Tuesday, April 9

Was I really an addict? How the pandemic made me realize I had an alcohol problem | life and style

I remember sitting in the grass, bracing against the trunk of a sturdy ponderosa pine when I heard voices calling my name, searching the woods behind Ryan’s house. I remember Ryan telling me that Sara, his wife, would drive me home. I remember protesting, insisting that I could spend the night in the woods. I remember not wanting to cause trouble.

Sara helped me into the back of her SUV and propped a stainless steel mixing bowl next to me in case I got sick. I muttered apology after apology, telling her I was sorry for getting so wasted at her party. Once she’d got me home, Sara had to extract me from the back seat and cradle my drunkenly swaying body to the door. Then I vomited in the driveway. I remember nothing else.

In the morning, I woke up still dressed in bed next to my husband. My mouth felt rancid, my head ached, my body trembled. I tried to locate the moment when I went from being buzzed, laughing with friends, to becoming blackout drunk. I rushed outside to hose off the driveway.

I was 39, a mother of two young children, a business owner, and a wife. No longer could I deny that I had a drinking problem.

Although I haven’t had a drink since October 2021, alcohol continues to occupy an outsized place in my life.

Illustration: Natsumi Chikayasu

My earliest memories include the brands of beer my parents drank: Labatt Blue, Miller Genuine Draft, Coors Light. My dad worked in road construction in northern Michigan and in the winter, when he was laid off, he tended bar at the local ski hill. After a day on the slopes, my parents enjoyed pitchers of beer with friends. My grandparents would regularly host cocktail parties; my favorite task was to hoist the flag with a pink elephant drinking a martini.

In high school, I started working at restaurants and breweries, industries awash in booze. As I continued working in the business, I noticed how alcohol was often supplied to the staff to keep everything flowing on busy nights. I moved to Montana and in 2014, my husband and I opened our city’s first craft brewery since the 1950s.

What I clung to was this: I was a person who drank and there was nothing wrong with that – as long as I had a handle on it. Plus, I was the brewery’s owner and a beer ambassador: I couldn’t afford not to drink.

Until that night in October, I hadn’t been blackout drunk in decades – but I was the one who gulped down whiskey during nights out. I was rarely going a day without at least one drink, and the days I limited myself to just one beer felt like a victory, an exercise in extreme restraint.

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I ignored any inner voice that worried about my intake because I was taught that alcohol is how adults relax, have fun and enjoy themselves. Plus, I was raising two young children during the pandemic: I had earned those drinks.

My drinking had increased during lockdown, but I was in good company. According to a recent medical studyexcessive drinking increased by 21% for US adults during the Covid-19 pandemic.

I don’t find this surprising. After a particularly challenging morning with the kids, I would sometimes have a lunch beer. After a series of temper tantrums would leave me frayed, this felt like a simple option for stress release. And when friends would schedule a playdate outdoors, adult beverages were always offered.

On Friday nights, my husband would make me a dirty gin martini and many nights, that one martini turned into two and then I’d ask for bourbon, and in the morning my head would ache, but I kept this cycle going.

It’s what I did. What I knew.

When I started to realize I might have a problem, I turned to self-hatred: alcohol wasn’t the issue – I was. Those feelings are often experienced by women. In Quit Like a Woman, Holly Whitaker writes: “We are supposed to be able to tolerate it, and when we can’t, when it doesn’t feel good or things start going to hell for us, it’s not the substance that’s the problem – it’s us. We are damaged, weak-willed, defective, and totally fucked.”

The day after the party, my family and I went for a hike on a nearby trail. As I felt the dregs of booze see through my pores, I realized I needed help.

I did something I never thought I’d do: I went to Alcoholics Anonymous. I remembered an acquaintance casually mentioning it, and I sent him a tentative email (admitting to having a problem with alcohol felt like handling an explosive). He responded right away, sharing that he was indeed in AA, even after 20-odd years of sobriety. We met for coffee, and two days later he took me to my first meeting.

If he hadn’t met me at the door to the meeting room, I would have backed out. I felt like a failure and my nerves twisted my stomach into knots. As I listened to people share their stories, I felt relief. Although I was dubious about AA and its approach, I was awed by the generosity of those who showed up, shared, and possessed the astonishing capacity to hold space for surrender and courage.

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A therapist I had long worked with then directed me to a licensed addiction counselor and this started me: was I really an addict? In our years of working together, alcohol was the pulsing undercurrent I didn’t want to deal with. I bristled at the label, believing that because I wasn’t pouring booze in my coffee to start my day, I was managing fine. But alcohol’s enticing charm distorts reality, making you think you’re in control. I wasn’t. I needed clarity or else things were about to get much worse, for me and my family.

The counselor offered group therapy, which I attended two nights a week. For a few months I joined StormHolly Whitaker’s online alcohol counseling program, but I found in-person therapy to be much more beneficial.

My husband and I boxed up all the alcohol in our house and gave it away. He was quitting too. He had quietly expressed frustration with my drinking, how many times I was buzzed before the kids went to bed. As an ultra-marathon runner, he often took breaks from drinking but confident that he was finding it a challenge to stop after one beer and wanted to join me, in solidarity.

I tried many experiments to help me cope: I collected crystals and stones, prayed and meditated. Nature has always been a place of refuge and clarity for me, so I spent more time outside. In those moments of solitude as I walked through the forest on my property, I thought about how I allowed alcohol to take over my life and how this sober version of myself was terrifying. Who was I without a glass in hand? While sitting on a boulder, feeling the blustery winter winds scrape my cheeks, I began to reimagine my life without a beer in hand.

Alcohol had been the accessory to many of my activities, from well-stocked coolers on river trips to punching my beer card at the Bierstube, a local apres ski tradition. Heather Hansman writes about the prevalence of drinking culture in mountain towns in Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns, and the Future of Chasing Snow. She cites a study from the American Journal of Public Health that found ski towns have some of the highest rates of adult drinking in the nation. For too long, skiing and drinking were inseparable.

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I told my rabbi, my friends, and finally my parents and brother. My children are six and two years old, so my husband and I tried to frame the conversation as they could best understand it. My parents, who are divorced, said they were proud. But neither wanted to deliver any further, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to, either.

My two closest friends rallied to my side, letting me know that I could text them any time, especially during my first sober Thanksgiving. Those first holidays without alcohol were nerve-racking, but thanks to a plan I developed during a group session, I made it through without any relapse or strong desire to drink.

I have now been sober for 166 days. I recently came back from a float trip in the Grand Canyon, my first sober outdoors adventure with friends who didn’t drink, or would only have a beer or two at a time.

I was surrounded by people who didn’t stake their claim on booze, and those teal waters and ancient canyon walls reflected back to me a self I had longed to see: a person who didn’t need the infusion of alcohol to make it through the day. I was enough without it.

No longer careless with my body, I was present to take the ears for two days on the river, feeling the muscles in my shoulders and back expand with each stroke. I needed those 88 river miles to help me return to myself, a claim of identity supported by people who didn’t know my past, who didn’t think it was odd that I refrained from drinking. When I stripped naked, baring my body to the brightening spring sun, I knew alcohol would not have enhanced my experience.

For the first two months after I quit, I would mark each day with an “S” on my calendar. Just as my cravings have passed, I no longer feel the urgency to track daily. Yet it doesn’t diminish the release of sobriety. I no longer feel the aching sting of remorse, the continuous bargaining for how much to drink, when to cut off, when to stop. All that limiting toxic energy is diverted elsewhere: where it can be more full, more sustaining.


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