John Barleycorn and I are breaking up … again

I didn’t drink a drop of alcohol last year. Seriously … I went 365 days without touching a drop. To say this was a monumental achievement would be the understatement of the decade. I’d been a pretty heavy drinker since my teens and in 2011 it really got bad. Dealing with the death of a friend while simultaneously going through a very bad breakup would have been bad enough but I was also broke all the time and the company was not doing well. I was drinking every chance I got. I was even drinking on my lunch breaks instead of eating!

During this time I lost control of every single aspect of my life. I was out of shape. I was totally checked out at work. I was doing nothing to improve myself and I had pretty much alienated almost every friend I had. I was angry and negative. I was withdrawn and moody. I felt like everyone was against me and no one gave a damn what I was going through.

After several months of this self-imposed prison sentence, things eventually came to a head at the office and I was told, in no uncertain terms, that if I didn’t stop drinking I would lose my position and standing at my own company. When put in such a polarizing position, the choice was easy and I stopped drinking. I checked myself into a behavioral cognitive therapy program and got sober. During that time I grew immensely as a person and got my life under control for what felt like the first time ever.

When I resigned from the company this year I felt free, like I had all the world in front of me. I also let loose a bit and told myself that, after an entire year of putting other people’s expectations ahead of my own needs and desires, I was entitled to relax a bit and have a drink or two. Invariably this worried those closest to me but I assured everyone I was fine. I could handle it. I wanted to live a little. Turns out, I was dead wrong.

See, my decision to stop drinking in 2012 wasn’t much of a decision and wasn’t really “mine”. It was a situation that was forced on me by my “best friends” and colleagues. None of these people actually cared about me, they were just concerned about business, about the dollars and cents. They were worried about their titles and positions and I had become a major obstacle for them. Nothing more. Since I wasn’t about to let a gang of woud-be usurpers take my life’s work from me I got sober ASAP. I took back control of my life and (I thought) my company. I struggled with my demons and I conquered my fears. Not a one of those so-called “friends” gave a crap. None of them believed I could actually do it. In fact, I’ve always believed that the option to get sober was really just a way for them to make themselves feel better and give me enough rope to hang myself. No one was prepared for me to actually get sober.

So, I stayed on the straight and narrow path. I stopped hanging out with friends. I stopped going to shows. I stopped doing pretty much everything in order to avoid the temptation to drink. I was miserable in some ways but I was sober for the first time since junior high. It didn’t improve any of the relationships I had already destroyed in my professional life but it did wonders for my relationship with the woman I love. So I stuck with it and really learned to enjoy sobriety.

The worst part about quitting drinking is a thing I’d never heard of prior to therapy. It’s a beast of a condition called anhedonia and it’s one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever endured. Basically, after years of maintaining artificially high levels of dopamine caused by heavy and excessive drinking my brain couldn’t actually enjoy things normally anymore. The lower, natural levels of dopamine that are present when one enjoys something weren’t enough for me to actually feel any joy. Everything was boring. All food was bland. Sex wasn’t fun or enjoyable. My work, which has always been a source of immense joy, stopped being rewarding. I was frightened and scared. I felt like a numb, wooden soldier and I didn’t know when, or if, things would change. Eventually, my brain’s tolerance to dopamine was lowered and I was able to start enjoying things like a normal person.

I never want to experience anhedonia again.

So, what’s all this got to do with John Barleycorn and why am I writing this post? John Barleycorn is the personification of alcohol in an old British folk song and was used by Jack London as the title of his auto-biography. I’ve recently been reading a great series of posts on his life and his pursuit of thumos. His opinions about alcohol interested me a great deal. Jack London had never particularly liked drinking but, since it was the activity of choice for the world he was a part of, he did it to be part of the crowd, to fit in. He writes quite a bit about how John Barleycorn is a thief and a charlatan. It began to dawn on me that I had my own troubles with old John Barleycorn and I started seeing a correlation between the person (Mr. Barleycorn) and the thing (alcohol). (BTW, if you’re looking to read some Jack London stuff you should pick up his complete works. You’ll get almost everything the man has ever written in a single Kindle book for $3 … which is just plain awesome. I just bought it.)

Over the past month I’ve allowed J.B. to sneak back in and start stealing pieces of my life again. It started out just enjoying a beer with friends. It slowly went from one or two beers to a beer and a whiskey. Then it graduated to a beer and a shot once or twice a week. Then two beers and two shots three or four times per week. Recently, I’ve been drinking a lot more than that and I’m finding myself in some of the very situations that I worked so hard to get out of last year. While my own internal struggles with my darker, self-destructive side continued, my drinking was starting to affect my relationship to the point where my girlfriend (and best friend) decided she didn’t want to be around me if I’d been drinking. This coming from the person I am about to start sharing a home (and a life!) with was an eye-opening experience and really got me analyzing my behavior and thought processes in a way I hadn’t in over a year.

After much deliberation with myself I’ve decided to quit drinking again. John Barleycorn and I are officially on the outs. I’m not going to be as militant about it this time around. I still love the occasional glass of wine with a good steak. I long for a cold beer on a hot summer day. I’m not going to deny myself these small pleasures. I will, however, stop drinking on a regular basis, putting large swaths of sobriety in between any of the times I do toss one back. I’ll save up for those special occasions and maintain a sober and healthy lifestyle otherwise. I won’t be giving up my friends or the things I love again. I just need to remain in touch with my own values and remind myself why I’m doing this. For my own sake and the sake of my new life I’m going to get this problem under control. No more excuses. No more listening to the dulcet whispers of Mr. Barleycorn. This time I’m gonna get sober and stay that way for myself, on my own terms.

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