Jerry Quits Alcohol
My mother’s parents were alcoholics. My mother detests alcohol. I have heard from other family that her parents sometimes had loud angry arguments when inebriated. Her father, “Papa Lou,” left the family in Memphis, Tennessee, temporarily, when my mother was a child so he could learn a trade. He went to California, learned photography, and got sober. He returned to Memphis and provided for his family as a free-lance photographer. He took photos for publications around town, including the two major newspapers, and for the Memphis police department. He took one famous publicity picture of Elvis Presley signing a management contract with Bob Neal, who managed Elvis before Colonel Parker. Elvis is sitting at a desk in my grandparents’ living room, pen in hand. On one side stands Sun Records owner Sam Phillips and on the other Neal. Prominently on the wall behind Elvis’s head is a large picture of my mother, taken by my grandfather when my mother became engaged to my father. Thanks to that, I can say honestly, “My mother is in a picture with Elvis in Rolling Stone magazine.”
My grandmother, “Mama Lou,” kept drinking. We visited Memphis often, but I don’t recall any evidence of her alcoholism, not that I would have known what to look for. I’m sure it was there, however. Once when Mama Lou visited us in Clinton, Mississippi, my brother and I—being nosy children—looked in her suitcase and found a small bottle of whiskey. We showed it to Mom, who poured it down the kitchen sink.
My Dad told me that he tried wine once when he visited Jerusalem (which we called “The Holy Land” whenever a Christian traveled there to walk where Jesus walked). He was a Baptist pastor in Clinton and, of course, never touched alcohol. His tour group had communion on a hill where Jesus was thought to be crucified, and he said he liked the wine and could get accustomed to drinking it. However, he knew that would never be approved at any church that he would be interested in serving. He might as well smoke pot and snort coke. And rob the elderly.
As a teenager, I never tried alcohol. I don’t even remember being offered it. I ran with a straight-laced church-going crowd. (I was so naïve I thought Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” was merely about girls who smoked and cursed.) At one high school reunion some classmates were speaking of someone who had started drugs in high school, and I said I had known nothing of it. They looked at each other. “Uh, Jerry, there were some things we didn’t tell certain people.” Oh, OK, I guess I was one of those people. So I’m sure I missed out on many crazy, memorable adventures that my other friends had, but I don’t regret the experiences that I did have. Yeah, we were nerdy and lame, but we had fun and treated each other well.
I tried beer for the first time while I attended Mississippi College, a small Baptist school where alcohol was forbidden (as was dancing—and, for a while, short pants on women outside their dorm). Sometime during my senior year, I was with some guys in my dorm who had Coors beer in their small refrigerator. I was the Floor Counselor, which meant I was there to enforce the school’s rules and should have reported them or at least insisted they get rid of it, but I was a senior and ready to throw good-boy-Baptist caution to the wind. (Well, maybe not throw caution, perhaps a gentle underhand toss.) Coors, at the time, was not sold in Mississippi or anywhere east of the Mississippi River and could only be bought by traveling to a state that allowed its sale and bringing it back. Hence, there was a mystique about Coors. I heard teenage boys talking about it as though it were the holy grail of beer. Once I asked a high school classmate what was the big deal about Coors, and he replied, “It goes down like water, but you can still get smashed.” Shockingly, that didn’t entice me to drive to Colorado and down a few. But, on this occasion in college, I decided to try it. Finally, my curiosity would be satisfied. I was not aware that one should not try to enjoy beer immediately after brushing one’s teeth. I took a swig, the beer and mint clashed disgustingly, and I thought, “No wonder my Mom hates this stuff.”
I tried alcohol again at a bachelor’s party for my older brother, Mark, who said, “Jerry, I want you to try this booze.” (He quit drinking soon after that and still doesn’t.) His tone, as I recall, seemed to say, “You need to loosen up.” It was fruit punch with I don’t know what in it, but it messed up the taste of the punch. It seemed harsh, not sweet. I liked my punch sweet.
Concerning alcohol, that was that for a good while.
Until I got to seminary.
For some young Southern Baptists with an eye on a career in ministry, seminary was a final chance to go a little crazy before becoming a fuddy-duddy minister. I didn’t go crazy, but I began drinking beer and wine at parties. It was a way to say, “Look, I’m a liberated Baptist. I’m hip.” It was a phase many my age had already gone through in high school. I got tipsy from time to time and enjoyed acting goofy. That was about it.
I drank more after we moved to Atlanta and I declared myself a free-lance writer. I didn’t glorify the alcoholic writer or consider myself a kindred spirit of Faulkner or Hemingway; I simply enjoyed alcohol, and wanted to be a with-it grown-up. I learned about types of beer and wine and drank because I enjoyed the different flavors and textures. Every now and then, I’d have a rum and Coke, white Russian, or whatever. For the longest time I bought whatever beer was on sale, then I learned about lagers, wheat beer, pale ales, bitterness, and so on. I learned there were more wine distinctions than just “red” and “white.” I was not a connoisseur of either wine or beer, but I enjoyed trying them and trying to notice the differences. I went to two wine tastings, and I enjoyed them, but I can’t say I understood it all. I got good at working up a facial expression that said, “Hmmm, interesting.”
(According to Adam Rogers in his book, “Proof: The Science of Booze,” I might not have been far off with my feigned knowledge. He describes many studies and experiments to systematize the art/science of identifying wine tastes and aromas, none of which were very conclusive. He doesn’t say the expert opinions about wine are a hoax, but he comes pretty close. In one study, subjects tasted, then described, the qualities of a red wine and a white wine, then they were given two glasses of that same white wine but with one having a tasteless red coloring added. They appeared to, once again, have a red and a white, and they described that second “red wine” in the same terms they had used to describe the real red wine. They described what they expected. In another experiment, subjects tried to identify wine aromas only (not taste), and the subjects included trained sommeliers, sommeliers-in-training, and amateurs. As expected, the amateurs scored the lowest. But not by much. It turns out that two primary factors that impact our enjoyment of wine, separate from what’s in the bottle, are expectations and context. If a bottle is expensive, you will praise it more.)
My drinking to that point was all pretty harmless, as drinking goes. But I took a dangerous turn when I discovered alcohol as an escape.
I believe it started when I was in my early 30s and I had submitted a short story to a literary journal, about which I had great hope, and it was rejected. My wife had to work late that night, so I was alone, and I moped around at home. Sometime in the evening, I started drinking rum. After I got drunk enough to stagger, I ambled across the street to a house rented by two young women in their mid-twenties. They were fun and cool, outgoing, sweet-hearted, but they weren’t home. So I sat in their porch swing and waited, bottle in hand. They eventually arrived and stared at me. I slurred, “My story was rejected.”
When I was their age, if I had been in their place, I would have been shocked and bewildered, not sure what to do—as if I had found an alien creature at my house, who sold cocaine to children, then ate them, and used foul language. They, however, were calm and matter-of-fact. They had had the kind of college life where having a drunk person at their home was sort of like me having a Bible in the room—no big deal, and routine. That was the type of college (or teenage) experience that I had missed completely. The wildest things I ever did would barely register as a little bit bad, by certain standards.
One of the women said she was sorry about my story (she had an artist boyfriend). They helped me back to my house, plopped me down at my toilet, watch me throw up for a while, debated whether to make coffee, then decided I was safe lying there, nearly asleep. They said good-bye and left.
(Later on, I told a therapist about this incident, and he said “That was manipulative.” He was right. I wanted sympathy, and I found a way to get it.)
That was not, however, the first time I got drunk and vomited. It was the first time I got drunk with the intention of escaping a bad feeling. I got drunk and vomited 5 other times. I remember each place precisely. Four times were at my home; the other was in New Orleans after a night at Pat O’Brien’s bar and more-than-one sickly sweet Hurricane. After each episode I said to myself, “I will NEVER do that again.” Before I threw up, my head and my stomach would spin. I would close my eyes to try to stop the spinning, but that only made it worse. I eventually was able to tell when I was drunk enough, on a given occasion, to throw up and when I had stopped drinking just before getting to that point. I could tell by how fast my head and stomach were spinning—just so and I was a goner. Prior to that I felt terrible, but I wouldn’t throw up. I’m not exactly proud of that skill—it’s not like, say, being able to juggle—but it did come in handy.
Eventually, there was a last time for post-alcohol vomiting, but I didn’t stop drinking.
Occasionally, I would drink enough to get a buzz so that perhaps I could avoid interacting with someone, perhaps at a party or some gathering, or to avoid feeling a certain way, or to avoid making a decision (too fuzzy-headed for that, maybe next week). For a little while, alcohol allowed me to be out of touch with….what? Well, just life. If I’m loopy-headed, I can’t think about anything serious, can’t let any recent anxieties (Will I ever be published again? Will I ever stop trying to live up to outlandish personal expectations? Will I ever clip my toenails correctly?) settle into clearheaded thought. I have never been high on pot or dope, but I’ve heard that they make you euphoric. Alcohol did not do that for me. I was sort of floating around, but it was more being ungrounded than being lifted up in ecstasy.
That is a strange feeling: being in someone’s presence, staring at them, hearing them, but my thoughts drifting amongst their words, rather than connecting with them. There is pleasure in the early phase of getting drunk: the lightheadedness, giddiness, numbness in my face, easy laughs, loud talk, letting things slip out. But at some point I no longer stopped at that phase. And there was no longer much pleasure.
As previously noted, in Rogers’s book “Proof,” he cites evidence that the way alcohol affects a person is in large part determined by what one expects to happen. People who expect positive or negative outcomes from drinking usually get just that. In one study, subjects were given alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks that tasted and looked the same. They were told it was a “taste study.” There were four groups: Some were told the drink had alcohol, and it did. Some were told it had alcohol, and it didn’t. Some were told it had no alcohol, and it didn’t. Some were told it had no alcohol, and it did. (It must be OK to lie in the name of science.) Out of all four groups, only those who expected their drinks to have alcohol (whether they did or not) acted drunk. And self-identified alcoholics drank no more than others if they were told their drink had no alcohol but did. Alcohol definitely affects the brain physiologically (Rogers has a whole chapter on that), but context makes a big difference in how so. He concludes, “What happens to people when they drink, then—even at moderate, ‘social’ levels—is highly individualized, multifactorial, and dependent on cultural rules and references as well as contextual influences like setting and timing.”
As I reflect on this, I think my own expectations for drinking, other than the taste, included: that pleasant floating feeling, camaraderie (drinking with friends), escape or avoidance, and sophistication (knowing what to drink). Eventually, it just became a daily habit, and, regardless of my expectations, my enjoyment was half-hearted and short-lived and came only from seeing it and downing it. That enjoyment disappeared quickly each time.
(Hangovers—scientific name, veisalgia—by the way, have received little research attention—some people think because the FDA isn’t sure there should be a hangover cure because the research required to obtain it would involve instructing subjects to drink excessively, and because, if such a study led to a cure, the drug might encourage people to drink more. “Don’t worry, honey, I got my pill right here in my pocket.” Rogers says that the best theory for the cause of hangovers is that they “are an inflammatory response, like what happens when we get an infection.” If you abuse your body, it fights back.)
I can’t recall precisely when I changed from drinking because I liked the taste to drinking every day to excess, but there I eventually landed. It got worse after I lost my taste and smell. Red wine became disgusting, but I could sort of enjoy chilled white wine and cold wheat beer with lime. The cold felt nice, and I could slightly taste the citrus. (“Taste” isn’t really the right word, more a tangy feeling than a taste.) One might think I would quit alcohol for the same reason I quit sweets: what’s the point? Perhaps I was making up for the loss of taste with an overload of buzz, then wanted a little more—and more and more. I would go to a party and head straight for the drinks. I would come home from work and drink a six-pack of beer or an entire bottle of chilled white wine in an hour and a half. On weekends I would start drinking at 1:00pm—or maybe noon. I attended a few church committee meetings after drinking too much. (Once I drove the mile to church while finishing a glass of wine.) I sent a couple of snarky emails that I later regretted. Fortunately, I never wrecked a car, and I didn’t turn violent. I never drank before or during work.
I teach an in-service on workplace burnout, and I give a list of symptoms that could mean something is amiss in one’s life, and one is excessive drinking. I say that drinking isn’t necessarily dangerous, but if you frequently find yourself driving home, thinking about drinking when you get there, you might want to think about that. Well, that was me.
It took me a while to realize that my drinking was not sustainable without disastrous consequences—for me and others. How soon before I start hiding alcohol around the house and denying that I am drinking? I began to wonder if I would end up in my own church’s recovery program, where I once taught a creative writing class.
One thing that helped me quit was that after a while the buzz didn’t last long and it turned into a headache. My head would feel squeezed and pulled. (The most likely culprit for that, according to Rogers, is a molecule in alcoholic drinks called the congener. A vicious rascal.) My thoughts quit floating around jauntily and seemed to be going through a maze of barbed wire. I don’t recall if I became more irritable at home, but I knew I had to quit, and that I couldn’t revert to “drinking in moderation.” It was too late for that.
So I just quit. I didn’t have to enter a program or go to meetings. For that, I feel fortunate. I hear of alcoholics who try rehab after rehab before one finally works, but I simply stopped one day. Early on, twice, I made the mistake of leaving a few beers cold in the fridge after having friends over, and later downed them, which I immediately regretted, and I now don’t keep them cold in the house. I’ll sip a bit of champagne at the occasional celebration, but that’s it.
I didn’t have withdrawals, but I do miss it. I went to the Tour Championship golf tournament near my house on a hot day, and I stared longingly at those cold beers in others’ hands passing by while I sipped $3 water. There is a new wine store nearby where my wife sometimes attends tastings with friends, and I stay home. That’s a drag, but watching others enjoy it would be worse. A new craft beer store is also nearby, where I would love to be able to try different kinds of beer.
I wish I could say that quitting alcohol has opened up something new and pure in me, that I feel fresh mental energy or have a new outlook on life—or something like that—but none of that is true. I don’t have a more intense focus on important matters. I don’t have the feeling that I’m freshly awake from a hazy slow dream. I don’t have revelatory clarity. I’m pleased that I made a smart decision about my habits, but I feel more that I have kept my life from careening into disaster and not so much that I have made life more meaningful. But that’s good enough for now.