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5 For 5. The 5 life lessons learned in 5 years of sobriety.

“I’ve met very few people who after a long night of drinking, order up “healthy” food.”

The word of 2020 that I heard the most had to be “Pivot”.  But what does that really mean?  It means coming to a complete halt in the current direction you were heading, stopping if only for a brief millisecond, and then continuing on in a different direction. I know many people who have moved in different directions, but stopping the direction they were going never happened.  It was never part of their plan. For me, the pivot may have never been successful without that millisecond STOP moment. For me, it was life or death. What I didn’t know is the dark abyss was staring me straight in the face, looking me eye to eye, and I for decades made a conscious effort to ignore it.  Until that day.

It was Jan 12th, 2016, and my cousin and his two sons had flown out to Colorado for altitude, skiing and to spend time with Uncle Luke.  On their last day, we were in my downtown Denver loft when my cousin sent his boys down with the luggage so we could pull the cars around and head to the airport. The boys left and left me alone with my cousin Jeff Tucker in the hallway. He turns to me and has tears in his eyes. I looked at him and said, “What the hell is wrong with you?” – “We have been here for 4 nights and 5 days, and I have watched you drink 16 bottles of wine and think that is your normal”. (I was thinking it wasn’t abnormal)  -He continued: “And you take all sorts of drugs in order to fall asleep and if you continue down this path, you will be the next to die.  I have tears in my eyes because I’m watching my best friend kill himself slowing right in front of my eyes”.

I looked at him, and blurted out “OK, I’m done”.  Just like that.  I had made a verbal commitment to my best friend that I would not touch any type of alcohol ever again the rest of my life.  It was time for a pivot, but in order to go in a different direction, you first have to stop, if even for a brief moment before you can continue on in a different direction. I took them to the airport and on the way back I pulled off the road and hit my knees and prayed to the almighty father to “take the desire out of alcohol out of my life …………….. forever”

That was 5 years ago.  Today.  January 12, 2021. 

This is what brings me to the purpose of this paper, Five for Five.  The five strongest learnings that I have experienced over the past 1825 days.  You DO pivot when you make this type of commitment, and your life takes a different direction. My experience may be very different from others who have taken my journey.  This is not a paper to convince or convict those who can have a drink responsibly, but rather to open the eyes of humans who wonder what life could look like if you chose a sober life.  If I could just have a few, I would probably still be drinking today, but when you start a Ferrari, it only wants to go one speed.  What I will share with you is what it’s like to live the last 5 years without alcohol of any kind in my system.  If you stick with me until the very end, I will give away a 2022 Ferrari.  (Well, not really, but it is valuable).

Five for Five – PART 1:  Sleep

My life drinking:  You don’t know what you don’t know – and I didn’t know. Not until I stopped. I thought it was normal to use “something” to aid in the process of getting to sleep.  Some people take prescription drugs, others use CBD, I chose red wine, or white wine, or vodka, whatever was on hand. Many times I would wake up multiple times throughout the night and when I woke in the morning, I would be dehydrated and still very tired.  I would often take naps in the middle of the day, thinking that would make up for the loss of sleep at night. I would try to make up for the tired days with caffeine or some other type of energy drink, just to keep up with everyone around me. I was also under the belief that if I could just make it to the weekend, I could sleep in on Saturday and Sunday mornings to make up for the loss of sleep throughout the week. When you are in the middle of your reality – you truly have NO CLUE what life could be like from a different point of view. 

My life without drinking:  There’s a reason why I put sleep first in this paper.  We spend 1/3 of our lives in bed. Sleep is the tool we use as humans to set our minds and bodies in a better place so that recovery and stress can be neutralized and or eliminated. It wasn’t until after week 6 of sobriety that I started to see a difference. I guess I needed to get past the shakes and the sleepless nights before I would see a difference.  Just the behavioral change of NOT drinking something to help me get to sleep was a BIG change. But once I got past that 6th week, life shifted. I started to fall asleep naturally, with no substances. I would sleep through the whole night without waking up, and I would wake up with energy and alertness that I haven’t had in decades. But the biggest change was dreaming. Before January 12th, 2016 – I don’t remember having a dream, not one. And today, I dream 3-4 times a night, with a vivid memory the next day of the REM sessions I had had the night before. This has taken my life in a completely different angle that has resulted in other positive side effects that I will mention later in this paper. 

The Science:

  • High amounts of alcohol decrease sleep quality by 39.2%
  • Consuming alcohol increases the risk of sleep apnea by 25%
  • Drinking to fall asleep builds a tolerance, forcing one to consume more alcohol each night in order to fall asleep.
  • People who drink before bed often experience disruptions later in their sleep cycle as liver enzymes metabolize alcohol

Five for Five – PART 2: Health 

My life drinking:  Wow did I love drinking. I would drink when I was happy, sad, excited, upset, alone, social, confused or celebrating. I would drink on days that end in the letter “y”. If it was sunny out, it was a great time to drink. Cloudy?  Even better. If people were getting together, it was almost always tied to alcohol.  I would drink and eat like there was no tomorrow.  And have any of you ever had a few drinks and decided to order up late-night food? I would do it all the time – and late-night hot wings were my kryptonite. The combination of drinking and late-night eating saw my fitness level reach an all-time low, with weight gain and decreased performance in the gym and on the hiking trails. With extra weight, other “issues” begin to surface, telling our Western medicine doctors that there is another pill I should be using to manage my health. My face was always a rosie red (a disease called rosacea) and my hands and skin looked old.  But I must stress again, when you are in the middle of it, you don’t know anything different – you don’t know how great things CAN be with better decisions. This would be a life shocker for me. 

My life without drinking:  Within 90 days of the end of my drinking I had lost 30 lbs. I would eventually lose 85 lbs total. As I lost weight, my performance in the gym and the hiking trails went to a whole new level.  I had unlimited energy. I was sleeping for the first time in decades, so I was always ready for physical fitness.  Not too many people will go run 5 miles and turn around and eat Nachos with extra queso on the side. You just refuse to do that to your body.  You start making better choices. 60 days after drinking, the rosacea (red cheeks) cleared up, and the bags under my eyes were gone. My hands began to look younger as the skin was snapping back into place without the poison running through my veins.  Within 18 months of my sobriety I would run into people who didn’t even recognize me.  My fitness levels in combination with my weight loss allowed my primary care physicians to cut all my medications in half.  I still think queso should be one of the 5 basic food groups, but I’m not ordering it 3-4 times a week after long nights of drinking. 

The Science:

  • Alcoholism can destroy nerve cells and prevent nutrients from absorbing, leading to long-term memory loss.
  • Heavy drinking makes it harder for your body to fight off bacteria and viruses, making an individual more susceptible to infections, including tuberculosis and pneumonia.
  • Heavy drinking is one of the leading causes of heart disease.
  • Heavy drinking can prevent your liver from functioning properly in removing harmful substances from the body.
  • Alcoholism is the leading cause of pancreatitis.

Five for Five PART 3:  Finances

My life drinking: The numbers do not lie. I never really looked at the tabs that closely nor did I think twice about buying another round.  And isn’t it interesting that the more we drink the more “credit card courage” we have to buy for others? Was I trying to look cool or gain admiration from my other friends?  I don’t think so.  I never wanted the party to end.  Just one more.  Bad food costs money and so do trips back to your place in a cab.  Only to wake up the next day and get another cab BACK over to pick up your car.  It starts to add up – but how fast and how much? 

My life without drinking:  One of the first exercises I completed when I stopped drinking was asking myself “how much was I spending” on alcohol?  So I took out a 3-year report on my credit card and narrowed it down to three categories that were directly tied to drinking.  The first is the alcohol itself and any drinks I bought for others. The second was the late-night food that was tied to drinking.  The Third was the UBER, LYFT expenses tied to the fact I could not drive.  That number averaged a spend of $26,800 per year. Yes, you read that right. 

The science:

There is not a lot of science behind this topic except for pure math.

The sober savings:  $26,800 X 5 years is $134,000. 

Five for Five – PART 4 – Anxiety and stress

My life drinking:  I will never shy away from this topic. Anxiety is real and to try to explain to someone who doesn’t have anxiety what an attack feels like, would be like trying to explain to a tribe in South Africa what snow feels like. I have struggled with it for my whole life, and in some cases had to be hospitalized for it. I even came close to bringing down a plane once ttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xhntb0EeQa4 All of this was exacerbated by my abuse of the bottle. If you are already stressed, alcohol is like pouring gas on the fire.  Many people think it relaxes them. I argue the science says otherwise.  My stress was at an all-time high.  And was under the illusion that alcohol would take the edge off after a hard day.  What I did not know was the snowball effect would come into play and that stress plus alcohol would build on each other day by day, week by week until it would take it out on my body in the form of an anxiety attack.  

My life without Drinking:  Bottom line, in a life that has been filled with anxiety attacks and stress, since I have been sober, I have not had ONE anxiety attack.  Not one. 

The science:

  • Heavy drinkers develop a physical and emotional dependency on alcohol. This is particularly a problem with alcohol-withdrawals and can greatly increase anxiety and nervousness.
  • Alcohol consumption overloads the brain with dopamine and reduces the brain’s dopamine receptors. In the first stages of withdrawal, the lack of dopamine can lead to feelings of depression; however, both high and low levels adversely affect the brain. 
  • After a time of sobriety, the brain will begin to normalize dopamine levels and the brain’s dopamine receptors without the use of alcohol.
  • Motivation levels will begin to increase without the use of alcohol as your body begins to heal and has a new sense of energy.

Five for five – PART 5 – Spirituality

My life drinking:  I would consider myself a strong Christian and have had a lifetime of education on not just my religion, but a 10-foot dive into many other religions. It’s impossible to get up on Sunday morning to go to church when you are just getting in. And that was my reality. I might grab a few words of affirmation and a few bible verses to make myself feel better, but I can say I did not have a focused solid foundation from which to make decisions.  

My life without drinking:  I will not fill your head with “Once I stopped drinking the skies opened up and the holy spirit shined upon my head………” – Because it didn’t happen that way for me. As my sleep increased, my mind became clear. My focus and energy were at an all-time high, and I started to take my walk with Christ seriously.  So serious that after two years of sobriety, I took the next step in my faith and became baptized. I have missed very few Sunday morning services since there is no excuse of having a hangover.  

The science:

  • Addiction involves a decline in morality: lying, stealing, cheating, selfishness, dishonesty. Recovering from addiction almost always involves re-connecting to a belief and value system.
  • There is a strong, positive relationship between spirituality and healing. Returning to one’s belief system is healing oneself.
  • Spirituality is closely related to hope. Having faith that things get better is a major element in addiction recovery. 
  • Spirituality provides the forgiveness that so many individuals need as they live in shame from their addictions. Spirituality gives them the acceptance they need to forgive themselves to heal.

To pivot, you have to stop.  Not slow down. Not casually go in a different direction. You have to stop completely. And then continue in a direction that will set up your life in a positive direction.

My experiences and stories should never leave you with any type of guilty feelings; these are my stories and my experiences.  If it moved you, this is a moment you have to ask the question, why?  

My simple ask on my 5 year anniversary:  Who needs to hear this story? Who needs these words to make their own pivot? Ask yourself if it’s you.  If you would have told me 5 years ago that I would have been writing this paper, I might have laughed right in your face and done a shot of vodka, saying something like “You are full of shit.”  Well, here I am, throwing down the gauntlet for others who want to expedite the benefits of a sober life.  At the end of the day, you just need to know one thing, your life matters, and people love you.  Make good decisions, and blessings will continue to follow you in this life and the next.  Know that you are NEVER alone.

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