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Recognizing Alcohol Abuse Warning Signs: My Journey to Sobriety

by John Buckley
February 15, 2024

Note to Reader: The following is a personal narrative of my struggles to come to terms with an alcohol use disorder. I tried to give an honest account of the dark days, many of which were difficult to recount. However, I wrote it in the hopes that someone struggling may read it, see themselves in the stories, and maybe take some comfort in knowing that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

It elicited a lot of raw emotions, and I included a few four-letter words as a result. I apologize for them in advance.


Days Since Last Accident

Background

The other day, I was chatting online with a good friend whom I hadn’t seen in a few years.

As English teachers in South Korea, we previously shared some pretty wild nights on the town together. We’d also traveled together on trips to Bali, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia.

They were all wild, booze-filled adventures.

Needless to say, he knew me as “a drinker.” He also knew me as a guy who, like a lot of English teachers in South Korea, was extending his college party years well past graduation day.

In Korea, it didn’t seem too unusual that this “college guy” was now in his forties.

Most English teachers in South Korea are fresh out of college. And some just act like they are.
Most English teachers in South Korea are fresh out of college. And some just act like they are.

When I casually mentioned in our chat that I had recently quit drinking, he seemed genuinely perplexed. He sincerely wanted to know:

Why would you quit drinking?

My first instinct was to crack, “What about my drinking exploits didn’t lead you to believe this outcome wasn’t inevitable?” I truly believed that the signs were clear for all to see.

However, the truth is, the real insidious part of my addiction was taking place mostly in the shadows.

My friend had moved to China before the pandemic. Like many around the world, 2020 was the final tipping point for me in what had been a high-wire act I’d been performing since high school.

To satiate his curiosity, I merely paraphrased a quote I’d come across from True Blood’s Stephen Moyer.

I guess I just drank all of the beers I needed to drink in this lifetime,” I told him.

The truth was much deeper, and I guess this will serve as my manifesto if it ever comes up again.

Though I had a 20-year history of not-so-subtle alcohol abuse, these were:

7 Warning Signs That Finally Pushed Me to Seek Sobriety

None of these are a picnic to address publicly, but I’ll attempt to do so honestly and with humility.

I may use humor as a defense mechanism, but I assure you, none of this was a laughing matter at the time.

I attempted to order the numbers in ascending order based on their perceived threat level to my overall well-being.

1. Financial Distress

The great 21st century urban philosopher, former NFL star Marshawn Lynch, was once quoted cautioning younger players in the league to “take care of y’all mentals and y’all chicken.”

For those who don’t follow the NFL or who aren’t familiar with Marshawn’s unique brand of sage advice, he was imploring young players to take care of their mental health and their finances.

I’ll address “my mentals” in the next section, but as an everyday drinker, the chickens in my bank account were starting to get a bit lonely.

I put this first (as in the lowest perceived threat level), as this was the obstacle I would have been willing to endure the longest, regardless of the consequences.

When most people begin their journey to quit or reduce drinking, they usually come up with an estimate of what their habit has been costing them financially.

I came up with the conservative estimate of about $15 a day. Every. Single. Day.

The sad truth is that, during my active addition, I could always justify this number as a sunk cost. I honestly considered myself a “Joe 6-Pack” and never really saw much wrong with that.

It was only when I stopped spending the money on a regular basis and truly started to consider the extended tab that it began to seem flat-out insane.

Math has never been my strong suit, but here goes:

$15 per day = $105 per week.

That’s kind of a lot, but still, the alcoholic brain could justify this because “gosh, I could really use a drink tonight, and I’ll try to drink less next week.”

$15 per day = $450 per month. That number was certainly more concerning, but I had always made ends meet, so there wasn’t much reason to get into a major twist over it.

Not to mention, the shame involved with that amount caused me to reach for a beer just to brush the thought aside.

$15 per day = $5,475 per year. Now, we’re in a ballpark that causes even the alcoholic brain to do a double-take.

I live in South Korea, and the price of a flight home is generally around $2,000, before also factoring in all of the other expenses involved with the annual trip home. Though I’m always excited for the trip, the financial toll has been a considerable source of stress.

Now you’re going to try to tell me that if I didn’t drink beer like I do every night of the year, I could cover the cost of the flight and all of the expenses of the trip?

Well, shoot, that’s a nice thought.

However, that made me double down on drinking, just considering how unattainable that seemed.

Let’s also consider the fact that $15 a day is just a rough average. Sure, some days I spent less than that, but on many more occasions I spent more.

I didn’t always drink every night, but it was usually difficult to recall the last night I didn’t have at least “a few.”

Additionally, that number was from the sad, isolated solo-drinking days towards the end of my drinking career and during the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, when I was regularly going out with friends to bars, I wouldn’t bat an eye at spending $100 in a single evening.

Of course, we also need to factor in the “drunken idiot tax.” Let’s face it, drunk people make poor decisions, and often these come with a hefty price attached.

Whether it be junk food, cigarettes, online shopping, or any number of other idiotic drinking-induced vices, rarely does the spending stop with a nightly 6-pack.

At one point in time, I was in the habit of getting drunk and then purchasing cryptocurrencies on a handy phone app. Spoiler alert: I’m not writing this from my yacht!

2. Mental Health Problems

I’ve been pretty fortunate most of my life to have what I assume to be pretty decent mental health.

After all, my default setting has consistently been stuck on happy-go-lucky, which can sometimes be confounding to those who suffer from real mental health issues.

A friend once tried to confide in me about his struggles with depression, and my only advice was that he should really try to “cheer up.”

Not exactly the sympathetic, compassionate confidant he was seeking. But truthfully, I just couldn’t relate.

However, towards the end of my drinking career, I started to notice something really strange happening in my own mind. I was no longer very happy, nor was I remotely go-lucky anymore.

In fact, I had begun to live with a near-constant nervous energy that I couldn’t explain or define. I began to wonder:

Why am I so nervous and overwhelmed all the time?

As I would sit watching a hockey game on a Sunday afternoon, my heart would be racing. Oddly, it wasn’t the typical jitteriness that might arise from a close game.

Instead, it felt like the fear I might experience if I was tagged with delivering a post-game speech to the packed arena.

Watching the Avalanche Win the Stanley Cup in  Korea

In reality, I was just sitting around, hungover, watching a hockey game with nothing else to do but drink that jittery feeling away when the game ended. That is, if I could last that long.

Someone more in tune with the nuances of mental health would have known that this was called anxiety.

Looking back and knowing what I know now, I think I have probably dealt with some form of anxiety my entire life. I just didn’t know what to call it. I only knew that drinking made it go away.

I know that I’ve never truly felt comfortable in groups, big or small. However, what I did know was that alcohol would help carry me through it.

Being the crazy, drunk guy always seemed preferable to being the shy, awkward guy.

In addition to the anxiety that had been ratcheting up, I was also starting to feel completely overwhelmed by even the most mundane daily activities.

As an English teacher at a university in South Korea, my job is remarkably easy and relatively stress-free. My working hours would baffle the average American, and that’s before I even get around to explaining the vacation time.

Still, driving in my car to work in the mornings, I would be filled with a hungover dread about the day before me. 

How was I going to make it through? I would give myself little mental pep talks about just getting through the first hour. It would soon be over if I could just fake it for a few hours.

I tried deep breathing while I drove. Still, I was an anxious wreck. I just had to make it through. I’d be able to open a beer when I got home. Good things come to those who wait.

Eventually, I started listening to Recovery Elevator podcasts,

I once heard someone on an episode describe this anxious and overwhelmed feeling as the one you get when you’re late for work and frantically hitting all of the red lights along the way. Even when it was smooth sailing. Aha! Someone out there understood!

There was just a constant blend of anxiety and overwhelm that lasted throughout the day, even when there was nothing tangible to worry about.

At work, while facing a class of students, my mind would inevitably drift to fantasizing about that first beer waiting for me at home—a way to celebrate another “hard day” and to quell the uneasy feelings.

That self-perpetuating cycle went round and round… I was still quite good at my job, but it took a lot to mask the inner turmoil.

Note: My average work day is between 2 and 4 hours long. Oh, the misery! I can joke about it now as I drive to work, just admiring the tranquil Korean countryside passing by outside.

3. Physical Health Problems

As a university English teacher in South Korea, I am blessed with 4 months of paid vacation a year. I get a 2-month winter vacation and a 2-month summer vacation.

Did I mention earlier that my job is not necessarily a stressful, high-paced pressure cooker? That’s right, I did.

As an experienced world traveler, my group of English teaching buddies always looked to me to come up with a plan for our winter travel adventures.

Summer vacations were mostly for visiting family in our home countries, but winter vacations were for partying our way across Southeast Asia.

In the winter of 2015, we embarked on a month-long adventure to Bali and Indonesia. Needless to say, Bintang Beers started flowing by the pool at noon and didn’t really let up until our heads hit the pillow. Rinse and repeat for a month.

Towards the end of the holiday, I started noticing a pain that felt like a broken rib on my right side. My Denver Broncos had won the Super Bowl while we were down there, and I assumed the pain was the result of one of the numerous drunken bear hugs I had received that day.

When I returned to Korea, it still hurt enough to have a doctor check it out. Turns out, my ribs were just fine, but as the doctor perused my bloodwork and prodded around in the painful area, he informed me that my liver was swollen.

At the time, I wasn’t sure if that was just his way of explaining in broken English that my liver was in trouble or if, in fact, a liver could actually swell up.

Whatever the case, the bloodwork didn’t lie. My liver enzymes were off the charts. I now know that a liver can swell and that it’s a blinking red warning light.

I don’t recall the exact numbers, but I know that my ALT and AST were both in the high 80’s. The doctor assured me that he had seen worse but that this really wasn’t good.

According to the fine doctors at Google, normal liver enzyme levels for adults are as follows:

Without passing too much judgment, the good doctor made it clear that my drinking habits needed attention, at least for the near future. This advice was given despite my fibbing my average number of drinking nights a week down to 3 per week.

He recommended silymarin (also known as milk thistle) supplements, and I agreed to abstain from alcohol for a few weeks.

I followed his advice and took it easy on the beers until the pain subsided and the coast seemed clear again. However, once it did, I eventually slipped back into my regular nightly drinking routine.

Though that sobriety stint was short-lived, it served as the first real warning shot across the bow of my drunken pirate ship. The light-hearted way in which I’d always viewed what I recognized to be a slightly problematic relationship with alcohol was suddenly becoming more serious.

That wasn’t the end of my drinking career, but it may have been the beginning of my understanding that there wasn’t going to be a happy ending to this story if things didn’t eventually change.

Years later, after I had finally committed to trying to address the problem, I could barely bend over to tie my shoes without feeling a rock-like mass on my right side.

Although I was taking the early steps towards quitting by that time, even with a literal thorn in my side, I was still not quite ready to give in to what I knew needed to happen.

Looking back, I recall that the best way to forget about that stone-like lump in my side was to drink away the worrying thoughts. Admittedly, that may not have been the best treatment.

Yet, it was effective, at least until the morning arrived, when the pain intensified, accompanied by a side order of anxiety and shame.

At the very least, by 2016, I had reached the first step that you always hear people talk about in recovery. I had finally admitted that, Houston, we have a problem!

4. Isolated Drinking

In 2020, the world was introduced to the concept of “social distancing.”

For me, the concept was not a new one. In fact, I had gotten a head start on the practice several years earlier, sometime around 2018.

I’m bouncing around with dates here, so you may have figured out that the alarm bells in 2016 weren’t quite loud enough. Folks, stick with me; this was a process.

Prior to that time, my usual drinking routine was to hit the bustling, nighttime streets of South Korea with my group of raucous friends. For most of my adult life, drinking equated to “partying” with friends.

In fairness, I also did a fair bit of drinking alone, especially when I would return home, believing I needed a few more beers to cap the night off. It was also not uncommon for me to cop a solid nightly buzz at home alone on most work nights.

Still, my drinking up until then was primarily a social endeavor, with some maintenance solo-drinking mixed in to “help me sleep” and to ease the aforementioned anxiety and unsteady hands.

Buckley, Party of One

Sometime around 2018, I began to make excuses to not join my friends out at the bars. Of course, I still wanted to drink as much as I would if I were out on the town, but now I just wanted to do it at home, alone, sitting on my deck.

So while my friends would be out painting the town red, I would be at home, alone, with a smart phone as a companion and all of the cheap Korean beer I could handle.

There was a reason for this, of course. I didn’t suddenly just start hating all of my friends. I had begun to recognize something in myself that made me fearful of drinking in public.

I had long known that once I had one drink, there would be no off-switch until a blackout occurred or until I’d hit the end of the supply.

That’s scary enough in and of itself, but the things I started to fear the most were the things I couldn’t remember doing. Real or perceived, an intense feeling of shame and anxiety would wash over me every morning after a night on the town.

By that time, I had grown accustomed to (and tired of) the times when all of my friends would happily gather around to take shots, while I was filled with nervous trepidation.

You see, I had long known that one shot of that clear or brown liquid would be a rocket ship to black-out town and to not remember the rest of the evening. What I would get up to in my blacked-out haze was anybody’s guess.

I was starting to get really “weird” towards the end of my drinking career. After hitting that black-out stage, I would inevitably slip away from my friends to see what kind of drunken adventures I could find for myself, stumbling around dark alleys and into random bars alone.

For me, just drinking with my friends wasn’t cutting it anymore. I had to strike out, looking for Henry Miller-like adventures. We had a saying around my group of friends: “Let’s get weird,” and I really took that mantra to heart.

Prior to imbibing the first few drinks, I started to fear the weird Jekyll and Hyde personalities that would come out when I was drunk, after my eyes had glazed over into a state of belligerent incoherence.

As a result, I decided that drinking on my deck, home alone, was probably just a better option for me.

Don’t get me wrong; I still wanted to get just as shitfaced as I did downtown with my buddies. It just felt much safer to do it on my own terms without their prying eyes and looming questions about where I had wandered off to.

Towards the end of my drinking career, while my friends gathered downtown for birthdays or the party du jour, I became an expert at making excuses for why I couldn’t attend.

What I really wanted to do at this point was to sit on my deck without judgement, drink as much as I (and only I) saw fit, and be able to stumble over to my bed when it had gone too far.

A Korean beer and my drinking deck
A Korean beer and my drinking deck

It started as a defense mechanism to save me from myself, but by the end of the night on my deck, I was still the same person. It just felt better if no one else had to know about it.

The thing about shame is that it is very inward-facing. My friends never really cared what I did or didn’t do while we were out. In fact, it was often a great source of amusement for them.

The shame was something I created for myself, and it didn’t go away once I isolated myself.

Oddly enough, when I only had myself to answer to, it only made it all the more difficult to bear.

5. What the HELL ‘Does Cognitive Dissonance Mean?’

That’s a darn good question. Prior to delving into sobriety podcasts and sober social media groups, I don’t think I’d ever even heard of the concept.

You can find a full explanation here, but I’ll simplify it from a personal perspective and explain what it meant to me.

It meant not wanting to do something (drink) with every fiber of my being but not being able to prevent myself from doing it.

I really considered putting this at #7 as the highest threat to my overall welfare because this was absolutely devastating. In fact, it was fundamentally soul-crushing.

Let me explain, and then I’ll circle back.

By this time, I had long been considering the real possibility that I may need to quit drinking. If you’ve been engaged in sobriety circles long enough, you’ve probably heard the phrase:

I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

I actually used to say these exact words to myself (prior to hearing them from others) when I dragged myself out of bed and looked at my puffy, old, droopy eyes in the mirror.

So that was it. One day I announced to myself, to my girlfriend (who would later become my wife), and even to my family back home that I was going to try to quit drinking.

Great, terrific! Kudos, John! That a boy!

However, I soon learned that simply announcing to the world that you’re trying to quit drinking doesn’t mean that you actually have quit drinking.

Unintentionally, this led me into a new world of secret and hidden drinking, but we’ll get into that at #7.

For now, let’s return to cognitive dissonance.

At this stage, I would wake up every morning (usually hungover) and tell myself that today was the day that I really meant it. I was absolutely not going to drink again that day.

This was around 2020/21, and COVID had us teachers working from home. The intensity of my 2-hour work days got even lighter, and my unsupervised free time grew exponentially.

Teaching from home, I just had to get through a few hours of online teaching, and then my drinking deck would beckon from just a few steps away. There was also cheap Korean beer being sold on three corners surrounding my house.

After a few months of this, which quite honestly were pretty awesome at the time, I finally hit a breaking point. I just knew that I couldn’t carry on this way for much longer.

My mind and body had warning lights blinking all over the place.

I slowly got to the point where every morning I would wake up and make a promise to myself that after that day’s class, I would take a long walk or bike ride.

I would absolutely NOT drink again that day!

Fast-forward to 30-minutes into my first online class, and my mind was already drifting out towards the sun on my deck and the relief that would come from cracking open that first beer. My body would soon follow my mind once the class had ended.

Let’s recap. Every morning I told myself I wouldn’t do it, and every afternoon I found myself doing it. That, my friends, is cognitive dissonance.

Honestly, in my heart, I didn’t even want to drink anymore. I was just like Pavlov’s dog, a conditioned animal trained to crave a reward. As a result, I had to start getting creative to try to break the spell.

Hello John, it’s you…

I would leave notes around my house.

Do NOT buy beer today!

I even recorded voice memos on my phone pleading with myself not to go to the store to buy beer. I also made videos of my drunken self, trying to explain to my sober self how truly sick of it I was.

I had every intention of listening to those recordings or watching the videos in an attempt to snap myself out of the Pavlovian response before I stepped out the door to purchase beer.

I would drone on about how the desire to drink was just a temporary feeling. I explained how terrible I would feel the next day. Additionally, I pointed out that the sober voice on the voice memo served as the real voice of reason among the constantly competing voices in my mind.

However, when the part of my brain in charge of impulse control took over, would I choose to listen to those recordings? Nope, forget about it.

My mind was already made up, and I didn’t want to hear boo from anyone, especially not the asshole on the voice memo or in the mirror.

Thus, I would end up tossing aside those notes I’d written earlier in the day to make room for the bottles of beer I had just purchased. I would settle into my well-worn deck chair and assume my usual position.

Usually, I would listen to podcasts. Sometimes, I would listen to nostalgic music. Most of the time, I just stared off into space. But all of the time, I drank beer. I drank lots and lots of beer.

During the Covid era, I spent a lot of time soaking up rays and drinking beer on my deck in Daegu, South Korea
During the Covid era, I spent a lot of time soaking up rays and drinking beer on my deck in Daegu, South Korea

It wasn’t long before I had to absorb the real gut punch. This was the moment that I realized I’d crossed over the Rubicon.

I distinctly remember pleading with myself out loud as I walked to the beer shop. Absolutely PLEADING!

This conversation happened many times as I set out to buy beer, with the conflicting voices in my head lobbing grenades at each other.

The good guys would plead, “Turn around, man. It’s not too late. Just turn around. You don’t have to do this today. Please, just go home now.”

The bad guys would counter, “Come on, dude, you need it today! You can quit tomorrow. Just one more time! You’ve earned it!”

After not being able to physically stop my legs from moving their way into the store, I would make my purchase, pulling my hat down low, hoping the guy wouldn’t remember how many times I’d already been in that week (or that day).

I would then retreat back to the bunker on my deck, knowing that the battle would resume again the next day.

Another way I recall this battle manifesting itself was that during my sober hours, there seemed to be a blaring noise in my head, always turned up to maximum volume. It wasn’t a tangible noise, but more like an incessant inner monologue.

It was relentless, and the noise would only be quieted once I had taken that first sip of beer. Beer had become the mute button for all of the noisy turmoil in my head.

However, the volume would return and be set even louder the following day.

These are the moments I point to when people wonder how I knew it was time to hang it up.

When my friend innocently asked me (from the beginning of this story) why I had to quit drinking, he seemed genuinely shocked. Then again, he wasn’t privy to this kind of information.

He didn’t realize how utterly soul-crushing it was to wake up every morning, telling myself not to do one simple thing, only to find myself unable to resist doing it by mid-afternoon.

That type of repeated failure causes some bad shit to go through your head.

It was in those shameful moments when I would drearily open my eyes in the morning, realizing I’d done it again, that I knew I had to stop.

The party was over. There was actually relief in that realization, but it took me awhile to make peace with the notion.

Regardless, in those darkest hours of repeated failure, a glimmer of hope was beginning to shine through. I was gaining knowledge, and I was gaining battle scars.

Every time I fucked up, I tried again. And then I tried again. And then I tried again. And then I tried yet again. And then I fucked up again more times than I could even count, but I kept getting back up and trying again.

If anyone were to ask me how I eventually got sober, that’s the answer. Right there. I just kept trying. There were a few other factors involved, but eventually, the sober streaks just got longer until I arrived at the number at the top of the screen.

I’m admitting to a lot of flaws in this piece of writing, but being weak isn’t one of them.

I don’t know for sure that I’m finished fucking up, but I do know that it won’t be tonight.

I apologize for all of the cursing, but “goofed up” just doesn’t seem to capture the intensity. Plus, I just kind of like to swear, and this is the only place on my blog where I feel like I can get away with it.

So, it was a slow process, but when I was eventually able to string together a few continuous sober days, I became keenly aware of how rapidly my condition would improve. The more sober days I could string together, the better I would feel.

Of course, there was always that voice in my head that was so adept at taunting me back to the dark side, but still, I was gaining momentum.

I had discovered that yes, there might be a monster living inside of me, but I was also learning that the monster could be starved. I learned that the further I got away from my last drink, the weaker that monster became.

It could be robbed of it’s power if I could only stop feeding it for long enough.

During those brief glimpses of how great sobriety felt, I also learned that the monster was still breathing fire inside. My next drink would get it all riled up again for awhile, and it took a lot of work to starve it back into submission.

During this time, I was also learning the monster’s ways. I was beginning to understand that:

It wants you alone; it wants you sick; and then it wants to kill you.” 

Matthew Perry – A “Friend” and Sobriety Advocate
I never met the guy, but he'll always be a Friend to me.

But it was also during those dark days of trial and error that I also learned that I didn’t have to let the monster win.

Acknowledging that it would most likely be a lifelong struggle, I also became determined to not let that little prick win.

These days, I rarely even notice the monster’s embers burning, but I never forget that they’re still there, patiently waiting for more fuel to ignite them.

Sadly, Matthew Perry was a somber reminder of this. Rest in peace, my favorite of the “Friends.”

6. Wasting Away Again in Margaritaville

For as long as I can remember, I have loved Jimmy Buffett. I still love Jimmy Buffett.

He was a troubadour of joy and happiness and of not taking life too seriously. As a world traveler, I often let his music transport me back to the islands, if only in my mind.

Many of his songs were also anthems for drunks to sing along to, and some of my earliest drinking memories were of sitting in a snowy car in the Colorado mountains with my high school buddies, drinking Bud heavies, and singing along with Jimmy.

“Margaritaville,” “Come Monday,” “He Went to Paris,” “Boat Drinks,” “The Wino and I Know,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “Why Don’t We Get Drunk,” and “A Pirate Looks at 40.”

These were just a few of the melodies that I loved to sing along with, and when the lyrics came to the parts about drinking, I sang even louder and raised my beer in the air.

I still love those songs, and I still love Jimmy Buffett.

Though his songs always conjure up images of fun and drinking in paradise, if you listen a little more closely, many of them are sad songs.

Margaritaville” is about a guy who had lost his purpose in life and who was just “wasting away again in Margaritville searching for his lost shaker of salt.

Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame, but I know. It’s my own damn fault.”

When my drinking started heading towards a darker place, I started relating to some of these songs on a different level.

I was in my 40’s, having lived in Korea for 15 years and having forgone the career advancement track that many of my peers were enjoying at this stage in life.

I used to compare myself to Peter Pan, who refused to grow up.

However, I was probably more like the pirate in “A Pirate Looks at 40,” looking back and lamenting the course his life had taken.

“I have been drunk now for over two weeks. I passed out and I rallied, and I sprung a few leaks…Down to rock bottom again.

Drunk. Sober. It’s still one of my favorite all-time songs.

Having a beer on Ngapali Beach, Myanmar
Having a beer on Ngapali Beach, Myanmar

You might be wondering why I’m drifting down memory lane and what these songs have to do with the story I’ve been telling.

First, it just kind of ties into the time narrative I’ve been working towards in my sobriety journey.

More importantly, the reason this lands at #6 is that, as I embarked on numerous failed attempts to quit drinking, I had found myself in my own Margaritaville, and I could clearly see that I was also wasting away.

Drinking had robbed me of a purpose. It had robbed me of time. It had robbed me of joy. It had robbed me of really caring about anything beyond when and where I was going to land that next buzz.

There was a long period of time towards the end of my drinking career where this caused me to be a really tough hang. I had become angry. I had become resentful. I had become fearful of the hole that I had dug for myself by not moving back to the United States after my planned “one-year adventure in Asia.”

I became short-tempered and quick to snap at my girlfriend. I wasn’t abusive, but I was prone to outbursts over small annoyances that I often had to apologize for later.

Honestly, I didn’t even recognize myself when they came out. Keep in mind that I have always considered myself a happy-go-lucky and fairly mellow dude.

The truth is, I was angry. I was frustrated. I was disappointed. Not at my girlfriend for giving me the wrong directions in the car, but at myself for a slew of feelings I was holding inside.

Mostly, I was angry that I wasn’t doing anything with my life or with my time. When I was drinking on my deck or hungover in bed for an entire day, I was barely existing. I was doing the bare minimum to participate in life.

That’s why this lands at #6 on my scale. This took a mental toll on me that is hard to put into words.

When drinking by yourself takes precedence over just about anything else, the other minutes of the day are only spent anticipating the next drink or recovering from the last.

For a former Junior Olympic ski racer, an avid hiker, and a world traveler, this felt like rock bottom. I just wanted to be alone, to sit and drink, and when that was interrupted, I would lash out in anger.

After snapping at my girlfriend one too many times, the song began ringing out in my mind:

“Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame. But I know. It’s my OWN damn fault.”

Jimmy Buffett – Margaritaville

As I sit here writing today, I can honestly say that I’m really happy with how things have turned out. I’m now happily married to that girlfriend, and we have a sweet border collie who is spoiled beyond measure.

I no longer live alone, and together we have moved into an apartment with no “drinking deck.” Don’t ask me why, but for some reason, I only wanted to drink outside.

I’m still living in South Korea with the same university English teaching job, but it no longer feels like I’m settling. I started this blog as a creative outlet, and I wake up early every morning to work on it.

My wife still drives me crazy from time to time, but now we’re able to laugh off whatever hurdles come our way. The anger and angst have faded away, and I’m back to being my old, happy-go-lucky self.

I’m proud of how far I’ve come and I hope Jimmy is smiling down and belting out “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” from whatever paradise he’s landed in.

7. Hiding and Lying

This is the final alcohol abuse warning sign left on my list, and what I hope was the last gasp of alcohol’s vice grip on my mind, body, and soul.

This part of the journey spans roughly the years 2021–2023. I realize that is a pretty long period of time for what, if you’re putting the clues together, was a time of significant inner turmoil.

By this time, I had pretty much announced to the world, not only that I was trying to quit drinking, but that I had quit drinking.

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!”

Sir Walter Scott – Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field

And while I’m quoting old-timey literature, I guess you could say that this was also “the best of times and the worst of times.”Charles Dickens

Let’s start with the good times first. Though I’m admitting to being a liar in the heading of this section, here’s the sober truth: I had gone from being a nightly drinker for over 20 years to someone who could genuinely go around 20 to 30 days without a single drink.

Now, that ain’t nothing!

I was actively working on sobriety and putting together some solid sober streaks. I had also discovered that my sober life was indeed a better one.

Perhaps a little dull by my old standards, but now in my mid-40’s, dull was starting to feel more like peace than boredom. (However, the monster inside still seemed to prefer chaos over peace.)

I was feeling healthier; the lumpy pain in my midsection had subsided, and my weight had started to retreat back to where it was pre-pandemic.

I suppose I could have added weight gain to my list of warning signs, but truthfully, the bloated bulge in my stomach (from liver damage and stomach gastritis) was far more concerning than the saddlebags I had started carrying.

The saddle bags from drinking were unattractive, but the real problem was the stomach bloating.
The saddle bags from drinking were unattractive, but the real problem was the stomach bloating.

I didn’t mention it before, but we can file this little tidbit back into the Health Problems sections.

So though my sober journey was well underway, alcohol was not quite done with me yet.

There was desperation in the final days before the final surrender.

Forever seems like such a long time when it comes to giving up a cherished friend, and that friend always wanted to invite me back in for one last hurrah to say goodbye.

At this time, I was still living alone but had gotten my act together enough to get engaged to my girlfriend. Things were looking up.

As is customary in South Korea, my fiancé was still living with her family, and I was still a door away from my good, old, drinking balcony.

We had worked out a schedule where she would typically come over to my house around 5p.m. and then return to her parent’s house promptly at 10p.m.

As I mentioned earlier, around this time I had announced to her and the world that I had quit drinking. To an extent, I had. I never drank around her or even at gatherings among friends. Christmas parties would pass, and I would proudly proclaim that I wasn’t drinking anymore.

Let me amend that; I wasn’t drinking anymore while anyone was watching. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I was sneaking vodka shooters during bathroom breaks, as you might hear in other recovery stories.

No, as far as public perception was concerned, I was off the sauce completely. However, when you live alone, there are a lot of unaccounted-for hours.

With the schedule that my fiancé and I had set up, I knew that I was on the honor system from about 10p.m. one day to around 5p.m. the next. The rest of that time was between me and my God.

Let’s just say that during that time, my God got to witness some pretty sad times.

After she would walk out of the door to catch her bus, I would fretfully mill around my house for a few anxious minutes, waiting for the coast to be clear. I would then make my way down the well-trodden path to the shop nearest my house to buy beer.

Typically, three 1-liter bottles of the cheapest Korean beer I could find would do the trick for the night.

Though I’ve never been much of a night owl, when you start drinking at around 10:30 p.m., it can end up getting to 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. rather quickly.

Especially if those three 1-liter bottles didn’t turn out to be enough and you head back for more.

Often, those drinking sessions would last late into the night, and I would spend most of the next day in bed.

Of course, staying up all night secretly drinking is troubling enough, but let me open the curtain a little further on the shameful final days.

Often, I was able to steer my way to bed by around 2:00 a.m., only to be awakened at 4:00 or 5:00 a.m., wrecked with hungover angst, anxiety, and shame. This would drive me back to the beer store before the sun had even risen to finish the job.

In Korea, 7-11’s sell alcohol, and they’re open 24 hours a day.

You see, I knew that my fiancé wouldn’t be arriving until 5 p.m., and if I could get myself back to bed by 10 or 11 a.m., I would be almost sobered up again by the time she arrived.

So I’d sit out on my deck in the sun, rain, sleet, and snow, watching schoolchildren march off to class, while I’d be discreetly (or not discreetly) chugging beer, looking down from above.

Let’s face it: when you find yourself waking up at 4 a.m. so you can drink until 10 a.m., only to then pass out until 5 p.m. to finally lie to your girlfriend by claiming that you aren’t drinking anymore, there’s not much further to fall.

That is why this lands at #7. I don’t always use the term “alcoholic,” but when you’re sitting on a deck at 7:00 in the morning, three sheets to the wind, trying to calm trembling hands and quiet a mind in turmoil with more alcohol, there’s not really another term that fits.

Call it whatever you want, but at this point, I knew I was fucked. The fact that most other people thought I had finally gotten my act together made it all the more shameful.

I say “most” other people because, of course, my fiancé wasn’t a fool. When she would show up at 5:00 p.m. and I’d still be in bed because I was “tired,” she knew I’d been up to something. She probably didn’t suspect it was as bad as it was, but she knew I wasn’t sober.

As I mentioned earlier, I’d also become quite the asshole during this time, and it ramped up when the monster was still consistently being fed and waiting for more.

Even if I could have hidden the secret with my face and actions, I couldn’t keep up with all of the cans and plastic bottles that were accumulating on my deck.

I started hiding them under the cover of my gas grill. I had a shoe closet that was stuffed to the gills with them. I even took to stashing them up on my roof. Every once in a while, my fiancé would decide to clean the house while I was out, and of course they weren’t hard to find.

I had given up on even trying to lie about it to her anymore. I just sheepishly admitted my errors and claimed that I was doing my best. She was the only one who knew that the angel I claimed to be in public was a complete lie.

God bless her; she stuck with me through more than I deserved and still married me with a promise that I would do better once I wasn’t left alone all the time.

Remarkably, that is the first promise that I have kept regarding my drinking, and one that didn’t kick in until a few months after we had walked down the aisle.

I know this sounds crazy, and it probably is, but we didn’t move in together until about three months after we got married. During those three months, our living arrangements and meeting schedule remained pretty much the same as prior to our wedding.

With the help of her family, we had purchased a new apartment together, but it would not be available to move into until several months after the wedding ceremony.

The little devil in my mind was ecstatic. The secret good-bye parties with my best friend “beer” could carry on!

Fin: The End

At this point, I want to redirect your attention to the “Days Since Last Accident” at the top of this story.

As I sit here writing today, it has rolled past 230 days and continues to count upwards.

Now, I know that I have just admitted to my share of lies here, but I also hope you have noticed a theme of brutal honesty shining through in the admissions of this piece.

That number is 100% the alcohol-free truth. I used to keep the counter rolling uninterrupted if my “slip-ups” were just “minor” or if I just wanted to keep the lie going, even to myself.

However, the counter on this page is the real number of days since my last drink. I promise to update it if anything changes in that department.

So, how did I get here? As I stated before, the most important thing I did was that I just kept trying. Even in the darkest hours, when I could barely open my eyes from the shame and agony, I was determined to try again the next day.

During the journey, I joined a group called Café RE. I mentioned their podcast earlier, which is an amazing tool available for free where you can listen to people describe their sobriety journey, just as I did in writing here.

I can’t tell you how helpful they were (and continue to be) in getting me through both the good and bad times.

Recover Elevator (RE) also has a membership component where they hold online meetings for members, which is a great alternative for those who may not think AA is for them.

Ultimately, my membership in Café RE was relatively short-lived due to my time zone in Korea and their meeting schedule, but they were a great starting point on my sobriety journey.

Through RE, I also joined a Marco Polo chat group with a group of ladies who lived in the States but who welcomed this strange guy in South Korea. Marco Polo is a phone app where you can send video messages back and forth detailing your struggles and/or encouraging the other group members.

It was in this group that one of the members who had some pretty good sobriety time under her belt would just keep encouraging me to keep going and that “one day it would just stick.”

One day, after hundreds of failed attempts and promises to myself and others, I’ll be darned, it just stuck!

Prior to moving into our apartment together with my new wife, I was doing much better but had also started to slip back into a dangerous solo-drinking cycle of telling myself, “Just one more time.

I knew that my time on my drinking balcony was running out, and it just kept inviting me back for one last goodbye.

Then, about 10 days before our move, I caught COVID, which took me down for a bit.

My last drink (to this date) was the night before I tested positive. I don’t credit catching COVID with getting me sober, but it did help me to starve the monster for long enough to get me to moving day with a clear mind.

The drinking balcony had been officially retired.

Once we had moved into our new apartment, my favorite drinking perch was gone, and my sober streak just kept growing. It took some time to accept it, but I also didn’t look back.

I was also not alone as much. I hate to say that maybe I just needed a babysitter, but maybe I just needed a babysitter.

That’s a joking way of saying that perhaps loneliness is an aphrodisiac to addiction. Matthew Perry said it best in that “it wants you alone and it wants to kill you.”

Sadly, those words proved all too prophetic for Matthew.

But for me, I was no longer alone. I was also able to starve the beast for long enough that it barely comes knocking on the door in my head anymore. I’m able to be left alone now, and drinking barely even crosses my mind. When it does, I’m able to overcome the cravings and rationalize the possible outcomes of having a drink.

That is not to say that, hallelujah, I’m cured!

Remember when I said that all of my fuck-ups were leaving battle scars? That scar tissue remains to this day, and I now know for a fact that one drink will never leave me satisfied and that the road back to drinking alone at 7 a.m. while watching schoolchildren march off to school has a short and easy on-ramp.

Sobriety Tools

I will probably write a follow-up to the piece that focuses less on the problem and more on the solution, but these are a few things that I found helpful (in addition to reaching out for help in whatever way fits you best).

Flood Your Social Media Zone

From Facebook, to Instagram to TikTok, I have followed others and joined groups that give me daily insight, wisdom, and support on my sober journey.

I actually do not attend meetings (which is just a personal choice and one that I will amend quickly if I find myself headed down the wrong path again), but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have sober voices in my eyes and ears on a daily basis.

With technology today, you can let so much help in, even if you’re not ready to get sober. I can’t tell you how many sober podcasts I listened to while sitting on my deck drinking. That doesn’t mean that my mind wasn’t letting the message seep in, though.

And that brings me to:

Listen to Sobriety Podcasts

As I mentioned, I don’t currently attend meetings because AA and/or online meetings are currently the only meeting resources available in Korea.

Despite still being fairly isolated (which is something I need to work harder at), I no longer feel all alone. I make a point to listen to sobriety podcasts a few times a week, or more if I’m feeling particularly itchy.

My favorite one is Sobriety Uncensored which was created by two sober gems, Daniel and Jenna, whom I had followed on TikTok. Thank you, sober algorithm, for finding them!

I appreciate they’re honesty and they’re approach to the idea that one size does not fit all in sobriety. They also swear a lot, especially Jenna, which you can probably tell I appreciate!

Of course, the Recover Elevator podcasts are still a staple in my weekly routine. There’s less swearing, but just as much helpful content.

Read “Quit Lit”

I think the first real step that I took, beyond listening to a podcast or two, was to read a book called This Naked Mind by Annie Grace. That book completely opened my mind to the insidious nature of alcohol from a scientific point of view. It also gave me a new frame of mind for what life could look like without alcohol.

I would recommend to anyone just starting out as “sober curious” to read this book. Of course, there are many others, but that is the one I would recommend starting with.

Find a Passion Project

This is going to sound dopey, or self-promotional, but the step I credit the most with keeping me sober is starting this blog.

You may not know it if you just came across this article from Google or Facebook, but this site is actually a travel blog. Maybe you have figured out in this missive that travel is a big part of my life. I have a lot of knowledge and stories to share.

When my sobriety finally started to stick, my mind cleared, and I was left with an abundance of free time that needed to be filled. With a clearer mind, I started pursuing a future beyond the beer I would drink at the end of the day.

At the age of 47, I taught myself how to build and design a website using YouTube tutorial videos. I now wake up early every morning and learn about the world of SEO, blogging, and e-commerce.

I also get to write about whatever I choose, mostly travel content, but I also hope to write about travel in sobriety. That’s really a new frontier for me, and maybe I can also find other like-minded souls along the way.

Whether this blogging venture is successful or not is not really important to me. I know that I am no longer just existing. I am present, I am busy, and I am learning new things every day. Most importantly, I am having fun again!

If you like, you can contact me, or feel free to just leave a comment below.

Thank you for reading.

Enjoying a fun, family Korean road trip with the team who saw me through my sobriety journey
Enjoying a fun, family Korean road trip with the team who saw me through my sobriety journey

2 Comments

  1. Lynn N

    Thank you John for sharing your journey with us. It really takes a lot of courage to be so open. I am also a Colorado, Bronco fan native. My journey with my alcohol freedom also started with Annie Grace. And in June I will be celebrating 5 years A.F.

    I wish you continued success with your journey. Stay true to yourself. You’ve made it this far and you will continue to fly.

    • John Buckley

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Lynn. It was honestly kind of therapeutic to put down in writing, but a little scary to publish. Also, thank you for your encouraging words. I’m actually back in Colorado as we speak, and it’s great to be home! Back to Korea soon, however, for the start of the spring semester. Congrats on approaching 5 years; that’s incredible! Keep up the good work and go Broncos!

Border Collie Life in South Korea

John Buckley

Welcome to Colorado Saram! I'm from the ski resort town of Vail, but now I live in South Korea with my wife Lucy and dog, Winnie. I continue to live and value the Colorado lifestyle, but I do so while following my passion for international travel. I write about skiing, hiking, traveling, and more. I hope you'll find this helpful, and please don't hesitate to reach out if you have any questions.