On Drinking

Published 2019
Stonecoast Review

I am not currently in therapy, although the last time I was, I checked with my therapist about the possibility of me being an alcoholic. Unfortunately, the diagnosis (or lack of diagnosis) was the same as always; apparently, I’m not.

It’s hard to get into AA meetings when you’re not an alcoholic. At least, that’s what I hear. And the whole AA thing is entirely founded on truth-telling and utter honesty, so I am uncomfortable about lying about being an alcoholic just to get to go to the meetings. I’d have to go as exactly who I am. “Hi, my name is J” (wait for response) “and I’m not an alcoholic.” The whole episode just sounds somewhere between confusing and braggy. It would certainly beg the question: “What are you doing here?”

But I hear from many people I know who are able to attend those meetings that I’d really like them. Sure, maybe not the heavy god stuff…but lots of folks do a mental gloss-over of that. Like so many, I can work with the “higher power” concept. The personal storytelling, the anonymity, the community of other shaky souls just trying to move forward, for me, are deeply compelling aspects.

Eight reasons I think I might be an alcoholic:

  • I like to drink every day.
  • I have always had a thing for bars, bartenders, bar lighting, and bar conversations.
  • My father was an alcoholic and died of complications with his liver.
  • My older brother has never had a drink in his life due to, I suspect, fear of our alcoholic genetics.
  • I loved Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life.
  • I loved Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp.
  • For my first marriage, I wanted to register at Sherry Lehman.
  • My mother thinks I’m an alcoholic.

Eight reasons I think I might not be an alcoholic:

  • I don’t actually drink every day (but not because I don’t want to).
  • I’m as happy hanging in a bar without the alcohol as with (almost).
  • I don’t like gin (I always think real alcoholics like gin).
  • I love non-alcoholic beer.
  • I loved Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life.
  • I loved Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp.
  • I have never been able to convince a physician or a therapist that I do, in fact, have a drinking problem.
  • My mother thinks I’m all sorts of things I’m not.

I drink less than my spouse and less than most of my friends. My friend Carly (name changed here because she wouldn’t like this) is a famous New York City surgeon and drinks multiple drinks every single night. Never to the point of drunk, but always to the point of what the Internet tells me is excess. Her husband, Walter (name changed here because he wouldn’t like this), a wildly successful sports marketer, drinks every night along with her, but plays with myriad moderation techniques, like not having his first drink until 9 p.m. Walter and I often compare moderation techniques. In addition to the wait-until-9-p.m. one, Walter takes a month off each year from drinking alcohol. Walter concocts his non-alcoholic cocktails as if they have booze in them…tons of fresh ice, freshly blended fruit juices, designer tonic and/or organic citrus. Walter feels this “tricks his inner child into not feeling denied” when he’s on the wagon. I often wonder when Walter’s inner child started drinking, but I have yet to ask. I have done the “one month off” thing every so often, as well as three months in a row. I also have tried only drinking on weekends, only drinking on weekdays, only drinking every other day, only drinking when not at home, and only drinking when at home.

A couple years ago, I went on the Paleo Diet. The diet eliminates all wheat and grains. Fruits and plants are fine, though. So this narrowed my alcohol choices to wine (from a fruit) and tequila (from a plant). This restriction alone radically reduced my drinking. I don’t love wine, so I often skipped it in favor of a great green tea or a tonic with bitters on the rocks. And while margaritas are good, at 500 calories each, they kind of defeat the weight-loss potential of the restrictive Paleo Diet.

The drinking age was eighteen when I was growing up. In the NYC set I moved within, we were pretty much allowed to drink subtly starting at Bar Mitzvahs and openly beginning with Sweet Sixteens. We all took taxis everywhere (so drinking and driving was a non-issue), and bars didn’t check IDs. Too many weekend nights to count, my friends and I would go to a great place called Trader Vic’s in the basement of the Plaza Hotel and crowd around long wooden tables drinking communal scorpions and Mai Tais out of giant barrel-shaped bowls with multiple straws emanating from them and fresh orchids floating on top. We were all in high school, and if our parents needed to reach us they would call the bartender and he would summon one of us to the phone.

My Trader Vic’s moments and my more recent Paleo Diet restrictions aside, I’ve really always been a beer drinker. I love beer. My father, who basically had nothing to offer me as a child, offered me beer. Sips when I was under ten. My own servings after that. My father was, among other things, a largely unavailable parent. The good news was that beer, I found out, was pretty readily available. There was always some in the back of my fridge at home, and my mother didn’t seem to care if I grabbed a can of Heineken instead of Tab. Friends’ houses always had beer, and the deli near my school had it right next to the Yoo-hoo. My “celebration snack,” as I called it back then, was a Heineken and a Twinkie. It’s what I had after I took the SATs, when I got my first acceptance letter to college, and each time I was elected to Student Council. At Nathan’s (a cafeteria near Grand Central Station), you could fill a large Slurpee-sized cup with lemonade, 7-Up, Coke, or Budweiser—put a cap on it, stick a straw in it, and go. My tenth-grade boyfriend and I would do the Budweiser-via-straw while walking around the Museum of Modern Art, enjoying our buzzed experience of Kandinsky and Munch.

In college, I learned about kegs and how to deal with the foam. I bought cases of Black Label and Rolling Rock for absurdly cheap prices at “package stores,” and learned that a beer bottle fit better than a can in the back-right pocket of my Levi’s when dancing to “Come on Eileen” and “Tainted Love.” When I got my own apartment and then my own house in my twenties, my friend Sebok (name not changed here because he would very much like this) schooled me about how plastic drawers in refrigerators could hold a case of beer neatly and that the displaced lettuce and vegetables fit almost anywhere else.

When I was pregnant, of course, I wouldn’t drink at all. That’s when I discovered how much I loved non-alcoholic beer. Not the lousy O’Doul’s or Kaliber that bars not concerned with non-drinkers offer, but Coors Cutter that mimicked real beer taste. When I traveled to Europe in my forties I realized Europeans had perfected non-alcoholic beer, treating the brew just as seriously and offering many different versions on tap. These days there’s a Clausthaler and a non-alcoholic Beck’s that are really worth drinking.

I think beer is a cop-out drink in many ways. When you’re young, it’s one step above soda—so you don’t consider it a serious substance. As adults, my friends and I don’t care when the not-quite-yet-twenty-one-year-olds in our families have a beer during our back-deck barbecues. But if the same underage kids were having a vodka tonic with the hamburger and hot dog off the grill, we might feel differently.

Which is weird. Because I  know better. When our twenty-three-year-old was fifteen, she got in some trouble (not with booze specifically, but that was a small part of it). She ended up spending about a year at a therapeutic boarding school that helped her get back on track, and also schooled us heavily on parenting, toxic behaviors and environments, drugs and alcohol. Repeatedly, we were instructed “a drink is a drink is a drink.” Alcohol is alcohol and format (wine, beer, grain, fruit) doesn’t matter to the brain, the blood, the liver. I sat with my spouse Beatrice, and about twenty other parents, in multi-hour training sessions once a month, getting educated on all sorts of things, but largely on substance abuse. We would also see our fifteen-year-old for workshops and sessions, and many of these involved intense cautionary education regarding substances. It was a very difficult time for us as a family, including the four younger kids we had to leave at home in order to attend these monthly visits. We weren’t like any of the other parents we met in so many ways, and yet all the families had their own stories and hardships that bred and maintained a common empathy among the larger group. At the end of the first day of each monthly two-day visit, Beatrice and I drove the twenty minutes back to our hotel, and before even checking into our room we’d hit the hotel bar. It was a historic hotel, the great dark bar in the basement had been left largely intact from colonial times. We’d order a fast drink, and shortly after, another, and soon we felt the intense knot of the day begin to loosen. Somewhere during that second drink we allowed ourselves to take in the visual of the bar’s other drinkers. Table after table, darkened corner after darkened corner, it was always the same story; we nodded “hello”, exchanging somber smiles with the fellow parents of all the other troubled teens.

The fact that this realization wasn’t profoundly sobering in the truest sense of the word…the fact that I spent hours and days over many months learning the thoroughly poisonous attributes of alcohol and then dealt with it, as quickly as possible, by drinking, makes me think I surely have a problem. I must certainly be the reluctant acorn fallen not so far from my father’s tree. And yet my work, my days, my relationships are not, nor ever have been, adversely affected by my alcohol consumption. I’m able to abstain whenever I choose and for however long I choose. These last two sentences are what the psychiatric community I have long checked in with to determine if I am possibly an alcoholic point to as the reasons I am, in fact, not an alcoholic. Of course, until 1974, the American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality a mental disorder.

So they’ve been wrong before.