Staring Into the Abyss Without the Bandaid of Booze
October 01, 2015
Happy Anniversary to me, myself and I.
We're celebrating six months without alcohol. Though, I will confess that the terms "happy" and "celebrating" are debatable.
Giving up something you love because you love it too much is a hateful task. Especially if you loved white wine and vodka martinis because they took some of the hate, anxiety and fear out of your life for a few hours every day.
Without those temporary fixes, you're left with a big giant black hole into which you must stare day in and day out. That black hole can see you too. There is no reprieve. And neither of you blinks.
Scary? You bet.
That's what the last six months have been.
But I'm also here to tell you that there is light at the end of the tunnel – more like a tiny match.
I didn't get a glimpse of it until day 151, but it was waiting for me the whole time. Things once too scary for words, grow less frightening the longer you stare unaided.
When my son David was born in 2004, I thought he was the most terrifying thing on Earth and I was overwhelmed by the prospects of keeping him safe.
A little wine in the evening after he fell asleep helped push back the terror. The older he got, the more wine I needed for the increasing threats against us both. (Note: I didn't drink while pregnant because the fear of those consequences outweighed the others.)
I had a constant pit in my stomach from parenting – or what I privately called "baby-alive keeping." The "what-if beast" raged in my head. What if he gets a brain tumor? What if I get a brain tumor? Ironically, all that fear and wine was compromising my liver. And my need to drink was no doubt making my son less safe.
When my dad got sick with Alzheimer's disease, I used wine to assuage that reality, too.
When he died, I started to fixate on my mortality as well as my own odds of getting AD. Better sip a few martinis to push back those thoughts! Ironically, all that booze was compromising my memory, as well as my liver and my son's safety.
And so it went. Worried about this? Drink that! The converse was true too. Happy about something? Drink to that! Feeling somewhere in the middle? Sip to support the sublime!
The answer to every question was either Chardonnay or Smirnoff.
Until the day it wasn't.
Ironically, that day happened in the Middle East for me. Living in Abu Dhabi, as we were, offers a lot of good reasons to drink. Feelings of alienation. Concerns about terrorism. Worries about family back home. Doubts about your decisions to be in the UAE.
The truth is that most of the expats I met in Abu Dhabi were way more moderate. Moreover, my drinking habit stood out in a country whose native inhabitants were non-drinking Muslims. Nobody, where I worked at Khalifa University, was familiar with the concept of Happy Hour, which by this point I had extended into happy hours upon hours.
With every trip to the covert liquor store known as Spinney's, I felt more and more aware of how much I was imbibing. On the occasions when I didn't notice, my cab driver usually did.
"Do you drink every day?"
one asked me after waiting 10 minutes while I shopped. I wanted to scream "NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!" Instead, his question got me thinking. But yet again, my answer was more of the same. Vodka and vermouth. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Treadmill to run off the hangover. Rinse. Repeat. Day in and day out. Days had turned into years.
Then came March 28, 2014.
I went to the doctor that morning to get a minor prescription refilled where I was confronted with the fact that my blood pressure was scarily high as was my weight. Even though I'd sensed that a reality check was coming, it arrived as a shock. New questions popped up: How did this happen? Now what? I was gonna need new answers.
I had no choice but to enter into a staring contest with the deep, scary abyss inside me without the bandaid of booze. I knew that deep in my recesses there was a secret weapon – a slight advantage over my demons – in the form of competitiveness and courage.
The same tendencies that helped me become a national championship swimmer – and carry on after my father's death – might be able to help me face off against these liquid foes.
Bercaw in Lane 4. Chardonnay in Lane 5. Vodka in Lane 3. Whisky in Lane 2. Beer in Lane 6. But being a sprinter wasn't going to serve me well in this race. I'd have to go the distance for the rest of my life.
Day by day, I duked it out with fear, anxiety and dread WITHOUT the boost of mother's little helpers.
I watched what I thought was my identity go down the drain with the rest of the booze. I shuffled to work, where I couldn't focus. I plodded home, where I couldn't sleep. A day turned into a week. A week into a month.
Today, 185 days later, I feel relief.
And I've come to some conclusions about how I can best manage my fears back home in Vermont.
I don't like doing things at night because darkness worsens the abyss. I do like to go out during the day for breakfast and lunch and COFFEE and milkshakes and air and sun and clouds and butterflies and my son's swim meets and my husband's gigs and walks to end Alzheimer's disease. At night, however, I need candles, HGTV and a cozy blanket and fancy seltzer and peace and quiet to stave off the "what ifs."
I don't know if I'll always prefer curling up on the couch to going out at night, but this is the way I arrived at September 28, 2015. One thing I do know, though, is that I will forever be grateful to the Middle East – a region that confounds so many Americans – for bringing me clarity.