Running up that Hill, Make a Deal with God
In my early twenties, I remember stopping by the built in bar on the way out of my apartment to a date. I’d just casually drop my keys on the counter, swing open a cabinet, pull out a bottle of vodka or gin or Captain Morgan's and take a swig. Like, ah, there. Now I’m ready.
When I got into my date’s car I felt thankful I’d decided to take that drink. The glowing dash and dark leather. The music piping through his system. What the hell was I doing here? What two or three or four hours of hell awaited? Whether the suitor was practically new to me, or an ex who’d caused me pain, or a married man whom I was trying to justify, or simply a good friend with whom I couldn’t seem to be honest—I felt bad as soon as I got into that car. If the car was overly spotless, I felt out of place. If the car was a wreck, I felt out of place. If there was a detail, like a child’s toy in the back, or a woman’s lipstick in the ashtray, or a thing from our past, I felt like crawling out of my skin. But the shot had muted all that anxiety to a dull tremor, just out of reach. And I knew we’d be going somewhere that had drinks—wine, beer, cocktails, whatever. Drinks.
At the time, I thought this was probably normal. And if I thought it was abnormal, then I thought it was comical. Bridget Jones and disastrous love affairs and drinking too much to deal. I didn’t feel the pathos of it. Or if I felt it, I didn’t own up to it. I laughed about it to girlfriends and they laughed, too. We all had stories. We all needed one another’s support. We all felt confused about what exactly we were supposed to be doing and feeling. And we all liked to drink.
A few years later, in my twenty-seventh year, I found myself sitting in a graduate school workshop listening to a very famous science fiction writer critique my fiction submission: “everyone seems to like this story, and finds the narrator funny—parodic—but I had a very different reaction. I found the protagonist to be self-absorbed, full of self-pity, and deflective. She is afraid of intimacy and needs to be drunk to have sex.”
Oh my God, I thought. What was he talking about? I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach. And true to form, before I’d really considered his criticism, I immediately got defensive. What the hell did he know? What a sexist prick? Why could a man be honest about his darkness (and earn raves) while a woman was seen as gratuitous, vain, and sick. True to form, I got angry, thanked him for his opinion and stormed out of our class as soon as it was over. I took the stairs down ten flights and when I got to the bottom, I was in tears. Was he talking about my story, about my narrator, my protagonist? Or was he talking about me? I considered the validity of his statement: she needs to be drunk to have sex. That’s not true, I said, wiping my eyes dry. In the back of my head I thought of every furtive shot I took while a lover waited upstairs. Here I was in the kitchen, taking a shot of tequila before traipsing back into the bedroom to meet him, both of us laughing. Here I was saying I had to get a glass of water, stopping by the built in bar, taking a shot of vodka and catching my reflection in a window pane. Here I was reaching back for the wine glass as he led me up the staircase, into the dark room…
It hurt to think about these things. I didn’t want to feel this. So I got up, shook myself off and stepped out of the building into the daylight of 3 o’clock. I immediately ran into two fellow grad students. I remember one of them, Salvador, someone I admired, opened his arms and hugged me. It was a hug that said, I’m sorry you had to sit and endure that harsh review. He didn’t say that he disagreed, nor did he write off any of the sci fi writer’s comments. He didn’t tell me I shouldn’t listen to a word of it. He hugged me, empathically, but he didn’t say anything.
A few months later, I was talking to another writer in the class, Melissa. We were having a beer at a local Philly writers’ haunt and I was bitching about what the sci fi writer had said, how it was a cheap shot and not necessarily relevant to the writing, how he’d conflated the writing with the writer, the intentional fallacy, the pathetic fallacy, the fucking fallacy, whatever. “Oh,” she said, “really?” Then she said, “I thought that was really interesting, what he said.” Fuck, I thought. She’s right.
I walked home that night and thought, and thought again about the comments. Was it true? Was I afraid of sex? Was I afraid of intimacy? Drinking did factor in to many of my conquests, and my vanquishings [sic]. Was it by accident. Or necessity. What would I do if I didn’t have that magic potion? What would I do without the thing that made everything less than real? Would I be able to stand it? The realness of the dark, of sex, of another human being? Would I be able to stand it? The pressure of advancing age, the memories of lovers lost, the fear of so many feats still unaccomplished, of things like: what will become of me? Would I be able to stand it? A man in the bed, my own heart beating, and the sound of our breath... When I got home to the apartment I shared with my older, philandering boyfriend of two years, I noticed he was nowhere to be found. I took out my cell phone and called him. It went straight to voicemail. I sat in a chair and stared at the living room and its objects. I breathed in and out. I looked at books lined in shelves, plants in pots, windows in frames. I looked at my hands and my feet and imagined myself from above, looking down at this scene. I shuddered. This was too much. I opened the fridge and took out a beer. I opened it and took a sip. There. Everything was going to be fine. I tried calling him again and this time he answered. “Where are you?” I asked? “I’m at Laura’s” he said, “she’s having a party.” “Why didn’t you answer when I called?” I said. “I was in the basement,” he said. “When are you coming home?” I asked and he answered with an evasive comment, which led to a protracted discussion about my controlling and possessive nature.
I don’t remember if I drank more that night or if I lay in bed and sobbed or if I tried to find information on his social networking profile for proof that he was cheating on me or at least acting dishonorably. I remember that nights like that made me very certain that I was in no place to excise drinking from my life. It was my friend, my accomplice, my lover. It kept me company and kept me safe. It kept the demons away and pushed the bad feelings off. I felt protected.
Drinking often felt very protective, for a range of feelings--everything from rejection to anxiety to ennui to sheer boredom (ironically, the very feelings that drinking helps to create and cultivate). Drinking often felt like a good or at least effective way of dealing with the boredom, the tediousness of capitalist days and unsatisfying nights. It was a way of projecting out of the self into a place that felt good and carefree. I often thought about a scene from a movie I’d seen years before. In the scene a woman, played by Laura Linney, is sitting in bed at the end of the day. She has put her child to bed and is reading a book, drinking a glass of white wine. I remember watching that and thinking, thank God. Thank God she has that. If nothing else, she has that.
She and I, I thought, we need that. I simply couldn’t conceive of a scenario where I’d be spending quality time by myself at night and not want to drink. I spent many nights with myself, writing, making photo albums, surfing the blessed internet, drawing sketches of this, that, the other—and I did it all without a drink. But not necessarily because I wanted it that way. I did it because it proved that I didn’t have a problem. And I did it because I knew on a gut level that I should be ABLE to do those things without drinking and, importantly, without WANTING to drink. I also knew that the time I was spending with myself was not as genuine, felt, meaningful or maximized as it should be—as I wanted it to be—but I wasn’t sure how to get those effects. Perhaps, I thought, I could stop drinking, I could remove that from the equation entirely, so that I could spend zero time wondering if I should just pour a fucking glass of wine and get it over with. But, I thought, life would be so lonely, so bleak, so… unknown.
What’s hard to think about is that living room where I cycled through these thought patterns. What causes me pain is to think—to remember—how lonely I was, how unsure I was of anything really—the future, the past, myself in that moment. I was trying to process, synthesize and neutralize all of it. Of course, I was unable to do this—no one is able to do that—so I did the next logical thing. I went to the wine store and picked up a bottle of red and a pack of cigarettes and then I trucked it back home to get busy on obliterating consciousness. Lots of times I laughed as I walked back home, laughed at the absurdity and futility of existence, of philosophizing, of religion, or any of it. I was defiant and action-less and full of my self.
And in the morning, whatever I’d washed away, washed back up.
How badly I wanted things to be better, to be different. If only I could DEAL with things instead of depending on this chemical. How badly I didn’t want to have a disease. Oh my God, a disease. To help me decide whether I had a real problem, I started reading memoirs and watching specials on the topic of alcohol and alcoholism. I was weeding through all of this, not for signs that I could relate to, but for a sign that would set me apart. She crashed a car or got a DUI? Not me. She got pregnant accidentally? Not me. Not once. She lost her job? Not me. She used hard drugs when drinking? Not me. She drank in the morning before work? Not me. Never. She started drinking in junior high school? Not me. Not me. Not me. In an HBO special, one of the doctors interviewed said, “this disease presents itself early, often in adolescence.” Not me! I sighed with relief. They’re talking about those thirteen year olds who steal bottles of booze, who react to it immediately. And he went on, “it often begins before age 25, typically between the ages of 18 and 25.” Oh shit. That was me. That. Was. Me.
The memoir that started everything was Drinking: A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp. It was a Sunday and I was leafing through the New York Times Book Review. There was a review of Gail Caldwell’s memoir about her friendship with Caroline Knapp, Let’s Take the Long Way Home. In the second column, the reviewer referenced the two writers’ shared past of addiction, and the line that changed everything: “the empty chamber in the heart that’s at the center of addiction.” This was a tremendously shocking and also validating sentiment. It was like a one two punch. One, wait, I know what this means, even though I’ve never verbalized it this exact way. And, two, if this was written down, that means someone else drinks this way.
I drove to the Barnes and Noble in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and searched for Gail Caldwell’s memoir, and the book referenced in the review, Caroline Knapp’s memoir. I bought the books and started reading Knapp’s book on the drive home. It was like check, check, check. She was looking at people who were worse off than her to PROVE she wasn’t a drunk. She never got a DUI, ended up in jail or the hospital. She'd never been fired, etc. Oh God, and how she loved the rituals of drinking, the camaraderie, the heightened sense of interpersonal closeness, the romance of it all. More than that she loved the escape. She loved the solution drinking seemed to provide to everything that ails: rejection, disappointment, discomfort or unease, regret, fear, confusion, boredom—all of it. It was a job hazard, wasn’t it? Drinking. Writer = Drinker. Grist for the mill. It was such an integral part of her life--or it had become such an integral part--that to live without seemed unfathomable, and yet, she knew, she knew it was what she needed to do. Give it up.
Caroline Knapp's story is a long story. Much longer and much deeper, but just as deep, is the story of this morning. I'll end this with the story of this morning. I don’t think the happiness, the contentedness of this morning, the moments of it, could be captured in words. Waking up—not hungover—not replaying the night before—not ruminating on eternity. But experiencing the moment, the day, for its own sake—in its present state. Washing a few dishes, making coffee, emailing, playing with the dog, doing laundry—it’s wonderful in its simplicity and I’m embracing it in its current state, for its own sake.