I lost a friend for a season of my life because he made a choice—a simple daily choice really. He framed it as a need, an important part of the day that fit in neatly with lunch breaks or a chat around the water cooler.
He just needed a time to relax and unwind. We’d both leave work, but I went home and he stopped at the bar.
I didn’t see the connection months later when his angry outbursts became more frequent. By the time I changed jobs and we cut off ties, he didn’t have any choices left. He needed to “unwind” constantly. Popping open a cold can of beer became a daily need, a way to keep functioning.
Looking back, I can connect the dots and see how one step led to another. I just never expected it. That’s the way with alcohol: You tell yourself that you should see it coming, but so many of us can’t on our own.
The Lure of Happy Hour
Happy hour started at 4:15 pm during the winter months. The bulk of our visitors arrived in the summer. What else was there to do at the end of the day? When the assistant director called us down for the first “meeting,” no one complained.
You could find the whole staff in the old mansion’s kitchen that had only been updated with yet another layer of thick white paint around the frames of the glass cabinet doors. They stuck shut as we yanked them open pulled for crackers and cookies to go with the wine.
They said I “gulped” my wine. I just drank it like grape juice. I am a Baptist after all. Aren’t grape juice and wine basically the same thing?
Alas, we were not drinking from the tiny communion cups. My head started to spin about five minutes into the first happy hour.
Once I started sipping my wine, I kept my head under control. However, when you’re dealing with alcohol, control can be a touchy matter.
I knew how to drink my wine at a better pace, but I also developed a new habit:
DRINK ALCOHOL AFTER WORK
Cultivating a New Habit
I didn’t think too much about this new habit, save for ensuring that I could drive home without endangering myself or anyone else. It continued on and off in the years that followed, often reserving wine for the conclusion of a hard day at work.
I worked my way through sweet wines and eventually graduated to the dry Chardonnay. By the time I turned 30, I decided it was time to “teach” myself to drink beer. I grew weary of being the only guy who couldn’t pick a decent beer at a party.
I sought out beer experts in my circle of friends and tried to nail down one or two “go to” beers. I’d seen enough sneering at “berry” beers to know I couldn’t go down that road.
After a year of “training” in the world of beer, I finally settled on a few brands. I started rotating a wine purchase with a six pack of beer. During the summer I took particular delight in drinking a beer on the porch during the last hour of work.
Remember, happy hour starts at 4:15 for me.
She Saw It Coming
I probably never would drink a second beer after work because I can’t afford to drink more than a beer a day. Heck, I rarely drink more than 3 or 4 beers a week. But I will say this, I really enjoy that beer when I drink it.
However, one day, I said, “Gosh, a second beer would be wonderful…”
My wife spoke up. Who knows how long she’d been thinking this. I should have been thinking of it all along:
“You’re starting to sound a lot like your friend.”
I didn’t know all of the stories around my friend. I didn’t even know if I could ever drink enough to trigger “the alcoholic” button in me. I didn’t even know if I had that button.
Did I want to risk finding out? I still had a choice.
The Freedom of Caution
Because of that conversation, I approach alcohol differently now.
There are still rewards waiting for me at the end of the day. Sometimes it’s chocolate. Sometimes it’s tea. Sometimes it’s a New Castle Brown Ale.
I have a choice. I can stop after one beer. I know plenty of people who can’t.
I don’t need strict boundaries, but I do need to remind myself about my habits: You don’t need alcohol at the end of the day.
After watching someone descend into dependence, I cringe every time I hear someone say, “I need a drink.” It’s usually a harmless phrase. I know where they’re coming from. If I had to put up with the same junk, I may even say the same thing.
But it could be destructive to believe alcohol is the key to unwinding after a hard day.
There are plenty of other ways I can unwind, from gardening, to walking, to watching a hockey game.
Alcohol does not need to become a daily habit or a daily “tradition” for the end of my work day. It has a way of intruding into other parts of the day.
I still love sitting on my porch with a beer. I just fear loving it too much.
I don’t lie to myself: that could happen. I don’t know where or what that line would be, but after seeing it happen, it’s one that I want to keep away from.
I used to think either you’re an alcoholic or you’re not. I’ve since seen the way alcohol becomes a habit that grows and grows, gradually intoxicating an entire life.
I don’t think I’m in danger of becoming an alcoholic, but I also don’t want to take any chances with the way I think about a beer after work.
I just know what I saw: an after work habit that took over an entire life. You may find me drinking a beer on my front porch. I’ll tell you that I like it, but I’ll never say that I need it.
A Note to Readers: I’m grateful for several friends who gave me feedback about their struggles with alcohol as I wrote this post. To learn more about the challenges that alcoholics face, check out Heather Kopp’s memoir Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk.