A former teacher once asked us how you eat an elephant. After getting answers like “with barbecue sauce” and “very slowly”, he simply said “one bite at a time”. Some things just can’t be accomplished all at once.
This is how I will tell my story. One bite at a time.
This is the story of my first big health scare as a progressively declining and unhealthy alcoholic.
I’ve known for years that I was a functional alcoholic and a binge drinker. When I was younger, in the 1990s, I had periods of great excess. Things weren’t so good at times but I always managed to keep keeping on, as they say. After 1999, I worked at a brewery where just about everyone was a functional alcoholic. Days consisted of a work shift followed by excessive drinking. Day after day. Year after year. I may not have the most exciting, rock bottom alcoholic story in the world but one thing is clear: I put in a lot of mileage. I drank for over 20 years consistently with periods of great excess and times of moderation.
Leading up to my decision to stop drinking, the binge just never seemed to end. Drinking was almost entirely a mechanical, habitual daily ritual like sleeping and eating. Not too long before I quit drinking, I remember telling myself that I don’t laugh anymore. There were always justifications for this behavior. I’d tell myself, “I deserve this one thing (in my life)”. I didn’t enjoy drinking like I had earlier in life. Long ago, I had ruined my chances of simply enjoying a drink to relax without consequences. Functional had become dysfunctional.
My health really started becoming questionable when I turned 40. In the rooms, we say that drunks either end up dead, in jail or in a hospital. Early on Christmas Day 2012, I got in my car to begin my holiday excursion to see the family. After about an hour of driving, I began experiencing tingling in my limbs, heart palpitations and chest pain. I felt like I was going to pass out at any minute. My mind started racing and I wondered, “Is this what dying is like?”
I was about an hour from the nearest city so I felt helpless and alone. I thought that I might need to go to the hospital so I started speeding, upwards of 95 mph. Adrenaline was really kicking in. This scary episode was something I had ever experienced. I kept driving, nervous and with the windows rolled down so that I could breathe. All the while I felt like I could pass out at any minute. When I was about 20 minutes away from the city, I called 9-1-1. I told them that I was speeding down a highway, urgently trying to reach an emergency room. They stayed on the line with me and this calmed me down a little bit. I never passed out.
Allow me to backtrack for a second. The day before this happened, I had an epic 14-hour Christmas Eve work day at the brewery, where I was in charge of daily food specials. I worked a long line shift and I was in a rare state of weariness and outrage when it was all done. My chef bought us liquor that night as a Christmas gift. I drank 5-6 pints of beer that night and lots of whiskey, without having eaten or drank water all day. I went home, proceeded to argue with my significant other and hardly slept that night.
Back to my story, when I went to the ER, they treated me as though I might be in the early stages of a heart attack, although they were unequipped to deal with serious cardiovascular issues. They tested me multiple times and concluded that I may have had an enzyme in my blood indicating a serious issue with my heart. They gave me no option but to be sent by ambulance back to a hospital in Kansas City. I called my family and told them that I’d be spending the night in a hospital back at home.
The next day was spent doing tests and resting. As it turns out, I was dehydrated and exhausted. I probably had an anxiety attack when my symptoms were getting bad on the road. I tested clean for heart issues. The nurse told me that she suspected I was an alcoholic but assured me that I was not. She had done some sort of test during my sleep. This was a relief because deep down, I didn’t really agree with that assessment.
After two days, I was kindly offered a ride back to my car at the ER, where two days before I thought I might be dying. I went ahead to see my family for a short Christmas vacation. I decided that I wouldn’t drink for the holidays but that idea lasted about 5 hours.
Doctors and More Doctors
For the next few months, I saw various doctors. I continued to have episodes where I felt lightheaded and a sort of tension in my head. On a side note, I was still actively drinking. I suspected that this might be contributing to my problem but I never really considered stopping. I noticed that when I had my episodes I was usually tired, hungover and drinking coffee, so I experimented with quitting coffee (that was horrible). That helped a little bit but I would still experience the ‘strangeness’ occasionally. The only time I really felt okay was when I did not drink the night before. In 2013, I spent thousands of dollars trying to diagnose something that I already pretty much knew. I needed to stop drinking excessively.
This led me to try moderation management. This did not work for me and I went back to my alcoholic ways.
Let’s fast forward almost 4 years. I don’t really have anything resembling these episodes anymore. I quit drinking almost 7 months ago. My blood pressure has dropped to normal. My cholesterol and triglyceride numbers have dropped and I expect them to get even better. I use to have GERD symptoms constantly and that has improved. I have started exercising and I feel like I’m in good shape. My confidence is as high as its ever been and I feel pretty darn good.
I don’t feel like crap all of the time now. I still get headaches and I still have issues from getting older, but it’s all normal wear and tear. It is reassuring that I’m not actively aggravating the decline in my health. I’m not killing myself anymore. I’m just dying like a normal person (smiley face emoji).
The solution is that I can either choose to continue the way I was living, or choose to continue living in sobriety. When we get sobriety coins in the rooms, they often ask us ‘how’d you do that?” My answer today is that I don’t want to go back to that miserable way of life. This total renunciation of the alcohol lifestyle is motivation for me. The tangible gifts of sobriety are coming to me frequently and I have a choice. Every time there is a temptation, I remember what life was like and that helps me not take that first drink.