Warning! This is a long one…it goes back generations…
Out early this morning in Wellington, which feels good. I notice a woman with a strong street broom in one hand & the leash to her dog in the other, trying to sweep the berm of the road in Brooklyn, just above Central Park (still in Wellington—haven’t teleported to Manhattan & the boroughs :). She stops to explain while I pet her wet dog—even though it’s a sunny bright morning we’ve had a lot of cold, spring rain these past few days.
Broken glass, she says. She saw a cyclist repairing a tire & she called the city council but she knows these roads on early weekend mornings—more cyclists will get punctures. I love that civic-minded-ness, that kindness extended beyond her own yard. Yet as I step over large shards of glass on the sidewalk, I get to thinking about the binge drinking culture in New Zealand. First of all, all this broken glass doesn’t mix well with people who still tend to go barefoot, even in the cities, when they can, or want to. Secondly, I just don’t get it. But then I look back over my experiences with alcohol & wonder if I’m saying that to avoid falling into a pit I suspect I wouldn’t emerge from.
Having some experiences with the effects of alcoholism as a young child—my father wasn’t in my life because of his. And when I did meet him at age 12, we missed my plane to return halfway across the US to my mom because he got drunk the night before, perhaps to shield from the grief of losing me. I didn’t see him again for another 17 years, & then just those 2 times in my memory (there were times before age 4 but I don’t recall those). That second time he was living with, & looking after, his parents in Arkansas, in a “dry” county, which only means it’s less convenient to get your alcohol because you have to drive a-ways. My grandfather was no longer eating, but he still had an opened can of beer by his chair most of the day. My father couldn’t ever fully quit the alcohol unless he was forced to—those times in prison and his last year with cancer. I’ve often wondered if that myth of “Indians” missing whatever gene it takes to process alcohol is true & if our very thin strain of First Nation blood is partly why so many in my family have fallen into its pits. Or maybe it’s my heavily-weighted Scottish side…
And then there were the instances of mental illness–or insanity, or craziness, whatever you want to call it–that I was exposed to as a young person as well. My mother’s side held those riches (& I’m not being sarcastic here, as I am truly grateful for all of it) with experiences of chaos & instability that gave me levels of comprehension & compassion that have served me well. My Aunt Sheila remembers that even as a very small child, I was aware. I was watching & listening & absorbing at uncanny, perhaps unnerving, levels. I had to—the people & environments around me were constantly changing, either through drugs (I include alcohol as a drug because it is) or through internal instability. So I became adept at gauging & navigating, relative to those around me. No wonder I feel most content alone! It requires the least work. Much of my work in past years has been to work out how to be alone-with-others. How do you let go of the pattern that says ‘in order to be with others, you have to adjust yourself’? The first experience I had of “being alone together” with a partner was revelation-ary.
Perhaps you can see why I was/am leery of drugs? I understood that they could potentially disturb a latent chemical imbalance in the brain & cause insanity. And I had heard that if you haven’t had a psychotic episode by age 25, it’s highly unlikely you will. So I used that as my goal: get to age 25 intact & you should be home free.
In high school there were keg parties. If this nerdy girl got invited, she barely sipped any alcohol. One of my very best friends invited me to Cape May one summer when she was working there. When she learned a bit of my non-relationship to alcohol, she promptly set out to get me drunk on Vodka, in a safe environment, as an experiment. Shot after shot, she had me walk a straight line, recite the alphabet & the long verses of poetry & Shakespeare I’d memorized & performed in school, as tests of my levels of inebriation. She couldn’t see any change. I was so stubbornly determined to not go over the edge that even after 4-5 shots of straight spirit, I didn’t. She gave me vitamin C & aspirin & we went to sleep. The next morning I was clear & strong, just like any other morning, though I have a lifelong tendency to be slow to shift from dreaming to waking.
The next experiment was in university. My housemates & I were out to a nice dinner at an Italian restaurant & we had bought a bottle of red for the table. The topic of drinking came up & perhaps I was disparaging young people ever learning anything since they seemed to spend all their time getting drunk (mind you, I was the same age!), when my friends dared me to down the entire bottle.
Ah, a dare.
I have battle scars from not being able to turn down dares.
So, of course, I glugged down the entire bottle & made it through the rest of the dinner where we, no-doubt, discussed all manner of intellectual things. We then went running madly up the steep hills of Ithaca to collapse at home in a heap of hysterics. The next morning, still no hangover. A year or so later I had another sharp reminder of the unruliness of my father’s alcoholism & so continued to steer clear of him, & of alcohol. Certainly I had some, but I wasn’t drawn to oblivion the way it seemed those around me were. I was determined to keep my feet on the ground.
Then, when I was 23, the cousin I was living with, was killed.
He’d had deep troubles with drugs (though that doesn’t justify him being killed by a cowboy cop, which is a longer, darker tale). Instead of that convincing me to keep a wide berth, in the aftermath & trauma of his death, I got drunk on Tequila with some workmates. I was holding my own on 5 consecutive shots until I became absorbed in watching our other workmate playing guitar onstage. His fingers were moving so fast! (you know whut ah’m sayin’ like?–my mind went all sorts of sexual ways…) But it made me so dizzy I lurched, as decorously as possible, to the loo & promptly vacated my innards. Since all my workmates were male, one gallantly rescued me from the ladies room & carried me out like a firefighter toting the hapless maiden from the burning building. Then he promptly tried to kiss me by sticking his tongue down my throat, before carefully depositing me in the car. Even in my stupor I thought, is this what drinking gets me? Next day was Thanksgiving & I was grateful I didn’t have a hangover.
In fact, it seems I never have had a hangover.
I’ve seen how miserable people look with them & they’re just not selling it to me. Early Saturday or Sunday morning yoga classes & people valiantly show up, hung-over, looking obviously ashen, nauseated & sun-blind the whole time. I think, good on ya for showing up, but why do that to yourself? Was it worth it?
One particular instance I thought I’d check out whether it was worth it. It was either that or do the usual–watch as everyone else got loose in the joints & mouth & heart. I mean I can see the appeal there—it’s a socially acceptable means of communicating more deeply. For once, people feel they have permission to be silly & to play. But what if we just did that anyway? I went to a beatboxing concert once & was having a grand ol’ time dancing. The people around me kept asking my partner what I was on, what I was taking. He said, nothing, she’s sober! They looked mystified, unbelieving. How is that possible?
My friend Kara-Leah & I had a few fun nights of being ‘dancing fairies’ on the main drag in Wellington, Courtenay Place (totally sober at the start, mind you). We’d go into a place that had decent music, starting as early as 8pm when very few were yet suitably drunk enough to feel they had the right to dance, & we’d start dancing. Once we got some folks out on the dance floor, then we’d move on to the next place. It was great fun & pub owners must have loved us. Yet I’m guessing it mystified most around us who said things like, “I can’t dance–I haven’t had enough to drink!”
So anyway, that one time, I thought, ‘well I might as well join em,’ was at the Martinborough Wine Festival & I was now well past the 25 year point so I felt more confident in experimenting with my sanity. It was early days for me in New Zealand & I came into this event with the mistaken idea (from wine tasting in the US & from the marketing for the event) that it was classy. I dressed well & I anticipated learning something about the wines. My partner realized, too late, where my head was & tried to convince me on the train over the Wairarapa hills that it was going to be a 10,000-person massive piss-up. I was incredulous, but sho ‘nuff that’s exactly what it turned into.
Now perhaps because of my past, I have found drunk people a bit scary. There’s an incoherent volubility, the smell of alcohol coming through their pores & an unpredictability that puts me on edge. I don’t enjoy it.
So I thought, in this instance, let me try. Let me get really drunk & try to join them & find out for myself what it’s all about. I made my partner promise to not leave me, though, as I’m also unnerved by masses of people. As was his pattern in our relationship, he promised, but then pretty promptly he was nowhere to be found. I was soon wobbling around, feeling I was all alone amongst 10,000 strangers, acres of wineries & with no idea what to do with myself. I reverted to a childhood habit—I hunkered down amongst some bushes & watched people’s legs walk by & listened to their banter. Eventually my partner found me & eventually we got the train back home, which was even more disheartening. Not least because of our interpersonal issues. Those I was familiar with, as much as I hated feeling abandoned. It was the woman across from us, passed out in her own vomit that disturbed me more. This is the sort of woman you might see on the train in the morning on the commute to her government job, now in this state. And what was worse was the general feeling I sensed amongst the rest of the carriage–of superiority.
They could hold their liquor & she couldn’t.
But is that true?
I know I prided myself on my ability to chugg a whole bottle of wine & still be relatively coherent. Or drink all those shots & walk a straight line. Or get pissed-drunk, vomit, & still not have a hangover the next morning. But is that actually admirable? Plus, I truly do not seem to have the constitution that allows me to be “bad”. I may not feel the usual hangover symptoms but I do notice my immune strength dips &, even worse, my spirits drop. The day after drinking I feel like there’s no point to life. I get depressed. That’s logical—it’s a depressant. In fact, at a high-enough potency, it’s a direct poison.
About twice a year I do a systematic & progressive cleanse. Each week for about 4-6 weeks I’ll eliminate another “poison” until I’m at, essentially, a vegan diet for the last week. Then I’ll juice fast for the last day or so. And do an enema. I know we’re not meant to talk about shit so literally, but literally, in this case, it’s better out than in. I have trouble understanding how folks are so leery of such things as enemas yet they’ll vomit all over the sidewalk & think it’s a hoot. Anyway, my point is that I can easily give up alcohol, (as well as cannabis, caffeine generally & coffee specifically, sugar, & dairy) for 4-6 weeks twice a year, but when it comes to cutting it out altogether…
I’ve been waiting to get pregnant, so that I would have to. There, I’ve admitted it. I wouldn’t normally admit a weakness like that—that I’m waiting for something outside of my own discipline to make me a stronger person.
Currently I’m staying in the home of a woman I used to take care of (briefly) who has alcohol-induced dementia. She’s now in a home with more “demented” folk & seems absolutely free. From what I can tell, the part of her brain that was dissolving (literally, if you look at a scan of her brain the convolutions–the definitions of the physical brain–are melting & merging, I kid you not) was the part that cared what other people thought of her. Now that that’s gone, she’s free. And it’s that part that most people seem to seek in their inebriation.
They seek freedom from concern — liberation from holding up their self-image so carefully & steadily.
I wrote an article on this 3 years ago called Is our addiction to Spirits a symptom of an UnSpirited society?
What I’ve realized though is that I am addicted too.
It’s an easier option to pour a glass than to face myself on the mat. The level of addiction may not be visible to others, but it’s clear to me. I get pulled into having a drink because others are, because the occasion calls for it. Or I drink it because it’s there & it’ll help me, somehow…It seems that it must be all or nothing, at least for now. I know a couple of teetotallers—such a funny word!—& I used to think it was unnecessary to be so absolute, but this year I realize alcohol is a drug that doesn’t serve me. In the northern & eastern First Nations, tobacco is the only “drug” that is used ceremonially. In the southern & western nations, peyote & ayahuasca (or yagé) are also used, but ceremonially. That’s the difference–it’s ceremony, sacred, a conscious connection to Creator/God/Source. The first traditional sweat lodge I did on my birthday this past year was made for addictions, particularly to alcohol. No alcohol 4 days before or 4 days after. Yet I had a 1/2 glass of wine on that borderline—about the 3rd/4th day after—& it unravelled me. Such is the powa of sacred ceremony.
I feel it’s high time I quit this drug. Lunar eclipse in my sign tomorrow night. Last call for alcohol is tonight! So I’m going to see what I can make of this bottle of rum I got at customs & then leave it, drop it like the heavy ballast it is.
It’s a distraction from my own discomfort with Existence.
I cringe when people say they are bored, but it’s the same sort of mindframe in me that leads to pouring a drink–I’m bored, whatever that actually means.
So, please, when you invite me out, don’t try to convince me to have a drink. Or if you think of me at some point & wonder how I am, remind me that alcohol is not for me. Help me to keep my word to mySelf.
My intention? To birth myself. Instead of waiting to conceive a child (which may or may not happen at this stage anyway), I’m going to do what I have encouraged my students to do—birth mySelf first. This is the first step–eliminate the poisons that obfuscate, that keep me bound by giving me the illusions of liberation & communion.
Drop the crutch & accept both your injured humanity & your inviolable divinity.
Talk to me–what’s your relationship to alcohol?
PS–Follow-up report: More than a year and a half on from this original writing & I still have not had any alcohol! Unlike the times before when I did a cleanse & dropped it for a few weeks at a time & I could feel the temptation during the cleanse, & then the pull of it into going overboard once I was drinking again, these past months since dropping it altogether have been very easy. I am sure that the reason is that it wasn’t just for me I did it. It’s for all-my-relations, all my ancestors who couldn’t.