Does my boyfriend have a drinking problem?

Once he starts, he never wants to stop. But he doesn't drink in the mornings or at work!

By Cary Tennis
Published December 1, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Reader,

The usual routine is if you want advice you write to But sometimes people write to me directly for advice, maybe because they didn't understand the routine or they're just being friendly and informal or maybe they think they're getting past the front desk that way. Or maybe it feels more anonymous if they write directly to me -- maybe their problem feels too personal to send to "" I don't know. But I'm talkative and informal and sometimes I just reply right back and we have a laugh and agree the world is run by chimps. Or sometimes I just say thanks for being nice and not saying I have the intelligence of a gas station bathroom paper towel dispenser. And sometimes if they do seem to have made an innocent error and are the wrong floor I forward their message to so it goes in the hopper in the regular way.

But sometimes contrary to all protocol I answer requests for advice directly. I don't know why. There's no percentage in it. The business is to write for publication. Sometimes it just seems like the right and natural thing to do. Like if somebody is bleeding, you don't forward them to voice mail, you get a tourniquet.

So a nice woman wrote to me directly and said her boyfriend drinks a lot though not all the time and not at work or in the morning or anything like that but still a lot and especially the problem is that once he starts drinking he doesn't stop, plus he drives drunk which is not OK but everybody in town does it anyway and so she asked me if I thought it sounded like her boyfriend had a drinking problem.

The answer to that question looked like a very short putt. So I wrote yes, it sounds to me like your boyfriend has a drinking problem. And what should she do about it, I said you should visit the folks at Al-Anon, who have direct experience in these matters.

And it's funny, we corresponded a little more, and I just felt the conversation kept slipping off the rails of her concern for her boyfriend to more chatty stuff about me and my novel and Garrison Keillor, of all people. It wasn't like that was terribly strange, as he used to write Mr. Blue, but it's not like me and Garrison Keillor used to go sledding together and throw happy snowballs at Mrs. Protheroe. I don't know the guy. And the novel, I found myself spilling my guts about the novel, which was odd and off the rails, too, and I felt myself being drawn into something, being flattered into disclosure. Maybe it was nothing, I thought. Or maybe it was the alcoholic in me responding to the codependent in her.

It was a subtle thing, but what I picked up on was, No. 1, if you're of that disposition commonly known as "codependent," that is, if you have a tendency to buy the groceries for other people's egos -- because, face it, alcoholics need somebody good-looking to go to the corner store when they're having trouble walking -- then that tendency plays itself out not just in your relationship with the one who might or might not have a drinking problem but also in those encounters you have as you search for help for the one who might or might not have a drinking problem. In your search for the awful truth, you're still playing out your role as a helper, an admirer, a concealer of the awful truth. As you go about seeking help for your alcoholic friend you're still pretending that everything is great except for this little problem of him drinking too much sometimes but not all the time and certainly not in the morning or at work.

I say this with no unkindness in my heart. I say this with the utmost gratitude toward those in the world who love us alcoholics and try to help us.

But it was funny what she said, wasn't it, when I said of course your boyfriend has a drinking problem if he can't stop drinking once he starts. She said that wasn't the answer she was hoping for, which struck me as exceedingly odd: We seek the truth but do not want to believe what is true. Why should we not thirst for the goddamned truth? Why should it matter what the truth is? Why isn't truth, like gold, valued simply because of what it is? Is truth that relative? Are there that many true answers to the question "Does he have a drinking problem?" I can think of only one true answer. But then, I get a little hot-headed about the question, because I've seen too many people die.

We corresponded a little more, and something about the exchange intrigued me, perhaps the unguardedness of it, as it was not intended for publication. So I wanted to share it, for reasons that are not wholly clear to me but nonetheless intense and compelling. And also for a practical reason: because I have been lately affected by what my dear friend Tommy Tompkins used to call the "undertow" of creative endeavor, that sludgy, slumbrous, dark, weighty drag of an encumbered imagination, the anchor fouled with seaweed that tugs at the stern, the dreamlike slow-mo of winter, the stubborn entropy of the soul. That is, because I felt that for days I had been lying in a lightless trench at the bottom of the Pacific, I did not really have a column ready for Monday.

So I asked her, Can I publish our correspondence? and she was delighted. I don't mean any sabotage by making my comments about it. I don't mean to trick her or hold her up to ridicule; I am as much a protagonist in this exchange as she is:

Dear Cary,

I know from your columns that you have some insight into addiction, and so I'm hoping you might be able to shed some light on this.

The problem is that my boyfriend is a drinker and I am not (we live together and are both in our early 30s, if that means anything). He doesn't drink at work or anything like that - more like, if we're home watching a movie, he'll have three or four glasses of wine. It's much more than that if we go out -- in his words, once he starts drinking he doesn't ever want to stop. He gets drunk as can be - which is very very very drunk; the boy's got no limitations when it comes to the amount of drinks he can consume. And then he drives (we live in a place where drinking and driving is a fact of life - everyone does it, which I hate). When he drinks heavily (as opposed to just half a bottle of wine) it's definitely a mental process he goes through - he decides that because it's Friday night or because we're on vacation or at a party or at brunch that a lot of drinks are OK. When it isn't Friday night or we're not on vacation or at a party or having brunch, he doesn't drink so much. And some nights he doesn't drink at all.

I was raised in a more or less non-drinking family, and so more than anything I'm just not sure what this sort of regular drinking means. Is it normal? Does it sound, on its own, like a problem? My boyfriend is never abusive, mean, disrespectful, unreliable -he's always him, even when he's drinking, and the him that I love is sweet and kind and funny, which is how he is when he's drunk and when he's not.

And I don't think he'll stop - he drinks less now than when we started dating around a year ago, but I know he's not going to stop drinking, and probably won't stop drinking heavily. He really loves alcohol. Whether he stops drinking and driving is not yet for certain, but I suspect that he won't unless we move someplace with public transportation.

I've tried talking about all this with him - understandably, it's not a topic he relishes, and neither do I. When we have talked about it, he's sometimes said (I think just to pacify me) that he does have a drinking problem - that problem being limited to the inability to stop drinking once he's started. Other times he says he doesn't have a drinking problem.

So I'm wondering what you think of this - does it sound to you like my boyfriend has a drinking problem? Does it sound like the problem is that we can't even talk about it?

Thanks very much,

Club Soda, Please

PS -- how are things going with your novel?

Dear Club Soda, Please,

Yes, I think your boyfriend has a drinking problem.

I think what you should to is visit an Al-Anon meeting.

I could go into all the details about why I think he has a problem, and why you should go to Al-Anon, but trust me, that's my opinion. Since you asked ...

Best to you!

p.s. the novel is going splendidly, though not quickly. I came home from playing tennis Sunday morning and my wife say, You know what? This is two novels. So major structural challenges abound (they are inherent in the themes of duality and interpenetrating worlds). Still, my agent and everyone, they're all patient, and it's going to get published eventually, I know it is.

Dear Cary,

Thanks. It's not the answer I wanted but thanks for answering.

As for the novel -- glad to hear it's progressing, and that there's still time for tennis. Both good things. I'm looking forward to your novel being published, too, though probably not quite as much as you and your agent (and Garrison Keillor, presumably) are.

--Club Soda, Please

From: Cary Tennis
Subject: Re: Do you think my boyfriend has a drinking problem?

Hi there. Hmmmm. So that's not the answer you wanted? Is that because it's not something you think you can do? The going to see the folks at Al-Anon, that is. I just say it because it's probably the quickest and most direct route to improvement. There's so much background to this, it's so rich, I could spend my whole life just talking about alcoholism, but after all the talking the answer would still be the same: You have to take some concrete steps in the world if you want improvement. Your boyfriend most likely does have a drinking problem, but neither you nor I can do anything about it. All we can do is seek help in how we handle it. Until he realizes he has a problem his situation won't change. This is what you will hear in Al-Anon. You will meet people who have gone through exactly what you're going through and they will tell you there's nothing you can do about his drinking. That will at least clarify your choices. You will come to see that your choices are limited to either accepting what he is doing or removing yourself from the spectacle. I'm telling you this but usually I refrain because I feel hoarse from shouting; and why should you believe me? I've never had a boyfriend with a drinking problem. I *was* the boyfriend with the drinking problem. Of course, from that perspective, I can tell you: Yes, I never would have quit. I was not interested in anything you had to say to me about my drinking. It was my thing alone, and I did shameful things when I was drunk and when I was sober I was sorry but that didn't change anything. I'm just saying, if you meet a lot of people who have gone through it, it's easier to accept the truth, and their support can be invaluable. Don't kid yourself, if he has a drinking problem, it's not just going to go away. It's going to get worse.

But, again, I usually refrain from such talk, because another thing about us alcoholics is we refrain from diagnosing each other. We don't say, Oh, he's an alcoholic. Not, maybe, because we don't think in our hearts that we know, but because we understand that until he himself says Oh, I'm an alcoholic, nothing is going to change. And we're just going to look stupid and feel ineffectual, shouting into the wind, Oh, he's an alcoholic! So we're very circumspect.

So, again, my advice to you is short and sweet. Look into services available to friends and family of people with drinking problems. The best source to start with is Al-Anon. They're the ones with the information. It might seem strange at first, it might seem like a cult, I don't know, I don't really go to their meetings, I don't know exactly what they do, but it's like going to the junkyard: The junkyard is a strange place, too, full of wrecked cars and dogs and hard, mumbling men. You wouldn't go there if you wanted to just feel comfortable. But that's where the car parts are. So that's where you go.

Strangely, or not so strangely, I've never spoken with Garrison Keillor. When I took over the column, I thought it might be a piquant move to write to him and ask his advice -- as a way of making the gesture of transition -- but I did not hear from him. It's quite possible the e-mail address was not correct, or that, like me, he gets too much spam and strange notes from strangers to reply to everything.

At any rate, it's taking way too long for my taste and I just wish I could finish it, because I feel like *now I know how to do it!* and *next time it won't take so long!*

Good luck with everything. People recover all the time. It's not like there's nothing that can be done. It's just that you've got to take care of yourself first.



p.s. If I get short of columns, can I use this one? I see I've just written a column. I didn't mean to, really, I was just replying to you. But I'm actually short this week, as I've been a little cranky and blocked, writing-wise. It's up to you, but it would be good to have the option ...

Subject: Re: Do you think my boyfriend has a drinking problem?


Of course you can use it! I'm sorry to hear you're feeling blocked, and I really do appreciate the advice. I hate to ask for any more of your time - if you feel like describing it, I'd love to hear what the novel is about. But don't feel obligated to write any more; my wrists hurt from writing and I probably don't write half what you're writing.

But on one good note, since our first, pretty awful conversation about the drinking and the drinking-and-driving, he's started making a big (but low-key) effort to try to please me with drinking less and not drinking and driving. It's only been around a week, and I don't think that means that the problems are over, but I think it's a very good sign that at the very least he is being conscientious about the drinking and about my feelings about the drinking.

Re: Garrison Keillor -- I guess he was probably going through a lot of pretty awful stuff when he quit writing Mr. Blue. Maybe now that he's promoting "Love Me" he'd come back and you two could advise each other about something, or something. I don't know. I guess the time for doing that is probably past. Maybe when you have finished your novel and are going out to promote it, he can come back and give advice on that.

-- Club Soda, Please

You see what I mean? The way we both went back and forth talking about her boyfriend's drinking and novels and Garrison Keillor, whom I do not know and who does not know me, our only connection being that I moved into his hotel room after he left, as it were, and I still get some of his mail? Were all those matters of equal gravity? Was that just the etiquette of the Net, the way e-mail levels everything? Why was I drawn into discussing with a perfect stranger what my wife thinks about my novel? Was that a normal exchange, or was there an element of role reversal, of subtle seduction, of needy concealers doing their ancient dance? Isn't that a little odd?

At any rate, it's a column for Monday.



Cary Tennis

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