What happened after I stopped drinking so damn much

I love liquor. I love how single-malt scotch, always neat, even in the summer, melts on the edges of my tongue the same way powered sugar melts on top of a warm dessert. But, we know, too much of good thing can be bad.

I’m in my mid-40s now and I’ve seen doctors more often: back pain, my left knee makes noise, life insurance requirements. And, for some time, my blood work kept coming back a little off. Sometimes the sugar was near the diabetic border. Other times, my cholesterol was high. Then, my liver enzymes were elevated again and again and again.

Because I run a lot (I ran 300 hundred miles last summer), I didn’t worry about the empty calories. So I kept up my drinking: at barbecues, in my yard on the deck, at the bar with buddies, at dinners with friends, on a boat on Lake Michigan (that hangover hurt).  It was all me; I’m a grown man; no one forced me.

Sips here and there almost every day in the evening. I enjoyed the taste of good liquor. And I was still in shape: 165 lbs. and a 32-inch waist.

My doctors asked if I drank a lot. Of course, I said, “Just socially.”

But the last doctor, an older man, called me in for the results of my blood work in October. He sat down. He looked at my firmly. He looked straight at me and said, “Your liver enzymes are elevated.”  I’d heard this before.

His gaze concerned me. Lately, I’ve heard quite a few stories of men in their 40s or 50s dying from cirrhosis. I told him about all the tests other doctors did on me the last few years, the gastrointestinal specialist. I had to ask, “Am I headed toward liver problems.”

The doctor said, “I don’t know. Let’s do the blood work again in six months.”

So I made a decision. In October, I joined a neighborhood gym to give myself a new challenge. I worked with a trainer and learned to do squats and dead lifts—nothing easy, even if I started with 95 pounds.  When I saw how much effort went into weightlifting, I told myself, “I can’t throw away all this work with a six pack.”

Plus, I remembered reading an editorial by Esther Cepeda that talked about the increasing liver problems among young people in an alcohol-obsessed culture. My son is a pre-teen; my daughter is nine. I know they’re watching me.

I went to see my therapist and mentor, a Latino in his 50s, because I needed to hear from him that I could do this. He’s not much of a drinker.

So there was no wine on Thanksgiving, no bubbly on New Year’s. And everyone in my family was shocked. “It’s a personal challenge,” I explained. And that was it. Nothing elaborate.

Between October and April, every once in awhile I had a glass of wine or an old fashioned. But, I have to admit, in the back of my mind, I kept thinking.  I didn’t enjoy the drinks.

I also started seeing an herbal doctor who prescribed teas—bitter, bitter teas—twice a day to help me. Unlike scotch, I drank them without savoring them.

Today, I went to see my doctor about my blood tests.  He told me my blood work looked great–everything is back to normal. I was so grateful, I swore: “F**k, yes!”

The truth is: this wasn’t hard. I even went to a beer fest with all my buddies in March and I didn’t have one single sip of beer. My buddies kept asking, “How the hell can you not drink around all of this?”

Nope. I stayed strong. And I still had a great time.

On my 44th birthday a couple of Fridays ago, I celebrated that morning by reaching a new goal: squatting 250 pounds. And I put on a new pair of pants: size 30.  I haven’t been this size since I was in my mid-20s.  At my birthday get-together, I only had two shots of tequila.  And I still had fun–until 3 a.m.

I’m still gonna drink; I’m not breaking up with scotch. But I’ve realized I can’t use the stress at work or my life or celebrations or habit as an excuse to do damage to myself. At 44, I have to protect my health. As with so many things, less is more.

And quality matters. When, once every few weeks, I drink a couple of cocktails, instead of a lot more like I used to, I make sure that it’s top-shelf stuff. My friends got me some gorgeous bottles of scotch and tequila–all top shelf.  They’ll last me a long, long time. Like a decadent dessert, I’ll enjoy them every once in awhile.

It’s not easy for me. I have to think and think about it, and that’s OK. I’d rather think about counting the cocktails I’ve had and stop at a couple than be mindless about the damage too much drinking was doing to me.

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