How I Stopped Getting Blackout Drunk

1471988363-13450034-807838218857-5819870521520090084-nHow I Stopped Getting Blackout Drunk:
Realizing the stupid reason I was doing it was the first step to recovery

It was a Sunday morning in February when I woke up in bed, wearing nothing but my pearls. My first thought was, Oh, god, my faux fur coat. I raced to the closet and was surprised to find that the vintage drape was neatly on its hanger.

The night before, I had attended a $200 event at New York City’s McKittrick Hotel. There was a six-hour open bar and, as always, I had decided to make a net profit by guzzling down at least $300 worth of liquor. The last thing I remembered was pounding down a shot of whiskey at the jazz bar, and after that, absolutely nothing.

 I saw that my keys were on the kitchen table. My phone was by my bed. My wallet was in my purse. Even my heels weren’t as scraggly as usual after a night out. Had I really not made any poor decisions the night before?

Then I checked my phone. My Uber from Chelsea to Harlem, which is usually a $20 ride, cost $128, partly because I got into a more expensive car during surge pricing, and partly because we had driven all over Manhattan, presumably because I was too passed out to put in my address.

As things go, I was very, very lucky that nothing terrible happened to me the many times I got blackout drunk (which was, with rare reprieve, every Thursday through Saturday). Part of the reason I could keep going on a three-day binge with the energy that I did was that I was seemingly immune to hangovers. Not facing any serious consequences for my behavior, I saw little incentive to stop.

With alcohol, I would very quickly get to a stage of basic instincts. I wanted to make out with someone, I wanted to eat something, and I wanted to go to sleep somewhere. Anything would do. There were many times last winter when I would get into a random person’s car and simply demand that they take me home. There have been a fair number of occasions where I’ve fallen asleep outside my bed while drunk — in the toilet stall of the Waldorf Hotel, on the street outside of the Russian Tea Room, and in the front-row pew of Green-Wood Cemetery Chapel.

I did not drink to forget my problems. I did not drink to release my inhibitions, not least of all because I don’t have any. I did not drink in order to become a fun, party animal because my general progression with alcohol was as such:

First glass: I am intensely in love with everyone around me.

Second glass: Need food.

Third glass: Sleepy time. Bye-bye now.

And yet from the age of 19, when I first started drinking heavily, I’ve thought of alcohol as something that was necessary in order to have fun, and that consuming it was necessary to be fun, even though drinking often left me lying facedown on someone’s couch in a position that is the very opposite of fun.

In her extraordinary memoir, Blackout, Sarah Hepola describes viewing alcohol, mistakenly, as the “gasoline of adventure.” I suffered from the same delusion. I drank because it connected me to some bullshit stereotype of womanhood that I had gobbled up from pop culture.

I had always been praised for being “beautiful” and “smart,” but I was also clumsy and buffoonish, and as I came into my 20s, I increasingly wanted to feel Fabulous and Cool and Powerful instead of feeling, as I did, like a sidekick in a Disney movie. Alcohol was the easiest path to becoming my Fabulous, Cool, Powerful self.

In our culture, Fabulous Women do everything excessively. They don’t give a fuck and spew out sassy lines as they smoke cigarettes stained with bright red lipstick.

Cool Women wake up in the apartments of nameless hot men, not knowing how they got there, and stumble into brunch with matted hair and makeup smeared over their faces with a funny story to share about last night’s hookup.

Powerful Women don’t even need anyone else. All they need is wine.

It shouldn’t be the case, but turning down alcohol in social settings is a nightmare. If you say no without giving a reason, you are probably a recovering alcoholic. If you say you’ve had enough, you are an uptight bore. If you give a reason, like a dental appointment in the morning or an early Pilates class, you are basically relegated to the realm of neurotic Upper East Side mom.

Women feel like they have to drink because we can now curse generously and dress scantily and fuck promiscuously and drink lavishly. But what often happens in these cultural revolutions is that so often, the liberation turns into its own form of oppression. Rather than feeling free to curse and fuck and drink whenever they want, many women in fact feel pressured to do so in order to fulfill a new stereotype, that of the Cool Girl, the Fabulous Woman, the Lovable Mess.

For me, the concept of not drinking heavily was not only uncool, it almost seemed downright unfeminist. For centuries, men were the only ones who got to drink and fuck copiously, and now it was our turn. It seemed almost ungrateful not to celebrate that with a shot of tequila bottle of vodka.

Hepola’s Blackout fell into my hands by what seemed like a divine intervention shortly after my McKittrick Hotel adventure. Reading it made me realize I had a problem. I could go on a diet and easily go without carbs, sugar, or dairy for a month, but not drinking for a day felt like spending a fortnight in a coffin. That made me realize I had an even bigger problem.

I understand that, for people who suffer from alcoholism rather than excessive social drinking, whose alcohol abuse goes much deeper than watching one too many Fellini films, not getting blackout drunk means not drinking at all, ever again. For me, the goal was not to stop drinking entirely, but to get to a place where I did it in a measured way, without resorting to wildly irresponsible and unsafe behavior that put myself at risk and threw my memory into an abyss. I wanted to see if I could have fun and feel cool while turning down drinks, which is its own unique challenge.

My therapist said that, as a lifestyle change, I should aim to get to a place where I only have one or two drinks in a given day.

“Even on weekends?” I sputtered. As someone who drank around three glasses of wine on an average Monday, and bumped it up to two bottles on a Saturday or a weeknight with an open bar, this was tantamount to asking me to live on a diet consisting solely of a handful of carrots per day.

I figured the first step was to go a week without drinking a drop of anything at all.

The first day was much harder than I thought it would be. When I got home that night, I couldn’t imagine spending the evening on the couch without holding a pristine wine glass by its stem and watching the deep red liquid swish around like gentle waves, then drip down like oily mountain silhouettes. I mean, seriously, what was I supposed to do with my hands?

I sat down on the couch with a cup of tea, trying to find a movie or show on Netflix that would not tempt me with alcohol, which is no small feat. I eventually settled on Calendar Girls, and sat there, depressed, feeling like an old British lady in a cardigan in the middle of the countryside, waiting for death’s icy grip on her shoulder.

It took me several hours to get to bed because it had been years since I had fallen asleep sober. But I comforted myself with the thought that people promised me that I would wake up the following morning feeling refreshed and ready to greet the day.

I woke up wanting to die. Everything irritated me. The garbage men banging outside my window, the woman who wouldn’t get out of what was clearly my path on the street, and especially the guy chewing very loudly on the subway. I had dinner in a Thai restaurant with a friend that evening and the way she jabbed at the rice made me want to shove her chopsticks through her eyeball.

Within the next three days, I lost 3 pounds, not only because I wasn’t drinking, but because not drinking made me naturally cut down my portions. I ate to drink, not the other way around. Without alcohol, all food seemed boring, so I had only enough to keep me alive.

On the fifth day, I had my first challenge: Socializing Without Alcohol. I went over a friend’s house for a sleepover. She and I usually split a bottle of wine between us as we talk about boys and laugh ourselves silly and watch episodes of Sex and the City. I was worried that drinking tea instead would ruin the atmosphere. Wine is what sassy twentysomethings drink in movies when they talk about their problems. Ginger tea is for sad old spinsters in tragic dramas starring Maggie Smith and Vanessa Redgrave. But the truth was that not drinking made me even more energetic, so we laughed until our cheeks and stomachs literally ached. Not drinking has a way of separating the people you actually enjoy spending time with from the people you see just to have something to do. It was nice to have definitive evidence that alcohol often curbs rather than enhances my ability to have the time of my life.

As the weeks went on, I found that more and more to be true. Not drinking made me more imaginative with how I spent my time. I started taking new exercise classes that gave me the euphoria and confidence I sought from drinking but never actually found. I painted while watching Bob Barker shows. I wore a black skater dress and rode a bike through Central Park while the sun was setting and the lanterns were starting to flicker.

I went on a blind date, sober, and found that a boring date sober is not different from a boring date drunk apart from the fact that you go home earlier and get to cook dinner and watch Frasierreruns in peace.

And then, I had a sober adventure.

During Fleet Week, about a month into my new life of semi-sobriety, I was having one glass of wine with a friend while I complained about how I used to be so good at having romantic adventures, and now my love life was barren and full of weeds. I would never have sex again. I would die alone. And I wouldn’t even have a bottle of wine to comfort me.

At that moment, as if in a fairy tale, a tall sailor and his incredibly drunken friend swung open the doors and sauntered in at last call. The tall sailor walked straight up to me and introduced himself, asking if I knew of a good place to have fun. He had the exact soft Southern lilt that the sailor of my dreams had always had, and he was also a pilot. I said I knew just the place.

As we danced on the rooftop of a popular nightclub, I couldn’t help but credit my semi-sobriety to this fortunate turn of events. On a regular evening, I would have been fast asleep in an Uber by 1 a.m., and I would have never met my sailor. And I certainly wouldn’t have been able to party until 5 a.m., when he and I left the club, while I was still sober, energetic, and full of life. I wasn’t having a blast in spite of not getting drunk. I was having a blast because of it.

Maybe my days of channeling Sylvia in La Dolce Vita by strolling into a fountain in a ball gown are behind me. But my new persona, the woman wearing big sunglasses who raises her hand politely to a glass of free wine and says, “No, thank you, I’m all right,” feels even more glamorous.

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