Once upon a time, I spent my weekends sick. Sick during the days, but not at night. The nights I spent drunk. My mornings started early. Saturday and Sunday, eight o’clock, nine o’clock. Maybe not early by today’s standards—I’m up at five each day during the week—but eight A.M. is early when you get to bed at three, drunk. Unhappily awake, my pulse throbbing at the top of my neck, the spot where my back muscles attach to my skull. I always felt it right there. A dehydration headache, a hangover. Too much pain to sleep. Instead, I spent the morning in agony, trying to remember the previous night.
Frequently, waves of nausea overtook me, and then I’d spend those pretty morning hours—with sunlight slanting through the spotted bathroom window—vomiting. Most of my day wasted or at least marred by a headache. Oh, and those intervals of nausea.
A writing instructor once told me to pick a specific example to illustrate a common occurrence: My boss asked me—along with Susan—to entertain a client and his wife on a Sunday afternoon at a Redskins game. The tickets were in my company’s skybox—a segregated portion of the stadium separate from the hoi polloi. Limitless food and beer, and bathrooms without lines. We had tickets to park in the VIP lot, a brief walk from the stadium entrance. The monetary value of the day: hundreds of dollars, probably over a thousand in today’s sports-stadium economy. The non-monetary value: a client relationship.
I was a no show. I woke up that day feeling pretty good after a moderate party night. But as the morning progressed, I deteriorated. Eventually, I began throwing up. I convinced myself it was the onset of a migraine, not a hangover, and Susan didn’t call me on that narrative. But whatever, I wasn’t going to make the game. In the mid-nineties, cell phones were an after-thought. I’m sure the client had one, I know I did, but I didn’t have his number. I called him at home, too late to catch him before he headed out to the stadium. I left a message on his machine: my regrets, bad timing for a migraine, etc. They didn’t get the message until after the game.
That was one of my last hangovers. It wasn’t that incident, per se, but in general, Susan was pretty sick of it, and I was too. I became more cautious, conservative in my drinking. When we started a family, drunkenness ceased. Babies and hangovers don’t mix. Four years ago, I quit drinking altogether, and I saw the rest of my life queued up in front of me, no more mornings with my head in a toilet bowl.
This past weekend was rough. Yes, it’s been a long time since I was hungover, but I easily remember how they feel. A dull, throbbing pain. A sharp, piercing pain. The severity comes and goes across the course of the day, but the headache never fully goes away. It saps motivation and good humor, and in its wake, it leaves a lazy, grumpy man. I felt like this all weekend.
* * *
I have OCD. If there’s anyone in the world who doesn’t know what that is, let me explain. It stands for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Obsessive thoughts: those can be anything, any topic, running a loop in your mind. They spiral, expand, compound and overtake any rational brainwaves trying to keep you sane. Did I unplug the iron? <Checks iron…> Wait, did I really unplug the iron? Compulsions: Those things you have to do just because. Like touching a masterpiece oil painting in the museum even though you know you can’t. When you put obsessive thoughts together with compulsions and you get that cute, quirky behavior you see on so many TV shows like organizing clothes by color. Or you get real-life messy behavior like sending back the meal you ordered at a restaurant because you suddenly worry about who might have touched it.
My OCD is mostly about the O. The obsessions. I don’t want to go into a laundry list of ways OCD disrupts my life, I simply want to write about how it disrupted my sleep. Until five years ago, my going to bed routine worked like this. Drink red wine and read a book until I was super tired (and a little buzzed), usually well after everyone else in my house was asleep. Get in bed and fall asleep immediately. Wake up three hours later and panic.
I’d lie in bed worrying about things: things I didn’t do at work, or I’d worry about money, or my retirement, or my relationships, or whether I’m parenting correctly, or my house, or my car, or my health, or any one of a million things that for some reason popped into my head sometime after I went to bed. My most common worry was how my family would survive when the pandemic hit. Seriously.
My topic (or topics, as was usually the case) would run through my head over and over. I’d try to still my brain and think about nothing, or really think about one thing. I’d count my breaths, stretching out each number in my head until the next breath began. At some point I would realize I fell off track. My brain would be swirling again, ceaselessly obsessing. For how long, five minutes? More? I’d start counting again.
They fixed me with Lorazepam. It’s a “tranquilizer,” a benzodiazepine, or a benzo in drug abuser parlance. It’s addictive, both physically and psychologically, and sudden stoppage can cause withdrawal symptoms. For these reasons, according to Wikipedia, Lorazepam is usually only prescribed for two weeks. I’ve been on it for five years. Until last week.
Here’s the deal. The biggest reason I gave up alcohol was that I didn’t like the psychological effect it had on me. I thought about it all the time. By ten-thirty in the morning, I was dreaming of the wine I’d start to drink at dinner. All of my evening plans included some calculus on how they would impact my ability to drink the correct amount of wine. My restaurant choice, any errands I had to run, children’s activities to attend. First and foremost, my question was “will that interrupt my wine intake.” Ultimately, I found it easier to stop drinking altogether rather than deal with my obsessions over alcohol.
I successfully kicked an addiction, and I became an advocate for overcoming substance abuse. Except for that nightly Lorazepam. I took my two-week medication for over 1,825 days. I didn’t even know if I needed it. I began taking a medication for Tourette Syndrome years ago. People with TS have tics—unwanted, uncontrollable movements and sounds—my medication lessened these tics. It also reduced my OCD. Many of my obsessive thoughts became more manageable.
After months of contemplation, night after night, lying in bed, feeling bad about my decision to dose myself, even as the warm chemical feeling washed over me and ushered me gently to sleep, I decided to quit. I went to bed without Lorazepam. And guess what. I slept through the night. And I have every night since then. I don’t need Lorazepam to sleep. But without it, I had a massive headache all weekend.
A headache isn’t one of the withdrawal symptoms. That’s not where it’s coming from. My theory is that without the tranquilizing effect of the Lorazepam, I’m spending my night stressed out. The anxiety, the obsessions, all those worrying thoughts that used to keep me awake, now they make me clench my jaw. And I’m clenching hard enough to cause a headache. A weekend-long headache. I was offered a brief respite when I went for a run, but by the time I was in the shower, my headache was back.
I’m proud of myself for dropping the Lorazepam. My psychological dependence weighed me down. Every medication I don’t take feels like a small victory. Now I just need to figure out some relaxation techniques so I don’t spend the rest of my life hungover from nighttime stress.