Friday, June 20, 2014

Why I'm quitting drinking

Sure, everyone says it when they've got a bad hangover.  But I'm hoping that by putting it down here, I can demonstrate that it isn't just the hangover talking.

People drink alcohol for a lot of reasons.  Fun, flavor, and chemical dependency all play a role in it.  Another factor is social pressure.  Drinking alcohol is not just something one does in response to one's own body.  It's a performance for an audience.  What and how much you drink is socially determined as much as it is chemically determined.

For a long time, I was very worried that I would become addicted to alcohol.  I grew up with visible examples of alcoholism in my family, and I knew exactly what I never wanted to be.  I passed my 21st birthday with only a few curious sips, a customary can of budweiser (or something), and a sense of moral superiority.  Then came 22, and I compromised.  I learned to drink, and in time I learned to genuinely enjoy it.  But all the while, I worried about what would become of me if I lost control.  And when I did lose control, I spent the next mornings feeling guilty and sick.

As it happens, I became a drinker while living in Oregon, nestled among a fine collection of craft brewing houses.  I learned to savor good taste in beers, and to listen to my body when it started sending me negative messages.  I cut out hard liquor.  I tapered my drinking so that I could enjoy a buzz without succumbing to oblivion.  I did what I could to establish good drinking habits.  Everyone who drinks should do that, but in my case I was motivated by a very immediate kind of fear.

Just as there were alcoholics among my family, I found them among my close friends.  I didn't count myself among them, and I still don't.  But I was afraid, and I started drawing lines in the sand for myself.  I thought I would be safe as long as I observed certain basic rules.  Beyond that, I knew I would be safe if I stayed in control of my drinking.

I've been in South Korea for six months, and right now I don't really feel in control of my drinking.

At first, I thought I could retain control easily enough.  South Korea's beer selection is light on the craft I enjoy and heavy on the cheap, watery business of getting hammered.  I spent my first few months more concerned that I would be deprived of good drink than that I would have too much. 

I found good, imported beer.  I've got four bottles sitting in my refrigerator right now.  They've been sitting there for months because I just don't want them anymore. 

Never undestimate the effect a culture can have on your behavior.  In particular, never underestimate a drinking culture.  This nation may not brew the best, but it loves to consume.  And frankly, the prevailing attitude in the drinking culture of Korea strikes me as suicidal.  When I go out with my boss and my coworkers, I am expected to hurt myself.  I am expected to drink until I can be confident I'll have to throw it all up in the morning.  The pattern has been set.

It is not as if I do this all the time.  In point of fact, I don't go out very often.  I've even been able to dodge these outings a few times.  But you can't dodge them all, and I'm so desperate to avoid offending my boss that I eventually find myself quaffing "somaek" (beer with a soju shot) in perverse tests of manly endurance.  Then I feel euphoric and profoundly unhappy.

This morning, I missed the toilet bowl by a few inches.  A glimpse at my employer's more guarded emotions was not really worth the accompanying feelings of shame and disgust or the fluid on my feet.

You can't just drink slower than everyone else when there's a toast every two minutes.  You can't limit yourself to the quantity you know you can handle when your boss puts a two half liters in front of you and says "one shot".  You can't take it back when you feel yourself cross the line of no return.  It's so hard to say no to a drink when the whole gathering revolves around chicken and drinking.

And to think, all of this is supposed to be a celebration of the end of a stressful week.

I no longer drink because it's been a long day and I'd like a little something to relax.  These days, I drink because a man I don't much care for is trying to raise morale.  And frankly, it's hurting me.  I don't know how else to get out of it except by not drinking anymore.

Last weekend, I went to the hospital for a mandatory examination.  The doctors read my blood, and told me my "liver index" was high.  A followup ultrasound indicated I have the beginnings of Fatty Liver disease.  Whether it's the drinking or my diet that's causing it, I don't know.  But I can feel the pain I'm putting myself through.  And if there's one thing I know I never want to be, it's a patient with cirrhosis or hepatitis.

I thought about moderation.  But I don't really feel like moderation is a valid choice for me here.  Maybe when I'm back in America, and I feel more comfortable setting my own pace, that could change.  Right now, I feel more comfortable going on indefinite hiatus.   I'll give my beers away.  I'll stick to tea.

I've been a drinker for five years because I compromised with social expectations.  Back then, I weighed the risks against a desire to be of the world, not left out of a more-or-less universal custom.  Now, I'm renegotiating the terms of that compromise.  I'm tired of being at war with my body.  I want some control back in my life.

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