I spent the last year of my failing three-year marriage convinced that once it was over, I could return to my pre-nuptial levels of “moderate” drinking. I could not wait to shake this rock out of my shoe so that I could finally be free to resume my amicable, mature friendship with red wine and old fashioneds in peace. I cursed my ex-husband for being the emotional irritant that clearly lead to the uptick in my reckless alcohol consumption. This, of course, was a lot easier to accept than the truth: that alcohol had actually played a huge role in destroying the relationship, or – at the very least – insanely complicated things. And, of course, it was the one solution that allowed me to keep on drinking.
It was a dangerous decision to hold onto this belief that if I could just get rid of “this one thing,” then my drinking would level itself back out and allow me to drink normally again. The thing is, there will always be counterweight on the opposite end of this seesaw: if it isn’t my marriage, it’s the aftermath of it (happened), or an incompetent boss (also happened), a temperamental friend (true story), a snide remark from a sibling (check). As is the case with most embarrassing questions we ask ourselves or Google or reddit – I was asking the wrong question. It is not a matter of “who or what is causing my drinking problem,” but rather: “how is alcohol affecting my relationships and my ability to cope?”
The truth is, a lot of people have been through awful relationships and did not develop
an unhealthy affair with alcohol or other substance. I did because I did not learn to cope effectively in my early years and had to find some way, any way to numb the pain of a broken, unhealthy relationship. This habit is now imprinted on my neurons, ingrained deeply in the core of my pleasure-seeking lizard brain. Should I choose to keep alcohol in my life, even as a background character, it’s bound to steal the show again. I would be all but guaranteed to return to this way of coping in the future – whether it be over the death of a family member, loss of a job, another torn relationship, a bad semester of grad school, or whatever other adult things I find myself up against.
Aside from wondering exactly how much blame I could place on my past partners or relationships, another question remained: could I even return to normal drinking? There is no lack of analogies about slipping down the alcohol slope and not being able to come back up. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous tells me it’s like legs: once we’ve lost them, “we don’t grow new ones.” In Dry: A Memoir, Augusten Burroughs laments that he “blew his wad” by cramming “an entire lifetime of moderate drinking into a decade of hardcore drinking.” Allen Carr compares this descent to the lure of the pitcher plant, filled with sweet nectar that attracts flies. Once in the trap, it’s a slow, imperceptible downward slide until we’re trapped in the sticky puddle at the bottom with no way out. According to William Porter, author of Alcohol Explained, once we’ve hit the point of having a capital “D,” capital “P” Drinking Problem, the brain has learned the basic lesson that alcohol works for immediate stress release and so will forever veer toward that familiar, carved-out trail.
Regardless of whether or not I “can” return to moderate drinking after shaking off the burden a tumultuous partnership, I now know I have no desire to return to drinking at any level, in any realm, good relationship or not. Here are 5 reasons why being alcohol-free is the ONLY way I want to be in a relationship:
1. I can genuinely discern if I like a person or not. Plain and simple – do I enjoy your personality and your body, or is my dry ambivalence masked by our frequent dips into booze-soaked puppy love? How do I know if I am even in a “good” or “bad” relationship if the large part of our interactions are seen through a blurry, boozy veil? Drinking Danielle cannot be trusted to make sound romantic decisions: I’m pretty sure I’ve fallen in love with someone for bringing me a breakfast burrito during a particularly horrible hangover.
2. I am not willing to jeopardize this good thing. Can I drink because I am with a good
guy now? Will I be able to achieve the dream of moderation because I have no problems to drink away? This is the same as standing in the same spot I was struck by lightning previously: maybe it’ll happen again, maybe it won’t – but I’m not going near that spot with a thousand-foot pole. I know I am predisposed to relying on alcohol to cope, and any relationship worth my time is bound to find some eventual bumps in the road. I cannot control the road, but I can control the car – why make myself needlessly vulnerable to the downward spiral?
3. I am more in tune with my own wants, needs, desires, and triggers, and have the strength and emotional intelligence to speak up. I routinely tell my partner that he is annoying me or that I am feeling triggered. On the outset this may seem nit-picky or rude, but I spent so long stifling myself, apologizing, and ultimately destroying relationship after relationship because I was forcing myself to be small, and meek, and forgiving. I drank to feel big, human-sized, brave enough to speak my mind. I rarely spoke my truth about how I was feeling, instead twisting my emotions into something more palatable, like the age-old petty arguments about laundry and dishes. Simply put: when I was drinking, I lacked the insight to recognize (and the courage to verbalize) how sober Danielle felt versus how she wanted to feel and what she needed to get there.
4. Two words: sober sex. (Also see: Number 3). (If you’re my mom: Skip to Number 5). In AA, there is a phrase: “the fourth dimension,” as in “I am living in a way I never thought possible for myself in this lifetime.” Guys, I am living in the fourth dimension of sex. I, like many people who drink to drown their self-consciousness and body image issues, thought sex was only to be enjoyed one way: disinhibited, wild, sloppy, numb, and mostly consensual. It wasn’t fun or pleasurable, and sometimes I just wished it was over so I could have the crazy story for tomorrow’s brunch re-cap and move the hell on. I was going through the motions and making the noises, so didn’t that make me sexy, wild, free? Today, I know that sexy, wild and free for me means mutual vulnerability and complete presence in the moment. It means I’m doing this because I want it and so does the other person, and so I enjoy every touch, every scent, every shared laugh. For me, there is nothing more sexual than being completely present for a human with whom you have a genuine, unadulterated connection with.
5. It’s just more fun. Date nights, travelling, even lazy Sundays are all way more fun
when you get creative with the person you love (or like, really really dig). Cutting out alcohol as the critical element of “fun” has pushed me out of my comfort zone to do the things I always said I would (but ultimately chose drinking instead): gnarly hikes, goat yoga (yes, it’s a thing), nabbing tickets to see my favorite comedians, organizing huge group dinners where I am the host, art shows, extravagant late night dessert and coffee, a couples’ massage class, partner mani-pedis. Even attending alcohol-fueled events (like a wedding or holiday party) with my partner leaves plenty of room for shared inside jokes, exchanging glances and giggles over unruly guests, and sneaking out early to enjoy each other in private (or find some better food elsewhere – guilty as charged).
So does leaving a bad relationship cure us of our drinking woes? Can we suddenly develop a working relationship with alcohol once we’ve kicked out the third wheel? The bad news is there will always be a woe, an irritant, something to mourn and a potential reason to drink, to numb. The good news is that I don’t have to ponder this dilemma anymore: The “alcohol is my medicine” grooves in my brain may be pretty deep, but what recovery has offered me in the terms of a healthy relationship runs even deeper. I choose awareness, consent and presence over the risk of losing all of these values .. and more.