Can the brewmaster and the alcoholic be friends?

I like this woman-in-sobriety a lot -- but I also love to brew beer!

Published August 19, 2009 10:17AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm writing to you because I really appreciate what you've written about alcoholism. I am a recent college graduate, and for the most part, I've landed on my feet. I don't have the job of my dreams, but I make enough to live comfortably in a town that I love, with excellent roommates and a cat. I even have some income left over, which I'm investing in a few hobbies that I've put on hold during my time in school. One of these hobbies is beer brewing. I'm really interested in the science behind beer, and also the art. I love the feeling of crafting my own home brew and sharing it with friends. For me, it is the pinnacle of creativity. It feels like I'm making art, and I love that.

Recently I've become really good friends with a girl that I work with -- for the purposes of this letter, I'll call her Caroline. When we first met, one of the first things I mentioned to her was a brew that I had just been working on, but the conversation moved on and we found out that we had a lot in common. As time has gone by, we've started spending a lot of time together, connecting on much more personal issues, like our shared religion, experiences of God in our lives, our childhoods growing up with learning disabilities, mutual friends that we've known our whole lives. It's exciting -- I love meeting new people, and it feels great to make friends in this new place. But the other day she mentioned that she is a recovering alcoholic, that she has been attending AA meetings and has been sober for three years. She told me the whole story of how she had realized what trouble she was in (at age 18, no less) and how much better her life has gotten since.

I am sincerely happy for her. I have seen a lot of alcoholism in my family, and I know firsthand how devastating it can be. For this reason, I've always been careful about my own drinking, as well as other habits that might be addictive or harmful, because I know that this disorder can manifest in a variety of ways. I make a conscious effort when planning social events to try and choose places where people can choose not to drink, or specify if there will be alcohol at a party, and I always provide nonalcoholic drinks like sodas and iced tea, too. I always thought that this would be enough, that if I had a friend who was a recovering alcoholic they could easily intermingle without revealing themselves or feeling tempted to drink. But since getting to know Caroline, I don't know anymore. It occurred to me that while I have known a lot of alcoholics, I've known very few alcoholics who have chosen recovery. I've rarely ever met anyone as confident and well adjusted as she is, alcoholic or not.

So I guess what I'm asking is this: Is it OK for me to invite Caroline into social situations where alcohol will be served or present? Should I warn her first? Should I warn my other friends that she'll be around? And what about that part of me that finds so much artistic release in the brewing of beer? Do I not discuss that with any new friends, just in case I'm talking to an alcoholic? Or should I assume that they understand that we're all different, and that for me, beer brewing is a lot like painting or playing guitar is to others? What if I get a job bartending or brewing, two things I'm really interested in? Do I have to lose my recovering friends? I don't want to put her off by appearing insensitive, but I also don't want to look awkward or like I think of her differently or more negatively. If anything, it's myself that I'm seeing differently. Now when Caroline asks what I did this weekend, I don't tell her that I was working on a bock lager that I'm really excited about; I just say "nothing much" and change the subject. And that feels wrong, somehow.

A Brewer

Dear Brewer,

Put yourself in her shoes. She's just a person who doesn't drink anymore. She doesn't need to be handled with kid gloves. A frank acknowledgment of the fact that she doesn't drink is appropriate, but there's no need to scurry about the house hiding bottles or hiding the fact that you were brewing beer over the weekend. Alcoholics have to live in this world the way it is. If she wants to drink she will find something to drink.

You can't stop her and and you are not responsible for her. This is a stark, incontrovertible fact. It is not a fact that we are taught in school. It is the kind of thing you learn by hearing alcoholics tell of the lengths they have gone to, the things they have stolen, the windows they have broken, the houses they have broken into, the hiding places they have found, the sacrifices they have made, the appointments they have blown off and the relationships they have destroyed, the jobs they have lost and the bands they have quit and the gigs they have sabotaged and the opportunities they have passed up and the money they have squandered and the cars they have allowed to be towed away and the jewelry they have hocked and the guitars they have sold and the amplifiers they have refused to buy because more than houses, love, diamonds, food or airline travel what they required was the warm, flooding, calming, intoxicating taste of just one more martini or one more tequila. You learn this fact by sitting night after night in substandard chairs under substandard lighting in substandard church basements listening to men and women who have come to the end of the line and teeter now on the knife's edge between obliteration and grace, and these stories become a part of you as they have become a part of me. You learn by sitting and listening and you come to know as I do that if an alcoholic doesn't want to drink then nothing will make that alcoholic drink but if she really wants to drink then no human force can come between her and catastrophe. Thus you acquire this dark but comforting certainty: No alcoholic who wants a drink will be deterred by the absence of beer at a party. No alcoholic who wants a drink will be satisfied by soft drinks with berry flavors. Likewise no alcoholic who does not want a drink will be tempted by a Niagara Falls of the finest scotch whiskey.

The alcoholic's problem is not the absence of alcohol or the presence of alcohol; her problem is that she needs protection beyond her own small capacity for self-protection; she needs a program, a method, a belief large enough to thwart the eventual, certain eruption of her cunning, baffling and powerful obsession. If she has that, she will be OK. If she does not have that, then she has no protection and any horror is possible.

So that is where we stand, my friend. There is nothing you can do to stop a drinker from drinking. Nor can you undo the damage done in your own family by the various alcoholics whose adventures you do not detail but which we can readily imagine because we know how much unspoken emotion lies behind the phrase "a lot of alcoholism in my family." If you had alcoholics in your family then you were affected. If there has been much alcoholism in your family, then alcoholism means something to you. It may mean loss or pain. It may mean fear. It may mean violence, or emotional withdrawal, or the keeping of secrets, or illness and early death, or life failure -- unacknowledged dreams, unacted desires, unaccomplished dreams. It may mean sudden wakings in the night, slammings of doors, yelling, disappearances, stinky breath, missed appointments, divorce, abuse, jail time. It means something.

So aside from suggesting you treat your friend with forthrightness and respect, knowing that her sobriety is her business, I hazard one word of advice for you, the passionate brewer of beer from a family of alcoholics: Be aware of your special history with alcoholism. Be aware that you may carry that peculiar love of hops, grapes and fermentation common to the alcoholic, that peculiar sensitivity, which some alcoholics call an allergy to alcohol, that causes you to react in  heightened ways.

Otherwise, just be straightforward and honest with your friend in recovery. Do not coddle her. Just be frank. You like beer. You make beer. You drink beer. It's not her problem.

As a host, try to make her comfortable in your home, as you would do for any guest. But do not shine a light on her alcoholism or her sobriety. It's hers, not yours.

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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