I’m not long into this current incarnation of being Alcohol-Free. And there are days I wonder if it is necessary. My tack this time around is to say, ‘well…if you want that sidecar, we can do that tomorrow, sweetcakes. Right now, let’s just let this hibiscus tea steep.’ So far that – combined with a little meditating, a little exercising, a little looking back, and looking in the mirror seem to be working for me. I chose perhaps the most difficult time of year to stop imbibing, except that when you are at the stage where every popped cork starts to feel like a shot across the bowels and leaves you shaky with relief and fear, there isn’t a NOT difficult time.
My family are big talkers right up until we have to talk about what actually is bothering us. We’ll tell you all about that time my great granddaddy ended up in a Mexican prison in the late 40s, trying to liberate his fishing boat, but we will skirt over the 5 years he spent in the whiskey trying to drink the loss of his first wife away. We’ll tell you all about my mama having a late-term miscarriage. But we won’t tell you it was 20 years before the four-year-old who witnessed that fetal wreckage being fished out of a toilet realized she had not killed her would be sister because she had insisted on pancakes. We talk about the horrific things that happen, we make you laugh and cry but we don’t talk about the aftermath or what those common tragedies cost us, what pieces of ourselves we traded just put keep on keeping on.
That kind of malarkey is for therapists, unless you’re lucky enough for a compassionate confessional to feature prominently in your world.
For years, I created elaborate rules for myself. Not just about alcohol, but about everything. I finally reached a point where I had LITERALLY pigeonholed myself up against a brick wall. And something had to give instead of just take. I spent a lot of my life being told that ‘things are not as bad as they seem,’ to ‘stop that crying,’ or ‘you don’t really want to get that boy into trouble for raping you! That was an accident! And look at you, you’re so pretty, he probably couldn’t help himself.’. Alcohol became a lead pipe in my Cluedo arsenal of solving the mystery of myself. And for a while, it would work…it peeled back layers of myself I had shoved so far into the back of the closet of respectability that I couldn’t believe my own honesty. But the inevitable line would be crossed when I would use the alcohol to also soften the situations I found unbearable: the group nights out, the awkward interviews, the pain of first or 5th dates. I’d always know when it had gone too far…I would tear myself to shreds the next day, confused and embarrassed. I’d cry myself to sleep, wondering why I couldn’t drink like everyone else, why there always had to be a blackout at the end of what I know now to be a bender.
I moved a lot as a child and it is a pattern that I have carried into my adult life. That does not make finding a or building a rapport with a therapist easy. But I try. I’ve been working with my current therapist for just over 2 years. Days are when I go in thinking I can not possibly spend more time talking about nothing but it will turn out I talk more than I knew I could.
Genetically, I am a walking poster child for the pre-disposed to addiction. Depression, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, latent anger, excessive trauma — these run up and down my family trees like Dutch Elm through an arboretum. But my own PERSONAL relationship with alcohol? Well, there is only so much I can lay on the altar of genetics. There also conditioning. Much of the southern half of my family doesn’t drink. Those who do, well, there’s a bit of moonshine and domestic beer around the tailgate of one distance cousin or the other. The southern aspect of my nature has taught me the importance of thank you cards, of ‘Bless your heart,’ and of wearing well-made support garments. The Midwestern side has taught me that cocktail hour can begin at 5 pm and that you can cook with a glass of wine in your hand from 3:30, provided you don’t use the crystal wine glasses that you keep for company. If it is lunch, well obviously a bloody Mary or mimosa is perfectly acceptable from 9:30 am.
The books I read (a steady diet of crime fiction) and the classic films I watched also set a seemingly attainable lifestyle. I read about the Algonquin Round Table like the stories were a ‘How To’ guide instead of cautionary tales. The Kate Hepburns,the Claudette Colberts, the Rosalind Russells, they all drank and did so with style. I wanted that kind of style and I thought it impossible for that style to exist without alcohol.
My first taste of alcohol happened around a bonfire on a late summer night in Biloxi. I was 4. I had just had 24 stitches removed after I changed my mind mid-air about jumping into a pool. Maybe they were relieved I was alive, maybe my daddy thought it was funny that I wanted to try that Miller Genuine Draft. Later that night, he also let me steer is 1958 Jeep Pick-up down the beach road. I was so proud. So grown up. I remember the taste of that beer – yeasty and a bit dry and that it tickled my nose. But I don ‘t remember enjoying it.
Maybe that was the beginning. I know I started sneaking the occasional dregs of scotch and soda from my grandfather’s nightly pint glass (and yes, I said pint glass) when I was 11. Half J&B or Cutty Sark, half soda over ice, every night. He’d add more ice, a bit more whiskey, and then I’d tiptoe in and finish it off.
I had problems sleeping that summer, visions of my younger brother being crushed by a garbage truck and of his tiny body in a hospital bed and that little bit of purloined liquor made everything stop hurting for a while.
In my 14th year, I moved on to my grandmother’s gin and tonic dregs and purloined Carlton 100s (she was a stunner; like a 50s pinup and I wanted that confidence). This was right after the military police tore apart our home in Kentucky and my dad was court-martialed. We moved, again, and it was exhausting. Good times.
My first *night of drinking till I was drunk* I sat down with a stolen bottle of the Gallo Vineyards White Zinfandel and 5th of Yukon Jack Canadian Whiskey and proceeded to drink myself into a blackout. I vomited over my best friend’s phone, trying to phone the man who raped me when I was 8. They had to shower me off. I woke up the next day, grey and shaky, my hair still smelling foul. I crawled home and into bed, telling my parents I had the flu. I cried myself to sleep, ashamed and terrified because there was very little I remembered except that I was adamant we needed to call ‘Spencer’ (Robert Urich) from the Robert B. Parker novels to help us find the bastard.
I was a ‘good kid,’ on the honor roll, aside from my inability to add my way out of a paper bag, so it does not surprise me my parents were not very suspicious. I worked at the public library, for Pete’s sake. Of course, they also had no idea about the extensive secondary market in hot prom dresses and designer wear I ran through high school or about my compulsion to binge and purge, so why would they know about my 1st blackout? That night was enough to scare me semi-straight.
I didn’t drink again with intent until college. Even then, it wouldn’t happen until after I was roofied and date raped my freshman year. A month later (almost to the day) one of my closest friends died of meningitis. It was all the feral side of me needed to toss caution and my liver to the wind. And it became my favorite excuse to squander my student loan on cocktail dresses and late nights.
It strikes me that there is a theme: some significant trauma occurs and I survive it by narcotizing myself with any legal substance I can get my hands on. They have to be legal, mind you, because I’ve spent the night in the pokey, with the orange jumpsuit and plastic shoes and I know I would not thrive in prison.
There was a night out – pregnant with my 2nd – that I had 3 mixed drinks over 7 hours. I had given up feeling guilty. I had been so careful with my first viable pregnancy – no soft cheeses for fear if Listeria, no cheeky cigarettes, drastically reduced caffeine intake, etc cetera, et cetera. The baby was early, with an advanced hydrops caused Noonan’s Syndrome. He went into organ failure and the first time I held him was as he died.
I derailed for 4 months, threw up in the potted plants of some of loveliest hotel bars the world as to offer…then picked myself up, dusted off the dirt and heartache, whilst my Lurcher Josephine nudged me with big pools of chocolate eyes full of concern and worry. When your dog starts to pity you, well…
After my daughter was born, the expectation that life – and my ability to consume alcohol – would resume as normal. That I would drink and be merry and become an expert at ‘pumping and dumping.’. Few of my social circle did not drink and it seemed everywhere I turned, a drink was put into my hand. More than half the time, it would end up in the sink.
Not for the first time, I became adept at masking ginger ale for a glass of champagne or using the old Perrier with a slice of lime ruse. Not that I didn’t drink. What I began to notice was that my drinking took on an edge. It wasn’t the first time noticed this; it was a frequent observation in my 20s. But now I had more to lose. But it would take a while for me to stop going toe to toe with a wine bottle or 5th of cognac and Cointreau.
Weird isn’t it, the secretive nature of it all? I’ve always been good at hiding things, keeping everyone’s confidences except my own.
The I was to forty, I found myself confronting two major life transitions: an unplanned, unexpected pregnancy and the death of my momma. Well, 3 if you count that my maternal grandmother would also begin a rapid decline from bladder cancer. The inevitable decline of two major supports left me feeling my foundations were weak.
I was 6 weeks into the unexpected (‘Oh, you mean you didn’t have a vasectomy yet?’) pregnancy when my mother was in an auto explosion on the Oklahoma Turnpike. I am not going to lie – I had 4 margaritas and 3.5 bottles of wine over that pregnancy. Grief, PTSD, and postnatal depression combined to form a perfect electrical storm of not sleeping. When I did sleep, I couldn’t sleep for more than an hour. For months. I became unhinged and the only way I could sleep was to slip into that deep abyss wine (wine is allowed, you know, according to every social media meme or book about modern motherhood. Hell, even my book club gives away a glass of wine with dinner) offered. But it became more than that because that is what Alcohol does…it slips down and into the cracks and in those lowered inhibitions moments, you think anything is possible, that you are invincible, right up until it isn’t and you realize you are not and you may have just wet yourself.
I’ve noticed for a long while just how much alcohol is pushed on the western world – in TV shows and advertising especially now that smoking is so frowned on and it terrifies me. We’ll talk about the meth epidemic, the smack and crack epidemic, but we very seldom (until someone winds up dead) talk about the not so subtle ways we damage ourselves with alcohol, about the insidiousness of genetics and trauma, of damaged synaptic and organ failure. I’ve known people whose relatives have literally drunk themselves into death, and there is no irony as they shake their heads and top their 4th or 5th martini. Every major celebration advertised is done over a bottle of something or other. It has become insidious and for those who are pre-disposed, who have been exposed to childhood abuse or trauma, or just plain ol’ crummy luck, it can be a lonely place when you climb up on the proverbial wagon. And the thing about climbing up is that gravity teaches us everything has to come down. Really, we have to switch the flip. Not drinking isn’t climbing up on anything. Au contraire. It is climbing down. It is swishing your evening cloak, putting on your gloves and saying ‘I am ready for bed and I am not letting you, Ms Moet or Mr Absolut distract me anymore.’
Ironically, when I am at my most sober is when people often think I’ve been drinking. I’m pretty ‘tetched in the head,’ a bit zaney in my natural state. I’m tryng not to let this rediscovered power go to my head.
I finally remembered I don’t need alcohol to dance on the bar. I’m unhinged enough in my right mind, I dance anywhere. That realization was the biggest relief of my life. It has made for a lonely few months, having to really re-evaluate relationships and it is not over, the evaluating, the evolution and revolution. I don’t know that I ever can be, nor do I want it to be over.
I sometimes wonder if the answer is sobriety forever and ever, but I do like waking up knowing exactly what I did and said the night before. If I am behaving like a poop sausage, I have to own whatever is making me at out. I don’t have or need the excuse of ‘Ooh, I must have had too much to drink.’ and if I end up under the host, well…I’m more likely to remember it. So, my wondering is more of an idle thought. I like this return to myself and I don’t want to miss out on the life I’m building. BOOM, The Fix, Hip Sobriety, This Naked Mind, the Bubble Hour, these all play a very significant role in how I roll these days. And it is making for a better journey.
If you are drinking too much too often maybe we can help. We are an independent, private, anonymous community forum. Alcohol is the only drug that people will question you for not using but we understand how it feels to lose your off switch.
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It’s never too late.
“When you quit drinking you stop waiting.”
― Caroline Knapp, Drinking: A Love Story
This post is featured for COA week, Children of Alcoholics week , February 11- 17, 2019. From February 11 to 17 we celebrate families by featuring writing that speaks to surviving childhood with addicted parents and writing that we hope will encourage parents to be present for their children. In a world that encourages addictive behaviors Join Us! in evolving toward a brighter future. Rethink the Drink !