What Happens to a Non-Alcoholic Who Is Sentenced to Sobriety?

By Will Godfrey 10/17/11

The first few months of drying out are incredibly tough for any alcoholic. But for a “social” drinker who’s forced to quit for medical reasons, it’s easy enough. Right?

accidental drinking.thefix.1st.jpg
You don't have to be an alcoholic for sobriety to sound horrifying.

Deep vein thrombosis was a nasty surprise, but it got dealt with pretty fast.

A soccer opponent kicked me in early July, but it didn’t even hurt enough for me to curse at him. Four days later, when a section of my leg turned bright yellow and I couldn’t sleep for the pain, I wondered if it might be more than a bad bruise. I went to the doctor, was whisked to ER and took a sonogram which revealed a blood clot moving up my leg. Over the next 36 hours I was also given X-rays, a drip, blood tests, injections, a bed with a view of the Statue of Liberty—which really impressed me—and sweet, sweet painkillers.

It was only after I was discharged—having been taught how to inject myself, ordered not to play sports or wet-shave, and prescribed three months of blood-thinners and blood tests—that my doctor delivered the hammer-blow: “And no drinking while you’re on these, also no green vegetables, no spinach, none of that.” Don’t get me wrong: since adulthood I’ve come to quite like spinach. But it wasn’t that part that bothered me.

By Sunday—which I grudgingly noted had begun without a hangover—I was on the internet, searching for evidence that alcohol and blood thinners can be friends.

I’d describe myself as a “social” drinker. Okay, an enthusiastic one. Oh, and I’m British, so double that. I like drinking, although I’ve never done it daily. And before London friends remind me, I’ve certainly been no stranger to excess or hangovers. I’ve mellowed, though, and have lived happily in New York for a year now, a city where most people’s Saturday night drinking seems at the level most Londoners hit on a Sunday morning. When in Rome. But since I was 16—half my lifetime ago—I’ve never gone more than two weeks without at least a pint or three. Three months?

However, DVT was bad enough that I agreed to obey my doctor out of fear. I decided to look at my lay-off as an opportunity, rather than a sentence. Working for an addiction and recovery-related website made it seem fitting; the longer rehab programs last three months and here was my chance to get some idea of what that’s like.

Besides, I wasn’t feeling at all well—or thirsty. Painkillers were what counted for the first couple of weeks. The first time they gave me Percocet in the hospital, a gorgeous golden glow started spreading up through my arms, and the acute pain in my leg became a hazy hum for the next hour. Then there were three throbbing hours to wait until my next dose. Future installments were never as good as the first, which probably applies to plenty of things. But it was instantly obvious how people get hooked on that stuff.

I stayed on our living room couch for a week, to make the painful crawls to the bathroom and back as short as possible. Meanwhile self-injecting—the idea of which horrified me when I was first told it was necessary—soon started to become grimly satisfying, as I peppered my arms with evenly-spaced pin-pricks. You get used to things fast.

Around that time, I called my brother in London, who was planning to visit me in the Autumn: “Three months? Right, I’ll have to book my trip after mid-October, then.” He wasn’t about to waste his money to fly over here and hang round with a sober person.

I found that funny, but my first humor failure arrived on a Friday evening two weeks after I left hospital. I was back at work and had been walking with a cane and feeling nearly normal for a few days. My wife and I both got home, very ready for the weekend, and decided to go to one of our favorite local restaurants. There was a spring in my limp as we headed hungrily down the street.

Twenty minutes later, I took stock as we waited for our food. The restaurant was packed, with its usual clamor, but something seemed wrong. I like lively, but the noise from the surrounding tables seemed a bit much; it distracted me from making my own conversation. I looked around the room—inspecting without pleasure the random objects hanging artfully on the walls—and back at my wife. And down at my fingers, which were now drumming on the table. I wasn’t having fun.

I swallowed the food—which for the first time in this place tasted very average—grunted at my wife’s attempts to chat, got the check as soon as possible and hobbled home. Needless to say, by this point my wife’s mood was as sour as my own. I threw myself down on the sofa. It was 8pm. Now what?

After that fiasco I was determined to make the most of the following night: a birthday at a cocktail bar. All started well, catching up with friends we hadn’t seen for a while and meeting some new people. When the waitress took our first orders for cocktails, I asked if they did coffee. They didn’t, so I had a Diet Coke. Which I finished in about 30 seconds, as our friends sipped more conservatively on their stronger, pricier concoctions. I joked that I was planning to get high on caffeine instead. Or maybe I wasn’t joking: I’d already downed two coffees and three Diet Cokes that day, and was getting the jitters.

Glasses of tap water arrived and I sipped away gratefully. I’m in the habit of taking very frequent sips when I’m out, perhaps because I’m a bit shy. But however many times I finished my water and however many times they refilled me, nothing was happening, except that I needed to limp to the bathroom regularly.

As my companions talked more loudly and laughed more easily with each passing round, I began to feel sullen and cut off, smiling without conviction. I threw the dice: “Bloody Mary please, but without the vodka.” I know it’s called a Virgin Mary, but it felt weird to say it. My hope was that a thick, spicy drink would hide its virginity. It actually worked for a few swigs—the tabasco and pepper had enough of a kick to give me the kind of satisfaction I’d been missing. But again, I was done in two minutes. And then, I mean, how much tomato juice can you drink in one night?

By Sunday—which I grudgingly noted had begun without a hangover—I was on the internet, looking for evidence that alcohol and blood thinners can be friends. The results were ambiguous—apparently the advice you get varies from doctor to doctor—but the consensus seemed that while one or two drinks may or may not be okay, multiple drinks are bad news: nobody wants to read the words “stomach-bleeding” in these situations.

I knew well enough that just one drink would only whet my appetite. I’m also stubborn about sticking to a challenge. At the same time, I had a panicky feeling that the weekend was slipping away and that unlike me, it was going to get completely wasted.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Will Godfrey.jpg

Will Godfrey is the former editor-in-chief of TheFix. He was also the founding editor-in-chief of Substance.com, and previously co-founded a magazine for prisoners in London. His work has appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, AlterNet and The Nation among others. He is currently the Executive Director at FILTER. You can find Will on Linkedin and Twitter.