Writing the final exam for my college Shakespeare course, I had to close one eye to read the questions, since I was seeing double. Not puking also required an occasional surge of resolve, and I had the spins. All unfortunate. What concerned me most, though, was my handwriting: it looked more as if a third grader were reflecting on Shakespeare’s intent than a college junior – one who adored his plays and knew many lines by heart – at least, ordinarily. That exam pulled my final grade down to a B despite many A papers. I think about it every time I see my transcript.
What was wrong with that picture? About three hours. That’s all I needed to sober up. Wisdom acquired? For an 8:00AM exam, one should stop drinking, not at 3:00AM, as I had, but probably closer to midnight. Having learned that lesson, I’d manage better next time. It was a mistake – not a problem.
When a couple years later I drank a fifth of 151 in a few hours and passed out so deeply, nothing could wake me, that was clearly because no one at the housewarming party had warned me about 151 – that you had to drink it slower! Who knew?! Another mistake.
When, at my wedding celebration, I hovered a couple of steps behind Michael Dukakis, governor and guest of honor, imitating his every gesture and doubling over with laughter (I might have peed my nylons just a little), it was simply a shame my in-laws lacked a sense of humor! Though, okay – I might have had a bit much. But the bride gets to make a mistake, right?
When a few years later I attended a wine and cheese graduate school function with my (new) partner, told inappropriate stories, shattered a fancy wine glass, and passed out face down on the floor of an upstairs room, it was just – whoops! – another mistake. Good thing I wasn’t lying in my own vomit, because I was a pretty classy English professor!
So I learned to do better next time! Well, actually, um, not next time, but the time after that. I learned I really didn’t like getting falling down drunk, so the next time I… got falling down drunk, I didn’t like it again…once it was over, so next time I wouldn’t do it – til I did.
What those people who claimed I had a problem with alcohol failed to realize was this: I loved alcohol. I adored it. It fixed me, it fixed you, it fixed the world – so everything could be okay. How could that be a problem? I just kept fucking up on the amount, was all. I just kept overdoing a good thing. But it was a good thing! That I knew. No one was going phase me with this “Louisa, you’re an alcoholic” bullshit. Maybe I was one – but so what? It was my way. Nobody has the right to tell you to change that!
So, fuck ’em, I said.
Besides, I could list off a million reasons I wasn’t an alcoholic. I…
- Didn’t drink hard booze after I turned 26 – except when I did
- Didn’t drink in the mornings – except when I started before noon
- Didn’t lose my job or house – only chose to downsize
- Didn’t get a DUI – because the cops appreciated my doe-eyed apologies
- Didn’t black out and wake in strange places – just miraculously back home
- Didn’t suffer DTs – just shook wildly, maybe a smidge of amorphous terror
As the years rolled by, however, and I continued to make unfortunate mistakes despite my lack of a problem with alcohol, a few liabilities did crop up, so my phrasing had to change a bit, like this:
- Though I occasionally collided with door frames, I did so reminded of life’s bittersweet irony
- Though I occasionally fell down, it really didn’t hurt
- Though I attended keggers in my mid-30s, I did so from a worldly, intellectual perspective
- Though I hit a car head on, I’d slowed down so much it hardly did anything
- Though I cheated on partners, I did so secretly so it kind of didn’t happen
- Though I might enjoy a glass of white wine while I cooked dinner, or perhaps a beer at lunch or while journalling, gardening, vacuuming, folding clothes, building a fence, watching TV, doing the dishes, clipping my nails, or taking a shower, I didn’t drink all the time
- Though I hated myself, that was my business – and a fine reason to drink more
I could have gone on like that forever, with an answer for everything. I don’t know why I didn’t. I guess gradually the old threadbare idea that I’d manage better next time wore thinner and thinner. At the same time, the prospect of any next time, any next anything, grew increasingly dull and even disgusting. Though I think what actually defeated me, what drove me to break down and hit bottom and finally say ‘uncle,’ was that last point: hating myself. The hate grew so intense – such white hot, pure acid, unmitigated and inescapable hate – that I simply could not stand to exist another day – drink or no drink. So it was suicide or… what the hell, AA.
Those of you reading this sober may know exactly what I’m talking about. Some reading just a tad hungover may experience a twinge of recognition and whip their Monopoly-style NOT-THAT-BAD card from a back pocket. No one can diagnose another person’s alcoholism. But a word I discounted back then was honesty. Today I know honesty is not a true/false prospect; it’s a matter of excavation. And digging takes courage.
On January 29, 1995, whatever it is I call god removed my mania for drinking. I’ve not had a drop since. What could be more miraculous? Deep down, just under our hearts, we can all sense our source, our core, our truth beyond knowing. I used to drink to bury mine. Today, with the help of my fellows, I strive to live by it.