Month: December 2018

Mulled Wine At The Gym

Hello from Memphis Tennessee, where somehow it’s suddenly Christmas.

I have no idea how such a significant holiday managed to creep up on me, and yet here I am rushing from bookstore to BestBuy trying to find last minute gifts for Sarah’s family.

See also this blog post. Last week, thinking I (surely) had at least three weeks before the end of 2018, I promised to tell the story of how I learned to date sober. But that doesn’t seem quite the right topic for a Christmas issue, so I’ll save it for January.

Convention dictates that a christmas edition of any publication must feature one of three things: A round-up of the best books/music/films/things of the year, a list of new year’s resolutions or a comical guide to surviving the festive season.

My “best of” list is a non-starter. As listeners to my old NSFWLIVE show will testify, I have painfully but proudly uncool tastes. This year, I’ve been on a real golden age of detection kick – rereading a bunch of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Sayers. You don’t need me to tell you the best Agatha Christies (And Then There Were None, Murder of Roger Ackroyd, ABC Murders, Curtain, A Murder Is Announced, Murder On The Orient Express, The Murder at the Vicarage) but if you’re curious why I prefer AC over NM, DS and pretty much everyone from the Golden Age, this essay by John Lanchester in the LRB sums it up perfectly. A long read, but worth it.

Let’s move on.

In terms of surviving the festive season, there’s no doubt Christmas and New Year can be tough to endure sober. Suddenly every store, every gym, every hair salon, every school parents’ event is transformed into a nightmare obstacle course of alcoholic eggnog and mulled wine. It’s funny how much harder/more awkward it feels to refuse alcohol in a shop than it is to just order a diet coke in a bar.  Especially at this time of year – you might as well shout “bah, humbug” and tear down the tinsel.

I’ve dealt with this dilemma twice this past week: Once in a San Francisco clothing store and once in a Memphis gym. At the former, the store owner took my simple “no thank you” in good grace and wished me a happy holiday, although I could tell she’d marked me down as a Scrooge. On the latter, surrounded by my fellow gym-goers proclaiming that “even after a workout, there’s no bad time for booze!”, I simply smiled my best festive smile and headed for the parking lot.

I wish I could offer a better suggestion for how to handle well-meaning festive alcohol offers, but “no thank you” / the Irish goodbye is the best I’ve been able to come up with in the past decade. The alternatives – explaining that you’re sober, and thus making the offeror feel like she/he has offended you, or actually getting into a conversation about how alcohol is not a “treat” for everyone – just seem unnecessarily dramatic at this time of year. In a future newsletter, I’ll write more about how I never want to make anyone else feel like I’m judging them for drinking. Alcohol is my problem, not theirs.

Ok, now the resolutions. Obviously, in 2019 I resolve to stay sober. But, as I wrote last week, with every passing year that resolution becomes less of a challenge. I also solemnly resolve to continue writing this newsletter every week – although, given the subscription fee, that’s really more of a contractual obligation.

To keep trying to get fitter and healthier? That’s a pretty decent, albeit cliched, idea for a resolution. I finally got around to trying out Orange Theory here in Memphis (another Sarah recommendation) and I will definitely continue the program back in San Francisco. According to the promotional blurb, I’m only eight workouts away from feeling like a completely new person. I wonder who it’ll be?

And yet. Given everything that’s happening in the world, there’s something jarring about resolving something inherently selfish, and egocentric. With the President having just shut down the federal government to appease his racist base, never mind the imminent slaughter of American allies in Syria and Afghanistan, this hardly seems like the time to stare at one’s navel.

For that reason, then, my resolution for 2019 is to do more for my fellow immigrants. Or, specifically, to do more for immigrants who lack all of the benefits and privileges I enjoyed when immigrating to the United States. I wrote a little about this after I got my green card earlier this year: How my own long, semi-traumatic struggle to gain lawful permanent residence made me realize how impossibly difficult it is for people less white and British than me to follow the same path. In other words, the lie of “joining the line.”

But, beyond buying Sarah a copy of Jose Vargas’ excellent book, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen (a book recommendation!), I haven’t yet taken any unselfish actions to further the cause of immigrants.

This, I suspect, is a common pattern amongst successful Green Card applicants: We spent so long in the trenches, fighting for our own status, that the last thing we want to do on receipt of the Lawful Permanent Residence is to spend another second thinking about USCIS. At least not until it comes time to apply for us to apply for citizenship. (Fun fact: We green card holders get to pay the same taxes as you natural born folks, but without any of the representation – either at a state or federal level. As a Brit, I am not unaware of the irony.)

In 2019, I’m determined to break my pattern of inaction. I’ve started researching immigration groups I can donate to and volunteer for. I’ve started asking around for practical things I can do to help the refugees at the border, or the DACA dreamers. And of course I’d love to hear any suggestions from you, dear blog reader.

In the meantime, here’s wishing you all a very happy holidays and a prosperous, sober new year.

Still not dead

It didn’t take long for me to feel the first health benefits of sobriety.

Thanks to my trusty old SparkPeople account, I know that on the day I quit drinking I weighed a hair over 190lbs.

Exactly one year of sobriety later, I tipped the scale at 138.  I felt better, I looked better, I smelled better. My skin was clearer and my eyes brighter.

But, as the saying goes, skin is only skin deep.

One day, a couple of years into sobriety, and not long after I moved to Vegas, I felt a weird throbbing in one of my upper-right molars. At the time I was still hustling to raise money for NSFWCORP so I ignored the pain. I continued to ignore it even as little bits of enamel began chipping away, giving every meal an extra crunch. Only when hole in my molar grew into a crater and I couldn’t sleep without chugging ibuprofen did I finally drag myself to a dentist.

The nice woman in the white coat took a bunch of x-rays and prodded around with a metal spike. She was horrified and thrilled in the way that only a medical professional who gets paid by an insurance company can be.

Given the combination of ten years of passing out on floors and in bathtubs without brushing my teeth, plus a near constant flow of alcohol and mixers, and endless hangover junkfood… it will not surprise you to learn that my dental troubles were not isolated to that one single tooth. In fact, according to my new Vegas dentist, I had a half dozen serious cavities, and half that number again of minor ones. I needed an immediate root canal on the crumbling tooth, and antibiotics to tackle an abscess lurking above a second.  

Once the root canal was complete, and a new crown cemented in place, I promised to make the necessary appointments for all the other work.

And then I forgot all about it. I mean, compared to Josh Ellis, I was doing fine.

Same story with doctors. When, during a mandatory contact lens exam, my optometrist noted that I had worryingly elevated blood pressure, he urged me to follow up with my primary care physician. I smiled politely and ignored him. I had no such physician, nor did I especially know where to find one.

Here’s a funny thing about getting sober. For the first few years at least, it made me take the rest of my health less seriously. Having quit the vice that was definitely killing me, I wasn’t going to lose sleep over the ones that only might. Cavities, blood pressure, cholesterol… pft! Why sweat the small stuff? Never mind that the small stuff had been made far worse as a direct consequence of my drinking.

It was only after I moved back to San Francisco – specifically after I moved in with Sarah and the kids – that I started to really fret about my physical state. Kids will do that to you: Make you want to stick around to see them grow up.

It was Sarah who first convinced (dared) me to try Soul Cycle as a way to kickstart my cardio-vascular rehabilitation. This was after I’d already lost all that weight; after I’d already told myself I was in tip-top shape. Five minutes into my first class, I wasn’t just out of breath. Somehow I had negative breath. I was only able to stop my heart from exploding by taking all the resistance off the bike and spending the rest of the class just trying to turn my legs roughly in time with the other riders. Even so, I could barely move for a week afterwards.

It was in that first fitness class that I first truly understood the difference between being skinny and actually being healthy. A subsequent trip to the doctor’s office (my first in at least a decade) reinforced this: Even at ~140lbs, my blood pressure was still too high, as was my “bad” cholesterol. God only knows what state my heart and liver were in.

Probably roughly the same state as my teeth. By the time I found a dentist in San Francisco, having ghosted my Vegas dentist all those years earlier, my half dozen cavities of varying sizes had now grown to almost a dozen. And my gums! Yeesh!

I spent the best part of the next two years in and out of the (new) dentists chair, as he worked his way slowly around first my upper jaw then my lower until finally I had no cavities, no bleeding gums and had come to understand the joys of flossing. In other words, until my teeth no longer looked like those of a British alcoholic and more like those of an American former alcoholic.

Amazingly, I returned to Soul Cycle. A lot. We even bought a Peloton for the house. The result? Earlier this year I had to undergo a barrage of medical tests for my green card application. Then I had to do even more tests for my new life insurance policy.

The tests confirmed what I suspected/hoped: I’m in the best shape of my life. My blood pressure is exactly where it should be, my cholesterol levels are great. My cardio vascular system is a well oiled (oxygenated?) machine. Better still, thanks to all that bloody cycling, my resting heartbeat is officially in the “athlete” range.

I mention all of this not to sound like one of the insufferable American health-nut wankers I used to mock – and definitely not as an ad for ludicrously overpriced spin classes – but rather to make two points:

1) Sobriety does not equal good health. Quitting drinking is just the first step. The real work comes next: Fixing all the damage you’ve done to yourself, physically, emotionally, socially and professionally. It will take a shit load of time and effort and (thank you American healthcare system) probably a decent chunk of money.

And yet.

2) If someone who abused his body as much as I did can get in shape for the first time in his life, age 35, then almost anyone can.

Tap it back!


Thirty nine years on earth and I’m still not dead!


And yet.

I mean.

Surviving to 39 is really nothing compared to the incredible feat of being born in the first place. A one in a trillion chance – but I did it! Reaching my first birthday was quite the achievement too, having been born premature and spent the first few days of my life stuffed with tubes. But 39? Pah! All I did was turn 38 and then avoid being hit by a bus for 365 days.

I feel much the same way about another looming milestone: 10 years of sobriety.  Ten years! The kind of milestone for which AA would probably give me a poker chip* – but also strangely unremarkable.

One week sober? Now that was fucking remarkable. A month? Ludicrous. They said it could never happen. I’ll grudgingly accept that after my first full year of sobriety I felt worthy of the hugs and backslapping and “I’m proud of yous” from friends and strangers alike. After all, that first year is when I suffered all the cliched withdrawal symptoms, all the cravings, all the “maybe I could just have one” self-bargaining.

After that, staying sober got slowly but steadily easier. With each passing week and month I learned more about myself; more about the impulses and character flaws which caused me to self-medicate with alcohol. In doing so, I became healthier – physically and mentally – and thus better equipped to resist the siren call of booze. The result: Ten years sober feels a lot like nine years, plus one.

I should issue an important disclaimer here (and please consider this disclaimer valid for all future newsletters): My experience is just my experience. I’m sure there are others for whom the longer they’re sober, the harder it gets. Just as there are folksfor whom AA meetings are the only way to stay sober. For more on that viewpoint, I encourage you to subscribe to their newsletters.

I’m also not pretending the siren call of the bottle is ever truly silenced. Talk to any recovering alcoholic – even those with 30 or 40 years sober – and even they’ll admit to nights when a glass or wine, or a pint of vodka, still seems like the only answer. But the difference is that – 10, or 30, or 60 years on – they have armed themselves with the tools they need to resist the call. More on those tools next week.

* Do members of gambler’s anonymous get an engraved shot glass?

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