No one sets out to become an alcoholic. Life happens. And then life happens some more, and one day one drink is eight drinks is you get the idea.
I never got to meet my dad’s dad. He died just after my older sister was born, when my dad was 21 and became a dad for the first time. Even though Grandpa was an alcoholic — to the point Grandma divorced him over it — that’s not what ultimately killed him. That’s just what I’m afraid will happen to my dad.
Alcoholism falls into two categories: alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence. Growing up, my dad’s drinking habit fell into the “week or weekend, 12-packs of Bud Light don’t judge” kind of dependence. He drank socially, but his specialty was drinking alone in the garage late into the night. Sometimes my mom would become so frustrated with his drinking that she’d go off to her parents’ house to avoid it altogether, leaving my sisters and me behind.
On one of these nights I needed a ride to stay over at a friend’s house and opened the door to the garage. I found Dad in the drunken state I expected and asked him for a ride. After reminding him Mom had left a couple hours earlier, he stared at me with bloodshot eyes, eventually slurring out, “Can you drive?” Not legally.
It took him more tries to get into the passenger seat than it did for me to start the car (one), and he passed out not long after that. When I pulled up to a stop light, an empty bottle rolled from under the seat and hit the back of my foot on the brake. The person in the passenger seat looked like my dad but wasn’t my dad. He wasn’t the person who loved me, who I loved back. He wasn’t the person who went to work every day to support his family. He wasn’t the person who told the best stories and made everyone laugh. He wasn’t my dad. The person next to me was this thing — addiction, disorder, disease, call it what you want — that manifested itself when the sun went down.
I was 17 when he got his first DUI. Attempts at sobriety started piling up after that, with nights of seeing him shake and sweat under blankets. I was 23 when my younger sister died in a car accident. Dad got his second DUI soon after that. Life happens.
There are days when I hope there’s still time for sobriety to stick to him. But I admit, there are more days when I’m a cynic, a realist. I know his body has been conditioned over decades to depend on alcohol in order to function and no one is meant to live forever.
For both the hopeful and the cynical, what follows is a reading list on how alcoholism has been experienced by real people who have struggled and managed to survive. Cheers.
1. For Leslie Jamison, Running and Drinking Were The Two Quickest Ways to Escape (Leslie Jamison, April 2018, Vogue)
For Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams and The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, running and drinking became her escape from shyness when she left junior high.
Jamison describes how she trained to be a long-distance runner and drank her way through high school, literally drinking to the point of passing out the night before her graduation ceremony. She “finally stopped drinking entirely” at 27 and it was at that point when she learned she “needed to be released from that defining sense of self,” created by running and drinking, so that she could “meet the other selves that were in there, waiting.”
If running and drinking both offered a sense of release from myself, they offered it in very different—nearly opposite—ways: Drinking felt like transportation out of myself, while running transformed my sense of who I was. If drinking loosened me from the cloister of my body, then running involved inhabiting that body fully: sweat pooling in my collarbone, flattening my hair to my skull, coating my shins in layers of dust and grime.
2. Distress Tolerance (Kaveh Akbar, April 2018, Gay Mag)
Psychologists refer to “distress tolerance” as our ability as individuals to endure negative or painful experiences. “Alcoholics and addicts, whose lives are often spent lurching from one painful crisis to another,” Kaveh Akbar writes, “tend to display distress tolerances that are significantly higher than those of their sober peers.”
Akbar uses his own experience with drinking as a remarkable case study for this assertion. He describes how he once got into a bike accident while drunk, resulting in a shattered pelvis and a cracked vertebra, but also the discovery by doctors that Akbar had a two-month-old fracture on a different vertebra that he didn’t know he had. Possibly more remarkable is that this wasn’t the turning point for Akbar to get sober. That “took another couple years.”
The more you drink, the more you become defined by the drink, the more you look like a drink and smell like a drink and behave like a drink. In a blackout, this effect reaches its apex — you leave your body completely, and the drink is finally left to move unaccompanied through the world.
3. For Years, Alcohol Was My Only Comfort. Then It Nearly Killed Me. (Heather King, July 2019, The New York Times Magazine)
Heather King, a former aircraft maintenance technician in the Air Force, writes about her history of drinking and how she “felt as if [she] had to drink in order to function, or at least appear to function, as a normal human being.” Alcohol was her “lifeline.” When she nearly dies in a drunk driving car crash, and after her mother bails her out of jail, King realizes she not only wants to get sober, she wants to live “[f]or the first time in many years.” And her desire to live, after nearly 20 years of drinking, finally outweighs the desire to drink.
Related reading: Jane Brody writes about functional alcoholism in a 2009 piece at The New York Times.
What I appreciate most about King’s piece is that she’s a realist. She acknowledges the “struggle” she “fought” to become sober, admitting that “[t]he decision to get sober and stay sober, by no means easy, was the single most important decision” she has made in life. She’s honest that she couldn’t get sober for anyone else, not even her children — she had to want it for herself for it to last.
Alcohol became my solution to everything. I justified it by saying, ‘If you lived my life, you would drink, too.’ I convinced myself I could stop. After all, quitting was simply a matter of will. The Air Force had taught me resiliency and strength. What other tools did I need? But alcohol had me beat; I just didn’t know it.
4. I Hadn’t Seen My Addict Father in Years — Then I Ran Into Him on the Street (Jordan Foisy, August 2019, Vice)
In this intimate and matter-of-fact glimpse of what it’s like to grow up with an addict parent, Jordan Foisy shares what it’s like to finally meet the person they may have been all along.
After not seeing his dad for three years — as the title suggests — Foisy runs into his dad and the two make plans to have lunch the following day. What unfolds is hours of hanging out together and Foisy getting to see that while his dad has a coke problem and lives on the margins of society “garbed in clothes that look like a donations box sneezed on him,” his dad is also “funny, opinionated, hypocritical, charming, strange, and loving.” At the end of the day, though, Foisy is left realizing his dad is “committed to his drugs, and letting them kill him. He doesn’t want to get better because what kind of life is waiting for him on the other side?”
This piece begs the question: Does someone have to get sober in order to live?
A lifetime of movies had left me with these fantasies of The Great Conversation: If I had enough courage, I could engage my dad in a way that would save him, and by saving him, save myself. It would end in great heaving sobs between the two of us, our arms wrapped around each other; him committing to getting clean and apologizing for all his misdeeds; and myself, born anew, filled with confidence, serenity, and, inexplicably, newfound athletic prowess.
5. Chasing Drinks with Lies, and Lies with Drinks (Katie MacBride, April 2018, Longreads)
Before getting sober, Katie MacBride was a blackout drinker who told lies about drinking and, when holes were poked in her lies, doubled down on those lies. She writes about her period of reckoning that started after waking up on a hospital gurney with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .4 (blackouts start at .2-.29 BAC), a box cutter and, in her words, “A suicide note I vaguely remembered writing on a Post-it just in case I ever needed it.”
MacBride’s story illustrates how the lies we tell ourselves only take us so far and then we have to start being honest with ourselves.
When there were no clues, I had no story — none of my own anyhow. My life belonged to witnesses, unwilling participants who might know the things that I did not. This is the scariest part of being a blackout drinker: not the inability to remember, the fear that someone else does. The worst thing you can do to a blackout drinker is tell them the truth.
6. The End Of Alcohol: One Writer On Going Sober (Billie JD Porter, April 2019, Elle)
Billie JD Porter writes about being an all-or-nothing kind of drinker since the age of 13 and growing up “relatively used to the idea of hitting the self-destruct button, and the fallout that went with it” as a result of having parents addicted to heroin. When her parents’ struggles with various substances became a mirror for her own alcohol dependency, Porter decided to take a year off drinking to discover the root of why she drinks.
By taking a break, to discover what that may be, I was strengthening my own foundations, so the past doesn’t grow into an even bigger, scarier monster that I’m unable to confront, like it has done for my parents.
At the time of my hiatus, I was only 23; I don’t think my days of cry-laughing into Tyskies and obnoxiously shouting my way through an evening into the early hours are behind me just yet, but I wanted to learn to be able to drink and have fun, in a manner that doesn’t see me descend into a downward spiral, taking me and everything I’ve worked so hard for, with it.
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Alison Fishburn is a writer and recovering Floridian living in Ontario. She’s working on a memoir about the sudden death of her younger sister while learning to grieve. You can find her on Twitter @AlisonFishburn.
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands