09 August 2011

I Don't Know If I'm an Alcoholic (But I Quit Drinking Anyway)

If you know me, even a little, then you know that I've had my struggles with booze over the years. I never drank every day, or doctored my coffee with schnapps in the mornings, or kept a flask on my person. I never loitered in barrooms often enough to qualify as a barfly. That said, whenever I did drink--typically anywhere from two to five nights a week depending on the kind of week I was having--I always did so to an extreme, with a sense of great purpose. I always drank with the desire to arrive somewhere else, someplace far away from myself.

Those times are over now. At least, I hope they are. As of this Sunday, it'll be 63 days since I've had a drink.

Nearly every day on my walk home from the office, I pass the sun-flooded patio of Chill Winston in Gastown and observe people sipping from what appear to be the tallest, coldest, most spectacularly golden glasses of beer I have ever seen. I always think the same thing: Why can't I have one?

The reason why you can't have one, I patiently explain to my dumb self, is because you could never stop at one. My thinking was always this: Why have one when you can have six? Or ten? Or fifteen?

My appetite for beer has been insatiable since college. Whenever I shopped for beer, I'd always think of this line from True Romance: "It's better to have a gun and not need it than to need a gun and not have it." Only I'd replace the word "gun" with "beer." This was my way of giving myself permission to purchase an extra six-pack or a spare tallboy, you know, just in case I needed it later. And if I didn't drink it tonight? It would be there tomorrow night, waiting for me.

When I moved to British Columbia in the summer of 2009, I dropped off my luggage at my furniture-less apartment then headed to the nearby 7-11 to buy beer. After a thorough investigation of the store's cooler sections and a brief interrogation of the cashier, I learned that convenience stores in B.C. do not carry alcohol of any kind. Over the next few days, I cased the neighborhood for liquor stores, only to deduce that there were none. The closest booze seller was a good sweat-inducing 15-minute walk away. I thought, Fine. This is the universe telling me that it's time to establish better habits, to start fresh here in this city. I hear you, Universe. And for a while, I was marginally booze-free and feeling pretty good about that.

Then three months later a beer and wine store opened its doors not more than a hundred steps from my apartment building. I anxiously peered through the front windows of the store wondering what, exactly, the universe was telling me now.

I became one of the store's first and no doubt best customers. I knew the owners of the store, and knew all the cashiers by name. And the money I spent there! A 12-pack of Alexander Keith's, which is pretty good beer, costs nearly $30. Six-packs range from $14 to $17 dollars for anything of quality. Trying to be a drunk in this province is no small investment.

It pains me now to do the math, thinking of all the cash I spent there. The store has only gotten fancier over the last two years. I can't help but think that some of the nicer additions, like the dimly lit wine alley on the far side of the store, wouldn't have been possible without my generous donations.

Though the amount of cash I've spent on beer is extraordinary, what galls me further, and makes me despair further, is the amount of time and energy I spent thinking about drinking, planning my drinking, and beyond that, being hungover from drinking. It's a truly staggering amount of time. I could have done plenty of other things with that time. I could have finished writing a book or two, could have gotten married and had a family, could have gotten married a second time and had a second family, could have been a better friend to my friends. I could have finally finished Fallout: New Vegas. I could have written more Jones Report entries, could have done more loads of laundry.

I could have learned to play the goddamn French horn. I could have called my mother more often.

Make no mistake: my life is fine. In some ways, considering all the self-destruction I've engaged in over the past two decades, it's borderline miraculous that things have turned out as well as they have for me. Still, it's hard not to wonder sometimes what I could have done, what path I might have taken, if I hadn't devoted so much time and energy to drinking.

At the back of my mind I suppose I've always fantasized what my life might be like if I really tried, you know, to be the best I could be, day in and day out. I've always wondered what I might be capable of, what fortune, glory or sense of self-satisfaction, if any at all, would come my way. Part of me has always been afraid to learn the answer to that question. I mean, what if I actually tried my best, tried to find out what I'm truly capable of, what I'm worth, only to learn that it's not really all that much?

That's a really shitty thing to learn about yourself. That said, I also know that if I don't at least attempt to learn the answer to that question, if I don't at least make a whole-hearted run at it, I'll never be able to forgive myself.

I went to a couple of AA meetings. It's an excellent organization, and it obviously works for a lot of people, but it's not for me. Maybe I'm being naive here, but I have a hard time accepting the I'm-helpless-in-the-face-of-this and addiction-as-disease approach. I believe you have a pretty clear choice when it comes to addiction: You choose to do it or choose not to do it. And that's it. (This article in Macleans deconstructs the addiction-as-disease way of thinking far more eloquently than I ever could.) (And if you're in the mood for one more booze-y click, it should be John Bowe's terrific story from the Lives section of the NY Times Magazine.)

So am I an alcoholic? Man, I don't know. A diagnosis really isn't even relevant anymore. All I know is this: I no longer liked the role that alcohol was playing in my life. That's all.

Sixty-plus days in, I'll confess: there's a pretty big hole in my life, and in my personality, that beer had occupied for decades. I've realized that I don't know who I am, or what I'm going to look like, or feel like, without beer in my life.

But I'm figuring that out now as fast as I can. In the meantime, I'll put in another load of laundry, then telephone my mom, then get busy attempting to realize my full potential.

Oh, beer-free life: I haven't completely figured out your appeal yet. But I will.

I will.


  1. Good read. I had a good friend pass away last year at the age of 29, due to very heavy alcohol abuse. It was incredibly sad to see the progression of the addiction.

    beer-free life appeal?
    no beer shits, less vomiting, no more hangovers, less bloating no beer brain.

  2. i read a stat somewhere that said on average people who drink tend to live longer than those who don't. i'm only speculating here, but maybe it's because a beer-free life is a dull affair, like mashed potatoes without the gravy. You can thank mr. billy bob thornton for that analogy by the way.

  3. Taking that decision must not be easy considering the "place" alcohol plays in your life. I hope you will figure out who Scott is without beer and all. I bet it's still a pretty awesome guy who now doesn't need something to help him get through everything in his life, he is strong enough by himself :) Good luck on this journey, there will be days that are going to be harder than others, but you'll be fine! You took that decision and I know you can follow through. :)

  4. Good for you! I'm a 23 year old bartender and I gave up drinking almost 3 years ago for medical reasons (thank you, Canadian drinking age and fake ids, for making that timeline possible). Now that it's a few years later I'll have an occasional glass of wine here and there, but otherwise don't even crave a drink when I'm out with friends, because I know that both in the morning and in the long run I'm going to feel way better without one (or seven).

    ..........Of course, I also took up smoking weed. Much friendlier on the budget and no hangovers ;)

  5. I wish you well and I hope you stay the course and find something else in life worth filling that hole.

  6. Congrats, Scott! It's been about 6.5 years since I quit drinking and, while it hasn't always been easy (more socially than addiction-wise in my case), I definitely think it's been a worthwhile endeavour.

    As far as filling the beverage-related hole in your life, I highly recommend tea; it's good for you, is relatively cheap, and is a much more relaxing/comforting drink than alcohol in my opinion. On the flip side, if you really need something for those crazy nights out with your friends, energy drinks aren't a horrible choice (most bars sell Red Bull these days).

    Either way, I wish you the best with your choice; it might take some time and introspection to figure out who you are without your old pal, Al Cool, but you'll get there and I'd wager that you'll be better off for it.

  7. "Trying to be a drunk in this province is no small investment." This is true, and is the primary reason I don't drink.

    Tell you what. At PAX, I'll be the first not to buy you a drink.

  8. "I've realized that I don't know who I am, or what I'm going to look like, or feel like, without beer in my life."

    My guess is you'll finally get rid of that beer belly of yours.

  9. Thanks for sharing this with us, Scott. I applaud your decision and tenacity to see it through. There are certain societal and personal expectations that we put on ourselves and how our lives should be or how we want them to be. Alcohol's role in that life is always complicated, carrying with it so many pressures, both intrinsic and extrinsic, and often times very difficult to wrap your head around. Alcohol makes the determination of who's in charge complicated: When you want a drink do you want it because some inexplicable, uncontrollable urge is behind it, or can you simply just want a drink? It can be a tough question, one that is further muddied by the effects of alcohol once you do have that drink. Mix with that the pressure to drink in social settings and you have the makings of one seriously fracked-up relationship. The kind where you're never sure who's the one being abused.

    I come from a family with alcoholism coursing through its veins-- my brother went through a similar experience to what you describe and now lives a dry life. In fact, my entire family is now dry with the exception of me (and I don't drink much).

    Good luck. I support you.


  10. If beer treated you so bad, there is always wine. Or even better -- scotch.


    The booze lobby

  11. I may be wrong here but I don't think beer made you as talented and as smart as you are. Congratulations on being able to admit that you don't need it anymore. It takes strong will to do that. Most people I know have tried to do without but fail, or they find something else to replace it. I hope you find out who you are, don't be scared when you do. Sometimes it takes someone there entire life to answer that question.

  12. Chill Winston is over-priced and pretentious anyways. ;)

  13. I totally agree with curbing any bad habit when it's necessary to one's overall well-being. But the key word for me is "curb"--to check, restrain, or control, not completely eradicate.

    Sometimes a couple beers or glasses of wine are just the perfect partnering to a great meal or the end of a lovely sunny day when everything just feels right. They are a part of life's little celebrations, & I for one will not be giving those up any time soon.

    I do read a lot of myself in your words, Scott, & I too have tendencies to feel super-human or too much on auto-pilot as I drink copious amounts of wine each weekend, & I guess if anything, I have begun to feel that I need to learn when it's "enough"--when I have reached that happy place & not a "black hole" that I don't end up remembering in the morning.

    So thanks for this post--it has pushed me in the right direction & has allowed me to see what my unconscious self has been thinking all along...

    Good luck to you as well : )

  14. Best of luck to you. I can definitely relate to your type of addiction. Or "addiction". Mine followed similar patterns. Getting married definitely helped me overcome it. Living alone has its advantages, but its drawbacks as well.

    The Macleans article was interesting and makes sense, but just the fact that it was in Macleans makes me question their motives at publishing it. That magazine has taken such a conservative turn in the past few years, everything they publish (with some exceptions - they do have some good writers) has some sort of anti-big-government point to make. Which, as you know, is very un-Canadian. We Canucks love big government!!!

  15. I'm really proud of you Scott! Great job!

  16. Really great post. Feel proud of your accomplishments, your work is appreciated. You are appreciated. You can do this.

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