I had my first drink when I was twenty-eight years old.
Well, technically I guess I did try a shot of Aftershock when I was seventeen, and a bottle of Boone’s Farm when I was eighteen, but I never got drunk until age 28, despite becoming an IV drug user at age 17.
It was simple. During a year when heroin was killing one person a week where I lived, the deaths all had one thing in common: alcohol. My addict logic told me that if I just didn’t drink, I’d be fine. Evidently it helped. To my knowledge I never came close to an overdose.
I was fortunate in many ways. I spent a year homeless, but when I cleaned up at nineteen, I had a job and an apartment, and I had not contracted HIV or hepatitis like nearly everyone I knew back then. I also never got arrested. Random drug tests at work were no big deal because they only tested for stimulants and THC.
So I tried the outpatient thing a couple of times, would stay clean for a few weeks and then use again, until one day I just…didn’t use again. I stayed clean for nine years, and did not drink alcohol because the 12-step program considered alcohol to be just another drug, which of course it is.
Then one day I was just plain curious about what it was like to be drunk, so on Cinco de Mayo I ordered two cocktails with my nachos. One was a fruity thing and the other was a coffee thing. I didn’t get very drunk, but it was noticeable.
Later that year I had my first blackout. Three years later, my first DUI. I got arrested with another funeral director, who died a few years later, a death that was most likely alcohol-related. I was a fifth-a-day drinker; he drank a half-gallon a day.
Alcoholism is very common in the funeral industry, almost expected. It’s a job where drinking at work just makes people look the other way. I kept bottles in the hearse (always made someone else drive) and in the prep room. If I had a desk, there was a bottle in my desk. The only funeral directors who don’t drink are religious people and recovering alcoholics. “Hosted cocktails” are prevalent at every function.
I can’t name some huge event that made me think perhaps I should stop drinking. It was probably just several small incidents that kept building up. I switched from 80-proof whisky to 151 rum. Efficiency!
I don’t dwell on whether or not I am “really” an alcoholic. I just drank too much. I had to at least stop this daily drinking and probably stop drinking at work. I was losing large stretches of memory. I was waking up at home with no idea how I got there. I was driving “buzzed” (AKA “too drunk to drive”). I don’t remember a couple of birthdays, but I remember waking up alone with a note suggesting that I might have some kind of alcohol problem. I’ve woken up to a negative bank account balance and had to piece together what happened from there. One birthday ended up costing me about $1000 in “damage fees.”
Finally, last year I went to a friend’s house for Valentine’s Day to drink and watch movies. I drank about a pint of rum, then later found a bottle of cough syrup and asked if I could have that too. She said yes, so I chugged the whole 6 oz, and then found out it was not cough syrup, but straight liquid Percocet left over from a child’s surgery. I suppose I should thank my years of opiate addiction here; it may have given me a tolerance that kept me alive. I remember waking up about 16 hours later, feeling too heavy to move. My friend thought I might not wake up.
I thought maybe this would be a good time to back off a little bit, maybe try to stay sober for a week. It took me a few hours until I was able to walk and drive, but then I went home and finished another bottle of 151. I kept that up for at least another two weeks.
I finally checked into urgent care when I ran out of alcohol, because I had never tried to quit before and I wanted some detox pills. They said I needed to go to the ER instead, since I might be at risk of a seizure. So I went there, and was discharged six hours later with a Librium prescription and an appointment with my doctor to discuss some long-term medication.
She put me on acomposate, which is not the stuff that makes you violently ill if you drink, but rather is supposed to gradually reduce your craving for alcohol. I think I took it for a week, then quit because it made me nauseous. I decided to try quitting the old-fashioned way like I had done with other drugs.
I’ve been sober a little over a year now. I don’t know if I will drink again or not. I don’t know if I am some hopeless alcoholic or not. I didn’t go to any AA meetings. I’ve thought I should at least show up and get a coin for my one year but feel somehow strange about celebrating with them when I did not do “the program” to stay sober.
I have gone to bars. I have let people drink in my house, though I specify that I can only allow alcohol I never liked, such as vodka, tequila and beer. It doesn’t bother me. When I’m in a bar I drink juice, which I love but never keep in the house because I’ll chug it all day. This way, I can still have a drink that is “special” to me.
Many people dislike being called “alcoholics.” And, many alcoholics would describe me as “not a real alcoholic” because I never had x, y or z happen to me.
I was having a similar conversation with my daughter today, who is having some mental health issues. I struggle with getting her to stop seeing herself as “disabled.” “You are not your illness. You are a PERSON who needs to learn how to cope with an illness.” She didn’t like that. She insists that her disability – her word – is an integral part of her.
Do whatever works. Call yourself whatever you want. If you drink too much, maybe you find it helpful to announce “I’m an alcoholic” in a roomful of people. Or maybe you just call yourself a person with a drinking problem; a person who wants to stop drinking. Or maybe you don’t call yourself anything at all and you just don’t drink that day, and maybe the next.
I have not used heroin or cocaine in 18 years. Half a lifetime ago. I remember it extremely well. I had a kitchen with no food. All my dishes and pots were in my room, under my bed, because they were all converted into barf buckets. Every time I shot up, I’d vomit, then drink Sunny D and immediately vomit again. Community college brochures and financial aid applications, also vomit-stained. An emaciated cat in the next room. I had no money for cat food. I was getting a lot of white bread from the food bank; maybe the cat could eat that. I was skinny; pale; shaky. Sitting on the floor, reading a Cosmopolitan magazine, a child-size shirt hanging loosely off my body, sweat dripping off my forehead and into the magazine more rapidly than I could wipe it up. Trying to put myself together just enough so I could go to the pharmacy and buy a syringe. I had only used a dirty needle once; my first time. Alone in a park bathroom. I had found it on the ground and it had dried blood on it. The sweat won’t stop. I realize I’m clawing my face and that everything itches. My clothing is soaked. Throw on a black trenchcoat, smear some gel through my long burgundy hair I thought was cool back then. If I can stop shaking maybe no one will know that the person waiting for the pharmacy to open is some kind of drug addict. The living room is full of egg cartons from the food bank, old newspapers, laundry, cat litter. I am crying for some reason. Maybe because I hate being this person.
That’s why I stopped. I am glad I can remember this.