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June 26, 2005

Letting things go

A year ago this weekend my grandmother died.

(Imagine a little virtual yahrzeit candle here. Thanks. I miss her.)

A year ago this weekend I also bought a new computer, a Macintosh G5, and I spent the rest of the day setting it up (which took oh, maybe ten minutes ) and then playing with it. I was in the habit of having a drink or two when doing long computer projects, and I poured myself a wee dram of Lagavulin. By the time night rolled around I was stinking drunk.

It was not the Lagavulin's fault. I blame the two or three martinis and the two three four fingers of 151-proof handmade bourbon that landed on top of it. Becky was furious. The hangover lasted until mid-week. I haven't had any alcohol since.

My decision to stop drinking had been building for a while. During much of the 1990s, especially when I was working at Terrain and struggling with QuarkXpress and Photoshop on a Quadra 610 until two each morning, I would drink four or six beers in a typical night to take the edge off the six cups of coffee I'd needed to drink to wake me after having four or six beers while working the night before. I cut back on the drinking quite a number of times.

Am I an alcoholic? I honestly don't know. Someone close to me once said that if I could go into a bar, have one beer, and leave, that I wasn't. She's in AA, and is for that and other reasons unlikely to mince words to protect my feelings on the subject. But I wonder. If I'd been a hopeless drunk, the kind where one drink inevitably leads to a binge, I'd have quit a long time ago. But I'm that high-functioning kind of problem drinker. I can go weeks without drinking, and months nursing a nightly shot of scotch for an hour watching the West Wing, and then every so often after several months of moderation, I act out my own little After-School Special.

And I got to the point where the benefit wasn't worth the cost. It was an easy decision to make. I haven't regretted it for a minute, other than during a hike with Matthew when he mentioned drinking Scotch and I had a sudden fond memory of the taste of Islay. Oh, and the stray wistful thoughts of India Pale Ale. I suppose that's a victory of sorts: I miss the taste, but I can't imagine that taste without the deadening effects of alcohol, which memory kills the desire but quick.

I gave up smoking pot at age 17: any drug that accentuated feelings of hunger and paranoia was, in those days, not precisely what I needed. (My brother and I reminisced a couple years ago about using beer as a source of survival calories back then.) On my twentieth birthday, as I stood outside a nice vegetarian restaurant letting my food get cold so that I could stand in the snow and suck on a Marlboro, I decided I was being stupid. I don't remember the next week at all clearly, but that was the last cigarette I ever smoked.

Wait a minute. Why was I eating alone on my birthday? No wonder I left Buffalo. Stinking unfriendly rat trap of a city.

Anyway, I kicked the smoking monkey off my back at 20, off and the alcohol monkey at 44, and now the next monkey looms.

There is a drug I have been taking since I was 13, consuming unhealthy doses of it almost every single day. I have spent more money on this drug than on any other, even with ten years of a six-pack-a-day habit under my belt, or more properly hanging over it.

This next drug has affected my health, my work life, my writing productivity, and my relationships. It's the strongest addiction I've ever faced, and I'm saying that as someone who's been through morphine withdrawal. I've set aside some time in my life to go through what will likely be rather intense discomfort as I go through withdrawal.

On July 15, I will be giving up coffee.

I've been thinking about it for a few weeks now. Made a decision last week. And yesterday clinched it. I had the temerity to sleep in until 7:30 in the morning. The coffee monkey expects to have drunk two double espressos by then. I could not shake the headache for the rest of the day.

On July 15, the coffee monkey gets the spanking of its life.

Posted by Chris Clarke at June 26, 2005 05:18 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Chris, in case you've never kicked caffeine cold turkey, one word: don't. Not unless you can afford a three-day version of that missed-the-morning-dose headache. Gradually reduce the intake over a week. And best wishes.

Posted by: doghouse riley at June 26, 2005 05:32 PM
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Erm, is there something special about July 15?

Posted by: butuki at June 26, 2005 07:49 PM
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Great post and good luck with sobriety! I've been sober for almost 7 years (on August 16). When I first decided to get sober, I wasn't sure I was an alcoholic either, but getting sober has changed my life so dramatically that I've quit arguing with myself. Life is too good to go back to alcohol and drugs. Good or bad, I like being awake for my life.

I have to say that going to AA has helped me tremendously. I think because my drinking was more a symptom of a deeper problem. I strongly encourage you to get help from people and not do this alone. AA and therapy are the two things that have worked the best for me, but I am sure there is a whole galaxy of support that I don't know about, so find what works for you.

Good luck! You are in for the time of your life!

Posted by: Toni at June 26, 2005 08:11 PM
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Nothing special about July 15, Miguel, other than it's a couple weeks past the Earth Island Journal deadline and I'll have time to slack off my caffeine dosage, as Mr. Riley suggests.

Just to clarify, Toni: I'm not troubled by the possibility that I'm an alcoholic, whether borderline or full-blown. As a result, I'm not particularly arguing with myself over it. But I do have some problem with the AA spiel, to wit: I am not powerless over this addiction. As I have been proving for 52 weeks now, with relative ease.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at June 26, 2005 08:32 PM
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Also, AA people drink way too much coffee.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at June 26, 2005 08:33 PM
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Me, too! I decided to kick the caffeine habit last week myself, but your brave admission here has convinced me to go public.

Should we start a Coffeholics Anonymous group, with our own steps (no "higher power" nonsense, please) and a secret handshake?

Posted by: PZ Myers at June 26, 2005 08:39 PM
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You can have my coffee when you can get my hands to stop shaking long enough to pry it from them.

Posted by: Kathy at June 26, 2005 09:07 PM
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Be sure to lay in a good supply of Metamucil.

Posted by: craig at June 26, 2005 09:15 PM
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The doctors at the Center For Addiction in my hometown had their Coke delivered by trucks every day. While helping others get off drugs, smokes and alcohol, they were themselves addicted to caffeine.

Posted by: coturnix at June 27, 2005 12:28 AM
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Watch your weight.

Posted by: jaimito at June 27, 2005 01:30 AM
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"...I am not powerless over this addiction."

Do you understand, Chris, that this statement is based upon ignorance?

If you're not powerless, if you can summon the will to stop imbibing in the substance with relative ease, then it is NOT an addiction.

Posted by: Carrie at June 27, 2005 07:38 AM
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Every statement I make is based in ignorance.

But addiction is an objective, biochemical thing, and whether one has the psychological tools necessary to weather withdrawal doesn't change the fact of addiction.

Dependency, sure. That's defined by the person's relationship to the substance. But I quit smoking with no help, and I was definitely, classically, biochemically addicted to nicotine.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at June 27, 2005 07:48 AM
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In memory of your grandmother, that is a virtual stone placed on her grave. I imagine the yahrzeit burning, too.
I agree with Doghouse Riley-- gradual reduction is the way to go. The caffeine withdrawal headache is unbearable.
Good luck.
BTW-- I gave up pot at 19 for the same reason. Why would I continually indulge in something that reinforced my sense of paranoia and insecurity? Question: When you first started to smoke pot, did it have that affect on you, or did it turn into that after some time of indulgence?

Posted by: Rexroths Daughter at June 27, 2005 08:05 AM
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Rd and i switched from coffee to black tea 10 years ago. no shakes, no withdrawal, no upset stomach, and black tea is widely reported by actual science to have healthy effects. i do have a cup of decaf 3 or 4 times a year. at least one of those times i get mild shakes.

red wine with dinner, also reputed to be healthy, is my limit.

good luck with the coffee quitting. from my own coffee experience i recommend the tapering off method.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at June 27, 2005 08:10 AM
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I did the same thing, no problem. Six years ago I was reading a book on controlling anxiety, which I was having a lot of. A light bulb went off: why am I drugging myself every day with anxiety producing caffeine?

I had my last cup of coffee the next day, and haven't even wanted one since. Honest.

I did substitute green tea, however, and a couple of years ago found a caffeine-free green tea I liked, after I discovered a tiny heart problem that is better if I don't ingest caffeine.

However, I then started working on the Dean campaign 12-14 hours a day, and went back to caffeinated tea.

During my caffeine-free months, I honestly did not need as much sleep. I'd wake up refreshed every morning around 4 or 5, and never get that mid-afternoon slump.

You'll love it, trust me.

Plus, nothing smells worse than coffee breath, when you're a recovering coffaholic.

Posted by: KathyF at June 27, 2005 08:35 AM
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Just noticed as I wrote that, I'm hugging a cuppa tea. What can I say, I like warm things in my hand.

Posted by: KathyF at June 27, 2005 08:38 AM
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"Addiction is an uncontrollable compulsion to repeat a behavior regardless of its consequences. A person who is addicted is sometimes called an addict.

"Many drugs or behaviors can precipitate a pattern of conditions recognized as addiction, which include a craving for more of the drug or behavior, increased physiological tolerance to exposure, and withdrawal symptoms in the absence of the stimulus. Most drugs and behaviors that directly provide either pleasure or relief from pain pose a risk of dependency. Addictions can also be formed due to opponent process reactions. For example the terror of jumping out of an airplane is rewarded with intense pleasure when the parachute opens. Because of opponent process criminal behavior, running, stealing, violence, acting, test taking can become habit forming.

"Varied forms of addiction

"The medical community now carefully distinguishes between physical dependence (withdrawals) and psychological addiction (or simply addiction). Addiction is now narrowly defined as "uncontrolled, compulsive use despite harm"; if there is no harm to the patient or another party, there is no addiction. The obsolete term physical addiction is deprecated because of its pejorative connotations, especially in modern pain management with opioids where physical dependence is nearly universal but addiction is rare.

"Physical dependency on a substance is defined by the appearance of characteristic withdrawal symptoms when the drug is suddenly discontinued. While opioids, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, alcohol and nicotine are all well known for their ability to induce physical dependence, other drugs share this property that are not considered addictive: cortisone, beta-blockers and most antidepressants are examples. Also, some highly addictive drugs, such as cocaine, induce relatively little physical dependence. So while physical dependency can be a major factor in the psychology of addiction, the primary attribute of an addictive drug is its ability to induce euphoria while causing harm.

"Some drugs induce physical dependence or physiological tolerance - but not addiction - for example many laxatives, which are not psychoactive; nasal decongestants, which can cause rebound congestion if used for more than a few days in a row; and some antidepressants, most notably Effexor and Paxil, as they have quite short half-lives, so stopping them abruptly causes a more rapid change in the neurotransmitter balance in the brain than many other antidepressants. Many non-addictive prescription drugs should not be suddenly stopped, so a doctor should be consulted before abruptly discontinuing them.

"Psychological addictions are a dependency of the mind, and lead to psychological withdrawal symptoms. Addictions can theoretically form for any rewarding behavior, but typically only do so in individuals with emotional, social, or psychological dysfunctions, taking the place of normal positive stimuli not otherwise attained (see Rat Park). The distinction between the two kinds of addictions, however, is not always easy to make. Addictions often have both physical and psychological components."

Posted by: Carrie at June 27, 2005 08:39 AM
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I've experienced paranoia with pot only once. Every other time I've used it, it has made me incredibly horny. Just lucky I guess.

Posted by: Fox's Vixen at June 27, 2005 08:40 AM
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Oh yeah - about your broad brush stroke -

"AA people drink way too much coffee"

A LOT of AA people bring their own water, rather than drink coffee, and a LOT of AA people have sworn off coffee after being sober for a while.

Instead of making pejorative comments about AA on other blogs, I suggest that you go to a few meetings to see what REALLY happens.

Posted by: Carrie at June 27, 2005 10:46 AM
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Lighten up, Carrie. You started by calling me ignorant, and then you complain that I'm being insulting because I made a joke about people drinking too much coffee?

But thanks for correcting me on the updated terminology.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at June 27, 2005 11:10 AM
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When I was in the hospital and they had been giving me demerol for weeks (without me being able to be aware of it) my body became dependant.
They knew it and stopped giving it to me. By that time my brain was working again and I was aware of my surroundings.

I went through withdrawal, and it was horrible. I can't even remember how long it took, I was delerious. I just know that for some god-awful length of time I was screaming my head off in pain at the nurses, they were giving me codeine to no effect, and finally I woke up one morning in a pile of shit like that scene in "Trainspotting."

After I got through it, I was fine. Clear-headed, no pain, cheerful and absolutely no desire for the drug. I would have refused it if offered, since I wasn't physically hurting. In fact, when I did get it once when not in physical pain, I didn't like the sensation at all.

I was not emotionally dependant on it, I never HAD been, because I hadn't even known I was getting the stuff until the last couple of days. All I knew was that I was in incredible pain, all over, a pain that didn't seem to have any locus, just every cell in me. I didn't know that that wasn't just normal "truck hit me" pain.

During that time I would have done anything to get that nice burning shot in the ass... I would call that a compulsion. But once the physical pain of withdrawal was gone there was no desire for the drug at all.

Terminology schmerminology. All I know is, it HURT, it SUCKED, I felt desperate for it during the withdrawal. I was fucking ADDICTED.

Posted by: craig at June 27, 2005 12:09 PM
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I guess it was a year and a half ago now that I found myself in the ER with what turned out to be not a heart attack but some mysterious GI thing. It's a teaching hospital, so of course a large number of earnest young people came in and asked me about my coffee, alcohol, and tobacco consumption (frequent and often excessive on all counts). I was in terrible pain but that alone did not motivate me to quit all three simultaneously -- it just felt so stupid & crazy to admit that I did these things on purpose, and there I was all sick on account of it. I called a friend and asked her to go over and walk my dog -- and before she left to remove all traces of caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco from my house and car. Alcohol & tobacco were relatively easy to let go, but I'd been drinking coffee daily for about 30 years. A lot of coffee, sometimes. Interestingly, however, I have resumed occasional (and yes, sometimes, excessive) alcohol & tobacco use without ill effect, but I just can't stomach coffee any more at all, not even decaf. I am occasionally wistful about it, and still have all the gear out in the kitchen. It's just so pretty, sitting there.

Posted by: alphabitch at June 27, 2005 12:13 PM
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I did not call you ignorant, I said your statement was based in ignorance, i.e., lack of knowledge.

And, yes, it irks me sometimes to hear disparaging jokes about the thing that saved my life, the thing that I know something about, that I've spent countless hours of the last 15 years living, breathing recovery from addiction, and that you (and Craig) have the audacity to argue with ME about what addiction is.

Posted by: Carrie at June 27, 2005 12:59 PM
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Carrie, I'm sorry that what I said irked you. I'm very proud of the work you've done over the last years, and incredibly grateful to my brother-in-law for his major role in that as well. You done good, and I have nothing but admiration for the work you've put into your recovery.

AND that doesn't make it "audacious" for someone in your family to disagree with you over terminology. Correct me when I'm wrong - as you did - and I'm grateful for it. But I get in arguments every day with economists, lawyers, nuclear scientists, etc., people who are supposed to know what they're talking about. And sometimes I turn out to be the one that's right, despite their vast experience and expertise. Not always, but not never.

You've put in a lot of work, and you ought to be proud of it, but that doesn't make you disagreement-proof... especially considering that you're not the only one of us who has been through this kind of stuff. And I'd think you'd be the first one of us to point out that not everyone's experiences are the same.

And in fact, despite the interesting stuff at, I see that people working in the field of addictive behavior are still debating how to define what "addiction" is.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at June 27, 2005 01:45 PM
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I did it (years ago, on the ever-louder advice of my stomach) - you can too. Decaf really is all right if you buy good beans and drink it in moderation; I drink 2 cups in the morning and that's usually it except for a cup of tea at 4:00 pm. Or maybe moderation and substitutions don't work for you. (Funny thing...I live with somebody like that.)

Posted by: beth at June 27, 2005 02:29 PM
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In honor of this brave and meaningful pledge on the part of my beloved uncle, I hereby publicly counterpledge that, starting July 15th and continuing for as long as necessary, I will consume enough caffeine for the both of us.

No, please, don't thank me.

Posted by: Allison at June 27, 2005 04:34 PM
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That's my girl.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at June 27, 2005 05:29 PM
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Hi Chris,

I reread my comment and it looks, well, a little preachy in retrospect.
You sound like you are doing fine. My step-father has been without alcohol for 17 years without the help of anything that I know of. I've worked for so long in recovery that my reactions can be a little knee-jerk sometimes. Good luck with the coffee!

Posted by: Toni at June 27, 2005 07:35 PM
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No worries, Toni. Thanks for the good wishes.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at June 27, 2005 07:54 PM
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the anniversary of your grandmothers death (and the ensuing journal entry) is also the anniversary of my discovering you and your wonderful stories. thanks for a year of enchantment.

Posted by: Anne at June 28, 2005 09:02 AM
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Good luck to you, Chris - I kicked caffeine for a year, about a year and a half ago, and:

1) It's harder to kick than smokes. (sorry)
2) Gradual is the way to go.

The headaches are brutal, but excedrin can help ease the transition. It's cheating, of a sorts, because it does contain caffeine - but that and water will help.

Good luck to you!

Posted by: Space Kitty at June 28, 2005 12:25 PM
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Just don't get too damned virtuous, kid. I might have to start telling people at EII you've turned vegan.

Posted by: Ron Sullivan at June 30, 2005 08:38 PM
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=v= I have a (vegan) soy mocha every morning. Where should I stick *my* virtuousness?

Posted by: Jym Dyer at July 3, 2005 08:57 PM
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