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?

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You don't have to be an alcoholic for sobriety to sound horrifying.
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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.

A frantic work week followed. I started drinking ever-more coffee and Diet Coke to help me work late. Then I’d be unable to sleep, the only time that my mind drifted to booze (Nyquil was also forbidden to me).

Then that Friday I went to a wedding. It was held on a rooftop on Manhattan’s West Side, with an amazing view. The ceremony and the company were great. Before the toasts, a glass of Champagne was poured out in front of me, the bubbles glistening invitingly. Champagne’s one of my favorite drinks, along with Scotch, beer, red wine…

As my wife frantically googled medical advice on her phone, I ordered a beer and it felt like that first hit of Percocet all over again.

At the end of each speech I touched the sparkling liquid to my lips, then licked them, as the setting sun bathed everyone at the reception. It would have been bliss. But I nobly handed over my still-full flute to my happy-to-be-of-service wife. As the hours passed and everyone drank more, I began to feel left behind again. I wandered away from the dance floor and on to the open rooftop on my own. An unknown Englishman followed me up for a smoke, very drunk in a very amicable way, and pushed a cigarette on me.

“I don’t smoke.” (I don’t).

“Come on, mate!”

Not knowing why, I accepted. After a couple of coughs, dragging on the smoke gave me a little buzz that I’d been missing. So I went back downstairs and even managed to dance slightly, or to do what passes for it if you’re me.

It was mid-August, a little more than a month after my mishap, when something really changed. I was grabbing a weekend in the Catskills with my wife, gazing at mountains without climbing them, and catching up on sleep. Strangely, as we sat in a hotel restaurant one night, and she—with her usual “sincere” apology to me—ordered her first glass of Pinot noir, I felt completely indifferent, just as if I had no need of it. The thought of drinking actually gave me a mild sense of distaste. Was this how it felt to be seriously sober?

I can’t pretend that feeling stayed with me for long, but neither did I get a strong craving for alcohol after that point. Two months in, my routine was established.

I’d work hard. I’d drink caffeine all day and sleep not much. I’d feel in control. My emotional range was reduced to the narrow band between “mildly annoyed” and “quite pleased.” I’d go to parties and nights out with low expectations, and leave before eleven. My nights would feel a bit worse than normal. My mornings would feel a bit better.

I was in the zone. But here’s my confession: I fell off the wagon on my 86th day of sobriety, just short of my three month target. I’d passed a vascular Doppler test that week; my high dose of blood thinners was reduced, and I was set to be cleared completely on finishing my meds a few days later.

That Saturday night I went with my wife to a speakeasy-style place in our Brooklyn neighborhood that we hadn’t tried before. We honestly went for the food, but I’m sure there’s some phrase about barber shops and haircuts... Anyway, I felt totally in the mood. As my wife frantically googled medical advice on her phone, I ordered a beer—and then a second—and it felt like that first hit of Percocet all over again.

It’s good to have the choice. But I’ve still got no urge to drink hard, although I’ll need to build up some tolerance before I visit London next. And I'm glad that these three months happened. I learned how I don’t need alcohol to feel close to the people I care about most—even though we’ve always used it to bond. And how I do rely on alcohol—too much—to make me feel comfortable when I’m out socializing with people I know less well.

I changed in a few ways during my sober spell. As a bonus, I lost ten pounds—nothing to do with exercise, as I was barred from soccer, and wouldn’t wish running, or gyms, on my worst enemy. I also became more switched-on, more serious-minded, tenser, and less sociable. Whether any of these changes are permanent remains to be seen. I somehow doubt it.

But I hope I can take away an ability to pick and choose my drinks more, rather than opting for alcohol by default. And when I do drink, I want to appreciate it properly. I may not be an alcoholic, but thinking twice about what I order next still makes sense.

My respect for my friends and colleagues and others who are alcoholics—and who maintain their sobriety in the long term—has grown. After all, holding out for a few more days to complete my three months wasn’t difficult…or so I thought. And to do that forever?

But while I admire them more, I pity them less. There really is a great, different life to be had without booze; I began to feel sure of it during my “experiment.” I just think it would take me longer than three months to get there.

Will Godfrey is Managing Editor of The Fix. His previous articles include interviews with TV chef Andrew Zimmern and the founder of Overeaters Anonymous, a look back at Amy Winehouse, and a guide to drug-smuggling in prison.

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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.