why i’m not an alcoholic

From The “Grapevine” May 2006

What It Was Like…

These days, I don’t so much fall asleep as pass out.


I go to work because my legal career is the Potemkin village of my denial.  As long as I’m working, I’m not an alcoholic. I don’t think this, of course, because it never occurs to me until much later that I might be an alcoholic. There are other strategies, too, all of them so transparent in retrospect that it’s embarrassing to mention them unless I’m in a roomful of alcoholics, all of whom understand this type of thinking.


I’m not an alcoholic, for instance, because I don’t drink in the morning. Unless it’s a weekend morning, or a holiday, of course, in which case lots of normal people drink, so I can, too. These morning drinks are festive but are not necessary, or compulsive. They sport vegetables or umbrellas. They carry the names of flowers and contain juices.  Mimosas, for instance. A mixture of good healthy orange juice and the most celebratory beverage around–cheap champagne. Or Bloody Marys. Good normal morning drinks. There’s a stalk of celery in a Bloody Mary, for God’s sake. It’s a breakfast food.


I’m also not an alcoholic because I don’t get drunk every night. This, of course, by now, is strictly untrue. I do get drunk every night. But I don’t intend to get drunk every night, and that’s nearly the same thing. I’m going through some tough professional and personal times right now and I haven’t always gotten drunk every night, and I certainly intend to stop getting drunk every night once my therapy and the new medication gets me through this rough spot.


Because I’ve had to give up a lot of reasons why I’m not an alcoholic, the list at this point is pretty short. I drink alone, for instance, so I can’t say I’m only a social drinker. And I pretty much always drink until I’m drunk, though I’ve lowered the bar on this one–I don’t consider myself drunk if the bed doesn’t spin like a Tilt-a-Whirl on the Santa Monica pier when I’m ready for sleep. I guess by this point the only other convincing reason I’m not an alcoholic is that I never have liquor in the house. Meaning, I don’t keep liquor in the house because I am going to stop drinking tomorrow. Same for the cigarettes, and for that little nightly marijuana habit I’ve had since my divorce. Five years ago.


So, this is my routine. Most days I make it into work. I’m working by the hour now so I don’t have to feel guilty if I have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. If I don’t work, I don’t earn. It’s up to me. I’m in control of that. When I do work, I’m the same hard worker I’ve always been. I mean, I’m a pretty good lawyer. I should be. I learned how to practice in a semi-drugged state–prescription pills, mostly. Valium. I’m serious about this, but won’t realize it until later. If you learn to swim with lead weights attached to your arms and legs, you build strong muscles. I genuinely was a good lawyer, as long as I showed up.


So I’m working for this one-man law firm in Westwood, California, right on Wilshire Boulevard across the street from Westwood Village, the little college town at the foot of the UCLA campus. I’m in therapy with a woman who specializes in substance abuse. I picked her because I used to have some substance abuse problems. A little amphetamine addiction when I was nineteen, cocaine at thirty, cigarettes on and off. Someone told me once that I had an “addictive” personality and I’m down with that. But marijuana isn’t a drug–even the experts say it’s not addictive–and the drinking? Well, like I said, I might have a little drinking problem right now, but an alcoholic? Not quite.


I’ve known alcoholics. My best friend in high school, Alice, her dad was an alcoholic. You knew he was one because he didn’t work, just sat at home in front of the television set during the day, a dark presence we tiptoed past on our way to Alice’s bedroom where, in exchange for a donut, she deigned to tutor me in geometry. Alice’s dad has been dead for some time. I still remember him pretty vividly, though. It was at Alice’s wedding, when I was in law school in the late seventies, when I last saw him. Robert was his name. Bob. I’ll never forget that day. Partly because those were the days when bridesmaids were forced to wear homemade dresses the color of after-dinner mints with fabric that poofed up in the shoulders and sleeves. So I remember the day because of just how awkward I felt, hiding from the wedding photographer and feeling foolish.


But this is what I remember the most clearly. Alice’s dad, Robert, watched his daughter’s semi-formal garden wedding from his wheelchair on the wide veranda of his mother’s Victorian mansion in San Diego. I remember thinking what a waste his life had been. He’d been working on his Ph.D. in psychology pretty much the whole time I knew Alice–ninth grade through college, and then graduate school. He’d tried that anti-alcohol medication, the pill that makes you violently ill if you drink. But he’d still drink and get violently ill. Or skip taking the pills and drink. He never got sober. And there he was, the victim, finally, of something other than his own alcoholism. A stroke. The mother of the bride, Alice’s mom, who supported him, along with the rest of the family, for nearly thirty years, was caring for a true invalid. It was really sad. So, you see, Robert was an alcoholic. I wouldn’t have had the nerve to put myself in that league. It might very well have been a relief to have a problem I could do something about. But alcoholism clearly wasn’t among them.




What Happened. . .

The day I stop drinking begins like any other. (My refrigerator usually contains only alcohol and things to eat with alcohol–finger food: canapes, frozen dumplings, that sort of thing. Last night, however, I had a rare visit from old friends who knew me well enough to bring their own non-alcoholic beverages with them.) Picturing the cranberry sparkler, I’m thinking it might be a good day to ease up on my drinking a little. Just for today, I tell myself, I won’t drink.


When I open the refrigerator door to grab a sparkler, however, my hand closes instead around a nearly full bottle of chardonnay. I pop the cork and pour a glass. Since I’m “not drinking” on Saturday afternoon, I might as well fire up my bong as well.


An hour later, with the early afternoon sun streaming through the French doors to my balcony, I am once again sitting at my computer–drunk and stoned.




This obvious question pops into my mind for the first time in my adult life.




Why am I sitting alone in my apartment at the age of forty-two, on a beautiful Southern California day, disabled, for all intents and purposes, from doing anything productive, or even fun?


Like Philip Roth’s paranoid writer character in Operation Shylock, I can think of only one thing to do when a panicky new thought arrives. Sit in a chair, at a desk, and attempt to “tame temporarily with a string of words the unruly tyranny of my incoherence”:

I was once addicted, I write, to amphetamines. 

When I dropped out of college at age nineteen, I took a job in downtown San Diego alphabetizing “trade slips” for a small stock brokerage firm. The speed nailed my otherwise notoriously short attention span to this mind-numbing task. Drinking was just becoming a big part of my life and the speed helped that, too. I could drink with more energy, stay awake longer, and felt nauseated less often. One pill a day, however, quickly morphed into five. I stayed high all week and crashed on the weekends, crying in bewilderment in my small shuttered studio apartment.

Three months later I was sick, unemployed, and evicted. I put my tail between my legs and moved back home. There, under my mother’s disapproving stare, I kicked the habit cold turkey and re-enrolled in college. I did well, met my first husband, and headed off to law school.

Then the eighties arrived. I fell in with a fast and “sophisticated” crowd of hard-drinking trial lawyers, figuring that if I emulated their lifestyle, I’d be capable of mimicking their cross-examination skills. In a matter of months, I was sitting in my living room at 3 A.M. while my husband slept, watching old movies, drinking .from a cold half-gallon of Chablis and scraping cocaine dust off the Oriental carpet.

Here’s the thing, I write: I’ve never been able to moderate my use of any substance.


I think about this for a while, take a drag on a cigarette, grind it out in an old ceramic saucer and light another. I take a deep breath and watch the smoke rise to the ceiling.

I think, I continue, that I am an alcoholic.

Suddenly, it seems so simple. Easy even. The thought opens a floodgate of exhaustion, demoralization and, most importantly, surrender. I am–as I’ll later learn Bill W. was–simply “beat.” My “battle with the bottle” is over. At five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon in early February 1994, I head off to the bedroom where I sleep, on and off, the rest of the weekend.


That was ten years ago, and I haven’t had a drink since.

What It’s Like Now . . .

Hundreds of AA meetings later, I have my own business as an attorney-mediator and am genuinely happy doing what I love–helping people achieve peaceful and economic resolutions to the inevitable conflicts in which we all inevitably find ourselves. I’m also a student again, earning a master’s degree (an LL.M.) in dispute resolution at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.


I’m recently married and have acquired two of the most beautiful and loving stepchildren any woman–particularly this childless woman–could ever hope to have. My life is full of challenges. And it is full of joy. I am active in AA, work the Steps with my sponsor, and help a loving and courageous group of sponsees work their Steps, too.


I am of service and I am at peace.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *