Crawling Out of the Bottle

Beer was an acquired taste. But I took to hard liquor like it was my mother’s milk. The first drinks were mixed: bourbon and coke, vodka and orange juice, PGA and punch. I was fourteen. After a time, the mixer was too sweet for me, the bourbon too smooth. Scotch and water on ice became the standard. The problem with water, however, was that it diluted the liquor. So scotch on the rocks it was. But ice cubes melt and I quickly dispensed with the practice. When I stopped mixing my liquor with a glass, I should have realized I had a problem.

I am not an alcoholic, recovering or otherwise. I was a drunk. If you are a parent reading this, please understand that while I abused alcohol from my early teens, I was a highly functioning alcohol abuser. While in high school, I was a straight-A student, acted in regional theater, had a window cleaning business, worked twenty to thirty hours a week in restaurants, lead Bible fellowships, and paid monthly rent to my mother as well as supported most of my personal spending habits. If you were on the outside of my circle looking in, I was one of the “good kids”. If you happened to be in my circle, I was serving you drinks during the weekend wind down. I state this as a warning. Alcohol abuse can occur while folks function normally. Make sure you are aware of what your children are doing.

If you are my child and reading this, you’ve heard some of these stories before but probably not with such detail. I offer them not as a boast, but a recollection of my walk of shame and the goodness of God to save me from it. Our family has a long history of alcohol abuse. Should you dance with the bottle, understand that you won’t be the lead for long.

I could list numerous environmental reasons – causes of nature and nurture – for why I took to drink. Prime among them would be parental and sibling consumption of alcohol. And though it was a factor, it is far from an excuse. Ultimately, it was simply a matter of personal choice. It is amazing to me how small of a disincentive to self-abuse is the observed abuse by others. I watched my father die of his nicotine habit. It didn’t stop me from smoking. I was pained by the emotional damage my mother’s drinking caused the family. I still knocked back shots with her. No one twisted my arm. It wasn’t inevitable. Solid barriers were in my way. And yet, as a teenager living in a dry county I still managed to procure enough supplies to feed my binges and those of my friends. Choice, not chance. Failure, not fate.

Teenagers are renowned for their risky behaviors. I was a champion risk taker, a trait that was exacerbated through lack of immediate consequences. Steal liquor from my employer and get drunk with coworkers? Get promoted to cook. Stay up drinking all night at a cast party? Go to work three hours later, sober with no hangover. Buy out half a liquor store and not be old enough to vote? Get a smile from the pretty cashier and wish she lived in my town. Transport alcoholic beverages underage, across state lines, and into a dry county? Be a hero to your friends and let the good times roll.

While marijuana and hashish always made me nauseous and left me with a hangover, I wouldn’t suffer a head-banger from alcohol until I was in my early twenties. The ability to consume mass quantities and not suffer pain from alcohol toxicity was alarming to me in my youth. But I didn’t heed the warning. It wasn’t until my late twenties that self-induced sickness began to interfere with my work. By then, my habit was fairly entrenched.

Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit[1]documents what he refers to as “the habit loop” with multiple examples of how this loop plays out in our lives and culture. It looks like this:

Image

From a young age, two habit loops formed a vicious feedback cycle in my life that accelerated my descent down the bottle: working and drinking. My cue for working was simple and basic: I needed money. When my father died, only my brother Timothy and I were left at home with my mother. That following spring, she informed us that she needed $100 a month from each of us to make ends meet.[2] It was 1979. Timothy was sixteen, I was fourteen. My summer job was never about college.

My routine was to go to work, early and often. During my sophomore year of high school, I would get up at 5 AM to make it to work by six, Monday through Friday. I ran there. After a two-hour shift of cooking, I would run to school. It wasn’t uncommon for me to put in sixteen to twenty-four hours during the weekend. I was rewarded with money for my work as well as respect from my mother because I wasn’t lazy. But the demands of life and work set off other cues: stress and pain.

I began suffering with back pain when I was fifteen. By the time it became chronic in my early twenties, alcohol was already my reliever of choice. My routine to handle the stress and pain was drinking, for which I was rewarded with relief and relaxation. But the payoff came with a price. As I abused alcohol, I lost money and respect. This became my cue to work even harder and around the circle I would go again in an ever increasing, downward spiral. My concentric habit loops looked something like this:

Image

A serious case of sciatica set in within my first year as an office furniture installer. The chiropractor I went to strongly suggested that I find a different line of work. It would take me eighteen years to heed his advice. I’m hardheaded that way. Degeneration in a disk of my lower back put pressure on my left sciatic nerve. It felt like someone had jammed a metal spear through my lower back, down my left leg to my ankle and hooked it up with jumper cables to a car battery. Then they played with the juice and made me dance all day long. Maddening. I gradually turned into a fairly mean bastard.

The first time I herniated the disk, I called my wife and asked her to buy some medicine. It was eight o’clock in the evening. The state-run liquor stores closed at nine.[3] I was at work. My day had started at seven that morning and I still had a couple of hours to go. I came home to a fifth of Maker’s Mark® and killed half the bottle in less than an hour. It allowed me to make it upstairs to my bed without screaming. The Centers for Disease Control defines moderate alcohol consumption as two drinks per day for a man.[4] Half a fifth in less than an hour isn’t moderation.

Years later I was relaxing with my crew after a hard day’s work, enjoying a friendly game of spades as we shot the breeze and drank the booze. I should have known it wouldn’t end well when we threw the cap away as soon as the bottle was opened. I honestly didn’t think I drank much that night. I even bowed out early, heading home in the summer twilight. Trash carts were set out in neat lines along my route home. I recall how funny I thought it was to knock them over with my truck as I rolled down the streets. But then the pick-up headed toward a ditch. I pulled hard on the wheel to avoid disaster…and fell off my couch in the pitch black of night. I had no memory of getting home. To this day, I’m not sure if I knocked the trash carts over or just imagined it. But I am sure I blacked out. And I knew I was in trouble.

That event terrified me. I consumed no alcohol for six months thereafter, regardless the pain. But I didn’t quit. I forgot my wife’s anger. I disregarded my reckless behavior. I took no account of the lives I endangered. Work was stress and pain, alcohol was release and relief. Downward I dove.

Eventually, fun took a back seat to pain management. I commuted forty-five minutes to work and the clutch was torture on the back and leg. One night I stopped at a grocery store well shy of the halfway mark home and bought a six pack. I drank it in the parking lot. It was enough to cool the nerve and get me home to my scotch. A sane man would have sought medical help. A sane man would have slowed down. A sane man might even consider automatic transmission. But I didn’t. I’m hardheaded that way.

The pain became so severe that sitting, let alone driving, became nearly impossible. My wife would drive me to work and pick me up. Not working wasn’t an option. That addiction was stronger than alcohol. The day came when standing was out of reach of my stubbornness. I collapsed in the shower while getting ready for work. I wouldn’t walk for another two months.

Within the first couple weeks of crawling around my house on my hands and knees, I heard the Lord say, “So, is this life of yours working for you? Because it isn’t working for me.” The humble rarely get humbled. Unlike Jacob who earned a limp wrestling with the angel for a blessing, I was a crawling cripple for cherishing the curse of alcohol and the false identity of work. The realization was sobering.

Our third child was born. I went on the operating table. For four hours, the surgeon scraped away at the damage I had done to my back. Once the debris of the disk herniations was gone, my sciatic nerve could breathe again. Ninety percent of my alcohol need went away. The rest was habit.

I no longer got drunk with near the frequency I had. But I still drank. Honestly, I have no issue with drinking. I don’t think it immoral, sinful, or wrong. Drunkenness, on the other hand, is an issue. And so long as I drank, the danger of being drunk was ever present. Inebriation couldn’t be my relaxation. I had to learn to rest in Him. Work couldn’t be the determiner of my self-worth. I had to measure my value by what He was willing to pay for me. Life needed to be temperate if I hoped to drink wine with Him in the kingdom.

I’ve been sober for nearly twenty years now. I no longer hear the bottle calling my name in the dark of night. And I’m thankful for the love of my Lord and my wife who saw me through to the dawn.

 

[1] The full title is The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. You can find Duhigg’s web site here: http://charlesduhigg.com/the-power-of-habit/

[2] My father died on December 5, 1978. $100 in 1979 had the buying power that $326 has today.

[3] As I am now, I was living in Virginia at the time. We have ABC Stores. Having come from a region that had liquor stores with neon lights (we would travel up to Missouri from my hometown in northern Arkansas to purchase supplies), it took me a year to figure out what an ABC Store was.

[4] http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm , accessed 5/18/14.

Advertisements

One thought on “Crawling Out of the Bottle

  1. I reached out to author Charles Duhigg. As he promised in his book, he read the e-mail and even replied. (It must be a habit he’s developed!). Below is the correspondence. Yep, I’m excited!

    Nikolas Larum
    May 21 (3 days ago)

    to charles
    Dear Mr. Duhigg,

    Just finished reading your book. The notes are nearly as fascinating as the work itself. I found it helpful and inspirational. Like most everyone else, I’ve had my share of bad habits in life. As a minister, I’ve struggled somewhat with the tension between faith and behavioral science, salvation and psychology. But in reality, they are more mutually confirming than contradicting. The insights you documented are welcome additions to my tool box of self-help and helping others.

    One personal insight I gained even before finishing the read was how two of my habits, drinking and (over) working reinforced each other. I referenced your work (and borrowed your habit loop diagram with slight modification) to illustrate this in a recent posting on my blog. I spent more time on how the bad habits developed than on how I got out of them, but based on your invitation in the last chapter I felt you would appreciate the impact of your work.

    Following is the link to the article:
    https://larumland.wordpress.com/2014/05/19/crawling-out-of-the-bottle/

    Thank you for dedicating your time and talent to producing such an important work.

    Respectfully,
    Nikolas Larum

    Charles Duhigg
    10:09 AM (33 minutes ago)

    to me
    Nikolas,

    Thanks for writing and for your very kind words on the book. And for passing the word on in your blog. That is HUGE. Thank you. Best of luck making the changes you want. With work and time, it can happen.

    Best,

    Charles

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s