Ho, ho, ho and a bottle of Whiskey
The first time I had a “real” drink (as opposed to sipping the foam off a beer, or that half a glass of champagne at a NYE party) I drank a bottle of white wine, a bottle of cider and ¾ of a bottle of Baileys. It was a NYE and I was 16 years old. My mother was at a friend’s NYE party and my sister and I had a few friends over, smuggled the alcohol in and some of us drank (come to think of it, the younger ones didn’t really drink; only the “older” ones – we were still kind of responsible). Needless to say, my head was firmly welded to the toilet seat within 90 minutes, and I rang the New Year in by crawling to the phone and trying to pretend I was fine when my mother called us to see how we were. It served as a lesson. A big lesson. Just not the one you are probably thinking.
Never mix your drinks. If you want to keep your head out of the toilet and with the party, be smart. Stick to one type of drink and you will be grand. That was the lesson I taught myself. And after that one incident, during the next 20 years of drinking and not drinking, I threw up from alcohol less than 5 times. Great accomplishment, no? I cannot, however, count the amount of times I blacked out, said stupid things, acted very drunk, cried in a bar or probably made a fool out of myself. Black outs are scary. One moment you are having a blast, and the next you are waking up in your bed, in your sleeping clothes, wondering how on earth you got home. What happened between the last moment you remember and waking up in the morning? How did you make it home by yourself in a cab, pay the cab, get into your apartment, fold your clothes and put on sleeping clothes? It’s as if your brain shuts off and your body goes on autopilot. Very, very scary when you think of it.
During the past 20 years I have had times when I will drink now and then, times when I am completely sober, times when I drink a lot and am fine and times when I drink a lot and am not fine. I’ve been sober for over 16 months now, and that Guinness and that shot of Jameson I had right at the time I guessed I was probably pregnant are the last drinks I will probably have in a long time, maybe forever. I have learnt to never say never as it often comes back to bite you in the face, but I have always made a promise to myself that if I ever become a mother all drinking and partying goes out the window. This is a personal choice based on my childhood and in no way to be seen as anything else. I also don’t see this anymore as being sober, just as part of my life that changed when I got pregnant. Everything is different now, and that is not a bad thing. Nowadays what I really, really crave, instead of a cigarette and a shot, is a really good cup of coffee.
My up and down relationship with alcohol has been a love/hate, thwarted and twisted, calm and happy, relationship. Paradoxical, I know. Alcohol gave me wings, or so I thought. In the beginning alcohol helped me get past my shyness and be a more vocal, more fun, more extreme version of myself. Or, actually more truthfully, alcohol allowed me to show who I was without hiding behind my shy exterior. It enabled me to let go of that façade and just BE. We were all doing it, all of us in our teens and early 20’s. My group was a little more extreme than others, maybe because we were all pretty much outcasts and never fit in anywhere, but we were in no way over the top. The only drugs we ever did as kids were to smoke hash. I never knew of anything really being available anyway, and drugs always scared me. I never wanted to become like my dad, let drugs ruin me. But alcohol never scared me. So many stories of drinking wine in the streets of Grenoble, sitting on statues and singing, hanging out in parks at night and crashing random people’s parties just for fun. (There is a recollection of those nights here if you want to read it). Wine meant some kind of freedom, a slight loss of control but not enough to feel out of control. I never blacked out in those days.
Then came a time when I just stopped drinking, for a few years, a time of terrible social anxiety and depression and too many existential questions, and all I had the energy to do was finish my MA thesis, go to work and read novels in bed. I think that all started with a bad reaction to only a few drinks in England that summer, a panic attack that I had never had before, but that would often come back to haunt me later on in heavily stressful periods of my life. About a year later, after I had been in Israel for a few months, I finally felt at ease enough to drink again, and not so worried that I would have another panic attack, and guess what? It was wonderful. Pure, straight vodka. Amazing. I danced all night, had so much fun, and didn’t even have a hangover the next day. We liked to party, us volunteers at Kibbutz Evron. Every Friday night we would get the liquor and the beer (10 shekels for a cheap bottle of Russian vodka – bargain!), crank up the tunes and dance at the volunteer house until it was time to go to the pub. Every Saturday we would sleep in the sun and try to get rid of our hangovers. My affair with vodka lasted for years. I drank a lot in Israel, some in California, a little in London and a LOT in NYC. I think the amount of times I left half-drunken glasses of Stoli-on-the-rocks at Darkroom or at Motorcity is in the hundreds, always running between one and the other. Vodka made everything OK. Running up and down Ludlow Street on vodka-fueled energy became a normal part of my life.
Vodka was also very, very bad for me. Especially once I was living in NYC. What was always fun and easy became very difficult. It became a vicious circle, I was stressed at work and felt trapped in my job so I would stay out all night drinking, trying to forget about it. But once the morning arrived, I would have to go back to work on little or no sleep and act as a responsible and hardworking adult. The more stressed I was, the more I went out. The more I went out, the more money I spent on stupid things (who has time to do laundry when they need to sleep and party at the weekends; new clothes can just be purchased at Urban Outfitters down the street anyway). The more I went out, the more I blacked out, until I felt, and probably acted (seeing as I don’t really remember), like I was going crazy. And I felt like one night I did. I don’t remember anything, but it was a few nights after a wonderful New Years Eve party that I remember all of. My friends were worried about me, took me out for dinner to talk to me about it, but I had already made up my mind that I was done with it all.
While drinking was all about losing control, sobriety was all about maintaining control.
The first few months were very, very hard. I had the support of family and friends, but at the same time I felt very alone. My friends were all still doing the same thing as before, going out and partying, and I wasn’t going to ask them to change just because I was, but it was often hard. I had to force myself to deal with work stress sober. I actually threw myself into work as a way to counter the need to go out and drink. I started writing more again, took up photography. I would go out to visit my mother who lived on Long Island at the time, every weekend, just to get away from all of the triggers. I lost weight from my already slim frame; I smoked even more and drank even more coffee than before. Little by little I eased myself into public situations that I used to deal with tipsy, and made it through them. After all, I could always leave and go home if it got too much. I would like to say that I got more sleep, but that isn’t actually true. I slept on and off, erratic nights filled with stress and anxiety. And then, about 6 months into it, I felt much better. I was myself. I was myself all the time, everywhere. I talked to people. I even went on a few dates (awkward). I laughed, I cried, I had a few minor panic attacks, but I was finally feeling healthy and able to face everything full on again. Birthdays became a little more inventive and I felt like I was being really productive too. I saw an old friend who I had been very close with a few years before, who had moved away and who had stopped drinking too, and he told me something that struck me. He knew I would always be OK, because as much as I was going to strike rock bottom it was because I wanted to, in order to climb back up again. He was right in a sense. I had actually really liked that dark freefall, losing control and falling into a strange abyss, but I was all the more happy to climb back out of it, one step at a time.
Sobriety became a main part of my life. Once I hit the one year mark it wasn’t even something I thought about that often anymore. I just didn’t drink. I worked harder than I had before, sometimes pulling all nighters because I was stacking up the projects and always feeling overwhelmed. I still went out a lot, not wanting to give up the night life because I wasn’t drinking anymore. I actually didn’t even WANT to drink. I liked the control I had over myself, over my life. I thought I had a good rhythm going, work, friends, fun, writing, photography. Lots of time spent with my mother in her house on Long Island, early mornings, late nights, books devoured and many a 35mm film developed. After 2 years it was just my life, I had so much to feel grateful for, but in hindsight I never thought about why I was drinking just about why I had to stop. Instead of drinking to alleviate the stress I was feeling and the constant worry that I wasn’t doing what I had always wanted to in life, I used work as an excuse. I took on too many projects, never said no, never drew any borders or limits. I would check my email at all time of the day and night, made myself constantly available 24/7, and literally drove myself into the ground. I would wake up in the morning after a few hours sleep where I had dreamt of ongoing projects and issues that did or didn’t exist. I tried to write, but nothing except resentment came out. I tried to take a step away but there was always someone who needed me, a call to take, an issue to figure out. And then one day I just couldn’t live like that anymore, and I walked away. It took me a long time, but I finally gave myself the strength and the reasons to live my life as I had always wanted to. I don’t think I would have been able to do that if I hadn’t have been sober, or I may have done it in a very different way and not have been able to pick myself up and figure out my next steps afterwards.
In any case, I remained sober for exactly 3 years. I had been working in a bar for a while with absolutely no pull towards drinking when one day I just said “oh fuck it, a few won’t hurt, will they?”. A few weeks of that and I decided to try AA. It helped, slightly, but I felt like it never really was for me. I had had my moments, but I could easily stop, right? I mean, I was never going to be as bad as I had been before… Right? I wasn’t depressed because of my job anymore, so I wasn’t drinking for all of the wrong reasons. So it wasn’t going to hurt me anymore, right? Well, you see, this is where it gets tricky. For some these may be questions that you can easily answer with a yes or a no. I can’t, and I shall try to explain why.
It’s not hard for me to stop drinking. It’s not hard for me to have just one drink and go home. It’s also not hard for me to have a lot more than one drink and stay out way past closing time. It’s not hard for me to drink and be a normally functioning human being. It’s also not hard for me to get so drunk that I don’t remember how I got home. All of the above never depended on how much I would drink, but always on the frame of mind I was in when I was drinking, or if I had slept enough the night before, eaten properly, etc, etc.
A break up, sad news or an argument with someone would usually mean a black-out night. Happy times would usually mean fun times. But sometimes it would get blurry, and as much as I would tell myself I could control it, I couldn’t always. Sometimes I could. Some weeks I could, but then it would slowly spiral out of my control again. I could easily work without drinking, and have a lot of fun. But it was just as easy to drink while working, have just as much fun, if not more, and finish up the night pretty sober. Or drunk. I didn’t like to get drunk at work though, it was just better to have a little buzz to get through the night and then maybe get drunk afterwards. Or not. It’s a lot easier to work back to back shifts without a hangover. But it’s also easy to get rid of said hangover with a couple of shots of whiskey. I love bartending, always will, and have never had an issue with bartending sober. Or drunk.
I’ve had a lot of fun drinking. I’ve also had a lot of fun sober. I’ve had moments when I wasn’t much fun drinking and moments where I wasn’t much fun sober. I’ve been depressed when drunk and depressed when sober. I’ve been a happy drunk and a sad drunk and a crazy drunk. I’ve also been happy and sad and crazy while sober, just a lot more contained about it. At times I have been a worry to myself and a worry to others. From day one alcohol was a way for me to express certain feelings and actions and sides of me that I was too shy to expose to the world. It was a tool to liberate myself from certain binds that I had tied around myself. I always promised myself that I wouldn’t let it get the better of me, not like addiction had done to other people in my family. I was stronger than that. Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t. But I can say with conviction that that life is behind me now.
The day I found out I was pregnant was the day that I consciously made significant changes in my life. These were not changes that were only meant to last 40 weeks, but different paths that I wanted to take in my life. I’ve known for a very, very long time that I cannot always control my drinking when I am drinking. I’ve also known for a very long time that for someone with a slight frame I can ingest way too much alcohol and still function (this is not really a positive thing, believe me). I have also known for a very, very, very long time that I will not be raising a child and subjecting her to my drinking habits, even if they are contained and few and far between. So when I immediately stopped drinking and smoking due to my pregnancy it was for the long haul.
As I said earlier, I can’t or won’t say the word never. I can’t say I will never have a drink again. I can however say that I will never be that person drinking whiskey in a bar at 5am again. I don’t want to drink again. I don’t feel like drinking again. I don’t even think about drinking again, and I’m not even kidding myself about this. I love bars and pubs and nighttime, and I am more than comfortable hanging out in them sober. I’m not doing this for anyone else but myself – I didn’t stop drinking for my daughter or for my boyfriend. I stopped drinking for myself, so I could be the mother I always dreamed of being. I will never be perfect, but at least I can strive to avoid showing what could be the worst side of me. I’ve now been sober for over 16 months and although for 9 of those months I was pregnant and for the rest I have been breastfeeding, it’s been very easy. And if it ever gets hard then I will go to a meeting, find a sponsor and stick with it. I will never lie to my daughter about who I am and what I have done in my life, because it’s a part of me and a part of my past and my education, and I won’t lie about my reasons for not drinking either.
I feel that I have only really touched upon the subject to be honest, there is so much more to say about it, but maybe that can be said in all of the little stories and anecdotes and essays that I have slowly been compiling over the years. Sad, happy, funny, silly, compelling, embarrassing, lovely, heartwarming and interesting stories. I have many of them that should, could and also maybe shouldn’t be told.