I’m rich, privileged and drunk

After years of pain I've found love again. My problem? I can't quit drinking

Topics: Since You Asked, Alcoholism,

I'm rich, privileged and drunk (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I am a grown-up, well-educated, privileged American. I had several hellish years. Like, hellish pain. Dead children, miscarriage pain. The pain of all the losses was overwhelming. My soon-to-be-ex-husband and I both drank to dull the pain. I managed to escape and rebuild a life, thanks to my money and education. Now I can’t quit drinking.

My soon-to-be-ex-husband and I struggled to have children — he was the infertile one. His masculine pride really made the whole ordeal much, much more agonizing than it needed to be.

We were together from teenagers, and went to college together, same degrees, same professors. Learned all the same languages. Read all the same books. Watched all the same movies.

We achieved real academic success that led to financial success. We lived in a lovely, lovely Midwestern town, and enjoyed a very, very high status of living.

But the children we had dreamed of — it is such a long and painful story. He had cancer as a youth. His father threw his sperm away. True story. I do not want to revisit it in any more detail. I have re-told it once in the last year and I cannot again. Anyway, the children we dreamed of for so many years will never exist.

We did get one child from our 22-year union — after much agony and expense.

I am now 41. Still desperate for more children. My pain at our infertility was so extreme that it led to the end of my marriage — my ex hated me for wanting things he could not give me.

I was desperate to hang onto my great love for this man whom I had loved since a teenager and my dreams of my children.

I am a walking Buddhist parable: in trying to hold two things, I lost them both. My husband is gone. I will likely never have more children. The pain of this kept me sobbing on the floor for nearly a year, wondering how I could prevent my own suicide. All my most cherished dreams — dreams of over two-decades — snatched from me.

So, I fled. I fled to a European capital with my 6-year-old son. He is in school here and now perfectly bilingual.  I should mention that my child is extraordinarily bright — he started talking at 3 months — no lie — and reading English at 2 years. His math skills are breathtaking. I do credit this to my parenting — I have been a stay-at-home mom. He now reads in two languages. He can draw up the schematic for an arduino of his own design and explain it in two languages. Yep, just turned 6.

My divorce will soon be final.

Just two months ago, living in my posh furnished apartment in a glittering European capital, I was in so much agony, I wondered how I would get my son back to the USA safely if I killed myself.

And then. Love shined its face. I met someone. It was like being renewed, reborn. Like every cliché in the world. Ecstasy. Walking on sunshine.

So, my problem? I can’t quit drinking.

My new lover does not drink. He is not contemptuous but deeply worried. And he has no experience — he is not American or European — his culture has no narrative or experience with addiction.

We discuss making a life together — on another continent, actually, and it is exciting and I have two doctorates and I know exactly how I could make the whole thing work. And it would be a vindication, actually, this adventurous new life, which all my past education seems to point me toward. We are actively trying to make a baby.

But, I can’t quit drinking. Where I am living, it is normal to drink with lunch and dinner and all the time.

And I cannot “just go to a meeting.” The school my son is in is only for three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, four days a week. This is the normal schedule for his age group. My language skills here are not good enough for me to go to anything but an English-language meeting, which are only at night — I have no caregiver for him here.

Also, I am still at the phase where “I like drinking.” I know this is a lie — that drinking does not make me more fun or creative — but I am still at that place where it feels true. Let me be clear, also, I am no casual drinker. Three bottles of wine over the course of the day seems normal. I am never falling-down drunk, but I am never sober, either.

In the early stages of my new love affair, after my lover asked me, I abstained and was happy, etc.

But you know how it is — one glass of wine at dinner leads to a glass of wine at lunch the next day and then the whole thing is a wreck again.

How do I find the will to quit, when, as I said, where I am living it is so normal?

OK, so what I am asking is help in quitting drinking. My life was an utter disaster and I had lost all.  The loss of the children — I cannot even describe the pain. I numbed the pain drinking.

I escaped, I have remade a life. New vistas are open.

But the drinking remains.

How do I quit drinking and take advantage of all the shimmering opportunities for happiness in front of me? In a foreign capital when I have 24/7 responsibility for a child and baby sitters are not an option?


Dear Desperate,

I recently had occasion to re-read the “Doctor’s Opinion” in the book Alcoholics Anonymous.

What struck me afresh in these words published over 70 years ago — and I am always struck freshly by something — was Dr. William D. Silkworth’s clear, measured but inescapable conclusions about alcoholism, reached after  years of clinical observation and treatment of alcoholics in a hospital setting.

On page xxviii, he spends two paragraphs roughly classifying several types of alcoholics he has observed.

“Then,” he says, “there are types entirely normal in every respect except in the effect alcohol has upon them. They are often able, intelligent, friendly people. All these, and many others,” he says,  “have one symptom in common: they cannot start drinking without developing the phenomenon of craving. This phenomenon, as we have suggested, may be the manifestation of an allergy which differentiates these people, and sets them apart as a distinct entity. It has never been, by any treatment with which we are familiar, permanently eradicated. The only relief we have to suggest is entire abstinence.”

And there you have it. What he observed in the 1930s continues to be observed today: Some people just can’t drink. It goes across all social classes and body types and personalities. Some people are just this way.  As you have noted, you can stop for a time, but then you have one little drink and one thing leads to another and there you go. It seems as if this would be a noncontroversial matter, but still people go on television and write books and write to me suggesting that abstinence is nonsense and unnecessary and that anyone can learn to drink in moderation. As Dr. Silkworth noted, the suggestion of complete abstinence “immediately precipitates us into a seething caldron of debate. Much has been written pro and con, but among physicians, the general opinion seems to be that most chronic alcoholics are doomed.”

Boom. Does that not strike you with some force? It does me.

The remaining pages of the book Alcoholics Anonymous go on to explain how one can stop, and how one then goes about living while abstaining from alcohol. It turns out to be a fairly simple process, requiring only a willingness to try what is suggested.

I understand your difficulty in getting out to a meeting. So why don’t you do this: Why don’t you get a copy of the book and just read it. You don’t have to go anywhere.  You need not make your case to anyone in person. Just read the book.

I predict it will strike you with sufficient force that you will find the next steps easy to take. And if not, no harm done. You will at least have examined the primary source material and will have had a chance to make up your own mind.

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