Experiments In Sobriety or “This Is When I Admit That I Have A Drinking Problem”

Two nights ago I woke up still-drunk on my couch at 7 AM, wearing my coat and the taste of cigarettes with one ringing thought: What the fuck?

I hate the word alcoholic. It’s weird and sterile, like a strange vestige of a time when mental illness meant state hospitals and probably reality looked like Mad Men with fewer well-tailored suits.

I grew up in bars, literally, but never heard that word, not once. It’s the ultimate taboo of drinking culture. What wasn’t taboo? Pouring a heavy-handed vodka tonic before hopping behind the wheel on the way to anywhere. The plastic 1.75L ghost always lurking underneath the workbench like some northern star of sickness. Feeding your 10 year-old daughter quarters so she could push them into the dusty solitaire game down at the far end of the bar, assuming you were on the way to a bar, which usually you were.

Back to that word. I’m not crazy about it; I’ll be the first to admit that. My therapist claims that I used it a few weeks ago to describe myself, but I called her bluff immediately. She might have been bluffing, but it might have just slipped out. A lot of things feel like slipping. Slipping between one drink and six, slipping through the day without eating a thing. Slipping seven months forward in time before realizing that you didn’t go more than a single day without a drink, usually three.

That kind of routine is a mundane, slow burn fuse, which in a way is the opposite of an explosion. No one notices. You don’t notice. By all accounts, I don’t even seem like a huge partier, or even the biggest drinker I know, but I do know that something’s always felt a little different. It’s like I’ve got an internal switch that flips and not everyone has it, and if you don’t it’s almost impossible to explain. Sometimes it flips between my first and second drink. Sometimes it flips first thing in the morning. The easiest way to explain it is that I’ve always felt like a drinker, a word that resonates with the same truth as the word ‘queer’ or my first name.

No one notices. You don’t notice.

I started drinking younger than most people I know. I grew up enduring the slings and arrows of an abusive home life, but more than trying to escape that, I think it was just about living in the suburbs and wanting to feel something. Being gay was a stone in my throat, but I didn’t even acknowledge that it was there at all ’til I was 17 or so. I started drinking heavily when I was about 15, I think.

Around that time I spent my school nights chatting on AIM with my best friend, doing shots of vodka alone in our little blue glow-lit suburban solipsisms. We spent almost every night like that, and it didn’t ever seem weird or troubling or anything, it just happened. Our parents had better things to worry about I guess, and maybe we did too. Every morning we went to school and made perfect grades and no one noticed anything; we didn’t even notice anything. By 16 we were doing the same thing but stirring a bunch of pills into the mix, which is a very stupid thing that I actively discourage you and anyone you love from doing. My friend’s mom had chronic pain, lost her leg in a car accident in her youth, and our other friend’s mom was a hospice nurse, so it was almost too easy to come by any kind of prescription medication you can imagine. If we had something really strong like oxycontin we’d usually parcel it out carefully, like some kind of fucked up rations, but everything else we just took as we came across it. I remember spending a lot of nights itchy and looking up at my ceiling fan, wondering why nothing felt like anything.

That year, on one of our mundane blurry nights, my best friend overdosed. We were chatting online that night, which is just about the most unpoetic thing ever… it’s hard to even write about it — there’s an extra gloss of surreality that makes it hard to touch. The night he OD’d he didn’t seem more fucked up than usual; we usually started misspelling things as the night blurred on. But this time he didn’t wake up the next day. Ten years later, I don’t even remember how I found out. The next few months felt like gravity collapsing in on me, I’m not even sure it all happened or how it did or why. After he died, I occasionally felt it all in sharp jags, but more often I didn’t feel anything at all… not a single thing for days. Drinking felt different after that too, but it’s hard to say how. Everything shifted, reality suddenly had many, many moving parts.

Two years later, I went to college. I kept most of that story under wraps. I drank like a college student. Stupid shit happened sometimes, just like it would to anyone. I graduated. In 2008 or so, I started going a few months totally sober off and on. Everything was a tumult for a while there, but it didn’t feel like it. My drinking got louder, with more overt self destructive overtures. I was younger then, we all drank like idiots, so I still blended in for the most part. Still, I was in a therapy program, and at some point it was mandated that I attend AA, which I did for a meeting or two — a gay AA group in a neighborhood with nice shade trees and brownstones. I bought the big book and the little book or whatever, but then just started lying about it because it was a hassle and total abstinence of any kind tends to not be a thing that resonates with me.

Things were pretty stable for a while, but then this whole thing — whatever this thing is — came back, in a more insidious way. I became a person who keeps my shit together, but doesn’t always remember a whole lot. If you bring up the details, I’ll go along with it while tamping down the creeping horror of losing entire chunks of an evening — or of a month.

But there’s a subtle difference that comes into focus.

It’s particularly sharp around 3:00 on a workday afternoon. I don’t have coworkers, so every day is a DIY happy hour. And it’s not like I ever wonder if I feel like drinking, I just wonder where I feel like drinking. The part of me that grew up swinging my legs at a bar stool still loves swinging open the door on a new dive and settling in at the bar like I’ve been showing up for years. The part of me writing this right now wonders if I shouldn’t have a drink before I edit it.

It’s like taking the bus, a sort of invisible thing in-between two other places.

I do most of my drinking alone, which makes it not feel like drinking at all. It’s just a thing I do on the way to doing something else. It’s like taking the bus, a sort of invisible thing in-between two other places, and it isn’t very interesting so it’s not really worth talking about. Because if a tree falls in some shithole bar, and no one is around to notice, it’s not much of an anecdote, now is it? It’s a potent facilitator, that feeling of being shimmery and translucent all the time, of not having witnesses. It’s easy to think whatever you want. It’s even easier to let those blind spots blot life out, seep outward like a drop of ink on a cocktail napkin.

None of this feels particularly sad or particularly anything, in retrospect. In fact, I wouldn’t be thinking about it at all excepting a couple of factors. One: This month is the five year anniversary of my dad’s death. He died at 50, a grownup frat boy with a big heart but a quick snarl. Drinking, smoking, and drugs didn’t do him any favors. Two: I decided to quit drinking, at least for long enough to take a step back and see if that’s what I want. So far, it’s been a funny slow motion sort of struggle. It feels like stage combat, or like watching a character in a silent movie try to wrest something out of another person’s arms. No momentum at all, and no volume either. All I know is that I want to stop the slow seep of that ink blot — and I wouldn’t mind having a little company.

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  1. Thank you for this.
    I’m a student at a women’s college. I can attest that alcohol is huge, even in this setting. Not for everyone, but for people like me who are so afraid of being wrong about their sexuality, or just plainly terrified about their sexuality. Drinking allowed me to kiss the people I wanted to kiss, and to acknowledge how much I enjoyed it. Drinking somehow became an important factor in my coming out, even in an encouraging setting. I’m not even explicitly out to my parents, but the closest I’ve come to it was me talking to my mom about “traditional values” while tipsy at a holiday dinner. It just never seems like a good time.
    I stopped drinking every weekend this semester because I got sick. I’d also read a zine, I’m blanking on the name. Although I don’t think I’ve ever been an outright consistant alcoholic, I’ve abused alcohol in a way that scares me. One of the people interviewed in the zine recalled a story of when quitting. After quitting, they tried one beer in a positive setting. They described how the people around them could finish their beer and go home, but the speaker was instantly afraid of losing that feeling. I feel like that when I drink.
    My younger brother is also queer– he identifies as gay and just came out to me recently. He doesn’t drink, in part because alcoholism runs in my family. He’s having a really, really hard time at his college, and recognizes that it would be easier if he did drink. I’m having a hard time giving him good advice, and this is a good reminder.
    Thank you for writing.

  2. I read this before I went to work this morning and have been thinking about you throughout the day. I’m really glad to see this issue addressed. It’s also nice to see how many fellow recovering alcoholics/addicts are on this site (I’ve wondered about that, since we’re basically everywhere, but just assumed that either no one had mentioned it or I had missed it if they did).
    September of last year marked three years of sobriety for me, and I’m not sure I could even formulate a sentence, much less write something like this in the very beginning (SO MANY FEELINGS/lack of feelings). Hopefully this post will be something that you can look back on and say “wow, I made it through that!”
    As everyone else has said, if you (or anyone else with a problem/who thinks they might have one) ever needs someone to talk to I’m here!

  3. THANK YOU for sharing.

    “It’s just a thing I do on the way to doing something else. It’s like taking the bus, a sort of invisible thing in-between two other places, and it isn’t very interesting so it’s not really worth talking about.”

    I get it.

  4. Pleased to see Autostraddle “go there” with substance abuse.Sometimes it seems like you have to forfeit your astinence from substances in order to gain acceptance. I drink but certain types of alcohol mess with my mind in a way I don’t like. It can be awkward to explain the details of my mental health to strangers who are drinking at a queer event.. which is why I wish there would be more queer spaces in the world that didn’t depend on alcohol and weed for their existence.

    To the author: you are so so brave to share this.

  5. I’m a member. I logged out before posting this.

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your story.
    See, I know what an alcoholic looks like. My mother was an alcoholic. She used to forget to pick me up from ballet lessons most weeks. I mean, I used to tell the other dancers she forgot even though I knew she was passed out in her armchair, smelling of bourbon. She was asleep every night by 7 PM. I made supper and did the laundry and cleaned the kitchen and made sure my sister did her homework. I was 9 years old the first time I made dinner for my whole family.
    What I mean to say is, my mother was an alcoholic. I can’t be. I get where I need to go. I do what’s required of me. And right now I can’t afford food most days but I can afford beer, somehow. There are plenty of nights I don’t remember, mornings where I wake up cloudy. I have become an expert at apologizing. “I’m sorry you had to drive me home.” “I’m sorry I passed out on your kitchen floor.” “I’m really sorry I vomited on your laptop.”
    I am 23 years old. When am I too old for my drinking habits? When do I outgrow the norm, the shots, the drinking until I feel like dancing? Because right now, right here, I am functioning. I could stop any time I wanted to.
    I think?

  6. I am super shocked by how many recovering addicts/alcoholics there are on this site, I had no idea. And I assume there must be more wo haven’t commented. I stopped reading AS for a long time because of the seemingly never ending shout outs to whiskey and xanax but I always figured I was the only over-sensitive, drug addicted weirdo who was bothered by it. It’s nice to know I’m not. I don’t mean that as criticism of any of the writers here but like someone else said it makes me uneasy how a problem that is so prevalent in this specific community is taken so lightly here, and almost treated as some kind of lifestyle choice or something. The only times I can remember it being addressed seriously are in posts about statistics of how queer people are more likely to not have health insurance and also struggle with addiction, depression, etc. But aside from all that this was a wonderfully written piece, I related to it so much but you said it all so much better than I ever could have. I really hope you get the support you need in whatever you end up doing and that you find a way to be healthy and happy. It is really hard in the beginning but, for me anyway, it has been so worth it.

  7. Read this on Jezebel, and I was like — did I black out and write this and send it to Autostraddle? Growing up bored in suburbia, drunk on AOL, gay, in an abusive household, stint of sobriety after finishing college, now hard to remember a night where I haven’t had more than 3 drinks…. Even my dad also died 5 years ago this month. Bizarre. Only difference is that you’re taking the steps to recover. Me, I’m just trying to keep the substance abuse at a minimum.

    Your writing is beautiful, and I’d really love to see more of it. “It’s a potent facilitator, that feeling of being shimmery and translucent all the time, of not having witnesses. It’s easy to think whatever you want.” Chills — I’m there every damn day, but hadn’t found the words. Thank you for helping me recognize how the justification works.

    Best of luck with sobriety. You’re already there, now you just have to stick with the boredom (that’s the toughest part for me, anyway… drinking and drugs kill the boredom, or at least make it tolerable). If it helps, know that there are others out there such as myself that are pulling for you. Keep us updated.

  8. I’m at that place where I know I could have a drinking problem really easily, and I’m really just wondering how to stop it from happening to me. I loooove being drunk and alcoholism is in my family… So I’m trying to set out some rules, like, “don’t drink without sharing the booze with somebody,” and “don’t drink enough that you are obviously drunk” (which for me isn’t too restrictive, actually), and “if you find yourself craving a drink too much, specifically avoid drinking that day.”

    And then I start to wonder, if I’m setting out kind of loose rules that normal people follow instinctively, do I already fall under the umbrella of “alcoholic?” I think no matter where you are on the spectrum, there’s always a worse and there’s always a better – so I’m striving toward the better and vaguely hoping.

  9. This is such a moving piece. While I was reading it, I felt as if you were taking the words straight from my brain. Thank you for sharing your story, and I wish for the best of luck to you.

  10. I can soooooo identify with where you’re at Interrupted Girl! I was there, on the edge of that abyss, almost 20 years ago. Fueling my fearful rage with drinking, drugs and dangerous liaisons. I paid dearly, with my body, for that bad behavior until finally I simply lost my mind. Winding up in a mental hospital without a clue as to how I got there or even what my name was. THAT was a lifetime ago my friend. With the help of AA and a lot of soul searching, I’m about to celebrate 19 years of sobriety. Has everyday been ha ha happy? Oh hell no! But my worst day sober will always be better than my best day drunk. Stay strong, be positive, keep sharing your story and ask for help.

  11. im really scared to read this. im drunk and i made myself click but, idk, i cant. im not ready to read this. not tonight, and probably (definitely) not for a while.

    but, yknow. thank you. for writing it.

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