I did not drink every day, nor did I get drunk every time I drank. I was always surprised on those mornings that I awoke struggling to remember how I got home the night before. I would often be terrified to answer the door on those mornings, fearing that whoever I met there would somehow guess—or maybe even know—something about my shameful behavior from the night before. All this, when I had no idea if anything shameful had even happened!
During the next few years, as I finished obtaining my bachelor’s degree and somehow survived four unruly teenage children, I tried hard to control my drinking. Since I did not get drunk every time I drank, I kept telling myself there was no way I was an alcoholic. Little did I realize at the time that the very fact that I was having this debate with myself was a sign that I had already slipped into the denial that is characteristic of every alcoholic. People who do not have a problem with alcohol have no reason to even enter into this kind of self-argument.
Then came the weeklong vacation that we were able to take on a friend’s fifty-five-foot sailboat, anchored in the Bahamas. Wow, I thought. This is going to be great. A whole week with nothing to do but putter around on the boat, relax, and drink as much as I want. After all, what else was there to do in the lazy, sun-baked, fish-until-you-drop atmosphere onboard the boat except drink beer and Bloody Marys? Most people—at least those who thought like I did—would say, “Of course! What else! Relax, enjoy!” But, ironically, I had bought a book about alcoholism at the airport bookstore—just out of “curiosity.”
So, with one beer after another in hand, I read about alcoholism over the course of that week and learned that it is a disease. I learned that it was not how often or how much I drank but what happened to me when I drank that made me an alcoholic. I learned that it was the way that my personality changed when I drank that mattered. I could never predict what my behavior would become after I took even just one drink. As often as not, I would become argumentative and would say and do things that were 180 degrees from what my sober self would ever say or do. Normal drinkers rarely experience those kinds of consequences when they drink alcohol.
Paradoxically, as I read, I felt two completely opposite reactions. On the one hand, I was relieved to find there was a clinical name at the root of my drinking behaviors; on the other, I was terrified. How could I ever live without being able to drink to find a few minutes of relief from my constant anxiety? I simply could not envision life without the comfort gleaned from alcohol.