These questions haunt our age: Why do men with bushy Friedrich Nietzsche moustaches torment us by eating eat ice cream cones? By what strange devolution of studio engineering did the cracking snare sound of 1967’s Penny Lane sink to the mid-seventies signature snare sound – a hand puppet hitting a shoe box? Oh, and how do I stop drinking?
Drinking…drinking. Ah yes! Now I remember. It is, simply put, marvelous. Why on Earth would you want to stop?! It’s practically free, perfectly legal, and an always available, authentically ecstatic experience that puts you immediately in mind of a truth-seeing little magus in a velveteen cape. He is sunk comfortably back into the plush velour of your frontal lobe, lazily scissoring his crossed legs, and by your second drink he is laughingly, and with tiny magus-like gestures, parting every curtain you’ve ever hoped to see through. It’s all right there, right in front of you; a glorious dopamine countryside whose untended gardens beckon like a mother.
And what a feeling it is. What a feeling! You drop the little charge of amber fluid down the inner velvet of the neck and it strikes the tummy like a gushing Peter Max explosion of warmth that is lovelier by half than any other sensation you shall ever thenceforth know. Within a handful of seconds you are seeing, unmistakably, the Next New World. John Cheever, my personal deity and a famous fallen lush (for a time) both decried and helplessly praised “… the euphoria of alcohol when I seem to walk among the stars.” I do believe that about sums it up.
Glass half empty: the predilection for alcohol is classified as a disease. Because what but an abnormal and skewed constitution can possibly explain the desire to feel really freaking fantastic all the time? “I would love to feel really freaking fantastic all the time!” “Yes, well, that is the nature of your disease.”
Really? At this writing (and according to a talking head who briefly held the floor on my car radio this afternoon, if you know what I mean), recent discoveries based on some over-excited twiddling of the human genome seem to indicate that alcoholism is about 50% genetic and about 50% willful. Yeah. Uh, thanks, science. You laboriously teased apart the double helix and that’s the best you could come up with? Hope your beakers and stuff didn’t cost too much.
I’m no scientist (to say the very very least) and a yen for hooch may well be partly genetic, but this “disease” classification of boozing seems to me a little overweening, having sprung, at least in its initial rollout, from our collective altruistic impulse to let the alkies off the hook. “We gotta let these boozers off the hook! How do we release them from this prison of shame? Can we just say they caught a disease or something? A drinking disease! Yeah, that’s it! How else to humanely explain this embarrassing desire of theirs to feel freaking fantastic ALL THE TIME?” No, dear ones. Wanting to feel really really good all the time is not a sign of illness. Quite the opposite.
I dabbled in fire water once upon a time; never quite got the hang of it, though. I started late, for one thing. While my more sensible acne-bedeviled compatriots were skulking around the high school parking lot on game night, gulping from bottle-shaped paper bags, laughing like morons and finally attacking each other in zipper-festooned bellbottoms (this may date me), I was going to Young Life meetings and Bible studies and listening to earnest Believers with diaphanous teen-beards strum guitars and sing about the beautiful baby Jesus. I treasure that time and would not trade it for anything. Those days formed the best parts of me – but it cost me dear. I lost my place on the Practiced Drinking continuum. I never quite caught up. In those days I wore a delicate little gold cross around my pencil neck and walked around in tiny 70s short-shorts I would today severely punish my daughter for even glancing at on the sales rack at Marshall’s. In my Christian finery and Caucasian ‘fro and three-striped knee socks, I was scarier and more off-putting to little children and the general population than the most ravaged vodka fiend. Which is all to say, at a time I should have been practicing my drinking with the fellas, I was diverted by other pursuits.
My high school peer group were not ‘partiers’. While our desperately healthy counterparts were doing the inebriated hokey pokey in the back seats of innumerable cars, we were spending long evenings in the balmy lamplit Baskin Robbins parking lot, doing Monty Python skits and flirting with the girls, all of us wearing those gender-neutral rugby shirts everyone wore then. My later boozy training was imperfect and uneven. I would drink a Bud Light and curl up and fall asleep on the couch. This drinking just makes me tired! It did not occur to me to have another fortifying drink when the effect of the first began to flag. This was in my 20s, and it went on like that for a while.
Once I’d moved into a group house with my longtime friends, you can just imagine how it went. My roommate, an equally inept tippler, would mix a pitcher of Martinis comprised mostly of saline slime dumped from an olive jar. I swore off Martinis for years. When I did finally discover the delights and horrors of hard liquor I was in a band and doing shots and all the rest. How many evenings did I hustle outside to the back yard of our band house to forcefully bark out a variegated mist of pilfered fraternity wine under watchful stars? Many evenings.
Well. What happens is, you grow older. It becomes more and more difficult to lift bags of potting soil without hollering like an animal. At work you exit your sporty little car with difficulty in the covered parking garage, and the inadvertent echoing groan escapes you like a cry for help, unnerving the 20-something gal three spaces away who briefly looks at you the way Anne Bancroft looked at the Elephant Man. Worst of all, the effects of the two day Scotch Squall become sufficiently horrific and unavoidable to give you real pause. I was finally spending a lot of time feeling crummy and not readily bouncing back. I once calculated that if I lived to be 80, I would have spent nearly 5 years of my life feeling out of sorts due to post-drinkum.
It was neither guilt nor shame nor a sense that I was wronging myself or my loved ones (though I was) that gave me the bright idea of stopping: it was the Humble Hangover that unhitched my wagon. I grew to dread them, really; to loathe them. When I stopped drinking, and I did it in a day (to my own surprise and following 25 amateurish years of boozing), it helped that the returns were immediate. I began to converse delightedly at gatherings again, unafraid of slurred inarticulation, I saw the afternoons and evenings through 5 rinsed and buoyant senses. I would awaken on glorious new mornings without the feeling that a hot pig was trying to burrow out through my forehead.
I never dreamed it would be that easy to just…stop. But I didn’t count on how positively reinforcing the clear days and nights would be. It’s like the cloud that lifts when, as a kid, you have your last spasm of stomach flu over the toilet, your mom with her cool hand on your back. Then suddenly the nausea lifts, and the feeling of normalcy and gratitude is like the most stridently beautiful sunrise you have ever known. Everything looks gorgeous. Remember getting over the flu?
Friend and neighbor, you have taken care of yourself and your loved ones, haven’t climbed behind the wheel of a car while tipsy, haven’t gone off the deep end. You’ve been responsible with your sipping (mostly), but you’re concerned. Are you a drunk? Are you sick, or worse? I dunno.
But I do know you are not a laggard for wanting to feel really freaking fantastic all the time. Everybody wants that. The desire to feel good is not a disease marker. Thanks to the thermodynamics of feeling good, though, your not unreasonable pleasure-seeking comes with a price tag; gagging flashes of nausea and the dislocating sense you have been scrambled in a transporter accident out near Starbase 11. Society calls this a bad hangover, and it did me in. If you’ve had one too many of those, you can call it whatever you want. You can even call it quits. If that’s the way you want to go, let’s get started. The nausea minutes continue to pile up, and the gilded wonder of a clear-headed morning awaits. Your call.