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Column: Ten years ago, after Super Bowl XLVI, my life changed

Ten years ago this month, the morning after Super Bowl XLVI (Giants 21 — Patriots 17) I gave up drinking. 

People asked why. That is, some people asked, and I said, “I’ve been drinking too much and feeling awful.”

Others would say, “Not even wine?” No. Being an extremist, I just shut it all down. No wine, no beer, no hard stuff. I know myself. I’d have a glass before dinner and then, as Loudon Wainwright III wrote: “Drinks before dinner/And wine with dinner/And after-dinner drinks/Single-entendre,/help me Rhonda,/ Look for my cufflinks.”

For a while before the Super Bowl, I decided to only drink on weekends. Great plan. Except I had as much in three nights as I’d had in four. I started the weekend plan after a long, hilarious poker night. A friend said the following day, “We were taking the local. You were on the express.”

It was a great 2012 Super Bowl party. Lots of friends, some I hadn’t seen in a while, a classic game — I’m not a Giants lover, but cheer every Patriots loss — plenty of good food and a bottle of Bushmill’s, my drink of choice, and I did some damage to it.

Driving home, I thought of something our host had said, that everyone who drinks regularly has driven drunk at least once. And for most of us, more than once. I’d been lucky in my life. No DWIs, no accidents, no arrests. But I’m still ashamed of myself for recklessly endangering people riding with me and those strangers on the road.

An old genre with a new name, the “addiction memoir,” has always been popular for several reasons, not least in reading about compulsion, falling to the lower depths and climbing back to health and balance. That isn’t my story. I never lost a job, or a relationship, and never ended up in a hospital or a police station. Again, it might be the result of living a charmed life. For me, the story was that something was wrong in my life, and had to change.

The morning after the Super Bowl, feeling as if a slow moving truck had rolled over me and then backed up, I resolved — no more. There was no physical reaction from quitting. It was unlike — night and day, really — from when I quit smoking.

I’d been reduced to puffing at open windows of our place because Mary couldn’t stand the smell (she was also urging me to quit). One afternoon, inhaling at my window, Deirdre, who was then about 8, standing next to me, said, “You shouldn’t smoke.” When I asked why, she said, “Because it’s drugs.”

“Who told you that?”

“School.”

My clever response was, “What kind of school are we sending you to?” She just stared, repeating, “It’s drugs.”

I quit then and there. It was shocking. Shakes, night sweats. I went to bed for three days, fighting my body’s desperate need for nicotine.

I remember speaking once with Jimmy Breslin, the journalist, author and never a stranger to the glass in his hand, who had just stepped off the booze merry-go-round, and asking him if he missed it. “Of course I miss it,” he said. “It was my only sport.”

I missed it, too, but a new emotion crowded out nostalgia. Not drinking produced an astonishing feeling of freedom, as if I’d escaped from something, and of course, I had. As someone once said in another context, it was like being handcuffed to a fanatic for years and finally being set free.

Drinking was one of the loves of my life that I’d fallen for when I was a teenager. I loved bars, and still do —  honkytonks and juke joints from Memphis to Mobile, stylish lounges of low lights and dressed-up patrons,  Phil’s in Wading River, the Whiskey Wind in Greenport, Midwestern roadhouses, big city corner bars, pubs in County Clare reeling with fiddles and flutes and songs.

They’re all still as much fun — really — but I don’t have to pay for it with a mortar-blast headache, queasiness, Sahara thirst, uncertain recollections of the night before – I didn’t, did I? – and a brooding sense of guilt.

My brother, who gave up drinking — long before me — said that he didn’t become less interesting. But other people did. He was kidding, but making a point. There are some people with a few drinks in them who project an absolute fascination with themselves. It’s harmless, and in a way, charming, if you can find a way to escape them. 

One of the loves of my life turned on me, and became a burden and no longer a delight. We have parted, amicably, now for a decade. I avoided any Super Bowl party this month, trying to wait out Omicron.

But I played poker right before the new variant emerged — another hilarious game — and didn’t take the local or the express, and had a blast. I got home safe and sound and woke up happy.

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