It would be more dramatic if my journey to sobriety started with some revelatory moment of clarity or a life-threatening rock bottom.
The truth — the boring, somewhat gross truth — is that a chunk of earwax was at least partially to thank for my 33 consecutive days without alcohol or drugs.
Before we go any further, let me attempt to explain just how foreign the concept a month of sobriety was for me a month ago.
I haven’t gone this long without a drink since I was 15 or 16 years old. I’m a 42-year-old man.
Most of my 20s and nearly all of my 30s and early 40s consisted of daily drinking, almost always to excess and frequently resulting in blackouts. Hundreds of them. The number of times I engaged in socially acceptable drinking so pales in comparison to the times I got thoroughly wasted in bars, restaurants and sadly, at home by myself, that it does a disservice to the words pales and comparison.
Make no mistake: I am an alcoholic, and for the better part of two decades, I felt like an incorrigible drunk with seemingly no hope, or desire, to live a life without drinking.
Since it was such an integral part of my daily life, the challenge of going even 24 hours, much less a month, without getting drunk was as daunting as being told I would have to bench press my car. It just didn’t make sense that the crutch I had leaned on for so many years would be gone and that I would be forced, or even stranger choose, to walk without it.
Which leads us to the earwax.
In early November, a couple of friends and I went to see John Mulaney, one of the best stand-up comedians in the world, at Raleigh’s Duke Energy Center. In the days leading up to the show, I had noticed gradual hearing loss in my left ear and by the time we started making our way toward the theater, that gradual hearing loss had become complete.
Even with only one fully functioning ear, I enjoyed every second of Mulaney’s set and on the way home while we were discussing how great he was, my friend Kathryn told me to visit a doctor first thing in the morning to get this ear situation remedied.
I complied. Since it was my first visit to this doctor’s office, and my first interaction with a doctor of any sort in a very long time, the nurses checked my vitals before the doc discovered the earwax buildup that was limiting my ability to hear.
Prior to summoning another nurse to flush out a piece of wax the size, shape and texture of a mini-chicken nugget, the doctor expressed concern about my weight, my blood pressure and my cholesterol level. We scheduled a follow-up physical for late February.
Despite an edict from the doc to eat healthier and exercise more, not much changed for me in the following weeks and months because, well, I didn’t change anything. I still drank every night, which usually led to debilitating hangovers, which just as often led to me laying on the couch for hours until I could summon the energy to round up some food and head into the office each afternoon.
I didn’t expect good news about my health when I walked into the doctor’s office in February, and not surprisingly, I didn’t get any. My blood pressure and cholesterol were still too high and I was still overweight.
After telling the doctor about my love of hot wings and fried seafood and some of the other unhealthy foodstuffs I regularly consumed, he looked me in the eye and said, “As bad as that is, I’m just wondering where all these calories are coming from.”
I froze. He had asked me about my alcohol intake before, and I straight-up lied, saying I didn’t drink on nights when I worked, but that I might have “six or seven” beers on weekends. Six or seven was a conservative estimate of my nightly consumption. It was more like eight or 10 per night, increasing to 12 or more on days off.
All of this whizzed through my brain before I replied, “Yeah, I really have a terrible diet and I don’t exercise much.”
The doctor let it go, again asking that I modify my diet, get in the gym and report back to him in six months.
My drinking continued pretty much unabated throughout March, April and May and after dragging myself to the gym for occasional workouts in the two or three weeks that followed my February physical, I eventually stopped going altogether.
Every night after work, I would buy a six- or 12-pack and more times than not, I drank it all and would sometimes stagger to the corner store in the midnight or 1 a.m. hour to get more. I asked family members for money and borrowed from predatory lenders under the guise that I needed financial help to pay bills, which was true enough, but only because I spent so much money on beer that I didn’t have enough left to give what I owed the landlord or the utilities company or Verizon.
Numerous times I contemplated checking out for good. I even wrote a couple of alcohol-fueled suicide notes that upon re-reads in the morning revealed themselves to just be poorly constructed gibberish with no real sense of purpose. I’ve always found shortcuts to self-loathing, but I was so consistently drunk that I was incapable of feeling enough self-pity to actually hurt myself. How ironic.
As I continued this mostly meaningless existence, I would hear the doctor’s words from time to time: “I’m just wondering where all these calories are coming from.” It wasn’t a vanity thing. Wanting to lose weight wasn’t really on my radar, but there was something about his simple statement, and my inability to respond to it truthfully, that gnawed at me until I reached my tipping point on June 3, a Friday.
I drank 20 beers — 16 of them at home, by myself — that day, and I barely felt a buzz. I stared at those empty cans on my kitchen countertop for several minutes before snapping a photo of them with my phone. I wasn’t sure at the time why I took the picture, but on some level, maybe a subconscious one, I think I needed photo evidence — a visual reminder — of just how dire my situation had gotten.
I went to bed that night telling myself, as I had countless times before, that I had to stop, that I was headed for more serious trouble than the DUI, the constant threat of bankruptcy and the health complications, that drinking could no longer take up so much of my time, so much of me. I harbored no illusions that I would follow my own advice in this regard, because quite frankly, I never had.
And yet, here I sit, completely sober since that day in early June. Nobody is more surprised than I am.
Part of me wishes I could describe a grueling struggle to stop drinking or share advice on the best way to get better.
The truth — notice how it keeps coming back to that? — is that I stopped for no other reason than I felt it was, at long last, necessary. Quitting didn’t involve a hospital stay or going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or consulting a therapist, all things I’ve tried — sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not — over the years.
My fears about getting sober were mostly unfounded. I didn’t suffer from withdrawals. I have not had trouble sleeping. I can hang out with friends who drink and have a good time without imbibing. The temptation to drink, admittedly pretty powerful those first few days without beer, fades a little with each passing day. My sense of humor remained intact and may even be a little bit sharper. I have not changed into a person who preaches the virtues of a sober life to other people, and everything isn’t perfect all of a sudden because I quit drinking. I’m weirdly thankful for that.
By no means do I think I have this figured out, and people with years of sobriety under their belt might scoff at me for being so proud of my 33 days. That’s fine because at some point, I bet they were proud of their 33 days, too.
So far, I haven’t felt that my sobriety has been seriously threatened, but the undeniable fact is that people relapse all the time. A lot of them die because of their addictions. I know that, and I know it could happen to me.
But I also know that on March 28, many beers into another drunken Monday night, I started writing something that I never finished. I used one word to title the Google document: “Drinking.”
Yesterday, I wrote these words you’re reading and this one is almost finished. The title?