I don’t remember what made me take the alcohol-abuse questionnaire.
I took that questionnaire one night when I was feeling particularly sad and lonely. No one to fuck with or fuck on. I was sitting on the porch of a two-bedroom, two-bathroom house I rented in Tampa Heights. I got that place on a hook-up, everything included for $750. Hardwood floors, lots of windows, partially furnished. I would sit on that porch on a warm night and drink whiskey until I couldn’t keep my eyes open, listening to nightingales and rustling trees. That house was dope. It had a tangerine tree in the front yard. The tangerines were sweet, too. And juicy. I would eat them three at a time, spitting the seeds into the bushes. I could pluck them from the tree without even leaving the porch, just by walking to the far side and leaning over the railing. I loved that tree. Rick, the dude who lived in the studio-cottage in the back, killed it though. Sprayed that big, beautiful tree with some industrial-grade pesticide. The leaves turned brown; then, shriveled and crispy, they fell from the branches in a matter of days. The tiny buds that would have been tangerines hardened, never to recover.
I felt partly responsible. Every spring, atomic-mutant grasshoppers infested all the bushes and tall grasses in the neighborhood. I called them mutant grasshoppers because I’d never seen grasshoppers so big, and they had to be atomic because they were too brightly-colored not to be—their bodies sharp, fluorescent yellows, greens, reds, and oranges that looked almost digital in the sunlight. And loud. Them things were so loud they woke me out of my sleep some nights. The atomic-mutant grasshoppers started as small, black insects with yellow racing stripes, little blips jumping all over the bushes that lined the driveway where I parked my car. Almost overnight they would increase in size, explode with color. No longer jumping, but squatting on the leaves, staring and daring me to do something they didn’t like. I told Rick the atomic-mutant grasshoppers freaked me out, and since he was always trying to be my friend, he said he’d take care of it. I seen him out there one morning dressed like a ghostbuster—jumpsuit, goggles, gloves, and a big steel can of poison with a hose and sprayer attached. In my memory that shit had a skull and crossbones on it.
I’m lying. Not about the house, the tree, or the grasshoppers. I’m serious—and still salty—about the tangerines and the poison that killed them. Rick never said anything about killing the tree, and I didn’t either.
Sometimes my lies are omissions. My lying is distraction. Diversion. I’m supposed to be talking about the alcohol-abuse questionnaire but that made me uncomfortable, so I changed the subject.
Here is the truth:
I didn’t take that alcohol-abuse questionnaire “one night.” I took that questionnaire, or rather searched for it with Google, opened it, read it, and considered it all the time. On plenty nights. On random mornings. On slow afternoons. I never really took it though. I would read the title, “Am I an Alcoholic? Test for Alcohol Use Disorder.” Then, I would read through the questions:
In the past year…
- … have you had times when you consumed more alcohol, or drank for longer periods than you intended?
- … have you, on multiple occasions, wanted to or tried to cut down on drinking, but failed to do so?
- … have you spent a lot of time drinking, trying to obtain alcohol, and recovering from its effects?
- … have you experienced strong cravings for alcohol? In the past year, has frequent drinking interfered with your relationships, family, or work life?
- … have you continued to drink even when it has caused problems at home or at work?
- … have you stopped doing activities you previously enjoyed in order to spend time drinking?
- … have you gotten into situations when drinking that increased your chances of being physically harmed?
- … have you continued to consume alcohol despite it making you feel depressed, anxious, or paranoid, and impacting your physical health?
- … has your tolerance for alcohol increased, meaning that you need to consume more alcohol than you once did to feel its effects?
- … have you experienced withdrawal symptoms when not under the influence of alcohol, such as nausea, sweating, trouble sleeping, a racing heart, sweating, restlessness, or shaking?
I would answer the first three or so in my mind, or maybe quietly to myself, lips moving but hardly no sound coming out. “Yes. Yes. Yes.”
Then, I’d close the browser window. Clap the laptop closed or press the home button and toss my phone on the bed. I’d say, “Fuck that shit.” I would say it out loud. I would say it with my chest.
I knew what a drinking problem was. My father had a drinking problem. My uncles had drinking problems. I was friends with a white boy in college that had to get his damn stomach pumped the day after St. Patrick’s Day our junior year. He had a drinking problem. He said he drank so much green beer at Murphy’s that he blacked out and woke up on the kitchen floor of the apartment he shared with five other dudes, chunks of pale yellow, black-speckled vomit all over his Golden Eagles sweatshirt. He said one of his roommates, some dude from the UP—which feels like it should be part of Wisconsin but is really upper Michigan—gave him a bootleg version of the Heimlich, wrapping his arms around his waist and pumping his stomach with his interlocked fists at full force until he threw up all over the floor, all over his eighty-dollar sweatshirt, just a “fuckin’ mess” he said. “But he saved my life.” I told him that ain’t what stomach-pumping is and he looked at me like I had two-heads. I was used to it though because that’s how most white people looked at me at Marquette.
I’m lying again. Not about my father or my uncles, but almost everything else though. There was a lot of drinking in my college days, and green beer was a Milwaukee-must for the white folks who partied up and down Wells and State streets, oblivious and entitled like our campus wasn’t settled in the center of one of the poorest, overpoliced parts of the city, where if you looked like me or my father or my uncles, you’d get stopped, but if you looked like a small-town Wisconsin, or Upper Peninsula, white boy, you’d get smiled at. Truth is, I didn’t really have no white friends at Marquette. I was invisible on campus until I stepped in the Black Student Union to watch Maury, eat lunch, talk shit, and study with folks who knew I was smart and interesting just like I knew they were smart and interesting, who knew I earned my spot at that university just like I knew they had earned their spots at that university. But this ain’t about that.
It’s about whether or not I (had/have) a drinking problem. I don’t know why I’m stalling—I’m lying. I know why. It’s making me uncomfortable.
Look, I (knew/know) I (didn’t have/don’t have) a drinking problem.
Think I’m lying again? Here:
101 Reasons I Do Not Have a Drinking Problem
- Because I said I don’t.
- I am not homeless.
- I am gainfully employed.
- I have never lost a job due to alcohol.
- I have never been arrested for a DUI or DWI.
- I have never been in a car accident with another driver while drunk.
- The property damage I’ve caused when intoxicated could have also been caused when not intoxicated so that doesn’t prove anything.
- It’s called CP time. Drinking has nothing to do with it.
- I have a high tolerance.
- I’m having fun. You just need to relax.
- Everybody was tore up.
- It’s not a blackout. It’s just a lil’ time-travelling. It happens to everybody.
- I apologized already.
- My friends would say something if it were a problem.
- I only drink alone sometimes, not all the time.
- I’ve only time-traveled a few times.
- I have no problem going to places that don’t serve alcohol.
- This flask was a gift. You glad I brought it though, ain’t you?
- I do a month-long detox in February.
- I don’t drink just anything.
- I work hard.
- It’s how I wind down after a long day.
- You can’t even tell when I’m drunk.
- I still get all my shit done.
- I’m not drunk. I’m tired. You think you know everything.
- It’s just a spliggidy-splash from the flask; it ain’t even a real drink.
- It’s a sleep aid.
- “Just ‘cause I have one, two, maybe two, drinks sometimes, what I’m a aka-holic now?” – Eddie Kane, Jr., The Five Heartbeats
- It’s just to take the edge off.
- I need to calm my nerves.
- Let’s relax.
- Let’s get crunk.
- It’s Happy Hour.
- It’s my birthday.
- It’s your birthday.
- I love you.
- A drunk mind speaks a sober heart. I’m just trying to get to the truth.
- Write drunk, edit sober. I’m just trying to create something good.
- I can quit any time I want.
- I can handle it.
- I don’t remember all the details, but it won’t happen again.
- I said I was sorry.
- I’m not my father.
- I’m never drinking again.
- I’ve seen a lot worse.
- One more and I’m going home. See?
- One more and I’m going home. See?
- One more and I’m going home. See?
- Everyone drinks for Cinco De Mayo.
- Everyone drinks for 4th of July.
- Everyone drinks for New Year’s Eve.
- Everyone day drinks on New Year’s Day.
- Everyone drinks at Christmas parties.
- Everyone drinks after a rough Monday at work.
- Everyone drinks on Tipsy Tuesday.
- Everyone drinks on Wine Down Wednesdays.
- Everyone drinks on Thirsty Thursdays.
- Hellooooo! It’s Friday!
- Turn up! It’s Saturday!
- It’s bottomless mimosas with Sunday brunch. Make mine real light-skinned.
- I’m only drinking wine from now on.
- I’m only drinking beer from now on.
- I only get drunk on the weekend.
- That was different.
- I been going to bars my whole life.
- I don’t drink bottom shelf, so…
- So, everyone who likes drinks has a drinking problem?
- I was overserved.
- I threw up because I was mixing alcohol, not because I had too much.
- I threw up because I hadn’t eaten anything, not because I had too much.
- I threw up because I ate bullshit Taco Bell when we left the bar, not because I had too much.
- You’ve never even really seen me throw up.
- You don’t know how much I had to drink.
- Once you open a bottle of red wine, you gotta drink it, or it goes bad.
- I ain’t hid my drinking since I was a teenager.
- I drank too much when I was in college, but that was a long time ago.
- I drank too much when I was in my twenties, but that was a long time ago.
- I drank too much at that dinner meeting, but that was a long time ago.
- I drank too much at the faculty party, but that was a long time ago.
- I drank too much at that family get-together, but that was a long time ago.
- I drank too much at that birthday party, but that was a long time ago.
- I drank too much when you came to visit, but that was a long time ago.
- I drank too much when I visited you, but that was a long time ago.
- I really want a drink, but I wouldn’t call it a craving.
- I’m not drinking because I’m sad.
- I’m not sad.
- “Too much” is subjective.
- I drink 8 oz. of water between cocktails.
- I’m actually very healthy.
- I’m very organized.
- Work hard, play hard.
- It’s just beer.
- It’s just wine.
- This bourbon is top shelf!
- My “responsibly” and your “responsibly” are two different things.
- I only order a drink at lunch if you order a drink at lunch.
- It’s difficult to explain, let’s talk about it over drinks.
- Do I look like a drunk to you?
- Ain’t this the pot calling the kettle black?
- I said I was sorry, damn!
- Because I fucking said I don’t.
I said that last one with my full voice, a vein poppin’ in my neck and spit splattering the mirror. Looking at myself, hearing myself, knowing better than anybody that I’m bullshitting, lying.
I stayed lying about my drinking. I distracted and diverted, telling stories over drinks and omitting details—some of the finer points lost in my time-travels, others left out intentionally so I could still be loved, still be wanted. Mostly though, I changed the subject. When it got to be too much, when things felt too raw and too rough, when the apologies for things I was too drunk to remember became too many to count, too much to bear, I wanted so much to tell the truth. I wanted so much to tell somebody that I was struggling.
There were many nights, random mornings, and slow afternoons when my head throbbed, my throat cracked, my hands trembled, and my heart ached, and I opened the browser on my laptop or my phone, and I typed “Do I have a Drinking Problem” in the search bar. That questionnaire came up. When I looked at it, when I read it, when I considered it, the questions were all wrong. No one asked what I wanted them to ask, what I needed them to ask:
- What are you running from?
- How do you feel about yourself?
- Who do you love?
- Who loves you?
- Do you love yourself?
- Do you know who you are?
- Do you know what you’ve been put on earth to do?
- Are you poor?
- Are you lonely?
- Are you tired?
- Are you angry?
- Are you hurting?
- Are you lost?
- Are you afraid?
- Do you need help?
- With bills?
- With your health?
- With your house?
- With your lover?
- With your parents?
- With your job?
- With your dreams?
- Is there anyone to help you?
- Do you wish you were someone else?
- Do you wish you were somewhere else?
- Do you drink when you think about your answers to these questions?
- Do you want a drink right now because I’m asking you these questions?
- Do you think everything you’ve done is a mistake?
- Tell me how you feel:
- Tell me what you want:
- Tell me what you need:
These questions aren’t on the surveys though. The questionnaire is all yes/no questions about drinking habits and binging and craving and vague problems that aren’t ever really named. There are no questions about my experiences. My needs and nightmares. My dreams and disappointments. There are no text boxes or multiple choice. No scales to rate the frustration. The sadness. The guilt. The shame. The loneliness.
Ain’t that the way though? Distract. Divert. Make it easy to dismiss, easy to lie. A Google search. I can close the window, just press the laptop closed and put it away. I can swipe the screen and toss the phone on the bed. Then, just like that, I’m back. It’s me, in this room, on many nights, on random mornings, on slow afternoons, alone and sad and running through my reasons. Some of them are valid on their own. But together, in that list that goes on and on and on and on, they quickly become excuses, rapidly reflect a pattern of trying to say something ain’t what it is. But the reasons are all I (had/have) because no one wants to talk about the real shit, nobody is asking the real questions, for less than $150 an hour anyway.
Applebee’s up the street got a 2-4-1 all-day, every day, and a Lynchburg Lemonade is only $9. Bernini’s in Ybor got $3 martinis from four to seven p.m. I can get a bottle of bourbon, 1792 or Maker’s Mark, (see also: Reason #66) in all its smooth, caramel deliciousness, for $39.99 at the liquor store. At the grocery store. Online, too.
I ain’t good at math. But I know savings when I see them even if I didn’t know I needed saving when I looked at myself, when I looked into my own bloodshot eyes and cleared my bourbon-burnt throat to say aloud: “Fuck that shit.”
I don’t know all the reasons I stopped saying “fuck that shit,” but I know one thing that’s true:
I was tired. Tired of being sad and tired of being scared. I was tired of apologizing, tired of feeling wrong and ashamed, tired of lying. I stopped saying “fuck that shit” because I was ready to tell the truth.
At some point, the exhaustion of it all threatens to dead you right where you sit. Death feels closer and less and less consequential with each sip. It’s like that scene toward the end of Flight when Denzel’s character, Whip, is testifying. The attorney asks about his drinking during the situation in question, his drinking habits, whether or not he has a drinking problem. He lies. Then the attorney gets to asking him about a relationship, about someone he might have loved. His confidence slips. The questions opened the door to his guilt. His shame. His exhaustion. Finally, he chooses to tell the truth. Later, sober, Whip says, “I couldn’t tell one more lie.”
In 2014, years and miles away from Marquette University, in the last full year I’d spend in that sweet, sweet rental house in Tampa Heights, I took the Alcohol Abuse questionnaire in its entirety. I answered each question aloud:
Since I’m being honest, I’ll tell you that I stutter-stepped my relationship to sobriety in the years that followed. It took five years for me to invest in therapy instead of buying another bottle.
I (knew/know) that the questionnaire (had/has) its purpose, but I also know that abusing alcohol isn’t really about the drinking. Making it all about alcohol, all about how and when and where drinks are being drunk can be a distraction. A diversion. When you ask about me, about my heart, my mind, and my needs, it becomes more difficult to lie. Less fun to finagle. Harder to escape.
There are updates to the questionnaire all the time, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) established a scale of alcohol use disorder—the term that has come to replace alcoholism—that feels like strides in the right direction, but the focus is still very much on the how, when, and where. There is not enough concern about the why.
It’s the why that had me saying “fuck that shit.” It’s the why that I lied about the most. It (was/is) exploring the why—answering the real questions, the ones that go beyond yes or no, the ones that get to the very core of me—that have made me more honest. More vulnerable. More alive.
My relationship with alcohol has changed dramatically. I still drink sometimes, celebrating with family and friends, exploring fancy ass wines, craft beers, and smoked bourbons. Other times, I make mocktails. I recently discovered a crisp, delicious non-alcoholic IPA that quickly became one of my summer favorites.
When I say everything about the how, when, and where I drink alcohol is different, I am telling the truth. After asking the real questions, the hard questions, and breaking through my bullshit, my own lies, I emerged different, stronger, better.
This is not hubris. This is honesty. This is healing.