“I can’t be an alcoholic, I only drink beer” is a familiar cry for the Budweiser set, who always seem to forget that whether it’s one shot of liquor, one glass of wine, or one pint of beer, they’re all pretty much the same in terms of alcohol content. So while many beer drinkers convince themselves that alcoholics only drink hard liquor, there is a significant population of admitted alcoholics who only drank beer, such as Bob. This is his story.
I didn’t start drinking until I was 25 years old, but by the time I was 30 I knew that it was a problem, even though I was “only” a beer drinker. I got sober in my early 40s, and what kept me drinking that long was that I was doing well in my career, which made it easy to rationalize that I was doing fine.
I didn’t even drink every night, because when I did drink (and at the end, it would be about a case of beer whenever I did) I would feel like shit and I just couldn’t do it back-to-back nights. And I really didn’t get into jackpots. I was always good-natured when I was drinking, at least on the outside. But on the inside, I was dying a slow and painfully lonely death.
After living in Washington, D.C., where I had a promising career as a mid-level government official, I moved back to the Boston area when my mother got sick with cancer and my sister needed help taking care of her. Most of my friends had moved away, but I had one buddy that I reconnected with, and he was a guy who liked to drink as much as I did.
On the day my mother died, the hospice workers told us that she would probably pass away late in the evening and that we should stay close. But there was no booze in the house, and it was a Sunday, which meant the only place I could get a beer was at a barroom. I went out around 7 pm for “one,” but once I started drinking, I just kept going and lost track of time.
My sister called the bar frantically looking for me a few hours later. I got home just before my mother passed away, but it was still one of the most humiliating moments of my drinking life, having to admit that the booze was more important than my dying mother.
It wasn’t enough to make me stop. Instead, like a train going out of control, the drinking just accelerated. It took some more humiliation before I could finally put the booze down.
My sister and I were living in the same house but we were hardly speaking to one another after my mother passed. She and I are both self-admitted alcoholics and we were both drinking at the time (she got and stayed sober about six months after me). She had a wicked tongue and one night when I came in, she said something to me that I took as an insult and I just hauled off and whacked her. I had never hit a woman before (or since) in my life, but I punched her right in the face. You would think such a thing would have horrified me, but at the time I felt absolutely nothing.
And that was my bottom. Not because I hit my own sister, with whom I had been close to my whole life, but because I had absolutely no feelings at all about it. The silver lining was that it removed all doubt about whether I could continue on with my boozing. It was if a fog had been lifted, because I knew the cause was alcohol, pure and simple.
The next morning I called in sick, but my sister got up and went to work—with a nasty shiner. It was the worst day of my life and I felt like shit, just awful. I didn’t know what to do, so I went to the cemetery where both of my parents were buried, and I just literally cried over my mother’s grave. I called out for help, but when an attendant at the cemetery came over and asked me if there was anything wrong, I just brushed him off.
But something happened in that cemetery because I came out of there knowing I was going to do something about my drinking—and it wasn’t going to be suicide. I came out of there with the hope that there was something out there. I decided I was going to move out of the house and I went to visit my only friend and fellow drunk (whose wife and kids had left him because of his drinking). After getting smashed together all weekend, I called my sister up on Monday and said, “We’ve got to do something about our drinking.” And she agreed.
She had gone to an AA meeting a few years before and swore she’d never go back because they were a bunch of “religious fanatics and horrible people.” But this was her moment of truth. “Let’s go to that meeting,” she said. We also went to a family counselor and she also suggested we try AA.
I didn’t drink for about 10 days and I got a haircut and put on a suit that night because I didn’t want them to think I was a bum. I remembered that scene from Days of Wine and Roses where the guy crawled into the meeting drunk, and I didn’t want to look anything like that.
For me, the worst thing about being an alcoholic was that horrible loneliness—the feeling that I had absolutely nobody to talk to about my problems. I certainly couldn’t have told my co-workers, “Hey, you know what I did last night? I belted my sister!” But there was this neighbor, Jim, whose house I had gone to a few times when I was desperate to talk to someone—not about my alcoholism, but to tell him that I thought I was going crazy. There was something special about him and I felt like he was the only person I could talk to, even though I didn’t know him very well.
So my sister and I go to my first meeting and, when we walk in, there’s Jim, selling raffle tickets. When I saw that he was there, I knew I was home. He asked me if I was having a problem with booze, and I said, “Jim, I’m an alcoholic.” It was the first time I’d ever said it, and I don’t think I would have said it to anyone else but him.
Any thoughts that I had about the meeting being a bunch of religious fanatics dissipated right then and there, because this guy and another guy that I knew, Frank, were there, and they definitely weren’t kooks. I can’t remember much about the meeting, but those guys introduced me to some really nice people that night. That was September 25, 1980, and I haven’t had a drink since.
Jim became my sponsor and he invited me over to his house the following weekend for dinner. He was very low key, and told me that joining a group and getting active with the group was essential, even more so than doing the steps right away. He also talked about “hanging with the winners,” the people that walked the talk. He cautioned me that some of the people were going to sound very good to me in the beginning, but that I would find out that they were as nutty as fruitcakes. The other thing that he and some of the old-timers impressed upon me was this: The thing that killed so many alcoholics was that they couldn’t get over their guilt over being an alcoholic.
I think the reason that I’ve been able to stay sober and happy all these years is that I’ve been able to find the balance between AA and the other good things that life has to offer. I’m nearly 35 years sober and I still go to about four meetings a week. Early on, you’re in a fight for survival. But if you stay close to the program and do service, you can get through anything sober.
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