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.