Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A Sobering Experience

While I was waiting in line at Subway at lunch today, I had a surprisingly disturbing experience.

The lineup was long. There was a guy behind me in line. He recognized one of his friends further ahead in line and asked him if he remembered talking to him last night. His friend looked befuddled. He wasn't sure. It wasn't until I listened to a bit more of the conversation (it was hard to miss with these two guys shouting back and forth past me) that I gathered that this guy's friend was totally plastered the night before and apparently remembered very little.

As the conversation progressed, I found myself actually shuddering at what I was hearing. These guys were actually laughing about how little this guy could remember about the conversation. From the way they were talking, it sounded like this was a regular occurrence for these guys, as if this is the way they spent every weekend.

I used to be a heavy drinker. Listening to these guys was even harder for me because I heard just a little too much of me in them.

When I was a young adult, I never thought I'd ever drink. My father was an alcoholic. I didn't want to take the chance that I might end up one. However, the drinking culture is huge in Nova Scotia and particularly in Cape Breton. The conversation I heard was not the first time I've heard such conversations. I hear them every day from people of all ages everywhere I go. Getting blotto until you can't remember your own name is a common weekend activity here.

One day many years ago, a friend of mine talked me into trying some of his homemade beer. It was delicious. I ended up developing a taste for beer. Still, I didn't have very much money back then and didn't have much opportunity to drink, so it pretty harmless at that point.

It wasn't until I got my first real job, canvassing for Greenpeace, that I started on my downward spiral. The guys on the Greenpeace team were "classic" Cape Bretoners. The job was stressful (Greenpeace isn't exactly popular around here, so door-to-door canvassing was often tough). Being the stereotypical Cape Bretoners, they dealt with that stress by literally getting blasted the moment they came back from almost every night of work...

I got drunk for the first time with them. I was drinking draught. I didn't even realize it was happening. I was just thirsty, so I kept drinking glass after glass after glass... until I couldn't even stand and ended up sick as a dog for most of the night.

The problem was, despite that, I was having fun with these people. Prior to that, I never understood why people drank. It seemed pointless to me. I preferred to stay in control of my faculties. After the Greenpeace experience, however, I started to see how much "fun" drinking could be.

But it wasn't the drinking that was fun. I realize, looking back on it now, that it was the people that were fun. They were some of the most fun people I've ever hung out with. They were a great bunch of people. They made you feel like you mattered. They made you feel wanted. They just made you feel good. I felt good just seeing them when I went to work long before I took drink one.

Unfortunately, however, the connection of drinking=fun had been made in my brain... and, as my earlier post Time for Change demonstrates, once an idea gets into my head, it can have a tendency to take deep root...

When I started work where I work now, it only reinforced this perception. I work at a call center and, whenever I'm out on the production floor, I can't get through the day without hearing someone talking about getting a two-four and getting tanked over the weekend. Plus, in the beginning, Lisa and I used to attend a lot of the company parties, and there was plenty of drinking at them, too. I got knocked on my a** more than once at those parties...

While working there, I had a serious falling out with a dear friend. It was a lot like the situation I'm in with Riin today, and just as serious. I never thought she and I would ever speak again. Fortunately, by being patient and never giving up, I was finally able to reach her and work things out. Today, she's one of the dearest people in the world to me. However, back then, the pain of losing her friendship was just as crippling as what I'm going through now.

Back then, I turned to alcohol to numb the pain. I was constantly depressed and at least, once I got enough drinks into me, for a while I forgot about the pain. I just laughed and stumbled around my apartment, pestering the life out of Lisa with a sting of horrible puns or jokes (I get really goofy when I've been drinking) or calling my friends and making a total a** of myself telling the same jokes over and over again...

Of course, drinking every weekend to forget the pain allowed a lot of other things to go to hell in a hand basket. My apartment turned into such a housekeeping disaster that, even today, it's never fully recovered. I just can't get it clean the way it used to be. Fortunately, Lisa's stepfather, bless his soul, has offered to help us get it cleaned up properly and, once it is, I'm never letting it get like this again. I haven't even been able to have guests over in years... :(

By the time I met Riin, my drinking had become a weekend ritual of sorts. Every weekend, I'd do pretty much the same thing: go the movies on Friday night and Saturday afternoon, get blasted Saturday night and "recover" on Sunday. Even after I joined Velo Cape Breton and started riding my bike on the weekends, I'd be riding on Saturday morning and I'd still get blasted that night, then end up having to do my Sunday ride with a hangover.

Basically, I didn't have time to actually do anything with my life because I was spending most of my free time watching movies and getting drunk. I can't even remember how many incidents I had where I couldn't remember anything about the night before during that period of my life...

When Riin met me, she saw this pattern. She knew I was in trouble. The problem is, I couldn't see it. She tried so hard to tell me how bad drinking was for me. She bombarded me with studied on the harm of alcohol (she does work in a medical library, so she has access to plenty of studies on all health topics that the average person doesn't). The problem was, I didn't see it as a problem at the time, so I resented her trying to hard to "change me."

In fact, the first time she tried to leave me, one of the things I did to convince her to stay was to promise to stop drinking. That made a huge difference. That's probably what reversed her decision that very first time. The problem was, I kept my word at first, but I ended up resenting her for it and ended up backsliding. I didn't return to binge drinking right away, but I did return to drinking three or four beers on the weekend.

The second time Riin tried to leave me (which was the event that prompted the Time for Change posting), I almost went back to my old pattern. I attended a Velo Cape Breton event that night and started drinking. I got to five drinks before I got a call about a family emergency and had to leave. If I hadn't got that call, I probably would have gotten totally sloshed. Just like before. Drink to forget the pain.

After that, since I'd already broken my word, anyway, I figured I might as well go whole hog. When a friend of mine came down from away, we went to another friend's place and I bought an eight pack of Molson Canadian Cold Shots and a two-four of regular Canadian. That was the last time I ever got drunk. I can only barely remember the ride home and they told me about me saying stuff that night that I can't even remember now...

It was what happened a few days later that finally shocked the point home for me. I was in the grocery store and ran into the daughter of one of my friends. She asked me, "Do you remember me calling and saying hi to you when you were at Dad's?"

I didn't remember. Not at all.

That hurt me really badly. I care a lot about her. She's a cool kid. I couldn't believe I couldn't remember her talking to me that night. I felt like total crap. Even on my worst nights, that had never happened before. Not that I didn't forget things that happened, but I never forgot entire encounters with people like that, particularly not people I care about.

That's when I finally realized I had a problem. So this time, I made a promise to myself that I knew I could keep, and I made it for myself, not for Riin, so there would be no resentment: I promised myself never to drink more than two drinks in a night again. Ever.

And I haven't. Not once since that day. And I know I never will again.

Now, you're probably wondering, "Well, what makes this time different from the last time? How do you know you won't do it again?" Legitimate questions. Unfortunately, I don't have a definite answer for the first one... but I do have an answer for the second one.

I'm not an idiot. I haven't deluded myself into believing Riin and I are going to get back together. I'm continuing to keep up hope, not because I expect things to improve, but because my principles say that if I give up completely, I'm saying that Riin isn't worth anything to me. I cannot say that. I can respect her space, but I cannot give up hope. That doesn't mean, however, that I haven't recognized the situation for what it is: a Kobayashi Maru.

That being said, as far as Riin is concerned, there's no longer any reason not to drink. It doesn't matter. I remember the first night I thought that. I was at the movies to see Shut Up and Sing. I thought to myself, "I'm going to get some beer and get blasted to forget this terrible pain." I was looking forward to that.

I walked home that night. On my way, when I got to the Prince and George Street intersection, I glanced to my left down to where the liquor store was, intending to start towards it.

I felt instantly repulsed at the very idea.

That's the way I've felt ever since that night. The only times I've been in the liquor store since was when picking up rum for Lisa, who does still drink. Every time I go in there, I feel the same revulsion at the sight, sound and smell of the place. I just don't want to go in there. I only do it because I promised Lisa she wouldn't have to quit just because I did. However, if I never had to go in there ever again, I wouldn't miss it. Not at all.

I can't tell you why I feel this way. All I can tell you is that now, as I am today, the very idea of taking just one drink, never mind getting drunk, just makes me sick to my stomach. I'm feeling that nausea even now as I write this.

I haven't had so much as a single drink since that night. Not one. I feel no resentment that I can't drink. I can. I just don't want to. In fact, I feel relieved. Drinking wasted my time. Drinking wasted my money. I don't want it anymore. Ever.

Of everyone in my life, I think Riin was hurt more by my drinking than anyone else. I only wish I could tell Riin she was right. I only wish I could thank her for trying to put me on the right path, because I think she was a big part of what finally got me over it. I couldn't have done it without her. I know that.

But, most importantly, I only wish I could tell her how sorry I am for letting my drinking hurt her. I wish I could tell her how sorry I am for going back on my word. My promise to stop drinking was the only time, in all the time we were together, that I ever went back on my word.

I just wish I could have a moment, particularly after all she tried to do to help me, to apologize to her for all that and let her know that her effort wasn't in vain: she set me free.

Even if I could tell her, though, she probably wouldn't believe me...

I wouldn't blame her...

I still wish I could say it, anyway. After all she's been through with me, she deserves it.

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