The Complex Beauty of Not Drinking
I see my therapist once a month. Almost always at 6am. It's a good time for me because my mind is fresh and uncluttered and I often see things most clearly before the sun is up. I'm grateful for this woman, this woman who has held my hand through very anxious times, who has listened to me and supported me over the years.
Sometimes, when I show up at her office I don't know what we will talk about. These are the mornings when I feel frissons of guilt, that doing this thing is a badge of privilege somehow, that to pay a person a substantial sum of money to chat about whatever is a mark of some deplorable breed of entitlement. But even on these days, we end up talking about real and meaningful things and I leave forty-five minutes feeling lighter, more optimistic.
But then there are some days when I arrive prepared, when I have many things I'd like to discuss. Last Tuesday was one of these days for me. There were so many things, I actually jotted a list in my iPhone to make sure we covered everything. And we went through item by item, tiny and not-so-tiny things that have conspired to make me quite stressed of late, and with each passing minute of talking with her, I felt predictably better. There is something remarkable about simply being heard.
And then our time was almost up and I added a little something which was of course not so little at all. A footnote.
I've been drinking again. Not a lot. Not enough to get in the way of anything really, but enough to wreak subtle havoc. And I don't like that I'm doing this, but I also understand why I am.
She listened to me and didn't judge, but we talked about this, as we have countless times before. She didn't have to say much.
I'm happier when I don't drink.
She nodded, kindness twinkling in her eyes.
I handle things better when I don't drink.
I feel far less anxiety, and far more resilience, when I don't drink.
The nodding continued.
And then I told her something, something true, something I hadn't realized until that moment.
You are the only person in my life who has told me how important it is for me not to drink. And the weird thing is that you have never been around me when I've been drinking!
I thought about this. It was a bit of an aha moment. This woman, this woman who I see relatively rarely and only in the safe haven of her dim-lit Upper East Side office is the only person who has told me directly that I should avoid alcohol, that I'm unequivocally happier without it. How can this be?
It makes so much sense to me, actually. For the most part, barring some extreme circumstance (the likes of which I have avoided, thank goodness), people will not tell us what to do, what is best for us.
Take my husband. The love of my life. My rock. This guy has supported me beautifully through tough times and triumphs. He has talked to me for infinity hours about alcohol. When I abstained for a year, he was my biggest cheerleader. But he has also been unfailingly patient, and has trusted me to make my own decisions, to figure this out. He has not policed me. I'm thankful for this.
Take my friends and family. Many many of them have supported me beautifully when I've given up alcohol for shorter and longer periods of time. Many many have been wonderfully curious about my dance and my choices; there have been so many raw and real conversations about this topic. Some, I suspect, have tolerated my periodic decision to abstain, but these are also people who I can tell are happier or a bit relieved when I am drinking again. (And I don't blame them! This was totally once me.) And then there are the people who I sense pulling away when I'm not drinking (or pondering drinking, as in these posts). This too I understand. This topic is fraught for so many of us and I think my self-analysis on this topic can be uncomfortable for some people to be around. (Again, this would have been me at one point.) And, yes, there have been some people (truly not many) who have gone as far as criticizing my efforts to understand my drinking or to eliminate alcohol from my life, or who have cracked jokes about my efforts and my struggles. Not fun, but really the minority of people I know.
The upshot though: There is this woman and she knows what is good for me. And there we were on a rainy Tuesday morning in July talking about this good-for-me thing: Not drinking. Even as we talked briefly, and said nothing much new, I felt a zip of optimism, a bolt of joy coursing through my veins. The utter, bright sense that this is the best thing for me. And it is.
And so the question that remains, the thing I'm still wrestling with and likely always will: Why do we do all sometimes do things that aren't good for us? Why do we choose things that get in the way of our happiness, that wreak subtle havoc in our lives? I don't pretend to know.
What I do know: Havoc is havoc. And happiness is happiness. And it's not that alcohol does terrible things in any amount. I don't believe this. What I do believe is that the lack of alcohol, for me, lends a complex beauty to the world that is missing when cocktails are part of the picture. I say complex because that is just what I mean. There is nothing simple about it, nothing easy, but it is other and exquisite and, for now, and again, I'm choosing it over the muted, self-medicated tones of drinking.
It's been about a week of not drinking. Hardly long at all. But long enough to realize, and to remember. To realize and remember what it's like to actually see so clearly, to sleep so deeply and well, to wake up in the morning and write like a furious wind, spilling words like seeds. It's long enough to gather the strength that eludes me for some reason when I drink any amount at all, a strength I have but that is hidden, obscured if I let it be.
You guys, I don't know. I am not an expert and I never will be. What I am is deeply curious, full of questions, in love with this life that is tricky and gorgeous and utterly mine. I don't want to run from it with a glass of wine or three.
And I won't. I won't.
Maybe you clicked the link to come here because you are concerned or curious about your own drinking or the drinking of someone you love. Maybe you have a pit in your stomach, a hunch that your life could be better if you stopped drinking or doing whatever you do to numb and flee (we all have things). Maybe you know me - in person or here in the ether - and you want to hear this latest installation of my drinking story, the mea culpa du jour, this admission of humanity, imperfection. It doesn't matter. You are here now and maybe something I wrote hit you and made you thoughtful or angry. Maybe you are feeling kinship or judgment. Tell me. Or don't.
I write these words because this is part of my story, one that remains pressing to me, and I want to honor it and explore it, get it down. I write these words because they are not just words, but the building blocks of permission. Permission to choose what I know is best for me.
We went to dinner with another couple on Saturday night. A college friend and her husband. We went to their home to grill out and a few days ahead of time, she emailed to ask if there's anything I don't eat. I wrote back my list - lobster, scallops, duck, oysters - which we later laughed lots about because apparently it's criminal that I don't adore these things! I didn't say anything about not drinking though. No, I just showed up and declined the champagne, then the wine with dinner. I felt a touch awkward doing this, but any awkwardness was gone in mere minutes and we had the best time, talking and laughing for hours, sharing real stories about life and love and work and parenthood, lapping up delicious gelato at the end, getting home later than we had in so long. I went to bed with a clear head and a happy heart.
I share all of this because I'm learning and because I know that I'm not alone in any of this. So many of us are dealing with this stuff, these little doubts and subtle havocs, and I trust that I'm doing something good, and meaningful, by opening up.
Wherever you are with alcohol (or whatever your thing is), hang in there and try your best to be honest with yourself. It's tricky business being an adult in this world, but clarity can be a brilliant gift, and a better gift for some of us than a glass of wine.
I'm learning that.
A big coffee cheers from my new favorite Starbucks on Amsterdam Avenue. Off to snag my biggest girl from camp.