I Gave Up Books (and TV) Instead Of Booze For Dry January

Just one chapter, just one episode, just to help me wake up. Maybe just one more.
Publish date:
January 30, 2014
books, binge watching, Netflix

I drink, but I rarely get carried away.

If you hand me a glass of wine, I will thoroughly enjoy the first half. The second half will slowly evaporate into a sticky residue until I find the glass a week later, abandoned on the bookshelf, next to the empty slot where I removed my true drug of choice.

When my friends decided to do a Dry January, joining them seemed fairly pointless. (I refuse to call it Drynuary or Janopause, which are horrible. NOT EVERYTHING NEEDS TO BE A PORTMANTEAU.) But as they discussed what they hoped to gain from giving up alcohol for a month -- increased energy and new discoveries and a sense of freedom -- I realized I do have an unhealthy, even toxic obsession. It's just not booze.

It's book benders and Netflix binges.

My mother had a rule for herself: No novels except at Christmastime. She had about a dozen small children and a small business as well, which left little time for head-over-heels escapism. (Which, apparently, is genetic.) Like me, she could open a bottle of wine and have half a glass. But every time she'd open a book, we'd lose her. So she stopped doing it.

Cleverly, I've only had one child. This leaves plenty of time for books, especially if I stay up very late and neglect the dishes.

Once I read those first few tantalizing pages, I'm hooked. The world stops spinning while I sink into the story until it consumes me, until I'm in over my head. I need to creep in further, burrow deeper, I need more. I seep into the story until I'm gone.

If I have to take a break to deal with life, I'll do it. I'm a high-functioning bibliophile. OK, medium-functioning. But meanwhile, I'm off-kilter, jittery, and everything feels wrong until I jump back in to the story.

And then you won't see me again until tomorrow morning, when I wake up cranky and sleep-deprived and hating myself. But it's OK, I know how to take the edge off: just one chapter, just one episode, just to help me wake up. Maybe just one more.

Eventually, I get out of bed, but I keep reading while I walk around (yeah, I have a lot of bruises). And while I brush my hair, brush my teeth, go the bathroom, wash my hands afterward. The soap dispenser holds the book open, and its sticky stains are a small price to pay for continuing the story while I accomplish mundanities. Drops of water fall from my hands to darken new bubbles on the paper.

I read while I eat and while I exercise, I read in bars and at friend's houses. When I’m cooking, I just dart between the recipe and the novel, and I can sauté or stir or flip anything using only my peripheral vision.

One thing I can't do: Hold a conversation while reading. So I really need everyone to shut up, unless you are on fire and under the age of six. Otherwise, stop, drop, and roll, baby. I'll get the Neosporin when I finish this chapter.

I need to clear my head.

TV shows are the same problem. I'll follow the siren call of any long fiction, crashing day after day into the same craggy rocks. Every morning I gather up the splintered remains of yesterday and promise I won't do it again, but every night I click "next episode" over and over in spasms of self-loathing and hopeless fascination. It isn't an occasional indulgence, either -- it's a lifestyle.

On New Year's Eve I finished watching "Homeland" and felt very depressed. CIA operatives and Marine ex-prisoners-of-war are really good at making you feel like you aren't very skilled or spectacular or brave, like you haven't contributed much to the world and are perhaps an incredibly boring and useless person.

I love that damn show, genuinely love it, with an infatuation as real (if not quite as powerful) as any I've felt for an actual human. I make terrible, foolish decisions to spend time with it; I stay up late, hate myself in the morning, neglect my friends and responsibilities, daydream about it during work, and think about it while I'm falling asleep.

Between episodes, I feel tremendously disconnected. Everything looks pale and timid.

On New Year's Eve I did get drunk, surrounded by happy friends and silly games. But I was haunted by the "Homeland" characters, who floated around the room like cinematic poltergeists. I ached to return to their world, and mourned that I couldn't. Even if I wasn't at the stupid party, I couldn't; their world had ended, there was nothing left to consume. Mine, however, had to carry on.

But come New Year's Day, I felt freed, lightened. I could do anything today! With no episodes of "Homeland" on the horizon, I could do anything I wanted!

I always make New Year's Resolutions. Obviously I don't follow them for a whole year, I'm not a robot, but I enjoy the chance to start fresh. To think about what I want, craft a plan to pursue it, and then feel hopeful and alive for a month or two. I felt buoyed by that sensation as I sat down to choose a new show, and I realized I didn't want to.

I didn't want to get dragged down to the depths again, no matter how delicious those greedy depths might be. I wanted to stay free, to feel the sun on my skin, to finish a good day's work.

So here's my Sober January: No novels and no TV dramas. I'm still allowing short stories and comedies, in hopes that I can learn to enjoy a story without getting lost in it. I can't bear the thought of quitting completely, but I'm curbing the habit, forcing myself to tread water and stay afloat.

I've never liked short stories, just as I don't prefer movies. You get hooked, you push past the boring bits, and then they end. No next chapter, no "to be continued," no "on next week's episode." Just, over. You can't sink into them until the rest of the world disappears.

But I'm learning to like them, even without the highly detailed endings I once demanded. There's something strangely comforting about a tasty vignette with a poisonous barb at the end. I don't need the romantic leads to kiss at the conclusion; even after the final scene, they'll eventually tire of kissing. I can still be glad they fell in love (and/or murdered each other).

You can overindulge on short stories, though, like tart little candies you pop into your mouth over and over - one more, just two more, and now the bag of Sour Patch Kids is empty and you feel sick. The sourness has left your mouth and settled in your belly, and although you feel stupid, you surreptitiously search the cupboards for another bag. (It's sour. Sweet. Gone.)

But it's not satisfying. I feel guilty for it, as if it's cruel and offensive to the stories. I'm squashing them together obscenely, like an orgy of Sour Patch colors, red and green and orange and yellow melded together in a gooey mass of gelatin to create a combination flavor that has no specificity at all, and if you have never done that then please forget that you have read this sentence.

Unlike the end of a chapter, a short story's denouement doesn't spark a compulsion to continue. What happens next isn't in the following pages, so you don't have to read them. In fact, you'll enjoy it best if you close the book and go on with your life, carrying the story with you and savoring its developing aftertaste.

I'm still jonesing pretty hard, even as the month draws towards a close. I still have that awful jittery-bones feeling, which would stop the moment I start watching House of Cards, I'm sure of it.

But it turns out that falling asleep with a sense of satisfaction, knowing I've lived a decently productive and responsible day, is a lot better than falling asleep filled with self-loathing. I had hoped I could get addicted to being a hard-working Accomplisher of Things, or something, and no dice - but at least I'm developing a taste for it.