I didn’t know it would be my last drink at the time.
It was a fun night, a spontaneous party at our rooftop apartment in the middle of Tel Aviv. It started with hamentashen – traditional cookies for the festival of Purim – and whiskey sours. Because all social events revolved around alcohol for me those days. Not that weird for a 30-year-old single woman, living and working in a grungy, beach-side city perhaps, but I think for me the two were a little too closely linked. Like the socializing was an excuse for the drinking and not the other way around.
The party started when it was still light, with a few good friends sitting around chatting. It ended with a purple wig, lots of tears and an empty bottle of Glenlivit – and I don’t remember doing much sharing. Well to be honest, I don’t remember that much at all. Things started light and fun, got really fun, and then got messy – this was often the case when I partied. A deep conversation with a good friend from out-of-town had me a blubbering mess, I have a vague memory of arguing with my boyfriend about cleaning up, lots of vomiting (let’s not forget that I was pounding a cocktail made up mainly of single malt and raw eggs)… and that’s about all I can remember.
I have much more vivid memories of waking the next morning, feeling like death warmed up. I spent the entire day trying to keep fluids down and running back and forth from the toilet to bed. And with the physical hangover came the emotional fallout. The sick feeling in my stomach as snippets of ridiculous things I’d said and done the previous night came back to me. The cringing regret. The long, nagging black holes in my memory.
It was 7pm before I managed to keep down some juice. I don’t know if I managed to eat. I didn’t care. I just felt so wretched and sorry for myself.
And it wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling. Not by far.
This sort of thing had been going on for a long time, around 15 years. Every party, holiday, meal and meetup was an excuse to get drunk. I drank when I was happy and when I was sad, to celebrate and to commiserate. Part of it was about dutch courage, part was about enjoying the physical sensations of getting wasted, part of it was just pure fun. I fancied myself as a connoisseur of whiskey, wine and beer – but at the end of the day it was all about getting drunk. There were a bunch of other party drugs involved too at different points, along with I can’t even begin to imagine how many cigarettes and joints.
And yet despite how trashy that must all sound, my life was ostensibly in pretty decent shape at that time.
Until a few months earlier I’d been living by myself – a life-long goal – in a cute apartment three minutes from the beach. I had a high-energy journalism job that I loved and lots of friends living in walking distance from me. I ran 5km a few times a week, practiced yoga regularly and meditated every day. And I’d just met a man who was different from anyone I’d ever dated, and things were going very well.
I guess this is why people squirm when I use the word alcoholic. It doesn’t quite fit. But it’s true. It’s just that I was a very high-functioning abuser.
The day after that horrible hangover was the day I headed off for my first long Vipassana course – a 12-day silent meditation retreat. It sounds like a cliché but there’s no other way to say it – those 12 days totally changed my life.
In order to take part in the course, students agree to take on the Five Precepts, or training rules, for the duration of the course. And so without thinking too much of it, I undertook to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and using intoxicants. The Buddhist tradition has it that accepting these rules gives the mind the moral freedom to properly engage in contemplative practice. Simple enough really, and it made sense to me. And then just kept on making more and more sense.
Somewhere in among the grueling hour-upon-hour meditation schedule, I found some clarity about these substances that had become such an integral part of my life. Sitting on a cushion, painstakingly bringing my mind back to the present moment over and over again, the cycle of craving that I’d gotten myself into finally started to make sense. I understood on a physical, visceral level that I was completely addicted to how these substances were making me feel, and I realized – it was time to take drugs and alcohol out of the picture completely. At least for now.
I’d known it for years, I think, but I hadn’t been ready to admit it. I’d played around with drinking “moderately,” with only smoking pot on the weekends. I’d stopped smoking cigarettes for a few years, then started again during a breakup and been so furious with myself that I’d been unable to stop again. It just wasn’t working.
And on top of that, I simply didn’t want to taint the purity of mind that I was just starting to cultivate with the mindfulness practice. I was finally working through so much of my shit – psychological, spiritual and existential, alike – and felt ready to fully apply myself to the task.
I also knew I would have the support of that promising new boyfriend once I got back home to the real world, because he’d already raised “my substance issue” a few months earlier (at which juncture I’d basically told him to get fucked, naturally).
And so I just did it. I came back home, reintegrated into most of my life, but just not the alcohol, drugs and cigarettes bit. It’s been over four years and I’m proud to say that I haven’t had another sip, drag, snort or pill since.
I thought the cravings would be the hard part, but actually once I stepped off the wheel, it was kind of like I closed a door and that was that. There are still moments when a beer would go down well, or a cigarette on a particularly bad day, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.
The social bit was much tougher. While I did have real, close friends – not just drinking buddies – the substance abuse was an integral part of my very active social life. So I had to find social activities that didn’t revolve around drinking, and also to admit that without alcohol I actually didn’t want such an active social life. Time alone became far more tolerable, and sometimes even preferable. It was a shift that I didn’t expect, but ultimately it was quite welcome, and fit well with my meditation practice and an increasingly serious relationship, too.
So it’s been four years, and I feel like a completely different person now. That supportive boyfriend is now my dear husband and we have two young children. We bought a place in the suburbs. Meditation is still a cornerstone of my sanity but I definitely don’t fit in the hour in the morning and hour in the evening that I was doing in the months after that course. Life is good. Calm and happy and fulfilling.
But recently I’ve been thinking that it might be even better with a glass of wine in my hand at the end of the day, once the kids are in bed. And that maybe I’ve changed enough that I’d be able to handle it differently this time.
I talked it out last week, chatting with my mother and stepfather over a couple of glasses of San Pellegrino. They were drinking wine and beer, respectively. And to be honest I had half a mind that the conversation might end with me deciding to have a drink myself, but it didn’t – and here’s why.
I know that if I had a drink then – or right now – I wouldn’t end up drunk on a street corner somewhere. Of course not. I’d be able to have one drink, maybe two, and call it a night.
But I wouldn’t want to.
From that first sip I’d be thinking about the next one, and the one after that. About when and whether I could pour myself another. Even just writing about it now I can feel the craving starting to build. The metallic taste in my mouth, salivating at the thought of something I haven’t even tasted in so long. And at some point I’d start thinking about smoking too – because drinking and smoking really are such a beautiful match. I wouldn’t actually do it, but the mental suffering I’d cause myself in going over and over it just doesn’t seem worth it.
There are other reasons, too. Empty calories and all the crap I used to eat when I was drinking, drunk or hungover for one. Pizza after pizza, delicious of course but basically just clogging my arteries and making me miserable about my body. Clarity of mind is another. It’s bad enough that I can count the amount of full nights’ sleep I’ve had in the past three years on one hand – why add insult to injury? I’m about to go back to work full time – I need every brain cell I can get. And then there’s the emotional stability. Sure, I have my ups and downs, but they’re nothing compared to the serotonin crashes I used to experience even after a couple of glasses of wine.
But the cycle of craving is the main reason that I’m not having another drink. At least not for now. I’m making a conscious choice to live without a well-earned beer – so that I can also be free of that world of inner turmoil.
So, was I an alcoholic? Am I still?
It doesn’t matter. All I know is that for now – right now – I still feel good about that decision I made four years ago, and kept making every day since. And I’m eternally grateful for the conditions that helped me to come to it and to stick with it – the gift of meditation, my rock of a husband, and a significant amount of dark chocolate along the way. Gotta keep a vice or two hanging around just for fun, right?