group of friends and a guy who’s name rhymes with Kyle Goon. He’s a good friend that works as a sports reporter in Los Angeles covering those pesky and shifty Lakers. My affection for Kyle is indirectly proportional to my hatred of the Lakers. We were at Junior’s, a downtown Salt Lake City bar, where Kyle hosted a master’s class on how to drink on somebody else’s dime. His wallet was clearly encased in concrete.
I kid, I kid.
Kyle’s a great guy and newspapers are a dying industry, so I didn’t have a problem purchasing his Fuzzy Navels and Mike’s Hard Lemonades. It was weird not having alcohol while hanging out with old friends, but I survived. I drank club soda. Nobody acted weird or gave me a hard time. It was quite the opposite. Kyle and the others were really supportive. Want to know why? Because I keep good company. It took 45 years to surround myself with decent, smart, kind people. Do yourself a favor and get more Kyle Goons in your life.
The support I received from friends through these 30 days was incredible. It was nice to talk about why I was taking a break from drinking and not catching holy hell from my buddies. Not a single person called me soft for stopping. In fact, they couldn’t have been more supportive and encouraging about my decision. That’s a pretty God damn good feeling.
The Home Stretch
The last couple of days were rough.
I was cranky. I wasn’t sleeping well. I woke every day feeling like I’m hungover even though I hadn’t had a drop the night before. I guess this is how you feel when you wake up, drunk or sober. I read that your body takes a long time to finally acclimate to not having alcohol in your system. While waking up sucks, it was good to get out of bed without a bunch of muscle cramps. Heavy drinking causes a buildup of lactic acid which can cause muscle soreness. I stopped having these pains within a week of my experiment. Still. I wasn’t sleeping great and it definitely took a second cup of coffee to get moving in the morning.
30 days was an arbitrary timeline. I figured it was a good amount of time to see if I could actually quit drinking. It felt really good to make the full 30 without a single slipup, relapse or cheat day. Damn good milestone. It seems silly to celebrate something you didn’t do, but I think 30 days is worth noting. Usually, I’d celebrate with alcohol, what do you hoist instead when you’re on the wagon? More St. Pauli Girl NA, of course. In the end, this 30-day experiment was never about not drinking. It was about creating new, healthier habits.
For the record, I hate how this sounds. I write stuff like this all the time at the Pill Mill. It’s a lot of stuff like “living your best life,” “making the smart changes,” and “being more conscious,” and shit like that. But just because it sounds hokey, don’t mean it’ not true. Alcohol makes it harder to be more present. It dampens everything. Your reaction times are slower. Your thinking becomes sluggish. It’s not a bad feeling (hell, I miss it) but it’s not a great one either. It’s just a hell of lot harder to be your best self when you’re shithoused.
The big question is will I drink booze again? Yes. I’m already planning on buying a bottle of Lagavulin 12 for Thanksgiving. Will I have a beer when I’m on vacation in Montana? Yes. We’re spending a long weekend in Missoula for a Jason Isbell concert and I want to have a couple KettleHouse Cold Smoke Scotch Ales before the show. But am I cracking a beer the moment I get home today? No. I’m not going to be boozing anytime soon. 30 days was tough, but how hard could 60 days be? I don’t know, but I plan on finding out.
My company has a big convention next week and my group has a tradition of drinks and pizza at Este’s in Sugar House. I’m definitely going. I’ll eat my weight in New York-styled pie and garlic knots but when the pitchers of beer circle my way, I’ll just pass it along. Even after being on my feet for 48 hours in 4 days, a mug or two of hefeweizen won’t be in my cards. It’s not that I don’t want to celebrate with my team, I just want to put a little more distance between July 10, 2019 before my next drink. Besides, I found out Este’s has O’Doul’s.
My mother’s brother, Uncle Pat, quit drinking about 20-years ago. He said he knew he had a touch of the David Disease and it was better for him to stop before it stopped him. Uncle Pat is one of the most incredible guys I know: a plumber, restaurateur, triathlete, fisherman, raconteur. He’s incredibly funny, tough and a great guy to be around. Uncle Pat is also in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down after a hit-and-run accident last summer. He was going for a bike ride to train for his next triathlon when he was T-boned and left for dead.
We visited Uncle Pat in Denver. He was at a spinal treatment facility, fighting for use of his legs. If there was ever a time to have a drink, this would be it. I don’t have to ask it because you already know the answer, but here we go: you think Uncle Patrick hit the bottle? Fuck no. He hit the gym and is pushing himself to the limits to walk again.
It’s challenging to stop drinking but trust me, spend a moment at a spinal treatment facility and you’ll see a real challenge. This is probably what people mean when they say quitting drinking is a gift. It gives you a new perspective and a chance to address your problems with a clear(er) head. I still have a complicated relationship with alcohol. I still have a touch of the Davis Disease. I still have a lot of things to figure out as I get older. But I did 30 days sober. Let’s see if I got another 30 days in me.
The fourth step in Alcoholic Anonymous is “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” This blog is my moral inventory. It was probably the toughest thing I’ve ever written and I’m really proud of what I did to be empowered to write it. It was difficult to write because it was honest, something I don’t like to do. My default setting is to be funny when things get serious. Even though I cracked wise throughout the piece, I struggled to find a balance between humor and honesty. It’s in this narrow crossover I processed this entire 30-day journey. I really did a lot of thinking and agonizing about why I drank, why I stopped drinking, and why I would start again. It was a real pain in the ass is to stop, but I’m happy I did.
I doubt I would have even shared this if being sober for 30 days wasn’t important to me.