You’re 16 and hanging out with your buddies at a friend’s trailer because his dad’s out of town and you decide you’re gonna get f-cked up, so you drink a six-pack of beer in under a half-hour. The last things you remember are sitting down to take a crap then your buddies laughing you awake when you pass out with your pants around your ankles. The next day, along with your hangover come stories about all the hilarity you caused during your blackout. How you spelled “F-ck You” with your piss on the driveway of some chick who dissed you. How you told the waitress at the diner downtown to go to hell when she told your friends to get your drunk ass out of there before she called the cops. Man, what fun times you laugh over! That’s one way this whole thing starts, when you’re a teenager, and you think that getting totally smashed is both fun and funny.
But it doesn’t stay that way. Because the good times roll over into college. The parties blur together: nights stumbling home down the hills of a darkly lit desert city. Finding that your friends, in your drunken stupor, had taken markers to your face and drew cocks aimed at your mouth and epithets usually found on bathroom stall walls scribbled on your forehead. You have no idea how long they were there before you now see them in the mirror. Then the rest of your 20s roll by, where you’ve worked up to beers with sidecars, and remember that time you almost went to jail when you choked that racist up against the bar wall for saying that he thought white people were superior to blacks? Sober, you’d have walked away, disgusted someone had said that, knowing you were smarter, and perhaps pitying the person who thought so small. But drunk, you fell to violence. And you find yourself in your 30s, and you obsess over some startling new symptoms, those of the alcoholic.
Example: An alcoholic gets emotional: angry, sentimental, happy, etcetera. Those emotions emit via diatribes that don’t make sense, like when I got upset at my family because — from my drunk perspective — they didn’t care about the “state of world affairs” and were content to go on living their blissfully ignorant lives, la la la. Did I tell you that this occurred one year on Christmas night? I called my mom a bitch when she told me to shut up already. I threw up in my sister’s kitchen sink. The next morning I apologized to everyone, but this kind of damage goes unrepaired, really.
It is, at times, very painful to be an alcoholic. You get muscle cramps. Alcohol dehydrates the drinker and interferes with the delivery of electrolytes to muscles. On top of this, I’m a jogger, and I live in Atlanta, and muscle overexertion in hot weather contributes to these painful spasms. For me, they usually manifest in the hamstrings and calves, and they almost always happen sometime in the middle of the night. It’s like someone has tied a string around one end of a muscle without my knowing it, and then they give it a yank and hold the string taught. It hurts like hell. The other night I had a severe cramp while sleeping in a tent (I was camping). The only way to end a cramp and the pain is to leap from bed and get weight on my leg. That’s not so easy to do when you’re wrapped in a sleeping bag on the ground in the woods. So I just lay there and grunted and screamed until I woke my wife and there was nothing to be done but wait painfully for it to pass, which took five excruciating minutes.
You also get these strange muscular and nerve problems, like when you’re sleeping you get the pins and needles in your hands and arms. Yeah, lots of people get this, but your case is different, because it happens pretty much every night. You’ve figured out ways to sleep that help to prevent this, like when sleeping on your stomach you tuck one hand under your head and the other under your chest/belly, and this alternating arm position seems to reduce the symptoms. But you have other issues. Ever have the strange, involuntary and sudden sensation that you’re falling? You get this almost every night, out of nowhere, and it startles you awake, which can contribute to the insomnia (covered below).
Alcohol withdrawal sucks. Your blood pressure spikes, and if you’re me you can actually feel it. It’s like the blood pumping up my carotid artery and into my brain vibrates against my skull so I hear the pulses in my ears and they won’t go away. You get night sweats. You have insomnia, because you’ve relied on alcohol to put yourself to sleep and either voluntarily or not you’ve now deprived yourself of your “sedative.” You lay awake reading and writing. This is excellent for your productivity, but not so good for getting to work the next day after a sleepless night.
Night terrors: these aren’t nightmares, as you don’t achieve REM sleep. That’s because, as previously mentioned, you cannot sleep. But you sometimes do get into a weird half-awake/half-asleep state in which you think you can see everything in the room in which you lie. The details are extraordinary. There’s the television, the coffee table, the remote. You feel the fabric of the couch beneath you. But you cannot move. You’re paralyzed. And what’s more awful is that you hear the footsteps (someone’s, but whose?) approaching from behind. Then you feel whoever that is touching your shoulder, pushing against you. You’re so goddamn scared because you cannot see who or what this is because you cannot move to see the person or to make him stop, or to get away, or to fight back. Then your eyes snap open to the living room, empty except for you laying there. You return to your book, the lines of prose running by like armies marching east. When you doze, repeat at this paragraph’s beginning. The process continues till morning.
In general, long-term alcohol abuse causes high blood pressure. You retain water because the alcohol constantly depletes your system of it, even as you take in excessive amounts of water because you prefer beer, which is composed mostly of that life-giving compound. Still, your body tries to flush the poison ethanol from your system. Add to this the fact that often alcoholics spend inordinate time in bars and thus dine on bar foods loaded with salt that also contributes to water retention. All this water in all of your cells, including your red blood cells, causes the hypertension your doctor diagnoses you with and for which he prescribes Lisinopril, and tells you to cut out salts, change your diet, and lose weight. He doesn’t question your alcohol intake because about this you have lied, saying you only have about 10 drinks per week. One time you even tried to stick to that and successfully did so for almost a week prior to a doctor’s appointment. At that appointment, when your doctor asked, and you truthfully (for that one-week period, at least) responded with the ten number, he said, That’s not too bad. And with your confidence you explained that those 10 came all on the weekend, that you didn’t have one drink all week long. That was when your doctor’s eyebrows raised and he looked at you incredulously, saying, “10 drinks in one weekend?” And you did not have the strength to explain that most of the time 10 drinks in one night are barely enough to get you buzzed.
Back to the sleep problems, because, since you’re an alcoholic your alcohol tolerance is incredible. So, yet another thing that you and your friends thought was cool when you were younger, but turns out not to be cool later in life, is the fact that you can drink, and drink, and drink. In fact, a 12-pack of beer, a couple cocktails, and a few glasses of wine are sometimes merely enough to get you only a little buzzed. When you were young, people would gather at parties to watch you imbibe and exclaim, How does he keep on drinking without getting drunk or sick? This was your training ground. Later, you’ll visit Russia, the world’s drunkest country, where the men with whom you drink will tell your wife that in the future you can return to drink with them without your Russian-speaking wife to accompany you. Never mind that, likely, due to Russian men’s propensity to die very young due to alcohol-related issues, these guys won’t be alive by the time you get a chance to do that, and never mind the chances that you’ll be alive. Still, you amazed them with your drinking, as their red faces gazed on yours and they spit their das and spiceebas to you and to each other. Even when you’re not in Russia, on days when you’ll decide that you want to get your drinking done, you’ll start early, around noon, publicly, at the bar up the street. You’ll drink beer. You’ll work while you drink, typing away on this laptop. Later in the afternoon you’ll order a Maker’s Mark neat, and then you’ll order another. That’s usually enough to make you feel just all right. After you get home, you’ll continue drinking. There’s no telling how many drinks you’ll consume on these days. 20? 25? Either way, you’ll go to bed relaxed, but not drunk. You’ll think you could even operate a motor vehicle, and in many cases you have done so. You realize how idiotic and irresponsible this is, but that will be the next morning. And this, all this you drink, is so that you can sleep.
Diarrhea. You’ll rarely ever poop solid. Sorry, yes this is gross, but it’s the truth. See, because alcohol inflames your lower intestine and inhibits water reuptake via your bowels, you’ll poop watery stools regularly. Also, your pancreas is f-cked up and inflamed from the alcohol use. The enzymes the pancreas normally secretes in order to help digest food don’t get where they need to go in the stomach, so all that nutrition you’re supposed to get doesn’t end up in your body as it passes in that watery stool, wasted, like your body, which is wasting away. The other thing that sucks about this is the diarrhea splatters that have to be cleaned off the underside of your toilet seat and in your toilet bowl, if you ever anticipate company. And it’s not like you can just do this once a week or something. You pretty much have to clean up after every movement, the likes of which can sometimes top six a day because, well, you probably already know what having diarrhea’s like. Imagine this being a 365-days-per-year kind of thing.
Another thing that sucks is trying to find drinking time. Unfortunately, most people, myself included, are fairly responsible, have jobs and families, and work hard to maintain the personal and professional relationships that help perpetuate these scenarios. Because such work has to be put into such relationships, necessarily that time has not been diverted to drinking. But, if you’re an alcoholic (and don’t go fooling yourself thinking that only true alcoholics are the people who are f-cked up down at the park, in the ragged clothing, homeless, with the red wrinkled faces) then a good portion of your thinking per day goes into how you will get your drink on. You’ll think things like, if I go to the bar today, then I won’t get the emissions test done on the car, but I could get that done tomorrow. I mean, the registration’s already expired, so what does one more day matter? You’ll think: my wife leaves work at 5:30 p.m., so if I’ve got time after I’ve finished teaching, I can stop by the bar for a beer and a shot, then go to the grocery store to pick up the “casual” beers I’ll drink with dinner, then, after the wife goes to bed I’ll have the cocktails that are waiting for me, sitting in the liquor bottles in the cabinet at home. For at least a little while every day you’ll think about that story you’re working on and the sentences that accompany it, and rarely you’ll have great spurts during which you’ll write insatiably. All this creates an air of efficiency and productivity which is really a ruse for the one thing that you actually accomplish with any regularity and that is drinking.
The good news is that there are millions of people like you! Most people can’t fess up to the fact of their alcohol abuse. Your own family is this way: they can’t admit that there’s a history of alcoholism on both your father’s and your mother’s sides, nor can they accept it when you tell them that you have a drinking problem. They say, You have a job! You’re responsible! However, you have at least accepted the truth and you’re able to at look yourself. Hence the sleepless nights: because I try so hard to not drink so much. I’ve learned that if I wean myself from a bender by cutting down the amount I drink every day I can alleviate the withdrawal symptoms and get at least a little sleep. I’ve learned to enjoy beer, wine, and cocktails with food and to not get totally wasted all the time. I’m not a believer in 12-step programs, because no god — or gods — has anything to do with my addiction, and I believe that that addiction is a curable disease. To that end, I’ve learned to not go on benders. I poop solids! My health has returned and the doctor says I might go off the blood pressure meds. I tell myself the truth daily. I write essays about the truth about myself! I keep telling myself: This is evidence that you’re more productive with your work. What’s left to work on is watching your children grow into adults. And you’re working in that direction. That’s all you need to tell yourself. Tell yourself this every day: that you’re working so goddamn hard.