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Notes from a Polite New Yorker: Saying Goodbye to an Old Friend

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There have been too many good times spent with the stuff, too many good memories forged with beer and whiskey to look upon them as anything but old friends.

I told people I was taking a year off from drinking. That year is now over but I’m not going back.
 
Quitting drinking was something on the back of my mind for a long time. I even took extended breaks from drinking for months at a time here and there, though sometimes book-ending these periods with serious benders. I pulled off these periods of not drinking just fine. It was the drinking life that gave me trouble.
 
I found a book I had read about when it was published called "Drinking, A Love Story," by Caroline Knapp. It’s a very good book despite some of its mushy emotional female content. Knapp points out that if you are someone who thinks and worries about drinking a lot, that’s a sure-fire sign that you should quit. That idea really stuck with me, because so many times I found myself doing my own form of alcohol calculus (if I have only four beers and then maybe have a soda so I’m not too drunk; if I start with a mixed drink and then switch to beer I’ll be OK) that continually left me short-changed. In Knapp’s book she recommends Pete Hamill’s "A Drinking Life," which is a brilliant memoir about growing up in New York. Drinking features prominently in Hamill’s book, but it’s a great New York memoir first, and not really a book about drinking at all. He does detail his decision to quit drinking, though, and mentions that he saw himself as acting out his life instead of living it.
 
Knapp’s and Hamill’s books were filled with a lot of things I recognized and encouraged me to give up the ghost on the drinking life.
 
I’d like to say that there was a big clarifying event that forced my hand and made me swear off booze, but the truth is I got tired of it. I got tired of waking up with a big headache, a lot less money and the painful fear that I had done or said something stupid enough to lose friends in the process. I got tired of waking up angry over the crappy state I was in and having no one to be angry at but myself. There were plenty of times when I drank a lot and didn’t overdo it and had a great time and patted myself on the back for that, but those times were being outnumbered by the times when I set out to pace myself and ended up in the zone where you’re on a great drunken roll and you just have to have that next sweet drink, and eventually you’re too drunk and you hate yourself for it.
 
I would be the worst kind of hypocrite to denounce drinking altogether. I dedicated too many hours to the fine art of consuming alcohol to stab that old friend in the back like that. There have been too many good times spent with the stuff, too many good memories forged with beer and whiskey to look upon them as anything but old friends. But sometimes friends outlive their usefulness.

Drinking is only as good as the help it gives you to do the other things you want to do, to have the real adventures and the real good times. It’s not the drinking that really makes for the good time; it’s the courage to meet women, the fun of joking and speaking very frankly with your friends, to blast through the social awkwardness that might cripple us. If drinking is still a help and a healthy supplement to life itself, then great. But for me it turned from a stepping stone to a stumbling block. I spent too much time worrying about drinking to make it fun anymore.
 
I have generally kept quiet about quitting drinking, because in my opinion it shouldn’t matter. Being defined by your drinking is a dead end, but so is being defined by your not drinking. It’s true I don’t go to bars much anymore on my own, but I won’t refuse to go to if I’m invited to hang out with friends there. I understand that my friends aren’t trying to force me to drink, they simply want to hang out and bars are the usual way to do that. It would be the most arrogant, self-centered crap to ask all of my friends to rearrange their lives on my account.
 
One thing I will absolutely not do is join Alcoholics Anonymous or any other 12-step program. I know many good people who are involved with these groups and joining them is certainly preferable to drinking yourself to death, but the 12-step program is back-door religion. It tells its followers that they are powerless and can find salvation only in the inane catch phrases and prayers of its program. By some measures it is a cult. Your own free will is your highest power; anyone who tells you otherwise is only feeding you another form of poison.  
 
So far I’ve made out fine without any prayers, group hugs or other nonsense. For me, quitting drinking was pretty easy. Instead of drinking something with alcohol in it I drink something without alcohol in it. I always was a big soda drinker, and I’ve resigned myself to enjoying that vice if nothing else. I’m the only person I know who sneaks non-alcoholic beverages into concerts.
 
I could tell you that drinking soda is just as much fun as drinking beer or bourbon, and that if you quit drinking you’ll be high on life, but that would be bullshit. But a lot of people have the attitude that I once had that life would be impossible without drinking, and that’s bullshit too.

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