On Drinking and Not Drinking

(This one gets long. Bear with me.)

I quit drinking about two weeks ago. OK, exactly two weeks ago, though I’d been tapering off since the holiday ended. It would be three weeks except for a single beer I found in the fridge, which I think was placed there by a higher power to see me through the evening of January 11.

I am reluctant to admit I know the days because it’s something an alcoholic does: making a bleary-eyed pronouncement of days sober, followed by war stories of drunkenness and hard-won sobriety. I am not, and have never been, an alcoholic: I simply enjoyed alcohol. I never missed work, sacrificed food or rent, or ruined relationships because of my drinking. I didn’t hit “rock bottom.” I just decided it was time for a change.

Drinking added hundreds of calories to my weekly intake and made me less productive for my “second shift” (I do most of my writing at night). I didn’t go to bed drunk, but I went to bed with a headache. I didn’t wake up with a hangover, but I wondered if I would wake up a bit fresher and more ready to start the day if I hadn’t imbibed the night before. Drinking was a bad habit, but not a “problem,” in the sense that I was ever out of control, unable to stop, woke up in the gutter, blacked out, or went on three-day binges.

Believe me, I’ve seen that kind of drinking up close, and this wasn’t that.

I didn’t have a real problem with my drinking, but I decided it wasn’t much of a solution.

***

In college I went to a lot of parties that were centered on binge drinking. I decided pretty quickly I preferred to drink at my own pace, and often sat back to watch the drinking games while sipping a single whiskey-spiked soda, though I was certainly pulled in more times than I can count. I drank more than I planned to on plenty of occasions. I threw up at least a dozen times scattered across the six years I was an undergrad. I humiliated myself in ways I don’t care to recount.

I don’t remember ever going into an evening with the plan to drink to the point of vomiting, although some college kids definitely did—bragging beforehand that they would end the night puking drunk, if not in a coma. I didn’t get that then, and don’t get it now. There’s no pleasure in being sick drunk. I didn’t find the stories of past drunkenness fun to listen to and did not aspire to have some of my own.

Most of us clean up our act when we get full-time jobs, but one of the frequent hosts of those parties—a good friend, for a while—never quit the lifestyle. He died at the age of 41 of “complications to diabetes,” which I suspect is code for drinking himself to death.

***

I’ve only had two nights of memorable drunkenness since college. One was in graduate school; I let the drinks get away from me at a house party and decided to walk the three or four miles from Old Town, Maine to my home in Orono. Somewhere in between I got the snot beaten out of me by some high school kids. My memory of the event is fuzzy, both because of the heavy drinking and because I had a mild head injury. I quit drinking for about six months after that, but I won’t owe that event to the sin of binge drinking—that’s blaming the victim—but the event kind of took the joy out of partying hardily.

The second occasion was my bachelor party, a decade later. It was a good party, and a happy time, but I was so miserably hung over the next day I lay on the couch and weeped. There’s some stuff you just can’t do when you get older, and one of them is getting pie-faced drunk.

I was, however, a regular drinker for at least a decade. More days than not, I had one or two libations.

Cocktails were my preferred poison. I remember my first martini well. I was a recent college graduate, a guest at the home of two English professors from my alma mater. They had Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s Porgy and Bess on the turntable and served me up a proper gin martini, straight up in a conical glass, three olives on a skewer. I felt so grown up. I decided that was my drink, and my way of drinking.

But cocktails didn’t become a daily habit until my 30s, when I could afford the luxury of a stocked liquor cabinet and cocktails every day when I got home. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that daily cocktails became a habit shortly after I bought a house: there was a lord of the manor quality to it, pouring a steep one when I came in the door.

I did drink alone pretty frequently. Even after I got married, I was the only one drinking, since my wife isn’t much of a tippler. Somehow it felt less shameful because I was drinking cocktails. If I drank beer or straight liquor alone, I’d be a miserable alcoholic. If I added a dash of bitters and a garnish to my booze, I was simply a misplaced sophisticate, a wit without a roundtable. I called my drinks “after work medicine.”

My son, who is two, called them “dada juice.”

***

The face of alcoholism in my life is my own mother’s: blotchy, saggy, and pallid. She drank, to drunkenness, every day for thirty years. There were several interventions, treatment both voluntary and mandatory, but they never took.

She was a very smart, well-read and politically savvy woman. As a reporter in a small city, she was respected and won awards. I had friends in college, majoring in journalism, who looked up to her – a woman who’d carved a place for herself in what they saw as a man’s world. I was proud to be her son.

But her drinking was harder and harder to hide from her colleagues and affected her performance. She finally lost that job, which she loved so much, and could never hold another. For the last ten years of her life, all she did was stay at home and drink. I refused to take her calls after 6 PM, since by that time she was usually so far gone that conversation was impossible. I tried to schedule my own calls around 2 PM on Sundays, and enjoyed them when she answered and had her wits about her. The times she was sober were delightful. More than once she called back a few hours later, sodden and inarticulate, to complain that I never called.

We rarely visited—it was a long drive from Minneapolis; the house was a cold, poorly maintained mess; and she was often drunk when we arrived, which made her testy and even violent.

She died two years ago, in an improbable accident surrounded by mystery, but even the death certificate gives the blunt truth: she died of chronic alcoholism.

She never met her grandson.

***

I know many people with alcoholic fathers, fewer with alcoholic mothers—or at least, fewer who talk about it. It seems like hard drinking by men is a bit more respectable, and maybe people are less willing to open up about hard-drinking mothers. It’s not compatible with any notion of motherhood; there’s no way to romanticize it. My mother lost everything: all of her friends, her family, and her job. She held on to her house, but it wasn’t a home at the end—it was a depressing wreck, a prison. I don’t need any more cautionary tales than that hers. What I find most painful is her incredible loneliness, how isolated she had become.

Alcohol is a social drug, but hard drinkers only want solitude.

***

For a long time, I think I held up the habit of daily, moderate drinking to show that I wasn’t letting her drinking affect me. I wouldn’t be an alcoholic, nor would I be a temperance crank. I would tell my own story about alcohol.

Drinking is a joy of adult life with a rich culture and enticing history. I sought out archaic drinks, sampled fancy liqueurs and bitters, and visited boutique lounges that followed century-old recipes. I sneered at anything called a “martini” that wasn’t gin-based and schnapps free, particularly chocolaty concoctions or any other kind of “-tini.” I debated, with other aficionados, how much vermouth belonged in a martini (my favorite answer is, “hold the bottle to the sunlight and let a ray carry a few atoms to the glass,” though my own were a tad on the wet side.) I came to know, and appreciate, the nuances of top shelf brands: Plymouth, Hendricks, Tanqueray Ten, Bombay Sapphire. I also liked sidecars, rusty nails, and manhattans. I liked scotch and a splash of soda, warm bourbon in a chilled glass with a few drops of water.

Like, I suppose, some Japanese tea shops, I enjoyed the art of concoction as much as the drink. The careful preparation, loving stir, and strained pour into an elegantly shaped glass. But sometimes I just poured a few fingers of something in a juice glass and downed it.

***

Despite having at least one drink far more days than not over the last ten years, I have been spared the symptoms of detox—no hallucinations, sweaty and sleepless nights, or feelings of massive depression as I face a dry future. Presumably, those would have kicked in by now if they were going to happen at all. The flip side is that I also haven’t had any moments of iridescent joy or unquenchable optimism, like I had when I quit smoking nineteen years ago. Within five days of snuffing my last cigarette, I felt “born again,” clean and whole. My eyes were brighter, my skin a healthier tone. I didn’t stink anymore. I relished the fact I did not have to step out into the freezing cold to feed the monkey on my back. The ten bucks I saved every week was significant. As a graduate student, I had practically no cash flow.

I’m denied all that, this time. Not drinking, for me, is not that different from drinking. The advantages are small. The headaches are ameliorated, but I still have off-nights writing and wake up groggy. I’m saving money but my  budget wasn’t hurting before. I don’t even miss it enough to extract a small joy from self-denial. Maybe in time I will feel more of a dry high, but so far quitting smoking was way better.

Well, yeah. It’s only been a couple of weeks.

***

One idea that has been bouncing around in my brain a lot, imprinting itself on my work, is that seemingly simple decisions have a huge ripple effect in the long term, how minute calibration changes long-range trajectories. Stories I wrote in my twenties directed my career, though I didn’t sell my first book until I was nearly forty. Experiences at high school dances set the standard for all of my adult relationships. A single cocktail set up twenty-odd years of idealized drinking, but also (perhaps) prevented a more devastating lifestyle.

I wonder, with what drink does one become an alcoholic? Is there a critical drink, somewhere, in the biography of my mother, or my college friend, that made all the difference? The first “beer for breakfast,” perhaps, or the one-past-the-line one-too-many-times?

I don’t know, but along with other benefits (some real, some hypothetical) of quitting, that’s a drink I don’t plan to take.

8 thoughts on “On Drinking and Not Drinking

  1. This is absolutely lovely and not a little heart-breaking, but I think as long as you are writing honestly, you should clarify that it was not the hangover that had you weeping on the day after your bachelor party (which, readers, was a week before our wedding) but the ending of the film version of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

  2. Good for you for walking away. Angela is probably biased, but I agree with her–this is lovely and not a little heart-breaking. It’s hard to talk about this stuff. It’s 20 days until the 2nd anniversary of my dad’s death, and there is no euphemism about how he died. But I miss him terribly, even if I did have to call him in the mornings.

  3. I wiped away more than one tear while reading this. As the child of an alcoholic (father, not mother, thank God) it was that “one critical drink” that terrified me into a life of infrequent, careful drinking. Even at 53, I still fear what I could become. But I’ll tell you where the joy is hiding: It’s 30 years in the future. Your son won’t have to plan his calls around your first drink of the day, He’ll look forward to visiting you and he’ll be able to stay for longer than 48 hours without anger and pity and frustration pulling him away. He’ll never hold one of those death certificates that says asphyxiation or cancer or whatever and oh, btw, chronic alcoholism. The joy comes on the day when you can look at your son as a grown man and say with some certainty that he escaped the trap. I don’t mean to go all zen on you — but sometimes light is the absence of shadow.

  4. Wonderfully written Kurtis, and very brave of you to do (both the quitting and the writing). Another friend of mine grew up with an alcoholic mother and she wrote about it in a beautiful memoir: “Then I Am Strong” by Meg Corrigan. Having read her story, I feel like I can understand some of your story as well. I agree with Darcy above – your joy moments are all ahead of you and there will be many. You gave a great gift to Byron.

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