I was 12-years-old, which would make the year 1966 — and I was home alone, except for my father, who was upstairs asleep. But he was not so much sleeping as passed out.
Knock at the door: a police officer. “Do you know anything about the Oldsmobile outside?” he asked me.
It was our family car. Abandoned in the middle of the street in front of our house. With the motor running.
“I guess my father left it there,” I told the policeman. This wasn’t the first time.
“Don’t worry,” he said, when he learned I was the only other person in the house. “I’ll pull it into the driveway for you.” Then he drove away. No ticket, no further discussion, then or ever.
I never told anyone what happened that night — including my mother, or my father, who probably wouldn’t have remembered. In our family, as in most during those years, we didn’t talk about drinking. I’d never heard the word “alcoholic.” I just knew I would never let myself get drunk as my father did. And in all my 62 years, I never have.
But there are other ways to experience a drinking problem. Fifty years later, I recognized I had one. My occasional glass of wine had become a nightly ritual. One afternoon it came to me that I was checking my watch to see if it was 5 p.m. yet — the hour I’d told myself it was OK to open a bottle, though if there was a bottle already open from the night before, I might pour myself a glass at 4 p.m., or even 3:30 p.m.
I am not telling this story from some lofty distance. I won’t pretend I’ve got this one nailed. It’s only been a month since I poured myself a glass of wine, and I can’t say I don’t miss it. I loved that first taste, and the feeling that accompanied it: the way the strains and sorrows of my day slipped into softer focus as the cabernet took hold.
But one glass always led to another, and by the time I’d had that second drink, whatever reservations I might have felt about the third disappeared. More nights than not, more often than not, my husband and I killed the bottle together — though I was generally responsible for consuming more than my share.
Over the year just passed — a year that found the two of us in an all-consuming battle with cancer (his) and a lot of grief (mine) — I’d tried to give up drinking more than a few times, but never made it past four or five days before telling myself “Life is hard enough right now. I deserve this.” And slowly it came to me that among the many reasons why I should give up drinking (my daily morning headache, my inability to stay awake watching a movie that started later than 7 p.m., and the arguments I got into with people I loved, particularly my adult children, when under the influence), the difficulty I experienced doing without wine may have been the most compelling indication that I needed to forego alcohol.
When I wrote about my drinking in this space, a week ago, some people weighed in with the opinion that I wasn’t really an alcoholic. One reader pointed out — referring to my story about the Breathalyzer test I’d been required to undergo a few years back, when I was pulled over for speeding — that I’d passed it, after all. (Follow-up question: Would I have been speeding in the first place, if I hadn’t been drinking that night?)
Another reader suggested that since it did not appear I’d done irreparable damage to any of the central relationships in my life as a result of drinking, I did not qualify as a problem drinker. (Follow-up question: Should I have waited until that happened, before recognizing I had a problem and doing something about it?)
I gave up drinking because it was hard to give up drinking — and that’s not a good sign. I gave up drinking because I liked it too much. I gave up drinking because in the end the question was not whether or not I was an alcoholic, but whether I might become one. And I knew I could.
I was not a take-it-or-leave-it drinker. When there was no wine around, I missed it. When — cleaning up after a dinner party — I’d find if there was a half-finished glass on the table, I finished it. When I walked in the door after a particularly difficult day, the first thing I did was pour myself a glass of wine. And life is full of difficult days.
I grew up — like so many of my generation — in the era when parents drank hard liquor, more than wine. Despite my father’s unmistakable problem, my parents hosted cocktail parties — at which my role was to pass the trays of appetizers, while my mother served the drinks. Often, at these parties, my father would make a scene. And the morning after, we all pretended it never happened.
My father’s drink of choice was vodka — consumed not only at those parties but also in secret, upstairs in his study, and once he’d started in, we knew there was no stopping. I learned early not to bring friends over to our house, and — if it was past 6 p.m. — to dive for the telephone before he picked up the receiver. I knew that if he got there first, he’d probably launch into an impassioned and surprisingly eloquent — but drunken — soliloquy on art or music or literature or politics, or the decay of society, or God, to some junior high school friend who might have dialed our number in search of that night’s social studies assignment, or the mother down the street, calling to see if I could babysit Saturday night.
Nobody talked about this — and so I believed that ours was the only family in our town, and probably the only one in the world, where this kind of thing went on. I adored my father, and so I tried hard to keep him happy. If I could just be a good enough girl, maybe then he wouldn’t take out the secret vodka bottle. But as anybody knows, who has grown up in a family where somebody drinks as my father did, once the addiction takes hold, rescue is no longer possible. It didn’t matter how good my report card was, how much he loved me. At the end of the day, the vodka always won.
As an adult, I learned I had a genetic predisposition to substance abuse, and I was careful. I was in my 40s before I tasted a martini, and I never kept hard liquor in our home. But wine was different. Wine was healthy, natural — a drink that came from vineyards, not distilleries.
Mine was the generation that gave up Coca Cola in favor of carrying around Nalgene bottles of water. My friends and I abandoned the before-dinner cocktail — and the cocktail party — in favor of dinner parties where wine flowed freely, and guiltlessly. We made pilgrimages to vineyards, read books on the subject. Wine was sophisticated. Wine (red wine anyway) was even good for our health.
For some people there is nothing wrong with any of this. The fact that I have made the choice I have, to give up drinking, comes with no judgment concerning my many friends, and others, who continue to drink with no issue. They might even drink no less than I did. But I suspect they have a different relationship with the wine than the one I enjoyed … too much. Maybe they possess a luckier genetic heritage. And different reasons than my own for reaching for the wine in the first place.
I loved good wine. I loved the way good wine paired with good food. But in the end, I recognized that I was drinking not so much to taste the richness of the grape as to numb parts of my life that felt too painful, without the wine. Reaching for a drink had become my response to bad news, or stress, or worry, and once I had that first drink, everything looked better.
Four weeks after giving up wine, I am feeling healthy and strong. I don’t wake up with a headache. I’ve lost a few pounds, and of course this assists in my resolve. Five o’clock comes and goes without missing my ritual with the corkscrew, and when dinner rolls round, I pour my club soda and cranberry juice in a wine glass. It isn’t wine, but I’m doing alright with the substitute.
Here comes the hardest part: It’s about what to do with all those feelings I have, now that I’m no longer pouring a glass of wine and “taking the edge off.” What am I to do about stress, for instance? And sorrow. And pain. Because my husband is still a cancer patient, and I am still the woman who loves and worries about him. And if that weren’t part of our lives, there would be something else.
But just as I celebrate my joys now without champagne, I no longer medicate my stress or sadness with Malbec or zinfandel. Hard as it is sometimes to face whatever it is life offers up that day without a glass of wine in my hand to soften the edges, I don’t want to miss anything.
I’ll have a few more words on this next Monday.
Joyce Maynard’s new book, “Under the Influence,” will be published by William Morrow Publishers on Feb. 23, 2016.
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