For 30 days while on the road, I quit drinking. This is a story of the ensuing frustration, revelation, and tacos.
I’m not an alcoholic (I don’t think), nor do I think going sober for 30 days at all epic. I have plenty of friends and heroes who don’t drink; some for years, some for decades. They don’t drink because they shouldn’t drink. I didn’t drink because I just wanted to see what would happen.
I grew up around alcohol. My parents were drinkers. My grandparents were drinkers. Booze was a big part of my childhood.
Back in my Jersey hometown, drinking in the woods or the local golf course was “a thing”. However, I was decidedly straight-edge and coincidentally(!) a virgin through all of high school. Who needs booze when you’re watching The Sirens of Sondheim with the other drama club kids – right, guys?
I stayed off alcohol until college. There: I perfected the drunken superpower of turning a good time very awkward; just give me a couple of beers and tell me, “I think W. is a great President”. It was a fun for no one.
In these leaner L.A. days, I’m described by all my friends as “a conservative drinker”. On the rare occasion when I am loaded, I’m a charming drunk, the kind that would make Peter O’Toole proud: stumbling into a 2 a.m. Uber, hazy from Jameson, sometimes with a new phone number, uncommonly with an evening companion, craving a cigarette or a plate of Carne Asada fries. Often, there are drunk texts: all to women back on the East Coast; all of them harmless, or cute, or sexy, or some combination of the three. Almost always: those women are happy to talk for a few minutes, but they have lives outside of my antics and want to go back to bed.
I had flirted with sobriety since I got serious about my writing career 3 years ago. Like many heralded talents of this era, I’ve always juggled a day job with a writing project. A typical day for me is 10-12 hours at my job, maybe 90 minutes of writing that night – if I can still stand. Nothing easily destroys that short burst of energy like an after work cocktail. I’m the kind of person who obsesses over making each day count. So: sobriety always seemed like a smart business move. But then again: who the fuck eats steak with a glass of water? (Peasants, that’s who.)
The key change, however, happened in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide. It wasn’t a moment of clarity. Earlier this summer, I started working out and hiking, so I was already drinking less than I had in the past. But the suddenness of Williams’ death – and lack of details when it first broke – made alcohol feel like a bad move, no matter what.
A few days after my last beer, I was quickly hired to work on a reality show that shot on location in the Southwest and Oregon for a month. Like most TV production jobs, it was a “Drop Everything”-type situation and I needed the money. By day 4, I was driving alone in a minivan, shooting through Northern Arizona, en route to New Mexico. The double-time pace helped me stay clean for 7 days. After that, I didn’t have a plan. If I felt like a drink, I would have a drink – but I didn’t. If anything, I wanted to see how long I could go and I made the arbitrary decision of 30 days at the suggestion of a colleague.
30 days. No alcohol. On the road. In the middle of nowhere… awesome.
The first thing I noticed was how present alcohol had become in my life since I was 19. Even as a lightweight, the impulse to have a beer with a meal or nurse a whiskey over a dinner meeting was strong – really strong. By day 9, I realized how much distance I had put between me and that angry, straight-edge kid. Did I betray him? Probably, but he also thought being the first person to discover Postal Service would get him laid. He was a nice kid, but misdirected.
By day 11, I found I didn’t need alcohol to be social or outgoing. Kyle Kinane has a great joke about sober people who also love to dance at weddings, “Those should be the first people in line for murder suspects.” He’s kind of right.
As my “sobriety experiment” continued, I began to wonder if it was one of the dumber decisions I’d made (and I used to be into “raving”). The whole point of sobriety is for people to deal with life head-on; to overcome addiction or inhibition, and be fully realized human beings. I chose sobriety “just because”. And it was temporary sobriety, prompted by nothing: no rock bottom, no moment of clarity. After 30 days, I didn’t know if I could go full-on sober, or if I would want to.
There were some days I hated being sober, like day 19: our show’s night out in Salt Lake City. SLC – if you’ve never been – is a very charming place. Not my first choice for a wild Friday night, but it’s conducive: it’s small, it’s walkable, it’s filled with young people who want to live in city less “complicated” than, say, Milwaukee. As we bar-hopped around downtown – me guzzling 5 club sodas that night – I got some flack from my co-workers. A few thought I was missing out on bonding; a few didn’t get the difference between 19 days and 30 days. When I look back on that night, I also wonder what I really gained, except knowing that my limit of control has a far reach. Which is good to know, but I wouldn’t’ve minded cutting a little loose and then flopping into bed; perhaps a drunk text would float over the Utah mountains towards the New York City rooftops.
But in the end: I didn’t do anything. By then, I had been sober 19 days, and if I made it this far on my dumb decision, I was going to make it to 30, Goddammit.
It is worth mentioning that during this stretch of time, I’ve never been healthier. The lack of alcohol helped my immune system sustain itself over 30 days of work, and travel across 7 states. Not dealing with morning hangovers also let me maintain my work-out schedule, which is just as Rooseveltian as my dumb decision-making. My body became the leanest and most defined it has ever been in my life. For the first time, I kind-of, sort-of looked like the swim captain you wanted to fuck in high school. Being a former fat kid, that achievement meant a lot.
The other significant health note: I wasn’t getting laid, which I had been doing a lot of since a break-up back in February. To keep it brief: I was the one that got dumped. I didn’t see it coming. I really liked the person; I thought it was going to get serious. It didn’t, and rather than deal with my feelings, I decided to cope with sex. For a while.
It’s funny: when you’re depressed, the stuff that works great in your 20s – drinking, sex, improv classes – doesn’t quite work in your 30s. Weirdly, it kind of feels like you’re running from something! That is: until you decide to quit drinking for 30 days, leaving you no choice but to face your depression. Well, you do have a choice, but I’m not famous enough to have Courtney Love read the suicide note at my funeral. Maybe Tara Reid… maybe.
After three weeks of busy days and quiet nights – often alone with my thoughts – my yearlong depression came into hard focus during Day 21-27 in the woods of Oregon. I guess you could call it… I don’t know, “functional depression”? It’s not like I was writing a pitch for Courtney, but I had spent 2014 acting as if nothing was wrong – and not just with my dating life.
Show business is… tough. My path in it has found some consistency after patches of inconsistency that were propped-up by a few lost years in a crappy office job. Building a career in Hollywood is a patient, piecemeal process that I – and all of my friends – are wading through. And yet, through stints of unemployment and regular script rejections, I found myself focusing on all the stuff you’re not supposed to: my age, my fuck-ups, my old UCB peers who are now staffed on shows, my friends back East who’ve found happiness in more stable life choices; how much I missed New York, how indifferent I still am to L.A. as a city; how days seem to go by a lot faster than they did 10 years ago.
By day 24, when I thought about context: it made sense that I would look for a distraction – like a failed relationship, putting off an attempt at sobriety – to not face the harder shit that had been weighing on me this year.
Production wrapped on day 27. My flight back to L.A. was the next morning. I spent the late afternoon hiking in the woods, taking photographs of things you’d find in a place with four seasons. I climbed out onto a fallen tree over a stream to catch the sunset. The night before had been the wrap party, with an open bar. Unlike SLC, I was happy to abstain. As tough as sobriety had been, I didn’t want a filter anymore. I stood out over an Oregon forest and finally admitted the obvious to myself: I was still broken-hearted; unhappy; frustrated; depressed; hungry for some kind of success, something that would answer the question, “When the fuck is it going to be my turn?”
The plane ride from Portland to L.A. was quick – three and a half hours, I think. At take-off, my body finally shut down, and I let exhaustion wash over me. I had gone 28 days without a drink. All I wanted was a Jameson to commemorate a job well done. But I had to wait 48 hours. If I didn’t, all of the trouble I put myself through would be a complete waste.
Everything I learned about myself still sat at the back of my mind.
Day 30, I was alone in my apartment in Echo Park. The clock struck 9:39 p.m. It was done. I had gone 1 month without drinking a single sip of alcohol.
I let another 20 minutes pass; I didn’t feel like drinking anything. But a small part of me wondered what I was still trying to prove. I went to my fridge, and opened a beer. I sat back down on my couch. I took a swig.
The empty carbs bombed my stomach like Hiroshima. The alcohol buzzed straight to my head.
I was back in an altered state. My problems were still there, the objective truth of my life still hung over my head. But with alcohol: I was coping, like everyone else. During my lost years at my crappy office job, I tried – really hard – to be like everyone else.
I never, ever liked it.