There used to be a time when the weekends brought about a deep exhale and a break from the chaos of the week. The exhale used to come with imbibing large quantities of alcohol. For most people, weekends kicked off on Friday afternoon/evening. For me, I was usually well lit by then. Weekends are now chock full of sports and kid activities. This particular week AND weekend were rough.
I went to my youngest son’s end-of-season soccer party the other night. It was held at the coach’s house and I didn’t know most of the other parents of the kids on the team. I was already having a tough day when I walked out to the patio and saw everyone drinking cold Coronas with limes. Ugh. I was so tempted to do a 180 and high tail it out of there. But I didn’t. I decided I needed to suck it up for my kid’s sake and stay.
The hostess offered me some sparkling water, knowing I don’t drink, and I gladly accepted. Having something in my hand immediately upon getting to a party is usually helpful. She saw me fidgeting and could tell how uncomfortable I was and said she would understand if I needed to go. Isn’t this supposed to be easier now that I have three years of sobriety under my belt?? I guess the fact that I could sit down surrounded by people I didn’t know, with no liquid courage in me to get to know them, while they were drinking cold beers, shows that I have come a long way. There’s no way I would have been able to endure that situation a year ago.
I started talking to the couple sitting next to me and we went through the usual round of DC-area pleasantries—-where you were from, what you did for work, where you went to school, etc. I shared that I used to be a lobbyist and they asked if I would ever want to go back. I told them no, because I didn’t want to put myself back into a career that involved social functions morning, noon and night. I added that I was considering going back to work, I just wasn’t sure doing what. Then I went on further and opened myself up for the conversation that ensued. I told them that I am currently a writer, that I have a blog and that I am hopefully publishing a book. On what they asked. A perfectly reasonable question, and one for which I’m going to have to work on having a better answer. I stumbled a little bit, but managed to convey to them that my blog was about my personal journey into recovery and sobriety. That I want to raise awareness about alcoholism among women just like me and that it’s a huge problem in our society that is rarely talked about.
I waited nervously to see what their response was going to be. They seemed quite interested and followed up with numerous questions. While I felt like I was in the hot seat, I was well aware of the fact that I put myself there. If I’m going to wear my Sobrietease hat out in public, talk about my blog, and wear a necklace with recovery symbol, I have to be able to be held accountable and not babble like an idiot or be at a loss for words when asked about these things. In fact, a woman at a golf tournament recently asked me about my necklace. You would have thought I was speaking Swahili back to her. I literally made no sense and told her that I forgot what the symbol stood for. Well done, jackass.
Others around us at the party were half-listening but I could tell that when they realized what the subject matter was, they didn’t want to join in the conversation. The couple wished me well with my writing and said they would check out my blog. I hope they have.
On Saturday night, my husband and I went to a 50th birthday party for a very dear friend. It was a lovely party and I had been looking forward to it. As soon as we walked in, however, that social anxiety I used to keep at bay with my liquid courage grabbed a hold of me and nearly choked me. Once again, I quickly got some sparkling water from the bar to have something in my hand. Everyone was drinking. The smell of red wine wafted through the air and right into my nose, almost poking at me with every inhale. I tried to talk to a few people but was very uncomfortable. I didn’t know if I would be able to stay long but wanted to be there to celebrate with my friend. When I started to feel some “stinking thinking” coming on, I immediately texted my sponsor. She asked if I could get out of there if I was struggling. I told her I could, but I was trying to be a big girl and stay. She told me to keep her posted and I went back to the party.
I saw a familiar face—a mother of one of the girls on my daughter’s lacrosse team and felt a huge sigh of relief. She knows I don’t drink and I would be comfortable talking to her for a bit. Someone else I was talking to wasn’t drinking either, trying to stay in good shape for an early morning commitment. And here’s where the misunderstanding that so many people have about alcoholism steps in. People who aren’t drinking for the night, for whatever reason—-they may be the designated driver or have to be up early (and not hungover) for something—try to rationalize why I can or cannot drink. There’s the camp of people who say “I’m not drinking tonight and I don’t see what the big deal is. This isn’t so hard. Why is it so hard for you not to drink?” Then there’s the other camp: “It’s been three years. I don’t understand why you cant just control it and have one or two drinks then stop.” How I wish that any of that were true. Well, actually, some of it is true. I’m sure it isn’t so hard for you not to drink on a given night. But for me, it is. It’s actually very hard when every which way I turn I see and smell alcohol and watch it being consumed happily.
As for the questions of why can’t I just have one or two drinks then stop, if I had the answer to that, I’d be beyond rich. The millions of alcoholics who ask that same question wish they had the answer to that as well. We are alcoholics. We cannot just “have one or two drinks”. Maybe some days, we can. But on most days, one or two leads to nine or ten. Once we put alcohol into our systems, the disease is triggered. The switch is turned on, and as I have said before, my “off” switch is broken. Alcoholism has been described as both an obsession of the mind and a physical addiction. That first sip feeds the physical addiction and the obsession of the mind immediately follows. Alcoholics are powerless over alcohol.
When I am at a party, I miss what alcohol used to do for me. Caroline Knapp describes it perfectly in her book “Drinking: A Love Story”:
“That may be one of liquor’s most profound and universal appeals to the alcoholic: The way it generates a sense of connection to others, the way it numbs social anxiety and dilutes feelings of isolation, gives you a sense of access to the world. You’re trapped in your own skin and thoughts; you drink; you are released, just like that One drink, and the bridge—so elusive in the cold, nerve-jangled sensitivity of sobriety—-appears, waiting only to be crossed.”
Trapped in my own skin. That is a perfect description. The stigma of alcoholism isn’t going away any time soon. Many people don’t see it as a disease but rather a weakness of character- that I can’t stop because I have no self-restraint or limited self-control. I wish I could explain it as eloquently as Knapp does:
“Alcoholism seemed more to me like a moral issue than a physical one. This is one of our culture’s most basic assumptions about the disease and one of its most destructive: we figure that drinking too much is a sign of weakness and lack of self-restraint; that it’s bad; that it can be overcome by will.”
For those who ask me if I will ever go back to drinking, and I know people who have, even after 18 years of sobriety, I will once again quote Knapp:
‘Science may also explain why relapse rates are so high: those neurological reward circuits have extremely long and powerful memories, and once the simple message— alcohol equals pleasure—gets imprinted into the drinker’s brain, it may stay there indefinitely, perhaps even a lifetime. Environmental cues, the sight of a wineglass, the smell of gin, a walk past a favorite bar—can trigger the wish to drink in a heartbeat, and they often do.”
“Once you’ve crossed the line into alcoholism, the percentages are not in your favor:
there appears to be no safe way to drink again, no way to return to a normal, social, controlled drinker.”
Hopefully that helps address some of the misunderstanding. I don’t blame people for not getting it. Why should you be expected to know these things if you aren’t an alcoholic?. I hope that part of what I can do with this blog is help put aside some of the misconceived notions and educate people who want to understand this disease better. I’d love to hear from you—-what questions do you have about alcoholism? What would you like to ask an alcoholic? I can address them in my next piece. I don’t have all the answers by any stretch of the imagination but I can share my own experiences.
“Misunderstanding must be nakedly exposed before true understanding can begin to flourishs.”
― Philip Yancey, The Bible Jesus Read