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Drinking: A Love Storyby Caroline Knapp
A love story. Yes: this is a love story.
It's about passion, sensual pleasure, deep pulls, lust, fears, yearning hungers. It's about needs so strong they're crippling. It's about saying good-bye to something you can't fathom living without.
I loved the way drink made me feel, and I loved its special power of deflection, its ability to shift my focus away from my own awareness of self and onto something else, something less painful than my own feelings. I loved the sounds of drink: the slide of a cork as it eased out of a wine bottle, the distinct glug-glug of booze pouring into a glass, the clatter of ice cubes in a tumbler. I loved the rituals, the camaraderie of drinking with others, the warming, melting feelings of ease and courage it gave me.
Our introduction was not dramatic; it wasn't love at first sight, I don't even remember my first taste of alcohol. The relationship developed gradually, over many years, time punctuated by separations and reunions. Anyone who's ever shifted from general affection and enthusiasm for a lover to outright obsession knows what I mean: the relationship is just there, occupying a small corner of your heart, and then you wake up one morning and some indefinable tide has turned forever and you can't go back. You need it; it's a central part of who you are.
I used to drink with a woman named Elaine, a next-door neighbor of mine. I was in my twenties when we met and she was in her late forties, divorced and involved with a married man whom she could not give up. Elaine drank a lot, more than I did, and she drank especially hard when the relationship with the married man got rocky, which was often. She drank beer and vodka, and she'd call me up on bad nights and ask me to come over. The beer made her overweight and the vodka made her sloppy, and she'd sit on her sofa with a bottle and cry, her face stained with tears and mascara. I used to sit there and think, Whoa. I'd sympathize and listen and say all the things girlfriends are supposed to say, but inside I'd be shaking my head, knowing she was a wreck and knowing on some level that the booze made her that way, that the liquor fueled her obsession for the married man, fueled her tears, fueled her hopelessness and inability to change.
But some small part of me (it got larger over the years) was always secretly relieved to see Elaine that way: a messy drunk's an ugly thing, particularly when the messy drunk's a woman, and I could compare myself to her and feel superiority and relief. I wasn't that bad; no way I was that bad.
And I wasn't that bad. I had lots of rules. I never drank in the morning and I never drank at work, and except for an occasional mimosa or Bloody Mary at a weekend brunch, except for a glass of white wine (maybe two) with lunch on days when I didn't have to do too much in the afternoon, except for an occasional zip across the street from work to the Chinese restaurant with a colleague, I always abided by them.
For a long time I didn't even need rules. The drink was there, always just there, the way food's in the refrigerator and ice is in the freezer. In high school the beer just appeared at parties, lugged over in cases by boys in denim jackets and Levi's corduroys. In my parents' house the Scotch and the gin sat in a liquor cabinet, to the left of the fireplace in the living room, and it just emerged, every evening at cocktail hour. I never saw it run out and I never saw it replenished either: it was just there. In college, of course, it was there all the time--in small, squat refrigerators in dorm rooms, in kegs at parties, in chilled draft glasses on tavern table tops--and by the time I graduated, by the time I was free to buy alcohol and consume it where and when I wanted, drinking seemed as natural as breathing, an ordinary part of social convention, a simple prop.
Still, I look in the mirror sometimes and think, What happened? I have the CV of a model citizen or a gifted child, not a common drunk. Hometown: Cambridge, Massachusetts, backyard of Harvard University. Education: Brown University, class of '81, magna cum laude. Parents: esteemed psychoanalyst (dad) and artist (mom), both devoted and insightful and keenly intelligent.
In other words, nice person, from a good, upper-middle-class family. I look and I think, What happened?
Of course, there is no simple answer. Trying to describe the process of becoming an alcoholic is like trying to describe air.
It's too big and mysterious and pervasive to be defined. Alcohol is everywhere in your life, omnipresent, and you're both aware and unaware of it almost all the time; all you know is you'd die without it, and there is no simple reason why this happens, no single moment no physiological event that pushes a heavy drinker across a concrete line into alcoholism. It's a slow, gradual, insidious, elusive becoming.
My parents' house on Martha's Vineyard is in the town of Gay Head, on the westernmost side of the island, in a dry town, a forty minute drive from the nearest liquor store or bar. When I was a teenager, our lack of proximity to alcohol was fine, a fact, something I didn't notice. Then, in my twenties, it became slightly questionable. I'd come for a weekend to visit my parents, and I'd assume my father would have gin for martinis and wine for dinner, and he would, and I'd be somewhat relieved, without really knowing it. And then, after I turned thirty, it became more than questionable; it became a problem, this dry town on Martha's Vineyard, a forty-minute drive from the nearest liquor store.
Somewhere inside I acknowledged that this made me nervous. Somewhere inside I'd become desperately aware that the last time I was at the house, there was only one bottle of wine for dinner--one bottle to share between four or five people--and that the level of liquid in the gin bottle was dangerously low by the end of the weekend. I'd remember, very clearly, that I'd had to compensate for the lack of wine by returning to that gin bottle several times, surreptitiously, sneaking into the kitchen to top off my drink while the rest of the family sat outside on the porch. In some dark place an anxiety about this festered: I didn't want to be trapped there again with an insufficient supply, but I didn't want to let on that I was anxious about the supply either.
So I'd debate, without even noticing the arguments and counter-arguments circling in the back of my mind. Should I show up for the weekend with a case of wine, on the pretext that I'd brought it there "just to have it in the house"? Should I forget about the whole thing and just hope someone else had restocked the liquor cabinet? Should I borrow the car and drive the forty minutes to the liquor store, pretending to be off for a solo trek at the beach? In a back corner of my mind I'd notice that this question of what there was to drink in the house had become a big deal, and that fact would nag at me just a little bit, raising a tiny flag, a question about how much I seemed to need the alcohol. The questions would continue: what to do, how to do it, who'd notice, why didn't anyone else drink the way I did? And after a while these voices would start to feel too big and too confusing and too overwhelming, and in the briefest instant I'd just do it: I'd mentally wash my hands of the whole business, and I'd pick up a bottle of Scotch the day before the trip and I'd stash it in my weekend bag.
There. Problem solved.
That, of course, is how an alcoholic starts not to notice it. Just this one time. That's how you put it to yourself: I'll just do it this one time, the same way a jealous woman might pick up the phone at midnight to see if her lover is home, or cruise slowly past his house to check his lights, promising herself that this is the last time. I know this is insane, but I'll only do it this once. I'll just bring the Scotch this one time because I'm particularly stressed out this week and I just want to be able to have a Scotch where and when I want it, okay? It's no big deal: just a little glass in my room before dinner so I don't have to steal into the kitchen and sneak one there. Just a little glass so I don't drink up any more of Dad's liquor. No big deal; it makes sense.
And it would make sense, in a certain perverse way. There I'd be, out on the porch on Martha's Vineyard with my family, and I'd excuse myself for just a minute--just a minute, to go to the bathroom. Then, on the way to the bathroom, I'd make a quick detour to my bedroom, and I'd pull the Scotch out from the bag, and unscrew the cap and take a long slug off the bottle and swallow. The liquor would burn going down, and the burn would feel good: it would feel warming and protective; it would feel like insurance.
Yes: insurance: the Scotch in my bag gave me a measure of safety. It let me sit at the table during dinner and not obsess through the whole meal about whether there was enough wine, whether anyone would notice how fast I slammed down my first glass, whether or how I could reach for the bottle to refill my glass without calling too much attention to myself. It let me know I'd be taken care of when the need became too strong.
When you love somebody, or something, it's amazing how willing you are to overlook the flaws. Around that same time, in my thirties, I started to notice that tiny blood vessels had burst all along my nose and cheeks. I started to dry-heave in the mornings, driving to work in my car. A tremor in my hands developed, then grew worse, then persisted for longer periods, all day sometimes.
I did my best to ignore all this. I struggled to ignore it, the way a woman hears coldness in a lover's voice and struggles, mightily and knowingly, to misread it.
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