Loving An Alcoholic: Loneliness Defined

Last summer as I headed down a dry, rocky ribbon of freeway towards Mexico with my homegirl of 13 years in the passenger seat, we stumbled upon what I call a Topica Non Grata – any of an assortment of subjects of which one ordinarily simply does not speak; this time, the raging alcoholism of two men we loved – my boyfriend and her father. So taboo was this topic that only after over a decade of being tight friends were we able to be forthright about it with one another – the secret is that shameful. And yet, like abortion, addiction is so widespread that I believe one would be truly hard-pressed to find a single individual whose life has not been touched by it.

When one is the family member, friend, or lover of a problem drinker, one develops a power of observation and an instinctive understanding of the alchemy of alcohol that would make any NIH-funded scientist proud. You learn, very quickly, what types of booze, in which combinations, consumed on which day or at what time of day or in certain situations or with particular foods all brew into what is almost inevitably trouble. You learn that Dad can drink beer but not spirits, or clear spirits but not dark ones, and the first four beers he’s fine but that fifth one, that’s the ticket. Or as long as Mum has a bite to eat before she hits the wine, she might be okay……and the boyfriend, well, so long as he stays away from tequila or Jim Beam he might be all right, but then again, probably not.

Recalling this recently to an Irish friend of mine while we – perhaps ironically – enjoyed a pint at our local, she told me she remembers kneeling on the floor at seven years old on Christmas Eve, below the framed photos of the Virgin and the Baby Jesus on her wall and praying, “Please God, don’t let Daddy go to the pub tonight (incidentally, her father also managed to drink the family business away),” and my own lover’s brother once told me he essentially grew up waiting outside the bar for his parents.

We laughed bitterly about how every holiday is automatically an excuse to drink – is it your birthday? The dog’s birthday? Jesus’ birthday? New Years? Groundhog Day? The Macy’s White Sale? 80s Night at The Roxy? The third Thursday in August with a quarter moon? Time for a drink! Similarly, any mood can be a trigger – good day at work? Got a raise? Salut! Bad day? Got sacked? Bottoms up! Any reason at all seems to do. We spoke of the terrible loneliness of it: one learns that sometimes declining an invitation or withdrawing from social situations is far easier than dealing with a drunk or performing damage control. Your alcoholic loved one makes the most of any special occasion whilst you train yourself to miss out on life’s milestones and rituals. You become closely acquainted with disappointment and you make good friends with low expectations. You soon find that even when you’re in the company of your loved one, you are well and truly alone.

These are not bad people. On the contrary, alcoholics and addicts can often be some of the sweetest, most intelligent and interesting people one could ever hope to meet. Most genuinely love their children, families, and significant others, and they’re often deeply sensitive souls and a joy to know. But any relationship or marriage in which one or both partners is an alcoholic/addict is essentially a love triangle. I teased my boyfriend once that the drink was ‘the other woman,’ and I never worried about him being unfaithful to me with anyone but the bottle. My mistake was in thinking that the bottle was his mistress, when in truth that was my role – a bright distraction, a stolen moment of happiness – and in the end, he would always go back to the liquid-filled wife he married a long, long time ago.

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Cashing In, Checking Out, Calling It A Day

So lately I’ve been really fed up with my work. I purposely never disclose where I work or what I do, but let’s suffice it to say that it’s a large government-related institution. The group I work with is great; never had a nicer bunch of colleagues, but the overall organization is egregiously disorganized and badly run, and my ‘boss (if you can call her that)’ is one of those geniuses with little common sense who lacks the ability to understand that I somehow manage to (barely) perform 60 hours worth of work in 40. So I’m a little fed up and looking for other gigs, and there’s a very promising one on the horizon, so please, people, keep your fingers crossed.

I’ve always been deeply preoccupied with security (this comes from being the only child of crazy parents and being doggedly determined to not turn out like my mom, meaning, relying on a man to take care of me) and thus I am a bit on the cautious side, preferring to walk the path of a steady paycheck every month rather than ‘striking out’ and going freelance or doing something I truly love; say, writing. And that’s my bad, and on me, but on the other hand, I’m an unmarried chick with dogs and a car payment, so what’re ya gonna do?

The most recent boyfriend, AKA The Tree Guy, hails from a wee town waaaaaaaaaaaay the hell out in West Marin called Bolinas, both famous and infamous for its beauty and locals-only insularity. All the months he lived with me I had to hear about how shitty it was out here On The Grid, all the cars & houses & people & strangers and so forth, whereas he painted Bo as an idyllic, utopian Valhalla out on its little peninsula. Ever suspicious of the molasses-like torpor of small towns, I’ve been very skeptical: old hippies and no store open after 7pm. Yeah, great, babe.’ Though I did enjoy his characterization both the town and himself as ‘half hippie, half redneck.’

But last weekend I went out there to spend the night for the first time and found myself surprised. A gorgeous, azure day, we walked down the gravel roads, him barefoot in board shorts and picking blackberries off the bushes to feed to me (my first blackberry, ever). We enjoyed the sunset on the towering cliffs above Agate Beach with a cold Newcastle in hand. It was so quiet and in the morning I woke up to nothing but the sound of the crows. And given my recent frustrations with trying to advance in the rat race, I windowshopped the following life: quit job, leave City flat, move into Tree Guy’s family homestead, get job as receptionist at Stinson realty company or something equally simple and stress-free, get pregnant, have babies, plant vegetables, spend evenings and weekends on the beach, watch children grow up riding their dirt bikes past the eucalyptus groves, drive over the hill to get nails done and do monthly provisions shopping, read books, drink coffee, have hot monkey sex, make Sunday dinners, lather rinse repeat.

When I told my mate Charlotte, who’s from a town in the west of Ireland, about this on the phone last night, she sounded skeptical. “But that’s just not your style,” she said. And I thought, why would my friends say that? Is it my style to be the steadily-climbing, childless urban career chick? To crunch numbers instead of the gravel beneath my feet? To cook books instead of breakfast? I’m not so sure.