"Drinking: A Love Story" (A Love Story)

Or how I found out I'm an alcoholic.

Nov 14, 2011 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

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About 5 minutes before Jane's birthday party on Friday, I got an email from my mom with the subject line "___ back in rehab." ___ is of course an unnamed family member who has been in 3 rehabs in the past 6 months, struggling with an addiction to alcohol and the pain pill Oxycodone, aka "hillbilly heroin."

This time, as my family member was planning to cause harm to himself, he was committed to the pscyh ward. And while ___ knows that I am a recovering addict, he doesn't seem to really believe that I struggled to quit drinking and using drugs. In fact, he seems to feel opressed by his perception that I just stopped one day and never had another drink.

I did stop one day -- January 6, 2009, to be exact -- and I haven't had a drink since then. But I knew I was an alcoholic for years before I made the mental, emotional and spiritual leap to becoming a non-drinking person.

In a way, alcoholism has two stages. There's denial, in which you realize that bad things happen to you when you drink, but you don't connect the dots and call it alcoholism. Some people come into recovery not really believing they're alcoholics and are convinced by the things they learn there. Others, like me, come into recovery knowing full well that we are alcoholics, but still helpless to quit drinking. That's what we call powerlessness. It sucks.

Alcoholic is a weighted word. Before I realized I was one, I pictured an old man, perhaps, a smelly bum on the street, or someone who drinks constantly all day, too sloppy to hold down a job or a relationship. You know, someone not like me.

Today I realize that alcoholic means simply that when I have any amount of alcohol, some kind of internal switch gets flipped, and I can't stop. I won't want to stop drinking until I physically cannot drink anymore. If I'm out, I will never want to go home. If you are out with me and you get tired, I will pretend that I am going home and instead go to another bar to drink with strangers. If I start to feel sick, I will go to the bathroom and throw up, then start drinking again, aka the "shoot and reload." If I am out of alcohol, and you have some, I will go with you regardless of who "you" may be. I am not in control anymore.

I learned this from Caroline Knapp's, "Drinking: A Love Story," a book I recommend to any woman who has ever entertained the thought that she might have a problem with alcohol. It is probably the clearest, most beautifully written book about alcoholism ever written.

I started it while on vacation in Wildwood, New Jersey, and read it in between glasses of wine at the bar down the street from our hotel and dinner cocktails. It's the story of Knapp's 20-year battle with alcoholism, during which she managed to graduate from Brown and become a successful columnist at the Boston Phoenix. Knapp was a young, professionally successful, high-functioning female who drank too much and had man problems, just like me. And she was calling herself an alcoholic. So maybe...?

As I tore through the book,I felt my perceptions start to shift and resettle, like a house readjusting into an unstable foundation. One night, we found ourselves seated at a restaurant table when we realized we had strayed across some invisible line into a dry county and there was no alcohol served. I felt like I was going to cry. I think I just sulked, picking a fight with my boyfriend when he didn't want to leave. What was the point of dinner, it felt like, if I couldn't have a drink? I ate miserably. I also realized: This is not normal.

My relationship to alcohol was, as Knapp described hers, driven by a feeling of "hunger and need."

"When someone sets a bottle of wine on the dinner table, do you find yourself glancing at it subersively, posessively, the way you might look at a lover you long for but don't quite trust?" she asks. "When someone pours you a glass from that bottle, do you take careful note of the level of liquid in the glass and measure it secretly against the level of liquid in the other glasses, and hold your breath just for a second until you're assured you have enough? Do you establish an edgy feeling of relationship with that glass, that wine bottle; do you worry over it, care about it, covet it, want all of it for yourself? Can you bear the thought that it might run out, that you'll be left sitting there without it, alone and unprotected?"

No, I couldn't bear it. After that, every time I wobbled down a set of stairs to fold my body over a toilet in a stall, I remembered this passage:

"To get to the bathroom at the Ritz you had to walk through the lobby and down a set of stairs, and I remember navigating the path one night in a pair of high heels, over soft carpeting. It was late in the evening and I'd probably had seven or eight glasses of wine by then, maybe more, and I reeled across the lobby, bumping into the wall at the top of the staircase. Downstairs, I shut myself in the stall, then leaned over and put my head between my knees. I was dizzy and drunk and I knew it, and at times like that I'd be aware of the two images of myself, competing and increasingly irreconcileable...There was the sophisticated young woman in the bar sipping an expensive Fume Blanc; and there was the drunken young woman staggering through the lobby of the hotel, wondering if she was going to puke."

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And then this nice piece of logic, which helped me out in those early Am I really an alcoholic? Surely I could have just one days.

"If I am an alcoholic, I shouldn't drink and if I'm not an alcoholic, I don't need to." Also, "People who aren't alcoholics don't lie in bed at two-thirty in the morning wondering if they're alcoholics."

I can't tell you the page when it happened, but by the time I finished that book, I knew both what an alcoholic is and that I was one. And I'm not the only one. From just the first few Amazon reviews of "Drinking: A Love Story":

"This book changed my life, and I just wish I could thank Caroline Knapp personally ... I started reading it with a glass of wine in my hand. As I read, I realized with horror and some degree of sadness that she was describing me, along with countless other women in the same position. ... I called my mother and told her that I was an alcoholic. I haven't had a drink since."

"I read it at the kitchen table while drinking a glass of wine. Alarm bells kept clanging and clanging. When I got halfway through, I realized I was just like her -- a highly educated writer with a drinking problem. ... I don't drink because I have all these problems, I have all these problems because I drink! With horror and tears, I called a friend I knew in AA who brought me to a meeting. I've been clean and sober now for 5 years."

"As it is, I read this book when I had become fully aware that my own relationship with alcohol had ceased to be simply "great when it's around - like a good meal" and begun to be compulsive. ... Ms. Knapp's book is ideal, and potentially life-saving, for the intelligent, highly-functioning alcoholic who has not yet done anything so stupid that they are forced to recognize what everyone else in their life probably knows. ... Like so many reviewers of this book, I regret that the author died before I could personally thank her for the insights this book provides. However, she is in my prayers, and I hope she's enjoying a very sober, happy existence with the same Higher Power that watched out for her here on earth."

Oh yes, the sad part. In 2002, just 6 years after "Drinking a Love Story" was published, Caroline Knapp died of lung cancer at 42, leaving behind a lot of grateful people like me who will never get to thank her for what she did for us. I had read a lot of memoirs about addiction; this was the first one that ever made me realize why I was so drawn to the subject matter. How many books actually change lives? "Drinking a Love Story" does and did.

Now my family member is in that painful place between realizing there is a problem and being ready to fix it. I have been there as well. But as Knapp says of her sobriety, "I needed every single drink it took to get there, every drink and every attendant moment of degredation and despair." So did I. So will he.