First of a Two-Part Series
I was not an alcoholic, nor an addict, nor a substance abuser. I was not even a “problem” drinker. After all, I was a college graduate, had stable employment, lived in a decent home, had a husband and two kids, and I was a Jew. Everyone knew that alcoholics lived under bridges or in shelters. Addicts stole and were incarcerated in the finest penal institutions. And, of course, both varieties came from dysfunctional families. Well, okay, my family was pretty dysfunctional.
Not only wasn’t I an alkie or a druggie, but also, in my career as a probation officer, I supervised them. They were on the other side of the desk. They were my caseload, and I was paid to “fix” them or to lock them up. I didn’t get arrested when I drove drunk because I had a badge.
Alcohol and drugs were my solution, not my problem. I used them to “take the edge off,” to cope with stress and unhappiness. I used them to help me feel at ease in uncomfortable settings—and anywhere was an uncomfortable setting. Mostly, I used them to feel attractive to the opposite sex.
Getting drunk and using drugs was cool—for a very, very long time. Most people would never have guessed I had a problem. I kept that secret behind closed doors. To the outside world, I was the life of the party: I was funny and entertaining when I was loaded. My hijinks were the stuff of water cooler jokes at the office on Monday morning. My “outsides” looked just fine.
Towards the end, drugs and alcohol turned on me. My life got very dark. I drank daily and had blackouts in which I couldn’t recall what I’d done or with whom I’d done it. I lived a double life: during the day, I was a professional in a job with incredible authority, but at night, I drank in the scummiest of dive bars with “lower companions.” From the time I got home from work and popped that first beer until the time I crashed at night with a wine glass by my bedside, I drank. After all, I had a stressful job and a difficult home life. I deserved to drink and to smoke pot!
I got sober on January 4, 1988. It was, and still is, a journey.
I’ve had a chance to take a good, hard look at my life as an alcoholic and addict in a memoir I recently had published: Starting at Goodbye. I worked on it, off and on, for over ten years. In the first of this two part series, I will refer to a few excerpts to illustrate what my life looked like drunk and sober. The book is also an outrageous love story and testament to my late husband, Wayne. We shared thirty years of our lives together until his death from cancer. I picked up a hunky cowboy in a country western bar and took him home that night. Wayne was supposed to have been my last one night stand.
One of the main reasons I drank was to help me feel better about myself when it came to men. I had a horrible self-image based on my looks. I’d had horrible cystic acne as an adolescent. I was ridiculed by boys in both junior and senior high school because of my skin. I just wanted to be invisible if it meant they’d leave me alone.
When I drank, I felt pretty. I believed that if I went home with the cutest guy in the bar, I wasn’t so bad looking after all.
Here’s an excerpt from the book set early in my relationship with Wayne:
He flashed me his adorable smile and sexy wink, and I was toast. My anger melted like snow on a sunny day. I knew he was attracted to me for the security I offered, not to mention my cabinet filled with booze and a steady supply of pot. He needed my strength and stability. I needed him needing me. No matter what I did or said, he wouldn’t leave me. My weakness filled me with disgust, but I couldn’t really understand why I stayed. What was missing in me? Where was that empty space he filled? Why didn’t I believe I deserved someone who was my equal educationally, socially, and financially?
We shared a desire to avoid reality. Although I managed to go into work most days, I found myself calling in sick more often after suffering worse and worse hangovers. With Wayne, I was drinking more than ever, matching him shot for shot. On weekends especially, we’d spend hours sitting around the dinner table sharing intimate feelings while candles flickered.
“No one asked me to the prom,” I said. Tears plopped down my cheeks as I sipped sloppily on a glass of Gallo.
“I’da asked ya if I’d known ya then.” Wayne leaned over and patted me on the hand.
“No one wanted me. I was so ugly with my pock-marked skin. And all the boys in high school were so damn short. Some of the meaner ones teased me in front of everyone, called me a giraffe. I sucked it up and cried later, all alone, in my bed.” I took another sip, knocking over the glass accidentally.
“Ahh, baby. I think you’re beautiful.” He jumped up to get a sponge to wipe up the mess and got out the crystal decanter to pour me some more wine.
On nights like these, after I poured out my sob stories, we’d stagger upstairs and pass out on the bed. Often, with the room spinning, I’d puke my guts out first….
I hated feeling so desperate. I questioned my attractiveness. What’s wrong with me? Wasn’t I pretty enough? Passionate enough? Feminine enough?
The answers lay in the bottom of a liquor bottle. Once I was drunk enough, I could push down the pain, postpone the issues, and ignore what was happening in my life.
Because I was a functional drunk and Wayne wasn’t, it was easier to focus on him as the alcoholic. His father suggested that I attend Alanon with him.
Here is an excerpt of my first Alanon meeting:
At 6:30 on the dot, Nathan arrived to drive me to the community center in Costa Mesa. A sign posted on a door declared “Alanon meeting here.” We entered a brightly lit large room with dozens of metal folding chairs arranged in straight lines. Slogans with trite sayings like “Let go and let God” had been posted on the walls. A woman dressed in a conservative, navy suit stood at a podium on stage. I surveyed the audience, composed mostly of middle-aged women in dowdy lounge wear with worn, beaten looks on their faces. This is going to be a laugh a minute.
The leader read aloud some material from Alanon literature, which was followed by enthusiastic clapping. A parade of others stepped up to the podium, announcing their names, which were echoed by the audience—“Hi Loser!” Each told a tale of woe about husbands, boyfriends, or adult children who were out of control from alcohol. There was continuous mention of “the alcoholic,” as if he or she was an inanimate object.
They had no sense of humor regarding “the alcoholic,” that’s for sure. I had to stifle a desire to laugh out loud on occasion hearing them describe some pretty riotous drunken antics. If they could’ve read my mind, they’d have booted me out of the joint. I didn’t want to humiliate Nathan, so I kept my feelings to myself.
They ended the meeting by joining hands and reciting some stupid prayer with which I was unfamiliar. I think they said it was the Lord’s Prayer, which lent the whole shenanigans a clearly Christian slant, adding more icing to this unappetizing cake. I’ll give them a piece of my mind if they try to convert me, Nathan be damned.
After the meeting, we were steered to a table which held Styrofoam cups, a big coffee urn, hot water and tea bags, and an assortment of pastries and cookies. Nathan nudged me in the direction of a group of women who had congregated in the area, and he suggested I talk to them about Wayne. One woman who appeared to be the head sob sister was surrounded by a group of fawning women. I approached the bunch timidly as they formed a spontaneous opening to allow me into the circle. I found myself tattling on Wayne, focusing on his sporadic work history, and recounting tales of outrageous bourbon-related incidents. The head sob sister swept me into her arms and hugged me tightly. Her cohorts made sympathetic tsk-tsk sounds while patting me on the back and muttering jargon.
A tear slipped down my cheek as I grew more comfortable with this new role of victim. I began to embellish the stories, culminating with a synopsis of the SWAT blow-out.
“How awful, you poor thing,” one grey-haired matron said, locking eyes with me. “Keep coming back!”
I was beginning to relish being the center of attention. Hey, this isn’t so bad!…
Is this what the future holds in store for me? Sitting around with a bunch of pathetic losers talking about “the alcoholic”? Might as well shoot myself now and get it over with. Is being with Wayne worth it? I need a stiff drink.
The second part of this two-part series deals with my realization that I too might have a substance abuse problem.