Giving up Alcohol: My Experiences with Lack of Empathy

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When I hit my early thirties, I started noticing how my body reacted differently to alcohol. A couple of drinks already made me queasy and on the verge of vomiting, as though I’d just binged on shots all night after a hardy Mexican meal. You know that precipice just before the point of no return, where you’re summoning every fiber of your being to maintain composure and ward off the inevitable hurl? The next day was a continuation of that stymied state: my body seemed to constrict on the inside—tensing up into a knot while my face felt like it was stretching—like a balloon being pumped with just over its limit of air intake.

This new development was particularly noteworthy because: Once upon a time… I was a drinking superstar—a dubious honor my old friends bestowed upon me with a mixture of amusement, resignation, annoyance, pity, and good cheer. This was all relative though. I can honestly say I was never a binge drinker or a bona fide alcoholic in my heyday. I was simply a social drinker—ironically surrounded by nondrinkers and very moderate drinkers—so everyone saw me through their reverse beer goggles and amplified my drinking habits by default. Anyway, it was starting to look like I peaked early.

At my next all-around physical, I mentioned this new condition to my doctor, who dismissed it nonchalantly as part of the aging process: “That’s just your body telling you what it can handle now.” You mean I don’t have a choice? Maybe he was right: my body did check out all right with the requisite tests that day. Also, interestingly, my older brother had quit drinking in his early thirties too because he didn’t like how alcohol made him feel anymore. I guess non-alcoholism runs in my family, along with reticence and aversion to affection.

Indeed, I would prove all my friends wrong that year by quitting alcohol literally overnight. If I ever wanted irrefutable proof that I wasn’t an alcoholic after all, it was the simple glaring fact that it took no effort for me to put down the bottle. My last drink was at a friend’s birthday celebration a few months later. Still testing the waters at that point, I had one beer bottle that night—but I found that even that tossed my head into a slight tailspin. That was enough. From then on, good ol’ H20 was going to be my drink of choice on wild nights out on the town. And henceforth, I would encounter the strangest reactions from people I met who simply could not comprehend my new lifestyle.

Being Asian, I naturally grew up around many other Asians and befriended them throughout my life. If I learned one thing about my ethnic group, it’s this: most of us cannot hold our liquor. Hence, many of us simply forego the activity of drinking alcohol altogether, to spare the embarrassment of physical discomfort, vomiting, and the famous “Asian glow” (instead of being mysterious about it, I’ll give you the scientific definition: many of us including myself, turn beet red after just one or more drinks). And yes, I know some of you dear readers are all too happy to counterattack me on that—I’ll just say it with you: “some of by best friends are Asians who DRINK!!!” Yes—I knew some Asians who drank too—namely me! But I would say about ninety percent of the Asians I knew didn’t drink at all. Therefore, I was accustomed to this kind of lifestyle. I never questioned it—because I was aware that it didn’t affect me; it sure as hell wasn’t gonna stop me from drinking myself!

But since not everyone is Asian, there are some people out there who are baffled by the “dry” lifestyle. After I joined the other side, when I would meet new people—such as friends of friends—invariably, it would take place at a bar or a place where alcohol was served. These encounters often went down like this:

Drinker: “Hi, nice to meet you.”

Me: “Nice to meet you too.”

Drinker: (noting my lack of an alcoholic beverage) “Are you gonna get a drink?”

Me: “No, I’m okay.”

Drinker: “Why not?”

Me: “Oh, I don’t drink.”

Drinker: “You don’t drink? Why??!”

Me: “Oh, just health reasons.” (trying to be pithy but informative).

Drinker: “Health reasons?”

Me: “Yeah… it doesn’t sit well with me.”

Drinker: (discerning look, not convinced) “Oh…”

Me: “I used to drink—but not anymore…” (trying to paint a picture of the truth and letting them know that I’m not completely green either).

Drinker: (still bearing a discerning look)

Later, after chatting about our mutual friends, jobs, living situations, etc… :

Drinker: “So what do you do for fun—since you don’t drink?!!”

Me: “Oh, I like hanging out, watching movies, eating… stuff like that.”

Drinker: “Why don’t you drink??”

Me: (pause, annoyed) “I don’t want to.”

Drinker: “So you never drink?”

Me: “No. I used to drink…”

Drinker: “—BUT YOU DON’T NOW!!”

Later on in the night, the topic would somehow just naturally come up in conversation—a sticky residue that just glommed onto everything:

Me: “Today was such a beautiful day!”

Drinker: “It’d be even better if you drank!”

Me: “I love Indian food.”

Drinker: “You know what goes well with Indian food? Jack n’ Coke. Too bad you don’t drink!”

Me: “I went to Oktoberfest last year.”

Drinker: “Oh yeah? I love the sausages there!”

Not being a drinker was like having food stuck between my teeth—only everyone was eager to point it out—repeatedly. I was subject to conversations like the hyperbole above, indefinitely. Usually I was the only person not drinking; the interrogators had plenty of cohorts to bond in their alcohol consumption—yet they felt compelled to zero in on me, refusing to accept that one person in their presence wasn’t participating. To be fair, I think some of these people simply brought up the topic incessantly out of sheer ignorance (a pervasive human trait)—without realizing that they sounded like a car alarm that wouldn’t shut up.

I only met one person who expressed any sense about my predicament. After I lamented about the opposition I was receiving, he remarked: “Well, I just assume that if a person doesn’t drink, that they might be a recovering alcoholic or something—so I don’t push it.”

… Thank. YOU.

It astonished me how little sensitivity and respect I was allotted for my lifestyle choice—my RIGHT—to choose this lifestyle. Alcohol is inherently a delicate subject and should be treated as such without question. It can be a divisive and taboo topic because of all the connotations it bears, unique to each person.

But—not to pull a victim card here—I suspect I often wasn’t afforded this minimum of consideration because: no one thought it was possible that I’d be a recovering alcoholic or anything close to that. I wasn’t some aged, weathered-looking hard-ass (apologies for typecasting “recovering alcoholics”… ) I’ve always conveyed an image of, shall we say: even-keeled, reserved civility… to my own benefit and detriment.

To corroborate this theory: many people throughout my life have conceded that they didn’t even think I was a drinker! So there is something about my personality and appearance that evokes the impression of a “clean” lifestyle.

And indeed: (after I stopped drinking), I had one mutual friend drop the label “innocent” on me twice in one night, so there you go. I was an object of derision, not empathy. I wasn’t someone with a past; I had no past in his eyes: a simpleton.

This was what baffled me—the inability of people to simply put themselves in someone else’s shoes—to realize that not everyone enjoys the same things! Badgering someone to explain why they don’t drink is like badgering them for not eating broccoli or peanuts. The simple combination of free will and preference should be explanation enough.

It has been two years since my last drink. Although I’m certainly proud, I’m also very unceremonious about it—just as I was when I decided to quit so ably in the first place. I never felt defined by alcohol before or after quitting, and I prefer it that way. Too bad some people simply can’t see this.

Is it Depression? My experience with ambiguity…

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There was a time when my days become longer and quieter and lonelier and much, much less enjoyable. The scary thing was: I hadn’t even realized that it’d happened, until long after it did. I’m not the kind of person that falls into the traditional definition of depression, but that doesn’t mean I’m impervious to disappointment, confusion, and apathy either. For me, I think I’m just not built for depression. I’ve never been fatalistic, and I don’t blame other people for my problems either (unless I’m driving behind a slow driver; that person in front of me can go to Hell by referral of me, yes). Beyond genetics of course, I think disposition and personality determine your likelihood of falling into that great void. So maybe I wasn’t officially depressed, but I certainly was undergoing whatever my equivalent of it was.

I was in my early thirties, and hitting my first truly earned plateau of—I don’t want to say “disappointment”, but it wasn’t exactly jubilation at my life’s successes either. I had realized that I’d logged everyday of my life for the past few years, trying to build and work towards something ostensibly—but that all I’d done was lay one brick on top of the other until I’d built a wall against my true self. I’d lost track of who I was, for the base need of surviving and keeping up in the world. Somewhere in that process, I’d lost something—a vitality, a spark, me.

All of a sudden, I found that I gained a bittersweet empathy towards all the angry, troubled and occasionally depressed folks I’d encountered in my past. And believe me: L.A. is full of these types. Suddenly, with alarming clarity, I saw the world through their eyes—cloudy, desperate, and spiteful. This was an insight I’d rather not gain.

Five years prior, a mutual friend named Craig absconded from my social circle on his own accord. I wasn’t surprised. Prior to that, he was prone to sporadic outbursts of accusatory quips and tactless diatribes against people with no ill intent toward him, including me. It didn’t seem likely that he could keep that up much longer without repercussions. The only people, perhaps, who can get away with that kind of behavior—are funny or well-loved people, and Craig was neither—although he didn’t realize that initially. That was one of his many problems.

One night, during a group outing to see Alice in Wonderland—that unremarkable remake by Tim Burton, Craig showed up with his trademark antsy demeanor—all nerves and disaffection. He wound up sitting next to me, and we politely broached each other for updates on what we’d been up to. Craig—again, with his other trademark bluntness, blabbed that he was going through some logistical issue at work involving some man who was basically stalking or harassing him.

I stoically expressed my sympathy. I don’t recall if I substantially pressed for more details, but I do recall that Craig proceeded to dispel any further discussion because, in his words:

“You haven’t been through something truly bad before. You won’t be able to relate.”

By this point, this kind of admonition from Craig was commonplace. I, being rather passive and genial, did the equivalent of turning the other cheek—although slapping a certain person’s cheek would probably be more effective at this point.

More about Craig: he was eight years older than me, worked at a rather banal job at the main gas and electric company in the city, and as I alluded to: only mildly liked by our shared circle—though that was quickly dissolving, for reasons I’m sure you can guess by now. Craig had disclosed briefly before in the past, that he had depression issues. I never gleaned what was the impetus for his condition, presuming it wasn’t my business.

That night at the movie theater though, was one of the last straws for me. Even I knew that what Craig had said to me was completely out of bounds—whether it was true or not. There’s no excuse to be that crass and derogatory toward someone who did not attack you or elicit such a response.

As you can guess, our exchange that night hung awkwardly between us like flatulence—only, it continued to linger as we all went out for dinner afterwards too.

While we all waited for our table that night in the lobby, Craig continued to subject me to his drab, dismal mood. This is when I made an egregious error—my revelation of ignorance on the issue of his depression. In a misguided attempt to cheer Craig up, or simply steer the tone to lighter ground, I chirped:

“Hey, well I have some good news! I’m going to Paris, France with my friend Jeremy next month!”

Now, you take a guy who’s down on his luck, prone to smugness about his seemingly inconsolable needs and issues, and justifying his own actions at the expense of others—and you give him the news of unabashed good fortune that’s just been bestowed on someone else, and what do you think you get?

I should’ve known better. It was like slapping him in the face.

Craig recoiled—as if he just smelled something utterly foul. His reaction was immediate:

“Why don’t you just DATE Jeremy?!?” he hissed. Which was a futile concept by the way, since me and Jeremy had as much sexual chemistry as a duck and a tortoise. It was beside the point. Craig’s quip was all he could muster to express his disdain that someone else dare be blessed with good fate.

With this one-two punch from Craig that night, I learned my lesson on unhappy people. The rest of the night, I pointedly avoided him. I guess to corroborate my own innocence, I’ll point out that Craig ostensibly realized the error of his ways and tried to retract his behavior, later that night. He put on a genial face and made a concerted effort to say to me:

“Hey, we should hang out again soon, okay…?”

I didn’t respond. I had gained that much forbearance by that point. A small part of me was glad for his effort, but I knew he was a lost cause with me. His initial tirade that night stung, mostly because it was so uncalled for. I knew we weren’t capable of sustaining a normal friendship.

Two months later, Craig simply vanished from the social group—never turning up for events again. Like I said, I wasn’t surprised. He alienated everyone, including those who only meant well for him. I’m not blaming Craig, but to use the exchange between the two of us that night as a microcosm: no one on either side was capable of fixing the other.

 

Cut to five years later, there I was stuck in my own malaise. Although nothing horrifically bad had happened to me (if you don’t count constant social rejection, loneliness, professional disappointment, and disillusionment!)—nothing remotely good had occurred either. That’s what got me. I felt as though if I’d walked through a trap door that linked then to now, the transition would be seamless: no significant gain had transpired in all that time. I hadn’t moved notably forward, in any field in life. I never took Craig’s words from all those years ago to heart because they were never worthy, but I was aware of the irony: now, his crass words were usurped by my own personal adversity.

If his misfortune was the equivalent of a full-on assault, mine was a slow, insidious disease. Both were potentially lethal in their own ways, regardless of the difference in conditions.

I was facing such prolonged uncertainty on the social front for the first time in adulthood, that I’d begun to understand certain people I knew who just didn’t give a fig about making friends anymore—who veritably gave up on it. I used to scoff internally that someone could be so resigned to a life of solitude and disuse. But after seemingly endless rejection, I got it: making friends truly was just luck, and luck by definition is rare and unlikely. Why set yourself up for constant turmoil and insult, by trying to charm people who are immune to your virtues? I’ve literally seen even the most popular and likable people I know go through this. Trust me, no one is impervious.

I saw how years of idleness and stagnation can deteriorate a person’s will and spirit. It was finally happening to me. I thought I was indefatigable, and in some ways I was—I held up for a long time, if I say so myself. But this monument to faith and persistence was crumbling, like a fallen idol. As mentioned, I could understand the other side now: the cynics. The hardened, broken souls who believed that that those who did believe, were simply suckers—innocents and fools, on their way to certain doom for their faith. Was I ready to convert?

I’d always prided myself on being adventurous up until that point—I was the guy that loved trying out that random dive bar, or getting onstage to sing karaoke, or… meeting new people. But now that I’d gotten older and weathered more experiences with varying degrees of success, I could see why people were the way they were. The prominent lack of adventurousness in others that once baffled me and provoked my covert pity was starting to make sense. Maybe they were onto something. They already knew how disappointing life was; they just beat me to the punch line. Rebuking anything new was really just a form of self-preservation. If you know you’re gonna hate the new thing, or more importantly: the new thing is gonna hate you, why put yourself out there? You might come off as a party pooper, but at least you’re not one foot deeper in your own hole of issues, defeat, and humiliation. Yep, being boring was starting to look more and more appealing to me… (shudder).

One night, I caught a PBS travel show about Paris, France, and I realized how far I’d strayed from that young adult who got to go to such a glamorous destination a few years prior. What was supposed to be a herald of more fine things to come in my life, was actually a first and last hurrah—a peak: because nothing else had or would equal it since.

My view of life’s great pleasures such as traveling to foreign locales, was starting to fade. Would I ever attain them, as I so rightfully presumed I would in my youth? Was it all over? Had my chance passed? Where do I draw the line between making concessions now, and persisting?

One morning I woke up—and I wasn’t even particularly sad or upset. But I felt it: I felt hopeless. And furthermore: I felt how hopelessness could swallow a person up, rendering them immobile. Again, nothing specifically awful elicited this response that morning, but that’s it: I don’t think emotions are necessary to facilitate hopelessness. Because it’s the absence of any conviction, that is the true portent of hopelessness. I also just felt for the first time in my life that I wasn’t sure where I was going anymore. That morning I thought:

Now I get the (possibility) of (depression). It’s a sense of powerlessness. When you consistently do all that you can to move forward to achieve your dreams and goals—and still nothing happens?

That’s a huge fucking blow.

You start to think you have absolutely no power over your own life and your own fate. There are few realizations more demoralizing and crushing than that, in this mortal world. If you can’t even control what happens to you, what the hell is going to happen to you? What are you going to do?

I didn’t want to talk about this with anyone in my immediate life, for fear of alarming them, naturally. I tried sharing this new revelation with an exclusively online friend that I had, who was around my age. I couched it as tactfully as I could into one of our email exchanges.

He didn’t get it. He offhandedly remarked that he never felt that way before, basically. Lucky guy, but it didn’t help me.

I even shared it with another online friend who was fifty years old mind you, and even he expressed the same dissidence. He was fifty, and never felt hopeless before? Geez! What was his secret?

With a present that was no longer appealing nor pleasurable, the past naturally started to attain renewed zeal to me. Anything that reminded me of my early to mid-twenties never failed to produce an allergic response in my psyche: a weepy spasm of wistfulness for better days that seemed implausibly blessed, considering how incapable I was of attaining anything remotely similar anymore, in almost the same conditions! How the hell did I go kayaking with friends two miles down the road from my apartment? How the hell did I go out four times a week, with people I truly liked at that? How the hell did I fit in so effortlessly? Seriously.

This is a whole subcategory that could warrant its own chapter: the past. At its best, our past is hauntingly beautiful: a testament to our best selves—our highest hopes and ideals. We were so young and beautiful and full of life then, yes. Those memories should be treasured, and they are irrefutably and rightfully you. At worse, the past is a ghost that haunts us. It’s a poltergeist that lurks in the darkest corners of our minds, lunging forward when you are at your most vulnerable, bullying you to indulge it with your precious (and limited) time on Earth. It’s a succubus that doesn’t want you to divert your attention to what’s more important now: the present. In my weakest moments, my lower self wanted to dive back into my past, like it was a pristine pool of clear blue water on a warm summer day.

I could see in retrospect, how other people in my life had preceded me in this awareness. My best friend Danny, who moved back home to Palm Springs a few years previously, was likely a prisoner to his own past—which manifested itself in his arrested development. Now that he was no longer living off his parents’ dime as I always suspected in Long Beach, he was just… living off his parents’ dime in their home, in Palm Springs. I didn’t resent him for it. It was his life, and what he chose to do with it was his business. But after five-plus years of hearing Danny’s lack of initiative in any field in his life, not to mention him turning forty at that: my view of him began to change. With my new revelations, I could see how someone like Danny was simply afraid of growing up. It is a terrible sight to behold: the carefree days of just living day to day are terrifically alluring in comparison to forfeiting it for a paycheck, a mortgage, a family, or simple responsibility and solvency for the rest of your life. It isn’t exactly a choice as much as a necessity, for most of us. That’s sobering, and some of us lack the fortitude to resist turning tail and fleeing at first sight.

Toward the waning (but ongoing) course of this downward spiral, I found myself walking through an apartment building on a late spring day. As I walked down the hallway, I heard a baby cry inconsolably behind a closed door. I surprised myself by my own response: I instinctively pondered at the gift that was bestowed upon this new person—the most valuable and covetous of all: Life. A new life, undeterred and boundless. A chance to manifest a destiny anew. I quietly marveled at the beauty of this potential, and all its unfound glory. It wasn’t simple envy; it was recognizing a truth outside of myself.

I couldn’t help thinking afterwards: would Craig have thought the opposite, or anything at all?