Claire at Just a Little Less recently linked to a Telegraph article by Hannah Betts about giving up drinking. It made me think about a friend who recently told us she was cutting back on drinking. We were puzzled. What brought this on? I had noticed there was always an open bottle of wine (or two or three) at her dinner table, but surely she had a lot of guests coming and going? Nope, she and her partner drank wine while cooking, at dinner, and relaxing in the evenings. Every day. Her doctor was concerned enough to suggest she cut back.
I started to think about my social circles and what our drinking norms are.
My history of drinking may or may not be typical.
My parents would give us a tiny liqueur glass with a dash of wine at holiday dinners from the age of 8 or 10. We thought it was awful and couldn’t wait to get back to our Christmas syrup! I grew up in the 70s when the adults in our lives drank a LOT. Dances, parties and community functions were awash in drink. Everyone had a full loaded liquor cabinet at home with not only their favourites, but all their friends’ favourites, for when they stopped by. Most people my age can remember emptying glasses that our parents’ friends left lying around the house after a card game or a party. I used to babysit often, and was continually offered drinks by the parents, and the mister would drive me home at 2 a.m. when he returned drunk after their evening out. And this was everyone, all the time.
My parents drank very little. They had the requisite liquor cabinet and could play host, and they occasionally went out to a dance with neighbours, but I can only recall one instance when my dad had a hangover and we weren’t to disturb him!
The neighbourhood kids would sometimes share a bottle of beer or two, but it didn’t amount to much. I was 15 the first time I got drunk. I went to a concert with two friends, one of whom was older and procured a bottle of rum. I was disappointed in myself because the drinking interfered with my ability to really listen to and enjoy the show. Later the older friend couldn’t be found when it was time for our drive home, and after many worried hours, he was located at the police station where he’d been picked up for public intoxication. Over all, not a good experience.
It didn’t stop me from indulging in periodic drunken revelry in the years ahead. Every time I made a group trip away from home – school trips and festivals – there was always scheming to obtain booze and get drunk while away from adult supervision. We knew we’d get packed up and sent home if we were caught. I think the adults sometimes turned a blind eye if they felt it was harmless enough and didn’t involve sexual debauchery as well!
In my junior exacting way, I used a harm reduction model. I calculated the risks, minimized them as much as possible, and then got blotted like everyone else. Maybe 2, 3, 4 times a year.
By the time I was 18, I began to see friends developing problems with drinking and drugs. My boyfriend binge-drank at weekend parties to the point where I once resuscitated him. As we all reached legal age (19), clubbing was the thing to do. Luckily, I could go see bands and not drink my face off. But the girls would often go to Happy Hour and knock back 5 drinks in a go. Even my parents questioned why I avoided girls’ nights out. I just didn’t enjoy being with drunk people. I felt like I’d gotten my partying out of my system when I was a teenager, and it was time to grow up now. I pictured myself drinking a glass of white wine in a fern bar or at an art gallery, not in a bar with a pool table and a dart board. Maybe my snobbery saved me?
I took my first professional job in Saskatchewan. At that time, the young staff I worked with tended to be conservative in dress and demeanour. We worked at the library and cooked and knitted and did aerobics and followed our favourite TV shows and drank tea. It was my first experience of living in the Bible Belt. There were even Dry Towns, which meant ordinances had been passed to prohibit the sale of alcohol. My crowd were mostly very light social drinkers, but non-drinkers were more the norm.
After a few years of good food and reading and needlework (I was in my 20s!), I joined Weight Watchers and gave up drinking for the first time. At that point I hadn’t been drunk in years, but firmly decided I’d save my empty calories for candy and desserts, not alcohol!
It was in this climate that I met my ex, a professional person who loved children and cats, with whom I planned my future life. He had grown up in a culture similar to my family’s, where drinking was seen everywhere, but wasn’t really a feature in the home. Unfortunately, he had a combination of personal problems and rebelliousness that led him first to drink, then to self-medicate. Because he functioned so well at work, I didn’t recognize the signs. He identified as a workaholic and had difficulty dealing with work and personal stresses. Later he was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and panic disorder, all of which usually co-exist with addictions, making it impossible to know which came first. Substance abuse is a very scary thing. Eventually it strips away likeable human qualities, and leaves nothing but a set of behaviours around drinking or using. This includes defensiveness, manipulation and lying – especially to oneself.
Longtime readers will know that my ex died, leaving his family heartbroken for him, and for all we did and didn’t do, or attempt to do.
Everyone probably knows an alcoholic. Usually it’s an old uncle, a family friend, a friend’s parent, a neighbour, maybe a co-worker. Until we are older, it’s usually not a brother or sister, a best friend, a spouse or a child. We draw a line between ourselves and “those people.” Until it is us and ours, and then we realize those people are not just among us: they are embedded, they are us.
When all this was happening, I got educated. You know the quote, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels”? Well, in Al-Anon it was said, “We go through everything the alcoholic goes through…only stark, raving sober!”
After that I didn’t drink at all for seven years. It wore off. One day I was at a book club meeting where wine was being poured. There was no pressure to drink and most were having only one glass. I felt safe. I stopped feeling that drinking had to be all or nothing for me. I’d never experienced problem drinking myself, and I trusted it would stay that way. It did.
To this day I consider myself a very light, one-glass social drinker. Every once in a while I think fondly about a year when I shared a pizza and a bottle of wine every Friday night with little ill effect. But in practice, I don’t want to go there.
You’ll be interested to know that Rom doesn’t drink alcohol. The way he says it, he was a drinker from school-leaving up to age 23, going down the pub every weekend. He got run down and had a period of poor health that really knocked him for a loop. As part of his recovery, he decided not to drink any more, and hasn’t touched a drop since. It’s hard to know which teenage binge drinkers will become alcoholics and which won’t. He feels he would have.
Being a non-drinker is socially awkward. People make a big deal of it, try to talk you out of it, ridicule you and even put a drink in your hand. It’s like meeting your friends for dinner at a steakhouse and revealing you are vegan. You are a laughing-stock. You are being pious. You value principles more than friendship. Or you are just boring and uptight.
I have now come around to Rom’s Buddhist way of thinking: if I have more than one drink, I am drinking for the effect. To relax or forget or giggle or be tipsy. And you know what? I really do want to go through life – even weekends! – unmedicated. I can relax and laugh without help. Everyone in my life gets the real me. Eeek!
Do you have a drinking story?
PS Readers who are embarking on vacation this week can cheerfully postpone thinking about this 🙂