I am, among other things, an alcoholic.
When describing myself list-wise, alcoholic would probably come after writer, wife, activist, mom etc; but I am still, and in a very public way, an alcoholic. It’s the business of being public that puts me at odds with a lot of my fellow alcoholics. But I haven’t had anyone complain, and I am increasingly certain that going public isn’t such a bad idea.
Most alcoholics have very good reasons for keeping their anonymity. Outside of AA meetings their addiction — conquered or not — could cost them jobs, friendships, reputations. I lost some of all the above in my drinking days, but letting people know that those days are behind me poses no identifiable risks.
At six years alcohol-free, I moved to San Francisco in 1992 to marry the old friend known ever since as my Final Husband. I had to make a choice: Spend the rest of my life saying “No, thanks, I don’t care for one right now,” or, “You know, I’m an alcoholic. I can’t handle the stuff.” If I chose the latter, I figured I would soon not have to say it very often, if at all. I chose the latter, and never looked back.
The Final Husband, a man who does love his cocktail hour martini (gin, of course, up with a twist) and a good wine with dinner, bought into the plan. He would have far preferred a wife who would join him in wine appreciation, but took my word for the fact that I am an addict and vowed to support me. For the first several years of our alcohol-bifurcated union, he quietly took a bottle of non-alcoholic wine to cocktail parties so I could be comfortably unobtrusive. (This led to one rather hilarious episode that has become a favorite family story: From across the room in a crowded party thrown by one of San Francisco’s impeccably elegant hostesses, I once spotted a gentleman filling his lady friend’s glass from my non-alcoholic wine bottle. Unable to dive over the crowd to intercept, I watched as her pleasant smile turned to a disbelieving grimace and she set the glass down rather abruptly on a nearby table. We have imagined all manner of repercussions from this incident, but thought better of telling the hostess.)
From the beginning, I worked hard to craft comments that would not come across as judgmental or argumentative. Those were mild-mannered remarks like “I was a ‘social drinker’ for a long time but my drinking changed and became very bad for me.” Or, “Some of us can handle alcohol and some can’t. I really can’t.”
But I also fought hard against the common, almost reflexive attitude that being alcohol-free must leave my life barren and deprived, supremely dull. So I tried to say things like, “Whoa. I hated feeling like my words and thoughts were not super-sharp.” Or, “I really love waking up in the morning without feeling blurry, let alone hung over.” In the land of perpetual cocktail events, wine etiquette and Nectar-of-the-Gods believers, living outside that culture is generally assumed to be the worst of all worlds. I took the attitude that I’m delighted to see others enjoy themselves with alcohol, but for me, being without it is far more of a delight. Unadulterated joy, as a matter of fact. My comments at least carried the weight of demonstrated truth.
After the first few responses of shock and disbelief, my new friends on the Left Coast fairly quickly adapted to this strange situation and joined me in laughing about it all… or soon, ignoring the issue completely. I never imagined that it mattered to anyone but me. But here is why I suspect being public about being alcohol-free does indeed matter, and perhaps more of us should consider doing that.
One day I received a Valentine that reinforced my conviction about having taken the right course. It was from a woman I had known, though not intimately, for several years; we had frequently been together at concerts and parties. She is bright, pretty, accomplished in many areas, widely admired and respected. If anyone had ever suggested to me that she had an issue with alcohol I would have scoffed in utter disbelief.
The Valentine included several brief lines. She said she was sober now. She said I had influenced her to try that route to new life. Over the years I’ve gotten several other notes, like the email that just came, wanting to make sure I saw John Skoyles’ essay in the New York Times Sunday Review “about his coming of age with the bottle. I am 14 years plus now,” she wrote. “I have you to thank.”
It may be mid-summer, but that’s the best Valentine’s gift I’ve ever received.