And look! look! look! I think those little fish
better make up and dash themselves away
from the hopeless future that is
bulging toward them
if they don’t waste time
looking for an easier world,
they can do it.
Mary Oliver, from “Dogfish”
"I Wanted to Know, Whoever I Was, I Was Alive For a Little While"
I started drinking again in June, after more than a year sans booze, and after six months sans booze before that. And I stopped drinking again in September. I guess some of us need to remind ourselves: "he wasn’t an honorable man the first time you dated, and he’s even less honorable now." Because now he knows. He knows he’s got you by the collar, or the hem. He knows you’re weak. He knows you’re a sucker for desperation.
So I started drinking again in June – as a test – it was research, see? – and I drank maybe three, maybe four times that month. (I could verify those stats; I kept a calendar.) In July, I drank, oh, I don’t know, five times in July. And probably six times in August. And I’d guess eight or nine times in September.
However, with great disappointment, each time I drank, I ended up feeling guilty. Whether I had a sip of Coppola’s Claret, or “a few glasses” of whatever, I just felt shady. And worse, there was no thrill to accompany the transgression. I didn’t feel a slight snarl or cackle at the fact I was doing something which had become, for me, taboo; something verboten; something no longer personally (or socially) acceptable. (If you stop doing something, for a period, and then start doing it again, people will bat an eye.) So, no, there was no thrill. There was only the feeling of belatedness, like I really was stepping into the same river twice.
The thing is, I’m pretty good at employing defense mechanisms, so I had no problem conflating this feeling of disappointment with something else. This feeling wasn't disappointment, I decided, it was simply an internalized judgment handed down to me by our puritanical society of nitwits. “I don’t really feel bad. I just THINK I should feel bad.” I also tried intellectualizing the situation. “The thing is, I’m a woman, OK? Living within the shackles of a patriarchal society – a society that shuns all sign of women enjoying themselves!” And then there was straight up denial. “I don’t think I had three glasses of the Sauv Blanc. Just one… large one.”
In the short span of my newly leased drinking career, the cops were never called, the cell door never slammed shut, the stomach was never pumped, voices were never raised, the car was never operated post-imbibing more than two drinks, and I never even missed a day of work.
But! Here's the truth. I did miss half a day.
It was the end of September, a Friday, the day after my thirty-third birthday. I had made merry with four girlfriends and it had felt wonderful. I was back in my zone, as it were, sitting at a table with four other women, laughing and squawking about jobs, books, relationships, music, movies, pets--whatever. We’d gone to a fun restaurant, ordered interesting wine and tapas (you can say tapas now, without qualification, BTW) and we’d shared intimate details about our lives – the kind of details that usually get imparted over wine, as opposed to over lunch from the Korean truck or Jimmy Johns. After dinner we walked to the apartment of one of the ladies to have another drink before heading to a dive bar. At the apartment, I sat at a table with an old friend, someone who I hadn’t seen in a while. We gossiped and reconnected and confided in one another and I literally felt like I’d been plugged back in. I'd spent so much time becoming an expert on Law and Order, I forgot what it was like to be out of the house at 11 p.m., trading secrets, holding hands, and just -- glowing.
“My cure for drinking was isolation. I would get up, go to work, come home, watch TV, and go to bed. It got to the point where I couldn’t remember anything good that had ever happened. I couldn’t imagine anything good ever happening in the future. Life had shrunk down to an endless, awful now.” From “Flood with Feeling”
One of the toughest things about early sobriety is figuring out how to create or cultivate these moments outside of the bottle. Even if you’re game, it’s hard to duplicate that special, secret, elusive intimacy that drinking seems to create – and with such little effort. The drink does all the work. You get to bask in the endorphins and the physical arousal and just, enjoy. Without the tonic, you need to work for it. You need to work to get there, and even if you get there, if the people you’re with are drinking, it doesn’t feel exactly mutual. But look who’s complaining… that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to say, I was sitting in a room full of girlfriends and wine and music and I was feeling like a miniature Christmas tree.
“Evenings we drank with the best of them: lawyers, writers, media types, everyone vying to tell the best stories, which of course got funnier and funnier the more we drank and the later it got. When I drank, the fear evaporated and I became articulate and apparently very, very funny—or so they said. Years later I drank so much that I was no longer funny. But at the time, the drinks and the stories and the camaraderie were as wonderful as I was witty. We would get home to sleep by one or two in the morning, and the next day we would be up early to start all over again. The fortitude and resilience of youth made us invincible.” From “The Perpetual Quest”
At some point we made the move to the bar. I knew it was a questionable decision, but the thing about five drinks is it renders you less capable of making sound decisions. So I went and got a seat right at the bar and ordered a beer. I didn’t partake in any of the shots (for which I gave myself enormous credit) and I didn’t even finish my beer. Instead I called my husband and basically uttered: come get me now. By the time he arrived to collect me, I was barely able to twirl out of the bar into the front seat of the Hyundai Elantra without taking out a pedestrian, a potted plant, and a side-view mirror.
The next morning I teetered into the bathroom and ran a toothbrush across my teeth. Oh no. (Vom.) I retreated to the bedroom and sent a quick message to work saying I’d be in, but I’d be late. Doctor appointment, or something. I thrashed in bed for a while with my tortured mind before making the monumental decision to move to the couch. I snapped on the television and looked for something equal parts cheery and innocuous. (For the record, during a particularly bad hangover in 2007 I watched “What About Bob?” four times in one day. And during a not so bad hangover, I watched ten minutes of Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcaraldo” before puking into the nearest convenience store plastic bag. So, this is all to say, choice of programma matters, a lot.) I landed on Groundhog Day (clearly Bill Murray has the cheery/innocuous market cornered) and quickly resumed unconsciousness. For about an hour. I was up, I was out, I was up, I was out, I was up, out, up, out. “What the fuck!” I screamed, “is wrong with me?!?”
I got up, drank a glass of seltzer, felt ill, sat down, got in the shower, felt ill, got out, sat down, got dressed, felt ill, and was about to leave the house when I realized: oh shit, I need to blow dry my hair. I can't show up at work with wet hair. They think I’ve been out all morning at the doctor, dentist, or whoever. (I considered telling them I’d dropped by the gym after the appointment and taken a quick shower, but I couldn’t bear extending the charade.) Blow drying my hair that morning/afternoon felt like a trek half-way up Mount Everest, or like carrying a couch up a winding trinity staircase. Basically, it felt wrong, painful, and thankless. When I was finished and on my way out the door, I caught eyes with the dog. Bobo. He looked at me skeptically. I tossed him a greenie treat and was on my way. Out on the street, inhaling fresh air, and crunching leaves beneath my feet, I anticipated feeling relieved or re-energized. But I didn't. I felt like a human failure.
Somehow I made it through a half day at work. (Basically I sat in my office and watched old episodes of the late great reality television show: Stylista.) When the mythical bell rang, I dashed to the street to meet my husband (we work at the same university; his job is fancy; mine is not.) We’d planned to go out to eat at our favorite haunt: the Nordstrom Café in Cherry Hill, New Jersey (try not to be jealous) and although all I wanted was to escape to my sick bed, I didn’t want to break the plan. I didn’t want him to know anything was amiss, that I’d drank too much and felt like ass. No, I wanted him to think that everything was under control!
“The surprise to me is the fact that I didn’t know that they knew my drinking had gotten out of control. That is where we are really fooled. We think we can drink to excess without anyone’s knowing it. Everyone knows it. The only one we are fooling is ourselves. We rationalize and excuse our conduct beyond all reason.” From “It Might Have Been Worse”
“So,” he said, as we walked to the car, “are you still up for Salad Niçoise?”
“Uh, yeah!” I uttered with some off version of enthusiasm.
“I was thinking you might just want to head home and relax, lie down.”
“What the heck are you talkin’ bout?” I demurred. “I’ve been looking forward to this all day.”
“OK, great!” he said.
And we were off.
Once we were seated in the taupe booths, beneath the dimmed lights, looking out the panel windows across the endless parking lot, I realized I was in a pickle. I was still feeling ill and wasn’t sure I could choke down Haricot Vert and hardboiled egg. What to do? Tell him how ill I felt? Or scarf down the green beans and force a smile like my life depended on it? Before I could say, or not say, anything, he addressed me.
“You know, when you came through the front door last night, you almost stepped on Bobo.”
I forked a rosemary potato. “What? I did?”
“Do you remember?”
Hmm. No. I didn’t remember much after exiting the bar, actually, but I was quite sure nothing untoward had happened. Was this some sort of a trick? (Spoken like a true booze hound.)
“What happened, exactly?”
“You walked in ahead of me and you weren’t looking where you were going and Bobo yelped and ran to his cage.”
“Well, he’s all right. I mean you just tripped over him a little.”
We finished our dinner and traipsed through the shoe section of Nordstrom (a vile, vile, Godforsaken place) then traversed the parking lot and re-entered our automobile.
“Do you still want to go to the Container Store?” I asked.
“I can’t do that to you,” he said, kissing me on the cheek. “Not in your condition.”
I settled back into my seat and didn’t utter a syllable of protest.
So that might've been it. But no. I drank once more after that night. At a Bad Plus concert just two days later. I had two and a half beers at the show. IPA's if you must know. I went with a girlfriend, someone who enjoys drinking, someone who I don’t feel bad drinking around. We met my husband and his friend there. They were drinking when we arrived. (My husband can have two Manhattans sans ill effects and bullshit and life-altering problems. Why can some people imbibe without calamity and some people can’t? I don’t know, but I know thems the facts.)
When we were leaving the jazz club, I stopped to tell the bass player something, something like “thanks for playing Lost of Love.” He actually responded and we had a conversation for a few minutes. I realized that if I’d been a little more drunk I would have been flirting with him. I just do that after too many drinks. It’s the same reflex as when the doctor takes the hammer to your knee. This realization depressed me.
“For ten years through college and graduate school interspersed with jobs, I drank periodically, so it was easy enough to think that I was a social drinker. Looking back, I see that alcohol helped me construct an image of myself as a sophisticated metropolitan woman, diminishing my feelings of being a backward country girl.” From “Because I’m an Alcoholic”
That night I stayed up until four in the morning drinking takeout beer with my husband’s friend. At first it was all four of us: me, my husband, my friend, and his friend. But my girlfriend had passed out mid-convo and banged her head against our glass coffee table. And my husband just isn’t a rager, so he’d gone upstairs to bed.
Me and this guy though.
We share something.
It's not a romantic thing, not sexual or anything. It’s the kind of thing that a few years ago I would have called a magic connection, or a wordless bond, or simply a special shared something. But today I call it what it is: a mutual affection for drinking.
I actually drank him under the table that night. He passed out mid-conversation, as well (I guess it was a theme that night, or any night when you're hanging out with binge drinking friends) and he sort of slid under the coffee table. I sat in the living room by myself for a while after that. I mean, his body was still there, but I had no one to talk to. It was late, very late, and I was lonely. The beer had made me excited at first, then maudlin, and now just lonely. I knew Sunday would be rough – there’d be no escape from that. And I knew the week would be rough, and the month, and the year, and I worried about that.
When I crawled into bed my husband stirred and I had a feeling he’d been awake the whole time, but I decided just to snuggle in and not say anything. In my mind I said the Lord’s Prayer and SA TA NA MA over and over and practiced belly breathing… until I was asleep. I didn’t know that was going to be my last experiment with drinking. I didn’t know I was going to have to face the fact that drinking offered me nothing anymore. Just like a toxic relationship, I had no idea that night was goodbye. Again.
But it was.