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.