Trying to keep up appearances to myself, I never drank before 5pm. Except when I did.
CN: alcoholism, addiction
The kiss lingers. Not because of the man, but rather because he hadn’t swallowed his last sip of bourbon. He’s a lip kisser. But this was more—drops of smoky liquid passing from his lips to mine. I’m not usually a lip kisser, but I’ll match what’s offered—a peck on the cheek, a brush of lips, a double-cheek kiss for my friend, the Francophile historian. And, of course, the intimate full-contact kisses with my husband Bob.
Until sometime in my 40s, my drinking was unexceptional—a glass of wine at the end of the day, but not every day, a few more at a dinner party. And then it morphed. Wine became my millennial adaptation of “Mother’s Little Helper.”
And I needed a lot of help.
I had grown up in a neighborhood of brick-lined streets where the nightly sacrament was the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. As a child, the elegant facade of our turn-of-the-century house hid the evidence of my mother’s compulsive hoarding—gracious rooms overtaken by piles of useless stuff. I was determined that my adult family would escape this fate. Bob and I would have an NPR-worthy life with career acclaim for each of us, the sounds of Bach and Charlie Parker wafting through our immaculately organized home, and two children well-positioned for equally lofty lives. Employing my skills as a strategic planner, I had task lists, and family schedules, and plenty of plastic boxes and label tape to contain any messes. I was pretty tightly wound.
While my plan was already revealing its faults, it was tossed overboard by a storm which threatened to consume my family—a prolonged, baffling, severe illness that attacked my young daughter. My career evaporated before my eyes as my sole focus became to keep the four of us afloat. I was unmoored. My skin was scraped raw.
My alcohol consumption shifted from being a casual nightly glass of wine to a necessary anesthetic. Its relief faded quickly, but helped me to get through the next hour or day. Trying to keep up appearances to myself, I never drank before 5pm. Except when I did.
And then as the storm worsened, my drinking went undercover. I began hiding from Bob how much I was drinking. And then I began having blackouts. The alcohol was no longer a plush comforter, but rather a paper-thin hospital blanket—warm when delivered, but cooling quickly to match the frigid ambient air. I needed another and another just to stay warm.
My drink of choice was chardonnay. I liked its color, its taste. The artful descriptions on the Trader Joe’s racks mentioned oak and butter, and even apple and fig. I pretended that these labels influenced my choices, but I would drink anything. Price didn’t matter, though I skewed high. If the wine was sufficiently expensive, then, in my convoluted ledger, the expense—not the drinking—was the crime.
I didn’t know any alcoholics. And I certainly wasn’t one. I might have troubles, but
- I had an Ivy-League degree.
- I didn’t drink in the morning and had never gotten a DUI.
- I still had a house and a marriage. Good shoes in the closet.
And yet, I knew that most people didn’t plan their lives around their next drink. Didn’t need an infusion of alcohol to brace themselves before the 9th grade parent cocktail party and the benign questions: “What’s new?” “How’s work?” “How are the kids?”
Caroline Knapp’s memoir, Drinking, A Love Story, kept bubbling up in my thoughts. Caroline didn’t start out as an alcoholic either. She was my age, she’d also grown up in an NPR world and had gone to an Ivy-League school. Caroline’s drinking had gotten really bad. Worse than mine. But she’d gotten help. From Alcoholics Anonymous.
Maybe I could get help—just to control my drinking. I dressed carefully for my first AA Meeting—an ironed brown tunic over skinny jeans, tucked into brown riding boots. The linoleum was newer than I thought it would be, and the chairs had padded seats. I scanned the room to reassure myself that I was different from the others. Slowly I recognized that even though I’d never been arrested, nor downed a coffee mug of vodka before driving carpool, I had, like my seat mates, used alcohol to dull the pain, to provide false confidence, to forget, to sleep. I started to hear how others were getting through a day without alcohol.
AA doesn’t work for everyone. But it did, and does, for me. I stopped drinking alcohol six years, three months, and 20 days ago.
I can go a day or a night or even a week without craving alcohol. And yet, sometimes, my eyes will pivot to the half-drunk plastic cups of pinot noir left on the table after a book-launch, or to the elegant glasses of chardonnay poured, well, anywhere. The color, the scent lure me in. As if I’ve stumbled across a Facebook post from a college flame who was enchanting but always toxic. Our relationship was unhealthy, never meant to be. And yet, I imagine, maybe we could have made it work. I know that if I returned to drinking alcohol now, I might be able to drink a glass or two. For a day or two. But then I would want more. And then more. The sordid love-affair would be rekindled.
The crises that fueled my drinking have settled. It’s not that it’s all better. My stomach churns. I worry about my unstable rotator-cuff, about paying for my daughter’s college tuition, and whether my life adds up. I wonder whether my children are launched to embrace vibrant, messy lives. Sometimes I binge-watch “Scandal” reruns. But I don’t drink. My corset loosened, I laugh—and cry—more deeply. I seek out other imperfect friends. My kisses with Bob are deeper. My sleep is richer. And most of the time, I worry less about what you’ll think if my brown shoes clash with my black outfit.
But I still seek out the bourbon kisser—hoping for that taste again, just for a moment.
Author’s Note: Many alcoholics choose to maintain their anonymity and not reference Alcoholics Anonymous directly. While I would never break anyone else’s anonymity, I share my own experience because it may help others. If Caroline Knapp had not shared her story, including how AA helped, I might never have gotten sober.
Hilary Nelson Jacobs is a writer living in the Los Angeles foothills. Her current project is to create a book-length expansion of her six-word memoir “Harvard Didn’t Prepare Me For Life.” Hilary can be reached at email@example.com.