Alcoholic, Interrupted

I had my first drink on December 31st, 2009. It was New Year’s Eve, and it changed my life. I had never had more than a sip of anything before, and had always hated the taste. But this was different. I remember finishing my drink, and my brother’s drink, and my brother’s girlfriend’s drink. I remember them being very mad at me. But most of all, I remember the excitement. I remember the feeling of freedom. I remember feeling like anything was possible. Like I had finally found out what I was living for.

It didn’t take long after that for me to experience that feeling again. My parents had a liquor cabinet that they almost never touched, and I was a wiz with how much I could water down a bottle before it was immediately noticeable. I remember thinking, “If people could feel this way every day, why don’t they?” I would mix together whatever was in my parent’s liquor cabinet, wash it down with diet dr pepper, and stay up late watching Criminal Minds. To me, this was living.

I was just so bored. Bored with my life, bored with the feelings of anxiety and hopelessness that had been a part of me for so long. I wanted to feel different. And here was something immediate- something that altered my state of mind and allowed me to leave behind the fear. Until the next morning. The mornings after were always the worst. Accompanying my hangover was an overwhelming sense of terror, so strong that at times I thought it would kill me. But what price was that to pay? In return for all that alcohol had given me? Alcohol had given me a reason to live, and I quickly forgot how I had ever made it up to the point where I took my first drink.

I remember leaving on a church mission trip and thinking, “surely I can make it a week without drinking, right?” Wrong. I made it 2 days before I was crawling the walls, needing to drink. It was like an itch inside my brain, once I felt it I couldn’t ignore it. I had an obsessive need to drink before the end of the day. I ended up getting my hands on four loko, temporarily abating this itch. But the damage it did to my relationship with my parents and my friends from church when they found out was devastating. It added a whole new terror surrounding my drinking. Drinking would always be devious for me, something done in secret with preferably no one around me aware.

Going off to college I had a rough time adjusting. Being on my own was nice enough, but I hadn’t counted on the idea that I would have to motivate myself. I went to class just enough to pass with adequate grades, and sought every opportunity I could to get drunk. Every Friday and Saturday night was a need to get loaded. If Friday came and I had no plans for a party, I would seek any way I could to get drunk. Asking upperclassmen to buy it for me, taking extra bottles from parties, anything I could to relieve that itch that told me I needed to drink.

Every roommate I had in college told me they were worried about my drinking. Nobody else did. Because I didn’t like to drink around other people, I liked to drink alone. No use opening myself up to other people’s judgement, making a fool out of myself, saying things I regretted. I drank because I was bored, but I didn’t need other people to entertain me. I could entertain myself. The only people privy to my drinking were my roommates. The ones who woke up when I was knocking things over in the middle of the night. The ones who had to bang on the bathroom door to get me to wake up after I’d fallen asleep in the shower for 2 hours. The ones who saw me pouring myself shots of vodka into my drink as we watched tv on a Tuesday night.

My drinking quickly escalated into more than just weekend drinking. It became 3 days a week, then 4, then pretty much at least every other day. If I didn’t have a class before 11, it was almost certain that I was drinking the night before. My third year of college I stopped going to class. I would stay up late drinking, sleep through class, feel anxious about missing class, drink, and repeat the cycle. After a week of missing class with no explanation to my teachers, I called my parents. I told them that I needed to withdraw from school for the semester, that my anxiety had become unbearable.

Naturally, they were floored. They had been worried about me, of course, because they could hear in my voice that things weren’t all right. But whenever they asked, I would deflect, telling them everything was fine. What was I supposed to tell them?

I came home November of 2013, unable to complete my fall semester. My parents took me to see a psychologist that their friend had recommended. He asked me about my drinking, and I gave him the closest portrayal of the truth that still carried plausible deniability. He immediately told me that I was an alcoholic, that I needed to work a 12 step program, that I needed to quit drinking.

This did not fly with me. I did not like being told what to do, I did not like being told what I was, and I immediately resented him for any and all future advice he would ever give me. He also told me to wake up at 6 am every morning and go for a run, so if he hadn’t lost me with the drinking, he lost me there.

“Try and stay sober before our next meeting,” he said.

I was taken aback. Try? As if I couldn’t do it? We were meeting again in two days, after all, what made him think that I couldn’t stay sober that long? I was so resentful at the suggestion that that night I got incredibly drunk. “I’ll show him,” I thought.

The next time I saw him he asked me, “So did you drink since I last saw you?”

“No I did not,” I said smugly.

That ended whatever thread of honesty I had been giving him in our sessions. After that everything was a lie. I wasn’t drinking, I was regularly working a 12 step program, I was running at 6 am every morning! In reality, the itch in my head to drink had only gotten stronger. I wasn’t supposed to be drinking when I was home, and I wasn’t old enough to buy it for myself yet, so I had to get creative. I took a giant bottle of wine left over in the garage from my brother’s wedding, drank it all except for a cup left over, and filled it with water. The next day I went to the garage, took the bottle, and smashed it on the floor. I then poured the cup of wine on top. You know, in case my parents decided to get down on their hands and knees and smell it to make sure. I told them I accidentally knocked over the bottle, and they told me to clean it up. My plan had worked. I was a genius, I thought! Never mind the sheer psychopathy of what I had done. How clearly I had a problem. I was a problem solver! I should use this as an example of “innovative thinking”.

I ended up going back for my final semester of my third year, and although I continued to drink, I learned how to manage it better. I went to class, no matter how hungover I was, and I made sure that the majority of my classes began after 11. Then, on April 1st, 2014, I woke up hungover. It was a Tuesday morning. I had Playwriting class in an hour. There were empty Mike’s Hard Lemonade cans around my bed, and I felt terrible. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” I thought. I went to class, and then shortly after I called my parents to tell them I was an alcoholic. I went to the Gordie Center for Substance Abuse at UVA, and asked what I could do to seek treatment for alcohol abuse. The woman working seemed surprised to see me, as though my request was unusual. Was this not what the center was for? She gave me the contact information of a student who was the head of “Hoos in Sobriety”, a sober student group on campus.

I never emailed him, though. I was too embarrassed. I wanted to go to those 12 step meetings, but the thought of interacting with other people in my recovery was not something I wanted to do. I could do it myself. I wouldn’t drink, I’d go to class, and everything would be fine. I did go see a counselor at Student Health, the head of the Substance abuse department. She was an incredible resource. She asked me about my experience with drinking, about what I thought and what I did. And I was honest with her. She didn’t try to tell me who I was, or what disease I had. She simply listened.

I later realized that the things that she’d said were all very carefully planned. I’d describe my drinking and she’d say, “It sounds like you have an allergy to alcohol.”

“Yeah,” I’d say. “That’s how it feels.” Little did I know this is an incredibly widespread term for alcoholism. She was smart. She didn’t push on me the idea that I was an alcoholic, but she let me come to the decision on my own.

My mind, however, was not as kind. I learned about the difference between alcoholism and alcohol abuse. “Ah, I’m not an alcoholic,” I thought. “I just suffer from alcohol abuse!” Despite the fact that I had all of the symptoms of an alcoholic and no reason to be abusing alcohol, this let me keep the fantasy I had of one day having champagne at my wedding. Because that was the itch in the back of my mind. Was I really ready to close myself off to alcohol forever? A life without drinking did not seem a life worth living. I would refrain from alcohol until I could handle it.

That lasted about a month. On Cinco de Mayo I thought “Hey, maybe I can handle this!”

I couldn’t. I immediately got drunk, and then that itch came back, but this time with a vengeance. Soon I was back to my heavy drinking, only this time I was telling everyone I was sober. I did an acting program in NYC that summer, living in the New Yorker Student Housing. Instead of exploring New York City, seeing shows, and making new friends, I would go to class, come home, and drink. I signed up to do run crew because that enabled me to make a little money while I was there, and I quickly became an unwilling participant in a love triangle. This spurred me to drink more.

One night, I went out to a bar with the rest of the people working on the show. I remember ordering two double vodka cranberries at a time. I do not remember leaving the bar, although I am told I did. I do remember waking up in a hospital bed, covered in my own vomit. I had broken my ankle. I didn’t know how I had gotten there, and to this day I still don’t know. I was incomprehensible, and I was terrified. The nurse who was asking me questions was so condescending. She treated me like I was some sort of repeat offender.

“This isn’t me,” I wanted to say. “You don’t know anything about me.”

But of course I couldn’t form a coherent sentence. I called my parents back home, and tried to tell them what had happened. They could barely understand me. They wanted to take off from work, to fly out here and be with me. I said no. I was so terrified in that moment. I’d been telling them that I was sober, that life was better than ever. And now, here I am, wasted in a hospital with a broken ankle, covered in my own vomit miles away from home and there’s nothing that they can do to help me.

I had to quit run crew because of my broken ankle. The rest of the time I was in NYC I traversed it using a mobilized knee scooter. The humor of the situation concealed the dark truth to it, which was that I had a serious problem and was entirely alone. Of course I know now that I wasn’t alone, that I had so many people who loved and cared for me. But at the time, the way my mind made me feel, I felt alone. And I needed to drink to deal with that.

I would wheel down to the liquor store down the street every night and buy a 12oz bottle of vodka, because I knew if I had any more than that I wouldn’t go to class. I was more alone than I’d ever been, and when I finished the acting program, it was with the feeling that I had accomplished nothing.

I went back to school for my final year with the thought that, soon, I would get sober. I knew now that I needed to quit drinking for good, that no amount of time on the wagon would enable me to drink like other people. But I have always been lazy. I told my roommates I wasn’t going to drink, then immediately drank. I was taking 21 credits in an attempt to make up for my missed semester and graduate on time, and somehow I managed to survive despite my continued drinking.

I was still telling my parents that I was sober, although their trust in me had diminished to the point that I doubt they believed me. I finished my semester, telling myself that I would get sober before the end of the winter break. Of course, my days at home continued to be endless drinking and sleeping all day.

Finally, one night I was in the kitchen making food in the middle of the night as I chugged cranberry vodka. I don’t know why I was so reckless. Perhaps I wanted to get caught. In any event, my mother came out, and saw me drinking.

“Are you drinking?” she asked me, although she already knew the answer.

My mind came up with a slew of defenses. My friend had just killed himself. My brother had just had a seizure. Any of those could be valid reasons why I was drinking, just this one time. And then I realized what kind of person that would make me. What kind of person would use those things as an excuse, a reason to lie in order to be able to continue drinking? So I told her the truth. I told her that I had been drinking since May, that I’d been lying to her and my father for months. That I was an alcoholic and I needed to get help.

That was December 21st, 2014. I just came up on one and a half years of sobriety. This time, however, I didn’t do it on my own. I was willing to ask for help, and to seek treatment. That was the day that I started living. Before that day, I was sleepwalking through life. I was getting by, doing just enough to survive. I would drink to feel alive, when in reality that was what was killing me. It dulled my senses and made my days feel bland and ugly. I drank to achieve what I thought was some sort of spiritual connection. Like if I did just the right sequence of things, I would suddenly know the answer. That I would be grateful to be alive. But that never came.

Sometimes I think back on the nights I used to drink, and I miss it. I miss that feeling of excitement, of instant gratification, of mischief. But I know that it’s a lie. Because no matter how high I felt when I was drinking, I never want to feel that low again. Now, sober, I feel alive. Thanks to the program I work every day, I have more self-realization now than I ever had when I was drinking. I finally have the spiritual connection that I had been lacking in.

-Theodore Dandy