by Alice Lowe
Lost his Rudder,
Been too free with Sir Richard
Like a Rat in Trouble.
“A Man is Drunk” - Benjamin Franklin
Matty and I became close friends over the several years we lived next door to each other. We confided in one another about jobs, homes, families and friends during walks and over coffee. Matty was married and loved to hear about my ventures and misadventures as a thirty-something returned to the singles scene. She was apologetic about having only her marital woes to offer in return. Her son, Jaime, was a little younger than my daughter and liked to hang out at our house; he trailed Jennifer around like a pesky but adoring little brother. The holidays can fall a little flat for an only child with a single mother—turkey for two doesn’t spark joy—so we were happy to join Matty’s family for Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve dinners. Jennifer enjoyed the more festive familial atmosphere and Jaime’s companionship, while Matty’s pumpkin cheesecake and her mother’s cannoli are etched in my memory along with their kindness.
Matty’s husband, Frank, was a heavy drinker. I didn’t like him much even sober—he had that smug, know-it-all bravado that often masks insecurity and disillusionment. He would be on his best behavior at those holiday gatherings until later in the day or evening when the steady drinking brought out his worst. He was one of those mealy-mouthed drunks who get sappy and over-solicitous while thinking they’re being illuminating or entertaining.
I have an aversion to that syrupy manner—I’ve seen it in others too—it reminds me of my father. My dad was a solitary, secretive boozer. He never drank at home, so I would only see the after-effects. He used to put away any number of shots in the back room of his TV repair shop after closing up—“liquid courage” to help him face his family, or maybe himself. If he made it home for dinner, his attentions would be cloying, contrite like a dog that’s been rolling in shit: “How’s my sweet girl….” When he stumbled in late, I’d hear my mother yelling at him from behind my closed bedroom door: “If it wasn’t for the kids I wouldn’t put up with this….” He never raised his voice, never got ugly; he muttered feebly in response or withdrew into sullen silence. She was all talk—she would never leave him, and he knew it. His drinking tapered off some over the years, and they loped along together through her chronic illnesses until her death at sixty. He outlived her by thirty years and found a young second wife who doted on him and matched him drink for drink.
Unlike my dad, Matty’s husband would transition from silly or brooding to mean—critical, sarcastic, aiming for the jugular—as the evening wore on and his alcoholic intake kept pace. That’s when I would go home and play music or turn on the TV to avoid overhearing the shouting matches next door. Matty’s harangues were similar to those I heard from my bedroom as a child, but Frank wasn’t quiet or penitent; he got loud and belligerent. He often blamed his stepson and would lash out at him too, with little provocation. Jaime told Jennifer that Frank sometimes knocked him around when he was drunk. Matty and Frank fought about the boy, about money and who knows what else, but it usually came back to his drinking, and finally Matty said she’d had enough. She booted Frank out and told him he couldn’t come home until he sobered up, got into AA, and stayed on the wagon. Matty had gone through the worst of her pain and angst during the long buildup; once Frank was gone his absence didn’t leave much of a void. She and Jaime seemed happier on their own, at peace with life and each other.
They didn’t call them alcoholics when I was growing up, the workaday boozers who maintained jobs and relatively normal lives like my dad and Frank. Alcoholics were the dysfunctional, out-of-control drunks in “Days of Wine & Roses” and “Lost Weekend.” They were the derelicts on the street, drinking rotgut liquor sheathed in paper bags. We shook our heads and scurried past them, taking comfort in the adage that god protects or loves or suffers drunks and fools. When in my forties I saw a therapist about some emotional issues, she attributed the problems to my being an “ACA,” an adult child of an alcoholic. I didn’t find similarities to my situation in the literature she foisted on me, and I dismissed the simplistic (and trendy at the time) label. Hindsight doesn’t clarify whether my dad was an alcoholic or just an unhappy man, blotting out his despair with bourbon.
I started drinking in my early teens. A much-too-old boyfriend—nineteen to my fourteen—took me to drive-in movies, where we drank beer and made out. I exercised self-restraint and remained sufficiently sober and virginal throughout our brief summer fling; then he broke my heart by going back to a former girlfriend his own age. I hid my pain and found solace, or at least diversion, with a rowdy crowd of older kids. I drank to fit in, to be cool, to have fun. I retain murky booze-soaked memories of weekends that ran together in a swirl of parties, powering down too many rum and cokes, necking with too many guys, puking in bathrooms and back yards and out of car windows, driving home in a fog and living to tell about it through sheer luck, or maybe that divine protection extended to the undeserving (drunks and fools, perhaps one and the same).
After high school I moved into an apartment with friends, where the party life continued unabated, and I drank myself silly on weekends. I worked as a secretary at a fast-paced brokerage firm in La Jolla, back in the days of multi-martini lunches. For my twenty-first birthday some of the staff took me to the elite Whaling Bar at the La Valencia Hotel and told the bartender to bring me a martini—Beefeaters on the rocks with a twist—for my first legal drink. I’d been drinking there for the past three years, and we laughed in complicity as the bartender blanched.
“You’re just twenty-one today?” he asked.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m legal now.”
My husband and I met at a party. He wasn’t a big drinker, and I slowed down. We rarely drank at home after we married, but I invariably overindulged when we went out socially. I liked the feeling of being buzzed; I liked myself better and was less self-conscious, more outgoing. I wouldn’t dance when I was sober—too stiff and awkward—but after a few drinks I loosened up. One New Year’s Eve I got loaded and woke up with a miserable hangover the next day. Alcohol and cigarettes tasted wretched. I couldn’t face either for the next few weeks. It seemed like an excessive reaction, and I started to worry until the explanation dawned on me—I was pregnant. The risks of smoking and drinking during pregnancy weren’t on the public radar at the time, but my body was giving me a message. I stopped smoking and rarely drank from that time on.
I always saw myself as a social drinker, just having a good time. I never made a connection between my drinking and my father’s, never worried that I’d inherited his weakness or inclinations. The hereditary nature of alcoholism and addictive personality types weren’t talked-about issues then. I believe there’s a continuum of possible responses to each aspect of our upbringing, and we can land anywhere on it. We can adopt our parents’ behaviors out of habit, rebel and discard them, or do some of each. My mother had ulcers and cooked bland food—I might have followed suit, but I embraced spicy fare and creative seasoning when I started cooking for myself. I could have avoided liquor completely after observing my father’s drinking or I could have followed suit and become a serious boozer—I rejected both extremes. A liberal, artsy, pot-smoking friend once told me she worried that her daughter, needing something parental to rebel against, would become a right-wing religious businesswoman (she didn’t).
My husband was neither a drunk nor a fool, so the blanket of protection—the one that got me safely home in my teens—didn’t cover him. He didn’t drink much, and he couldn’t handle it when he did, a fact he refused to acknowledge (okay, just a bit of a fool). Once, coming home from a party he turned into a lane of oncoming traffic. I threatened to jump from the moving car if he didn’t pull over immediately and let me drive. There was no one close enough to get him in trouble that time, but a few years later, driving alone late at night, he careened head-on into a pickup truck, killing himself and a young woman driving the other vehicle. The tragic irony is that he’d been drinking with my dad that night—an amateur trying to keep up with the pro.
Addiction is a bona fide illness now, whether to alcohol or drugs, overeating, gambling, or sex, and we’re implored to have compassion for the afflicted. That stumbling drunk isn’t really an obnoxious or abusive beast—it’s the drink that makes him act that way. The devil is no longer responsible and nor is she; her addiction made her do it. Well, maybe, but I don’t accept that every lush is an alcoholic. And while I do understand the power of addiction, I’m inclined to believe it’s possible to rise above it, to battle and overcome the demons. I can cite examples, alcoholics who have been sober for years and years—they did it. I’ve been told that’s too simplistic a response to such a complicated issue. Well, maybe, but I’ll stick by my views.
My dad was a tippler to the end of his ninety years, always a little soppy when I saw him. I’d find him sipping watered-down vodka whatever the time of day, while his wife kept pace with Schaefer beer over ice, one after another. An unhappy, taciturn, benign old sot—a steady infusion of drink seemed to be what got him through the days.
Frank was jolted into action when he realized what he stood to lose. He got sober, joined AA, went through a twelve-step program. After several months Matty let him move back home, but drunk or sober the damage was irreparable. Their marriage couldn’t be restored.
I’m zealous about health and fitness as I get older, so I limit myself to a glass of wine a night, two on the weekend ... a shared bottle of wine on special occasions … an infrequent margarita or Bloody Mary when I’m out. More is tempting—I still like the way liquor makes me feel—but I’m past any urge or risk of overindulging. I’ve seen the collateral damage.
Alice Lowe reads and writes about life and literature, food and family. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Crab Creek Review, The Millions, Permafrost, 1966, The Tishman Review, Upstreet, Hippocampus, and Lunch Ticket. She was a national award winner at City Works Journal and winner of an essay contest at Writing It Real. Alice is the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.