Sunday, May 12, 2013

Zero comes before one

Quitting is hard.

It doesn't seem like it should be. Or it doesn't seem that way to me. I've long prided myself on having a more-than-adequate amount of mental fortitude -- you don't get through a decade living with a manic-depressive, chronically unemployed, hyper-interrogatory and self-destructive (then-)boyfriend without it. You don't finally break up with him, move him out, then uproot your entire life to go live out West, far from everyone and everything you know, without it. 

I've long viewed myself as someone normal and sane, almost boringly so. For nearly 30 years, I looked on as people around me drank and smoked and did drugs and had sex. I abstained from it all. I didn't need to do any of those things, didn't want to do any of those things. I cared about my writing, and about being loved, and all of these vices and methods of release seemed irrelevant to my goals -- distractions, derailments. 

And now two of these things -- drinking and sex -- seem to have become inextricably tangled up in my writing, with alcoholics heavily populating my later short stories; and in my pitiful and endless quest to feel truly loved, i.e., I drink because I don't feel that I'm enough on my own, unless I'm booze-enhanced.

I guess that circles back around to what I started out saying: Quitting is hard.

* * * 

Drinking problems -- addictions of any stripe -- were for a long time issues in the lives of other people. People less fortunate than I have been, people with mental-health problems. The bag lady buying the cheapest bottle of vodka that a little bit of money can buy, the "Girls Gone Wild" lifting their shirts for the camera in CancĂșn and going "Woo!" That abusive great-uncle you hear about who picked fights at bars, "Mommy Dearest" whaling on Christina with a wire hanger. The Irish. 

I would hear the cautionary tales, of marriages and families ripped apart, jobs and respectability lost, not to mention the livers corroded and the innocent victims smashed to death in car crashes, and I never could believe it. All of this caused by a drink? I would think, "Just don't pick up the bottle (or the beer can or the cocktail glass), duh." 

Duh, right? 

That's what I thought as recently as this last time I tried to quit, after posting yet another "Day 1," as-God-is-my-witness-I-will-never-touch-booze-again announcement on Facebook and here on this blog. Wonderful supportive friends came out of the virtual woodwork to send me encouraging messages, shared personal (private) stories about their own struggles or those of their loved ones. I was deeply moved -- but part of me felt bad, as if I were lying in order to get attention or something, because part of me still doesn't identify with the role of someone struggling with an addiction, someone who can't just not pick up the damn bottle or glass.  

Part of me felt that I didn't deserve such thoughtful and empathetic messages, because I didn't think I would have that hard of a time. Of course when I wrote the "Day 1" post, in the grim throes of a terrible, shivery, liver-convulsing hangover, booze seemed like the least tempting thing to me in the world. I thought it would be easy to stop. 

And then five days later I found myself sitting at a bar, killing time before my weekly short-fiction workshop in Dupont Circle, nervous that the other writers might not like the story I'd brought to share. I was drinking my first of three vodka- and champagne-containing cocktails and listening to my mom talk on the phone about my mean booze-addicted cousin and his similarly boozy wife and how they had decided not to let my aunt and uncle be a part of their new baby's life. "Carol says her boys become different people when they drink," my mom said of my aunt, the newly ex-communicated grandma. "No one in our family should touch that stuff. We can't handle it. It's just in our genes." "I know..." I said, and I took a sip of my drink. 

At the writing workshop, one of the members had brought a bottle of wine but no corkscrew. Pleasantly soused, I bragged about my "pull" with my "new friends" at the bar down the street (where I'd tipped a good 50 percent of my tab earlier, drunk and feeling magnanimous). I offered to go ask the bar people to uncork it for us. I ran out of the room like a spaz, sprinted down the block, and skipped into the very bar where I'd listened to my mom talk about alcohol's kryptonitic effect on our family's susceptible DNA. I coyly offered to pay a few bucks for the use of their corkscrew, but the pretty bartender who by now knows my "usual" waved away my suggestion of paying them and uncorked the bottle for me, giving me a sort of "Godspeed" smile as I pranced on out the door.

So yeah, not five days after my pledge to abstain from drinking, there I was running along the streets of Dupont Circle, back to the writing group, holding an uncorked wine bottle aloft as if it were the Olympic flame. 

* * * 

I drank a cup or two of wine at the writing group. 

The short story I'd brought was about drinking

The group liked it. Other than a few individual nitpicks, nobody had any real problems with it. As J. read it aloud in her wonderful reading voice, I jotted down little smiley faces at the parts that got laughs (and little frowny faces by one or two parts that were supposed to be mildly humorous but didn't go over as well as I'd hoped), and wrote down several encouraging comments as well. 

It felt a little surreal listening to the group debate the motives and psychological drivers of "the narrator" (in this story, the narrator is pretty much just me but placed in a sort of fictional, parallel-universe situation). It felt like a very sly way to get free therapy.

It was also pretty heady to be sitting there drunk and talking about a story I wrote about being drunk. 

Lately so many of my stories have been in that "thinly veiled autobiography" genre that I wonder if I'm one of those people who can't make art out of their lives, so they make their lives into art -- i.e., they basically go around living their lives as if they're characters, as if a camera eye or the mind of a reader is on them. I guess it's of some comfort to do that, to at least be an unknown living piece of art instead of merely a failed artist. I worry that I'm settling for that, for seeing myself as some blandly tragic character before a tiny familiar audience of friends, instead of creating art -- writing -- that ventures outside of myself to help people, provoke thought, make a reader feel less alone in a frequently cold and bewildering world. 

My boyfriend and I are taking a trip to Savannah, Georgia, next month. We haven't traveled to anyplace in a long time, so we've been meaning to take a long-weekend mini vacation. We've had a mysterious block when it comes to thinking of an exciting place to go within a reasonable weekend-traveling radius of DC. I spend a lot of time haunting Union Station these days thanks to my new job near there, and one day I happened to wander into this little customer-service area they have that has train schedules and brochures in it. 

I picked up a brochure, and my eye fell on Savannah there toward the southward end of one of the lines. I bought "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" (sometimes subtitled "A Savannah Story," non-fiction local-character vignettes plus some true-crime courtroom coverage in the second half of the book, all very damn engrossing so far) at Barnes & Noble and have been reading it during my Metro commutes. I bought us two train tickets to there.

Anyway, I saw this interview with John Berendt, the book's author, on YouTube (I'd wanted to see this one larger-than-life character and actual Savannah denizen, a drag queen named Lady Chablis, for myself to see if she matched up with how I'd imagined her while reading the book). Berendt was talking about how people in the South, or people in Savannah at least, approach living as an art form, and how Lady Chablis was like a living work of art. She'd created herself, her persona, was living life as if she were the star of her own movie or book, the star of her own life story. 

Which is just fine, and even sounds kind of cool. But when you're a writer, when you aspire to create art that encompasses more than your own life and world, that transcends the limitations of yourself -- being the star of your own life story isn't enough. It's tantamount to failure. It's failure, given a nice PR gloss.

* * * 

Kier says I'm not really addicted to alcohol, and I think he's right. 

I think I'm addicted to being drunk. 

Check out this part of an older story of mine, "Like Water"

"I love being drunk. I love the dreamy, watery looseness of my body. I love the hilarity of life, I love the bottomless energy, I love how beautiful I feel when I'm drunk."

That about sums it up. 

There are two or three bottles of wine here in the house right now. Our housemate bought them; I think we used one of them for cooking. They hold zero allure for me. Why would I want to get drunk -- why would I need to get drunk -- here in my own house where there's no need to be any way other than how I am? Why would I get drunk here where there's no one to show off for, no one I need to fake being outgoing for, no constant stream of music to dance to or crowd of people to admire me dancing? 

I can't stand the taste of most types of alcohol. I hate beer, and I dislike wine; there's something vaguely urinous about beer to me, and wine tastes like salty blood, with only the merest dark tinge of grape in the best cases. 

That's why I order cocktails in which the tasteless vodka (to me, good vodka is the kind that you can't taste) is drowned out by some combination of fruit juices. Or better yet, I'll just drink flavored vodkas (sweet tea, peach tea, sometimes seasonal things like pumpkin pie; these fluffy libations comprised the bulk of my trunk-booze stash of yore). Even then, I have to seriously will myself to get each mouthful down my throat. There's a part of my brain that thinks, upon drinking any decent-tasting-to-me cocktail (something like a melon-flavored Midori Sour, or this rainbow-colored alcoholic snow cone I once had at the American-fare-and-arcade-games emporium Dave & Buster's), "Man, this would be really good if they just left out the booze." 

So it's not the substance that I crave. 

It's something else.

* * * 

I tried to really analyze this on Thursday, the evening of the writing workshop, even as it was happening. I remember the moment it occurred to me with a delinquent thrill -- "I could just go to that bar I always go to, and order a couple of drinks before the writing group, and the world would go on spinning." I knew that I would dutifully report this lapse (as I'm doing right now) if I did that; I derive a quite possibly perverse hit of satisfaction from confessing my sins, probably indicative of some deeper issue going on with me. So I never once thought, "I could do that, and nobody would ever know!" Of course everyone would know; of course I would blog about it. Not telling anyone was never an option.

After it occurred to me that I could just not quit (just yet), that I wasn't exactly wearing some invisible-fence-collar device that would give me a physical jolt were I to stray from my stated goal, I began to justify it. I thought, "Well, maybe I just need to stick to that two-cocktail rule I once had for myself, back when I weighed in the double digits and two cocktails was enough to send me twirling through the streets and dancing with strangers." I decided, at some point during the workday, that I would have two cocktails later that night and then I would cut myself off. "No problem; I'll just drink like a normal person. People do it every day. There are bars everywhere, and they're not exactly the same as crack dens -- not everyone who goes in there is an addict."

And then something strange -- yet thoroughly familiar to me -- started to happen. I began to feel, for lack of a better word, festive. I started to feel excited about letting myself have those two quirky and not-that-bad-tasting champagne-, vodka-, and cucumber-soda cocktails, excited about seeing a few of the rarely seen writing-group members who'd indicated on the Meetup page that they'd be there tonight. I think I was trying to convince myself it was a special occasion, thus rationalizing the allowance of a little bit of booze. (Like New Year's Eve, or a champagne toast at a wedding, or a twenty-first birthday, Saint Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo -- you never have to look far for a handy excuse to drink.)

During my lunch break, I bought a hi-liter yellow dress and a necklace at Claire's Accessories. After work, I followed my newish routine of walking to a nearby Hyatt to edit and print out my story at their on-site Kinko's. In their expansive and blissfully private ladies' room, I put on a bunch of make-up and tore the tag off my new dress, tucking the plastic stem as far under my armpit as I could (I had no scissors to snip it off). The dress was too short, bright, and punky for work; I changed into it in a bathroom stall, wadding up my work clothes and stuffing them in a shopping bag that I later forgot, either at the writing group or the bar (RIP, knee-length pleated black skirt and maroon sweater-dress).

I took the Red Line to Dupont Circle. I walked hurriedly to the bar I always go to, the quirky one whose menu touts the place's proficiency with "modern Jewish cookery" and that's just a couple buildings down from the "preparatory school" where the writing workshop takes place. I kept telling myself, "It hasn't happened yet. You still haven't broken your promise. You can always stop -- right up until the point after you've ordered the drink and it's been placed before you. You don't have to take that first traitorous sip." 

But it already felt too late. It had felt too late as soon as I gave myself permission to order "just a couple" of cocktails. 

I remember this mental block going up the moment I gave myself permission, like blinders on a horse. I simply didn't dwell on the significance of what I was planning to do. I moved forward like some stupid automaton. 

I went into the bar. I ordered a drink. It was clear and bubbly. I took that first sip.

It tasted like relief. 

* * * 

Later while walking to the Metro station to take the train back to my car, I called my boyfriend to give him a rough estimate of when I'd be home. I let it slip that I'd gone to the bar beforehand; I'd meant to tell him, just not right then, and not in so blithe and "oh-by-the-way" a manner. 

I called Kier. I told him what I'd done. I was crying. I said, "I failed." He said, "No, you just have to start over again tomorrow." My train was massively delayed; I sat on the floor of the Metro station, with Kier still on the phone, and told him that the late train was making me so frustrated that I wished I had a gun. "But not to shoot people. Or even any animals. Maybe some figurines. Precious Moments figurines. Or Hummels. Oh my god, I want to shoot Hummels." At least I'm not a mean drunk, just a dopey and lachrymose one.

* * * 

Yesterday our housemate had a joint birthday party with her sister at a nice house out in Ashburn, Virginia. The party theme was "superhero luau." I wore a shiny Spider-Man dress I'd bought at the last minute from Party Depot, with a couple of rainbow-colored leis. My boyfriend wore his Batman Snuggie (for the first five minutes or so, at least; any longer than that and he'd have gotten too hot, plus the Snuggie wasn't exactly conducive to jumping around in the inflatable bouncy castle) and a lei coiled up on his head. There were hardly any non-alcoholic drinks, although I saw someone make a "mocktail" for my housemate's pregnant niece after she showed up. There was a pitcher of strong margaritas. My housemate's sister asked what I wanted to drink. I said, "I'll have a margarita." And I had a margarita. 

And the "X Days Sober" count went back to zero again. 

At some point while my boyfriend was engaged in "military talk" with a couple of dudes at the party, I slipped off for a walk through the idyllic suburban neighborhood in my shiny Spider-Man dress with my cell phone in hand. I called Kier and told him what I'd done, again. He said, "The count starts back at zero." "Yeah, I know." 

* * * 

I'm starting to think that keeping count of the days I stay sober is a flawed approach. Or an irrelevant approach. 

Because it doesn't mean anything for me not to drink at home, or on a Sunday afternoon, or during the workday (unless I'm in front of a big room conducting a three-hours-long training session, apparently). Counting those easy, temptation-free days is almost like cheating.

What matters is how I handle it when I'm going to be in a daunting social situation -- a party or going out to dinner with a group of people around whom I'm worried I'll be shy and boring, at a nightclub where I'm afraid I can't dance or talk to people unless I chemically alter myself, chemically loosen up. Those are the times I should count. 

So far the count is at zero. 

I've thought of a few tricks I could use next time I'm tempted to get drunk. I could call a supportive friend for a pep talk or distraction -- but that seems abominably co-dependent and weak. It reminds me of the protagonist in David Foster Wallace's short story "The Depressed Person" who calls and leans on friends and her therapist without realizing that these folks in her "support system" have any sorrows or anything at all going on in their lives. Her relationships with these people are entirely one-sided, and when she asks how they're doing, if she does at all, it's perfunctory. You get the feeling she only asks so she can think of herself as a nice person.

Or I could think about compelling reasons not to drink -- such as the fact that I want to have a family someday, and I will not make any kid of mine put up with this kind of crap. 

I feel this need for a ritual, some kind of cleansing or purging gesture, or for a talisman -- a piece of jewelry that means something somehow related to my vow to stop drinking, some scar or tattoo, a rubber band to snap against my wrist in a Pavlovian manner whenever the thought of drinking occurs to me. Maybe just a photo or card bearing some resonant image in my wallet, some small object in my purse or pocket. 

But what it really comes down to is strength. I haven't been strong in a very long time. I have been strong before, though, so I know I have it in me. I just need to find it again. 

Which sounds very easy. 

It's not.

1 comment:

  1. This is exactly the battle I have with my sweet tooth. I think the chocolate soothes me, bathes my neurons in serotonin and dopamine and feel-good chemicals. I say I will stop, and then something makes me anxious and dammit, I want something, and I will have what I want. I get giddy when I plan to let myself have a special treat after work. It's a wonder I'm not 100 lbs overweight. But I bet I would be 20 lbs thinner if not for that sweet tooth addiction. I recently made an appointment to see a hypnotherapist about it, that's how powerless I feel. I'm so embarrassed to admit that!