By Jack Smith
I remember loud music, empty bottles clanking together on the floorboard, the pungent smell of cheap liquor in the air and the putrid aroma of vomit on my shirt.
I remember urinating in a field, trying to keep my balance while looking up to a spinning night sky, wondering where in the hell I was.
I was 15 years old, I was drunk and I was about to get in a whole lot of trouble.
The older teenage boys I was out with that night turned me over to the custody of my big brother, who gently slapped me around for being so absurdly intoxicated at such a young age.
That’s about all I remember from my first drunk, because I blacked out that night. I nearly got away with it, but my mother’s suspicions sent her up the stairs and to my bedside, where I had no hope at all of convincing her I hadn’t had anything to drink.
While I can’t recall large chunks of time from that summer night, I remember being almost glad that I’d been caught.
That was the first sign that I might be an alcoholic. Unfortunately, a massive hangover and healthy dose of shame didn’t stop another 25-plus years of alcohol abuse and dependency.
What I didn’t know at the time is that by getting drunk at age 15, my risk of becoming an alcoholic increased by 50 percent. I’m not sure it mattered, because I think I was born with a problem.
I’ve spent hours in therapy and treatment since an impulsive suicide attempt involving alcohol and pills a month ago, and one common theme keeps coming up: Alcohol and mental health problems don’t mix. This is not a new revelation, but it is a sobering reminder of how cunning alcoholism is, especially on top of a mood disorder and anxiety issues.
I’ve had a dualistic relationship with alcohol for years. It has helped me make friends but caused me to keep my distance. It has helped me overcome social anxiety and large groups of friends but driven me to isolate and suffer in solitude.
In college, it helped me make people laugh but caused me to feel dark and lonely inside when days-long hangovers sapped my energy and motivation. I could have and should have pursued Phi Beta Kappa, but I tried to win the Beer Olympics instead.
I’ve gone through periods where I didn’t drink at all and periods when I drank so much my wife and family grew concerned. I’ve quit for two months and I’ve quit for two years, once entirely on my own and again with the help of a 12-step program. The former doesn’t seem to work very well.
I’ve tried the 10-beer program and the two-drink, I can-handle-this variety, but both ended the same way. Me weepy and depressed.
I’ve yet to meet a doctor or mental health professional who says it’s a good idea for me to drink. And here at this clinic, I’ve met people who’ve told me alcohol is not just like lighter fluid on a fire. It’s like dynamite on a fire. It’s a bomb that could explode and ruin any progress I’ve made in my tortured journey to peace and good mental health.
I’m learning a lot about what it means to be in recovery, too. I’ve learned recovery happens around people, and relapse happens alone.
I’ve learned I will have thoughts about drinking, but that’s okay if I have a plan and someone to keep me accountable.
I’ve learned it takes the brain 90 days to rebound from alcohol abuse, but it will.
I’ve learned there are some triggers I have to cope with, and there are some places and people I’ll have to avoid, at least for a while.
I’ve learned there probably is some science to my fascination with alcohol, which activates a reward system in my brain and causes neurons to unleash large amounts of dopamine, a chemical I likely have in short supply.
I’ve learned, really quite simply, that I can’t become what God wants me to become until I divorce myself from alcohol, once and for all.
Consider yourself served, old friend.