The day after the last night I ever drank alcohol, I found myself curled up in a sickly ball on the floor of my friend Michele’s Upper East Side apartment, the embodiment of the shame spiral. As the previous evening flashed through my mind in bits and pieces, each scene inducing more self-loathing than the last, I sobbed.
* There I was, spilling my scotch and water at dinner with Michele’s sweet sister and brother-in-law visiting from Texas, the evening barely begun.
* There I was, drunk dialing the hedge fund manager crush du jour, slurring out my undying love onto his voicemail.
* There I was, throwing up in the bathroom of the nicest loft I’d ever been in, at a party where I knew nobody.
* There I was, stumbling around an oddly-deserted Tribeca in platform sandals, seeking a cab, my friends long having abandoned me to my antics.
These weren’t like the flashbacks in college where you and your friends would gather in the dorm lounge to relive the night before and laugh and laugh and laugh. “And then she threw up Everclear punch in the snow!” “Did you see him passed out in a toga on the quad!” “You were doing the worm to a slow dance!”
No, at 33 years old, my friends were no longer joining in the ‘fun.’ The shame was mine alone and it ate me from the inside out.
It was easy to start drinking. Socially I was a mess, the smart girl who never went to prom, and drinking opened up a whole new me to me. Confident, funny, the social butterfly, the life of the party. And drinking never messed me up academically or professionally. I managed to drink and excel through college, through law school, through my first job as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., through my first few years in New York City. It was easy to think my drinking wasn’t a problem, because “I never drink alone” or “It never affects my work” or “It’s only on weekends.”
It’s easy, when you are single in Manhattan, to treat the island as a big campus, and you are Peter Pan. It’s easy to never grow up.
I certainly didn’t know that this would be the last hangover at the time. There had been hundreds of ‘days after’ when I swore I would never drink again. But this time, someone called me out. Michele stared at my pathetic form on her floor and said, simply, but sternly and kindly:
“Cindy, you can’t drink.”
Nobody had ever said it to me before so baldly. “Cindy, you can’t drink so much”, sure, but never, “Just stop.” I knew it; I’d said it to myself over and over, but to hear it out loud from a close friend felt like a shot to the gut. They know. Everybody knows. My shame escalated a million-fold, but the message? That stuck. Cindy, you can’t drink.
And I haven’t. Fourteen years ago today, I made a choice. I lashed myself to the masts to move past the siren song of alcohol. We don’t have these watershed moments very often in our lives, but when we do, the air has a before-the-storm electric clarity. A paradigm shifts beneath us.
I worry about my kids. Alcoholism runs deep in my family and though my kids are not related to me biologically, I still want to fall at their feet when they hit high school and beg them never to start. Because who knows? With that first beer or glass of wine will their brains light up – as mine did – and whisper: “Yes. This. This is what we’ve needed.” Will it fill the chasms inside them so they will never want to stop?
I ambled home from Michele’s the twenty or so blocks to my apartment, rehydrating with a 20-ounce Coke. Exhausted, I slept a dreamless sleep and woke up squinting at the sun.
I stepped out into the bright light of a newly captured day.
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Ironically, I’m hanging out at the Yeah, Write Speakeasy this week. Don’t worry, I’m nursing an O’Doul’s at the big table in the back.