This post has nothing to do with finance. I’ll be back to talking about value investing and economics in future posts.
As I posted on Twitter this week, it has been a rough week for me personally. I thought I’d elaborate a little bit more to explain what is going on and my personal struggle with alcohol over the years. My hope is that someone going through the same things gets something out of it. I hope it encourages them to stay off the sauce.
I tweeted this earlier this week:
I debated tweeting this. I ultimately did it because I was proud that I was able to to do it and wanted to shout it from the rooftops. That I didn’t give in. I also hoped it might inspire people going through the same thing to not give up and to not give in. I try to keep my blog and Twitter account with mainly a focus on markets and economics, but I just wanted to say it. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. I almost fell apart but I didn’t do it. I didn’t take the easy path. It made me feel good.
As many inquired, this wasn’t about markets. It was about a personal issue that has put me through the wringer in the last week. Markets are my true passion even when they’re going against me. Markets are fun. My personal issues are probably stupid from an outside perspective (other people out there have more serious and vexing problems), but it’s serious enough for me. Real enough where I wanted some chemical comfort.
A lot of people don’t understand what alcoholics like me go through. They don’t get it. To them, they are just thinking “just stop drinking, dumb&%$.”
I thought I would share my story on here so people can understand. Maybe people with similar problems could seek some inspiration.
An Addictive Personality
I’ve always known I had an addictive personality. I get intensely obsessed with things. Finance is one of those obsessions, but it’s a positive one. I try to keep my passions positive: finance, working out, or even my love of science fiction.
This will probably make you laugh. My addictive personality goes way back. When I was 12 years old, I recognized that I had an addiction to video games. The game for me that finally did me in was Final Fantasy III. (Final Fantasy VI in Japan. Yes, the “geek” in the site’s title is not a mistake.)
I received this game for Christmas in 1994. It indeed is a masterpiece and ranks as one of the best video games of all time. Anyway, I grew to be absolutely obsessed with beating it. It took me a few months. Then my report card came: C’s and D’s. My parents were livid. They always trusted me to take care of my school work on my own and here I was failing at it. They didn’t know the extent of my gameplay. I’d often sneak downstairs at night to play it and keep the volume low without waking up anyone in the house. I had a single-minded determination to get to the end of the game and beat Kefka.
I was never a spectacular student in elementary school, but I recognized that college was only 6 years away. My family doesn’t have a lot of money, and I also realized I didn’t want to go into debt to attend college, which would be the only alternative. The weak report card was a wake-up call: I had to get my act together before it was too late or I wasn’t going to go to college. 7th grade might have been irrelevant, but 8th grade was going to determine what kind of classes I could get into in high school and how I did in high school was going to decide whether or not I would qualify for a scholarship, which I needed to go to college without debt. I knew that an athletic scholarship was out of the question so it would have to be an academic one. (When they say “out like a fat kid in dodgeball,” they are talking about me when I was 12.)
I made the decision back then to take the video games and put them away in the closet. I was going to focus on school for the next 6 years. I put the Super Nintendo, Nintendo, and games in the closet. I was going to get to work.
And I did it. I was an intensely focused student in 8th grade and high school. Knowing myself, I also avoided alcohol entirely, as I knew that I would inevitably develop an addiction if I ever tried it. I was never the smartest kid, but I was willing to outwork anyone else in the pursuit of my goal. Some might scoff as I didn’t attend an Ivy League school or anything of that magnitude, but I managed to get into the top 5% of students in my high school and bring up my SAT scores through determination and hard work. I accomplished the goal: I attended a state school and on a full academic scholarship. It wasn’t just tuition and fees, either. I also received several other private scholarships which helped me cover everything: room, board, books. I would be able to graduate debt free.
I’m not very smart. I’m just a hard worker. I’d often marvel at the smart kids who seemingly could ace a math exam with little effort. For me, it meant remaining buried in a math textbook til 11 PM at night. I had to work for and earn every A that I had. Ultimately, it all paid off with debt-free college experience.
Neither of my parents went to college, and it made them proud that I was going to be able to do this without any assistance. I may have been young, but it still fills me with pride knowing that I was able to pull it off. And the funny thing is: I think the critical moment which made it possible was my decision at 12 to put the video games in the closet.
In my first year of college, I avoided alcohol and partying entirely. I excelled academically because I worked hard. Again, I knew that I had an addictive personality. I already knew I wasn’t one of those people who could have a few drinks, loosen up, and have a good time without it spiraling out of control. I am jealous of those people. I wish I could do that.
Strangely, I joined a fraternity that year and remained a teetotaler. I joined because I liked the people in the fraternity and most of them remain my friends to this day.
In my sophomore year, I decided to drink for the first time. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it was mainly because of one of my other weaknesses: women. A beautiful girl walked up to me at a party and said if I drank a beer with her she’d make out with me. All of that stuff about “I have an addictive personality and shouldn’t do this” went out the window when I looked at her. Later on, I discovered that my best friend put her up to this because he wanted to loosen me up. I’m not mad at him. They didn’t know what I knew deep down.
Once I started drinking, I never looked back. I loved it. It could loosen me up. It made me less uptight. It gave me the courage to actually strike up a conversation with women. More importantly, the harmful effects that I feared weren’t transpiring. I was able to party hard and still earn excellent grades and keep my life together. I thought that my previous aversion to alcohol was stupid. I was able to have it all: alcohol expanded my social life, and I was able to keep myself disciplined and on track.
The adverse effects of drinking slowly crept into my life throughout college. Each year my drinking grew worse. In my sophomore year, I only drank beer, wine, etc. In my junior year, I started doing shots of hard alcohol. I started drinking more often. My drinking was no longer confined to the weekends. I was doing shots every night, even when I wasn’t at a bar or at a party. After some time, I actually preferred drinking alone to drinking with others. One of the weird things I loved to do was read books (many of them Finance and stock market related) and drink. I’m probably the only person to do shots of Jim Beam while reading the Intelligent Investor. In my senior year, I was a particular wreck. I no longer received straight A’s, but I was able to pull B’s and graduate with a decent (not spectacular) cumulative GPA, so I didn’t think it was a big deal.
By the end of college in 2004, I interviewed for and received a graduate assistantship to earn my MBA. The assistantship actually tied into my fraternity origins. I was responsible for overseeing the Greek system and maintaining discipline. Because I was already rooted socially in Greek life, the Dean thought it would be easy for me to keep close tabs on everyone’s activities. It was a great gig: full MBA tuition, an on-campus apartment, a meal plan, and a weekly stipend.
I decided after graduation with my bachelor’s degree that I would give up drinking. I recognized that drinking was destructive. While I was able to coast by in my last year of college and keep my scholarship and get a decent GPA, I needed to buckle down and get it together if I was going to succeed.
I gave up drinking in the summer of 2004. Physically, I felt incredible. I went from doing shots every night and passing out to getting a full night’s sleep. I felt better in the morning, so I was able to work out, which also helped me feel better physically.
In October of 2004, after being off alcohol since May, I concluded that I was over my addiction. On the evening of homecoming, many of my undergraduate friends came back and visited me. They, obviously, wanted to drink with me because that’s what we did when we were undergraduates. I drank with them. I told myself that I had given up drinking for 5 months and I overcame the problem. If I could do that, I wasn’t an alcoholic. I could confine my drinking on social occasions. When I drank, I wouldn’t drink to excess.
My plans worked briefly. However, by 2005, I found myself drinking hard liquor every single night again. Alcohol always made me feel good while I was on it. It was always a release for me. I would often drink alone in my apartment at the end of the day while I watched tv or read a book.
After a series of embarrassing incidents, I decided to quit drinking again in 2006. In one example, I heated up pizza in my apartment in the oven and passed out until it set off the smoke detector. Public safety officers woke me up in my apartment filled with smoke. I hadn’t committed any kind of crime, but I was still ashamed of what I had done. I realized that I had lost control again. I needed to stop. I was nearing graduation and would need to be focused on a job after graduation.
I quit drinking again in the Spring of 2006. I started to feel great, as I did in the summer of 2004. I graduated with a good GPA.
Then, on graduation night, a girl I was interested came over to my apartment and said she wanted to get drunk with me. Not thinking straight (for obvious reasons), I said “what the hell” and went to the liquor store with her, and we bought a bottle of wine.
I got a job that summer after graduating with my MBA. I was coming to work hungover every day, and within time, I was fired. It was entirely my fault. I felt like a complete failure. It was my first job and I couldn’t keep it.
Out of money and broke, I wanted to go home primarily to clean up and start looking for jobs. My father quoted me an extraordinary price for rent. I think he did this mainly to encourage me to get my life back together and send a clear message that there wasn’t going to be any kind of safety net in life. He did from his perspective was the right thing and didn’t know the details about what was going on with me. If he knew what I was doing, he wouldn’t have done that. I hid my alcohol abuse from my family. By all outward appearances, I was a normal functioning young adult with a college degree and a graduate degree. I kept my drinking out of sight.
I started to feel down on myself and started drinking more heavily than ever before. I started living out of my car and burning through money. Living off of fast food dollar menus and alcohol, my weight began to balloon out of control. I lived off of my credit cards and started getting deep into debt. I was using it for occasional rooms at motels and for food and booze. I’d go to parties at my friend’s houses and get ridiculously wasted for the sole purpose of passing out on the couch so I’d have a free place to sleep at night. Everything I owned was in the trunk of my car.
I continued to interview for jobs during this period. I used to dream about working in Finance in New York, and that was basically out of the question without a dime to my name to spend on an apartment. I decided to take a different approach: I would go through a local temp agency and use that as a springboard to get into a big bank. I resolved that I would start in the back office, get a full-time job, and one day I would advance to a position in New York.
I was lucky enough to get one of those jobs for a big bank. It was only a temp job, and I was earning about 60% of what I made at my first job without any benefits, but I knew I was marching in the right direction.
I quit drinking again, and I decided to give this job an all-out effort. I stayed late every night. I worked my butt off. I entirely devoted myself to it, and I excelled. I started to feel good about myself again. By the end of that summer (this was 2007), I was made a full-time employee.
Unfortunately, I started drinking again. Not having paid off my debts accrued from unemployment, I started getting deeper in debt. I started going to happy hours and to bars every night on the weekends with my co-workers. Inevitably, the drinking began to affect my performance at work. I was also now approaching 300 pounds and had nearly $30,000 in debt at about an average interest rate of 20%.
I had no idea how I was going to get out of the hole I was in. I was messing up at work. The economy was falling apart, and jobs at banks weren’t exactly stable. Physically I was a wreck. I was getting hammered every night. I was living paycheck to paycheck through my own actions of debt accumulation.
I sat down on August 24th, 2008 and decided that things needed to change. I didn’t know exactly how I was getting out of this hole, but I knew I had to stop digging. If I would merely stop digging and ruining my life, I was still young enough where I could turn it around. Somehow. I didn’t need to condemn myself to this for the rest of my life.
I decided that night that it was the last time I was going to drink. Ever. I knew, based on my previous experiences with sobriety, that I had to make it a permanent condition. It couldn’t be for a few months. It had to be for a lifetime. I wasn’t someone who could have a few drinks and relax.
I got drunk that night and woke up determined to turn things around. It was hard, but I started to see the glimmers of hope at a better life as I stayed sober. My performance improved at work, to the delight of my managers whom I was sure were contemplating getting rid of me. Downsizing was constantly all around me. I was still living paycheck to paycheck and just making the bare minimum payments on my credit cards, but I at least cut them up and stopped using them.
Turning it around
In my first year of sobriety, there were many times that I was tempted to go back to drinking. I was bored. I had no friends. I had no social life. Quitting drinking meant isolating myself from many of my friendships that were centered around alcohol. The loneliness and isolation made me want to start drinking again. I decided that I needed some kind of outlet or I was going to go back to drinking.
I joined a gym and made a commitment to go every night. The gym really helped me stay away from booze despite the feelings of loneliness and isolation that I had. An endorphin rush at night was exactly what I needed. My physical condition started improving, which helped me feel better about myself. A year later, at the end of 2009, I was down 100 pounds from where I started in 2008.
The Challenge of Sobriety
The first year of sobriety is the hardest. The reason is simple: drinking is fun and sobriety leads to social isolation. Sobriety also makes your problems real. You can’t numb yourself and forget about them every night.
Yes, alcohol ruins your life, but it’s fun. It’s a way to escape from your problems. For me, the problems were self-created and were financial, professional, personal (i.e., no woman wants to a date a 300-pound drunk guy). Drinking was a way to escape from that. The irony is that I was trying to escape from problems that were caused by drinking. When that escape is removed, there is no more escaping or hiding from your problems. They are there in all of their raw ugliness for you to confront and deal with.
Sobriety is lonely. Even though I drank alone frequently, I also went to bars frequently and had a lot of friends. You develop friendships with people that are anchored with alcohol. When you stop drinking, those friendships gradually disappear. You don’t want them to disappear. They don’t want them to disappear. However, when all of your interaction with them centers around going to bars, you friendships begin to fray. You get lonely. Loneliness leads to despair, which makes it easy to go back.
At first, when you’re sober, you are lonely and don’t live through any benefits of sobriety. Not seeing immediate gains also derails you. Yes, you feel better, but the problems that your abuse created are still there, and they are now more real than they ever were when you were numbing yourself with chemicals.
This is why so many people fall off the path in that first year. You start to think what I thought back then: “What’s the point? Nothing is getting better and I’m miserable.”
For me, I knew in those moments that even though I didn’t see a clear path out of my problems, that alcohol was not the solution and would only make them worse.
Slowly, my life began to improve. The small chunks of my paychecks that I put towards attacking my debt started to bring my minimums down. Within time, I wasn’t living paycheck to paycheck. I was recognized more at work for the extra energy and focus that I was putting towards it. I was promoted, then I was promoted again, and again. I put any raise I had towards my debt. Then, when the debt was paid off, I started to put it towards savings and retirement. I was getting out of the hole. Eventually, years later, I was thriving. I got into a serious relationship. I had advanced at work. I started this blog and have been able to interact with heroes of mine that I never imagined would give me the time of day.
The first year was the hardest to get through and there were countless moments when I wanted to fall apart. After that, there were only two moments in the last 9 years when I was tempted to go back. They were moments of personal difficulties when I felt despair, and anguish and I just wanted to numb the emotions.
One of those moments was this week. I was upset at work all day thinking about what was going on in my personal life. I resolved at work that day that I was going to get drunk that night and at least be free of those feelings for one glorious evening. On the way home, I picked up a bottle of Cabo Wabo and resolved to get hammered drunk and forget about everything that’s been going on lately.
I opened the bottle. I smelled that tequila. It smelled incredible and seductive. I thought about how amazing it would be to get drunk. To no longer feel any pain, at least for a night. I took out a glass and put it on the kitchen table. I sat there staring at it. Thinking about how fun it would be to get drunk again. I also wrestled with all of the positive things that discipline and sobriety have brought me over the last decade. I thought about where I was 11 years ago. Living out of my car. Deeply in debt. I thought about a night when I puked on myself in my sleep and was lucky I didn’t choke. Now here I was, living in my own home and not a cent of debt and a good chunk of savings. I knew that none of this would be possible if I was drinking for the last decade. But I was also in pain and I knew alcohol would make it go away.
Ultimately, angrily and defiantly, I poured that bottle down the sink (sorry, Sammy Hagar) after sitting there and wrestling with these questions. It felt good to do that. It felt good to say no to it despite the incredible temptation to go back to it. It felt better than getting drunk would have felt.
I posted it on Twitter because I was proud of it and hoped that it would inspire someone else struggling with the same demons.
I never attended alcoholics anonymous and did all of this on my own. I always prided myself on that. That no one helped me. For most of the last 9 years, I’ve felt like I beat this addiction entirely. I felt like I did it on my own with no one’s help but my own force of will.
This week was a wake-up call for me that maybe I do need some help even though I haven’t consumed a single drop of alcohol for a decade. I haven’t gone through with it yet, but I think I may actually go to an AA meeting and talk to people with similar issues. Maybe it will help me stay on the path and have someone to talk to the next time I have a personal situation that makes me want to escape reality with booze.
That’s my story. Hopefully, you got something out of it. If you struggle with drugs and/or alcohol, know that you’re not alone.
If you love someone who struggles with this, perhaps this will give you perspective on why they do it. For me, it was about escape and numbing any intense emotions that I felt. Ultimately, as the numbing compounds your problems, you’re using because you use. It is a cycle of self-destruction. The user knows they shouldn’t use but they can’t help it.
I also hope that my story gives other alcoholics some inspiration. Despite the temptation to drown your feelings in booze, you have to always keep in mind that it will never make the problems go away. Only you can make your problems go away. Alcohol is fun and comforting but it will never match the satisfaction you’ll get from overcoming your problems on your own and succeeding in your pursuits.
Overcoming your problems is the ultimate satisfaction in life that a chemical can’t match. There are few feelings better than looking at a solved problem that previously looked insurmountable and saying to yourself: I did that. I solved that problem and I’m better for it.
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