What does an alcoholic look like? Quick–what is the first image that comes into your mind?
If you’re like me, you see an old man with a scraggly beard, slumped in a door stoop, clutching cheap wine in a brown paper bag. Perhaps you see solemn, lonely people–men, probably–crouched on uncomfortable metal chairs in a church basement telling war stories about their drinking at a Twelve Step meeting. Maybe your mental image is a stumbling, mumbling man with a bulbous red nose, or a drunken relative making a fool of himself at a party.
Here is what you probably don’t picture: the slim PTA Mom with the freshly frosted hair and manicured nails; the shy woman who sings next to you in the choir; or the leader of your daughter’s scout troop. You probably don’t envision the funny, friendly neighbor who laughs with you over a cup of coffee while your kids play in the next room.
You probably don’t see me: a thirty-something mother of two; the woman next to you at the soccer field, who cheers her kid on ; the loyal, funny, confident friend who lives in the cozy house up the street from you.
In fact, I know you don’t picture me when you think of an alcoholic, because I move fluidly around you. It’s easy to be an invisible alcoholic, because hardly anybody is looking.
You don’t notice that I am an alcoholic because I am very careful not to let you see. I’m not the one getting really drunk at a party. I don’t show up falling down or slurring my words at the soccer game. I don’t cause scenes. I have mastered the art of blending in, of drinking like everyone else. I drink in secret, because I suspect that if you found out how much I drink you would ask me to stop. I am very careful, and it is easy to lie to you because you aren’t looking. Why would you? I don’t fit the part.
You may notice some odd behavior. You might worry about the emotional phone call from me that I downplayed the next day, or why I seem to be sick with the stomach bug or food poisoning a lot, causing me to miss a night out or a play date. Perhaps you wonder why I seemed tipsy at dinner, when you only saw me have a glass or two of wine. Maybe you notice that I beg off or miss morning activities more and more frequently.
You know something is wrong, and you wonder if it is trouble in my marriage, financial problems, stress about the kids, work or both. Increasingly, things aren’t adding up. I seem to be falling apart. You know something is wrong, but you don’t know what. You notice that I’m slowly withdrawing from the world, and you don’t know why. You don’t consider that I’m drinking too much, though. The thought that alcohol could be behind my problems probably doesn’t even occur to you.
And then one afternoon you smell wine on my breath and you start to ask yourself, quietly at first, is she drinking too much?
You probably dismiss the thought, thinking you are mistaken. If you question me about it, I laugh and tell you I had a few too many with my husband last night; that it must be coming out my pores. You laugh with me, relieved. Of course she’s not drinking during the day, you think. We’re good friends, after all. Good friends would know such things.
One night I call you, upset, and I’m clearly drunk. Maybe this happens more than once. You are getting worried. A few weeks later you see me coming out of a liquor store at 2 pm. You can’t ignore the facts anymore. You know I’m drinking too much.
You have no idea what to do. You worry that if you confront me, I’ll get angry and withdraw from you even more. You question your own sanity a little. Maybe you’re wrong? If you accuse me of drinking too much and you’re wrong, it might end our friendship. Maybe you do confront me about it, and I deny it. I say I’m going through a rough patch, but that it is caused by some other problem. Perhaps I say that I’ve been drinking a little more than usual, but that I have it under control.
You can’t believe that I would lie to you. We’ve been friends for so long, you and me. You share your secrets with me, and you believe I would do the same with you.
You believe me, because the alternative is painful to consider.
Besides, you don’t want to hurt my feelings.
* * *
I am a recovering alcoholic, almost three years sober.
What I describe above comes from my personal experience, and from the countless stories I have heard from women–suburban moms, sisters, friends, wives and daughters–at recovery meetings.
We need to start breaking down the denial most people have about female alcoholics. If what I describe resonates with you, if you have a friend or family member whose behavior is increasingly inexplicable, consider addiction as the possible cause. The evidence of drinking or drugs is usually there, if people are looking in the right place.
I am sober today because my friends and family made a hard choice: they were willing to walk away if I didn’t get help. Did it make me angry? Very. Was I resentful about it? Yes. Do I realize, now that I’m sober, that their hard decision was the ultimate act of love? Definitely. Would I be sober today if they hadn’t drawn a line and stuck with it? No.
I’m certain I couldn’t have stopped on my own.