How do you know if your relationship to alcohol is problematic?
|Emily Sanders Hopkins||Jul 4|| 5|
Carl Svantje Hallbeck's Njommelsaska i Lappland, 1856
How do you know if your relationship to alcohol is problematic? Some people say that "if you are thinking about it, it's a problem for you.” Which might be true. But I also convince myself that I have every disease that I ever read or hear about (meningitis! tuberculosis! mumps!) so maybe I'm not the best judge.
I typically drink about 2-3 times a week. When I do drink, I have a hard time stopping after just one. I often have a hard time stopping after two, but 4 is my limit. 3 is typical. I've never blacked out, but I often feel shitty in the morning (granted, I'm in my 40s, so I feel shitty even if I just have 2 drinks). I feel healthier when I don't drink, I wake up earlier, get more done, have more energy for my young children .... but I sometimes really crave the celebration, the letting go, that sitting in the backyard having a glass of wine with my husband or friends gives me.
My mother has a problematic relationship with alcohol; I watch her and it makes me afraid that my habits will become something I can't control. She gets drunk every night. It feels like she uses alcohol to give herself permission to let out her emotions, which are mostly looping, self-pitying emotions and anger towards all the people who have wronged her.
I don't get self-pitying or angry when I'm drunk, but I am aware that drinking sometimes allows me to let out larger emotions that I have kept inside for fear of them being too big for this world. Often those are beautiful emotions, like love or joy; sometimes I let out all of my confusion and questions, sometimes I am full of what feels like stunning clarity. It's not the kind of emotions that I have while drinking that bother me, I don't become a different person ... it's that I get a sort of "emotional itch" and 2 glasses of wine give me the permission to indulge the larger sides of myself, the parts that are harder to access when I am at work, or -- now that I am furloughed due to COVID -- at home, washing dishes, cleaning baby butts, cooking, doing laundry, paying a mortgage, and all of the other shit that goes along with being a Very Responsible Adult.
Is my desire for alcohol just frustrated creative energy? What if I put all of those huge emotions into something big and beautiful that I create? Lately I feel like I'm in a cycle letting all of my hopes, feelings, and ambitions out over a bottle of wine, but then I'm too tired the next day to act on any of those hopes and ambitions.
Or is allowing myself a few glasses of wine 2-3 nights a week a perfectly acceptable way of dealing with the stresses of having several young children and living in a world that feels batshit crazy? Am I expecting too much of myself to think I should be able to write a play or a novel while so much of my creative energy is spent on the ongoing creative project that is your children's life?
Am I overthinking?
Dear Am I overthinking,
You could totally write a play or a novel at night and early in the mornings, when your kids are in bed, if you could get yourself into a place where writing were fun for you and inspiring and got your juices flowing. Before getting yourself into the right mood, though, you might have to fake it for a few weeks. Limber up. Give it a try. Fool around. Let yourself get loose, you know? Not by drinking while writing, but by getting turned on while writing, by the fun of it. Or by being so optimistic that you let your first few weeks of writing produce nothing but weird or boring shit, which you wouldn’t let get you down because you know that soon enough, the good stuff will start to flow.
Don’t stop with just one night of writing, or even two, you know? Indulge yourself. Even overindulge yourself, because you’ve earned it.
Location, location, habits
I used to smoke around 15 cigarettes a day. Some days I’d smoke 25, other days 20, but probably never fewer than 8. On days when I couldn’t smoke any (because of a family funeral or bronchitis), I didn’t feel right; I felt scattered and irritable and lost.
I quit cold turkey eight years ago. It took a few months to stop obsessing about all the cigarettes I wasn’t getting to smoke. It took over a year for me to really not care and not crave them. It took me three or four years before cigarettes were really and truly dead to me and I realized that all the space they had taken up in my heart was pretend, a mirage. Cigarettes, it turned out, were empty. It was all me the whole time.
I feel your heart sinking.
Don’t worry! I am NOT saying wine is the same as cigarettes. I am not hinting that you should cut your ties completely. Cigarettes ruin your lungs and your whole cardiovascular system and give you cancer. Wine is beautiful. I’m not even saying you should never get super lit, after four big glasses of wine and the moon glowing in the sky above your back yard, and good friends there to talk with about the most important things in life.
(When you get a chance, check out this interesting book on drunkenness. Very antiquated, full of classist and sexist assumptions and other delicious bias, but fun to read. The author thinks that good singers are more apt to be “drunkards.”)
I just want to tell you a story, and you can look for where you are the same and where you are different.
I had a young child and a husband. I wore blazers to work, but sat in a cubicle and spent hours on end writing thank you letters to millionaires and billionaires—also proposals to ask them for more money, and magazine profiles about how generous and interesting they were. Like the magazine tidbit about a young Indian man whose wedding (to the daughter of one of the richest men in India) broke the record as the most expensive wedding ever thrown on Planet Earth (they rented Paris), and he gave $50K or so to the university to rename one of the small on-campus cafes, where undergraduates line up for oversized muffins and paper cups of coffee. It was so generous of him.
I wanted to be a novelist and live in the city again and be fabulous again. Or at least get a promotion.
After work, I’d walk home, smoking along the sidewalk that ran by the creek, and there my poor family would be waiting for me in the ugly little house we rented, with the tiny bathroom that was actually in the kitchen, the toilet less than a foot away from the kitchen sink, in a veritable Feng Shui bonanza of bad. When we had people over for dinner (it was an eat-in kitchen) and a guest left the table to go to the bathroom, I would tell loud and fascinating anecdotes to drown out the tinkle of the guest’s pee.
(I’m including these details to crack you up and because this was my perspective when I smoked. Like, life is a struggle and so a girl’s got to get a smoke break in.
But life is also gorgeous and amazing, and those moments were perfect for a smoke too!
When Marshall and I went on a late honeymoon, leaving our toddler at home with her grandmother, I smoked my face off in Italy. In Rome, in Siena. All my fantasy vacations involved smoking—on a mountaintop with a sky full of lights and whitewater river rapids roaring not twenty feet from where I sit on a cabin porch, or walking on a deserted stretch of winter beach with just my five best friends, good coats, and a pack of Winstons to share.
I’d been smoking since I was 14. People sometimes said, “I had no idea you smoked!” and I was flattered that I still gave the impression of a nonsmoker. But I was also a little proud of smoking maybe. Or defiant. Fuck scaredy-cat bourgeois health nut goodie-two-shoes! I think I put billionaires and nonsmokers in the same category. When I was in the Army, I’d had one friend who sometimes did PT with a lit cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth as he ran around the outdoor track. Pretty badass. I mean, he wasn’t a great runner, but …
Smoking was the one break I gave myself from parenting and earning money and cleaning. On my back porch, I could see into some of the neighbors’ houses as they moved about slowly, and I felt the breeze on my face as I watched the dark trees shifting in the cobalt night sky above me. Beautiful, I’d think, and I’d give some of the credit to the cigarette.
As a nonsmoker, you’re probably thinking: You could have done all of that without the stupid cancer stick, dumbass!
But I couldn’t, not right away.
I lost total interest in my backyard when I quit smoking. I quit smoking when it became ridiculous and unacceptable to me to be a smoker. It just didn’t compute for who I wanted to be.
After quitting, I discovered that I really didn’t have many self-soothing skills, which sucked because it seemed like I needed to be soothed more than a mature adult should need to be soothed! It turned out that over the past 20+ years, I’d trained myself to take a smoke break after every little task. So at first, instead of weaning myself off of breaks, I just swapped out the treat. Instead of a cigarette, a strand of Red Vine licorice or a fresh cup of coffee. It probably took a whole year before I could really enjoy sitting on a porch again. I had to disentangle porches from cigarettes. I actually had to disentangle a lot from cigarettes: beaches, solo car trips, writing, cartooning, morning coffee, extreme anger or sadness, celebrations, getting together with old friends, eating and sex, being down south, being alone, walking out of an airport into a blast of hot, dirty air at the ground transportation area …
Marshall has a smart theory. He says habits/drugs/drinking turn a dial inside you toward joy and comfort and excitement, but that your insides get messed up, so that when you don’t partake in the habit/substance, your inner dial is turned AWAY from joy and comfort and excitement to the exact same degree the substance amped it up.
If that’s true, then the 2-3 nights a week that you drink 2-4 glasses of wine (up to 48 glasses of wine a month) and feel your feelings and feel relaxed and happy could mean that you’ll be less able to do those same important things without the wine! You might slowly be training your brain chemistry and emotional self to use those drunken nights do some of the exalting and expressing and exploring you should be doing sober. That would suck.
Drinking a few glasses of wine a few nights a week during a pandemic and collapse of our economy is totally reasonable! But also, it’s bothering you.
You could have it all.
I think it would be completely doable (and fun) to explode out into the world through your writing (or acting, singing, painting, etc.), which can be as big for this world as you can manage. I think you can figure out ways to be loose and passionate and questioning and relaxed and happy without a drop of wine. Hey, would you even crave/need wine anymore?
Maybe if you limited your drinking to once or twice a month, instead of your current 8-12 times a month, you could have the best of both worlds—the delicious thrill of occasional intoxication, but also the freshness, alertness, and productivity of sobriety.
OMG, was that the longest way ever to say, “Cut back a tad, sis?”
Whatever you decide, do it because you want to and do it with a good attitude, expecting the best outcome possible.
Write to me at EmilyWritesBack@gmail.com.