The Decision

George was 57 – just 7 years and change older than I am now – but he looked 70. He smelled of urine, he slept outside, and hadn’t showered in months. He shuffled when he walked, and a naturally small man, he was a popular victim when it came to street violence. When we first met, he had been mugged three times in the previous four months.

It hadn’t always been that way. George had been the dairy manager at a grocery store in a Raleigh suburb. He lived in a middle class brick house, in a subdivision. His wife was a school teacher. He had one daughter, who had gone to a good state university.

The house was no longer his. Neither was the wife. And the daughter had a restraining order against him and he had been trespassed from the bank where she now worked.

George liked to drink. And for years, he made it work. He would have a hard day at work and come home and drink a few, to take the edge off. Eventually he had to drink in order to go to work, too. Then he started drinking during lunch.

He wasn’t a bad drunk. He just got silly, and then sleepy. He got fired when his boss found him passed out in the dairy cooler. His wife got a divorce shortly after that. He was too drunk to fight, or to show up for court. He lost everything.

He had been on the street for 5 years when I met him, drunk as a lord. We hit it off well, and eventually, he decided to quit after having a heart attack. He went into a rehab facility where he stayed sober for 100 days, and then he went into a halfway house facility, where he got another 100 days, and then he went into a private apartment where he got less than 10 days. He didn’t have the money to pay the rent the next month, having drank it, and was back on the street.

I saw variations of that story play out over and over for more than a decade. I watched people – good, hardworking people, lose everything they had because of alcohol.

I didn’t grow up around alcohol, but not for religious reasons – it was because once Dad began drinking, he didn’t have an off switch. So he drank his last drink when I was 4. His half-brother lost everything because of drinking – wife, kids, stole from his mother and my dad, and as a result was exiled from the family for years and years.

I later learned my mom’s side of the family had people with similar stories. People who drank to forget trauma, who drank to manage pain, who drank and drank until it cost them everything.

I drank my first beer when I was 15. We stole it from the store I was working at that summer, and drank it hot behind the carwash. It wasn’t very good, but the cheers, the social approval, the back slapping – that felt amazing.

In the Marines, I drank a lot, because it was a social lubricant. Cheers, the social approval, the back slapping. My girlfriend Heather was an alcoholic, trying to cover the pain of being Queer in a world not ready for that.

I drank when I was a Financial Advisor, because I hated my life, often having to down a pint of vodka in the parking garage in order to stomach going into the office.

And when I became a pastor, I learned some folks drank as a way to signify that they weren’t some hellfire and damnation fundamentalist. “Hey, I’m not like those conservative jerks that called you a sinner: I drink single malt scotch!”.

The 12 years or so that I worked with people experiencing homelessness was the time in my life I knew the most alcoholics, but honestly, a good portion of them were social workers, pastors, and medical folks who just didn’t have other tools for dealing with what they felt.

And because the only people in the world who did know what you felt were the people you worked with, you could grab a drink after work, and then you get the chemicals from drinking and the chemicals from the social interaction, and you didn’t have to feel what you felt anymore.

One day not long after George lost his apartment I noticed that was what I was doing, and so I quit drinking after work with my peers and started looking for healthier ways to deal with what I felt.

Because that’s the thing: Abusing chemicals (whatever the chemical it is) is a way to hit pause on what you are feeling. And then you hit pause the next time you feel it. And then one day, you hit pause earlier than you did last time. Until one day, you haven’t felt that thing in a long time.

As an aside, this is one of the things that makes sobriety for an addict so hard – because suddenly, you don’t have your coping tool any more, and the last time you had to feel what you are feeling was whatever age you began using.

I’m not some religious wacko that believes there is no such thing as responsible usage of alcohol. Honestly, I love a good Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, but since Renee can’t drink because of her medications, I often would have a bottle go bad before I would finish it. Or else I would finish it all at one setting, which worried me more. So I quit drinking at home.

Eventually I went from being a person who was worried about drinking too much to being a person who just doesn’t drink.

I didn’t “need” to quit – it just made my life easier to quit. And it greatly reduces the number of ways I can screw up my life and financial future.

And because I don’t “need” to quit, but chose to, I can choose not to. Like last month a friend I was staying with offered me a glass of wine, and I had one while unwinding with them. It was maybe my second drink in two years.

I’m not telling you what you should do – Lord knows I am powerless over the pull of caffeine on my brain in the morning, but then again, I don’t know anyone who lost their house because they drank too much coffee. If your life is working for you and the people who love you, then rock on.

So, why AM I telling you all this? Partly because I’m big on admitting when something scares me, as a way of reducing its power over me. And honestly? Losing everything I own because of addiction scares the hell out of me.

But also, because I have lots of people in the so-called helping professions that read my stuff. And if that’s you, maybe you have noticed that the beer after work can easily become the six pack after work, or the glass of wine before dinner can become the bottle of wine every night. Maybe you tried “Dry January” and had a dry 4 days instead. Maybe you drunk text your friends at 3AM and then spend the next week apologizing for what you said.

Maybe you drink as a way of hitting pause. And maybe you’ve thought about not doing that any more.

I just wanted you to know that it’s OK to do that. To drink a Diet Coke at the bar instead of the mixed drink. To not have friends you can only tolerate when you are doing shots. To really feel the things you feel.

It’s OK to stop, if you want to.

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