There are many reasons I started drinking. There’s only one reason why I stopped.
I remember the first time I got well and truly drunk. I was 19, and I had bronchitis, as I tend to do several times per year. I found that the only thing that soothed my cough and let me sleep at all was a bottle of wine that my mother in law (with whom I and my then-husband were living) had had in the fridge for some time. I had sipped wine before, but never gotten more than a little buzz. Without even realizing it, I ended up drinking the whole bottle of wine, and what I felt I had never felt before: total relaxation, not caring anymore, feeling as if nothing mattered because a simple drink could make me forget it all.
Prior to that night, I had disdained alcohol. I would go to parties at my parents’ friends’ houses and see people drinking and acting like fools, laughing too loud and talking too much, and I always thought “I never want to be like that,” so I would choose a glass of ice water over wine or beer. In that moment, with that bottle of white zin, everything changed, even though I didn’t know it for a long time. I started keeping a bottle of vodka in the fridge and making a Bloody Mary or The Vodka Still Works (= ginger ale + bitters + vodka) when I felt stressed out. (To his specious credit, my then-husband would get upset with me and pour out my drinks, saying he “wouldn’t let me become an alcoholic,” although I think his motivations had much more to do with control than concern.)
But it wasn’t until a few years later that I really understood what alcohol could do for/to me. I was divorced and had just gone back to university, and every time I was assigned a paper and tried to work on it, I froze up, panicked, couldn’t work, and the more I couldn’t work the more I hated myself and the more stressed I got. So one night, convinced I was going to fail at anything I ever tried to do and never be loved or understood by anyone, I went to the store and bought a bottle of Merlot. I drank the whole thing, and I lay on the floor puking into my wastebasket and I thought: “This is it. This is the solution to every problem I’ve ever had. If I could just feel like this all the time, everything would be okay.” And being that I had drunk such small amounts before, I had virtually no hangover/withdrawal, so it seemed there was no downside.
Within the year after that, I began to have opportunities to socialize with people I’d met in class, which scared the fucking shit out of me. It had been years since I’d had a “friend” or really spent time with anyone who wasn’t my abusive, possessive husband or partner. Suddenly I understood that if I drank while I was with other people, I could stop feeling so petrified and actually talk to them.
For the first time in my life, I went to parties, I chatted, I flirted. I did the things I didn’t know how to do, and I didn’t realize until much later that I was actually being my usual bumbling, bizarre self only less toned down because I had no inhibitions while drunk. I said whatever came into my head, which, it turns out, usually means I’m being a rude, insensitive asshole.
I started making stupid irrational decisions, dating people with whom I had nothing in common and then suddenly declining their calls and dropping off the face of the earth. I had unprotected casual sex even though I hated it, because it just didn’t seem to matter one way or the other. I didn’t care about anything anymore. I stopped planning my time and would rush off my assignments while shit-faced drunk at 3AM, knowing in my overconfident stupor that I’d get an A anyhow. I burned a hole in my stomach that still flares up in times of stress. I started to have constant tremors and sometimes hallucinations when I didn’t drink, and the obvious solution seemed to be to drink more, to drink all day every day, to just never be sober on the days when I wasn’t caring for my son.
Then I met Person of Interest, and for the first time somebody had a genuine, vested interest in asking me not to drink and abuse drugs. I knew he loved me, though I didn’t understand it, and I knew why he wanted me to be sober. But it wasn’t enough. I would try very hard for weeks to not drink at all, because I was madly, head over heels in love with him and I wanted to do anything that would make him happy. And then something stressful would happen and I would go on a total bender. My mental health was beginning to decline drastically, and it was a terrible time for that to happen, while navigating a new relationship.
Fast forward 9 months; I was hospitalized and then went into rehab. I tried twelve-stepping. I attended and I listened and I thought, and at first it seemed like magic, and then pretty quickly it seemed like pretense– just another religion I didn’t really believe in, with its bible and its catechisms and its rituals. But there was a moment in rehab when everything changed, and it had nothing to do with AA or NA or abstinence or any of the rules or skills I was taught. As often happens with me, my life changed because someone told me a story.
If you’ve read my Dysfunctional Fairytales, you will recognize this story as incorporated into the first, because it made such an impression on me. During a meeting, a young woman stood up and recounted the story of how she watched her sister die of an overdose. “She was a beautiful African-American woman,” she said with tears rolling down her cheeks, “and when I looked in her eyes, I could see that she would be dead, because they were grey, they were just grey.”
And then she spoke of the children of her sister. “I try to be close to them, but I can barely stand to be around them because the girl, she looks so much like her mom. And the boy, he was two when she died, and I was taking care of them. He’d wake up at night sweaty and screaming and crying ‘My mommy died.’ I miss her, she was my sister, but I hate her a little bit because of what she did to that little boy.”
I am a parent of a little boy, who was five when I heard the story. And my heart broke. I realized how selfish I had been, and that no matter how bad I felt, no matter how much agony, my son was worth any price. As long as he was in this world, unless I abused him, which I would never do, it was better for him to know his mom– even if he ended up hating me– than to know that I killed myself, poisoned myself slowly, before he could even know me and decide. I couldn’t– I can’t– bear the thought of him going through what that poor little two year old did, and I knew that I had a choice to spare him. How could I choose any other way?
I’m not going to lie; I’ve gone on a few benders since that night. I’m no angel. I’ve relapsed, but it doesn’t last long, because with every drink I’ve taken since then that little boy’s face and voice, as I imagine them, have haunted me. I may be many things but one thing I cannot do is harm a child, and to kill myself would be to irreparably harm the most beautiful child who has ever existed. And to continue to drink day and night, to fool myself into treating it as a medication that I deserve, is no different from slitting my throat very slowly. Any day, I could have gone into DTs and never recovered. Any day, I could have been gone. No matter how much it hurts, no more. Never again.