I was sitting in a cafe the other day drinking tea and watching a woman sip a glass of wine. I wasn’t fully boring-holes-into-her-head watching her, of course, but working on my computer and dividing my attention among a project, two e-mail inboxes, iTunes, cute dogs trotting past, and this woman holding a glass of white wine and talking to her friend. I must have glanced over a dozen times to see the glass still held aloft and half-full, as if she had forgotten it was in her hand. My god, had she forgotten? What was wrong with this woman? Could the conversation be that interesting?
It’s at moments like these that it becomes impossible to forget what I would sometimes like to, that as perfectly okay as it might sometimes seem to have just one beer or join in a champagne toast, I can’t. If I start I won’t be able to stop; I’m not and never will be a normal drinker.
I never in my life forgot about a drink in my hand or a bottle in my cabinet. In those last desperate months when I still hoped that if only I exerted enough self-control I too could drink normally it was as if an open bottle of wine languishing in the pantry glowed phosphorescently. But it didn’t glow for everyone, and for a very long time I imagined that I could make myself not see it. I would leave notes taped to my bedroom door pleading with myself to not venture into the kitchen, I’d exult in having a single glass of wine with dinner, think “see! I can have just one!” then spend the next three nights bombed. I remember one particular bottle of vodka belonging to a roommate that I must have drunk and replaced a dozen times. I would drink just a little bit at a time until I knew it would be noticed and felt I might as well finish it off before I bought a new bottle. I would worry all the next day that I would be caught before I could smuggle in the replacement but once I did I would tell myself it was no big deal: everyone drinks their roommates’ booze sometimes, right? But this wasn’t sometimes anymore.
Was I always this way? Yes and no. I loved alcohol from the second I first felt the fire of purloined whiskey in my throat at some high school party, but I was cautious, too. Three of my grandparents were addicted to booze or pills, two of them burning out before I was born (one doing so quite literally in a house fire caused by passing out in bed with a lit cigarette). Even before I was treated for an eating disorder at 15 I suspected that my mother’s food and exercise obsessions were manifestations of that same addictive hunger. And so part of my behavior toward alcohol involved careful self-monitoring — afraid that I would have to give up booze if it became an obvious problem I learned to be cautious and secretive about my relationship with it.
I hid the extent of my drinking, trying to camouflage myself as a moderate drinker. I drank before I went out and after, added shots to my drinks at parties when no one was paying attention, carried flasks. I can’t think of a single time when any one person knew how much alcohol I consumed over the course of an evening. This furtiveness is common to many alcoholics but seems more common among women, for one way we show our power and status in this society is by visible self-control, never letting anyone see how hungry we are (why else is Victoria Beckham so fascinating?).
I’ve heard the condition of alcoholism defined as fear of life, a condition alcoholics treat with booze and drugs as well as a variety of addictive behaviors. Although I rarely made the mental equation I feel bad = I need a drink, my cravings for alcohol manifested when I felt most keenly the gap between how other people saw me: a smart, cool, cosmopolitan person with a fascinating career — and how I felt inside: hollowed out, desperate, and worthless. I drank to blunt my fear and discomfort, to blur the edges, to forget I felt like a fraud. As Caroline Knapp put it in her beautiful memoir Drinking: A Love Story, “I loved [alcohol]’s special power of deflection, its ability to shift my focus away from my own awareness and onto something else, something less painful than my own feelings.”
Since I started the process of recovery four months ago life has been a series of slightly frightening sober firsts: first sober concert, first sober dinner with the family, first sober wedding, first sober forsaking of the sexual kryptonite of an ex-flame. Although I never drank every single day, alcohol was a part of nearly everything I looked forward to and a security blanket I knew would be there when anything went wrong: my constant companion and faithful friend. Even when I knew it was damaging my body and my life it was desperately hard to give it up.
And yet with the option off the table, so to speak, I’m becoming accustomed to a new sort of normal. Where once upon a time Sober Frightened Me and Drunk Fearless Me were a world apart, they seem now to be slowly integrating. At a dinner party two weeks ago I was the only one of nine not drinking, and I watched with curiosity as strangers became more relaxed and comfortable with one another, laughing and flirting and hollering for refills. Without a chemical transition of my own I could only paddle through the never-not-awkward small talk and find comfort and pleasure in simply getting to know people (also, a cheese plate really facilitates bonding).
I’ve done a bit of reading on the science of addiction, learning that once the trajectory is underway the relationship of the addict to their chosen substance becomes one of needing, not wanting. Where alcohol once presented a comforting possibility, a place of safety and invulnerability and pleasure, at some point things turned. Research shows that as use continues addicts derive less, not more pleasure from their drug of choice, and yet their cravings do not diminish.
I never hit a hard bottom — crashed a car, woken up next to a complete stranger — but I know if I’d kept going I would have. I’d started to black out most nights I drank, but the monstrous shame and daily, low-level hangovers would fade from my memory the minute I felt again that I needed a splash of something to see my mother, go on a internet date, even, on one inglorious occasion, to get my ass to yoga (I do not recommend this). I would surely have continued on the self-destructive path I was on had not a roommate’s boyfriend, fresh out of rehab, moved into our place temporarily, placing square in my path an example of a person transformed. I made up my mind to talk to him about it but it took weeks to screw up the courage to do so. I couldn’t have imagined a person less likely to judge or mock me and yet when I saw him I just couldn’t get the words out, finally sending him an e-mail hemming and hawing about how I guess I couldn’t control my drinking and maybe I needed some help?
One week later I got sober. I love the company of other alcoholics, love sharing stories and experiences and the laughter of (sometimes painful) recognition. It helps not only to keep me from taking that first drink but acts as an antidote to the anomie and class/gender/age divisions of our daily lives. Alcoholics are all kinds of people but they share something fundamental and deeply personal, and when we come together honesty prevails: you can talk to a stranger about the worst things you did and the deepest fears you have, and they will happily tell you theirs.
I’m also, I hope, a better friend. When I was drinking my number one priority was the next drink. If I was at a party and my glass was running low it didn’t matter if someone was telling me about their recent trip to China or their sister’s brain tumor — I wanted to listen, I really did, but I needed to know the gin hadn’t run dry yet. Now that I’m sober I actually can listen, and sometimes people who are curious about why I’m not drinking share with me their own stories about how they smoked weed every day for eight years or their father’s drug addiction or maybe just why some people can sip a glass of wine over the course of an hour and other people can’t have just one, ever.
An Alcoholic has discovered you can buy a lot of nail wraps when you're not spending money on booze.