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The 4,000th Drink

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

In December of 2017, I sat in the mental health services waiting room at Kaiser and filled out their mandatory mental evaluation form. It being my first time there, I found it odd that every patient is expected to rate their depression over the last two weeks, measured in numbers 1 through 5. As if the tide of our emotions can be boiled down to what is essentially an Amazon review of feelings. I circled some 3s, some 1s. I don’t remember what my final score was, but I remember feeling pretty confident that I wasn’t depressed anymore — not really — or paralyzed with intrusive thoughts of catastrophes involving my children anymore…not really.

Just a couple months earlier I decided that my social media addiction was compounding my already depressed and anxious disposition and that if I wanted to get better, I needed to get off of it. So I deleted all of the apps on my phone, froze my Facebook account and began the “detox.” Within two months of complete social media abstinence, I felt a lot better — sort of. The truth was, my social media addiction was just an appetizer, an amuse-bouche, really, in the grand meal of my life. The real addiction had been cooking for years and was just about to be served.

With my phone occupying my hands less, I was able to notice the wine that was more often filling its void. I hated how much I was drinking, but I attributed the increase of excessive drinking to the night of November 6, 2016, getting laid off and evicted from our home a couple months after that night, my chronic pain, and the ever-increasing mountains of debt we’d gotten into trying to make ends meet while living in one of the most expensive counties in the country. I had plenty to drink about, so I believed. And everywhere I looked there seemed to be evidence to support that idea. Especially in the online mommy world…

See! It’s normal to drink a bottle of wine when you’ve had a tough day with the kids — this snarky meme with ten thousand hearts and thumbs up says so right here!

So does this “gag” wine glass that’s actually a wine bottle with a wine glass attached to the top. It used to just be a joke on social mom threads but now it’s actually for sale in Bed Bath & Beyond! See!

And kid birthday parties? Are you kidding? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bouncy house that wasn’t within 10 feet of a table full of booze.

Everywhere I looked there was confirmation that alcohol was always the solution. That it was not only totally normal to get loaded and numb out when life got hard, or when life got fun, or even when it got just the tiniest bit uncomfortable, but in fact totally not normal if you didn’t.  

But I knew in my heart that this was not normal for me. I had always been obsessed with mood-altering substances since about the age of 11 but thought that I managed my intake pretty well as an adult. Even if it did take a lot of bargaining and willpower. But something had changed. The willpower wasn’t working anymore and I was tired of bargaining, and that’s how I ended up in the waiting room at Kaiser.

I’d gone to many therapists to seek treatment for my anxiety and depression over the last 20 years but never really stuck with anyone. This was my first time meeting Dr. Hao. She opened the door and called my name. I looked up expecting to find the warm, sympathetic face of a kindly therapist that would swoop me up and fly me into her little therapy room on the wings of her supreme empathy. I imagined maybe there would be a cozy couch, dim lighting, and some essential oils. There, she would be able to tend to me like the little, wounded bird I’d come to see myself to be.  

Instead what I saw was a serious face. A no bullshit face. A, “you can just leave all your fuckery right here in the waiting room” face. There would be no swooping, no cozy couch or fuzzy feelings. Her voice was somewhat deep and brusque as she introduced herself, gesturing with an extended arm the way to her office. Dr. Hao walked ahead of me, her long, straight black hair clinging obediently to her back, her smart blazer, skirt, and tall black leather boots all submitting to the lines of her body. I envisioned her flanked by Galactic Empire stormtroopers, and I an unwelcome guest on the Death Star.

She immediately laid the ground rules for what therapy looked like with her and then asked me why I was seeking treatment at this time. I started telling her about my social media addiction and what the last couple months had been like, and then I said that I thought, maybe, I might have an eensy-weensy bit of a drinking problem. I told her of my family history of addiction and how much I was drinking (which I’m sure I lied about) and that I wasn’t sure if how much I was drinking was normal. I was treating it all very casually, like I was talking to a friend who was going to say, “Oh gosh that’s not that much! You should see how much my dad drinks! Now he’s got a drinking problem! You’re fine honey, don’t worry about. Totally normal. Here, have a glass of Pinot.” After already having my expectations of her totally crushed just a few minutes prior, I’m not sure why I continued on with this ridiculous delusion.

She listened to me intently and when I stopped talking, looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Well, I do think you have a problem.” I was floored. I could not believe she told me the truth. How dare she! I sank in my chair absolutely terrified of what she might say next. She continued to go into great detail about the chemistry of addiction and the brain. She used a lot of big science-y words to explain the mounds of research-based theories around Genetic Addiction Risk. She said, “Alcoholism is progressive. People don’t usually become an alcoholic with their first drink. They become an alcoholic on their 4,000th drink. Addiction is written in your genetic code and you don’t know which drink is going to trigger that code, so you need to be really careful.”

This scared the shit out of me. After that session, I started to feel like every drink was a ticking time bomb. I resolved to really cut down on my alcohol consumption a few weeks later in January so I could enjoy my boozy Christmas and New Year’s Eve. I talked myself into believing that I had just had a really tough year and that I was eating too much crap and not sleeping enough, and that if I just did a cleanse for a month, I could get my health back on track, and continue to drink in moderation like a normal person.

January came and I did just that. For almost an entire month, I stopped drinking and stuck with a strict diet. I even joined a Pilates gym. But before the month was up there was some reason to celebrate something which required me to eat an entire pizza and drink an entire bottle of wine by myself. I felt horrible in every way the next day but went to Pilates anyway. After a challenging workout, I joked with the ladies in the changing area that, Maybe I shouldn’t have drunk that entire bottle of wine last night! Hahaha! Which was not met with as many relatable laughs and smiles as I was hoping for. I was actually taken aback by their lack of alcoholic mommy camaraderie. It was the first time I felt “other” in my drinking.

After that incident, I told myself I would only drink in social gatherings. When that didn’t work, I told myself I would only have liquor in the house on the weekends. I’d open a bottle of wine on Friday night and drink half, intending to drink the other half on Saturday. I’d finish that half on Saturday and decide, Eh, it’s Saturday! I’ll open another bottle and have a little more. So then I’d have an open bottle sitting there on Sunday night and think, Well, I don’t want wine in the house on Monday, so I’d better drink this bottle tonight. Five o’clock Monday would roll around and it would seem odd not to have a drink, having gotten used to having a drink for the last three nights. So then I started drinking every night again, but this time, it was worse. The more I tried to control it, the worse it got. I’d go to the store, vowing not to buy a bottle and by the time I left, the cart was full of wine. I started buying white wine in addition to my regular red wine so I could fool myself into thinking I wasn’t actually drinking that much. I would start with the white and then have red. If I drank a glass (or two) of white and then drank two (large) glasses of red, the half-empty bottle on the counter looked better than totally empty, as if the bottle of white in the fridge was invisible. As if I was invisible.

My strategy was to save the last glass until right before I wanted to sleep because I’m insomniac with chronic pain. If I spaced out my consumption in just the right amount and timed everything just right, I would knock out and sleep peacefully until morning. Sometimes this worked, but most times, it did not. Because I have no control over how much alcohol I consume once I start drinking, I mostly drank far too much and had the timing all wrong. This would lead to me waking up around 3 a.m., bladder throbbing, drunk but also hungover – I affectionately named this state, “drunkover.” Many nights when I’d wake up like this I’d go in the kitchen and drink a couple shots of tequila in hopes that it would put me back to sleep but I would inevitably end up sitting on the toilet peeing, head spinning and pounding, silently berating myself for not having followed my recipe for successful sleep, AGAIN. “Why do I keep doing this?! Why do I keep drinking too much? Why can’t I control this??” My walk of shame always occurred in the dark on the carpeted path from my bathroom back to my bed where I would lie awake full of regret until the alarm went off.

I’d plow through my morning hungover, angry, and exhausted, making breakfasts, packing lunches, and driving kids to school pretending to be just fine. I’d sit in the morning commute traffic looking at the other drivers, wondering if I was the only mother in the carpool lane who threw a rager for herself the night before. This went on for months, all the while Dr. Hao’s ominous predictions ringing in my head alongside every drunkover.

This last July, I decided it was time to end the insanity. I had what you might call “a moment of clarity” after a night of heavy drinking. I finally realized that I am unable to control my drinking and that there will never be a time when I will be able to. I am extremely grateful for Dr. Hao’s direct honesty with me that day last December. I don’t think I would have had the courage to be honest with myself the morning of my last drunkover to text a sober friend and tell her I needed help if Dr. Hao hadn’t warned me. But I also look back and think about how terribly vague her directions of “you’d better be careful” were. What did that even mean? What the hell was I supposed to do with that? Why didn’t she say, “Erica, you don’t have to drink anymore. You don’t need to hit bottom before you stop. You can stop right now. You can be free, right now.” Instead, I suffered another seven months, trying to “be careful.”

Now I look around at our drinking culture with my sober eyes and can see all the people in my life that it effects and think, Will they all have to hit their bottom before getting free? Because our culture says, “Drink as much as you want all the time until you’re definitely, without a doubt, are 100% an alcoholic – then, maybe you should get help, and when you do, you should feel really shitty and shameful about it and only talk about it anonymously with other alcoholics.”

Why on earth should anyone have to “hit bottom” before getting sober? And while we’re on the subject, what is hitting bottom? For some people it’s losing their job, their family. For others it’s multiple stints in jail, or the worst yet, accidentally killing someone while driving drunk. For me, it was physically and mentally feeling like shit every single day. It was the shame I felt when kissing my kids goodnight wondering if what they were going to remember from these goodnight kisses was the smell of booze on my breath or me passing out in their bed with them. It was the obsessive way I negotiated my life to fit around my drinking. It was me, picking up the bottle when everything in me did not want to.

I hit my bottom when I realized I no longer had control over my drinking and therefore no longer had control over my life. I didn’t need to wait to lose my family or accidentally kill someone to see that this was not the life I had intended for myself. I wish I would have figured that out a lot sooner. But there were no conversations happening for people in the middle. The way we talk about alcohol in this country is you’re either a normal drinker or you’re an alcoholic. But the truth is much more complicated than that. I’m not sure what a normal drinker is. Equally confusing, I’m not sure what an alcoholic is. And how could we possibly know? Alcohol is a mind-altering, addictive drug. Is there a normal way to use that? Our culture definitely pretends like there is. And maybe for some people there is a normal way to use it, but everyone is different and no two people will have the exact response to alcohol. Therefore, we have no universal baseline for which we can definitively say that there is a normal way to consume alcohol. What’s most dangerous about pretending that we do have a universal baseline, is it forces us to silently tiptoe around an invisible line we’re not supposed to cross, often discovering only after we’ve crossed it that it’s too late.

By the time I went to Kaiser last year I had been pretending a very long time. No one knew I had a problem. Not my husband not my best friend, no one. For years I had been comparing my drinking to others, always looking for social proof that the way I was drinking was acceptable and that the way some others were drinking, was not. I proudly held up the times I was able to exercise restraint as evidence that I was in control and definitely did not have a problem. It didn’t matter that for years I wondered if I was an alcoholic or that I felt like I was dying on the inside. As long as I could compare my outside to other “real” alcoholics and come out ahead, I told myself I didn’t have a problem. It wasn’t until I gave up social media, saw Dr. Hao, and became willing to be honest with myself that I started noticing the cracks in my comparison story.

Last October I went back to Kaiser mental health services as a self-professed alcoholic. I circled my 1s and 3s and saw a different therapist who did have a kindly face who could see that I am finally in a place to look at the causes of my anxiety and depression and that I am ready to do the work I need to do in order to heal. I go to AA meetings, have a sponsor, and am working the steps. I am rewiring my brain to use tools that help keep me sober instead of trying to use willpower. I am slowly learning how to navigate life as a sober mom, a sober wife, a sober sister, a sober daughter, a sober friend; slowly learning how to be a sober human in a world that says it’s not okay to be human and have human experiences without numbing it all with whatever vice or distraction is on hand.

I still have the same problems I had when I was drinking – the state of the world has only gotten worse, money still eludes me, and my body still hurts – but I wake up every day knowing that even when the world is crumbling around me, I don’t have to crumble with it. Now when I’m faced with the inevitable pain and the discomforts of life, I let myself feel it all, amazed that the feeling, did not actually kill me. I’m no longer filled with shame. When I kiss my kids goodnight there’s nothing but love lingering on my breath. This is it. I’m on the last course. Dessert isn’t exactly what I thought it would be. Sometimes it’s full of nuts that I crack my teeth on, and other times it’s so delicious I think I might cry.

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