“That was lethal,” my mother said, closing the front door behind her.
I didn’t know if she meant lethal for me to have downed three vodka screwdrivers before getting behind the wheel of my car, lethal to have arrived drunk at a college friend’s New Year’s Eve party the night before, or both. My parents and I had just returned from a neighbor’s house where my father wrote a check to repair the lawn I detoured through on the way home, churning up sod and sideswiping trees. Before disappearing into his study, he ordered me to come up with a repayment plan, the extent of my punishment. His restraint surprised me until I remembered that his own chronic recklessness with alcohol made it awkward for him to sound too disapproving.
In time, my parents came to refer to that incident as a typical youthful bender, a rite of passage for an eighteen-year-old boy who had reached the legal drinking age a few months before. I saw it that way, too, though it ceased to look so harmless in the wake of subsequent alcohol-related calamities. Factor in my childhood exposure to my father’s copious drinking, and my troubles with alcohol later in life, and that New Year’s Eve scene turns into an omen that I should have taken more seriously. Gulping alcohol has always been my way of pounding my nerves into submission; in those days, three drinks was the minimum required to get me out of the house to a social engagement.
Later that year, my college roommate announced that he had invited two girls to our dorm room. I hurried out to buy a pint of vodka and a quart of orange juice to neutralize my shyness. I drank so avidly in preparation for the girls’ arrival (they only stayed for twenty minutes) that I passed out in my clothes and woke the next morning having wet the bed. A Halloween party that fall ended with me carried home in my devil costume, my roommates (one of whom had just completed reserve training at Quantico) chanting a Marine fight song as they marched me through the quad. After that, it became increasingly hard to laugh off my binges, and I have since given up alcohol many times for periods ranging from a week to a year. Today, I strictly limit my intake with regard to when, where, how much, and how often I drink, but I have not stopped for good, a failing that I blame on alcohol’s power to extinguish my anxiety.
For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from phobias provoked by crowds, heights, enclosed spaces, and social interaction. Even alone and remote from any threat, I am subject to apprehension with no identifiable cause. By quelling these symptoms, alcohol makes me feel right in a way I never do when sober, a way that I imagine people who don’t crave it feel all the time. In his article “Who Falls to Addiction, and Who is Unscathed,” the physician Richard Friedman suggests that drug and alcohol abusers “may have blunted reward systems in the brain, and that for them everyday pleasures don’t come close to the powerful reward of drugs.” A study in the Archives of General Psychiatry confirms alcohol’s attractiveness and its danger when used as a balm for anxiety.
…of 34,653 American adults, 13% of the people who had consumed alcohol or drugs in the previous year said they’d done so to reduce their anxiety, fear, or panic about a situation….People with diagnosed anxiety disorders
who self-medicated at the start of the study were two to five times more likely than those who did not self-medicate to develop a drug or alcohol problem within three years.
My affinity for alcohol began in my father’s bar, a tiny room centrally located between our house’s living room and den. Its contents reflected his pride in being able to serve anyone’s beverage of choice on demand. A small antiquated refrigerator always stocked a six-pack of Heineken for him and my three older brothers, a bottle of rosé for my mother’s nightly two glasses, a vintage white or red wine for dinner, and on holidays a magnum of champagne wedged between ice-trays in the freezer. A cupboard held half gallons of vodka and gin alongside various expensive whiskeys received as gifts or earmarked for guests. Reserve cases of beer and wine filled a narrow closet.
I never had any difficulty obtaining alcohol growing up. My brothers were too prolific in their drinking to miss the Heinekens I carried out to my tree fort in the woods, and there were enough leftover bottles of dinner wine that I could sneak one up to my bedroom while my parents napped. A six-pack of beer and bottles of my mother’s rosé accompanied me back to boarding school after each vacation, swaddled in my duffel bag. If my father had discovered me pilfering his booze, his reaction would likely have been “That’s my boy.” He was far more eager to educate me in the rituals of alcohol than to shield me from its dangers.
When I was ten, he taught me how to make a mint julep by mashing mint leaves against the bottom of a tumbler filled with Jack Daniels. I poured this concoction over crushed ice, stirred in a packet of Sweet N’ Low—a nod to his current diet—and served it to him on the patio in a frosted silver goblet. I hated the taste, just as I hated the Budweisers that my uncle expected me to have open for him when he visited, but delighted my elders by taking healthy swigs from these drinks before handing them over. When I turned seventeen and my father allowed me my own glass of wine at dinner, I had been accepting sips from his glass for years. By then I had already acquired a taste for beer and wine and made myself sick enough on scotch, gin, rum, and tequila that I have never been tempted by them since.
At boarding school, drinking felt like a natural rather than a criminal activity. On weekend nights, I’d sit in the window of my dorm room with a smuggled bottle of my mother’s rosé. These solitary sessions would have astonished my classmates, who tended to break rules boastfully and in groups, and who knew me as the straightest of straight arrows, not just because I played sports, studied hard, and wore bland preppy clothes, but because I was so shy. None of my close friends drank, and I wouldn’t have dared approach anyone who did to invite myself along on a debauch. I had been getting drunk alone since I was thirteen and didn’t crave company or recognition. I drank to ease the anxiety that I felt in my school’s academically and socially competitive environment.
After midnight one Saturday, a boy strode into my room to borrow a book while I was occupied with my bottle of Mateus. He stared at me with a combination of surprise and respect before wordlessly accepting a glass. By the next day—or perhaps that evening after he left to spread the word—my reputation had undergone a dramatic makeover. One of the chronic miscreants who lived on the floor below passed me on the way to Sunday brunch, and with a medley of winks, nods, and oblique compliments let me know that he knew that I wasn’t as innocent as I seemed. This was unwelcome news—I knew how naughty I was and saw no profit in others knowing too, especially an image-conscious slacker unlikely to make it to graduation.
In college, where my multiple roommates made solitude impossible, my drinking retained its private aspect, as I focused on ingesting alcohol rather than enjoying the party. Several times a week my roommates and I partook of a local bar’s happy hour, surrounded by other freshmen. As my friends paid attention to each other and to the girls in the room, I hurried to get drunk enough to cope with any of the latter approaching our table. An observer would have thought the scene harmless—a college freshman relaxing in boisterous good company. I was passing my courses and playing two sports. Looked at another way, I was spending most of my evenings drunk and much of the rest of my time looking forward to getting drunk. A ubiquitous public service ad at that time warned, “If you’re drinking to be social, it’s not social drinking.” Then what is it, I wondered, and why do it? Why not switch to ginger ale?
Even in comfortable company, with a friend or two in my dorm room, I outpaced everyone. I couldn’t plead social or other stresses at these times; getting drunk was a race to get out of my mind as quickly as possible. My tendency to pass out early usually spared me embarrassments like the New Year’s Eve drive and Halloween march. An exception occurred one evening in the college dining hall. Primed by several pre-dinner beers, a friend and I sat near two boys who lived in our dorm—precocious intellectuals who dressed conservatively and read The Wall Street Journal. I began making fun of the pair in a loud voice, mocking their dress and speech as my friend tried to shush me. “I think we’re being insulted,” one said as they rose to leave.
The memory of that scene still mortifies me, as if a demon had seized my tongue and forced me to speak as someone I neither was nor wanted to be. I can’t remember how I faced the boys in the dorm afterward, but three years later on the eve of commencement I encountered one of them walking through a quiet neighborhood near campus. Before he could stride past, I stopped him and apologized for my behavior as a freshman. He listened, nodded in acceptance, and walked away. Even if my immaturity mitigates my offense somewhat, it’s hard not to find evidence of alcoholism in my drinking at that age, my future temperance notwithstanding.
I first noticed the duality between drinking as fun and as destructive behavior in my father’s practice. On a typical weekday he might have a cocktail and wine at lunch with his Wall Street cronies, one or two beers in a Penn Station bar while waiting for his commuter train, another in the bar by our local Long Island station before my mother picked him up, a glass of sherry upon arriving home and wine with dinner. On vacations he’d announce at breakfast the precise time he planned to start drinking that morning. Once a year, usually on New Year’s Day, he went on the wagon as part of a new diet or on doctor’s orders for hypertension. After a week or so his resolve faltered, especially if one of my older brothers arrived home and began draining Heinekens in front of him.
My ex-wife used to press me to admit that my father was an alcoholic, and I’d exasperate her by demanding a precise definition of the word. How could a man so successful warrant that label? He was a Wall Street lawyer who worked full-time into his seventies and retained several clients beyond that age. He provided for his family, came home in time for dinner when he wasn’t traveling or preparing for trial, attended graduations and sports events, and took us on vacation to Bermuda every March. He was also a surly, vindictive drunk who humiliated my mother and taught his children to avoid him, and whose scorn left psychological scars on every member of his family. He showed up intoxicated and limping at my sister’s wedding after causing a car accident on the way to the church. Alcoholic? It depends how you look at it.
Perhaps my quibbling over labels betrays my reluctance to diagnose myself; I have drunk so sparingly for the past twenty years that there’s little outward evidence of a problem. A friend in AA jokes that if he had my self-control he’d never have had to quit drinking, though his sobriety demands far more discipline than mine. I simply avoid alcohol in situations where it impairs me. After squeezing my four-year-old son’s arm too hard during a beer-fueled scolding, I stopped drinking in his presence, and have not done so for the past twenty-one years. Realizing that disagreements were likelier to turn ugly if I was even mildly hungover, I stopped drinking around my girlfriend. In my thirties I stopped drinking in my parents’ house, where moderation was impossible in the face of my father’s persistent hospitality. My final withdrawal came a few years ago when two glasses of wine made me so inarticulate at a dinner party that I stopped drinking in public.
Today I only drink by myself, some wine or cognac on week-end nights when my family is asleep. I’d like to say that I stop after achieving a pleasant buzz, but in truth I drink the way I always have, fast and purposefully until the alcohol blots out my anxiety. As long as I stick to a strict schedule, I tell myself, I need never join my friend in recovery. Besides, what difference would it make if I stopped? My longing for alcohol would continue, and the only negative effect of my solitary binges is a slight hangover the next morning. That and my awareness that I cannot stop, and that calling my drinking harmless is as self-deluding as when I drove across the neighbor’s lawn thirty-five years ago.
In his essay “Under the Influence” Scott Russell Sanders worries that growing up with an alcoholic father has made him susceptible to abusing alcohol himself. As an adult, he confines himself to “…once a week, perhaps, a glass of wine, a can of beer, nothing stronger, nothing more.” Sanders recalls seeing his father take his first drink of the day: “I watch the amber liquid pour down his throat, the alcohol steal into his blood, the key turn in his brain.” For me that key turns when my first sip begins to deaden the quickened, frantic feeling that anxiety maintains in me. Nothing else, not therapy or meditation or success or love has given me such relief, and that’s why I do not or cannot give up drinking for good.
A few years ago I mentioned my fondness for English beer to my son and he said, “But I’ve never seen you take a drink.” Drinking alone allows me to keep my troubled relationship with alcohol a secret. People who know me would laugh at the idea of me being an alcoholic or even concerned about the possibility. At parties, my request for water or ginger ale elicits curious looks as I imagine strangers speculating about my alcoholic past. Like a man with that grim history, my outward temperance belies an inner craving. I look forward to my weekly ration more than to anything in my life. “Right now I would eat hot glass / if it got in the way of this fantasy” a line in a friend’s poem goes. When it comes to alcohol, that’s how I feel.
Michael Milburn teaches English in New Haven, Connecticut. His essays have recently appeared in New England Review and Hippocampus. His third book of poems, Carpe Something, will appear this summer from Word Press.
Check out our feature on Michael here.