The first time I got drunk, I was embarrassing. I was 17 and sloppy, grabbing other people’s beers to finish the dregs, kissing randoms. I rode the subway home in the morning feeling incredible—feeling new. My ridiculous and pathetic behavior was transformed into a kind of success. Now that was a party.
A decade and a half later I started to read about other people who’d had the same feeling: like falling in love, but also like being loved, like being good, like flying. Other people also responded to their first real drunken shambolic evening with, Where has this feeling been all my life?
It turns out that like me, most of those people are alcoholics. Caroline Knapp titled her recovery memoir Drinking: A Love Story, and the biggest thing her book taught me was that if you have a relationship with alcohol … you might have a problem with alcohol.
Nobody told me that, at 17. Here are some other things I didn’t hear.
Pay attention to who is modeling alcohol use, and especially its misuse, for you.
I was lucky enough to have a lot of models for fruitful, convivial use of alcohol. Addiction doesn’t run in my family, so I got my images of alcoholism from books. I loved Grantaire from Les Mis, the caroling drunk who manages to turn up all noble and heroic at the very last minute. (In real life he would’ve slept through it. It turns out that it’s much harder to rise to the occasion when you’ve been training yourself to sink.) I loved one book where the protagonist, having betrayed the queen to her enemies, goes on a harrowing and degrading binge. What I took away from that was, Hmm, I guess this is one way people express guilt.
You may be revealing more about your inner life than you know.
It might be more than you realized. In The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker notes how often people use jokes to disguise real threats or test out real desires. Obviously not everybody who jokes about being an alcoholic really is one. But if you joke about it *a lot,* you may want to reassess your self-image.
We act like the kinds of people we want to be. This is one reason the Church canonizes saints; what they model, others emulate, sometimes becoming saints in the process.
That’s one reason I’m grateful that my interest in stories of addiction eventually moved me toward an interest in recovery, as well. If you read enough books or watch enough movies about the long climb toward peace, you’ll begin to find images that resonate with you. Your imagination will expand. This is especially important with recovery (whatever that word means to you) since so many people insist there’s only one true way. You may need the stories of people who found other paths, or forged their own.
Ask yourself: If you were going to change your drinking habits (or whatever), what might you try? Where might you find models you admire? If you take an interest in the more frightening and humiliating parts of your own life, if you pay attention to them instead of living in denial, if you seek out stories of other people who are in some way similar, eventually you will find guidance.
Notice what booze gives you — and notice if it starts to take things away.
Richard Klein wrote Cigarettes Are Sublime, a study of cigarettes in art and culture, partly in order to understand his own addiction—and in the course of writing it, he kicked the habit. Cigarettes is his wry farewell to the sublimity that would kill him if he let it.
Likewise, one thing that helped me quit drinking was naming all the gifts alcohol brought me. Ecstasy, intimacy, friendship, fearlessness.
Naming them forced me to be honest about whether alcohol was still giving me these gifts. I had to admit that everything drinking once offered, alcoholism was slowly, stealthily removing. Ecstasy becomes blackout, intimacy becomes lying, friendship becomes drinking alone, fearlessness becomes constant, ceaseless fear. You start to miss out on things—whether you’re blacked out (if you don’t remember it, you missed it) or hungover or no longer trusted or just sad.
Ask yourself what you drink for, and whether it actually does those things.
Specifically, ask whether you ever drink to avoid honest confrontation with your own desires—around sex, for example.
You can ask where else you might find the joy or relief or freedom you’re getting now from alcohol. You might be able to find them elsewhere in even more intense forms. I began to take the ecstasy of prayer more seriously once the cheaper ecstasy of vodka stopped working. I realized that I could attain intimacy with my friends if I was honest with them; I replaced “liquid courage” with a willingness to accept humiliation, and it turns out that does look a lot like fearlessness.
You can do things “a person like you” would never do.
This is a double-edged sword, and it’s the reverse of the point above about self-image. Under the influence of alcohol, you can say and do things a person like you—your image of yourself—would never do. You can beg people to kiss you, or get in fights with paper towel dispensers. (And if you mix alcohol with testosterone and sexual desire you’ll be lucky if the only thing you hurt is yourself.) One thing I did was say racist stuff. Not frequently—but once is too often.
But this also means that you can do things “a person like you” would never do, like get sober. I don’t think everybody who goes through a period of uncontrolled drinking needs to quit entirely—lots of people just grow out of it—but if you need to do it, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t think you can. People do things they believe to be impossible all the time.
[Editor’s Note: Take the Poll – Should we teach children about responsible alcohol use earlier]