“Anxiety looms and you think: This is why I drank. Sadness washes up: This is why I drank. Rage surfaces, or doubt or self-loathing: This is why I drank. Addictions, after all, are enormously self-protective. They’re coping mechanisms, antidotes to strong emotion.” – Caroline Knapp, from The Merry Recluse
I remember the confusion that dating brought in my early 20’s. On my way out the door I’d just casually drop my keys on the counter of my built in bar, swing open a cabinet, pull out a bottle of my preferred alcoholic drink and take a swig. “Ah – Now I’m ready.”
When I got into my date’s car I felt thankful I’d decided to take that drink. The glowing dash and dark leather. The music piping through his system all added to my discomfort. What the hell was I doing here? What two or three or four hours of discomfort awaited me? Whether the suitor was practically new to me, or an ex who’d caused me pain, or a married man whom I was trying to justify, or simply a friend with whom I couldn’t seem to be honest—I felt bad as soon as I got into that car.
If the car was overly spotless, I felt out of place. If the car was a wreck, I felt out of place. If there was a detail, like a child’s toy in the back, or a woman’s lipstick in the ashtray, or a thing from our past, I felt like crawling out of my skin. But the shot I’d poured down my throat earlier had muted all that anxiety to a dull tremor. I knew we’d be going to some Minneapolis establishment that had drinks: wine, beer, cocktails, whatever—drinks!
At the time, I thought this was normal. And if I thought it was abnormal, then I thought it was comical. Bridget Jones and Sex and the City, disastrous love affairs and drinking too much to deal. I laughed about it to girlfriends and they laughed, too. We all had stories. We all felt confused about what exactly we were supposed to be doing and feeling. And we all liked to drink.
A few years later, in my twenty-seventh year, I found myself in Philadelphia, sitting in a graduate school workshop, listening to a very famous science fiction writer critique my fiction submission: ‘Everyone seems to like this story, and finds the narrator funny—parodic—but I had a very different reaction. I found the protagonist to be self-absorbed, full of self-pity, and deflective. She is afraid of intimacy and needs to be drunk to have sex.’
I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. True to form, before I considered the validity of his criticism, I got defensive. What the hell did he know? What a sexist prick. Why could a man be honest about his darkness (and earn raves) while a woman was seen as gratuitous, vain, and sick. I maintained my composure, thanked him for his opinion, and stormed out of class as soon as it was over.
I took the stairs down ten flights. When I got to the bottom, I was in tears. Was he talking about my story, about my narrator, my protagonist? Or was he talking about me? I considered his statement: she needs to be drunk to have sex. By reflex I told myself it was not true. And in the back of my head I thought of every furtive drink I took from a bottle while a lover waited upstairs. Here I was in the kitchen, taking a shot of tequila before traipsing back into the bedroom to meet him. Here I was saying I had to get a glass of water, stopping by the built in bar, taking a shot of vodka and catching my reflection in a window pane. Here I was reaching back for the wine glass as he led me up the staircase, into the large, dark bedroom. It hurt me to think about these things. I didn’t want to. So I shook myself off and stepped out of the building into the daylight of three o’clock. On my walk home, I stopped in a liquor store and picked up a bottle of red.
A few weeks later, I was talking to another writer in the class–Melissa. We were having a beer at a local Philly writers’ haunt and I was bitching about what the sci-fi writer had said, how it was a cheap shot and not necessarily relevant to the writing, how he’d conflated the writing with the writer–the intentional fallacy, or whatever. “Oh?” she said, “I thought that was really interesting, what he said.”
I walked home that night and thought. Was it true? Was I afraid of sex? Was I afraid of intimacy? Drinking did factor in to many of my conquests, and my vanquishing’s [sic]. Was it by accident, or necessity? What would I do if I didn’t have that magic potion? What would I do without the thing that made everything less than real? Would I be able to stand it? The realness of the dark, of sex, of another human being? Would I be able to stand it? The pressure of advancing age, the memories of lovers lost, the fear of so many feats still unaccomplished, of things like: what will become of me? Would I be able to stand it? A man in the bed, my own heart beating, and the sound of our breath…
When I got home to the apartment I shared with my older, philandering boyfriend of two years, I noticed he was nowhere to be found. I took out my cell phone and called him. It went straight to voicemail. I sat in a chair and stared at the living room and its objects. I breathed in and out. I looked at our books lined in shelves, plants in pots, windows in frames. I looked at my hands and my feet and imagined myself from above, looking down at this scene. I shuddered. It was too much. I opened the fridge and took out a beer. There. Everything was going to be fine. I tried calling him again and this time he answered. “Where are you?” I asked. “I’m at Laura’s,” he said. “She’s having a party.” “Why didn’t you answer when I called?” I said. “I was in the basement,” he said. “When are you coming home?” I asked and he answered with an evasive comment, which led to a protracted discussion about my controlling and possessive nature.
I don’t remember if I drank more that night or if I lay in bed and sobbed or if I tried to find information on his social networking profile for proof that he was cheating on me or at least acting dishonorably. I do remember that nights like that made me very certain I was in no place to excise drinking from my life. When things got better, I would pack it up and send it away. Or perhaps when life got better it would disappear on its own accord. But for now it was my companion. It kept the truth away and pushed the bad feelings off. The drink was there, ready to be called on if necessary. Even when it was simply in the room, I felt protected. I often thought about a scene from a movie I’d seen years before I ever entertained the notion I had a drinking problem.
A woman, played by Laura Linney, is sitting in bed at the end of the day. She has put her child to bed and is reading a book, drinking a glass of white wine. I remember watching that and thinking, thank God. Thank God she has that. If nothing else, she has that. Drinking at the end of the day seemed prudent. I simply couldn’t conceive of a scenario where I’d be meeting a partner, or returning home, and I would be sober. At some point, I couldn’t even imagine spending quality time by myself at the end of the day and not wanting to drink. The truth is, I did spend nights with just myself, writing, making photo albums, surfing the blessed internet, drawing sketches of this, that, the other—and I did it all without a drink. But not because I wanted it that way. I did it because it proved that I didn’t have a problem. And I did it because I knew on a gut level that I should be ABLE to do those things without drinking and, importantly, without WANTING to drink. I also knew that the time I was spending with myself—or the time with genuinely kind and honest suitors—was not as genuine, felt, or meaningful as it should be. But I didn’t know how to fix it.
Of course, I was unable to do this—be happy, comfortable and keep drinking. I was in pain and fear and I thought alcohol was the only thing that could fix it. So instead of going to an AA meeting, I went to the wine store and picked up a bottle of red and a pack of cigarettes and then trucked it back home to get busy on obliterating consciousness. Lots of times I laughed as I walked home, laughed at the absurdity and futility of existence, of philosophizing, of religion, of love, or sex, what it meant to be a woman in a man’s world–any of it. I was defiant in my musings, and action-less, and full of myself. And in the morning, whatever feeling or fear I’d washed away with effervescent white wine, washed back up.
Then one day I received a gift. It was a Sunday in late September. I was sitting in the kitchen of my old house in Philadelphia. I was leafing through the Times Book Review and stopped on the review of Gail Caldwell’s memoir, Let’s Take the Long Way Home. In the second column, the reviewer referenced Caldwell’s friendship with a woman named Caroline Knapp. The reviewer noted that Knapp also wrote a memoir, a book titled Drinking: A Love Story. The reviewer described Caldwell and Knapp’s shared love of dogs, obsession with weight, their respective histories with alcohol addiction, and “the fact that both women ultimately shared and feared the empty room in the heart that’s the essence of addiction.” I set the paper down in my lap, pausing for just a moment on some uncertain feeling, before I felt tears fill my eyes. I understood this line. I had never heard alcoholism or drinking described in quite this way. The empty room in the heart.
I asked my husband if he wanted to get out of the house and we drove across the Ben Franklin Bridge to New Jersey, to the Barnes and Noble in Cherry Hill where they had Caroline Knapp’s memoir. I started reading it on the drive home. Knapp wrote with complete honesty about her entire love affair with alcohol, how she loved the rituals of drinking, the camaraderie, the heightened sense of interpersonal closeness, the romance of it all. She loved the protection it provided during dates, during sex; the comfort it provided when the phone rang, or didn’t. It was such an integral part of her life – or it had become such an integral part – that to live without seemed unfathomable. Yet, she knew what she needed to do if she wanted to live a life she was proud of, that felt right, true. She had to face her fears, and feelings. She had to stop drinking.