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The Day I Didn't Drink All the Alcohol

10 min read

This is a story about abstinence...


I woke up this morning and started having a not-quite-fully-blown panic attack. Re-adjusting to life without the tranquillising and sedating effects of alcohol is hard. The first couple of alcohol-free days seem to pass easily enough, but day three brings something that a friend of mine calls "the fear" which is a gnawing anxiety.

Anxiety is by its very nature irrational.

Sometimes anxiety can be attributed to genuinely stressful things that are happening, but there's no benefit to feeling anxious - our self-preservation instincts could function just fine without anxiety. Anxiety might be irrational, but it can't be rationalised away, especially when its origin is biochemical. The sudden absence of soothing chemicals in the brain - withdrawing from alcohol - triggers rebound anxiety, which is most unpleasant.

I notice that I'm hungrier and thirstier than I would usually be when I'm semi-drunk. I notice that I'm craving sweet things. I notice that I gobble my food down faster than ever, as if I'm eating my final meal or I'm dying of starvation. On balance though, I'm eating more healthily and I've substantially cut my total daily calorie intake, which will be better for my waistline. My body is not having to work so hard to detoxify itself and get rid of the barely digestible combination of wine and fatty salty snacks.

I'd love to tell you that I feel better, but I don't. On balance, I miss the soothing effects of alcohol and the dulled senses more than I cherish the clear head and sharper perceptions. On balance, I hate the anxiety more than I hate the health damage that alcohol was inflicting.

Anything worth doing is hard when you start, so I'm aware that I might not feel the real benefits of sobriety unless I carry on for a few more weeks. I'm half-tempted to have a dry August, but I'm really not sure whether the timing is right and whether it's worth the risk of having some kind of breakdown, because I have no crutch to help me through a rather challenging period of my life.

Looking back through my photo-diary exactly one year ago, I'm reminded that I was in a big mess with substances. I was abusing a combination of Valium and Xanax, as well as the sleeping pills Imovane and Ambien, plus I was prescribed Lyrica as a painkiller. Two tranquillisers, two sleeping pills and a painkiller is quite a hefty combination of sedating medications, plus I was drinking like a fish too. I'm surprised I even knew what day of the week it was.

There was no way I was going to be able to stop all those physically addictive medications safely, without risking seizures. I was trapped.

Alcohol abuse has always slipped under the radar in my life. I've always been part of a work-hard play-hard culture where conspicuous consumption of vast quantities of alcohol has been near-ubiquitous. Boozy lunches and after-work drinking sessions somehow seemed to dovetail with the demanding work I've been involved in, and industries which are disproportionately staffed by young men, mostly unencumbered by the demands and responsibilities of family life. Somehow, arriving at work an hour and a half late with a terrific hangover doesn't seem to matter if everybody else is doing it too.

Spotting the alcoholics amongst a population of similar heavy drinkers seemed to me to be impossible. One colleague was apparently swigging vodka from a bottle of mineral water at his desk, but I could never smell the alcohol on his breath... probably because I was hungover most mornings and half-drunk most afternoons. Somehow the situation continued for many years without any problems - the work would always get done and the booze kept flowing.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that a number of my former colleagues have had to go through detox and rehab, and some have dropped dead from liver failure and other alcohol-related illnesses. I suppose it should come as no surprise that several of the former colleagues who I count amongst my very best friends are just as alcoholic as I am. Somehow, we stick together and look after each other, us band of drunks.

What might be more surprising to those who've never worked in such male-dominated and alcohol-tolerating environments, where I've spent most of my career, is the level of responsibility shouldered by the unfortunate alcoholic wretches such as myself. You'd think that handing over the 'keys' to the 'bank vault' of a massive investment bank to a bunch of alcoholics would be sheer insanity, but perhaps those of a more sober persuasion aren't suited to the role. When I think about all the quadrillions of dollars watched over by a gang of brilliant men who spend most of their time drunk, it beggars belief, but that's the way that the global financial system seems to be run: in the hands of functional alcoholics.

Those who are fully in possession of their faculties don't seem to find their way into the fantasy land where 6-figure sums of money are paid to anybody who will willingly forego a sense of meaningful purpose and enter the bewildering world of high-finance, where the amount of capital that flows around the globe is an order of magnitude greater than anything that an ordinary person could comprehend. The concept of money becomes a ridiculously absurd one and cash is just a rounding error.

Further, when dealing with computer software and data, any sane person would run screaming in the opposite direction as soon as they realise that they've entered yet another ridiculously absurd world, which is the extreme opposite from anything 'real' or tangible.

When I was making iPhone apps and selling them, there was clearly a product and the idea of selling that product for a profit is something we all understand. My life was less absurd. However, the vast majority of my career has been spent helping investment banks to play with numbers in ludicrously complex ways, to obfuscate the fact that there is no product... nothing of any value is being created!

I suppose it's only natural that I would look at my obscenely large monthly paycheque and be unable to reconcile that amount of remuneration with the 'value' that I'd delivered to humanity. It seems that the greater the absurdity, the greater the financial reward. Somehow, it's never sat easily with my conscience and perhaps that's why I've spent such a big chunk of my income on booze. It's hard to get up and go to work every day when you're only in it for the money, and you're pretty certain that what you're doing is actually harmful and immoral but you can't precisely say why... it's too complex to work out. There's a kind of 'golden handcuffs' situation that arises, where you don't want to question things too much because the money is so much better than you'd get building houses or catching fish.

Ultimately, I don't know why we need so much damn software and data. I don't know why we need so many offices and service industries. I don't know what the f**k 95% of people actually do for a living that's useful or productive, when only 5% of people are doing jobs which are obviously indispensable. I consider myself to be at the extreme end of the utility spectrum, where not only is what I do completely pointless, but it's also harmful to humanity as well as producing absolutely nothing that's tangible or 'real'.

I suppose that's why I drink.

Perhaps anybody who's glimpsed the absurdity of existence and understood their place in the universe, as well as any average human could ever hope to, is likely to be confronted with an existential crisis. Most people will busy themselves by acting like slime mold or bacteria, and reproducing with gay abandon until every inch of the surface of the planet is teeming with similarly brain-dead morons just like them. Most people will revert to animalistic bestial knuckle-dragging behaviours found in every lifeform on Earth - f**king, s**tting, fighting, feeding etc.

I suppose why I drink is that I'm not like 99.9% of the beasts and the bees and the bacteria.

Consciousness is a curse.

To be conscious means to be able to rationalise and to decide to override the bestial instinct to rut and reproduce, and instead to inhabit an intellectual world which the beasts do not partake in. However, now I envy those beasts' ignorant bliss. Oh, to be thick: that's what I really want, I think. I wish I was stupid. I wish I was dumb. I wish I was a dimwit.

It seems obvious now I say it, but getting drunk is like having the partial lobotomy I so desperately crave; to be free from the burden of the things that cannot be un-learned; to escape my own rational and reasonable inquiring and inquisitive mind.

Of course, I don't claim to be in possession of a brilliant mind, but I'm clever enough to be miserable and tormented. Not clever enough to be great, but not ordinary and average enough to fit in with the masses and their orgy of mindless procreation.

I've done some good work today. My concentration's been improved. I can see that life could be better if I could remain alcohol-free, but I also don't know how to cope with the 'spare brain capacity' which is unfortunately utilised to process all the facts at my disposal, leading to the inevitable non-stop existential crisis and general unhappiness about the absurdity of existence. I don't have a choice - it's not like I can ever stop thinking. Due to financial necessity, I'm forced to work a job which requires very little thought. My mind is rarely occupied by interesting distractions because I've had to prioritise income ahead of intellectual stimulation.

Drink might be a dratted demon, but in moderation it's helped me cope with 21+ years of unfulfilling full-time career and I don't have any healthy outlets at the moment; any purpose, hobby or interest which might better occupy my time.

I'm pleased I've had a 5-day break from drinking and I suppose I'll be able to manage at least another night without alcohol. I'm pleased that I'm able to stop drinking when I want to, but that should come as no surprise - I am after all, one of the very few who are cursed with consciousness, which means I'm able to curb my cravings. It's only beasts - the dimwits - who aren't able to make conscious choices.

I wish I could choose how I felt, but of course that's a ridiculous notion. Wouldn't we all choose to be blissfully happy and content if it was easy as just choosing? I feel anxious and overwhelmed by my own consciousness, and I know that alcohol would calm my nervous system and help me cope, but I choose not to drink temporarily because my liver needs a break.

I'm glad that I've made some progress versus where I was a year ago.