I’ve always liked the tinkling sound when a bottle of bourbon taps on the edge of a low glass, and the gurgling the warm, brown liquid makes as it leaves the comfort of that black-labeled bottle. I never fought it. I never tried to quiet the desire in me for the demon liquor. I never wanted to. I was once told “You’re not an alcoholic, you’re a drunk. Alcoholics go to meetings. Drunks go to parties”
Can there be a “party of one?”
I don’t remember the exact date where drinking alone became normal for me, but it must have been sometime after my 40th birthday. I had been an amateur athlete until then. I’d always been one to tie one on every now and again, but it had usually been a social sort of drinking, always with other people.
I don’t know when than changed, but it most certainly did and I found myself drinking, as a character in a Joseph Wambaugh novel I once read stated, “to kill the pain of being alive.” I don’t think there was one day or one instant when self-medication with booze started, I think it was a gradual, downward spiral.
It probably started innocently enough, with a glass of wine after a long shift on the street, you know, “to relax.” The one glass became two, and then three, and so it went until I got to where I am now, polishing off a bottle at 8 am without a second thought, as a matter of course. “It helps me sleep,” I tell myself, and it does. There are probably better methods.
When you work graveyard shift, you never really get good sleep. Evolution is a bitch and humans just aren’t made to be up all night and sleep all day. After a decade working the nights, I’m still not accustomed to it and routinely violate policy when I find myself nodding by finding a dark spot behind a church somewhere to catch a few winks. Every graveyard cop I know does this. It’s one of those dirty, little secrets we don’t tell the public, that those guys you see in their uniforms with their guns, sipping coffee at 3 am in some brightly lit convenience store, are as drowsy and dangerous as a driver who’s had too much to drink. Fatigue exists for most cops, and then in my case it was compounded by insomnia. If I got 4 solid hours, I considered it to be “a good night’s sleep.”
And, like a lot of cops, I learned that “3 fingers” of bourbon might just do the trick. Alcohol induced sleep isn’t really very good sleep, but it beats the hell out no sleep at all.
But there’s a fine line, and it’s hard to judge, when you drink just a little too much, and you feel it. You notice when you wake up, later than normal, with itchy eyes and a fluttering stomach, and you know you drank “a little too much.” There are cures for that, too, of course. I can drink Pepto-Bismol straight out of the bottle and eating 600mg of Ibuprofen and chugging a couple of liters of Coke Zero every single day I wake up helps stop what the Danes call “Den tømmermænd” in my head. Loosely translated as “The Hammer Man,” tømmermænd is the Danes' term for hangover.
I remember my very first, real hangover. Most people do. One of those horrible afternoons when even lying on the ground can’t keep the world from spinning. It was when I was in college the morning after a yearly event sponsored by our dormitory called “The Tyus Hall T-Party.” I met a couple of guys from Pennsylvania, who had come down to visit one of my classmates and those boys could drink. Unfortunately, I thought I could, too. I’d grown up a typical white boy from the suburban south whose idea of “drink” was Budweiser and a bottle of Dickel. These guys had brought a bottle of tequila.
I learned the hard way Jose Cuervo is not a friend mine. I am sure I swore I was never going to drink again, but even in the throes of vomiting up whatever greasy food it was I ate the night before, I knew I was lying to myself. Even more unfortunate than my sorry condition was I had to go to work that night. I loaded trucks to pay my way through school. It was September. In Georgia. Loading trucks when you’re hungover and it’s nearly 95F and 90% humidity is Not Fun. I’d load for a few minutes, go puke off the loading dock, then go back at it. I told myself I deserved it. I told myself it would teach me not to be so reckless with my drinking.
I was wrong. Of course, I haven’t drunk any tequila since, but I replaced it with other spirits.
What I eventually discovered is you develop a tolerance, and Hank Williams, Jr. was lying to me when he sang “…and the hangovers hurt more than they used to.” Actually, they don’t. Even the hangover following the night I ended up puking blood into a basket of freshly laundered towels wasn’t as bad as that day heaving chunks out the ass end of a tractor-trailer on a hot summer day.
Now, “Den tømmermænd” greets me on most days like an unwelcome neighbor. One of those people you don’t really like, but circumstances of geography require you to put up with. Sometimes, he doesn’t even show up at all. It’s a subtle dance with the bottle to drink just the right amount to make the sleep come without too many side effects. I have learned what it meant to be a “functioning alcoholic.” And so it goes, until you find yourself sipping bourbon at 8 am.