I was born “alcoholic.” I was born hard-wired to develop a physical dependence on alcohol. There are people who question that. The “disease model” of alcoholism is constantly debated. Me, I just know. The natural solipsism of infancy (feed me, hold me, change me) is something we’re supposed to shed, as we grow more cognizant and are taught compassion and empathy. I’m not saying that I wasn’t taught these things; I just suspect that, unlike my siblings (who are not alcoholics), I was born with a significant disadvantage: being unable to adequately build up the cerebral matter around the amygdala, or the “lizard brain,” which really only wants to be fed, and to feel safe. It’s a theory that I’ve sort of pulled out of my ass, really, because I’m not even what you’d call an armchair neurologist. It’s just the only thing that makes sense to me, given my predilection to pursue “satiety” in all its forms.
I once went through one of my diaries from the early 80s, when I was working on a project that involved reading from these diaries, and came across this sentence: “I’m so scared that I’m going to become an alcoholic.”
I was absolutely against drinking when I started college. The night I decided it wasn’t so bad after all, I wound up nearly poisoning myself, vomiting all over my room until the others on my floor dragged me out and left me in the hallway while they cleaned my bedding, my desk, my books…I remember nothing about any of this. The only thing I remember is opening my door, about an hour or so prior, and seeing my friend Dan.
“DAAAAAAN! What’re you DOIN’ HERE?”
“Um. You invited me to play Pictionary.”
“OHMYGOD. I DID?!”
I had a matinee performance of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” the next day. I was in the molar-rattling throes of Baby’s First Hangover when my friend, who was playing Lucy, looked at me and, alarmed, said, “Jesus, Lees…you look like SHIT. What’s the matter with you?”
“I think I have a hangover.”
Her look of concern immediately disappeared as she turned back to her makeup mirror and adjusted the collar of her little blue dress. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Big deal. So do I.”
I was a binge drinker all through college. A weekend here and there. I didn’t think much of it. We all did it. We’d work hard in rehearsals and in performances and we studied and wrote and generally Got Shit Done. I was chosen several times to compete at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. I wrote plays. I had a column in the college newspaper. Alcoholism didn’t even cross my mind. After all, I didn’t drink every day.
Here’s what I tell people in regards to my alcoholism: “Genetics loaded the gun; environment pulled the trigger.” This is not to say that I blame any one person, place, or set of circumstances for the loss of control and the slow, insidious descent into full-blown, active alcoholism. But a line was crossed, and I can pinpoint the period in which I flipped the “fuck it switch” and began the process of decline. The perfect storm.
Shall I tell it? I was 24 years old. I was at the height of my powers, creatively speaking. I was writing volumes of stuff, some of it pretty good, good enough to land me a spot in a graduate writing program known to be quite competitive. I grasped that I was talented enough to be there, but I was overwhelmed by what I considered to be far greater talent around me. I felt like a 3-year-old, just mastering the art of getting my chubby fist around a crayon, while everyone else was writing at lightning speed, words spilling from their pens and word processors that were nothing short of brilliant. I’d sit in workshops and feel my face heat up with embarrassment. What was I doing there?
I was also starting to realize that something was not quite right with me, mentally. I was experiencing terrifying bouts of anger. Shrieking, yowling, completely irrational rage. When I wasn’t angry, I was terrified. And sometimes I’d go off and do really, really stupid things. I was racking up credit card debt, and dashing off haughty, indignant notes to any creditor who dared send me notice that I was delinquent in paying off that debt. I began to – how can I say this? – enjoy these swings, believing them to be proof of my artistic temperament.
Further still – I’d experienced my first real, crushing heartbreak. The one I loved was leaving me, embarking on a new life 3,000 miles away, yet I chose to stay around until he left. And he let me. The kinder thing would have been to completely cut me off, but I clung determinedly to him, to us, until the very second he climbed into his rented U-Haul and drove away. And so I’d go to his apartment after having some story or poem of mine picked apart by my classmates, watch as his stuff disappeared into boxes, listen to him excitedly talk about how everything was “coming together,” and drink. In classes I’d try furiously to pay attention, try to control the hammering of my heart that was trying to keep up with both grief and responsibility, and I’d pour out the door in a pain puddle onto Tremont Street and roll into the nearest bar.
I’m a talentless hack. I’m losing my mind. People move clear across the country to get away from me. Fuck it. Drink.
In hindsight, that relationship absolutely would’ve fallen apart anyway. My drinking would have ruined it. I know this.
If it hadn’t been the stress and sadness of 1994 that drove me to pursue artificial relief, it would have been something else. Another year. Another series of losses. My growing mental health issues. There is no doubt in my mind that I would have had to stop drinking, or die, eventually. But as it stands – this was the year that my alcoholism tapped me on the shoulder and invited me to dance. And I stayed on the dance floor with it for the next 8 years.
Most of my friends have stopped congratulating me on my “willpower” whenever I reach another anniversary. They’re still happy for me, but I think I’ve managed to get them to sort of understand that sobriety, for me, has nothing to do with willpower. I think it’s pretty well-established that willpower is not something that I possess in spades. Turning down a drink, ignoring the wine list, walking past – and not into – a liquor store…I do these things automatically, because I’ve been trained to. People I trusted told me I could do these things, and I let their voices be my own.
It’s also the one situation in which I allow fear to drive the bus. I am terrified of what will happen to me if I pick up again. I am scared of not being able to stop. I am quite afraid of going through those first completely hellish months of sobriety again.
And this reminds me of times when I’ve tried to describe the obsession to someone who can pay the check, put on his or her coat, and walk out the door when there’s still a quarter of a glass of beer on the table. You know – a “normal” drinker (I do not fucking understand those people). What is like to need something so badly that you are willing to completely desert common sense and decent behavior to have it? Imagine having a mosquito bite. It itches – a steady, pinching itch that doesn’t go away. You know that if you scratch it, you’ll have maybe a second or two of relief, but it’ll start this whole cycle of trying to ignore it, giving in, scratching, making it worse. But the second or two of relief trumps everything else. That’s the closest I can come to describing what happens to me when I drink.
And I’m fortunate that most of the people in my life actually DO want to try to understand. I’m grateful for that. Too many people don’t. I suppose because judgment is easier than comprehension.
A question comes up sometimes in my recovery work: if science came up with a “cure” for alcoholism, a pill that would make me “drink normally,” would I take it? Honestly? Probably not, because I have absolutely no desire to “drink normally.”
One thing that I’ve always been grateful for is the fact that I can walk down Newbury Street on a summer evening, past all these little outdoor places where people are drinking Fauvist-hued beverages, and have absolutely no yearning for that kind of shit. When I think about drinking, when I imagine myself giving in and rejoining my alcoholism on that dance floor, I think about drinking as much as I can get my hands on. I think about having one hand on the next bottle before I’ve finished the first. I think about drinking until I do not feel anything: no sadness, no joy, no attraction. Oblivion is always the goal. “If anything,” I once said to another sober friend of mine, “I’d rather that science create a way for me to drink the way I want to without any consequences.”
But then that’s not really living. We quit drinking because the consequences heap one on top of the other until we’re trapped, until it becomes too painful, and we get what’s called “the gift of desperation.” Quitting drinking is signing up to get your life back, warts and all. If I were able to drink without consequences, I wouldn’t have much of anything else, either. My job. My home. My husband. My family. My band. My friends. You get the idea. I have learned to prefer reality to oblivion.