IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Developed a Drinking Problem Late in Life
For most of my life, I had only one addiction: boys. Not sex, although it almost always went there. Not love, although it’s what I craved. But boys. The sweet, warm smell of them. Their eyes on me, their hands... I craved them like candy.
In the therapy world, we call that a “process addiction” as opposed to a substance addiction. I never had a substance addiction. I experimented with drugs here and there, like any teen and twenty-something. I started going to bars when I was 14 but the drinks in my hand were there only to still my hands, to keep me steady while I waited for a boy to find me.
Right before I turned 30, I got married, but my need for boys continued. I didn’t go out to bars anymore. I didn’t scan supermarkets or highways for boys. But I did maintain a fantasy-fueled emotional affair with someone throughout the entirety of my marriage. It was only after we separated, and I slept with 17 more boys that my beliefs about them finally shook loose.
During the year and a half we were separated, before I moved out, before I met the person who would become my second husband, my then-husband and I started drinking. Not a lot, but some. We were still friends, good friends even, and we spent lots of evenings processing our separation while we sat outside with a bottle of wine and cigarettes, and while our children slept inside.
Something that tends to be true about addiction is that it moves from one thing to another. Most people substitute their addictions with new ones, hopefully with things that will be less harmful to their lives. This is why so many AA people smoke. It’s why most people who have one addiction tend to have two or three more: heroin and boys; cigarettes and alcohol; sex and cocaine.
In one of my favorite books about addiction, Susan Shapiro tells the story of how she worked with her therapist to get rid of every last addiction she had: cigarettes, alcohol, bread. Every time she beat one, she uncovered a new one. Her therapist explained it this way: Beneath every addiction is profound despair.
In the years before my husband and I divorced, we had two children, one who wound up having autism. He is a happy person. He’s smart and witty and delightful in almost every way. But there’s a grief that comes with the surprise of a special needs child, a grief that I hate because it’s irrational in so many ways, and yet it comes and comes without warning.
When I see someone give him a strange look, a look that says, “Something is wrong with that kid,” or when he won’t eat anything except the same damn Smart Puffs he’s been eating since he stopped nursing, it comes.
My marriage fell apart because of that pain, because my now ex-husband and I couldn’t hold one another through it, because that, too, would have been too painful. Because we were both getting crushed beneath its weight.
And it wasn’t just our son’s autism that was crushing me. It was my writing career, which had lost its momentum since my one smash hit, no matter how hard I worked, no matter how many pages and pages I wrote, no matter what tactic I took. No one seemed to want to buy my new work.
So, we separated, and as I lost belief in what boys could do for me, I drank and smoked cigarettes instead. Because now, to add to the reasons to despair, I had a divorce as well.
Drinking as a problem snuck up on me. I had never been much of a drinker before, so when I drank more than two glasses of wine while laughing with friends, I hardly noticed. My friends and I would get together with bottles of wine and drink and smoke cigarettes and talk through our lives. We were funny. Damn, we were funny, and that laughter is what kept me going well into the evening, drinking, and drinking some more.
People started telling me they were concerned. My father, my current husband, two of my friends, my therapist. This is, of course, one of the signs. I began to notice many such signs over the past year: craving, increased tolerance, waking too often with hangovers.
One time I got pulled over, driving home from a party, and the policeman, so young I could have been his mother, told me with fury in his eyes that I could leave my car there and take a cab home, or I could come with him right now to jail. The shame didn’t last long enough, though, for me to curb the drinking. Because too often it has felt as though all I’ve got is that laughter. All I’ve got is the fun that happens when we sit around and make each other laugh, and the drinking, well, the drinking is just part of that package.
A month ago, my husband and I went to a party. He moves between being sick of my drinking and tolerant of it. But this night, I was boisterous and obnoxious and I turned my jokes on him. I don’t remember it this way, but he says my joking was mean spirited, and that wasn’t funny at all.
At some point in the night I said something so immensely inappropriate, albeit hilarious, that my friend and I could hardly breathe we were laughing so hard. And I followed it up by pointing out that I would risk all for the ability to entertain myself, for this sort of unabashed laughter, the only thing that I felt saved by at the time.
The next day, my husband was so angry with me he wouldn’t speak to me for most of the day. He couldn’t even see me. The worst part was that I had no idea what I’d done.
The shame of addiction is what has taken me most by surprise. I could easily point to my children as a reason to stop. I could point to my health, to the fact that I’ve gained 20 pounds since I started drinking. There are so many good reasons.
But the biggest hardship alcohol’s grip has brought me is the shame.
I say that my first addiction was boys, but it’s more accurate to say that I was addicted to the need. I was beholden to the shame that came with feeling like I wasn’t worth love. I wasn’t worth being cared for. I used boys to prove that to myself again and again.
It’s depressing that after all the work I did to come through that, I simply transferred that desperation to something else. So, I will keep working on it, uncovering and sitting with that ancient, profound despair.