When Your Friend Is An Alcoholic

girls-drinkingby Ronna Benjamin

My friend Tammy had troubles, but it took me awhile to figure it out. She was a redhead who smoked menthols, loved music, dancing and beer.  Her father was a judge–a real one, but she herself was totally non-judgmental.

Tammy was the friend that held the ice to my ear Freshman year and then pierced a second hole in my left lobe, sterilizing the needle with the alcohol from our sloe gin fizzes.  She would drag me to frat parties,  grab a beer and start dancing, while I stood awkwardly in a corner complaining about the sticky floor.

I was one of the girls who left the party early, but Tammy always stayed and regaled us with great stories the next day. But as we got to be juniors and then seniors, the stories became increasingly uncomfortable to hear. There were times she slept with multiple men in one evening.  There were times when she blacked out.  There were times she woke up in places she did not want to be.

There was the time she came back to the dorm drunk at 3:00 am and burnt half her arm making popcorn.  There was the time she tearily told me she was pregnant, traces of gin on her breath, and pleaded with me to bring her to Planned Parenthood. I had driven halfway there the next day before she told me it wasn’t true–she wasn’t pregnant.  Never was.  It  was just her idea of a joke.  That almost ended our friendship, but I hung in there.

I knew there was something different about what happened when Tammy drank, but I wanted to be non judgmental too.  By day and on weeknights, Tammy was fine.  She studied, went to movies and plays, joined us for dinner, and did really well in her classes.  I thought once we graduated and she got a job, things would be different.  We were in college, after all.

In 1981, Tammy came to visit me at my apartment in Boston where I was in my first year of law school.  We went out on the town, but after a while, I wanted to go home.  She insisted I leave; told me she was having fun and would take a cab home.  Tammy got home safely in the early hours of the morning; but the next day she told me she had shared a bottle of vodka and slept with the cab driver.

And that is when I ended the friendship.

Telling Tammy that I thought she was an alcoholic was the hardest thing I ever did as a young woman, and amongst the hardest things that I have ever had to do.  I didn’t have the balls to tell her in person.  I called her from the safety of my bedroom, reading the words off a legal pad because I was so nervous. “Tammy, I think you have a problem with alcohol.  I think you are an alcoholic, and I cannot be friends with you until you get help.”  I described some of her behaviors that made me think so.  I described the hurt and worry she was causing me.  She said nothing, and hung up.

That was 32 years ago, and that was the last time I talked to Tammy, but it wasn’t the last time I thought about her.  As the years passed, I Googled her name.  Tammy was the first name I searched on Facebook.  One day, about a year ago, she “friended” me.  I barely recognized her picture, she had aged so. We had a brief FB exchange, but neither of us mentioned the alcohol.

A few months later, Tammy started a game with me on Words With Friends.  And I knew from those games that something wasn’t quite right.  She couldn’t get beyond 13 points.  She left spaces for triple words open.

I was waiting for Tammy to take her turn on Words With Friends when I read on Facebook that Tammy had died.  She was 53 and died “unexpectedly.”  I was not in her inner circle, so I don’t know the details of her death, and it was not my place to push. I was saddened, but to be honest, not shocked.

I had an alcoholic friend in college.  I told her the truth, abandoned her, and she died at 53.  I wonder now if I should have done something differently.

*This essay was originally published on

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The First Step: We Admitted We Were Powerless Over Alcohol…

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“One Step at a Time” is a series of original essays we will be running monthly. We are excited to have writer and mom Patty N. share her fresh perspective as she embarks on the road to sobriety.

STEP ONE

by Patty N.

After years of trying (and failing) to stop drinking on my own, I decided to go to A.A.  last November.

I had tried (and failed) to go to A.A.  once before: I was 29 and heading up the launch of a weekly magazine, in the process of converting to Judaism, and about to move in with my soon-to-be fiancé. And I was drinking heavily.  On the recommendation of my therapist, I agreed to go to an A.A. meeting.  But as I walked toward the cluster of people talking and smoking outside that upper west side church door where the meeting was being held, I chickened out. I was too embarrassed to go in, and I convinced myself I could cut back on my own. So I kept walking.

I managed to keep my drinking mostly under control (minus a few crazy nights here and there) for the next fifteen years. But as I got older, I started to feel like I was playing Russian Roulette every time I drank. Sometimes the gun didn’t fire; I could have one or two drinks and be fine. Other times when I pulled the trigger, the gun would explode and I would find myself bingeing, blacking out and then beating myself up for days afterward. After one such explosion – a booze-filled Saturday night last November that left me so hung over I missed my kids’ soccer games on Sunday – I felt I’d hit bottom (again). And on Monday, I bumped into Sam*.

Sam and I worked on the same floor at the Conde Nast Building; I was on staff at a fashion magazine and he was in Office Services. We had formed a casual, water-cooler friendship, and I would often plop down on his welcoming couch when I felt like procrastinating. At one point, he had shared with me that he was a recovering alcoholic.

“How was your weekend?” he asked me on that November morning.

Normally I would have said “fine” even when it hadn’t been. But not that day.

“I drank too much, I don’t remember most of Saturday night, I’m still hung over, I think I have a problem,” I blurted out, all in one breath.

“Okay,” he said calmly. “Let’s go to your office so we can talk.”  He then shared with me his story: how he’d worked for a fashion designer, how he was hospitalized for an alcoholic seizure in his 30s and how had been sober for 18 years.

“There’s an A.A. meeting a few blocks away today at 12:30,” he said as he wrote down the address. “You really should go.”

I looked at the Post-It note after he left:  St. Mary the Virgin on West 46th Street.

Great, I thought. An A.A. meeting at some church basement in Times Square. This felt way too seedy for me, too Taxi Driver, too Midnight Cowboy. I imagined myself in my skinny jeans, sky-high boots and designer sunglasses, walking into a windowless room full of smelly, unshaven men and strung-out, toothless women drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. Or even worse, I imagined seeing someone I knew.

Forget it.  I am too busy. I just need to be more disciplined. I don’t need A.A.

And yet, just as I’d surprised myself by opening up to Sam about my drinking problem, I found myself walking up Broadway at 12:15 toward St. Mary’s.

When I arrived at the side entrance to the church, I poked my head in tentatively with my feet still outside the door, ready to bolt.

“Hi. You’re in the right place,” said a nice looking lady with short blonde hair. “It’s so great you’re here.”

She looked normal, I thought, as my 4″ heels click-clacked up the stairs toward the Beginner’s Meeting. I left my sunglasses on and sat down on a seat next to the door–in case I had to make a quick getaway.

But I didn’t leave. I looked around and felt like a jerk for my crazy thoughts about who would be in this room. The crowd looked like a typical cross-section of New Yorkers, an eclectic group you might see on the subway during a morning commute. One by one, they shared their powerful stories. Unguarded and unafraid to be completely honest in that space, they talked about feeling unloved and abandoned by parents who also had problems with alcohol; about their harsh self-judgments and constant self-criticism; about trying to control everything all the time; and about not knowing how to feel or express anger and not knowing how to ask for help.

As the tears rained down beneath my dark glasses, I knew I was in the right place.   Their stories were my story, and I did see someone that I knew in that room – I saw myself.

*Sam’s name and work details have been changed to protect his anonymity


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Interview with an 80-year-old woman alcoholic: Sober for almost 35 years…

desiderataList some words that describe you…

Artist, grandmother, ultra-liberal, health-conscious vegetarian, lover of nature, immigrant.

How old were you when you had your first drink?

I was in my early twenties, I was working as a children’s nurse at a hospital in the city. People smoked and drank. I did it, too.

What was your favorite drink?

I was never really hot for drinking. The only time I liked to drink was when I was on vacation with my girlfriends–we drank a lot of wine and other stuff in Greece and Spain, and I got a taste for it.

Did your parents or siblings drink?

My older brother drank (I am the youngest of 5). My other brother drank only on special occasions. Not my sisters or my mother. In those days (Europe in the 1940s and 50s) it wasn’t fashionable for women to drink. Men and boys drank, but mostly on special occasions, and at dances. I don’t know if my father drank. [He left the family when she was one.]

Was there alcoholism in your family?

According to a family tree that my oldest brother researched and made, one guy a long, long time ago was put in jail for drunken behavior. I have a picture of my father, in a Teetotaler’s Club.

When did your drinking cross a line? Were you aware that you had crossed a line?

In my early 40s. I had been socially drinking before then. I bought a gallon of wine and I drank all day long. I always had liquor in the house, mostly wine–Ernest & Julio Gallo was my favorite–because it was cheaper, and I thought wine wasn’t so bad.

Did anyone notice you were drinking too much?

My husband was nice, but he said things. Some of my friends noticed. Once, on vacation,  [the husband of a friend] said, “You don’t have to drink everything there is.” I guess I drank all the beer in the house. He bawled me out, and it was traumatic.

How was it raising two kids while drinking?

Miraculously, I could function–I don’t remember who made breakfast, or who made the lunches, but I always had dinner on the table.

What was the low point?

We went to Mexico City with our two children and stayed with a friend who had a huge property, like the Garden of Eden, surrounded by a high wall. I got so upset because there was a flood, and I felt like the Garden of Eden was being lost, so I drank myself into oblivion, and ended up in bed. In Mexico, I drank from beginning to end. When we came home, my husband said, “You have to do something about your drinking.” I got scared when he got serious. It’s hard even to think straight when you’re drunk all the time.

How did you get sober?

I was detoxed in a hospital. A lot of people do it themselves. I was in the care of a doctor, and I was in the hospital for at least a week, and then I went to a group for a long time, a therapy group run by this doctor, who was also a psychiatrist and a [recovered] alcoholic. He was the right guy for me. I also went to AA at least twice a week. I made all my friends there. I went to AA for many, many years–20 to 25 years.

Do you have any advice to someone trying to stay sober?

In my case, I had to think about something that could replace the drinking. I was still smoking. Stopping smoking [some years later] was extremely hard.

What helped you the most?

My husband was supportive. He stopped drinking. We had no liquor in the house. If we’d had liquor in the house, I know for sure I couldn’t have made it.

What’s the best part about being sober?

Everything. I was amazed at how I felt in my head. Before, my head felt heavy, like I had cottonballs in it. After I stopped drinking, I got so light; it felt great.

Did you ever have a relapse?

No.

Is there anything you miss about drinking?

Nothing. Sometimes, when I see people drink a little wine for dinner, I wish I could have that, but I put it far away from me. I know it’s untouchable. If I were to start drinking today, I would go back immediately to my dependence.

What’s your view of AA?

It’s great. It saved my life. If I were ever tempted, I’d go back.

Do you have a favorite quote or book or inspiration that has helped you through the years?

When I was in AA, somebody gave me a poem called “Desiderata.” When you drink, you have a lot of self doubt and guilt. It’s a three-fold illness: spiritual, emotional and physical. The poem helped because it says you shouldn’t compare yourself with others, and everybody has a right to be here on earth. Everybody who is born has a right. “The Big Book” from AA and the Twelve Steps helped very much, too. “The Big Book” helps, because it has drinking stories in it.

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What’s the Definition of an Alcoholic?

alcoholic image for blogI’m Leah Odze Epstein, and I am a blogger. Actually, I’m co-editor of Drinking Diaries, and this is my first official off-the-cuff blog post, spurred on by a reader who threw down the gauntlet and said, “Why don’t these bloggers just BLOG?” Hmmm. Good question.

Last night, when I couldn’t sleep (probably because of an overloaded back-to-school schedule, as the mother of three kids), I was thinking about how my mom, a recovered alcoholic who has been sober for over 30 years, explained to me that alcoholism was a disease, and alcohol was not the only cause. It is a disease of the emotions as well as a chemical disease (involving blood sugar issues, the body’s ability to metabolize alcoholic, etc.). She always said to me, “You don’t have the personality for it,” which somehow made me feel better.

Over the years, I’ve debated many people on the disease front–people who don’t believe alcoholism is as much a disease, but a failure of will or a lifestyle choice. It’s confusing, because so-called high functioning alcoholics throw a wrench in the works–can’t everyone just cut down? Isn’t it just a question of moderation and self-control?

For alcoholics, it’s not that easy. My mother had to go through detox–and after that, she was told she should never drink again because she is allergic to alcohol, and she hasn’t.

I would argue that my mother’s definition is true: an alcoholic is someone who is allergic to alcohol, and should never drink again. Just as my husband and daughter have celiac disease, and their bodies cannot tolerate wheat or gluten-containing products, some people have an allergy to alcohol. I think a distinction needs to be made between alcoholics and heavy drinkers, and that the label high-functioning alcoholic can be misleading. Most alcoholics eventually hit rock bottom. Many people can benefit from moderation management, I am sure, but they are probably not alcoholics.

I’m not saying that alcoholics should not make amends to the people they hurt, using their “disease” as an excuse. I’m just arguing for  increased understanding of the distinction between heavy drinking, a drinking problem and the disease of alcoholism.

What do you think, readers? What is your definition of an alcoholic?

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How Mommy and Daddy Teach Abstinence

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by Jacquelyn Mitchard


1. Start drinking early in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. Come out of the bedroom in a Santa Claus bikini at midnight. After you pass out, forget Santa. Send the kids back into their rooms until noon and tell them Santa was hung over. Laugh. When the kids beg you to stop, tell them to grow up.

2. Pretend it never happened. None of it – the weeping-clown eyes, the shouts and fights, the makeout sessions on the coats in the bedroom with the lady from down the street – never happened. At all.

3. Go out on New Year’s Eve – for three days. There are plenty of Good Humor bars in the refrigerator. And Grandma and Grandpa didn’t leave for Florida yet? Or did they?

4. Nuzzle a waitress’ boobs, even after your friend, the owner of the place, asks you to stop, until your wife and kids get up and walk home. Six miles.

5. Tell your kid he better start on the team. When he does, show up for one game.

6. Talk about how much you drank on vacation the way other people talk about vacation.

7. When your son asks what you’re going to do tonight , say, “I’m going to drink. And you’re going to stay home.”

8. When your daughter, who’s 11, calls you at a dinner party from home to say that someone has broken into the apartment building, tell her to call the cops.

9. When your best friend suggests you slow down, on the night of your birthday, wait until he’s facing the other way and kick him through the TV.

10. Show up at eighth grade graduation, drunk. Show up at high school graduation drunk. Explain that you can’t make it to college graduation.

11. Shout out your requests for Trini Lopez songs so loudly that the bandleader refers to you as “Lawrence Welk and Mrs. Robinson.”

12. When one of the kids is seventeen and gets drunk for the first of three times in her life, throwing up until she’s weak and sobbing, tell her not to worry – everyone feels this way.

13. Be beautiful and charming and funny and complex and inquisitive when you’re sober. Be diminishing, surly, humiliating and cruel when you’re drunk.

14. Die young.

Jacquelyn Mitchard is the author of the number one New York Times bestselling novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, chosen as the first book for Oprah’s Book Club and named by USA Today the second most influential novel of the past 25 years. She has written four other bestsellers and is a contributing editor for Wondertime magazine as well as the author of four novels for young adults. Her new novel, No Time to Wave Goodbye, comes out this week.

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