Keeping It Real

I’ve always had a “keep it real” ethos on this blog, the point being to share what life as a professional technical writer is like–good, bad, and ugly. Today I’m going to venture outside my usual comfort zone and share information I’d normally keep among family and friends because I think it’s important enough to do so. If you’d rather tune out and read about negotiating with clients or improving sentence structure, I won’t be offended. Today I’m going to talk about alcohol and why I quit drinking it a year ago today.

Where do I start? I’d been drinking since I was 16–yep, five years underage, based on the laws of the State of Illinois. Pretty certain the statute of limitations has expired on that little crime, but there’s no denying it: I started drinking early. I grew comfortable with the stuff, as an accompaniment to meals and as a source of oblivion on those moments when I felt like it, with or without other people around. As I got older, drinking-to-oblivion became less prevalent as I realized that I had a job and couldn’t be hung over all the time. But it could still happen. Usually I drank just enough to numb whatever I was feeling, then I’d call it a night, but productivity could suffer. This went on pretty much daily until age 50. A long time.

There were side effects, of course. I went from scrawny to overweight with only a narrow window of being a “normal” weight for my height (a few weeks in freshman year of college). Sometimes my work suffered. Nothing stopped the drinking for long, though: vows to self, vows to my deity, vows to employers.

Then I spent 2019 in a constant state of depression. That was pretty stupid because 2019 was a great year for me (and the last year before the pandemic–who knew?). I turned 50. I got my book in shape for publication. Visited with friends in Virginia wine country. Took an epic three-week trip to Australia and New Zealand. I was checking off “bucket list” items from my personal to-do list and should’ve felt grand. I did not. I was in a constant state of social anxiety and depression, even in the glorious highlands of New Zealand. By the time 2020 started, I was tired of feeling this way and got myself back into therapy.

My opening line to the therapist was, “On paper, I’m in great shape. Inside, I’m a mess.” You don’t need to know the rest of my therapy talk. However, the therapist did note that I was “self-medicating” with alcohol to tamp down the runaway emotions in my head. She asked me, “You do know that alcohol is a depressant, right?” And intellectually I should have remembered that, but had forgotten. Lucky for me, while I can’t seem to keep promises on the basis of choice, I do take my health–especially my mental health–seriously. That discipline probably comes from 50 years of taking doctor’s orders and one pill per day for hypothyroidism (told you I was going to share a bit more than usual today). I’d spent over a year depressed, X chemical was perpetuating the feeling, time to quit.

And so I just quit after coming home from going out with friends for cocktails. Randomly, on January 28. I didn’t join Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)–obviously–it’s difficult to write this and be “anonymous.” I didn’t require rehab. I even “retired” from therapy. I’ve gotten mixed reactions to my decision, but in the end, it was my choice, born out of increasing desperation to get out of the funk I was in and to not repeat it. I had someone tell me I wasn’t “really” an alcoholic because I hadn’t damaged myself enough–blackouts, violence, damaged relationships, planning for my next drink, etc.–but in my mind I had reached a point where I knew I was not a moderate drinker and needed to stop. I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, so I flipped the switch. Now I’m drinking ginger ales and cream sodas and eating cookies to get my sugar fix, but I’m still keeping my head straight a year later.

So you’re probably wondering if my message to tech writers is going to be something preachy like “STOP DRINKING!” It’s not. If you enjoy beer, wine, or spirits in moderation (i.e., at or below appropriate serving sizes over time), I wish you well. If you manage to keep your life orderly and can take or leave your recreational chemicals without any harm, great. Good for you. All I’ll ask is that you consider your current state: physical, mental, social, etc. Are you suffering somehow? Is that suffering accompanied by the use of a recreational chemical? That is when I’d ask you to consider doing something good for you and take a break from that habit. Just a break. If you find that you can’t, then seek professional help and see what can be done. I was lucky: I finally found a lever that would move me off the path I was on. May you be so fortunate.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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