I’m currently in a period of not drinking alcohol, an arc in a longer phase of drinking less than I used to. I don’t feel comfortable discussing this with you, which is exactly why I’m bringing it up. No one I know talks about how much they drink except the teetotalers. And when they talk about abstaining, it’s usually just to gripe about acquaintances asking them, “Well, why not?” It seems like a lot of people are imbibing these days, maybe more than they ever have before. Makes sense. Pretty typical response to the world burning.
My therapist once told me, “Shame hates the light.” So I’m gonna shine a light on this truth — I never want to have a hangover again, because they always leave me feeling very ashamed. Part of this comes from growing up Catholic and part of it comes from having an alcoholic dad. In any case, I hate how the after effects of excess alcohol make me feel about myself… like I’m a fuck-up. And I find it very annoying that “too much” looks like nothing compared to what I used to swill. Twenty years ago, a hangover was this wretched, puking, headachey thing that happened when I closed out the bar with friends, continued drinking at one of our houses afterward, smoked half a pack of cigarettes, didn’t take one sip of water, and woke up before noon for some dumb reason. God, I would probably fall asleep at the bar by midnight if I tried any of that now.
This is what a hangover looks like these days: no headache and no vomit, but I’m dead tired. Maybe I had more than two drinks the night before, or maybe I just partied a little too late (after 9:30pm). I’ll get ready for bed by 11, do my healthy nighttime ritual, go to sleep, and then wake up exactly four hours later, fuzzy and confused. Then I either don’t get back to sleep or don’t sleep enough. I feel weird, guilty, and probably a little crabby. And then that opens up the possibility that my drinking becomes someone else’s problem.
Thinking about that reminds me of this really dumb Elvis movie called Roustabout. In the scene where The King first meets his love interest, he makes a bad impression on her surly dad. They’re all rough and tumble carnies, so the mood quickly turns dicey, but then Barbara Stanwyck (the carnie matriarch) says to the grumpy dad, “Cut it out! It’s not his fault you have a hangover!” Just the way she delivers that line, with her classic no-bullshit intonation… maybe I’ll record it on my phone and play it any time someone’s a jerk to me for no good reason. Unfortunately, I have a terribly good memory for the occasions when I’ve been treated that way and have realized in hindsight that the person lashing out at me was probably hungover at the time. And that makes me as mad as a Stanwyck. So I really don’t ever wanna be that guy. Who would wanna be the angry drunk carnie dad at odds with Elvis?
If I’m gonna be a total drag, I’d rather be like Millie. Millie is a character from the ‘80s throwback teen dramedy “Freaks and Geeks,” the former best friend of protagonist Lindsay. Lindsay is a straight-A student who suddenly starts wearing her dad’s green Army jacket and hanging with the burnout crowd following an existential crisis. I was a lot like her in high school. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate the good sense exhibited by her uptight pal Millie, a hyper-religious mathlete who worries about her old friend running with a bad crowd. In one of my favorite episodes, Lindsay’s freak friends convince her to throw a keg party when her parents go out of town. She’s surprised when a disapproving Millie shows up at her door. Millie enters the house and announces with stoic determination, “I’m gonna have more fun than any of you. Sober.”
Again, the delivery on this line just kills me. The heavy-handed seriousness cracks me up, but then Millie does have a fun time! At one point she sits down at the piano and belts out “Jesus Is Just Alright with Me” backed up by resident stoner Nick. I don’t regret my own experiences with youthful partying, or that I also eschewed religion and mathleticism when I was a teen. But I’m glad I’ve come around to a place where I’m learning the joy of sober fun.
See, the thing with drinking is that it takes up so much space in a day. Once I start I don’t want to go anywhere or do anything that requires extra energy. To make sure I feel okay in the morning I have to follow all these little rules about how many beverages, how late, and how do I get home? Not needing to calculate all that feels so much easier.
I do miss the flavor. I enjoy un-sweet beverages that hit my palate like a sledgehammer, and I can only drink so much coffee. I’m developing a taste for non-alcoholic spirits that are supposed to replicate the flavor of gin and whiskey. But really they just have their own weird, abrasive bite. I figure I’m going through the same process that tricks people into thinking Diet Coke and turkey burgers taste as good as the real stuff. I’ve figured out how to make a decent knock-off dirty martini. It’s fine.
And yeah, I also miss the numbing. We live in very chaotic, scary times! And it’s getting worse! Some days it’s hard to find the joy in life. Booze has this remarkable ability to instantly shift my brain to FUN mode. But the pleasant distraction doesn’t last very long unless I keep sipping.
So instead of numbing, I take long walks and meditate. I try to live in the moment, no matter how unpleasant that may be. It’s rarely as bad as worrying about the future, mourning the past, or feeling guilty because I’m hungover from three beers. It isn’t as easy for me to flip that FUN switch when I’m feeling down. But overall I feel calmer, more ready to be present for others. More than anything, I just don’t want to be a dick to anyone else. I strongly believe — both politically and spiritually — that solidarity will be our only salvation in the days to come. It’s hard to be a good comrade or loved one when you’re crabby because you numbed too much the night before. I just can’t afford that.