Frailties

Scott is detoxifying, Jim’s a dry drunk turned flexitarian, and lots of other bike-themed blogs seem heavy on the burp-and-boil motif. And I don’t have anything more topical to offer today, so here’s my health and not-wellness story.

I really like beer. And wine. Scotch is good too, and occasionally gin. For about fifteen years, I consumed, on average, between one and two drinks a day, closer to two. Very seldom much more, almost never none at all. I never binged (unless a very occasional bottle of wine over the course of a long evening is a binge), nor desired to drink in the daytime, but evening libations were a matter of course. I took up brewing, and at one point had two taps in my kitchen, and up to thirty gallons of home-kegged ale on hand most of the year. I did everything but malt the barley and grow the hops.

If I hadn’t been cycling, I’m pretty sure I’d have been really, really fat. I regarded a raging metabolic furnace as a big upside of not driving. Man, did we eat and drink richly!

I didn’t think I had a problem, and truth be told, I still don’t think I was ever in more than mild denial about the downsides, which is that I spent an appreciable fraction of my waking hours in a state of modest incapacity. It’s not like I was going to drive anyway. I was relaxing by the only means I knew, and those means were a substance I had to buy, sometimes very dearly in the pursuit of good taste. Also, surely somehow spending such a large portion of my leisure time, over many years, in a state of fuzziness has degraded my emotional housekeeping skills. Another glass and sleep would come quickly to help bury anything that might have been bothering me.

When I became a stay-at-home dad in July 2003, with my wife frequently traveling weeks at a time out of state, drink was there yet again to shut me down at the end of hard days of virtual single parenthood. This time I was home alone with a sleeping child, the internet, crazy bike business schemes and plenty of anxieties. What would I do without it?

In September 2004 I got sick. The symptoms were mysterious to me, but serious enough that I went to a doctor, which is something I tend to avoid except under great duress. It so happens that I felt a little better the day I finally got the appointment, and the doctor could find nothing wrong with me. Three days later I pretty much collapsed with extreme fatigue and zero appetite, brown urine, and dark yellow eyes. Jaundice! I stumbled to the emergency room, got blood drawn, and was diagnosed with viral hepatitis A. That’s the kind you get from crap-contaminated food or similar fecal unsavoriness. Fortunately, it’s also the kind you can recover from completely. It happens to child-care workers a lot, and young children are asymptomatic carriers, and I certainly had my elbows in poopy diapers those days. The health department tested my serum to see if my case was related to known others, but it wasn’t. I still don’t know just how I got it.

I was totally miserable for a few days, and very afraid for at least an afternoon that my liver was out for the count. The doctor (who hadn’t found anything wrong with me days before) told me that I could never again drink any alcohol. She was an old-school, don’t-question-me type of doctor. I had no trouble following her advice for a while, because I really didn’t want to drink, and I was properly impressed that it would be a really bad idea while my liver was obviously so weak.

A little Googling turned up lots of advice contrary to my doctor’s. Everybody agrees that no alcohol for a good while is best, to let your liver recover. Like six months. Nobody says never, at least not unless they are opposed to any alcohol use in general, and are ready to seize upon viral hepatitis as yet another reason. My liver enzyme levels returned to normal after a little more than a month of total abstinence, careful eating, and supplementation with milk thistle. I felt fine, even great. I even enjoyed what alcohol was left in the house at that point, in very slow moderation. And then I bought more, and returned to my previous habits over another month or two.

We moved to Portland in December. Portland is beer heaven, and the local pinot noir is pretty great too. All Winter long I was shuttling growlers full of fresh craft-brewed goodness home on the Brompton. Portland has several family-friendly neighborhood craft brewhouses, the kinds of places where you see moms with twin babies nursing them in tandem along with an Imperial Stout and a big organic salad. It’s so civilized, humane, delicious. I indulged plenty.

In April I began to feel some of the odd symptoms I had felt before I got badly sick: itchy neck, weird energy swings, occasional twinge of pain mid-torso. I got checked out, and sure enough, my liver enzyme levels were slightly off what they should be. I figure I hadn’t given my liver time to recover, and here I had been kicking it while down. Even Dr. Google seemed to agree that six months dry was a good spell. Symptomatic relapses are common, too, so if common=normal, and normal=good, this is great, huh? I had given my liver a rest of, what, a month? This is when I accepted that I had a problem.

I’ve had a total of three or four drinks since April now, and my symptoms are long gone. It has been pretty hard. Eating out or going to a party and drinking water has been joyless. I have definitely missed alcohol. For weeks I was really wired all the time. I would leap at every odd noise. I tried to cut out caffeine, too — the antipodean drug now unbalanced — but that was too much. Now I just stay up too late. I have considered trying pot, even — I somehow reached the age of 39 without trying it save for one Clintonian puff in college. But really I need to learn to self-regulate my nervous energies, as opposed to self-medicating.

The few, widely separated drinks I’ve had since April were experiments to see how my reactions may have changed. Well, one time was not an experiment, nor was it a drink. It was a tall Belgian indulgence, because that evening I just didn’t care about my program. It was great; I walked out under the dark starry sky and felt truly thankful for the visit. My reactions have changed. I have far less tolerance. I feel one drink. This must be good. It tastes great and feels good. I think this is good too.

I’m over the hump of missing alcohol on a visceral level, but only for a couple weeks now. Now I miss just the idea that I should be able to drink in moderation. My plan is to stay dry until Thanksgiving, when my liver should be standing up straight, then try to reintroduce alcohol on strictly an occasional basis, so that it never again becomes habitual. I know, slippery slope. But denying myself something that in moderation is good seems to me an illiberal weakness. If I can’t keep it light and intermittent, then I’ll have to stop it again. Until I can.

O’Doul’s Amber (de-alcoholized beer) has helped my program. It tastes maybe 70% as good as mediocre real beer, probably better than most other Anheuser Busch products.

I have lost fifteen pounds that I didn’t really need to.

15 thoughts on “Frailties”

  • Me

    Real change is a rough gig. I very much dislike it (I mean, if you could actually drink and eat anything you want without fear of feeling like crap, gaining weight or disease… who wouldn’t?) but it was becoming impossible to not see the writing on the wall.

    Defining “moderation” is a bear… as I get older (perhaps wiser, who knows?) moderation to me seems to be in two speeds: 1-”I can” (unlimited stuff like cycling, raw fruits & veggies, water) and 2-”I cannot” (all the other stuff I love(ed) like king crab, homemade burgers, great pizza, fillet mignon, butter, fantastic artisanal cheeses, rustic breads, great middle eastern/thai/vietnamese foods, sauces made with wine, butter & cream, sushi, all other form of fish consumption, sitting on my ass reading/thinking/internet’ing)… good luck to you though.

    -Me

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  • Martina

    I am close to the “What’s the hell?” state-of-mind…as a female I have decades of worrying about my weight behind me. I can’t drink alcohol due to medication and to be honest – I can’t tolerate it like I used to and I stopped smoking when I got pregnant years ago.

    But I don’t want to live with this constant fears and regulations…life is already scarey enough. So I trust my self-regulation mechanism: 2 martinis shared with friends are worth the hang-over, a cigarette over a cup of coffee and a confidential talk is worth the terrible taste in my mouth for 24 hours, a good meal is sometimes worth the discomfort of feeling like beached whale. I feel that listening to my body “moderation” becomes naturally and is no longer a decision I make in my head – most of the time!

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  • Me

    Martina-

    Great post. I am hanging my hat-big time-on the day when all my current “newnesses” become such a part of me that my body does the thinking and my brain can get onto other stuff…

    like freaking out about some new thing.

    -Me

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  • George

    I dig where you’re coming from.

    I might drink 6 beers a year.

    That is down from the 4 or 5 a day I used to drink before I got married.

    Quitting smoking was MUCH harder then cutting back on alcohol……………

    I can drink one beer now and be okay with it, but I can’t smoke at all or I would be back to square one as far as tobbaco is concerned.

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  • Jim

    Todd: I think you’re an alcoholic. Not like I was when I was on a constant binge, of course. And not like the guys who’ve been drinking so much for so long that they’ll die without it. Even one or two a day can be a dependency, and the fact that you went to some effort to find a reason to overrule your doc’s orders in spite of a potentially serious medical condition suggests to me that those one or two drinks are more to you than just evening refreshment. I say this only because I have been in similar situations and done the same thing in my boozing days. Of course, at the level you describe, your drinking is probably healthy for you, even if it is a vice.

    It was easy for me to quit drinking. One night, just over two years ago, I had more than my share, just as I did many nights for the 7 or 8 years before that. When I went to bed, I started to feel so damned depressed about what I was doing to myself and my future. What brought it on, I’ll never know, but I had an emotional couple of hours before I finally fell asleep. The next morning, when I woke up, I knew alcohol was in my past. I dumped out five gallons of ready-to-bottle mai-bock and most of the alcohol I had in the house. I gave away some of the really nice brews I had on-hand. I still sometimes hit happy hour with friends, and some of them try to tempt me to partake (because I was a very fun drunk). But I know that I will lose every battle with alcohol no matter how much I try to moderate, and I only stand a chance when I avoid it completely.

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  • Todd

    Jim, you say you think I’m an alcoholic, but also that my drinking is probably healthy for me. My definition of alcoholic can’t accommodate both. I’d say I was a habitual drinker, and my goal is to become a non-habitual drinker once my overall health can support that.

    Man, I need to come up with some new bloggage to push this entry down. The exposure is getting to me: Prometheus bound

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  • Jim

    “my goal is to become a non-habitual drinker once my overall health can support that.”

    If you can do it, without even an occassional lapse into gross excess (however you define that), then maybe you aren’t an alcoholic. By my definition, habitual drinking and alcoholism are one and the same. When I quit drinking, most of my friends asked, “what happened?”, implying that I must’ve done something terrible and/or gotten into legal trouble. They were all surprised to learn that I quit simply because I wanted to. In their minds, my drinking didn’t constitute alcoholism because it never got me into trouble.

    I share your appreciation for high quality beer and wine, and I sometimes think I could be a connoisseur once again. I miss the taste more than I miss being intoxicated. But those are times when I am kidding myself, and I know better than to believe my own lies.

    You can always find something to write about impressive stokemonkey accomplishments or peak oil.

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  • Patrick

    I’m dealing with the exact same thing right now. It’s comforting to know that the duality of the ordeal is not just in my head and that other people are going through the same rigors. I’ve quit smoking too, which I was doing for the last five or so years only when I drank. Before that, I was a pack-and-a-half a day smoker. In any event, the two habits aided and abetted each other, which is an entirely different problem all together. Anyhow, it’s been almost two weeks and I feel I’m doing better than I thought I would.

    I, too, am having trouble getting to sleep, and also have seen how alcohol (even in small amounts) has modified my emotional and psychological alertness. Unfortunately, that means a great deal of internal issues great and small come cascading down all at once, and itââ?¬â?¢s a bitch trying to sort them out and prioritizeââ?¬Â¦and not have a drink to take the edge off. And I understand the ââ?¬Å?when I start again in moderationââ?¬Â? self-rationalization. I think Iââ?¬â?¢m coming to grips with the fact that I, myself, will probably not be able to fool myself with a ââ?¬Å?moderationââ?¬Â? attitude, at least for a while. I like the “two speeds” definition of moderation presented by a previous poster. Someday I’d like to think I’d have the fortitude to overcome that. Self control is a desireable goal to shoot for, lol.

    Well, good luck, and I hope it works out. I�ll keep an eye on it�no pressure, of course.

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  • nathan

    “But really I need to learn to self-regulate my nervous energies, as opposed to self-medicating.” Hey! That’s un-American! ;)

    You guys would all probably find Moderation Management at least interesting.

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  • Bill Manewal

    First I’d like to acknowledge you, Todd, for publicly speaking so clearly, eloquently, and honestly about something that is often fraught with secrecy and shame. That is a huge step and is a big part of the growth you are seeking. Denial is a powerful trickster. And youââ?¬â?¢ve just poked a big hole in yours. Congratulations!

    “… spending such a large portion of my leisure time, over many years, in a state of fuzziness has degraded my emotional housekeeping skills. Another glass and sleep would come quickly to help bury anything that might have been bothering me.”

    In my experience this statement captures the essence of any addictive mood-altering behavior. The substance isn’t the issue. Intention (conscious or sub-conscious) to avoid being bothered is.

    Anything will do: alcohol, pot, gambling, food, sex, TV, computer games, compulsive exercise (no mystery why Lance’s marriage broke up!), religiosity, blind patriotism, violence, Ecstasy, tobacco, Netflix, anything will do to distract ourselves from our feelings.

    Fundamental problem with these strategies (apart from health consequences): they don’t work. I remember trying out the country-and-western song solution of drowning my sorrows in booze after my divorce. And there I was in a bar, drunk, and STILL depressed! Man was I pissed off: $30 worth of liquor and it doesn’t even work!

    Anything I do on a regular basis in order to keep from feeling my emotions will destroy me. It seems that we’re wired not to bury our problems but to experience them fully: to feel them, solve them, get over them, even to suffer them and grow from the experience into more fully functioning, grown-up human beings. The word ‘survive’ means to ‘live through’. Not ââ?¬Ë?aroundââ?¬â?¢ ââ?¬Ë?overââ?¬â?¢ or ââ?¬Ë?under.ââ?¬â?¢

    A big help along my path has been learning the real purpose of raw emotions. Everyone says “feel your feelings, don’t stuff them, express them,” but few say what purpose they serve: Emotions give me IMMEDIATE (meaning not mediated through the filter of my devious cortex) information about what’s going on around me and inside me. When Iââ?¬â?¢m in my head about my pain, I usually screw it up with layers of interpretation, stories, thoughts of revenge etc. But the pure reverberation of a painful stimulus in my heart always rings true. Very valuable information if acted on in an effective way.

    I’ve learned to first IDENTIFY my feelings from a working list of 8 emotions: Excited, passionate, happy, content, afraid, angry, hurt, sad. Which one or more am I experiencing now? Which is the predominant one?

    Then I TRANSLATE my feeling into one of the two polar core emotions into which the others feed: ‘Hurt’ (my experience of loss) or ‘Happy’ (my experience of gain).

    If the translation funnels into ‘Hurt’, then it is my responsibility as a self-healing organism (proved by the fact that my road rash heals) to next identify the exact nature of the loss. What am I afraid of losing, angry that I will lose, hurt over losing, or am sad about losing? What value to my authentic self (not ego!) is threatened?

    Once I’m clear on the loss, then I can ask myself, “What is it that, if gained, would heal my loss, would restore my happiness?”

    Then I can formulate a FUFILLMENT PLAN to achieve the healing. I’m clear that coming up with and acting on my plan is within my power and that, as a self-healing being, I must look within to heal: not in a beer mug, not to my wife, or boss, or priest, or Senator, not even to George W.

    This is a process I have learned within the last two years. I am still working on implementing it on a daily basis. I have found that it works when I work it. That the root causes of my seeking to medicate myself with distraction are fading. I’m content to enjoy a draft Guinness on occasion or a single glass of my friend’s organic Sonoma zinfandel with dinner and have it be sufficient because I no longer NEED the fog to function.

    When I allow my suffering, then work on healing it, I’m free to fully feel my happiness, excitement, passion, and contentment. Otherwise everything is compressed to a gray mediocrity.

    Iââ?¬â?¢ve noticed that people who merely stop drinking (without emotional understanding or growth work) are not often pleasant to be around (ââ?¬Å?dry drunksââ?¬Â?).

    Other venues that have helped: 12-step meetings, especially Co-Dependents Anonymous which addresses root causes. Find a meeting you like: if it’s full of whiners, crazies, awfulizers, or rigid program Nazis, try another one. They’re in the phone book and offer a very safe and cost-effective path of personal growth, in my experience. After attending 4 or 5 different meetings youââ?¬â?¢ll find if itââ?¬â?¢s a program that resonates with you.

    I also respect the viewpoint of Jim, for whom moderation in alcohol is a lost battle. I believe that there are many people for whom alcohol is a metabolic (probably genetically controlled) poison. I’m not one of those, but my former wife was and maybe you are. Your path of self-inquiry will lead you to answer that question for yourself.

    I support you in your journey to health. Without feeling smug or patronizing, I say you approach this work with a LOT of resources within you!

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  • Martina

    Reading through your posts I think of 2 things:
    - A lot of the comments sound very puritan and radical
    - They are not dealing with the root of issue that Todd for instance pointed out.

    Puritan because it sounds that only total abandonment of the addiction leads to salvation. Going into addiction-radication with such a mind set can lead in some cases to even worse exesses when you can’t stay “pure”.
    Todd pointed out that he had porblems with “emotional housekeeping” and somebody else mentioned a divorce. Perhaps it would be helpful to address these issues.
    I think that it is one of the signs of adulthood/maturity that I can moderate myself, taking the pros and cons under consideration and making my choice. That is a goal I strive to.

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  • Martina

    PS: Bill – I just read your post and again. I am really touched.

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  • Jim

    Martina:
    It is hard for most people to understand the nature of addiction to alcohol. I’m convinced alcoholism is at least partly (mostly) genetic because my addiction patterns resemble those of various blood relatives of mine, even those who had a relatively small influence on me during my formative years (my parents hardly drank when I was a kid). Some people can drink a bottle of beer and leave it at that. I can do it, too, but only if I try really hard, and even then, I’ve often gotten completelt shit-faced when I went out for “a beer”. If I have two bottles, my defenses get even weaker. A six-pack, and there’s no turning back. Your notion that moderation is a symbol of maturity might be true for you, but for most alcoholics, this simply is not the case. During my drinking days, I managed to hold down good jobs, make timely (and often advanced) mortgage and car payments, invest in the stock market at a profit, and maintain a steady and committed relationship with the woman who is now my wife. These are all signs of my level of maturity at the time, I think. But as mature as I was, I had a helluva time regulating my alcohol intake after the first sip. In the two years since I laid off the bottle, I’ve only gotten more grown-up and responsible, and I sometimes think that I could now handle drinking in moderation. But it’s a lie, at least in my case. I think it’s fair to point out that Alcoholics Anonymous stresses the “never do it again” philosophy for a reason. An alcoholic under the influence is not a rational person who can be trusted to moderate him/herself, no matter how mature s/he is.

    I am now waiting for one of those naturally skinny person to suggest that s/he has the magic secret to being thin.

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  • Martina

    Certainly not me, Jim! I am a Chubette since I was born.
    …and please don’t think that I doubted your maturity for a moment. My comments are very ego-centric.

    I can understand your argument about genetically programmed addiction — I know that I have this genetic streak, too. But philosophically I have to believe that my will does count for something. You had the will to leave alcohol behind, I hope I have the will to control my addictive streak through moderation.

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  • Bill Manewal

    Martina ââ?¬â??

    I’m glad that my post touched you. Thank you for communicating that.

    I had feared that all that part about emotions was just too dense a distillation of about 9 hours of course work where I learned it. (The course is called “Manalive” as found here: http://www.manaliveinternational.org/homepage.html)

    In regards to genetics/addiction – I once read that many (by no means all) alcoholics differ from other non-addicted drinkers in their processing of the alcohol. These people do not FEEL the effects of alcohol in a linear fashion. Often they feel pretty much nothing at all until, suddenly, they are almost fall-down drunk. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for them to gauge moderation.

    I certainly have been around enough of these people (lived with one!) to know the truth of the theory.

    In my case, I can feel the first couple of sips of a beer, and usually when my wife and I enjoy a beer, we split one. It’s just about right for us. The only time I really want a full beer is to be commensurate with that large burrito!

    Of course neither of these kinds of reactions to alcohol has anything at all to do with morality, maturity, or even human will, but knowing the particular facts of one’s ethanol metabolism is valuable information to factor in decisions based on one’s will and morality. Hopefully, as in Jim’s case, these decisions lead to a more effective kind of maturity.

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