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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Bracing for the Tour de Franzia

A couple of weeks ago, I received a letter from the dean at my daughter’s university. It wasn’t an update on the blooming cherry blossoms or the latest award-winning professors, but rather a serious warning.

In an effort to prevent any alcohol-related disasters, the dean’s letter asked parents to discuss the dangers of an event that takes place on campus each spring called the “Tour de Franzia.” I read on.

Apparently, the event involves teams of students drinking a box of Franzia—a 5-liter box holds the equivalent of 42 drinks—while going to various campus locations. Sounds like an intense, drunken scavenger hunt to me.

The dean urged parents to discourage students’ participation in this Springtime tradition, only three years old. Needless to say, the worries are many—from intoxicated students crossing busy streets to alcohol poisoning.

And the consequences go beyond the college campus and into the surrounding community. He writes: “A dramatic number of students required hospitalization for acute intoxication or injuries, flooding the emergency room at [the local] hospital and disrupting its normal operation.  Many of these students had potentially lethal blood alcohol levels.  Although our principal concern is the safety and well-being of students, we were also dismayed by significant damage and vandalism, numerous complaints from neighbors living adjacent to campus, and disrespectful treatment of the Public Safety officers and other staff who attempted to monitor and address concerns that arose during the event.”

Does the dean really believe that parents have that kind of influence with their college age children?

When my daughter returned home for Spring Break, I mentioned the letter—a warning e-mail was also sent to students—and asked her what she thought about it. Let’s just say that her reply made it clear she is indeed looking forward to the upcoming Tour.

But what so many college kids don’t realize is not only how dangerous these extreme drinking events can be, but also that binge drinking costs the health care system half a million dollars in blackout-related emergency room visits each year at the average large university, according to newly published research reported in U.S. News on msnbc.com.

In a report published in the  journal Health Affairs, Marlon P. Mundt and Larissa I. Zakletskaia surveyed nearly a thousand students at five universities. During a two-year study, 30 percent of the men and 27 percent of the women visited the emergency department at least once, some with major injuries like broken bones and head or brain trauma. Of the 404 emergency visits reported by 954 participants in the study, about one in eight were associated with blackout drinking, the researchers found.

Mundt and Zakletskaia called binge drinking that can lead to a blackout–usually defined as drinking five or more alcoholic drinks by men or four by women during one occasion–“a pervasive public health problem” among college students.

“Fifty percent of college students who drink report alcohol-induced blackouts, and alcohol abusers in general put a heavy burden on the medical care system,” they wrote.

So while I imagine the Tour de Franzia will carry on as it has in recent years–despite the warnings and urging of the college administration–I imagine that every parent will pray it goes without the serious incident that these statistics suggest.

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A.A: What Led Me There; What Keeps Me Going

By Annabelle Kathryn

“I don’t drink.” It’s a phrase I’ve imagined myself saying for the past two years, especially the morning after a particularly bad night, when I wonder if giving up drinking would ever be something I could actually do. Sometimes, I’d even practice it out loud, trying to get just the right inflection so it conveys just the right combination of aloof nonchalance and hard-earned knowledge. With those few words, I wanted anyone I’d met to know I wasn’t someone who’d never touched alcohol, or had gotten scared straight from just one night spent puking in the communal dorms at college. With that phrase, I wanted people to hear all the inherent subtext: that I wasn’t naïve. I’d had experiences.

But I always just sounded young and dumb, or self-conscious, so I’d shrug and head off to the bar and drink, where I’d usually black out, wonder if I had a problem, practice saying I don’t drink a few times, then start the whole cycle all over again.

It wasn’t until this year that I realized my drinking had moved past “kind of out of control” and towards “seriously fucked up.” I was drinking every night, blacking out at least once a week, and, on a few occasions, sneaking vodka into Sprite at work. And while I tried to justify it by all the mitigating factors that had recently occurred up in my life—in the past six months, I broke up with my boyfriend, had an abortion, sat by my mom’s hospital bed as she died of cancer, and, just two months after that, had to do the same for my grandmother—the fact was, I had a problem.

So I knew that I needed to eventually give up drinking for real, but didn’t feel any impetus from within to stop, which terrified me. If losing my wallet and my shoes and my jewelry and my iPhone all in one night hadn’t stopped me, if spraining my wrist hadn’t stopped me, if having unprotected sex that resulted in an unplanned pregnancy hadn’t stopped me—what would? Every time I’d go out, I’d feel an anticipatory sense of dread. Sometimes I went out almost hoping I’d wake up in a hospital, because then, at least the answer would be obvious.

But I didn’t. And as it was, the night I realized I needed to go to A.A. was pretty tame. I went to a friend’s house and drank a bottle of wine before meeting a guy who I desperately wanted to be my boyfriend for a third date at a bar.

I concentrated on acting sober. But from tripping on the step into the bar to talking too loudly to drinking two and a half vodka sodas before he even finished his first drink, I knew it wasn’t working. I realized he knew I was hammered, but I thought I had a shot with him, especially when he suggested we leave. I assumed that meant he wanted me to come home with him and when he didn’t, saying he had to get up early the next morning, I started sobbing. I felt rejected, alone. Drunk. I cried my way to the subway, took the wrong train and ended up in Queens instead of Brooklyn, where I lived and finally got home at four AM.

The next morning, I woke up, disappointed and exhausted and embarrassed and just done. It wasn’t the specifics so much as the utter, been there done that blaseness I felt from the core of my being. For the first time, I truly realized that this would keep happening and happening and happening unless I did something.

So I decided to go to a meeting, spending more time figuring out what to wear than I usually do when I’m going on a date. I decided I wanted to look very Mary Louise Parker in Weeds—a tough and sexy woman who always ends up in situations just beyond her control. I wore skinny jeans, an oversized white T-shirt with a nautical-striped scarf. Lots of leather bracelets. Leather jacket. Pink sunglasses. Marc Jacobs bag. Extra-large iced latte as a prop. I knew my posturing was both ridiculous and the only thing that would get me out the door.

I chose one that was far away from my neighborhood, arrived 15 minutes early, and froze at the door. I was terrified. I’ve interviewed A-list celebrities, traveled abroad on my own with just a plane ticket and a backpack, and have shown up on strangers doorsteps to exchange sex for coke, but a meeting in a church basement terrified me.

So I left, frantically searching for another meeting on my iPhone. I found one a few blocks down, and the same thing happened. I just couldn’t make myself go in. Which is why finally, on my third try, I ended up at a lesbian, transgender, and bisexual focus meeting. I’m none of those things, but, frustrated with my fear and the fact I’d wasted almost two hours, I forced myself to walk in and sit the fuck down.

And it was fine. It wasn’t earth shattering and it was mostly like how I’d imagined. Some hand-holding. A lot of gratitude. Coffee. I sat in the back and didn’t speak, but did listen.

And then I went to another meeting, and another. And it’s just the first week, only five meetings in—so I know I don’t know anything yet, not really. But the only thing I know is that I’m going to try to keep going—even if at first it takes a few outfit changes to actually get out the door.

This piece originally appeared on The Fix, a website about addiction and recovery. Annabelle Kathryn is the pseudonym for a writer living in New York City.

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One Step at a Time: One Year Sober

“One Step at a Time” is a series of original essays by writer and mom Patty N.  who has been chronicling her first year of sobriety.

by Patty N.

The day after tomorrow, my handy 12-Step iPhone app – the one with the sobriety calculator that I compulsively check every day – will finally read, “You’ve been sober for one year / 12 months / 365 days / 8,760 hours.”  Yes!

Needless to say, I will not be celebrating with champagne, like I did after drying out in 2008.  That was the year I set out to prove to myself that I wasn’t an alcoholic. So I quit drinking – except at my 25th high school reunion when, in my whiskey-impaired state, I got into a car driven by an inebriated classmate and, thankfully, didn’t die on the way to Denny’s.  I also drank on New Year’s Eve and blacked out after only a few glasses of champagne.  Then there were the prescription drugs – which I took not exactly as prescribed but, hey, at least they weren’t alcohol.

After my year “on the wagon,” I bought myself a big bottle of bubbly and picked up where I left off.  But it became very clear, very fast, that I shouldn’t drink and that I couldn’t stop.  Embarrassed and ashamed, I started counting days in AA.  At first, I felt like I was being punished. I’m the good kid, the hard worker, the hands-on mom, I thought to myself.  How did I end up here?  And, every time I said, “My name is Patty and I’m an alcoholic,” I would think to myself, But I quit for a year! I didn’t drink everyday! I was high-functioning! I can’t be an alcoholic!”

Slowly, though, the veil of self-criticism and harsh judgement receded and a gentle, clear-headed, self-compassion took its place.  I started wondering:  Would I hate myself for having asthma?  Would I attack myself if I had diabetes? Would I be terrified of running into someone I knew at the dentist office if I had gingivitis?  No!!  So why didn’t I view my alcoholism in the same, straightforward manner?  As Dr. Drew says (I can’t help it, I love him), alcoholism is about chemistry, not character. So why would I be ashamed about a condition over which I have no control?

Looking back, I’ve spent a lot of time this year regretting the past and, oftentimes, wishing to shut the door on it.  I realize that’s part of the process. But as I mark this significant milestone, I’d like to quit mourning my old life and start celebrating my new one.  On Sunday, I will go to my regular AA meeting and announce that I have one year of continuous sobriety.  I’ll collect my special anniversary coin and an amazing group of people, whose last names I may never know, will greet me with applause and hugs and flowers from the corner deli.  And I will call myself an alcoholic, without reservation, without judgement, without shame, and with enough strength to finally bust through that cocoon of self-hatred and fly like a beautiful liberated butterfly.

 

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Farewell to “Blackout in a Can”

Last week, my daughter went to a frat party while visiting a friend at college. When I asked her the following morning what people were drinking, she told me that they’d been drinking Four Lokos, also known as “blackout in a can.”

It seemed like only minutes after she told me, Four Loko and the other companies that have been producing alcoholic beverages combining alcohol and caffeine were plastered all over the headlines.

In his “Tipsy Diaries” column, Frank Bruni described the beverage as a “flavored malt liquor that has caffeine as well as alcohol: a double whammy that permits its consumers — users might be a more felicitous term — to keep drinking longer and later than they would normally be able to in their inebriated states.”

Explained that way, it doesn’t sound so bad. But in actuality, Four Loko and its similar “cousins” revealed their dangerous impact when they caused several incidents in which “dozens of college students have been treated for alcohol poisoning after overindulging in Four Loko and similar products, and several states and universities then banned the drinks,” according to a piece in the Washington Post.

New York State Senator Chuck Schumer described the drinks as “dangerous and toxic brews.” And subsequently, the Food and Drug Administration deemed the alcoholic energy drinks unsafe and illegal.

I don’t know about you, but I’d say that caffeine has its role, and alcohol another. And now it seems that never the two shall meet–legally, anyway.

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