Disclaimer: Please know that this is simply my experience of what alcoholism looked like for me, and that alcohol is a talented and bewitching friend/foe that can take on many shapes, roles, and purposes, and will look different for many people. If you are worried that you have a drinking problem, I would suggest talking more about it with a trusted friend or professional, and not dismissing it simply because our stories aren’t similar. Thank you for watching my after school special.
am obsessed with myself was curious, I took a look at the stats comparing views of previous blog entries I had posted on this here blog, and discovered that people seemed to be interested in reading about alcoholism, which makes sense to me, and I like talking about alcoholism, so here we are.
Just in case you are worried, the information that WordPress collects about people who view the site is virtually non-existent, amounting to how many people have viewed the site that day and what country they are viewing it from. Which is a big disappointment to me because how I am supposed to know who is stalking me!!!*
*Also this was a big relief for me to find out, because I was actually stalking people on this website.
So, almost three years ago, I stopped drinking. I was 33. Prior to this, I had spent about 15 years drinking compulsively, socially, dangerously, casually, with a great love and fondness for alcohol, and without any intention of stopping. Alcohol wasn’t my life, but I couldn’t imagine life without it. I loved sinking into the sense of relaxation and coziness after a glass of wine or a cocktail, and I loved the giggles and story-telling that followed the second drink, and the hijinks after the 4th, and oh-my-god-i-am-dying, doubled-over, crying-laughing that occupied the 5th or 6th. I loved bars, I loved being around so many people who were having a good time, or the best time, I loved the loud music. I loved bantering with bartenders, making friends in the bathroom. I loved escaping the sadness, monotony, mundanity of the day. When I was drunk, I was always two steps ahead of darkness or discomfort, and it was like a game, like I was being chased by those feelings, but I would always win, because there was always more to drink, and so I could taunt the heaviness chasing me with a wink and a smile, and pour another glass.
I thought I was endlessly fascinating when I was drunk. I made up so many stories of who I was, mostly this fantastic, clever, gorgeous woman, when I was drunk. Honestly, sometimes, I miss those personas. They were imaginary, but boy, were they confident. Ballsy, even.
My point is, I loved to drink for a substantial chunk of my young adulthood. But I wouldn’t have classified myself as an alcoholic, because my life wasn’t falling apart. I was employed, I had friends, I didn’t drink during the day except on very rare occasions, like St. Patrick’s Day, and then, I mostly just cried and went to bed midday. I didn’t need to drink every day, and there were many days, especially when I started grad school, that I didn’t drink at all, not even with dinner, and I didn’t even want to drink. I knew a guy once who chugged wine as soon as he woke up in the morning. That guy was an alcoholic, I told him gently one night when I ran into him at a bar. That guy deserved better than that, I said softly, as I finished the last of the beer that I was drinking, even though I hated beer and only drank it to avoid blacking out, which happened semi-regularly for me, especially when I drank booze … or wine … and sometimes beer. That guy had a problem, I told my friends later, as we rolled a joint in the parking lot and drove to the next bar for last call. I really liked to drink, I would think later, in a hazy daze. I would even classify myself as a binge drinker, reflecting on college, and a terrible few years after college when I was completely out of control, scaring co-workers and myself. But I wasn’t an alcoholic.
I had my doubts about that, though, too.
My freshman year of college, I immediately started drinking, and I immediately blacked out. I was drinking Jaegermeister, I puked everywhere, I started a fire in a trash can, unintentionally, but now I sort of want people to think I did it intentionally because that does a lot more for my credibility, and I honest-to-God thought I was going to die the next morning because I had never been hungover, had never experienced losing all recollection of how I got in my bed. It was excruciating. I was exhilarated. I couldn’t wait to do it again.
When I think about college now, with all of the wisdom I have acquired in three-ish years of sobriety, I am baffled by this girl who chugged vodka, who ran away from friends to chug more vodka after being cut off, who called some guy she met her first semester incessantly when he was studying abroad in LONDON just to “chat,” shitfaced, at 3:00 in the morning every day (sorry about that, S), and who was like, casual about it all, like la-di-da, another day, another drunk.
Hindsight is 20/20.
Some chinks in my armor of denial, however, were that other people thought I had a drinking problem, particularly in that first year of college. My first advisor flat-out told me that she thought I was an alcoholic, and she sent me to an AA meeting on campus, where people were talking about God and there was a dude in a cowboy hat. I was all set, and what I learned from this experience was to stop being honest about how much I drank. Friends, however, who drank with me, also told me that they were worried, explained to me that my drinking was problematic, not normal. But they were kinda dumb to worry about me, I reasoned, and sort of lame. Just because they didn’t like to party hard didn’t mean I was an alcoholic.
There were probably about 3092012891289121029 instances of truly terrible, awful, shame-inducing incidents that occurred when I was drunk that would likely make any person without a drinking problem stop drinking for good. But I had no intention of not drinking because I couldn’t conceptualize life without alcohol. Obviously, I now see this huge, honking, obnoxious red flag, but at the time I just thought it was preposterous that an 18-year-old would be expected to just … not drink. Like some sort of nerd.
It was evident that I just needed to learn how to drink. And that was the story I told myself for the next several years.
Let’s just flash-forward a bit, shall we?
The worst possible thing a blackout drinker can hear is “Do you remember what happened last night?,” because if the answer is yes, you did something so out of character and embarrassing that the person who witnessed it assumes that your brain had literally shut down – that’s how much of an idiot you were – AND you remember doing it. OR the answer is no, and the same thing applies, but you don’t remember doing it and can now only assume the worst, which will haunt you indefinitely, until at least you are 36 and blogging about it. Either way, you are an asshole. And the more people need to ask you “Do you remember what happened last night”,” the more you are pissing people off, alienating them, and losing their trust.
I got so good at pretending to remember, or inventing strategies to get information out of people, like casually asking a friend to remind me of what happened after we left X bar and before we got to Z house because I couldn’t remember if we stopped for cigarettes or not. In retrospect, I probably wasn’t good at this at all. But I would have done anything to avoid hearing the “Do you remember what happened last night” question. Anything but stop drinking,
In other words, blacking out was a hint for me that something was off about my drinking. And yet, not entirely there either. Because after I graduated from college and came home, the majority of people I knew drank like I did. Relentlessly, furiously, indifferent to consequences because “we aren’t here for a long time, we’re here for a good time,” because drinking was all around us, because that is what we do. I remember going to a Red Sox game for the first time as an adult with some friends and realizing that we weren’t going to watch the game – we were just going to get shitfaced. When I made that comment to one of the more pragmatic members of the friend group, she grinned at me, and said “That’s what you do at a Red Sox game.” And I looked around, and I saw plenty of people with beer, but plenty more people without beer, too. And I thought – no, that’s what WE do. At Red Sox games, at baby showers, at bridal showers, at weddings, at game nights, on Thursdays, on Tuesdays, on Fridays, on Saturdays. What we do is drink.
At that time, I really wanted to blame those friends for my drinking. I really wanted it to be their fault that I drank so much, that even when I didn’t want to drink on the weekends, I did, because they did, and I wanted to hang out with them. It took me awhile to realize that I drank the way I drank because that is how I drank. It took me even longer to realize that I drank that way because I am an alcoholic.
I don’t know if any of the friends that I drank with – and there were many, across a variety of settings – read this blog. But if they do, I am not suggesting that they are alcoholics. That is not for me to say, and frankly, it’s none of my business.
However, I am saying that when you exist in a culture of drinking, be it because your family members are big drinkers, or because you work in the restaurant industry, or because you are Irish-Catholic or whatever, it’s difficult to see that aspects of heavy drinking, like blacking out for example, aren’t normal. And increasingly, in mainstream culture, drinking, even binge drinking, is normalized: Amy Schumer. All of those Instagram accounts with funny memes. The raunchy rom-coms with all female ensembles. We are told that puking, blacking out, making vows to ourselves that we aren’t drinking again but going out to drink 5 hours later, are normal things.
Look, I am not an authority on this shit (well, I guess technically, I sort of am, given my social work license, but I don’t want to brag or anything), and it honestly makes me uncomfortable to write this stuff out because I can still connect so implicitly with that sense of dread, and defense, that I felt in the pit of my stomach whenever I was told that that way I drank wasn’t normal.
The only person who can figure out if you are an alcoholic is you.
What I did was: I took quizzes online to see if I was an alcoholic, lied in my answers, and still got the results that I was likely an alcoholic.
I tried to control my drinking: I ate big meals before a night out, I only drank beer, I only drank wine, I never drank vodka again, I smoked weed so I wouldn’t drink as much, I took Ritalin so I wouldn’t get as drunk as fast. All of these interventions were successful until they weren’t.
I tried to fix other aspects of my life because I thought the reason I drank so much was that I was unhappy: I went on dates, I stopped going on dates, I went vegan, I cut out carbs, I worked out more, I ran a half-marathon, I read a million self-help books, I went to therapy, I went to seminars on self-actualization, I did art with middle-aged women who were into that sort of thing.
I stopped drinking for a period of time. I lasted a month once. I never made it as long as I said I would. There was always a reason that I needed a drink, that I deserved a drink, before my goal was met.
I finally admitted defeat when my wife, who sees me clearer than anyone ever has, told me that I had a drinking problem and that I needed to figure it out. I knew the therapist, herself in recovery, who told me that my drinking wasn’t normal and was actually dangerous, was right. I knew because the pit in my stomach had grown to more like a fig, and was now always with me.
But, like a devoted alcoholic, I didn’t do anything about it until I had wrung out every single possibility that I wasn’t an alcoholic. I gave myself a year to learn how to control my drinking, and told my wife that if I blacked out during that year, I would go to 12-step meetings, which my therapist had recommended. I blacked out that year, a few times, but I managed to hide it, or she decided to ignore it. And then one night I came home annihilated, and she knew, and I knew, and I knew that she knew, but she didn’t know that I knew, that it was all over.
I knew I was an alcoholic when I stopped drinking, went to meetings, met other alcoholics, and started to understand alcoholism, because I learned that alcoholism isn’t about the booze. It’s about everything else. It is about literally everything except the booze. It’s about life, and sadness, and pain, and the pain tucked behind that pain, and memories, and wistfulness, and longing. It’s about wanting connection, wanting laughter, wanting to avoid suffering, or maybe just to forget about it for a little while. It’s about being human, the unbearable thud of being human, and how we cope with the devastating disappointment of what that means. It’s about filling up an endless, aching void. One that we deserve to fill up, I remind us all, gently.
But I didn’t learn how fucking awesome it is to be an alcoholic until the shock of being one wore off, until I could see what a tremendous gift being able to be recovered is. How amazing it is to have been lost, and now found again, to be reunited again with this sacred part, the part that was drowning. The part that you recover from the wreckage, the treasure. I don’t have the words now. But maybe, in the future, we’ll talk about it, together.