It’s been three years since I drank alcohol. More, actually: in fact, for the past three years, two months, 29 days (counting today — I’m feeling optimistic) I have abstained from alcohol. For 1,186 days, I have not had a single drink. Not a single beer, shot of tequila — not one lone glass of wine.
Which is sort of amazing, because during the 20 years before that I drank my face off.
Typically, I drank between three and five beers a night. By the last year I was drinking, most weekend nights, I drank five. I’m not the Incredible Hulk over here, either. I’ve always been a tallish, thinnish lady, and I never had miraculous, superhuman tolerance, like Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Marion in that bar in Nepal. Five beers made me drunk. Which was the whole idea. I was a heavy drinker.
In spite of my volume of alcohol consumption, I’m not an alcoholic. Some of you might be thinking, “So, you just quit drinking for nothingAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH???” And I get that. I’ll give you a moment to shriek into the throw pillows of nearby Barcaloungers for a moment while you assimilate that terrible and inexplicable chunk of information.
Let me explain. First, I promise I’ll try not to be a douchebag about my reasons — I actually don’t care at all if you drink and it’s awesome and you have never been happier or more successful. That’s terrific, and I believe you. Second, reading this doesn’t mean you have to stop drinking or change anything about your current drinking situation. I’m comfortable with our individual agency and sovereignty. For instance, I have to pee right now, and I don’t think that has anything to do with you, either.
Also, when I tell you all of this, you might wonder if I neglected my kids, or got fired from jobs, or slept in drainage culverts. I didn’t. Mine is a banal story — I had a suspicious relationship with alcohol that gradually tried to eat my face. I adored my babies and my husband, worked my buns off at my job, and made art. And all of this is still true.
I never hid the fact that I drank heavily — on the contrary, I wore my heavy drinking like a badge of honor. It was a conspicuous thing I did that I thought made me bolder, more masculine, and unlike the girl trope — the Wine Cooler girls, who giggled and stumbled, whose bra straps were showing and who were seen having sex in someone’s parents’ bedrooms at parties. (Worse, the girls who had sex on the couches at parties, while the other partygoers played Mario Brothers around them.) I was very deliberately, very determinedly not that kind of girl. I drank beer and worked at a hardware store. I drank beer and drove a pickup truck. I drank beer and carried my kid on my back at my landscaping job when the babysitter cancelled. I drank beer and I could shoot guns, I could clean fish, and I could drive stick. I could fix your drippy faucet and change a flat. I drank my beer from a bottle, thank you very much. It didn’t make me promiscuous, or silly, either, and I wanted everyone to know that. (We should talk about the reasons I thought those things were bad, or the fact that there was another human in those promiscuity situations, too, but that’s a whole ‘nother essay.)
I started drinking when I was in my late teens, growing up in Southeast Alaska. I, like all 16-year-olds, was so weird. My awareness of this horrible phenomenon was oppressive, a mountainous burden under which I was snap-dancing like a chubby Molly Ringwald with spinach in her teeth and dogshit on both shoes. (Just like every other 16-year-old.) Compounding the awareness of my unsuitability for any desirable human interaction was the cliché, but no less potent, reality that my parents had just divorced, and my father, a man of hyperbolic tenacity, had divorced me entirely. This was hard to handle, having already survived years of his chaotic and violent behavior believing he loved me anyway, rather than that he loved me, well, the regular way parents loved their kids.
The way I started drinking is actually a funny story. At the end of my sophomore year of high school, my mom, the principal, the assistant principal, the guidance counselor, my favorite teacher, and incomprehensibly, the gym teacher, all gathered in the principal’s office to stage what, in hindsight, was an intervention. They sat around me in a Teachable-Moments half-circle, staring me down with sizzling megawatts of compassion. I could hardly stand to make eye contact with any of them, they were so penetratingly concerned. They had gathered to talk to me about my drug problem. It took me the first fifteen minutes, maybe longer, to figure out what in the hell they were talking about — I had never used drugs in my life. My drinking had been confined to two sips of other peoples’ drinks at parties, where I proceeded to pretend to be drunk so people would think I was cool. I was baffled that my portrayal might have been so convincing. But really, the intervention squad had good reason to suspect something was up — my grades had all fallen from A’s to D’s, I randomly left school in the middle of the day, missed whole weeks of class, and had dropped out of every single activity I used to participate in, including lunch. I also had, in fact, started smoking cigarettes, which was usually where I was going when I would suddenly walk away from the school and not return. I tried to explain myself, but I couldn’t convince them it wasn’t addiction troubling me. We sort of agreed to disagree: they agreed that I was on drugs, and I agreed to stop trying to convince them I wasn’t. The meeting ultimately ended with the admonition that I’d need to work harder, they were here to help, etc., etc. I think I hugged at least one person.
I walked out of the office and stood in the commons area, contemplating this new full immersion in shit: I’d finally run the full course from perfection to absolute failure. I drove away my father, my family, all my friends, and now, the entire faculty and staff of Petersburg High School. It was oddly exhilarating. It was like the antithesis of control, but in the same way that the two points closest together on a circle are also the two points furthest apart, it was also like absolute control. I felt giddy and eviscerated, by turns.
I flagged down a guy I knew smoked pot and drank, and asked him for a ride home. Then I asked him where I could get drunk — I’d never been, I explained. That night, I sat at his friend’s house, drinking Bacardi and singing Heart songs until I inevitably puked. It was one of the best nights of my life up to that point. Everything about me was different. So began my love affair, not with drinking, but with being the version of me that drank.
That’s the nut of it — the real reason I stopped drinking. I didn’t drink because it was fun. I never drank to celebrate or connect. I drank to become a different person.
I drank socially and often, as the years went by. I was ordinary among my peers, in my drinking. Everybody drank like me — three beers between dinner and bed. We had more if we hit the bar, and occasionally we tore it up with birthday tequila shots, but generally, we were just average drinkers. I never lied to my doctor, or anyone else about how much I drank.
And then the inevitable happened. Shit, as it is wont to do, got real.
My dad came back into my life in a big way, bearing the world’s shittiest present: Alzheimer’s Disease. It wasn’t for me, but it sucked, anyway. What in the fuck was I supposed to do with that? Even my drinking habit was nervous about what it was going to have to do to keep up.
Drinking, for me, had the added benefit of delaying any sort of emotional processing (or, say, soul-crushing emotional epiphanies that might have forced me to face certain unpleasant realities and grow significantly as a person). I have long postulated that heavy drinking is like a crude form of time travel: If you started drinking nightly in 2007, and stopped in 2015, poof! You’d be eight years older, but fewer years wiser. The knee-jerk joke is waka-waka: Hey, where’d all these kids come from and how’d I get so fat?
I’m being glib, of course, but I wish the glibness were further from the truth. The real sentence, uttered unceremoniously after a month or so of sobriety, was far more maudlin: where did all those nights go and why am I so sad? It lacks the Dangerfield sputter and zazz of drinking’s swagger, but you get the point.
Now’s as good a time as any to talk about one of the terrible hazards of stopping drinking — facing all of those delayed/dodged feelings. Ask anyone who drinks: Drinking really takes the edge off. But in times of crisis, those edges accumulate in such number that their combined bulk becomes a gigantic edge, of a different order of magnitude. Then you have to drink more to take the edge off the edge that taking all those other edges off created. It went on like this, as a kind of alcohol/emotional Fibonacci sequence for several more months, with me trying to counterbalance the veritable glacial moraine that my edge pile had become by just drinking more.
The drinking numbers on one side of the equation required to zero out the pile of things I didn’t want to experience on the other side of the equation was no longer mathematically feasible. My body was rebelling. I couldn’t sleep at night, I got hungover, and I was exhausted. I’d struggled for years with anxiety, wrestling with perseverating worry and obsessive thinking about things far outside of my control — asbestos, bird flu, cancer. Now I added night sweats and nightmares to the macabre procession of personal horrors, and after one excruciating night in which I woke up lost in a kind of panicked-Stephen-King-fugue state, I searched the internet: “Am I an alcoholic?”
What I should have been searching for was, “Is my relationship with alcohol unhealthy?” The truth was, of course, that it was. Because although I could have controlled or moderated my drinking to one night every three weeks, or whatever, forever, I would still have been faced with that pile of shit that I’d been stacking behind me. And incapable of drinking enough to subdue it, anymore. My life was producing more trouble than I could deal with — maybe even sober I’d need help — the pace was brisk. More drinking just meant more shit on the pile.
As I regarded the incredible vastness of the dump I’d created in such a short time, I realized that even though I was not an alcoholic, even though I didn’t get drunk every night or do crazy shit, I really didn’t know anymore exactly who I was without alcohol. The actual me had been subsumed by the version of me who drank. Worse, in the absence of any strong sense of who I was, I didn’t know how to handle a crisis without drinking.
So, naturally, I kept doing it. In addition to all the edge-buffering drinking did, I felt there was something brash and bold about it — something that stood up to Death. Heavy drinking is audacious and irreverent in a way that says you’re unafraid to die. And doing it made me briefly feel unafraid, too. The problem is that it really tore my brain in two, injuring and protecting — and trying to heal — myself at the same time. Eventually, doing it also made it so I didn’t experience all of my life.
In the weeks before I finally decided to quit, I imagined drinking as a kind of literal purgatory — a limbo state where I was filled with yearning and ennui, watching the life around me but neither able to join nor retreat. It was Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”
Finally, one morning, I woke up hungover and exhausted, and I saw it clearly: what I really wanted. It wasn’t money or notoriety, vacations to places with turmeric, or even new pants. I wanted my life, with all of me in it. I wanted to pass on my taco recipe, and the wherewithal to do so. I wanted my finger to tuck a loose curl behind a little ear, as snug as two question marks, nestled together. I wanted the feel of my kids’ hands, familiarly clasped in mine as those little fat fingers grew leaner and longer, until they were big enough to swing at their sides as they crossed the street. I wanted the weight of my husband’s gaze, and the miraculous, astonishing strength of his love. I wanted to forgive my father, and love him out of this world with every ounce of love he gave me, and every ounce he didn’t.
I wanted to feel all of it, every wild, horrible, perfect thing.
For me, quitting drinking was a powerful and aggressive decision to allow my own experiences to happen to me. To start much more than stop. So I started by stopping. I really never intended to keep going, but it has felt so good, so real and so much easier, that here we are. 1,186 days later. Three years, two months, and 29 days later. I’m counting today, because I’m feeling optimistic.