Justin Ricklefs


My Complicated Relationship with Alcohol

I slammed my truck in park. Threw the door open. Unleashed a fury that included an f-bomb and other regrettable comments. Intentionally left my phone sitting on the dash so I couldn’t be tracked. And began walking.

We had just crested the hill into our neighborhood. A well-intentioned date took an unintended turn, and my alcohol-primed blood boiled.

It wasn’t freezing cold, but it was cold enough to make it a bad idea. Well, the idea was terrible to begin with, the cold just sucked.

I just started walking, with a very clear direction in mind.

The liquor store.

By way of Google Maps, it’s 3.1 miles each way, door to door. By way of my lunacy, I thought it was a mile-ish.

10:30 on a Friday night, in the 40ish degrees, I meandered down a road I’ve waved to neighbors on, run many miles on, honked at my teenage daughter and her cross country team, taken to my office, gone on bike rides with my kids on, and many other far healthier trips.

A half-mile or so in, I knew in my heart I was making a terrible decision, but my pride, anger and defensiveness wouldn’t surrender. Instead, I just got angrier.

I approached a quarter-mile or so section of the road that has a good-sized retaining wall on the outside of the sidewalk. I piled on my dumbassery with a greater sign of denial.

Walk on top of the 12″ wide blocks, 3-5′ off the sidewalk. Not that it was a Colorado cliff on the other side, but it wasn’t level either. And regardless, in hindsight, it’s incredibly embarrassing.

I’ve driven that roads hundreds of times since, in the dark, and with headlights on, you can DEFINITELY see the top of the retaining wall.

I can only imagine what people must have thought that night watching me walk on top of it for a quarter mile, to my destination. And for good measure, back.

“That stupid ass drunk guy.”

For years, decades actually, I wore the very opposite label. The “never drunk, hell, never drink at all” guy.

High school came and went without a drop of alcohol entering my system. In fact, I earned (and secretly loved) the label of “be the life of the party without alcohol and be sooo responsible for your friends” guy.

College. Same story.

And really, through my adult, parenting, and career building years, I learned how to drink moderately, drink socially, and for the 97%-most-part, drink responsibly.

But, also, simultaneously and silently, my relationship to it was growing in complexity, frequency, and ultimately, as shitty as it is to admit, reliance.

A glass of wine at dinner turned into one more glass.

A sip of bourbon with good friends around fire turned into a sip on my nightstand before bed many nights.

A beer to celebrate a birthday turned into a beer to celebrate making it to the end of the day.

A cocktail on the back porch with Brooke while the kids played turned into a cocktail with the chief intent to numb an internal uncomfortable experience.

One or two drinks on weekend nights turned into some weeks having one or two drinks damn near every night.

And before I knew it, I was walking on a suburban retaining wall road well traveled, intent on making it to the liquor store for just “one more”.

The twisted part about my growing reliance (AKA addiction) on alcohol was that I could really play the part. Never look out of control. Never throw up (the couple times I did I swore “I’ll never drink again”). Never drink “too too much” but always enough to keep the lines really blurry. Never be the wasted guy, the black out guy, the don’t remember guy, the rock bottom on the church stairs guy, the angry guy, or a million other judgmental labels others may have with their relationship with booze.

But I was my own version of the guy who was far from the entrance of the slippery slope.

Further, I was, at times, so unhinged emotionally as I was picking up the pieces from relational damage I’d done, that the alcohol become butane to the flames of the pesky anger and unhealth that seemed to swirl consistently beneath the surface.

3.1 anger-ridden miles later, I emotionally stumbled into the liquor store (but sure as hell not physically because that wouldn’t keep up the projection).

I grabbed my one-that-I’d-now-talked-myself-into-needing-two-for-the-long-walk-home individual whiskey shots, kept my hoodie up, avoided eye contact as I paid my $6 or whatever, and made my way home.

A home that I’d left an hour before, without my phone, and let my wife of nearly two decades pick up the pieces to our five kids and answered questions I’m sure came at her with a fury….

“Where’s dad?”

“What’s wrong””

“Are you guys fighting again?”

“Why isn’t he answering his phone?”

When you have babies in the house, a babysitter can be a good buffer to your buffoonery, but when your teenage daughter is the surrogate stand-in for the night, shit gets a lot more real, in a hurry.

My walk home gave me some drunk humor. Alone, like addictive diseases end up doing. Moving away from, instead of towards. The reliance thrives in isolation.

I finished bottle one, and stuck it on a garden gnome on some (I’m assuming) old couples’ front yard. The gnome looked lonely too and needed a drink. I hope it kept his spirits up.

The second one I finished as I was in our neighborhood, and I flipped open the mailbox of a dear friend of mine and stuck it in there. Like some weird, empty, dark, sad evidence, wanting to be found out.

This same friend walked with me through the darkest season of my soul, and in the moment, my flippant gesture both cried out for help and mocked his care for me.

I eventually made my way into my house. Well past midnight. Well past my bedtime. Well tipsy (because I was too good to say I was drunk). Well ashamed.

I wish I could say that was rock bottom. Unfortunately, it’s just one snapshot of several that I have over the course of a couple years that would tell similar stories.

But it was a piece. A piece of the awareness that was building. A piece of the story that was emerging. A piece of the changing winds that were coming.

On January 1st, 2021, I woke up sober, but with a bit of a hazy hangover from New Year’s Eve the night before. One no one but me would have ever known. Act in control-ish the night before. Blur the line between sobriety and slurred language. Drive your wife and kids home because you’re not nearly as f’ed up as “that guy” and I’m “fine”. Tuck them in. Get in bed while the room spins slightly, reminding you of your instability. Wake up. Shake it off. Pour a huge cup of coffee. Keep going.

There was a combination of things, including some personal situations; a book I was reading at the time, a journey I was on towards a healthier physical body, my emotional health path, and many other things, but I told myself as I was driving my truck, down that same well-worn road the first day of 2021, that I was done with alcohol for the year.

Me and boundaries aren’t best of friends. If I eat one M&M, you may as well watch me take down the whole bag. A “few chips” at Margarita’s, turns into a few baskets in record time. And the gluttony for more of the Enneagram 7 goes far beyond food.

So I knew there was no road towards moderation here if I really wanted to reset my relationship with alcohol. Which I finally did.

Not just the “give-it-lip-service” type of reset, but a soul-shaking, sober-minded realization that I was on a dangerous path. Not only on the path, but I created a wake of hurtful, destructive moments in the rearview that inflicted pain on me, and my loved ones.

I’m proud to say I went all of 2021 without a drink of alcohol. There were a few moments I really wanted one. Or several.

On the deck in the summer with Brooke when we used to drink 3/2/1’s (tequila, cointreau, and lime – all in a heavily-salted glass – damn they’re good). Thanksgiving Day when the red wine was flowing and the love was as thick as the legs coming down the glasses. A few times when the work anxiety was so high that the Templeton Rye in the pantry felt like it was whispering, then calling, then shouting my name.

I missed the feeling of being buzzed. I missed the seemingly instant “relief”. I’m sure I missed a few social moments that I would have typically amplified or added some fun into.

But I sure as hell didn’t miss, for me, the shame, the regret, the bad decisions, the what-was-I-thinking’s, the questions from our kids, the added anxiety (turns out alcohol doesn’t actually do what it promises, at least it didn’t for me), and the crippling codependence on this complicated relationship that had gotten out of hand.

Not to mention the things that have been added to my life, in the absence of alcohol, are maybe the biggest surprise of the experiment. More energy. Clearer thinking. Easier decision making. A trajectory of healthier choices. Different ways to cope with the uncomfortable emotions. Ways to be more present in relationships. Etc.

It’s a long way from Eden, but it’s certainly helped my life.

“What bourbon are you enjoying lately,” a good friend who I don’t see as often asked at a concert right before Christmas.

“Um, well, it’s a long story,” I began. And then I told him the long story.

His acceptance, understanding, and compassion was a breath of fresh air, as I timidly walked into the wilderness with him a bit.

“I don’t know if I’ll drink again,” I concluded. “This has been a good break for me though.”

Regardless of my future with alcohol (and to be crystal clear this is a sharing of my own experience, not one ounce of commentary on anyone else’s), I’m grateful we’ve had this chance to reset the relationship a bit.

It had become quite messy.


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