I have been having trouble writing this blog lately, and I think I figured out why. There is a big piece to this story that I have been holding back for fear of how I will look to the world, of how people will think of me. But honesty is a tenet of this project, and if I’m holding back I’m not being totally honest, and then none of this feels worthwhile to me.
The thing I have been holding back is that I am an alcoholic. I know this now, and a few years of recovery and sobriety have turned my life around. Alcoholics and addicts are people who have extreme difficulty living life on life’s terms, so they rely on drugs and alcohol to cope. In the beginning of drug and alcohol use, this coping is usually a necessity. Life has given them more than they are equipped to deal with (due to age, trauma, life skills, or other factors), so drugs and alcohol can be quite life-saving at first. Eventually, the very thing they use to cope turns on them, and their life becomes in service to their addiction.
Once I quit drinking, I grasped for something to make me feel good and I found it in romance and sex. The stories I’m posting on this blog contain many universal truths and are relatable in different ways to different people, but they are also stories of an addict trying to find love in a backward and sometimes harmful way. My alcoholism and the fog of my early recovery dictated most of my choices, including who I dated and why (not to mention how). So the story of my recovery and coming to terms with myself must become part of this story, or I will lose interest in it because it won’t be authentic.
(I have found a path of recovery and freedom thanks to an amazing program and the people in it. The principles of this program prohibit me from naming it in published writing, so I’m just going to call it my recovery group.)
I first tried alcohol when I was 9. My mother kept a jug* of cooking wine in the kitchen. Looking back, I don’t remember any dishes with wine in them, but I didn’t think about it as a kid. Until one day I looked at the green glass jug that lived in the corner and realized, “Oh, that’s actually wine!” And then I wanted to try it, which is weird because I was not an adventurous child. I was the shy, timid observer in our group of 6 siblings, usually calling out things like “Be careful!” and “Slow down!” to the other children. But I was the complete and total sugar addict. Unable to resist sugar when it was around, I used to bargain with my mother to let me eat my Little Debbie snack cake at night, and forego the treat in my lunch the next day, knowing full well that she would feel sorry for me and put one in my lunch anyway. I hovered near her when she baked sweets, waiting to lick the bowl or the mixers. One day I figured out that the ingredient I most liked in her doughs and batters was the white sugar mixed with butter, so from that day on I would mix my own bowl full of white sugar and butter and just eat that.
Somehow, without ever having tried alcohol, I wanted it. So one night when my family was watching The Sound of Music, I got up from the couch, got a coffee mug (because it was opaque), and filled it halfway with cheap burgundy from the green glass jug. I sat on one end of the couch next to my siblings and drank my wine. I was 9. That same summer, my family went on a road trip and I stayed home because I was in a play. A friend of my mother’s stayed in the house to “supervise” me, but she wasn’t interested in kids and mostly just periodically made sure I wasn’t dead. I had decided to move into a shed in the backyard for the summer. Instead of windows or a door it had big rough-cut holes, a dirt floor, tons of spiders, and was the perfect place to drink my wine. I knew I couldn’t buy more wine, but I also knew that my mother’s friend was probably not monitoring the jug of cheap burgundy in the corner of the kitchen. Bonus, I knew my mother would assume her friend drank anything that was missing, so I could skim off that jug for several weeks.
The night before my play opened, two girls from the cast came over to spend the night. I happen to know that they both came from responsible, caring homes, so how they ended up spending the night in a dirt shed with an unsupervised alcoholic child is beyond me. I introduced them both to cooking wine that night, and we stayed up all night getting drunk. We probably didn’t drink that much—it was my first time getting drunk, and I doubt it took much to do the job. Along the way, we forgot we had to perform in a play the next day. I must have set an alarm for that reason, because at about 6am a little wind-up alarm clock next to my bed began to ring shrilly. The three of us tried to turn it off but, in our drunkenness, couldn’t figure it out. So I lobbed it hard out the window of the shed, still ringing, and it flew across the yard and through the open window of the room my mother’s friend was staying in, where it landed on the floor, still ringing. I probably could never make that shot again.
We froze, and then heard my mother’s friend angrily calling my name from the back door. I walked across the yard, trying to go in a straight line, and stood before her while she scolded me. It took all my concentration not to sway back and forth, and then I walked carefully back to the shed where my friends and I huddled on the small wooden bed under one blanket and got a few hours of sleep. All that day I got to experience the terribleness of my first hangover. I was amazed that none of the adults around me figured it out. I could do this dangerous, secretive thing, and nobody would know. Life suddenly seemed much scarier than before.
Flash forward 13 years, to when I’m 22. I actually didn’t drink much as a teenager, nor do many drugs. The addictions of my mother and stepfather dominated our house, and I spent my adolescence learning how to keep safe and help take care of my younger siblings. I couldn’t afford to lose touch with reality when the adults around me were so out of touch. At 22 I became a bartender and had my own apartment. I was learning how to mix drinks, and I was learning that alcohol was a good remedy for my loneliness. My drinking grew from there, waxing and waning depending on the circumstances of my life, but it was always within social norms. I could quit with relative ease, and didn’t obsess over alcohol when I didn’t have it.
I have alcoholism on both sides of my family, going back many generations, so alcoholism was probably the inevitable result of regular drinking. By the time I turned 30, I could no longer quit drinking with ease. I made sure I always had a bottle of wine at home, and even though I almost never started drinking until after 6pm, drinking wine was always my favorite part of the day. When I met my ex-husband, he liked to keep hard alcohol around and drink mixed drinks instead of wine. It was an easy and dangerous habit for me to take on. We would sit on his porch and drink gin and tonics, whiskey with cola or ginger ale, or vodka with whatever. He was a DJ, which meant many nights out at clubs with more drinking.
Nine months after we met I moved in, and after that my life became a cycle of drinking, recovering, planning to drink, and drinking again. A year and a half later we were married. I seemed like a happy person, and nobody in my life could guess I was an alcoholic, not even my husband. I had a successful massage practice, rode my bike everywhere, and obsessed over things like nutrition and yoga. I knew I was drinking too much, and none of my attempts at quitting worked. I always came up with really good reasons why I should have red wine in my life, and red wine always led to hard alcohol too. I was able to quit drinking for my pregnancy, apart from the last two weeks when my due date had come and gone, and I convinced myself that a glass of red wine with dinner would help labor get started (advice from my OB/GYN helped this make sense to me). But I did keep it to one small glass, and I don’t think it helped any with labor.
I feel grateful that my parents’ alcoholism tipped me off to my own before I had to go down the roads they did. I spent my teenage years bailing my mom out of jail, tracking her down in bars, lying to utility companies so we could keep the lights and heat on for another week, and tolerating the rotating crew of drug addicts my stepfather kept around. Watching late stage alcoholism up close is enough to scare most people straight, unless you are an alcoholic yourself and then it takes something more.
I stopped drinking when I was 39, my daughter was almost 3, and my husband and I had agreed to divorce. My job had just ended, and my brother invited my daughter and I to live with him for a few months while I looked for work. Every day I took care of my daughter, applied for jobs, and worked on random copywriting jobs that came my way. By early afternoon I began to look forward to the glass of wine waiting for me at the end of the day. By 5pm I figured it was okay to start drinking and I would have a quick cocktail, then pour the first giant glass of wine while I cooked dinner and played with my daughter. That was probably the happiest time of day for all of us. I was relaxed, happy, and playful. I sipped wine all evening, looking like a fun and sophisticated mom to everyone around.
After my daughter was in bed, I would continue to drink “because I was a writer,” and it helped my creativity. The next morning would mean lots of coffee and plowing through the hangover, usually with promises to myself that I wouldn’t drink that night. But by that afternoon, some convincing reasons to drink wine would be popping into my head. “This isn’t the best night to quit drinking, you should plan it for when you are less busy or stressed.” Or it would be somebody’s birthday, or a dinner party, or just some special occasion, like a Friday night. And by late afternoon I was planning a trip to the grocery store to pick up a few things for dinner, including some wine.
About this time, my father came to visit. My father who has over 30 years of sobriety. My father who used to disappear for days and weeks at a time when I was little, returning with shaved head or bloody face. My father who has become the most honest, principle-driven person I personally know. He and I were having a conversation about his decision to quit drinking, and he said something like, “My life had become a cycle of spending the first part of each day recovering from the night before, then planning to drink, then spending the rest of the day getting drunk. Repeat the next day.” I fell silent because he had just described my life.
I resolved then and there to quit drinking. Again. All day I felt scared of the description he had given me. I had just lost my husband, job, and home. I needed to be strong and focused if I was going to build a life for myself and my daughter. How could I do that while spending so much of my energy on alcohol? This wouldn’t do. This couldn’t work. I had to stop. That night, my brother was having a party. Just a gathering of friends with singing and music. I was already planning to go, and I knew I would enjoy it without alcohol. By half an hour into the party I had a glass of wine in my hand. I drank through the party, and barely felt it. I had become used to drinking so much wine.
I didn’t sleep that night. I laid on my brother’s couch, trying to figure out how my resolve had crumbled so easily. I thought of all the ways I had tried to quit drinking over the years, all the ways I had tried to control it and limit it, and how none of them had lasted. There was one thing I hadn’t tried, but I was ashamed to think of myself as an alcoholic. Alcoholics ended up in jail, with DUIs, under bridges, in the gutter. I wasn’t like that. But I would be, if I kept this up. I knew the road I was on and I knew where it led. I had seen it. I took out my phone and looked up meetings. There was one starting in a couple of hours. I got up to make coffee. My father, a chronic insomniac, heard me in the kitchen and came in to join me. He could tell I was getting ready to go somewhere and asked me where to. I lied and said I had to go get my daughter. I had hidden my alcoholism so well from everyone. I couldn’t bring myself to admit how much I had been lying to him.
I missed the bus to the meeting, and so I walked a mile and a half in the dark November morning to find a room where I could finally speak honestly about what was really going on with me. Within a week I knew for sure I was in the right place, and I haven’t drank since that first meeting. A few weeks later, my tricky mind convinced me that finding romance would feel really good, and thus began over two long years of manic internet dating. Two years is about how long it takes for your brain chemistry to normalize after quitting drinking, as explained in this article. For me, it was two years before my urgent desire to hop into bed with people began to subside, and I started to feel like I had some space and peace around my decision-making processes. I attribute that largely to my body’s chemistry stabilizing, but I mostly attribute it to all the work I’ve done with my new friends. I am slowly learning how to live life the way it is, being the way I am.
Which brings us back to dating, because that’s what this blog is about. Dating can be very fun for me, as long as I stay guarded and superficial. While in that state I can enjoy flirting and can feel fairly confident in myself. But I quickly bore of that level of interaction, and I want to start going deeper. This is a common termination point with people, depending on if they can/want to go deeper with me. If we do want to start getting real with each other, that means emotional intimacy begins, and that is a vulnerable place to go. It is rare that I find someone who I want to be vulnerable with, and they want to be vulnerable with me, and we can do it without one of us freaking out (usually me). Okay, that never happens. I always freak out.
In the past, I could turn to alcohol while I was freaking out. It calmed my anxiety and relaxed my body. Which probably sounds pretty good, what’s the problem, except that alcohol became the forefront of everything, because I’m an alcoholic. So now I am finding my way into relationships while staying present in my mind and body, and it’s hard, I won’t lie. But it’s so much more real, and I am finally beginning to heal those old traumas and wounds that get in the way of real intimacy.
I can be a mature, present person in my day-to-day life. But if I start to fall in love, this little sleeping girl wakes up inside of me… and she wants a showdown. She wants to be adored, never abandoned, held constantly, and she wants someone to reassure the fuck out of her that they love her and will never leave her. Oh, and nothing anyone does will ever be good enough for her, did I mention that? Yeah, you’re basically trapped if you fall in love with me. And so am I. Alcohol created a blurry haze around all of this, and allowed me to cope. Without alcohol, I am finally able to step up to meet this little girl and help her for real. BUT, I need a willing partner, because she only comes out when I’m in love. So truly I am looking for someone who I can fall in love with, and who then won’t leave me when crazy needy child-girl emerges. But I also need to trust my partner enough to do this work in front of them, sober, and that is probably the hardest thing of all. Finding someone I feel comfortable getting truly vulnerable in front of. This might not be impossible to find, at 42, except I recently discovered that I need my partner to ALSO not be on drugs or alcohol while we do this work, and so there you have it. I will be alone forever. Or so it feels sitting here right now.
But it only feels that way. One thing I have discovered from all this dating is that funny, kind, interesting people are not that hard to find. The more we do our own work of peeling away the layers that prevent us from loving and being loved, the bigger our hearts get and the less scary intimacy becomes. So that’s my plan. Do that work, stumble my way through it, and write about it along the way. And stay real. Cheers.
*When I published this post, I wrote that my mother kept a 5-gallon jug of wine in the kitchen. It was pointed out to me how large that actually is, and I realize that as a kid it seemed enormous but was most probably NOT a 5-gallon jug, but a one gallon.