I went to a meeting this morning and a guy named Dave said he’d finished college and gone out with some of his classmates last night to celebrate.
“I was the only one not drinking,” he said. “I was fine with it but it felt a little weird. I’ve been sober eight years and it wasn’t like I wanted to drink, but it tweaked my brain in a small way.”
That’s it. It tweaks your brain, apparently even after eight years.
I called Sara and told her about my Memorial Day barbeque at Fiona’s, how I thought about having a glass of wine but thought it through to the hangover and didn’t drink. I told her the party tweaked my brain a little but it was refreshing to hang out with light normal drinkers.
“If you keep putting yourself in situations like that you’re going to drink,” Sara said. “Most newcomers avoid drinking situations like the plague. Maybe they go to a family wedding or a mandatory work party, but they hightail it out of there early. Most old-timers do the same. You question your motives before you attend a drinking event. If you have a good reason for going, go. If you don’t, stay home.”
Wisconsin Whitley told me, “I can’t bear to go into a nice restaurant with my husband because not drinking would really get to me.”
I am sick of being in situations where my brain is constantly tweaked, but I don’t want to give up my friends or normal socializing. I don’t want to pack my nights with meetings and sober whackos like a lot of people in recovery do.
Wisconsin Whitley, a woman I like from the Tuesday night meeting, met me at Starbucks this morning and told me her drunk story. She said her husband had been unhappy with her drinking for ten years but he’d done nothing about it.
“He’d bring me coffee in bed every morning because I was too hungover to get it myself,” she laughed. “I got in a recovery program because ‘we’ got a DUI. I say ‘we’ because he got the DUI but it was my fault. We were both on the Atkins diet. You can’t drink beer but you can drink hard alcohol. We were up in Wisconsin at our cabin and we’d gone out to dinner with friends. We got really lit. My husband wanted to go back to our cabin, which was five minutes away, but I’d told my seventeen-year-old son we’d be home that night. I got nasty and insisted we drive the hour-and-a-half back home. Five minutes away from our house, we got pulled over. The police gave my husband a field sobriety test on the side of the road and as he was trying to walk a straight line, my son and his friends drove by.”
Wisconsin Whitley and I looked at each other and cringed.
“Yeah,” she said. “It was bad. The police took my husband to jail and drove me home. My son and his friends were there when they dropped me off. I was mortified. Then my husband had to go to drunk driving school. He started learning about alcoholism and realized how bad I was. He made me get into treatment.”
I think I found a normal recovering-drunk friend. Yea.
I joined a tennis league and played my second match this morning. I got my butt kicked. I called Eve and left a message telling her I needed pointers on my serve. Eve told me, more than once, that she used to be a great tennis player. She said she had many tennis trophies to prove it. They must be packed away in one of the many cardboard boxes strewn about her home because I didn’t see any.
I went to a two-hour meditation workshop this morning with Fiona and Fay. We explored breathing and visualization techniques and as I sat cross-legged on the floor staring at a white card with a Sanskrit symbol on it, I began thinking about the groceries I needed to buy. I refocused on the card and started thinking about the story I was writing. I concentrated on my breathing and noticed my leg falling asleep. This went on for two agonizing hours but, amazingly, I felt a peace and calm afterward that lasted the rest of the day.
We got together at Fiona’s later for a barbeque and Fiona was still riding her peaceful easy feeling. She was drinking a glass of white wine and Fay was drinking a beer. I grabbed an iced tea from a cooler filled with juice boxes for the kids and felt annoyed that my drinks were in the baby box. There went my serenity. Fiona began carrying appetizers from the kitchen to the screened porch where everyone had gathered and I followed her to the kitchen to help. My gaze fell on a sweaty bottle of Chardonnay sitting on the kitchen counter. Inwardly, I was salivating like Pavlov’s dog. I recalled the flavor of Chardonnay and how good it made me feel. If I had a glass, I’d have another and another and another. I’d wake up the next morning hungover, vowing not to drink again. I’d find myself shaking up a martini at five. I let out a deep breath and carried a tray of vegetables to the deck. I noticed Fiona and Fay had barely made a dent in their drinks. Drinking like that would drive me nuts.
I called Eve three times and left messages. I went to a meeting and Kat pulled me aside afterward.
“I don’t know how to say this,” she said. “I don’t like talking behind people’s backs, but I know you’ve been hanging around Eve and I know a flight attendant that’s new in sobriety and Eve called her—Eve relapses a lot—and Eve got her to drink with her. I’ve been thinking a lot about you and worrying about this. And Eve’s dishonest. I ran into her boyfriend, Mel, at a meeting and I said, ‘Hey, I met your fiancé, Eve,’ and he said, ‘She’s not my fiancé.’ And you know Brenda, Eve’s been calling me and wanting to get together since I met her. And I liked her. To hear her talk, she has ten years of sobriety. I was even considering her as a sponsor. Then Mel tells me she hasn’t been able to string together six months without a drink.
“So I called Eve,” Kat continued. “I told her she needed a fourth step, she needed to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of herself. I told her she was screaming for it. She got really angry and she got mad at Mel and broke up with him. So I just wanted to tell you to watch out.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll keep my distance.”
Kat is intense. She goes off in five directions at once and it’s often difficult to follow her train of thought. She has no qualms about telling you what to do, either. But she’s super intelligent, insightful, and has a knack for nailing what’s going on exactly on the head.
I got home and Charlie told me Eve called. I didn’t call her back. I began getting ready for my book club friend Tina’s fortieth birthday party.
Tina’s party was a retro disco bash at a fairly swanky hotel. Charlie and I walked around, talked to friends, ate appetizers, got drinks. I was okay, until people began hitting the dance floor. I really wanted a glass of wine, just to loosen up. I pushed the thought out of my head, took a deep breath, and coaxed Charlie onto the dance floor. I felt awkward. The last time I’d danced sober I was a kid at a relative’s wedding ignoring my mother’s Adventists-don’t-dance glares. But after a few minutes, I hit my groove and it felt good. Nice.
I was getting dinner ready when the phone rang.
“Hi Brenda,” Eve said all slurry. “How are you?”
“Fine,” I said warily. “How are you?”
“Well, I’m not going to the meeting tonight,” she said.
“No. I, uh, I’ve been drinking.”
“I can hear it in your voice.”
“Are you okay?”
“Ah . . .”
“Stupid question. Do you want me to come over?”
“No. I don’t want to stop you from going to the meeting.”
“If you want me to come over, I will.”
“But you really want to go to this meeting,” Eve said.
“Do you want me to come over?”
“Me, ask for help?” she asked.
“I’ll come over if you want me to.”
“Me, ask for help?”
“Do you want me to come?”
“If you want to.”
“I’m going to have dinner with my family, then I’ll come over. Have you eaten? Do you want me to bring you dinner?”
Eve said she’d eaten, but I doubted it. I hung up the phone and slid to the floor. Shit! I didn’t want to go to her house. Charlie walked in and looked at me sitting on the floor. I filled him in and he shrugged. I put dinner on the table and began eating with my family. The phone rang.
“I feel bad making you miss the meeting,” Eve said, sounding babyish and sad. “Don’t come. Go to your meeting.”
“I’m coming over as soon as I’m done with dinner.”
I finished eating and called Darcy.
“Hi! What a pleasant surprise,” Darcy said. “I’m so glad you called.”
Apparently Eve never invited Darcy to go to Tracy’s meeting with us tonight.
“I hope I’m not breaking any rules,” I said, “but Eve’s drunk and I’m supposed to go over there in a couple of minutes. I don’t know what to do.”
“I’m not surprised,” Darcy said. “I know her pattern. I’ve called her every day for the last three days and she hasn’t returned my calls. I knew this was coming.”
“I’m in over my head here,” I said.
“How’s your sobriety?” Darcy asked.
“I’m not worried about drinking, if that’s what you mean,” I said. “I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do when I get there.”
“I babysat her a number of times,” Darcy said. “I pour out her booze, sit with her for awhile, then she passes out. Is this about her boyfriend?”
“When she called she said it was about everything.”
“She called you?” Darcy asked sounding hurt.
“I was supposed to pick her up, then we were supposed to pick you up. We were all supposed to go to Tracy’s tonight, but Eve apparently never told you.”
“I’ll call you later,” I said.
I drove to Eve’s and rang the bell to her townhouse. No answer. I turned the doorknob and let myself in.
“Eve?” I yelled, walking in.
A weak little voice floated down from the second floor. “I’m up here.”
I glanced around. It was the first time I’d been to Eve’s house. It was decorated with southwestern art and mounds of clutter. I climbed the stairs and maneuvered past boxes, stacks of paper, piles of clothing. Eve was sitting in the middle of a king-size bed, cross-legged, her white sweats contrasting with the yellow stained pillows. Her mauve and turquoise comforter was crumpled at the foot of her bed.
“Hi sweetie,” she purred. “You came. Why did you come?”
“Because I’m your friend and I’m worried about you.”
“Why do you like me?”
“Hmm, let’s see, you’re smart, funny, you’re fun to be around.”
“Really? I am?” she asked, cocking her head and grinning. “But why do you want to be my friend?”
“I think I just told you.”
“But I could be your mother,” she said pouting like a toddler. “I’m fifty-two. What do you want to be friends with me for?”
“You would have had me at thirteen,” I said. We both laughed.
“Am I pathetic?” Eve asked. “Do you think I’m pathetic?”
“Why do you like me?”
“I already told you.”
“But why do you like me.”
I repeated the list and Eve hugged me. She grabbed my hands and kissed them multiple times.
“You’re so cute,” she said. “Look at you. I used to be you.” A nasty gleam flickered in her eyes. “I had everything. I never had to worry about anything. Now I’m broke. And Mel, Mel. . .” She closed her eyes and swayed her head. “You should go home to your little family.”
“You’re going through a rough patch,” I said. “It’ll get better.”
“This is the first time my business has been bad,” she moaned.
“You’ll pull out of it,” I said. “Business is like that. Sometimes it’s slow.”
She closed her eyes and nodded. “Mel, Mel,” she said swaying again. “I haven’t talked to him in a week.” She opened her eyes and leaned toward me. “Do you know I haven’t talked to him in a week?”
“I haven’t called him back.”
“That’ll do it. You know, you never have anything good to say about the guy. You complain about him all the time. Maybe you should move on.”
“Really?” she said, opening one eye.
“Do you love him?” I asked.
She closed her eye and nodded. “I haven’t talked to him in a week,” she repeated.
“Why don’t we call him?” I said. “Do you want him to come over?” I wanted to pass the baton to Mel and get the hell out of there.
Eve nodded and I picked up the phone. “What’s his number,” I asked. Eve recited a number and I dialed it and an operator came on the line and told me I didn’t need to dial the area code. I had Eve repeat the number and dialed it without the area code. The line began ringing before I finished punching in the numbers. I tried again with the same result. It was strange, like using a hotel phone where you need to dial nine to get an outside line. Eve runs her business out of her home, but she couldn’t explain her phone to me or dial it herself. I pulled my cell phone out of my purse. “What’s his number?” I asked again. I dialed it and it was the wrong number.
“Am I pathetic?” Eve asked.
“No,” I said, thinking yes.
“Look at me.”
“You’re a drunk,” I said lightly. “Just like me.”
“Why do you like me?” she asked again, fingering an empty pack of cigarettes.
“Do you want me to get you some cigarettes?” I asked.
“That’s okay,” she said.
“No, really,” I said. “I could use one myself. I’ll go and get you a pack.”
Eve wanted Virginia Slims menthols. Yuck. I left and drove to the drug store around the corner. My phone rang and it was Jason. He was in line waiting to see a movie.” I told Jason about Eve.
“Are you tempted to join her?” he asked sounding worried.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “She’s pathetic.”
“Stay away from her,” he said.
“That’s probably good advice,” I agreed.
I left the store and went back to Eve’s. She was passed out so I left her cigarettes on her nightstand and left. I looked at my watch. I was missing Max’s soccer game but I could make the last bit. I drove to the field and watched Max’s team win. I was grateful I wasn’t drunk. I was grateful I had a family. I was grateful I wasn’t Eve.
Back in town, Sara and I met at Starbucks. She told me I needed to go to more meetings.
“You should go to your favorite meetings every week so people get to know you, expect you, worry if you don’t show up,” she said. “Don’t schedule things that conflict with them.”
I used to go to a Monday night meeting I liked, but I ditched it for a yoga class. I also blew off the Saturday meeting I used to go to for tennis lessons.
“Hit at least four meetings a week,” Sara said.
I don’t know about four.
I decided to make the women’s meeting tonight my “home group” and I went with Eve. “Is there anything affecting anyone’s sobriety that they wish to discuss?” the chairwoman asked. A woman introduced herself and started crying. She said that her mother was in the hospital dying of alcoholism.
“If she lives, if she pulls through, I wonder if she’ll get it,” the woman sobbed. “I don’t understand why some people can get sober and others can’t.”
“Sobriety’s a gift,” one woman said. “Nobody knows why some receive the gift and others don’t, but for whatever reason, we’ve been chosen.”
“I’m grateful I’ve been chosen,” a woman named Kate said. “I’m grateful I’m an alcoholic. When I first got sober, I’d hear people say they were grateful they were alcoholics and I’d think, ‘What?! You’re crazy!’ But I wouldn’t have this program if I weren’t an alcoholic, I wouldn’t have the tools to live the good life I have today.”
Deidre, fresh out of jail, said, “I drank last Tuesday. Things were going good, too good, so I sabotaged myself. It felt like good things were happening to me at the expense of other people.”
It felt like the air got sucked out of the room.
“Deidre, your going to jail scared me straight, or at least straighter,” I said. “What happened to you could have happened to me. It still could if I drink again. I might not be lucky if I drive in a blackout again. I felt untouchable before, but I don’t now.”
“I’m glad my jail time did you some good Brenda,” Deidre joked. We all laughed, but Deidre’s eyes looked sad.
“But even though my life is better, I still want to drink,” I continued. “I was at our cottage last weekend and I came close. Honestly, I don’t know why I didn’t.”
Iris spoke next. “You know what’s strange? We feel comfortable telling people our drinking war stories, but we’re uncomfortable saying we’re sober and in recovery. I work in an emergency room and some drunk came in passed out, some young guy. He was a John Doe for awhile because he had no I.D. When he came to, he had no idea where he was. The nurses were scratching their heads about this blackout thing and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that happened to me all the time. I’d wake up and not remember how I got where I was.’ They were like, ‘Really?’ But never in a million years would I have said, ‘But I don’t drink anymore. I work a recovery program.’”
That’s the paradox. If people know you’re in a recovery program, you’re sick, but as long as you’re still partying, you’re okay.
“I’m having a Memorial Day kick-off meeting at 7:30, Friday night, at my house,” Tracy said. “Everyone’s invited.”
Eve and I got into her car. “Why don’t we go to Tracy’s?” she said. “I know how to get there, sort of. I’ll ask Darcy to come. She knows how to get there.”
“I’ll drive,” I said.
“Pick me up at 6:30.”
I got the kids and dog in the car and made it to Lakeside, Michigan, by two this afternoon. I’ve never been to the cottage without Martha. Charlie and his sibs inherited the place when she died last summer. This is the place I fell off the wagon eight years ago.
I pulled the Jeep into the driveway and started feeling off kilter. Martha was not sitting on the front porch smoking a cigarette and drinking a martini. I loved hanging out and partying with Martha. I’d drive up and Martha would pour me a stiff one. I’d unpack and we’d sit on the front porch and I’d bum smokes off of her. We’d talk and laugh and drink the weekend away.
When I walked into the cottage, the first thing I noticed was a martini cart, a martini shrine, really, that wasn’t here the last time I was. Martha must have set it up—silver tray, shaker, triangular glass—before she’d called Charlie’s brother, Chris, and asked him to come to the cottage and take her to the hospital last summer. She had spent a month at the cottage painting for an upcoming art show and had started having difficulty breathing. Charlie drove with Chris to get their mother. Chris drove Martha to Northwestern Hospital in Chicago and Charlie drove Martha’s car back to her apartment. Months later, Martha died of lung cancer.
I looked at the martini cart longingly. I missed Martha. I missed my martinis with her. I began weighing my options: I could go to the corner store and pick up a bottle of vodka, or I could call my sponsor.
“Let’s go to the beach,” Max said.
“I want to go,” Van said. “I want to go to the beach.”
I handed Max a bottle of bubbles, a huge bubble wand, and a dipping tray. “Take Van outside and make some bubbles,” I said. “We’ll go to the beach in a couple minutes.” I looked in the cabinet under the sink. There was a bottle of cheap vodka with a shot or two left in it. I shut the door and called Sara. She didn’t answer. I left a message on her voicemail telling her I felt like drinking but was going to the beach. I filled Sturgis’ dog dish with water, grabbed some sand toys, and walked to the beach with the boys. Van and I filled pail after pail with sand and I dumped out crude castles which he promptly smashed with his feet. Max dug a huge trench with a garden shovel. As far as the eye could see, the boys and I had the lake to ourselves. It was beautiful, peaceful, and I was content. I wanted to freeze us in that moment. Later, when we walked back to the cottage for dinner, I no longer wanted a drink.
I’ve been judging Kelly. I think of her as a petty, manipulative, self-centered control freak and an insecure whacko who needs to believe everyone likes her best. She collects people and tries to be everyone’s best friend. She spreads herself around like manure.
The last time I talked to Kelly she said, “I don’t think Fiona likes me. I’ve been trying to invite her and Carl over for dinner and something’s wrong with every night I suggest. I went to Rosy’s yesterday and just happened to look at her calendar. She and Fiona have dinner plans for the same night I tried to make dinner plans with Fiona. I asked Rosy when they made those plans, so I know I asked first. I guess Fiona likes Rosy but not me.”
Fiona would never slight anyone like that, so I know there’s more to this story.
“Rosy’s friend Sandra doesn’t like me either,” Kelly continued. “When I was there yesterday, Sandra was over and she seemed irritated, like I was crashing their little party.”
Kelly actually told Liv that Liv’s twelve-year-old son, Pete, didn’t like her. Come on. But maybe Kelly is rubbing more people than me the wrong way.
I rented the movie “Monsters Ball” and began watching it after the kids went to bed. The scene where Halle Berry blows up at her fat son for sneaking chocolate, calls him a porker, pushes him, makes him cough up his candy bar stash, hurt to watch. It reminded me of my bad behavior toward Max when he began wetting the bed and peeing himself during the day when he started first grade. Max had been potty trained since he was three, but for reasons no one ever figured out, he started having accidents—and his accidents went on for more than two years.
I’d taken Max to a pediatric urologist at Children’s Memorial Hospital who set us up with an alarm device to pin in Max’s underwear. But the alarm would go off at the slightest hint of wetness, like whenever Max sweat, so we didn’t use it much. I eliminated certain foods from Max’s diet that I learned were diuretics like cantaloupe, watermelon, and soda. I prevented Max from drinking anything after seven p.m. Max eventually got to dry, but it took a while getting there.
I knew Max couldn’t help it when he wet the bed. If I found him and his bed wet in the morning, I’d peel off his pajamas, strip his bed, and do a load of laundry. But after four or five mornings in a row like this, I’d sometimes snap. I’d call Max “Baby” and “Pee Pants.” I’d make him strip his own bed and carry the sheets downstairs to the laundry room. If he wet his pants during the day, God help him.
Once, when we were in Blockbuster renting movies, Max began fidgeting and wiggling like he had to urinate and I asked him, “Why don’t you go to the bathroom?”
“I don’t have to go,” he answered. He didn’t want to stop playing a video game on display.
“I think you should go,” I said.
“I don’t have to go!” he insisted.
As we were standing in the checkout line, Max really began fidgeting and said, “I have to go to the bathroom, bad.” I got the restroom key from the cashier, turned around, and on the front of Max’s pants was a huge wet stain. I drove home in a rage. I made Max strip off his clothes in the bathroom. I made him wash his pants by hand in the tub. There was a dinner party for his soccer team in a couple of hours.
“I wonder what your teammates would think if they knew you peed your pants? Should we go? Should we tell them? No, I think you better stay home in case you wet your pants again.”
I kept referring to the pee incident all night, rubbing his nose in it. I knew better, I wanted to shut up, but I kept spewing hurtful words. I was afraid Max’s classmates and teammates would eventually notice his wet spots and ridicule him mercilessly. So I beat them to the punch thinking my ridicule would stop his wetting problem. I was out of ideas, powerless, frustrated. And I was sick of cleaning up urine.
I continued watching “Monsters Ball” and the phone rang. It was my friend Jason, who owns an art gallery downtown. Jason told me he’d kicked an obnoxiously drunk business associate out of his gallery when the guy began pushing his girlfriend around. A day or so later, Jason sent the guy an email telling him he suspected he had a substance abuse problem. Jason offered to help him, confessing that he himself was an addict who’d sobered up. The guy, outraged and humiliated from being kicked out of Jason’s gallery, posted his version of events on the internet along with Jason’s I’m-an-addict confession. Jason was worried sick about it.
“There are a lot of addicts in the art world,” I told Jason in an attempt to comfort him. “Who knows, it may help someone else. That guy made himself look like a whack job posting it.”
“That guy was scary,” Jason said. “He reminded me of me when I relapsed. I was never abusive like that, but it was really bad. I almost died.”
“I’ve heard a lot of people say they’ll die if they use again,” I said. “But I don’t believe drinking will kill me. I think I’ve got some drinking left in me if I want to do it.”
“I go to this really huge meeting where, like, a hundred-and-fifty people show up,” Jason said, “There’s always a story about someone relapsing and dying. Personally, I’ve known people who’ve been sober, like, twenty years and started drinking again and were dead in a year. Those people go really quickly. It’s a progressive disease, even if you’re not drinking.”
I have heard alcoholism advances whether you’re drinking or not. As a result, I’ve contemplated drinking again to keep an eye on my alcoholism and avoid jumping off the deep end should I start drinking years from now.
Right after I told Jason I thought I had some drinks left in me, Deidre popped into my head. I started thinking about all the times I could have killed myself or someone else while driving in a blackout, like the time I was headed for the Ravenswood neighborhood in Chicago and found myself driving on Lower Wacker Dr.
Ordinarily, I didn’t drive drunk with my kids in the car. If they were in the car while I was loaded, it was for a short distance to and from a friend’s home for happy hour. Our playgroup, which used to plan field trips to the fire station, the bakery, and random parks, had evolved into moms’ happy hour thanks to me. As the kids got older and their interests diversified, I decided to throw a playgroup cocktail hour and it caught on. Most of my playgroup friends were light drinkers and drank respectably at everyone’s house but mine. At my house, they tended to get lit because, conscientious hostess that I was, I kept everyone’s wine glass filled.
“I dressed up my drinking,” I told Jason. “I drank good vodka and good wine out of nice glasses, but I was just a drunk.”
“You don’t know how much that helps me to hear you say that,” Jason said. “My mom and dad are alcoholics but because they drink the right kinds of booze at the right times of day they don’t think they have a problem.”
“My playgroup friends seemed perfect,” I said. “They were perfect moms living in perfect houses raising perfect kids. I tried to look like that, too. I thought those five o’clock martinis were a sophisticated release.”
“I can’t even talk to my parents,” Jason said. “I can’t have an honest conversation with them even when they are sober. I haven’t talked to them in months. Look what you’re doing for your kids. It’s awesome.”