Sunday, July 15, 2012

The whole "not drinking thing"

I rode my bike over the Continental Divide this morning.  I was really, really proud of myself.  The normal yardsticks of success like having ridden 2,800 miles over 7 weeks and blah, blah, blah weren't what made me proud.  That was all secondary.  What made me proud was that about 7 months ago I told myself, "Self, if you don't quit drinking for real, you're never getting off your ass and certainly not riding your bike over the Rockies."  And here I was at over 11,000 feet, seeing my commitment to sobriety paying off.

I don't know why this was my motivator to quit drinking again, but Hoosier Pass delivered.

Living in State College, PA (the home of Penn State University), a drinking problem can go easily unnoticed.  The vast majority of students and a lot of residents are out every evening getting drunk in an attempt to sleep with one another.  I started out drinking innocently enough since it's somewhat of a rite of passage when you're in college.  What my friends and I didn't realize is that it quickly went beyond that.  Over the years, I cannot recollect the number of nights that I was blackout drunk and have no idea what transpired.  I can't recall how many people I pissed off or friends I turned ugly on during my drunken periods.  There are plenty of conversations, people that I was introduced to and odd events that were drowned out by my drinking.  What I can remember is sitting at work many days, thinking about when I could start drinking that day.  I can remember having my roommate Clay talking sense into me when he found me sitting alone in the dark with an open liquor bottle more than once.  And I can remember feeling worse and worse about myself for drinking so much and then trying to quell those feelings with more alcohol.

One morning, waking up with the omnipresent hangover, I finally had enough.  The only thing that I could remember from the night before was that I had gone to several bars and a party on a night that I hadn't planned to drink at all.  Friends clued me in to the facts that I had been a complete ass, I crashed my bike attempting to ride home at some late hour, and a whole host of other troubling things which I won't recount.  This was the first time that I saw my drinking affecting others and I had to stop lying to myself.  I wasn't a social drinker because I either drank alone or drank with others in order to make me not look like an alcoholic.  I didn't "like the taste of beer" since I regularly would drink the cheapest thing I could get ahold of be it beer, wine or liquor.  Drinking didn't make me more social since most times I would drink myself into a sort of tightening "tunnel vision" where all I paid attention to was the drink in front of me.

I quit cold turkey.  Oh man was it hard.  I didn't go to AA.  I only had the support of a couple of people close to me.  At first I thought it would help by avoiding situations where I would encounter people drinking, but quickly realized that this impact on my social life would just make me resent sobriety and not succeed.  I took to drinking bottled root beer as a placebo.  Sometimes I would drink non-alcoholic beer but since it tasted so close to the real thing, I was afraid I might accidentally switch to the real stuff.  At bars I would drink enough Coca Cola or ice water to drown a fish.  At some parties, I would take shots of just water in order to be part of the crowd.  I'm glad that people like my friend, George, humored me in this way.  Other times I would go running or biking to take my mind off of wanting to drink.  I can remember several Friday and Saturday nights running through town in the snow while drunken frat kids chucked beers bottles at me as I passed by.

After almost two years of maintaining my sobriety by tooth and nail, I unfortunately fell off of the wagon.  I had decided to make a life change and go on a long roadtrip to go mountaineering and exploring.  Accordingly, I had given my notice at work and was preparing to sell my house.  With the accompanying stresses and uncertainties, I started drinking while away from home at a trade show with none of my support group around me.  And it continued for a year.  All of my great ideas about leaving town and touring North America largely came to naught since I was drinking again and not looking at life clearly.  I feel like I wasted yet another year of my precious life in this downward spiral.

One night about seven or eight months ago I was sitting alone, drinking beer, when I had a sudden realization:  I was never going to do shit with my life if I just kept drinking.  I would just shuffle along making the motions of living.  And I would probably never ride my bike over the Rocky Mountains.  (For some reason, that thought stuck in my head)  So, once again I was resolute in quitting drinking.  I wavered several times, once going so far as biking to the liquor store until I dangled the image of the Rockies in my mind.  I turned home and drank some tea instead.  I won't tell you that it was easy.

But now that I have been riding my bicycle across the country, I have been enjoying every moment of every day.  I meet new and interesting people and see terrific new places.  I know that I want to be able to spend all of my remaining precious life exploring these things and not stuck inside of a bottle.  Since leaving on this trip, I haven't once felt like taking a drink.  Another cyclist that I met on this cross country ride who is also a recovering alcoholic, agreed with me on this point.  Whitney's plan is similar in occupying her mind with biking and living instead of drinking.  Check out her blog, My First Sober Summer.  I vow to never drink again and let it come between me and enjoying life.  I know it won't be easy, but as long as I can remember what life can give me (like riding my bike over the Rockies) I think that I can do it.

This is not meant to be a commentary on people's drinking habits.  There's plenty of folks who can handle their booze and it is enjoyable for them.  But for some, it is an incredibly negative thing.  If you know of anyone who is staying sober or struggling to become sober, please support them in any way that you can.  It makes a world of difference knowing that there are others out there backing you up.  And if you yourself are trying to get sober or remain sober and need someone to talk to, please contact me.  I don't care if you don't know me from Adam- it's important to have someone to talk to that cares.  Feel free to forward this along to anyone, share it on Facebook, print it out and glue it to a duck, or give my contact info to someone that needs it.

For a much more well written piece on this subject, please read Brendan Leonard's "The Toughest Thing".  I realize that my story follows a lot of what he writes and I do not intend to plagiarize him in any way.


  1. Tom,
    I am proud of you, and the resolve you showed in getting to where you are at today. Your character continues to grow and shine!

    Continental Divide --that must mean that it is all downhill from there. You will be awed by the Grand Tetons.

    I'll be thinking of you as I pedal South on Tuesday.


    1. Thank you Mike! I appreciate all of the support and love that your entire family has given me over the years.

      Have a terrific time out riding! I'll be thinking of you as well.

  2. Tom: Awesome. So awesome. Congratulations. What a great spot to celebrate seven months!

  3. I just got out of the Appalachians today. In Berea KY right now at Oh Kentucky RV park and campgrounds. I picked up a rider headed west just east of Damasucus, and 4 more riders at the hostel in Hindman. There's even a 12 year old girl and her dad riding. Shes got 4 panniers a handlebar bag as well! Probably won't see you but good to read what I'm about to ride into! Ran into a cool english man named john last night in booneville at the church. He was headed west from san fran on a mountain bike!

  4. "The Panty Dropper", eh? Must be looking good with that new do. Congrats on the Divide!!

  5. hey Tom! Big congrats to making it up the mountains and to the milestone it represents. By now you're probably busy alternating between soaring back down hills and clawing your way back up. Good luck and keep posting pics!

    Since we met back here in Charlottesville I met a nice guy named Patrick from UK on his way east who knew you from Kentucky I think? Anyway, happy trails, hope our paths cross again some day, hopefully on wheels or on a rockface or some combination of the two. Stephen

  6. dude, sorry for ever busting you balls about now drinking at a party or the bar. You've done something I can't imagine doing, especially without a cold beer at the end of the day. Congratulations buddy! you're almost to the left coast!