Counting my drinks

My mother and sister disappeared into the drink. I'm careful to watch myself -- except when I slip

Topics: Real Families, Life stories, Alcoholism, Motherhood, Drinking, Parenting, Editor's Picks,

Counting my drinks (Credit: bioraven via Shutterstock)

I am sitting on my living room floor, my legs splayed out in front of me on the hardwood. I fell while bending over to pick up the keys I had just dropped, and the boom I made on impact seems, to me, to have rocked the house. I hope it hasn’t woken the kids.

I fell so hard my breath was knocked out of me. But I just think, “It’s OK. It’s OK. I’m OK.”  And it’s hard to scramble and get myself upright when I’m this drunk and my heels are this high.

I almost make it to standing, but I fall again, this time crashing onto my knees. It hurts, bad, despite the booze. I remain on my knees, eyes tearing from the pain, and I hear my oldest call from upstairs, “Mom? Are you OK?” She sounds frantic, and I know her fear right now is complicated — she is, of course, hoping it’s me because otherwise it’s an intruder, but if it’s me, if it’s her mother, why all the falling and crashing about? I try to speak clearly. I call out, “I hate these shoes!” And I laugh, in the hopes she will laugh with me. She doesn’t say anything.  I stay quiet; I stay on my knees.

The Pen and Pencil Club in Philadelphia has ordered me a bottle of Absolut Peppar, so that when I am there — at a monthly event — I can have hot and dirty martinis. I like that they have done this for me, but it also gives me pause to be identified with a cocktail. On this night I had three, I think. I broke my own “rule of two.” I also had wine with dinner that I forgot to count.

Sometimes, on days I know I will be having drinks that evening, I think about it throughout the day. I’ll imagine what I’ll order or mix or open. I might have these visions of later as early as 10 a.m.

Sometimes, when I know I will be having drinks later in the week, I’ll imagine what I’ll order or mix or open, three, four days in advance. I think of it as planning ahead, staying in charge, modeling responsible behavior for my children.

One of my very best friends, Marion, lives in New York. We “save” certain things to discuss for in-person time. I will anticipate talking about something with her, and always, always when I think about her reaction, when I think about sitting across from her, there are wine glasses in front of us, a prop. Grown-ups have conversations over wine.

I am thinking about all of this, about my relationship with alcohol, because I always do. My mother was a functional alcoholic. My sister is a nonfunctional one, though she is now recovering.



Alcohol flowed in my parents’ house, along with the spirit of celebration. We had mimosas at holiday brunches and blended strawberries and rum at summer cookouts and beer and mixed drinks for Sunday afternoon football games and there was always a reason to have a party. Finding the next reason to celebrate is inured in me. That’s a good thing.

My mother raised five kids, kept an immaculate home, made elaborate dinners. But she had Manhattans every night, a “before dinner” drink, my parents would say, sitting together in a room adjacent to where we five kids had our meal, “putting a head” on their drinks for a few hours each night.

Every Saturday night, for as long as I have memory, they went out to dinner. Sometimes alone, but frequently with the trucking companies who were trying to “court” my dad, a transport director for US Steel. Mom consistently came home blotto on these nights, often fighting with my father, and years later she told me that she took Xanax on the nights they were being entertained by trucking companies, as she had anxiety over how she’d fare in conversation with another couple.

I can’t begin to tell you how sad her admission makes me. How stunned. My mother was funny and smart and acerbic and beautiful, and apparently, that insecure.

Other nights when they came home lit up they would put the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack on the stereo in the formal living room, the space we pretty much only used for music. They’d drag in my older brother and me, and (there’s no other word for it) demand we dance with them. “Disco Inferno” would be replayed again and again, and if they needed to rest, they’d put on “More Than a Woman” and teach us the couple’s movements.

My brother hated it. I think he actually preferred they’d come home fighting rather than wanting to dance. I can remember him saying, “Mom. Please. I’m tired.” And she would just wave his protests off, giggle as if he were teasing. My father would actually say things like, “Dance with your mother, David,” in the same tone he’d tell him to take out the garbage.

Mostly, I thought it was fun. I liked to dance; I liked to feel close to my parents. On some level, I think I knew it was wrong, but for me, it could be so much worse. I knew this much: Dancing with my drunk parents in the living room after midnight was not the worst thing that I could be asked to do.

When I was 12, my father had minor surgery and was hospitalized for four days. My mother, who never had a drivers’ license, never wrote a check, never held a hammer in her hand for something as small as putting up a picture, fell apart.

She would spend the day at the hospital, take a cab home when visiting hours were over, and then sit and have drink after drink after drink and cry and cry to me, to 12-year-old me. She told me stories about her own mother’s mental and physical abuse that she should not have told me. She told me stories about my uncles, her brothers’ escapades that she should not have told me. She was a sloppy drunk, and constantly interspersed through the stories would be professions of love for my father and for us, her children.

One of those nights, watching her weep and hold onto her glass with both hands, I remember thinking, “Never. I will never ever ever be this weak.” Booze made her a different mom than the one who got me off to school in the morning or greeted me when I came home. “Different” wasn’t always bad, just complicated.

My sister’s relationship with alcohol is this: She drank. She has lost countless jobs, countless apartments, been in three or four rehabs and “sober” homes, has lived primarily on public assistance for at least the last five years.

One of the times she lost a job and an apartment and went into rehab, my boyfriend and I had to go to her apartment and clean it out; she was being evicted. The place was a mess, as you might imagine, but I saw so many attempts at a “normal” life my heart broke. The knick-knacks, the cooking tools, the framed photographs of our family, were just so poignant to me. No one other than her latest warrant-out-for-his-arrest boyfriend had been in her apartment for more than a year.

There was a clothes hamper in the bedroom closet. When we went to move it out, we were struck by its weight. We pulled clothes out and found the hamper was filled with empty rotgut vodka bottles. As we got deeper into the emptying out of the space, that’s what we continued to find: empty beer bottles under the bed; empty wine bottles in the back of kitchen cabinets. Yet, she lived alone. She was hiding how much she drank from even herself.

My sister is a textbook alcoholic. Frozen in adolescence, claiming the role of victim every time her life heads further south, and I have denied my sister’s very existence. That is, I just don’t talk about her. I might know someone for a few years before I relay an anecdote that includes her, and then I am met with a stupefied look. “You have a sister?”

I deny my mother’s alcoholism as well. She kept a clean house, sent us to school in clean clothes, made healthy dinners, didn’t drink in the day. Yes, she took advantage of celebrations to drink, but she also celebrated much of life alcohol free: Our birthdays lasted a week, we got a stack of toys for losing a tooth, she made a special dinner for things like “the day-before-vacation-day.” There are many things about her I try to emulate.

But one time, I wrote an essay that depicted my mother calling me in a “tipsy” state, as I called it. Of course, if I had been honest, I would have said my mother was drunk when she called me. Still, when I shared the story with her she took great issue with even more soft-pedaled wording. “Yes, I had had a drink,” she said, “but … tipsy?”

My sister hid her empty bottles. My mother sipped from her bottomless Manhattan for hours, every night. Meanwhile, I measure out my drinks. Two drinks if it’s a weekday and I have things to do early the next morning. Three if I don’t. Four if I’m on vacation … sometimes … a bottle of wine if I’m out for a long dinner. I make choices.

I love to drink. I look forward to drinking. I never drink alone. I drink less than twice a week. I am the organizer of Happy Hour for my department at work, the one who puts together our group outings. I pretty much have a full bar in my house at any given time; if you stopped by I could fix anything you wantd. But the liquor will sit here until you do stop by; I’m not drinking it.

When my daughter returned from prom weekend I happened to be on the front porch, getting the mail. This means I happened to see her get out of the car, take one step toward our yard, and throw up into a beach towel her solicitous boyfriend had managed to run around the car and deliver to her. I just watched; I wasn’t sure she had noticed me. When she could, she looked up, saw me and said, “I don’t know what’s wrong. I’m not feeling well. I have only eaten gross boardwalk food for three days.”

I didn’t know if I should force her to admit that it wasn’t the pizza and cheese fries, but the shots and beers, or if I should let this lie hover. Allison’s friends had used our house as a crash pad for their drunkenness more times than I was comfortable with, but Allison always had herself together. I had spoken with her enough on weekend nights at 2 and 3 a.m. to know that she was always in control.

If I let her pretend, at least to me, which means, partly to herself, that fast food caused her to throw up for half a day, caused her head to hurt, caused her to look so pale, am I pushing her down the slide or allowing her the space and grace she deserves?

Alcohol is a slippery slope. Like stiletto heels on a hardwood floor, hard to manage. Every now and then I fall. I’m not sure how much attention to pay to that. What category of alcoholic only falls into actual drunkenness three or four times a year? How do I label myself? I manage to get myself upright, and walk to the kitchen, and I drink glasses of water from the tap that I let run and run and run.

I need to know that I am in control of the booze, not the other way around. I need to know that I am not like my mother or my sister, even as I cannot deny the ways that I am. These two important women in my life, the first females with whom I identified, I continue to measure myself against. I will keep any eye on my daughters.I will never lose count of my drinks again. I belly up to the bar, with friends — and order anything but a Manhattan.

Kathleen Volk Miller is co-editor of Painted Bride Quarterly, co-director of the Drexel Publishing Group and a Teaching Professor at Drexel University.  She writes weekly for Philadelphia Magazine, and her work has appeared in Family Circle, NYTimes and literary magazines.  She is currently working on a collection of essays. Follow her @kathyvolkmiller.

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