Is it too early to quit?

Do I have to be near death before I stop drinking?

Published April 23, 2009 10:19AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

Well, seems we're on the subject of alcoholism again today. I guess it's kind of like the booze itself used to be: Sometimes I just can't stay away from it.

Dear Cary,

OK, I've written to you about this before and you even wrote me a personal note once a couple years ago, but I'm going to ask again. Because I just love it when you talk about addiction. And I love the responses from your readers. And I need some straight talk.

I read your letter to the woman dating the alcoholic/cocaine addict who believes she may hit rock bottom before her boyfriend does.

You said an interesting thing. You said that addicts hit rock bottom when they feel they are near death.

This is upsetting to me. I am probably (see me tiptoe around it) an alcoholic. I've been drinking since I was 17. I drink too much. I drink too frequently. In the past, my drinking has caused me troubles (I had a DWI in 1996, for instance) but never anything huge. Today, although I drink, here is what I do not do. I do not: Go out with friends drinking, drink and drive, get drunk in front of my children, pick fights with my husband, spend huge sums of money on booze, or miss work due to alcohol. When pregnant, both times, I did not drink.

So, in some ways, I do not meet some definitions and descriptions of alcoholics. Here's what I do: Drink, by myself, mostly late at night after the kids are tucked into bed, almost every night if given the chance. Sometimes a whole bottle of wine. My husband, who is and always has been a non-drinker -- he just has never been fond of it -- is bothered by my drinking. Sometimes I hide bottles from him so he doesn't know how much I drank the night before.

I do take breaks. I take month-long breaks, and two-month-long breaks, and recently had something more like six months with very little wine, except for the week at Christmas, when I drank with my sister and mom, both of whom are clearly in a similar situation to me, booze-wise. But when I started drinking again a few weeks ago, I felt an enormous sense of RELIEF. I felt like a weight had been lifted off me. I felt happy!! I felt like I could read FIVE bedtime stories to the kids instead of the usual one or two. And so much livelier! I felt generous and creative and I cleaned the whole darn house -- which had been sitting there in a state of disgustingness for weeks on end -- in a single night. Just me and my beloved bottle of rouge, sweeping and scrubbing. (And yes, it really was cleaner in the morning!) I started working again on my novel. But, you know, I think I'm self-aware. I know that is all bullshit. I'm pushing 40, and I can see now how the booze -- although it doesn't cause any big, glaring, obvious problems -- does cause problems indirectly. I stay up later than I should, so I'm often a bit tired. I'm a bit more dull than I might be otherwise. I spend energy and hours I could devote to other things drinking wine. In general, my lifestyle is rather ... you know ... organic and clean ... so I feel like the alcohol pollutes me. It's possibly giving me breast cancer. It's making me stupid. I feel guilty about my drinking and sometimes when I wake up at 2 a.m. when the wine has worn off, I hate myself for what I'm doing to my body. I never go to bed the same time my husband does, because, well, that would cut short my Drinking Hours. I'm sure he'd like me to be there with him. I'm also sure I'm a more "present" mother when I'm not drinking.

And I have so much good stuff in my life that I shouldn't ruin. I have a wonderful home, and a marriage that is good and stable, if not exactly fantastic, and two wonderful happy kids, and many interesting hobbies and jobs, and yet every night I get out the bottle and pour myself just ... one ... more ...

But I am so far from "nearly dead."  I really hate the idea of quitting drinking forever -- I love to drink! I really do! -- and yet I really hate the idea of spending another 10 or 20 years drinking before I "hit bottom" and believe or find myself nearly dead. So I'm caught up in this terrible awareness that I'm headed right there. I'm headed toward "nearly dead," I'm headed for rock bottom, and yet I'm pretty far away from it, and yet I don't want to quit to avoid getting there. I go in circles with this, and I try to convince myself that I can control my drinking, that I CAN cut back to just "once in a while" or "only in social situations" and yet I never do. The last week or so, I feel downright self-destructive ... like, OK, fine, if I'm going to be a drunk, I'm going to really be a drunk, and drive myself straight into rehab so that I can stop it for good. Is it possible to force oneself into this mysterious place of rock bottom?

Sometimes I do entertain the possibility that I"m not really a drunk, mostly because back in my pre-married-with-kids days, I spent a lot of time in bars with my friends, and you know, they drank way more than me. Back then, I didn't think I had a problem. It was just what we did, every night. I was surrounded by other drinkers, so I didn't feel so unusual. So maybe it's just because my husband is a teetotaler. He's the weird one, right?? He's the one with a problem -- because he doesn't drink!

Of course , this is bullshit, too.

My impression of alcoholics is that they are not aware of what they are doing. They are in denial, they refuse to acknowledge the problem, etc. I don't think I'm like that. I think I am really, intensely, constantly aware of what I am doing, and I analyze it constantly, every sip I take, even this one right now.

Is rock bottom different for different people? Can an alcoholic-- and, let's be honest, I really am an alcoholic and have been since I took my first sip of TJ Swann in 10th grade -- make a conscious choice to let rock bottom be right here? Where I am? In a fairly OK place? Not even close to dead?

So go ahead. Tell me what to do.

Not Nearly Dead Yet

Dear Not Nearly Dead,

You don't have to feel you are near death to quit. If I gave that impression, I was wrong. My experience was not exactly that I felt I was near death as much as I felt I was on a one-way trip in that direction. Things had shifted. At the age of 35, at the very age when I might have been coming into my own as a man, as an artist, a musician and a writer, I was, rather, losing ground on every front, finding myself less capable, less in control, less energetic, less intelligent, less happy, less warm, less useful to others. My world was shrinking. And the reason it was shrinking was that I just could not stop drinking once I started. I knew I was drinking too much. I knew I had never really drunk like normal people. It had been going on for a while. It was getting a little scary. Though literal death was probably years away, I felt decline, deterioration, loss of control.

But enough about me and my little problems. I quit drinking and things turned out OK for me. Let's talk about you. You sound like you are on the verge of making a major decision about alcohol. But you have some questions and some reservations. I can talk about them, but I am not here to sell you on anything. I am just here to share with you what many of us have gone through.

So, for starters, I'd say that you are not alone in being an alcoholic and being aware that you are an alcoholic. Knowing you are an alcoholic does not disqualify you. I had come to the conclusion that I was an alcoholic some time before I quit. I would occasionally admit this, but mainly in accusing others. I would say, "You're a goddamned alcoholic! How do I know? Because I'm a goddamned alcoholic!"

So, my friend, knowing that you drink too much, and that you may have a problem, doesn't exempt you from being an alcoholic.

But let's talk about something really interesting. Let's talk about something that is sort of taboo, which is that we really, really like to get high. I've been sober 20 years now and I really like to get high. I don't use any illegal drugs or non-prescribed medicines and I don't drink. But I really love to get high.

Here's the big question: If we quit drinking, how do we get high?

Now, at first, we might be on a kind of natural high. The sensations of being competent, the sensations of having emotions and feeling hope may be so intense that we do feel high for a few months.

But then we can hit a low. Regular routine life is a drag. We really like that feeling of flow, of boundless energy, of unfettered imagination and flow of conversation, of joy, of fearlessness, the feeling that if only people could keep up with us we could keep going all night and into the next day. We really, really love that. And we do mourn it when it is gone. I sometimes ache for that high.

But I have found that many of life's pleasures do give one a kind of high -- exercise, love, meditation, saunas and hot tubs, massage, contemplation, good social events, travel, therapy ... these are the kinds of highs that I used to scoff at as not being real highs. But they are.

But here's the important thing: You have options, and you can change your life. You can do it in an interesting way, fully awake, as it were.

You can just decide, OK, it might be a little early, but I'm calling it a night. You can say, you know what, I haven't lost everything yet, but I think I have a problem, and I can see where this is headed, and I've known since 10th grade that I don't drink like other people, that alcohol has a special power over me, that I have an outsize love for the stuff and it's the kind of love affair that cannot end well, and, what the heck, it's been a good run, let's try something new. You can do that in the privacy of your own house, or in a therapist's office, or you can look into local recovery groups. You can do it any number of ways.

So, again, you do not need to get to some specific point before you can call it quits. You may quit any time. You don't need a reason. You don't need to fill out a form. You don't need an excuse. You can quit just because you don't think it's such a great thing to be doing anymore and you'd like a change.

It's your decision, but if you ask me, I'd say give it a shot. You can always go back to drinking if sobriety doesn't agree with you.

There's "more about alcoholism" in this here book!

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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