I usually write about things that make me happy, so you’re probably expecting this to be about my handsome husband or music or maybe lobster and Jarlsberg potato galettes. Instead I’m serving up sadness that will drop you to your knees and the smell of bile. Sound like fun? Good. Pull up a barstool and let me get you a drink.
Whatever Amy Winehouse technically died of, she was an alcoholic, addicted to the feeling she got from drinking. There has been a lot of talk about whether her death was a tragedy or something that served her right or perhaps even honorable punishment for the friends or relatives who didn’t stop her (emphasis added) from drinking or smoking or snorting herself into a jar of ashes. Maybe some of the talkers are as familiar with alcoholism as I am or as some of the others are with passing judgment or even with what intervention is possible to stop the self-destructive behavior of an adult in most countries that recognize individual rights and operate under the rule of law. I don’t know them personally, so I don’t know. But I have more than a passing acquaintance with life at the bottom of a bottle, so here’s my unsolicited contribution to the discussion.
Growing up with an alcoholic mother teaches a daughter what helplessness feels like when it lives inside her bones, and that no one ever really means they’re sorry (no matter how often or sincerely they say it), and that she may think she has witnessed the most outrageous drunken behavior but there will always be something worse and probably soon. My mother (who died in 2001) was an alcoholic, as were her grandfather, her brother and one of her sons. Unfortunately, especially for her kids, she was also a totally self-absorbed, angry, bitter woman. She used to say that gin made a mean drunk (and she sure drank a lot of gin), but she was a toxic person when sober and, therefore, not a good example of your garden-variety lush. I won’t list any of the stuff my brothers and I witnessed – it’s probably not more violent or degrading than what you’re imagining, and I’m not writing this to elicit your pity.
But a bedrock lesson for a daughter of an alcoholic is that no matter what good things she does or bad things she doesn’t do, how she follows directions or stays out of the way, how well she cooks or cares for her mother or siblings or scrapes the vomit off the side of the toilet or avoids gagging on the smell of her mother’s hangover breath or a thousand other things, her mother will never love her as much as she loves martinis. And in her immature brain, that means she must be unlovable which is going to color that girl’s relationships with everyone else as long as she lives. One of those inescapable universal truths is that every child wants her mother to love her, even if her mother is an awful person. I will spare you the humiliating details, but believe me when I say that child can spend a good part of the rest of her life trying to figure things out and has only a slim chance of eventually getting some of it right.
Alcoholics (and other addicts) are, above all, selfish. They want the high, need booze, and nothing will deter them from getting it. My experience (with my mother and others) is not revelatory or unique: the addict has to choose to stop. What makes that happen is different for each person who recovers, and some people never find a good enough reason. It took decades, but I finally decided that I wasn’t going to allow my mother to make me crazy, to ruin every family holiday, to act out in front of my daughter or my husband’s family, and I wasn’t going to answer the phone that rang in the middle of the night and go referee some drunken brawl she had gotten into or for any other reason, ever again. I had tried everything I could think of to get her to stop, had gotten her to agree hundreds of times that she had to stop, and she just wouldn’t. Or couldn’t. Whether it was wouldn’t or couldn’t no longer mattered either. I then discarded that last reason we all fall back on: But she’s my mother (or brother or husband or fill-in-the-blank). My last recourse was to cut her loose, and I did. I didn’t see her or talk to her for several years, until shortly before she died, but that’s a story for another time. I’m glad I did it. It was freeing in a way I can’t begin to describe. I wish I’d done it years sooner.
My advice, for anyone who’s looking for some or who cares what I think, is that an adult with an alcoholic spouse should be free to stay in the relationship and suffer the consequences, but if there are children living there and the nonboozing parent won’t leave and take them, he or she has a responsibility to find another loving home for the kids. No excuses, no exceptions. No “But we need health insurance and it’s through him/her,” no “But we’ll be poor/poorer,” no “But the rest of the family will hate me.” Think of it as child abuse (because it is). If the drunken parent were smacking the kids around, you’d remove them, wouldn’t you? Just imagine that every gulp out of that glass of beer or wine or Maker’s Mark is a closed fist to your son’s or daughter’s face. And then imagine that it’s your hand hitting them (because it is). Pack them up and get them out. You want to destroy your own life, fine. You don’t have the right to do that to your kids’.
Using my mother as an example of why alcoholics lead screwed-up lives (since she was such a miserable person in addition to the alcoholism) might be unfair, but I want to make sure I drive my point home, so let me tell you about Kathy.
Kathy was about ten years younger than I, single, a lawyer who made partner in a very male-dominated law firm, extremely intelligent, organized, self-possessed and very attractive. She was hyperaware; nothing got past her in a deposition and probably not in her regular old life. She was calm and polite and compassionate but hilariously snarky in private. Her looks were surprisingly delicate: pale, perfect skin, beautiful eyes and smile, pretty light brown hair, a face like one of those vintage dolls. She could wear a light blue suit without looking ridiculous, if you get my drift. I was a court reporter and worked with her occasionally though she wasn’t a client; she was always professional and courteous to other lawyers, witnesses, everyone, although somewhat aloof. Once, though, at a firm retreat, she was the star of a fierce midnight croquet match, smacking the senior partner’s ball around the pitch, inspiring amazingly inventive cheating to try to stop her, tough and brave. I was yelling along with everyone else, encouraging her, until the management at the Ritz came and shut the game down. I really liked her.
When firms merged and my husband left trial practice, she started her own office and I retired with bum hands; our orbits separated. But she had been the protégé of an old friend of ours, so later I heard gossip that she (whisper this) was drinking. We saw her at a restaurant once with an odd-looking fellow, and she hollered our names across the crowded room, the rictus of a smile glued to her pretty, flushed face. She dragged a different embarrassed guy to a garden party one afternoon, late and loud, stumbling and flailing until someone caught her just before she launched herself into the pool. The rescuer’s reward was that she threw her arms around his neck, shouting “Hi-i-i-i-i,” while everyone looked away.
A few years later, about six years ago, I got a message that Kathy had been hospitalized and was not expected to live. We guessed it had been a car accident, some catastrophe, but apparently she had been getting most of her calories from vodka for years and her liver was destroyed. She lay in a coma for a couple weeks, her porcelain skin the color of a pumpkin, until she died at the age of 44. Fortunately, she had no children.
To be clear, having a few drinks, even getting a little tight once in a while, isn’t alcoholism. The difference is that the occasional drinker isn’t compulsive, isn’t addicted, wouldn’t go to disastrous lengths to get more booze. And lest you think my expertise comes only from witnessing the compulsive behavior of others, I hereby freely admit that in my misspent youth I ingested far too much of a few substances at times.
And I worked in the legal and the medical/legal system long enough (my whole life being ‘long enough’) to know that it’s impossible to force an adult to stop abusing him- or herself unless the person either commits a crime or meets the classic definition of being a danger to him-/herself or others (and how extraordinarily difficult and expensive it is to prove that) and that most alcoholics aren’t criminals and don’t threaten to kill themselves or others; they just drink all the time.
And it makes me grit my teeth when I hear people saying that an alcoholic who is a happy drunk isn’t really hurting anybody. That would only be true if the happy drunk has not a single family member or friend in the world who cares about them or is affected by their behavior. Last time I looked, there aren’t a lot of happy drunks on remote mountaintops, completely disconnected from society. Kathy, for example, was a grinningly happy drunk.
It’s a very difficult problem. Drunks are dangerous – on the highways, even in their homes especially with kids around – and are sometimes really unhappy people. But liquor is legal, consuming it isn’t frowned upon unless it’s drunk to excess, but by then things can be out of control. If a person were stumbling around with a hypodermic sticking out of his arm, he’d be dealt with severely. A drunk is tossed into a bed somewhere to sleep it off. I don’t have a solution, no one does, not one that fits everyone, but a whole lot of people become collateral damage. Makes me want to just say fuuuuck.
In order to reduce my own sanctimony quotient, let me admit that I still drink. Not much, a glass of wine or a cocktail once a month or so, and I haven’t been even tipsy in at least a dozen years. It’s not because I’m better or holier (that’s a laugh) than someone who drinks more than that, but for two other reasons. First, I can’t tolerate the way I feel a couple hours after the last too-many-th drink and into the next day. I’m too old to bounce back after some eggs with hot sauce and a bloody Mary like we did in the old days.
The second reason is that I can still feel the undertow trying to haul me out to the green water. The sharp taste of lime juice in icy vodka or the fizzle-ting of ginger beer and dark rum on my tongue, not to mention the luscious syrup of a great wine in my mouth is a shivering reminder of how easy it would be to step too hard on the razor’s edge that I walk and feel it slice straight through the pink flesh of my foot, to find myself surrendering to a place where I would bear no responsibility for my actions, to leave my car on the side of the road and slide into a stranger’s bucket seat, thunking the door closed behind me and diving into the dark. So easy.