Thursday, February 13, 2014

Moments Of Clarity

The natural reflex, at least if you're raised watching big budget Hollywood films, is to think that life changes all happen in one tidy package.

In the movie version of your life, where you are played by, say, a young Robert DeNiro--or more realistically, Peter Lorre--you come to a low point after having fucked up your situation in every possible way. You find yourself being rained upon in a dark alley while a dog pees on your leg and then a door opens or perhaps dawn breaks: there's a beam of light and you have a nice and tidy epiphany while your own personal theme song swells majestically. There's probably a long slow pull of the camera into the sky and then in the next scene you win the girl's heart, the pie-eating contest is a shoe-in, you've regained the use of your superpowers, whatever.

This almost never happens.

Moments of clarity rarely come in one big lump. It would be nice if everything in life fell into a neat and predictable three act package, but it doesn't. These moments tend to happen when they happen. Sometimes they come in small pieces, or lots of big ones. Sometimes the biggest changes come with no thought at all. Or sometimes they don't come at all and that makes you even more uncomfortable.

I've only really had a few. Giving up soda pop* happened almost at once. I was reading about the average amount of pop an American drinks in a week. It was one of those infographic-heavy scare articles which convey a tone of Western civilization being sucked into the Bog of Eternal Stench. Lots of frightening language. Diabetes, cancer, tooth-rotting, the works.

I did the math, realized I was drinking pop on an order of magnitude greater than the average and quit. It was diet pop, sure, but I realized that I was riding through the day on an artificial caffeine buzz and the constant ups and downs were fucking with me. My teeth weren't great at that time. I was also spending an exorbitant amount of money on the habit. So I went cold turkey. It sucked and it was pretty hard for a few days but it was worth it.

That was a Hollywood-style epiphany, I guess. Stimulus, trigger, result. Bang.

The other ones I've had, though...fitness, for example. When I turned thirty, I was pretty out of shape. I was overweight--not by a lot, but I was getting there--it hurt to kneel down or lean over. My back was constantly complaining about something. I was weak.

There was no single moment which caused me to kick my ass and get back in shape. A careless reference to my growing belly from an acquaintance. Going to a concert and seeing a really hot woman dancing up front and then realizing that I was shaped like a pear. Having a friend roll his eyes when I mentioned I was a fitness buff back in college (I was, which is why I fell back into fitness so easily). It all added up. Eventually, over the course of a year or two, I realized that not keeping in shape was prematurely aging me and that the benefits of spending a half hour a few times a week working out far outweighed an afternoon nap, or maybe an extra hour or so of video games per day.

I haven't stopped working out since, and it's been almost ten years. I've been down the not-working-out-road and it ain't pretty. It's probably added years on to my life and my general quality of life is much better.

I suppose in ten years, my decision over the last year to scale back my drinking is going to be similarly large. I don't know. It's too big at the moment for me to wrap my mind around. Alcohol's a hell of a drug and rather insidious, particularly if you have poor impulse control and a family history with it. I never let it take too much of a toll on me, especially compared to a lot of people I know, but I know that I've occasionally made bad decisions.

The decision to drink less wasn't really precipitated by any single moment. It was rather a chain of small moments--hangovers, the occasional night where I blacked out and had to reconstruct the evening so I could figure out who to apologize to in the morning. The hangovers became more frequent. Even when I didn't have a hangover, I found my body didn't feel as great, even if it had been a few days since I've had more than a beer or two that evening. I was acquiring a slow general feeling of malaise. Nothing specific, just my liver telling me not to do that shit.

If there was a tipping moment, it was probably Fourth of July. As far as benders go, it wasn't unusual. And that's what decided me to cut back. It was the fact that it wasn't unusual at all that haunted me the next day. So I told everyone who would listen that I was putting rules into place in which I would let myself drink: special occasions (once a year type things), shots with friends (within reason). For a while, I was allowing myself a drink on Friday, but I've since stopped that. Too open to abuse. Every week gives you an excuse to say "Damn, that sucked. I need a drink."

But it wasn't sudden. It was a long series of moments of clarity, each one more mundane than the last. I back-slide occasionally because I'm still figuring things out. How much I can let myself have, what occasions are okay. Where my triggers are.

Quitting was pretty hard. Much more than giving up sugary pop, diet pop, not staying in shape, any of my other resolutions.

Mostly I just kinda get angry because I really do like alcohol. It's not like being out of shape, because exercise is fun. Diet pop is, when you get down to it, really kinda gross. I occasionally get the urge to indulge, but there's always a sense of "I used to drink this garbage a lot? Why?"

Alcohol's much different in that I still like it. Even if it wasn't intoxicating, I'd drink beer. And that's kind of a problem. So, I keep the special occasion clause in play. When I do indulge, I make sure I set limits for myself. In the rare occasions I am at a bar, even if I'm not driving, I try to stay in drive-friendly condition. For example.

But nothing in my experience would make for a good movie. I never did anything to jeopardize my life or career, save for risking potential DUI's. People mostly thought I was a pretty jolly drunk. The drinking itself, on a day to day basis, wasn't out of control. If I knew I had to be somewhere, I didn't have to drink before-hand to get myself through. Never got into any fights, no jail, no DT's or anything like that.

Objectively speaking, I wasn't an alcoholic by anybody's standards. When I told my friends I was quitting or at least scaling back heavily, the general reaction was "...why? You don't have a problem." Except I kinda did, by my own standards.

It would be awful cinema. Our hero would, probably around Act II, look kinda annoyed after a hangover and then say "that's enough." Credits would roll. It would get awful reviews.

Moments of clarity are usually like that.

* I don't fully cold turkey bad habits--I still drink pop on rare occasions, like eating out. I leave that clause in as a pressure relief valve in case I need to blow off steam. It works surprisingly well.

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