Almost three months ago, I quit drinking. You read that correctly. It has been 12 weeks since I had a glass of wine, a margarita, some prosecco, or even a beer. Continue reading
I love a memoir. It’s one of my all time favorite genres, and I read it obsessively. Yet, within the genre, I’ve noticed that I tend to read two fairly specific types of memoirs, memoirs by women with hard knock lives and memoirs by drunk writers.
Is the Universe trying to tell me something? Undoubtedly, so I hope I’m listening. Continue reading
“Shame needs 3 things to grow out of control in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment. When something shaming happens and we keep it locked up, it festers and grows…But the 4 elements of shame resilience are: Name it. Talk about it. Own your story. Tell the story.”
Brené Brown in The Gifts of Imperfection
I am recovering. Recovering from what, you may ask. Recovering from my life. And while I have made enormous strides my convalescence is marked by occasional setbacks. Yes, the road to recovery is marred with big, old potholes, people. I can be doing great, feeling all Up With Me! and that’s typically when I get blindsided. I get too comfortable in my “I got this” attitude, and suddenly I think I am immune from making mistakes. Like after meditating a few months and reading a dozen self-help books I have mental health nailed down. I’m cured. Oh, the hubris!
I am not perfect. Far from it; I have lots of room for growth and improvement. While I acknowledge there are whole wings in my mental mansion available to be repurposed, one thing I need to work on is allowing myself room for making mistakes. I have no choice. Shit happens, and I have to be okay with falling down – as long as I get back up and begin again. Okay, so I won’t get where I’m going tomorrow. Or even next week or next year. But that’s the nature of personal growth and development. Short of being the Dalai Lama, I’m not ever going to wake up and realize I have all my shit together, that I’ve reached enlightenment and have it all figured out. This journey, this process, is life long, and some days I’m inching forward at a snails pace. That’s just how it goes.
So the setback of late is about my drinking, my on again, off again, love-hate relationship with alcohol. Like every other bad habit I’ve developed, it’s painfully hard to change. And I’m going to say right now that it may even be impossible, because it’s in my nature (thanks, Dad!). I wish I could just will myself to be a responsible drinker, but it’s a slippery slope. One glass of wine is fine. Often I’m really good and I have just 2 glasses. But, lord help us if I have 3, because then it’s an honest to god challenge to stop drinking. And that road – binge drinking, excessive drinking – is one big pothole. There is nothing smooth about that ride. It’s a drop into the chasm where disappointment and guilt and embarrassment and anger and depression reside. As my husband tells me, “Honey, you fall off the wagon so easily because your wagon only has 3 wheels and wobbles.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, moderate drinking for women is 7 drinks per week with no more than 3 in any 1 drinking episode. For me, limiting myself to 3 drinks at a social gathering would be something to aspire to. Seven drinks a week is nothing. But, then I look at my husband. He drinks 1 beer every day. And that’s it. One bottle of beer at night. Me, I get a little buzz and I want more.
Look, my identity isn’t tied up with drinking. I don’t think I’ll disappear, stop being witty or social if I quit. God, if anything, the number of ridiculous stories about Drunk Me will end. The people who read this blog know exactly what I’m talking about. Most of you have a story or two (or ten) about Drunk Me. Why is it that at 45 years old, I still drink like a 16 year old? Why can’t I just stop at 1 or 2 or 3 drinks like a normal person? Because my wagon has 3 wheels and wobbles.
Last summer I tried AA. I managed to find meetings in English, a meeting for every day of the week. And I went several times a week for a while. But I found the whole experience bizarre: part church revival (prayers and God, which are not my thing at all), part summer camp (hand holding and soul baring, but with total strangers), and way too much identification with and reliving of a behavior that many hadn’t participated in for a decade or more. Honestly, if I wanted to relive my drunkscapades then I’d probably be doing it with friends, who were undoubtedly there, too. And I’d be doing it over a bottle of wine. So I stopped going to AA and tried an online support group, Women for Sobriety. I preferred that group to AA, but it was a lot of focus on this DISEASE and how it will KILL you and you’ll NEVER be free. Major downer. Besides, I’d had a few weeks of sobriety under my belt, and it wasn’t hard. Clearly, I’d licked my overdrinking problem and could be totally in control. Sigh.
When I listened to those AA drunkstories (or when I’ve read them in the memoirs listed below), I immediately thought, ‘Oh, my goddess. Listen to these stories. I am so not that bad.’ Unlike those people, I never drink in the morning. I never “need” a drink to get through the day, and I don’t even drink beer, which is always in our fridge. I am not addicted to alcohol in the conventional, medical sense. I can go without it for days or weeks, and I don’t suffer any ill effects for it – no tremors, headaches or sweating. I’m not so bad. I’ve never been to detox or had a DUI or lost my job because of drinking. But here’s the real truth. My drinking may be different than that of the problem drinkers I met at AA and online, but it’s still bad. If I’m really going to be honest…I have a problem just like those people. It’s like cancer. I may have Stage 3 and they have Stage 4, but it’s still fucking cancer. That’s how I see our relationship with alcohol, those drunks and me. My drinking is bad (and so is theirs). I just happen to be at a different point on the continuum than them. Right now. And, I don’t want to bottom out, whatever that might mean, or keep moving to the Stage 4 end of the spectrum. I want to change.
I’m sharing my drinking story with you for two reasons. First, in working on my authentic self, I can’t choose to apply what I’ve learned only to certain parts of my life. I can’t be authentic from 9 to 5 or only when I blog or just when I’m with my closest friends. Being my authentic self means I am accountable to me and to my values 24/7. Going back to the old, unskillful self, impulsive and irresponsible, when it’s convenient, simply is not an option anymore. The work I’m doing is for my whole self and for my whole life. Second, I will no longer hide behind the shame of drinking. I own this story and I choose to tell you that my wagon has 3 wheels and wobbles, and I fell off it. And, you know what? I may fall off a few more times, but that doesn’t end my journey. As screwed up as I am, as many mistakes as I (continue to) make, I’m getting back up and getting back on. Every. Single. Time. I see this fall as an opportunity – to contemplate how I can better secure my foundation so I don’t repeat the same mistakes, to practice shame resilience so I don’t have to lie to or judge myself, and to engage with the person I truly am.
I forgive myself, because I fell off my wagon yesterday. I go easy on myself, because I need compassion today. And I begin again, right where I am, as imperfect as I am.
Memoirs (from my personal library) about life as a drunk and books on recovery
- Dry (Augusten Burroughs)
- Drink (Ann Dowsett Johnston)
- Her Best Kept Secret (Gabrielle Glaser)
- Lit (Mary Karr)
- Parched (Heather King)
- Drinking – A Love Story (Caroline Knapp)
- Unwasted – My Lush Sobriety (Sacha Scoblic)
- The Zen of Recovery (Mel Ash)
- The Tao of Sobriety (David Gregson and Jay Efran)
My relationship with alcohol started years before I took my first sip of beer as a teenager, before I ever got drunk and threw up, before I blacked out and hid bottles. It started when I was a little girl, and it is etched onto all my memories of being with my daddy. Charming and funny at times I mostly remember daddy being mean and scary. The difference was alcohol.
As the children of divorce, my brother and I lived with our mom but spent every other weekend and all summer with daddy. He drove up from San Antonio on Friday afternoons, collected us at our mom’s house in Austin, and drove us back to San Antonio for our weekend visits. Saturday nights, we went to one of my dad’s siblings’ houses, either to my Aunt Josie’s or to my Uncle Fred’s. The grown-ups, my dad and aunts and uncles, played nickel poker and drank. They let us kids, 7 of us all within 3 years of each other, run around fairly unsupervised. We played the Bay City Rollers or Stevie Wonder on the stereo and choreographed dance routines for our parents to watch. We stayed up late watching movies on TV and drinking Big Red. In the background, our parents joked in Spanish (their first language but not ours). It was family time, and it was great. Until it wasn’t.
Every high has its low, and that was never more apparent than over the course of a Saturday night with daddy. At some point, after a certain number of Pearl beers had been drunk, the whites of daddy’s eyes changed from clear and bright to red and bleary. His jokes and playing around became mean and hurtful.
Around midnight, the poker game ended, and everyone got ready to leave. This is when things quickly fell apart. My brother J and I hugged our aunts and uncles, and walked outside with daddy and our stepmother. J and I stood together, next to the car, while daddy shattered the stillness of the night (it was usually past midnight when we left), arguing with our stepmother about who should drive home. What was to argue about? She didn’t drink, and he was drunk. But this was years before Mothers Against Drunk Driving. There was no such thing as a DUI in those days.
Daddy was intimidating. “I’m not giving you the keys,” he would say. “This is my car, and I’m going to drive it. Now get in.”
Ten years younger with a sense of subservience I never understood, our stepmother was no match for him. Sometimes she cried. “Frank, let me drive. Please. Think about the kids.”
When she mentioned us, my brother and I just kept silent. We eyed the interaction with resignation, because it always ended in the same way. We never said anything to either one of them. Getting involved meant having daddy’s wrath turned on you. We were young but we weren’t stupid.
On the drive home, daddy grew angrier, insulting our stepmother, before finding my brother’s face in the rear view mirror. Seeing my brother turned a switch in daddy. He forgot about my stepmother and turned his attack onto J. Nothing was ever good enough. My brother was never good enough. I tried to close my ears while dad berated J for the length of his hair, his sensitivity, his clothes, or his lack of interest in sports. I wanted to protect my brother, my oldest friend, the boy who stood up for me at school, but, at the same time, I didn’t want to say or do anything, because if daddy was yelling at J, then I was safe. So I said nothing. I did nothing.
Driving back to Austin on Sunday afternoons was always a roll of the dice. Because it was late in the afternoon, and the weekend, daddy typically had already been drinking. He wasn’t drunk when he started the drive, but these were the days of open containers, and naturally he had them with him, so he was drunk by the time we got to New Braunfels or San Marcos, halfway to Austin.
My brother and I sat in the back as the car careened down the interstate, weaving in and out of traffic. I tried to keep my eyes closed, but the horns of eighteen-wheelers blared, and I always looked, fearing we were about to be killed. My brother and I would have felt better sitting next to each other, but we sat glued to the opposite sides of the backseat. If we were closer together, that meant someone would be sitting in the middle seat. Daddy had a habit of reaching back, taking his hands off the wheel and his eyes off the road and pinching whomever he could reach. His hands flew out of nowhere and attacked you.
When we finally got to our mom’s house, where we had our own rooms (unlike my dad’s house where we slept on the couch or a cot or the floor), when we finally got home, after what seemed like an eternity, we stumbled out of the car and raced into the house. We didn’t look back and we didn’t say goodbye.
But fleeing to safety was all for naught. Two weekends later, there we were again, sitting in his car at the end of a weekend of daddy’s drinking, waiting for the long drive home.