Decaf or Rehab? Quitting Clarity

December 31st, 2017 | Category: Essays

I started drinking coffee in kindergarten. I wanted to be more grown-up, and with enough cream and sugar, I could.

I didn’t realize I was addicted to the stuff in elementary school until I tried to quit many years later. The headaches that follow depriving your brain of caffeine are a special kind of pain. When I made my first effort to quit in my late 20s, I recognized that pain. My head had been through that before.

I thought back and realized that my first sleepovers with friends were fraught with the same withering withdrawals. I had morning afters as early as first grade. An afternoon of Legos cut short by a trip home with a slamming hangover at six-years old. A matinee viewing of The Last Starfighter cancelled by cranium-crushing throbs. A Saturday at the BMX track not spent carving the tall berms and trying to clear the last doubles but in the backseat of a car with a cold washcloth over my head instead. It took me a long time to connect those dots.

I became an independent thinker at the beginning of the ninth grade. Growing up, my family moved about every two years. About every other summer, we loaded up a big truck and hauled it to another state. When I was in the eighth grade, we moved in the middle of the school year for the first time. I remember not wanting to move, but we’d only been at our current residence in the hinterlands of southeast Alabama for the summer and a few weeks of the school year, so I didn’t think much of it.

Once we arrived in Richmond Hill, Georgia, a small suburb of Savannah, and I enrolled in the local high school, I noticed a lot of things I’d never seen before. First, where Alabama schools had been divided up with only a few grades at each school, Richmond Hill High School housed everyone from the eighth grade through the twelfth. Second, each grade was divided into further groups. A-group was the underachievers, B-people were the normals, and Cs were the advanced lot. I was an eighth-grade level C. These lettered groups took classes together and presumably became friends for life. The problem was that since I had arrived after the school year had gotten underway, half of my classes were full. After some extensive math by a guidance counselor, I ended up with a schedule that consisted of 3 eighth-grade C classes, 2 ninth-grade B classes, an eighth-grade B P.E. class, and an independent study.

High school is a weird time. It’s a weird time in your head, it’s a weird time in your body, and it’s a weird time in your life. Fitting in, being popular, finding love, and being considered cool are the most important things during this time. Everything is a question. Even when someone in high school says something with the certainty of the grave, you can still hear the question mark at the end.

Like most kids of junior-high age, I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere. Having landed late in this world with the knowledge of a seventh grader and the concerns of a high schooler, I didn’t fit in—I couldn’t fit in. All the cliques were well established before I got there, and given my patchwork schedule, I didn’t travel with one group anyway. None of this is to mention my nerdiness and proto-skateboard/BMX kid attire. I weathered it as best I could, making friends and enemies in all the groups I encountered.

When we moved back to southeast Alabama in the summer before my ninth-grade year, I was over it. I hadn’t completely let go of the high-school concerns, but I’d gotten a glimpse behind the mechanism. Though I felt I’d found my tribe with the collective misfits of skateboarders and BMXers, fitting in was farther out on the radar. I knew then that it didn’t matter what you did, someone was going to find your flaws, and someone else would find you at fault. Connecting those dots made a lot of what followed easier.

I didn’t start drinking alcohol until I was old enough to do so. Sure, I had a sip here or there, but I usually had to drive, and I usually had to drive far, so I just didn’t drink.

I didn’t become a regular drinker until my 30s. I ditched my last car in my late 20s, so it’s been bikes and buses ever since. Pedaled and public transportation are more conducive to staying out late drinking than steering one-eyed, eluding police. I’ve ridden recklessly, and I’ve walked a bike I couldn’t keep upright, but I always made it home.

I was also never the kind of drinker who felt like I needed it. It’s always been casual. Perhaps too casual. I quit earlier this year, and that’s the only time I ever slip up and think of drinking, when it’s casual.

I used to go for lunch alone or with friends and then find myself skipping dinner at a different bar later. I remember telling a friend at the beginning of one of those days that no one was going to stop me. I wasn’t being as defiant as that sounds, I was simply stating the fact that as far as anyone around me was concerned, my behavior was fine. No one would suggest I reconsider a second free shot during lunchtime. No one would suggest I go home instead of going to another bar to continue drinking. No one would suggest I save my money and save myself the mess I was making of the next morning.

I haven’t had a drink since mid-March. I can comfortably say that there’s nothing bad about it. I sleep better, dream clearer, and do so much more. From the lack of hangovers to the lost belly bloat, from the clear skin to the saved money, it’s been all positive. When you read those internet click-bait headlines about “One Simple Trick,” you never believe them. Well, this one works: Try not drinking for a while. If you drink like I did, quitting will fix problems you didn’t know you had. No one’s going to stop you. You have to stop you.

It took me a long time to connect those dots.

[Drawings by me]

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