First you look so strong / then you fade away

For Drinkers and Those Who Love Them:

“Finally she said, ‘I need to talk to you. I’m very worried about your drinking.’ I said, ‘I know.’ I walked beside her, keeping my eyes on my feet in the sand, afraid that if I looked up I’d bump too abruptly into a truth I didn’t really want to see. I added softly, ‘I am too.’ I could tell from her tone that she wasn’t angry, just worried, and I had to admit to her: I was too.  Sort of.”

I have met a fair number of people with alcohol problems, but I have never met anyone with a drinking problem, whether in or out of recovery, who instinctively and immediately ‘got it.’ For that matter, I have never even heard of a single woman or man, young or old, who instantly ascertained there was a problem and said: I’m going to deal with this – right now. Just as it takes a while for a drinking problem to become a problem,  it usually takes a while to comprehend that the problem needs to be addressed. Naturally, this is not a welcome revelation, nor is it a welcome conversation; whether you’re having it with yourself, or with someone else. As Duras says: 100% of the time it’s taken as an insult. Indeed, we go out of our way to avoid this conversation, this reckoning. Often, we look to those around us for relief from this unwelcome reality. We seek support from specific people, usually fellow travelers or people who we know dislike confrontation, for validation. We also look to people who are worse off or to media/literary depictions for confirmation that, in fact, there is no drinking problem. If I had drinking problem, you say, I’d be living under a bridge, leaving work for lunch and never coming back, losing my family. If I had a drinking problem, I’d be all alone. If I had a drinking problem, could I be working? If I had a drinking problem, I’d be drinking before work. (For many of us, the job is what we really protect--more than anything else.) If I had a drinking problem, I’d be in jail, an insane asylum, or some other final destination.

“The thing is hints of distress are like air: you can’t see them, can’t hold them in your hand and subject them to proper examination.”

The high-functioning woman asks: "How could it be that I have a drinking problem as an employed, housed, clothed, relatively functional individual? I have friends—great friends. My family hasn’t ostracized me. Maybe I go on dates. Maybe I’m in a relationship. Maybe I’m married. Maybe I even have children. If something were truly wrong, I’d have none of these things. If there were a problem, people (other people) would be telling me. Everyone would know."

Does anyone know?

“I hid it that well. Most high-functioning alcoholics do […] Part of what allows us to ignore the fact is that we’re so very different from the popular definition of a ‘real’ drunk. Alcoholic is a nasty word, several decades of education about the disease notwithstanding. Say it out loud and chances are you still get the classic image of the falling-down booze-hound: an older person, usually male, staggering down the street and clutching a brown paper bag. In fact, the low-bottom, skid-row bum is the exception, representing only three to five percent of the alcoholic population, a mere fraction. The vast majority of us function remarkably well in most aspects of our lives for many, many years.”

“There are moments where you do know, where in a flash of clarity you grasp that alcohol is the central problem, a kind of liquid glue that gums up all the internal gears and keeps you stuck. The pond was beautiful that day, rippled and sparkling, turning the sand a deep sienna where it lapped against the shore, and for an instant, I did know, I could see it: I was thirty-three and I was drinking way too much and I was miserable, and there had to be a connection.”

The morning comes, and with it the sensation that something is wrong. What is it? Too much wine? Too much isolation? Too much distance from the material lives of your friends? Then the day passes, and slowly, surely, you feel better. You feel fine. Then it’s evening. A vague shadow of the night before remains, but nothing impenetrable. Maybe a small drink would help. Maybe you were too hasty in your early morning considerations. Things aren’t so bad. Things are fine. Plus, you’re different. You’re not like everyone else. You have different needs and longings. You have a different kind of make-up. One that entitles you to a specific kind of remedy. You deserve this.

“And that’s how it works. Active alcoholics try and active alcoholics fail. We make the promises and we really do try to stick with them and we keep ignoring the fact that we can’t do it, keep rationalizing the third drink, or the fourth or fifth.”

After a certain point, alcohol has become too important. It may have been important from the very first drink, or it may have become important somewhere along the way, or it may have developed into something important right at the end, suddenly, and with a yearning, a pull. Either way, your relationship with the drink is something you can’t imagine living without. Though you may not admit this. To others. To yourself. Although those close to you can see it, somehow you can't. You simply can't. Although you can't say there's problem, you know you don't want anyone to get in the way of it.

“By the end it was the single most important relationship in my life.”

And for the most part, things are fine. Things are pretty good. There are nights, perhaps many nights, where things are fine. Where you remember how it ended. Where you drove yourself home. Where you watched others get plowed. These nights are proof -- standing proof -- everything is OK.

“I loved the way drink made me feel, and I loved its special power of deflection, its ability to shift my focus away from my own awareness of self and onto something else, something less painful than my own feelings. I loved the sounds of drink: the slide of a cork as it eased out of a wine bottle, the distinct glug-glug of booze pouring into a glass, the clatter of ice cubes in a tumbler. I loved the rituals, the camaraderie of drinking with others, the warming, melting feelings of ease and courage it gave me.”

When it gets bad, we chalk it up to circumstance: our friends' influence, not enough to eat, not enough sleep, lots of stress and too much time spent at home, alone. When it gets truly bad, we console ourselves with what feels like a searing, dirty truth: this is the only rational response to being alive. Yes, being alive has become not just an inconvenient truth, but a full-blown problem. And that's how it should be. These undercurrents of despair and drinking and depression are somehow central to our work, our being. Writers and musicians and artists have this special need, we say. A hazard of the trade. As a writer, alcohol is part of the equation. Many writers swear they don’t drink to create. They don’t need that glass of wine that Tennessee Williams swore by. But that doesn’t stop us from celebrating, from rereading drafts with a drink in our hand, from meeting at the pub to debate and discuss the politics of publishing. Just like for musicians and artists, it’s an occupational hazard. Dorothy Parker, F. Scott, Carson McCullers, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Styron and on and on…  We don’t see them as depressed, suicidal, miserable – or as tyrants to those around them, absent parents, abusive partners, masters of isolating the very people who love them. We celebrate them as individuals who lived their lives on a deeper plane. We romanticize their very painful despair. And we use it as a prop. To justify our own abuse. Abuse we inflict on others and ourselves.

“The truth gnaws at you. In periodic flashes like that I’d be painfully aware that I was living badly, just plain living wrong. But I refused to completely acknowledge or act on that awareness, so the feeling just festered inside like a tumor, gradually eating away at my sense of dignity. You know and you don’t know. You know and you won’t know, and as long as the outsides of your life remain intact—our job and professional persona—it’s very hard to accept that the insides, the pieces of you that have to do with integrity and self-esteem are slowly rotting away.”

And here is the crux of this post: if you love a drinker, it’s important – no, it’s crucial – that you understand: this is not your fault. “You did not cause the problem, and you must not pay for it.” So simple, but so complex once you’re in the morass of a relationship with a drinker, especially if you drink yourself. But was it always like this? “Remember how the problems associated with drinking got worse—moods became erratic and hard to predict and shared enjoyment dropped off?” Be honest with yourself:  you didn’t want this and you never asked for this. Why is the drinker getting what they want and you are not? Why do you think you should (or can) live like this? Undoubtedly you’ve been subjected to accusations, maybe even threats. You’ve been told of your many failings, your possessiveness and demanding nature. You’re irrational. In fact, you should not only doubt yourself, you should maybe consider disliking yourself.

The drinker comes out on top. They are carefree. They are living life. They are in the moment. But wait? That’s bullshit you realize, and when you get the courage, and find just the right time, or lose the necessary amount of patience, you explode. “It may be that screaming or throwing are experienced by your drinker as rewards. Angry attention is often better than no attention at all. So when you pitch a fit, your drinker feels connected to you. Even if the connection is nasty and ugly, it is there nonetheless. Furthermore, if your interactions really escalate into highly emotional scenes, your drinker, and you, too, may experience a sort of adrenaline rush that may be rewarding. Also, the aftermath of a fight often involves making up and a sort of honeymoon period when everyone tries to be extra nice, and so the fight, in a sense, gets reinforced again.”

I remember how it felt to get into a drunken fight. It felt strange or surreal and sometimes awful, but sometimes almost giddy. It felt like something was happening. Something different than reading or typing all day. Something other than musing on death and the ultimate nothingness of being. The feeling became addictive. I knew it first as someone who drank, but not alcoholically. I knew it as the girlfriend of an alcoholic. I knew the sounds. The cracking of a beer can or a bottle top being popped, the crunch of car wheels up the driveway very late, the telephone ringing in the middle of the night, or early morning, and the words of an apology. I knew it all. And the sick thing is, as much anxiety and sadness as it gave me, I started to like it. At least depend on it. I felt slightly superior, and distracted from my own problems/feelings. I felt like I was in a position of saving someone. I also really loved him. And I wanted him to get better. And also he told me he needed me. That he was sick. That he might die without me. What a power trip. Someone needed me to survive? Holy shit. What a feeling. If I wasn’t getting high enough from being the long-suffering girlfriend to a musician/artist/lawyer, I was surely high now.

But of course, he didn’t need me to survive. He needed attention and care and coddling and excuses. But he didn’t need me. In fact, just like me, he’s married now. He has a new baby, well, a toddler by this point. I have no idea if he’s still drinking. But I know looking back, that I was benefiting from his illness. I kept showing up out of love, I told myself. But it was more than that. He was a brilliant distraction from myself, and a reminder of how much more stable I was. It’s a good thing that one night he got very drunk and tried to make-out with my roommate. I could withstand many indignities, but for some reason, I couldn’t quite withstand that. He told me later (of course we met for coffee after a few months) that he did it on purpose; that he saw I would never leave him and he wanted me to be free of him. (Many addicts are insecure narcissists.)

Or you could argue that many people are insecure narcissists. That’s probably most fair. It’s important for us to divide up the blame in terms of not being perfect, but it’s also important to shoulder only the blame that truly deserves to be on our shoulders. No more, no less. And in the meantime, it’s important to figure out what positive, healthy things we love – and devote our time and energy to that. Others have pointed out, and I believe this to be true: the best thing we can do for one another is to be healthy, honest, and happy. We don't need to be perfect. 

XOXO thanks for reading, AMD

All quotations (except for the last three, which are from Robert Meyers) are from Caroline Knapp 


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