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What Does Alcoholism Even Mean?
Alcoholic. When you hear that word, what image comes to mind? Is it the drunk, out of control father sitting in his comfy chair in a wife beater pounding sixers and wreaking havoc on his wife and family? Is it the stumbling homeless guy who smells like pure ethanol begging for change on the corner and sipping something out of a brown, paper bag? Maybe it’s Meg Ryan falling over in her shower because she’s pissy drunk at three o’clock in the afternoon a la When a Man Loves a Woman. The word “alcoholic” is loaded. We attach very specific meaning and imagery to it, depending on cultural norms and proximity to alcoholism in our own lives. But what does it really mean?
Merriam Webster says that alcoholism is a “continued excessive or compulsive use of alcohol drinks…a chronic disorder marked by excessive and usually compulsive drinking of alcohol leading to psychological and physical dependence or addiction.” Is that what I started to do?
Personally, I rarely gave the word much thought growing up. My parents didn’t drink in front of us (if much at all). My grandfather would have a can of Budweiser or Old Milwaukee on summer nights after coming in from a long day of farming and I remember, fondly, sitting beside him or on his lap and smelling the strong mix of yeast and aluminum from the can once he cracked it open. I think he gave me a sip once to teach me a lesson about beer being yucky, which worked. It stunk and had the uncanny ability to taste both warm and cold at the same time, a feature of shitty beers that would gross me out well into adulthood.
I saw drunks and raging alcoholics on TV, but they seemed so far and fictional. I knew that the older kids would go to parties and drink, act silly, and sometimes puke. The two images never connected for me, not even as I became the older kid slamming Boone’s or Zimas at some party and, inevitably, getting sick. Nothing bad happened to me, that I recall, in those early days and it was just a normal thing that teenagers in that part of the country would do: get drunk and chain smoke Marlboro’s on a Friday night at somebody’s house whose parents didn’t care.
The word “alcoholic” is loaded. We attach very specific meaning and imagery to it, depending on cultural norms and proximity to alcoholism in our own lives.
Even in college, I mostly steered clear of the binge party scene. I started off at an all women’s college in Atlanta where the legal age for women to go to most bars and clubs was 18. We couldn’t afford to go overboard if we’d wanted to and if we found ourselves at a house party, it was relatively chill. Sure, we had some silly and possibly regrettable nights, but nothing akin to what was going on at the major university campuses, which I generally avoided. It never occurred to me to get shit faced every night and stumble to class at 9 am the next morning. Why would anybody do that? I couldn’t have predicted that I would become an adult in the very near future getting wasted and stumbling into work the following day.
When Your Drinking Changes
Not until I graduated and started teaching did I become THAT girl. I began teaching at age 21 and had no business in the profession at that time, but was too naive to realize it. At that age, I didn’t know any better. I joined a national teaching organization and was among a group of forty recent college grads working in some of Miami’s most challenging schools with students who had a wide range of needs I struggled to meet. The work wore on me. My emotional state began to deteriorate. I always had issues with depression and confidence, but they were magnified and escalated during my years in Miami. I became that girl who drank almost every day during that first year after work with my roomie. Many of us in that group did. I was erratic when I drank. I could be charming or I could be pure drama. It did not take long for me to alienate the friends I had made and to scare off a love interest or two.
By the second year, I found myself relatively friendless, bouncing from one social circle to the next and involved with an equally dysfunctional man who would be the cause of much stress and anguish for the next five years of my life. Still, I wasn’t drinking alone. It hadn’t yet occurred to me that it was even an option for passing time. When I did go out, though, I binged, HARD. It almost never ended well and on at least two occasions, had a meltdown so ridiculous that some people refused to have anything to do with me after that point.
Once I managed to untangle myself from Miami and get to Brooklyn, New York I was carrying around a heavy, emotional load. I was still teaching and was still not a good teacher. There were aspects of the job I enjoyed and was good at, but I wasn’t cut out for it and it showed. The kids felt it, and I crumbled from it. It wasn’t my passion, but I was too locked in and afraid to try something new. By the time I was in my third year of teaching in New York, I had become the girl going to the bar almost every day after work to “unwind.” By the fourth year, I didn’t even bother with the bar anymore. My apartment suited me just fine.
I had a vision in my mind of what an alcoholic was and I didn’t fit it.
It was around this time that a therapist suggested I had a problem with alcohol and needed AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). Even though I was drinking 6-10 cider drafts most nights of the week and chain smoking out of my living room window like my lungs were bionic, I was completely taken aback. Me?! I had a vision in my mind of what an alcoholic was and I didn’t fit it. I functioned. I paid bills. I made it to work, even if by the skin of my teeth some days. I did my job. I hadn’t run anybody over or harmed another person (other than myself). I knew plenty of people who drank more than I did and dabbled with harder stuff. In fact, most people I knew would go home and “unwind” with some wine or a glass of whiskey. It was normal. We were all normal. What was this lady even talking about?
I quit seeing that therapist and slid further down a prison of my own making – more drinking, more smoking, more isolation. The anxiety started around this time, but because I was such a heavy smoker, I mistook the earlier symptoms for respiratory issues. And when I started checking that my stove was off ten times or walking back three blocks to triple check that I’d locked my car doors, I chalked the behavior up to an inconvenient quirk I’d developed. I knew I wasn’t happy, but my problem was depression and being unlucky in love, not alcohol. Booze is just what I used to escape myself. It was normal. I was normal.
Eventually (and by eventually, I mean a few years later) I did come to see that the “problem” the aforementioned therapist talked about might’ve been real. Did it make me an alcoholic? Maybe? I don’t know and still don’t know what that word means to me, but I understood that if I continued to drink, my anxiety was going to swallow me whole and my days of functioning would be finished. My metabolism had waved a white flag and I was starting to gain weight – nearly twenty pounds over the course of a year and a half. I didn’t do very much socially and I felt trapped and stagnant. Yes, I did have a problem and maybe that world, alcoholic, belonged to me. I needed to stop, and with great effort and a few slip ups, I did. (I don’t mean to gloss over the gravity of stopping. It is not as simple as a concluding sentence in a paragraph, I assure you.)
The hardest part about handling this problem is that almost nobody in my life took me seriously when I finally opened up about having it because they, much like me, had a very specific image of what an alcoholic was that I didn’t seem to fit. Some friends and acquaintances eye rolled a little. When I mentioned how much I had been drinking, they were shocked and claimed they had no idea, but also couldn’t accept that I was incapable of just cutting back, that my brain didn’t work that way. Some people would continue to offer me drinks. If I was at a party and the vibe started to shift from buzzed to drunk, someone might jokingly threaten to put my rum in soda because I was fine. This problem wasn’t real. It was me being dramatic, once again. I was normal, right?
Even friends and family members who accepted that I wasn’t drinking anymore seemed to take it more as a health or lifestyle decision (which to an extent it is), thus avoiding any awkward conversation about what was really going on with me. Nobody really wants to know, and maybe it’s none of their business, but it doesn’t help me find clarity either. My husband probably understands best, but only because he saw how much I had struggled and how bad it had gotten for me. He comes from a culture where drinking is part of everyday life and it’s nothing to go out to the beach and polish off a bottle of rum and carry on as normal. Hell, I used to do it with him and I’d be lying if I said I don’t still look back on those days with a deep sense of nostalgia. But he knows that somewhere along the way I crossed a line I can’t come back from, and we won’t be polishing off bottles of rum or coolers of Stag together anymore.
I resist the word, insist that I’m a little different. It keeps me hanging on the periphery of the recovery community, offering little slivers of myself, but never fully diving in.
Recovery (Or Something Like It)
Which leads me back to the question, “Am I an alcoholic?” What does that word even mean to me? I play with the word in my head. Try it on like a new dress and walk around in it for a while, checking the various angles. Still I constantly wrestle with the urge to take it off. I want to focus more on issues of depression and anxiety, where the roots are for me, insisting that they are somehow separate – not this word, “alcoholic”. I see the definitions, the literature, the online quizzes various organizations offer to see if “there’s an issue there” and they all fit, but never feel right. I resist the word, insist that I’m a little different. It keeps me hanging on the periphery of the recovery community, offering little slivers of myself, but never fully diving in.
I know that where I’m at is a common crossroads for people early in their sobriety. We know we are supposed to stop doing whatever it was we were doing and we’ve had a little bit of success with it. It’s been a few months and we seem to have gotten our shit together. This is where it goes off the rails for many and I realize that, to a great extent, I am shielded by my pregnancy, but this issue will come up for me eventually. This is the part where we start to wonder about words like “alcoholic” and second guessing if we are really like “those” people sitting in AA groups reciting serenity prayers and quoting the Big Book. The temptation is there to say, “nah.” I hit a rough patch and have some issues, but I’ll just keep my nose clean and do what I’m doing. I’m not like “them.” Eventually that will lead to feeling better, fixed even, which will potentially lead to grabbing a round with friends just to test the waters. And maybe it’ll be fine and you won’t touch the stuff again for say, a week or two. And the next time, the distance between that week or two will shrink to a day or two, and before you know it, you’re right back where you started in that same “rough patch” you spent five months digging out of. I know because I’ve done that.
AND YET. Knowing what I know, I still linger outside that door. I still look at the word and twitch a little.
Sobriety is a process, one that is deeply personal. I am not here to advocate for any specific route to sobriety or its maintenance, nor to disparage any. What do I know? I’ve only been at it for six months. But I think it’s important to explore these issues and try to unpack their many layers. If I drop the pretense and embrace this word, alcoholic, in its entirety – a sort of coming out if you will – does that improve my chances of keeping my shit together? Does it move me to the next level in my healing? Maybe. It’s something I will continue to think about, learn about, read about, and decide for myself.
I will end by saying that for all my hesitation about diving more fully into the recovery community, I am ever grateful for their openness, patience, and support for anyone who knocks at their door, even if that person isn’t quite ready to come in off the porch.