What’s your poison?

In the US thirty years ago, wine drinking was passe. It was seen as vaguely pretentious, the province of connoisseurs and poseurs.

(One of the alcohol books I read recently went into the history of this quite a bit. The growth in the alcohol – especially wine – industry is almost entirely due to an increase in women’s drinking. Men’s rate of alcohol intake has remained fairly steady. Scary.)

I can attest to feeling the shift toward wine somewhere in the mid-90’s. Suddenly wine was everywhere. So when I started drinking daily ten or so years later, wine was a natural choice. Europeans drink two glasses of wine every day, don’t they? Tannins are good for your heart. It also seemed to fit with a persona I wanted to create – that of a mom who wore motherhood lightly, who didn’t let it become my defining characteristic.

Wine was great. So how did I get to brandy?

There were a few reasons. What started it is that I bought a bottle for a recipe. The recipe called for two tablespoons, and after that I had a bottle sitting in the cupboard which would be a pity to waste.

The second is that I got a kick out of the way brandy is talked about as having medicinal value, especially in British fiction of the 19th century. “She’s had a shock – fetch the brandy!” This is part of my Xer heritage – the notion of being hip by taking something hopelessly stodgy and lame and enjoying it ironically. (Hipsters going bowling is the ultimate example of this.)

But here’s the real reason, the main reason: wine wasn’t doing it for me anymore, it wasn’t giving the punch I needed. I also had to drink so damn much of it. It was getting conspicuous. Brandy, with its higher alcohol content, enabled me to drink less for the same effect. Brilliant.

I read somewhere, have no idea if it’s true, that hardcore alcoholics all end up drinking straight vodka as their preferred drink of choice. No messing around. And I’ve certainly read personal stories from drinkers who drank cooking wine, mouthwash, cologne … you get to a certain point, it doesn’t matter what form the poison comes in, as long as you get it.

 

Blame

Over the weekend, I read this article:

Woman charged in car crash

Basically, a woman who was drunk on a mixture of alcohol and Ambien went to move her car from the street to her driveway. She apparently mistook the accelerator for the brake and plowed into her house, killing her husband and son in law and injuring her daughter. She had her grandson in her lap when she was driving. (He was unhurt, as was she.)

This is a terrifying story. Imagining what her daughter must be going through is horrific. But what most jumped out at me in this story was this quote:

“She told a deputy, ‘it wasn’t because of drinking, it’s because it’s a new car,’ the charges say.”

She has just killed two people she loved, injured another and endangered her grandson, and her first thought is to make excuses. I bring this up not to point fingers but because I understand it. She is deflecting blame, certainly. But she is also saying, Officer, this would have happened whether I was drunk or not.

I used to think, if I, say, slurred my words when talking to my husband at dinner, or if I overbalanced and almost fell when I was tucking my daughter into bed, or if I woke up with a bruise when I didn’t remember injuring myself:  anyone can  stumble and lose their balance. Why blame the alcohol?

If drinking is your crutch and your friend, your first thought is to protect it. My friend was not to blame. Don’t make me give up my friend.

It really helps to think of one’s desire to drink as a separate entity, “wolfie,” in Belle’s terminology. I’ve also heard people talk separately about their “addict self,” opposed to their real self. Among other things, it helps to externalize the (potentially crippling) guilt. Instead of beating yourself up (“why do I still want to drink when I know how destructive it is? I must be so selfish and irresponsible …”), you can fight against it. Wolfie wants me to drink, but I don’t want to.

Shit happens

The very first time I remember using alcohol as a coping mechanism was when I stepped in cat shit.

I was a new mom, on maternity leave with my newborn baby. The baby wasn’t sleeping and was crying a lot. My c-section incision was hurting as I walked around the house bouncing and rocking her. I wasn’t in a good mood.

Finally, luckily, the baby spit up, and she calmed down after that. That was the good news. The bad news is that it was more like a series of projectile vomiting episodes, and the baby, the couch, the nursing pillow, and me were all now doused in baby vomit.

I changed my clothes, the baby’s clothes, and put her in her swing while I ran our clothes downstairs to throw them in the washer.  At the time, our cat had a tendency to poop on the laundry room carpet instead of in her litter box. Usually I was very careful to check the floor before stepping into the room, but I was in a hurry. I was thinking about the baby vomit soaking into the couch cushions upstairs, and how on earth I was going to clean it. So, with my arms full of vomited-on clothing, I stepped in a pile of cat poop with my bare feet.

Oh, shit.

After I cleaned up my feet, and then sprayed the carpet and scrubbed it, and then attempted to clean the couch and the nursing pillow, I was crying with frustration. The only alcohol we had in the house was an ancient bottle of vodka. I poured myself a shot and threw it back. And then I floated through the rest of the afternoon. Cat poop, baby vomit, crying baby? I laugh at all of you.

I didn’t repeat this experiment then, but the memory stuck with me.  And years later, when I was drinking much more frequently, figuratively stepping in cat shit was a welcome excuse to drink.  In fact, I would have to say I sometimes wanted to be stressed out, I wanted shit to happen, if it meant I could have a drink at odd times of day. I deserve this.

That inversion – going from using alcohol to cope with stress, to welcoming stress if it allowed me to drink – is surely where a line was crossed. It’s when I should have realized that alcohol was a bigger problem than any of the problems I claimed to need alcohol to deal with. But I always thought my problems needed to go away first. I’ll quit when things are easier, when I’m not so stressed. Meanwhile that gave me a perfectly logical, perfectly perverse reason to make sure my problems didn’t go away after all.

Sweet Spot

When I was drinking, my goal every night was to get a little bit more than buzzed, a little bit less than drunk, and stay there.  There was a sweet spot that, in my mind, had all the good things about drinking — relaxation, a certain contentment that bordered on euphoria, loving everyone, not minding anything — and none of the bad.  No memory loss, no slurred speech, no outward signs of being affected.

The thing was, as time went on this state was devilishly tricky to find, let alone maintain.  Somehow I started sweeping right by buzzed and going straight to drunk.    I would have one drink and not feel a bit different.  I’d have two and it would be closer, but not quite there.  Then I’d have the third and I’d know I had gone too far before I even finished it.  But I couldn’t think of anything to do about that except to maybe have a little more.

Many years ago I read Johnny Cash’s autobiography, and something he said stuck with me.  He said that every addict, whenever he gets drunk or high, is trying to reproduce the experience of the very first time.  Obviously physical addiction plays a part, but for those of us who were never physically addicted, I think this is the major motivator.  It explains how we can continue our self-destructive behavior, night after night, even when most of the time we’re not having fun anymore.  The hope that, maybe this time, the magic will come back.

Work trip

Last week I went on a business trip, a national meeting for the company I work for.  These are people who drink, either a little or a lot — but mostly a lot.

Three years ago, at a similar meeting, I finished off a boozy evening doing shots of scotch with the president of the company, the vice president of the company, and one of the other local directors (like me).

The next day the other three seemed just fine.   I was so hung over and sleep deprived, shaking and queasy, and of course I had to give a presentation.

I swore then that I would never drink again …

… that is, not that much.

… not that much with the people I work with.

…  not that much with the people I work with, at a national meeting.

… well, at least not when I have a presentation the next day.

 

Actually, I did learn my lesson about trading shots with my co-workers, so that was something.

The meeting last week was the first meeting since I gave up drinking, and I was really nervous about it.  There is a lot of evening socializing at these meetings, and lots of good-natured pressure to drink more.  (“Let me buy you a drink!”  “Shots all around!” “Let’s get bottles of wine/pitchers of beer for the table!”)  So I decided a white lie was in order.  I said I was taking medication that didn’t mix with alcohol.

The last night of the meeting, there were plans to meet at the bar across the street from the hotel.  I begged off because I had to call my daughters to say goodnight, but then I got three different texts from three different people asking me to come.  So after my good night call, I went.

I got there about 10:30, and everyone was jolly and loquacious.  I was greeted with enthusiasm.  I ordered a Diet Coke, and watched with a fair degree of awe how much alcohol was consumed over the next hour.  The president of the company (the one I had done shots with three years before) was frankly hammered.   I could not have asked for a better deterrent to ordering a drink myself.  When the bill came, it was $250!  For less than ten people!

It was the first bar I’ve been to since I quit.  I did have fun.  But I did feel like I was missing something, and, at times, I actually felt bored.

 

 

You can’t always get ….

There is a cruel irony to alcohol.  The more you need it, the less you can — or should — drink it.  It’s like the old Bob Hope joke about banks:  “A bank is a place that will lend you money if you can prove you don’t need it.”

I think a lot of our attempts to moderate, or take a “break” from alcohol, use this same line of reasoning:  if I can go without alcohol for a month/a week/a year, I’ll have proven I don’t need it (so I can drink again!).

When I knew I was drinking more than I should, I would find reasons, each day, to drink.  Holidays, social occasions, of course.  “I’ve had a stressful day,” that was always a good one.  But those rare nonstressful days were an event — a special event!  And what better way to celebrate a special event than to have a drink?

It took up a lot of mental space, all this excuse-making.  I’m realizing that for those two weeks that brandy bottle was in my desk, my mind was searching for an excuse to drink it.  I was thinking about alcohol again daily, like I haven’t for months.  I read somewhere once on an addiction blog — this was food addiction, but the principle is the same — that she used to binge-eat, in part, in order to stop wondering if she should binge.  Think about that for a second.  It sounds so backwards and contradictory, but somehow it also makes perfect sense.

Hair of the dog

Sorry about the long silence.  I have not died, or relapsed.  It’s funny to have a blog to talk about something you’re not doing.  Today … I didn’t drink!  Yesterday … I didn’t drink!  Tomorrow, I won’t drink either!

The only alcohol-related story I can relate happened Sunday.  I was talking with a friend of mine on the phone, someone I used to drink with.  Once a month we would get together for happy hour.  He drinks more than he wants to, especially since he and his boyfriend of 10 years broke up, a couple of years ago.  Last time I talked to him he was in the middle of doing a dry month.  He said then that he felt it he was ready to only drink when he went out, that he wasn’t going to drink at home, alone, anymore.

I remember making those rules for myself.  They didn’t last.  It doesn’t look like this one lasted for my friend either.  While we were talking, he mentioned how hung over he was, and popped open a bottle of wine for a “hair of the dog.” 

I remember doing that too.  I loved the hair of the dog.  First of all, as a fan of our ever-inventive English language, I find the phrase delightful.  Its origin is related to an (alleged) cure for rabies, wherein you place a hair from the rabid dog in the wound from the bite.  Not likely to help much.  As a metaphor for drinking alcohol to cure a hangover, it dates back to at least Shakespeare.

All I know it was an excuse to drink in the morning.  Bottoms up.

So glad I don’t have to deal with that anymore.  But I am worried for my friend.  I didn’t say anything about it when we were talking.  Other than serving as an example that giving up alcohol can be done, is there anything I could or should do to help him?