But around the fifth or sixth drink — between eleven and midnight, as I pass out to the same 15-minutes of an HBOGO movie — I feel the truthful sting of comedy and I’m the punch line.
My mother hates it when I call myself a functioning alcoholic. Her nose crinkles and her hands get taut. She tries to continue whatever it is she’s on about, but her body language proves my flippant self-observation has landed its blow. “Don’t say that,” she croaks hoarsely, trying to sound chipper but not exactly succeeding. It is 7:30 p.m. and I’m on my second drink, eschewing my creative time to sit on the back patio and sip; listen to the crickets and sip; watch the birds at the feeder and sip; slowly go numb.
Mostly, I announce my status to annoy her. It is the juvenile — but not surprising — behavior of an only child with an overbearing mother. If it upsets her too much I assure her I’m joking. Clearly it’s comedy gold. But around the fifth or sixth drink — between eleven and midnight, as I pass out to the same 15-minutes of an HBOGO movie — I feel the truthful sting of comedy and I’m the punch line.
Functioning as an alcoholic takes less effort than you’d think. Even with seven drinks in me by midnight I’m up the next day by 8 a.m. at the latest. I make breakfast, have coffee, write, scout work opportunities, submit pitches, meet deadlines, go for walks, start new projects, ride my bike, run errands, exercise, and do whatever needs to be done. At 7:30 p.m., feeling mildly accomplished, I pour the first and work my way towards the last.
When I change my routine—by drinking clear liquor, or choosing beer, or wine — I’m prepared for the cloudiness that awaits me. I’ve developed a solid ratio of drinks to extra hours of sleep. It’s an equilibrium, tested over time in accordance with my inability to have only a single drink when out. Going ‘out’ will guarantee heavy drinking with stylish variety. The liquid lubricants loosen me up, balance my over-active mouth, and allow me to play the carefree, confident, charming, and handsome bon vivant I rarely am when sober. Though I know I’ll suffer through the next day with blood shot eyes and sluggish skills, I still function—for the most part — just fine.
Truth is, I love ordering, making, and having a drink. Perusing bottle design at the county store, pouring four fingers into my parent’s vintage scotch glasses, or elegantly handling a martini is fulfilling. Alcohol makes me feel adult. I felt the same buying cigarettes, getting a draft card, voting, and driving, but the sentiment of being an adult stuck most with alcohol. Every beer, every scotch, every wine bottle, cocktail, or tropical mix I’ve had gives me the same empowering rush as that first legal one. More than my jobs, more than my debt, more than my marriage, my divorce, and sex, having a drink confirms my adult prerogative.
The term ‘alcoholic’ conjures up several archetypes including: the sour uncle, the ruddy nosed Santa, the lonely milquetoast. All seem similarly weak-willed and equally powerless. Unlike them I’ve quite a bit of power. Two months ago I quit smoking. I’d been a smoker for 15 years. I chose a day to quit and then I quit. Cold turkey is no small feat. When I tell people — usually at a bar, with a drink in hand — they can’t imagine how hard it must be to go out drinking. Truth is, I never enjoyed smoking while drunk. The extra kick was too much. It exposed the woozy and incompetent obviousness of it all. If anything, quitting cigarettes made me a better drinker.
“Do you really drink that much?” A friend asked recently after I lobbed my self-diagnosis at him during conversation. “Come on. We all like a night of a couple too many.”
I ran my tally out loud: “In one month I drank three bottles of whiskey: a bottle of Makers, a bottle of Old Granddad, and a bottle of Old Poultenay.” Then I remembered the bottle of Jameson. “Four bottles in one month,” I corrected, hardly ashamed.
“That’s a lot,” he laughed in the nonjudgmental way anyone who knew me as an adolescent would. Back then I was hardly the braggadocio boasting my tolerance.
“My dad drank some too,” I explained, not quite in defense of myself. The next day I checked with my dad. He hadn’t had a drop.
At 33, I suppose I’m in between lives. The last three years have proven the most difficult yet. I was uprooted and abandoned on the far side of the world. I returned to the US alone with no job, no prospects, and no memory of who I was on my own. Traumatic depression and incessant suicidal thoughts came on with patient strength. I was spinning into oblivion, switching maniacally from wild binging highs to stop-motion lows. Those were the days I didn’t want to get out of bed. Those were the days, months, years I was not functioning. Hard work, help, humility, and a lot of support got me on my feet again. I’ve learned that a big part of cutting through it all is just to get out of bed. Every day. Just: get up and start functioning.
But without realizing it, I’d trained myself to run a different type of marathon. I’ve been living with my parents for six weeks and in that time I’ve drank eight bottles of liquor, two cases of beer, a bottle of wine, and innumerable cocktails. At 23 years old I’d proudly display my work atop my cabinets. At 33 I dump them into the blue recycling bin in the garage and open the next. I don’t feel depressed, I don’t feel suicidal, but I also don’t feel much of anything. I have a very sensitive emotional core that I keep too close to my surface. I’m not choosing to self-medicate, but I’ve been through enough analysis to know it’s what I’m doing — either way, psychological jingoism and self-pity are boring.
In high school I was a cross-country runner, and recently I’ve picked the habit back up. I particularly enjoy running in the heat. I love to sweat, to feel like I’m shedding everything. Last week, after a recent 10K run in 94 degree heat and on a light lunch, I returned home, chugged lemonade, took a shower, and was locked and loaded with my 7:30 p.m. sun-downer. Drinking after extreme exercise feels fantastic. The quick hit is like mainlining liquid. Three drinks later I was starving and ordered takeout. It was a small reward after a week of stomach-calming cereal. It took 20 minutes for my foot-long eggplant parm with extra sauce and large fries to arrive. It took five minutes to wash it down with two beers. Full, I took a night stroll. I brought a glass of whiskey to aid my digestion. After that I went to my room, got into bed with a refill, and put on that movie.
When I finally passed out it was at the mercy of debilitating nausea. The next morning I awoke barely able think, let alone eat. Walking down the stairs was exhausting. Conversation was impossible. The strain on my mind was too great. Even drinking water was problematic: my body rejected the very thought of it. This wasn’t a hangover; this was extreme dehydration. I dragged myself through the day, barely alive, and fell asleep by 8:30 p.m.
I hadn’t had a drink in 24 hours.
In that sleep — which came naturally — an amazing thing happened: I dreamt. Vividly. My dreams were tangentially arranged, bizarre manifestations, obscure and in-depth. Awake I could not remember them chronologically but rather as a collage of moments, sounds, images, and sensations that had synaptically fired at random during my sleep. Piecing them together, it occurred to me: I hadn’t dreamt in months.
I was struck by the realization. I hadn’t just numbed myself to the outside world; I’d deactivated my creative inner link. I had dislodged my connection to the subconscious realm, a wonderful place that disregards chronology, logic, and pragmatism to create the truly magnificent escapades of the mind. A place where feelings are more valid than facts. Dreams are informative in a myriad of ways; they’re important to shaping a person’s understanding of self and of their creative spark. How could I possibly explore what I think, feel, know, and wish to express if I’ve got nothing but a boarded up old theater for a mind’s eye? I couldn’t.
Coming out of depression feels a lot like turning on. All the time, parts of me are coming back in sequence, not unlike rebooting a computer. Some programs have been updated, some replaced, some need cleaning, and some are forever trashed. But slowly, a whole is forming once again. It is a serialized process that leads to proper human functioning. But it wasn’t until the night I stopped drinking that I started dreaming.
This article originally appeared on Medium for Human Parts.
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