Category Archives: alcohol

The Shore of Ireland

A month in Ireland and I would never feel dry, the entire time. It was the wettest summer on record and the water was coming from everywhere – the sky, the ground, the sea, my eyes, my very heart.

The second day I was there he walked me through his silent village, the river a black ribbon and us under a bell jar, walking in molasses, sticky and slow. He took me to the abandoned train station, overgrown with reeds and foxgloves and the loneliest place I’d ever been and there on the platform my face broke open and turned to water, my nose my mouth my hands, and I keened my sorrow into the green. Inside I admitted what I’d known the moment I’d put my arms around him at the Dublin airport and felt the birdlike bones in his back – he was mine no longer, I mean he was mine for the taking but I knew he wasn’t made for me or me for him; it was out of order, disordered, it didn’t fit, but I put on my weak American smile and soldiered on for a day or two until we sat on the platform and I knew it was gone.

The next night he disappeared into the smoke of the bars in town my insides scraped raw and for the next four weeks we tried, we pretended, we rode from one end of the country to the other and we kept at it. Solstice rainbow on Malin Head, as far north as you can go, the silent treatment on Clare Island, him out of his mind in the green muck of Belmullet, and all the while me letting the love die, coiling out of me and left there in the soil of his country and nearly mine, a place with her fingers so deep into me that to this day I weep like an exile. I emptied myself of the dream, the life I could have had all of it, I still can’t tell you why, my best friend says it would have been ‘too small’ for me, but I can tell you that although I answered the call of my truth and that’s the best thing you can do in many ways it broke me and I have never been the same since. I never believed after that and I am now only so many grains of salt – I know better now and I will never break on the shore of Ireland again.

The Poppy Fields

People generally come in one of two varieties – those who stay in their hometown (whether a depressing little steel-mill burg or a palm tree-punctuated paradise), and those who leave it. I’m a leaver. So are most of my friends. Some places seem harder to extract oneself from than others – I guess when you’ve got nothing to look forward to but a career in checkout at Wal-Mart or the sterility of a vast suburb filled with faux-Spanish Revival McMansions, it’s a no-brainer. In other cases, it’s not so simple.

I’ve been in love with two small-town men now and let me tell you, if I was suspicious of small towns before, I’m now positively paranoid. Both (the towns, not the men) had striking similarities – a verdant greenness bordering on the obscene, a plethora of pastoral fields, and a veneer of bucolic serenity thinly veiling a rabid insularity and a drinking culture that would make Amy Winehouse and Brendan Behan look like teetotaling Mouseketeers.

In my ex-husband’s small Irish border village there were two tiny convenience marts, a post office, a library, one daily bus into and out of town, and five bars. And not one ATM. Getting a job in a local factory was considered an enviable gig and the proportion of out-of-wedlock infants born to teen parents was inversely proportional to the number of college degrees earned by the town’s kids (to my knowledge: zero). There was an uncomfortable element of schadenfreude to the failures of one’s peers (for example, my ex having gone off to America and come back with little to show for it) and the hangover of the historical Irish suspicion of success and concepts of ‘gettin’ notions’ served to keep any inappropriate ambition in check. Expectations, in short, were low, and time passed with that syrupy rural slowness in which the long summer days bleed into one another in a way others might find peaceful but I find numbing.

In my most recent boyfriend’s (‘Tree Guy’) West Marin town, a glittering jewel on the the tip of the Point Reyes Peninsula, there is one bar, and it is all that matters. Other than the town’s notorious insularity and locals only ethos (‘our beach, our waves, our girls, go home!’), it is its singular calling card and the hub around which all spokes rotate, and has been so since 1851 (it’s also got the only ATM for miles – heh – tell me that isn’t strategic marketing). The topsy-turvy little hamlet is the kind of place that makes it difficult for some to know which way is up, its gestalt a heady brew of spectacular natural beauty, 60s counterculture radicalism, redneck isolationism, straight-up self-indulgent hedonism, and a moral slipperiness that seems to breed adults in an arrested state of adolescence.

The first time Tree Guy took me to hang out there, I was keenly reminded of my misspent youth in San Diego, afternoons and nights on the beach, at house parties and nightclubs, in parks and parking lots; drinking, dressing up, being seen. Back then there was just as much mischief and mayhem and dysfunction going on as anywhere else, and a lot of that same ‘locals only’ vibe, but the difference, and I recognize this only now, was this sense that we were all going somewhere. Maybe we didn’t know where, exactly, but the forward trajectory was palpable. It wasn’t so much a ‘goal-oriented’ mindset as it was some sort of expectation out of life, the sense of putting one foot in front of another, being open to possibilities, and keeping it moving.

This same sense of motion feels largely absent in Tree Guy’s hometown, with the requisite exceptions. The town’s progeny tend, true to form, to be disproportionately divided amongst two groups: those who venture over the mountain and keep roaming, and those who either never leave or boomerang back and are suspended, like amber, inside the prism of their history. It seems this place produces either exceptional high achievers or stunning underachievers, boasting more than it’s fair share of legal troubles and substance abuse woes.

On the one hand it seems a lawyer-heavy town, producing soy-eating kids who grow up to score their JDs before 30, which for such a lawless place is pretty interesting, don’t ya think? Tree Guy once commented that very few of the girls get out, but the ones who manage it tend to do extremely well for themselves, which I find true across most subcultures – the females who do rise above do it with a vengeance. There also seems to be a healthy crop of musicians, artists, and DJs whose work is, and I mean this sincerely, really good.

On the other hand, there is the dark side of those who don’t make it out, whether literally or metaphorically, who cling to their town tribalism as fiercely as they do the bottle, only growing older and more fossilized in the nautilus shell of their pathology, days and months and years disappearing beneath the fog and eucalyptus groves. There’s a heavy incidence of alcoholism (as is probably true of many small towns), yet an attempt at sobriety is met with, on rare occasions, awe and admiration or, more ordinarily, derision – as though it were an indication of a lack of (rather than evidence of) character or, worst of all, a compromised masculinity – which is nothing short of criminal, in my very unsolicited opinion. The bitter aftertaste of that Irish ‘gettin’ notions’ and ‘not knowin’ yerself’ rises in my throat when I witness this betrayal and the pressure to remain complacent, stagnant, to just drink a beer and pretend everything’s OK while the years flow by like the tide and lives fall apart in spectacular fashion.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty about both places that I deeply appreciate, and I met some priceless people that I have a sincere fondness for, but for me there is a genuine terror of the way consciousness and evolution are held hostage by complacency and how time passes like molasses, the narcotic torpor of summer days on the boozy beach giving way to winter mornings beneath the dripping canopy in an endless, hypnotic, poisonous cycle, all ticking by and melting into the same narcoleptic river of time, day in and day out, everyone asleep in the poppy fields, dreaming without waking.

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.