Am I An Alcoholic?

30 of these, plus a handful.

I spent the rest of that weekend crying and wondering, “Am I an alcoholic?” It wasn’t a stigma I was afraid of; it was simply panic over what that meant for the best-paying service gig on my resume. Alcoholics can’t work in bars, can they? 

I woke up in my condo, surprised to be there.

Staying calm, I ran through my standard post-blackout procedure:

What time is it? 7:12 a.m.

What day is it? Do I have to work? Phone says it’s Saturday, so no. No work.

Am I alone? Yes, I think so. No clothes on the floor, so yes. Alone.

What’s the last thing I remember? Blank. I must have been working, but...nothing, zilch.

I had my phone, my wallet, my purse — but no keys. NO KEYS. Wait, how did I get in? I have a faint flashback of a locksmith, an argument, and I will have to apologize to the doorman. Again. Shit.

As I worked to fill in the gaps between the shoddy pictures that my whiskey-soaked brain had managed to capture, I stopped, frozen with a new kind of terror: If I don’t have my keys, where's my car?

♦♦♦

There is a particular panic known only to those with missing time. Most of us manage the panic by glossing over minutiae like, where did I go? Who did I see? And how much money did I spend? If you drink enough to have coping mechanisms, most of your social circle probably shares these experiences, making the afternoon text messages a treasure hunt to uncover last night’s stories, while doling out perfunctory apologies — a standard practice for all. In fact, it becomes like a bonding ritual, devoid of shame and even part of the lore you create for yourself: your style of detail discovery and contrition are part of why people “love” you.

But when you realize lost time includes the end of your shift at a job you typically drive to, the weight of several thousand pounds of steel descends upon your inner panic button. There is no calm, only uncontrollable shaking.

I grabbed my purse, coat, and new front door key. I flew down the hallway mentally attempting to track down my red Chevy Cavalier, certain I had never been that panicked in my life and would never be again. First stop, my condo's garage parking space. Empty. Next stop, I leapt out of the cab in front of my work garage and had a moment of appreciation for my anxiety disorder-driven need to park in about the same place everyday. When the elevator dinged, I could see my distinctively well-worn bumper from the vestibule.

Relief began to flow in like a tidal wave. And then I saw them — my keys were on the ground, directly under the lock on the driver’s side door.

♦♦♦

At 5’10" and 145 lbs, my five or six-hour Friday afternoon shift was accompanied without effort or consideration by half a bottle of Jameson. After this I would perform closing duties, get the nod from my manager that my drawer and numbers were dead-on, and exit the door fully ambulatory and ready for a night out with my coworkers. I was never cut off. Long-time, career bar staff who’d seen me out routinely didn’t believe me when I weighed in on the day after “OMG, I was sooooo wasted” tale-telling because I had to consume a dangerous amount of alcohol to show physical signs of intoxication.

Yes, I’m drawing a distinction between half a bottle of hard liquor and a “dangerous amount.”

Piecing this latest mystery and vanishing act together on the phone with my manager, whom I luckily had known for many years before we worked together, I discovered he was just relieved I was OK and then straight-up curious what the hell had happened.

A 6’4" former Penn State starting offensive lineman Sam* was easily twice my size, as well as a 20-year bar and restaurant owner — aka the quintessential drinking professional. I have seen him at his best and worst; I know the volume required to move the needle from the former to the latter. He had certainly seen me at my worst — at least I’d thought so.

“How much did you have?” he asked out of clear concern as I sighed, realizing I wasn’t losing my job.

“I honestly don’t know; obviously way more than normal.”

“Well, what’s normal?”

“I dunno. My other friend, Jesse* and I usually do our first shot when I get there around 3:30 . . . and then . . . ” I trailed off, counting in my head the number of regulars who were part of the extended cocktail hour ritual. “Maybe 15 or so between then, and at 7:30 or 8:00 when we’re waiting for the call to close.”

“Wow. You never look drunk, like, at all.”

We both paused with sick appreciation for my “tolerance.”

“Yeah, I have my dad’s liver, I guess,” I quipped automatically.

“Well, sure. I mean, we’ve been out enough times . . . You can definitely drink me under the table.”

Earlier that day, as I stood looking at my keys and realizing I’d tried to drive home, I did a quick guesstimate on how much I’d need to toss back in order to walk out and then definitely decide I was going to operate a vehicle. It sounds impossible to most non-industry types, but I’m sure I downed at least 30 shots. If you need a visual, that’s a standard 750 milliliter bottle plus a handful.

Even with that quantity and its corresponding blood alcohol content looming in the back of my mind, nothing could compare to the blow of having a professional drinker twice my size say I could “handle” more alcohol than he could with a well-we-knew-that-already shrug.

I was completely out of control.

♦♦♦

Our culture of excess and sickness doesn’t have a tidy box for me to check or a label to pin on myself today — I’m neither an alcoholic nor entirely confident in the strength of my willpower. Today, I am a cautious consumer.

My story sits here amongst those bravely in recovery, many having atoned and built new lives from the rubble of a rock bottom or a life-saving ultimatum from a family member or finally being exhausted enough to stop. I don’t know if my story is a type of “bottom.” What is true is that when I realized I could have died — that I was no longer able to autopilot my way back to my bed just before my body gave out for the day, whether or not I could remember it later — I was immediately afraid of alcohol.

I spent the rest of that weekend crying and wondering, “Am I an alcoholic?” It wasn’t a stigma I was afraid of; it was simply panic over what that meant for the best paying service gig on my resume. Alcoholics can’t work in bars, can they? How in hell was I going to navigate that?

As I spent a lot of time sober over the next year, I compared myself to the alcoholics in my adoptive and birth families (that was a fun double-whammy of generational baggage). Was I like them? Was I like anyone? And, as teen-angsty as it sounds, “Who was I, anyway?” made regular appearances.

At 31, I was a 15-year veteran of barely getting by, having the rug pulled out from under me, coping with undiagnosed, untreated medical conditions, and enduring the creeping malaise of watching the American Dream myth dissolve slowly before my eyes. I was miserable on every level and, worse yet, I felt stuck. Too old to start over, too young to give up. So when I punched in for the second half of my dog walking-bartending day, you better believe I said “YEP” without hesitation to the small glass of brown liquid that made the time fly and made me the reason people chose my bar on their way home from work.

It’s not ever going to be the plot of a Sandra Bullock movie or episode of Dr. Phil, but general dissatisfaction, frustration with the monotony of working culture, and, frankly, boredom are all reasons people have “just one more.” Why not, right? Add in a predictable handful of people in your vicinity who’d rather not drink alone, enticing you to stay by ordering you another when you were planning on heading home, and you have an environment that fuels addicts alike.

When I had my first glass of wine with a meal after that long sober stretch, it was a whole process. I was still a little afraid of it, a little afraid of myself. In the end I decided I had to know the answer to the only question I hadn’t been able to work out inside my own head. Was I going to have to stay away from alcohol for the rest of my life? Or had I simply been in a shit place without options surrounded by free, one-ounce temporary fixes?

These days I can hardly make it through a bottle of wine before it's past drinkable, and that 750-ml of Templeton Rye has been lurking almost full at the back of my shelf since it was purchased as an election 2014 survival kit necessity.

It’s not that I never make the occasional ill-advised decision thanks to a bourbon-flavored nudge. It’s that I know it has way more to do with my impulsive personality than the alcohol — I have never needed liquid courage to be spontaneous. I am who I am, with all my shining moments and my unfortunate low points. While I do still shoulder some sadness for the part of me that struggled for so long, I don’t carry regrets because I’m pretty fond of who I am and those memories — hazy ones included — were necessary parts of my journey.

*Names have been changed.

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