This is how a human being can change:
there’s a worm addicted to eating
Suddenly he wakes up,
call it grace, whatever, something
wakes him, and he’s no longer
He’s the entire vineyard,
and the orchard too, the fruit, the trunks,
a growing wisdom and joy
that doesn’t need
It is Saturday afternoon at 2:22 pm, and I am fucking irritable. I have a nagging cough and a tightness in my chest, a dull headache and a desire to sleep for 100 years. It is beautiful and sunny and cool outside. There is a breeze blowing as I write this, the scent of early fall in the air. I am lying on a chair at my neighborhood swim club, listening to the sounds of children playing in the pool. I don’t know where I want to be, but it’s not here.
The guilt I feel about this is relentless. How lucky I am to be able to lounge; to close my eyes if I want to. I have nowhere to be, no one to answer to. And still, my mind is jumpy, dissatisfied. This morning while I was at an exercise class, the dog threw up a whole sock and pantyliner she found in the trash. My husband texted me that she had puked on our sofa and oh—there was chocolate on there too, likely from one of the kids, and I needed to come home and “check it out.” When I arrived, the dog was panting and sulking, peering up at us with sad eyes, as if to ask why we let her do such a thing.
I knew that look—it was the look of regret. I know it because I’ve had it—many, many times. My head pounding at 8 am on a Sunday morning after a night of drinking. My mouth dry, stomach queasy. It seemed like a good idea at the time, that final glass. Now, the next day, I wonder what I could have been thinking. The answer being, of course, that I wasn’t.
It took me a long time to come to the conclusion that I was no longer benefiting from alcohol. I didn’t want to give up on it, this relief I had come to look forward to every night. I made excuses for it like you would a girlfriend that you know is a bad influence—she doesn’t mean what she says, she’s going through a hard time. She has a good heart; it’s just a phase.
She needs me.
These friends are always so great to have with you in the moment, because with them, there is no yesterday, and there is no tomorrow. There is only now. Worried about work? Forget about it. Kids getting on your nerves? Screw ‘em. Let’s just forget it all, sister.
It’s when the friend goes home that you begin to look around: dishes still in the sink from three days ago, piles of dirty clothes mixed with clean. Moments from the night before, somehow gone. Did we eat dessert? Wait, we went somewhere after dinner?
I grew up with the impression that, as long as you were drinking responsibly, you didn’t have anything to worry about. To act otherwise was something to be ashamed of. To be out of control—sloppy—slurring—was sad. The trick was to have just enough—just enough to feel it and then pull back. A delightful fuzziness, a blissful release. It’s why we all do it. We just need that little bit of freedom. The mere suggestion that it is possible to drink responsibly implies that it can be done, if we go about it the right way. Never mind the fact that alcohol is an addictive substance. One that, by nature, over time, we could come to rely on to feel normal. No one ever says, “snort cocaine responsibly,” or “inject crystal meth responsibly.” So this must be different, right? Those other drugs—they can take hold of you and render you helpless. The life you worked so carefully to cultivate, gone seemingly overnight. Alcohol though—that one is yours for the taking, if you have a respectable amount of self-control. That, and an understanding of your responsibility.
So, how unfortunate—how disappointing—when I realized that the balance I had previously been able to find fairly easily on any given night where alcohol was served, was somehow no longer as effortless. It felt sudden, but looking back, it was quite slow.
I will say that from the time that I was permitted to drink, I enjoyed it. I liked feeling grown up, and this, it seemed, was what grown ups did. I liked the way alcohol could ease you into a conversation that would otherwise be awkward. The pleasant numbness it provided, whether you were with your kids after a long day of nagging and yelling, or at a cocktail party with people who intimidated you or bored you. A kind of mental teflon, it allowed otherwise irritating comments, or mundane topics that didn’t apply to you, or subtle hurtful remarks—to roll off of you. It was a “lift” to look forward to at the end of the day, a way to lighten what was becoming a seemingly more serious, stressful, monotonous life—this world of adulthood.
What used to be something to do on weekends or special occasions had become more frequent in the years after I’d had children. I don’t know why. Maybe it was that our income had grown and it was no longer a financial issue to uncork a bottle every night. Maybe it was because my stress level had increased. My job was demanding and relentless; I often brought work home and sat at the computer into the evenings. Perhaps I needed something to delineate the transition from “work time” to “home time.” Otherwise, they may have looked exactly the same: me, staring at a screen, bleary eyed and frustrated. Or maybe, and this makes me sad to say, it helped me to feel less lonely. In any case, it seemed that the amount of alcohol that used to satisfy me—a glass of wine, maybe two—was no longer enough. I would finish the first glass in what appeared to be mere moments. Pour a second glass. Uh oh. Want a third.
This happened so slowly, in fact, that I barely noticed it. Well, maybe I did, but I didn’t want to notice it. So I figured ways around it. A glass of wine from this bottle, a glass of wine from that one—this way, it wouldn’t be so obvious I’d finished almost the whole thing. A cocktail to start the night out. Sometimes, one would be enough—but I was sure to make it strong, and big. That way I could say I’d just had one. I found myself staying up late just so I could steal a few last sips—something just for me.
Also, the next morning was getting harder. I’d plan to get up and exercise, but the throbbing head and nausea would keep me in bed. A couple of Advil and some breakfast later, I’d be able to get through my day, but not without regret and some element of shame. Why had I drunk so much?
No matter, I thought. I’ll just cut back. The summer is always fairly decadent. Once I get into more of a routine after Labor Day, I’ll get in control. But in the back of my mind, I knew that I could replace the word “summer” with any season. The fall, what with back to school stress, and the beginning of the holidays, and sports for the kids—that was always overwhelming. The winter, what with being trapped inside, the cold weather, dealing with Christmas, all the celebrations—that was always tough. The spring, what with the end of the year stress, graduation parties, school fundraisers—there was no way I was doing all of that without drinking.
Not to mention the fact that we were in the middle of a global pandemic.
The parents of the world were forced to upend their lives, contorting themselves and their schedules so that their children could be educated and supervised. Any small bit of time we’d had to ourselves before, was now gone. The children were here—24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And there was nowhere to go.
I remember listening to a podcast where the guest, an author and prominent speaker, was asked what she was doing to get through these difficult times. “At-home facials,” she said. “It’s the one thing I’m giving myself. I’m taking the time to cleanse, and tone, and hydrate, and it just feels so good.”
Those of us to whom alcohol calls long to find freedom in “self-care.” In massages, or yoga, or journaling. But those experiences all require us to let go. To allow our soft underbellies to be exposed, to sit in quiet, allowing our thoughts to surface.
We want something to take us somewhere else. Away from the reality of What Is. The panic of our nation, the hatred, the vitriol, the division that we see outside of our homes, and the rockiness, the unpredictability, the tedium, the responsibility, that we see inside of them.
For some of us, a facial doesn’t cut it.
The truth is that what happened to me happens to many, many people. We just don’t talk about it. Even now, in 2020, the subject of addiction is one that we prefer to discuss when we are discussing other people. It is much simpler (and more reassuring) to believe that addicts are born, not made. That, if you have some kind of a problem with something that is bad for you that you have difficulty stopping, this was always true for you. You’d know it the minute you had a taste of it, and you’d either choose to stay far, far away, or you’d lose your life to it. It would be one or the other.
In reality, we can drink fairly responsibly for a considerable amount of time—20 years even—before we notice that it has crossed into an area that feels out of control. And by then, sometimes it is too late.
In Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, she writes, “Essentially, drinking artificially “activates” the brain’s reward system: you have a martini or two and the alcohol acts on the part of the brain’s circuitry that makes you feel good, increasing the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is central to feelings of pleasure and reward. Over time (and given the right combination of vulnerability to alcoholism and actual alcohol abuse), the brain develops what are known as “compensatory adaptations” to all that artificial revving up: in an effort to bring its own chemistry back into its natural equilibrium, it works overtime to decrease dopamine release, ultimately leaving those same pleasure/reward circuits depleted. A vicious cycle ensues: by drinking too much, you basically diminish your brain’s ability to manufacture feelings of well-being and calm on its own and you come to depend increasingly on the artificial stimulus—alcohol—to produce those feelings.”
Well-being and calm. How about that?
So I wasn’t crazy; I was right. It wasn’t that I was weak, it was that I was human. The very nature of this substance made you want more. Not even just want more—need more. And as someone who had a fairly serious history of depression, I had a decision to make: did I want to continue to play with the chemicals in my brain, increasing and decreasing dopamine, over and over again, all the while needing more to drink in order to achieve the same feelings of “well-being and calm?”
The answer was no.
But I didn’t come to it without a significant amount of internal bargaining and negotiating, which sounded like: I will never drink more than two glasses at a time…I will only drink on weekends…I will never drink alone…I will only drink on special occasions or dinners out…only wine or beer, no hard stuff. Perhaps such promises sound familiar.
These rules seemed doable, until they weren’t. I would have two glasses and find myself automatically reaching for a third. And what was a weekend, anyway? Did Thursday count? The girls often wanted to get together on Thursday nights. Yes, Thursday was pretty much a weekend night. And I know I said only wine, but I can’t turn down that fun cocktail at G-bar. There is nothing like a dirty martini. I’ll start tomorrow.
My rules changed frequently. I told myself I wasn’t breaking them; I was just…revising them.
Stop, start. Stop, start. After some time, it occurred to me that the mental torture that trying to moderate was creating for me was not worth it. Sure, I could stick to having one or two glasses at a time for a little while, but eventually, I would overdo it, once again crossing the invisible line that gets even harder to see after you’ve started drinking. Like clockwork, I would wake up feeling shitty, my belly spilling over my pajama pants, my face swollen in the mirror.
It was as if I had two competing voices battling in my mind. One argued that I needed alcohol to relax, to unwind. It said that I wouldn’t be able to have any fun without it and that I wouldn’t be any fun without it. That I would be bored without drinking in my life; that the rituals of cocktail hour—frosty shaker, pop of cork, olive garnish—were a necessary part of life. To say goodbye to them would be a loss, a sort of punishment. And after all, didn’t I deserve at least that? Also, it wasn’t like I was hiding in my closet, taking gulps of vodka straight from the bottle. I wasn’t that bad. I hadn’t lost my license, or my job, or God forbid, my kids. Life was so full of pain, and fear, and loss, not to mention my children’s endless, pointless stories about their favorite Youtubers. You’re telling me, this voice argued, that you can’t even have one glass of sauvignon blanc to get you through that?
And then there was the other voice. This one was quieter, but somehow stronger. This voice acknowledged all that alcohol appeared to give me, but gently—and earnestly—presented the facts: One, I thought I knew that my life would be less fun without it, but I didn’t really know that. After all, I never drank when I was a kid, and I clearly never needed it then. Maybe, just maybe, I had made alcohol out to be more beneficial than it really was. Two, alcohol seemed to be keeping me stuck. I would make some progress with my goals, whether about my health, my career, or relationships—and then I would seem to sort of…stagnate. It was hard to say why—whether it was due to its impact on my body (I was more tired, less motivated on days after I drank) or its impact on my mind (I often felt depressed and anxious, sometimes for an extended period, after a night of heavy drinking) and three, just the fact that I was having this internal debate, this push and pull of drinking versus not drinking, meant that it had become a problem. You know in your heart, the voice said, that you need to stop.
Caroline Knapp describes her friend Gail obsessing in the shower every morning at 5:00 AM about whether she would drink that night. “That’s the thing about denial around alcohol,” she writes. “If Gail were standing there obsessing about, say, asparagus—how she’d get it, when she’d eat it, how many spears she’d have, whether anyone would smell asparagus on her breath—it might have been easier for her to realize she was losing control. But when it comes to alcohol, something that alters your mind and shapes your sense of self in the world and becomes central to your ability to cope, the mind’s capacity to play with facts can be limitless.”
Because we are part of a society that is saturated with positive messages about alcohol, it is unquestionably easier to ignore a drinking problem (or drinking that is becoming a problem) than it is to acknowledge it. I knew that the way that I was behaving around alcohol was likely going unnoticed by those around me. The changes in my relationship with it, occurring roughly over the past five years or so, were subtle: my ability to tolerate more of it than I used to; a craving for it as the day wore on; a slight preoccupation with getting back to my drink as it sat in another room while I was putting my kids to bed; a small, almost imperceptible panic when a party I thought would have alcohol, didn’t; and nights where I didn’t drink, getting more and more rare.
These changes could easily be excused as simply what happens when someone is overworked, overwhelmed, exhausted, and stretched to her limit. We want a damn break is all. The world is falling apart. Does it really matter if I pour another one? Does anything really even matter anymore?
But I watched how other people drank, and it was different. They would sip slowly, leave glasses half-full. They would cover them when offered more. “Oh, I’m good, thanks,” they’d say. This desperation that I felt; the insatiability—it just wasn’t there. These friends were just as overworked, overwhelmed, and exhausted as I was, if not more. And they were living in the same out of control world that I was living in. No, this was something that was mine. I couldn’t continue to pretend it wasn’t.
It occurred to me that at the age of forty-one, I still had quite a bit of life left. What if, I thought, I continued down this road at this same pace. Where would I be five years from now? What about ten years from now, at fifty-one? Fifty-five? Sixty?
The truth was, I was unable to predict how the future would look if I stopped drinking, but I had a pretty good idea of what it would look like if I kept drinking. And while it was extremely difficult for me to imagine my life as a non-drinker (I had indulged very regularly for the past 20 years) it was downright painful for me to imagine continuing as I had been—the reality of which was: I was unhappy with the amount I was consuming, and attempts to cut back had failed. For the first time, I was considering the fact that my days here, in this life, were not limitless. And it was up to me to decide how I wanted to spend the ones I had left.
I was afraid to quit for so many reasons—the ones listed previously about missing out on fun, being bored, feeling left out, and being unable to unwind; but my biggest fear, and one that was almost too difficult to admit, was that I wasn’t sure who I was without alcohol. This seems bizarre to say, because the majority of my hours were spent not drinking. It wasn’t as though I needed a glass of wine to go grocery shopping, or help my kids with their school work. I walked my dog without booze, went to work without booze. I could write without a drink, and talk to friends without a drink. But somewhere along the line, I had decided that the fact that I drank made me more…likable. Genuine. Relatable.
Author Allen Carr writes, “we tend to feel intimidated by characters who show no vulnerability and we warm to those who are flawed…we worry that if we take the alcohol problem out of our life, we will take on the attributes of the intimidating, invulnerable character and lose what we perceive to be our ‘charm.’”
Maybe I was born with it, maybe I picked it up from the vibes the culture was giving off—or maybe it was a combination of both—but for as long as I could remember, I had been working hard to make sure the people around me were comfortable. Pleased, even. Certainly not threatened.
An easy, convenient way to do this was to drink. Without having to use any words at all, sharing a bottle of wine or two conveyed the message: we’re in this together. What you feel, I feel. No “holier-than-thou” stuff going on here. I need to numb out just as much as the next guy.
To happily abstain would have to mean that I thought I was somehow better, or maybe even less human, than those around me who were drinking. And for someone who had spent most of her life hustling to put others at ease, this was a difficult predicament.
Then there was the option of sadly abstaining. “Oh, I’d love to have one, but I can’t.” This approach appears to invite pity and insinuate weakness. She wants to drink, but she has…a problem. This was unappealing too. Not only because it was inaccurate (I saw it more as the alcohol being the problem, not me) but because, the more I thought about it, this interpretation was inauthentic. The scales had tipped to a point where, the reality of my experience with alcohol was primarily negative, as opposed to positive. While the idea of a drink still sounded good, actually having one did not. Similar to the way you might feel if you were presented with your favorite dessert—the one that tastes like heaven on earth to you—but you have just eaten a 7-course meal and you know that if you put one more thing in your mouth, you will be sick.
It just wasn’t worth it.
Deciding to become a non-drinker in a drinking world is one of the most radical things a woman can do. I say radical, because it is a decidedly self-centered choice. And I mean this in the most fabulous, bold, audacious, bad-ass way possible. When a woman quits, she is letting go. Letting go of what, for some of us, is a seemingly intrinsic impulse to maintain the status quo; to keep the peace, to do what is expected. She is letting go of the quick fix that is so readily accepted and glamorized that many would rather lose an organ than be told it was no longer an option for them.
Glennon Doyle says that the most revolutionary thing a woman can do is the next precise thing, one thing at a time, without asking permission or offering explanation. Revolutionary—yes. Easy—no.
Which is where I find myself on this beautiful Saturday afternoon at the swim club, alcohol free for several weeks, sure that it was the right decision for me, and proud of myself for listening to my inner voice.
And yet, still, fucking irritable. That’s the thing about getting sober—before you get there, you imagine the serenity that awaits you. The zen-like, unattached way you will float through life, not to mention your slim, hydrated body and new love of spring water with fruit floating in it. “I just love the way it infuses my drink,” you’ll say.
Not unlike the fantasies we indulge in before starting a new fad diet, it is tempting to envision a life without alcohol as one where we finally get what we deserve. Surely, giving up what has been pulling us down all this time will result in a transformation: a glorious version of ourselves that reminds us of something that looks and feels like perfection. Surely, we think, just on the other side of this is patience, tranquility; a vast beauty that we have been missing all this time.
Instead, what we find is a kind of returning to ourselves. Not new, polished, pure selves, but the selves that have been there all along. Agitated, fearful, bored, dissatisfied. Grateful, delighted, hopeful, intrigued. We get to feel them all again. We get to stay with ourselves when we otherwise would have bolted. Here we are, seething when we see that our kids haven’t done what we’ve asked…again. Here we are, full of worry that the puppy has eaten a whole movie theater-sized box of M&Ms. And here we are, too, inexplicably elated while biting into a piece of French bread pizza.
Each day that goes by in which we don’t escape, we have the chance to practice staying in moments that we previously would have seen as intolerable. Glaring, public moments like high school reunions, weddings of people you don’t know or care about, and baby showers with your husband’s college girlfriend…and quiet, personal moments, like when we step out of the shower and catch a glimpse of our reflection in the mirror. We get to see, on a daily (if not hourly) basis, what we are capable of.
Our tendencies toward what makes us comfortable will be that much clearer to us: hand returning again and again to the candy jar, thumb scrolling through phone, a little “add to cart” here, a little “add to cart” there. A glass from this bottle, a glass from that bottle. Familiar patterns will reveal themselves. Ah, we will say. I’m doing it again. I’m stealing sips. I must be looking for something, just for me.
And once in a while, we will find ourselves exactly where we are in the moment—no yesterday, no tomorrow—only now.
Which is, I think, just what I’ve been searching for all along.