Week 35: The Asterisk

Italy

There has always been an asterisk attached to my year of sobriety – 365 days of without alcohol, except for my spring vacation to Europe. The plan from the very beginning was to swear off booze for a full year, but allow myself to have a glass of wine in Italy and a beer in Ireland. It was a reasonable compromise: do the hard work of staying sober through happy hours, holiday parties, and relaxing Friday nights, but sip smooth red wine with pounds of pasta and tip back a Guinness to my ancestors.

About a month before my vacation, I hit a stride with my sobriety. For the longest time, I had leaned on the vanity benefits of being sober – weight loss, saving money, chipper mornings – to push me forward, counting down the days until my self-imposed restrictions were removed.

With therapy, self-help books, and internal perspective, I started to pay attention to my cravings and noticed when the urge for a drink was the strongest. Sure, I wanted a cold beer on a patio during the first nice warm day of spring, but more often than not I wanted to guzzle alcohol when I was feeling anxious or stressed, like when attending a storytelling event and feeling completely inadequate to everyone else in the room or after a stressful day at work and rethinking through each email exchange. Most of the time, I wanted to drink when uncomfortable and jittery emotions buzzed under my skin so fast and furious that I thought they would consume me. Alcohol could calm them, and I knew this to be true because it had for years and years. Being sober though, I had to bite my lip and face my guilt, shame and loneliness without alcohol’s numbing powers.

I haven’t quite established healthy patterns in the lieu of alcohol, eating endless handfuls of whatever snack food is closest or picking at my nails until there is nothing left, but I do recognize those feelings as they a rise, and that’s a start. I know there is more work to do in how I process these difficult feelings, and so I was quite nervous about the temporary break from sobriety and allowing myself to drink. I had even brought it up to a few friends during Sunday brunch a couple weeks before, wondering out loud if I could be trusted not to over correct after months of ordering water and sugary sodas. I debated staying sober throughout the vacation, as not to abate the progress I had already made, but I also really wanted that frothy beer in a dingy European pub. I put off making a true decision until I had to make the choice: wine or water.

The reason for our vacation was to attend the wedding of a dear friend from Peace Corps Lesotho, who met her now husband, a Belgian, while we were vacationing in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, one New Year’s holiday. It’s a really charming story which lead to a charming courtship and a charming wedding. E and I decided to turn the wedding into a 10-day vacation, adding stops to Scotland and Ireland.

The first time I thought about taking a drink was in the Chicago airport. I was officially on vacation time, having left work an hour early and switching my responsibility button off. I love airports, and I especially love airport beers. I know that they are a bajillion dollars, but when you are in transit nothing matters. It’s no longer real life, and while you are traveling from point A to B you can engage in behavior that you wouldn’t normally. Read a trashy magazine. Eat fried cheese. There are no rules in the middle. I decided against the airport beer, still unsure if I wanted to drink at all while on holiday. I also turned down the stewardess with the bar cart, know that a glass of wine and a sleeping pill could help me slumber on top of the lumpy airplane chairs. If I was going drink, though, it needed to be in more significant place.

My true test of whether or not I would drink came once we got to the Italian village where the wedding would be. The couple was hosting a welcome social hour for wedding attendees – all coming from somewhere else – and I knew that a drink would be offered. As E, my friend K and I got ready, nerves rattled in my stomach. I wanted to have a glass of wine like a normal person, but I wasn’t entirely sure if that was possible, not at this point in my sobriety project. I told E that I was undecided about drinking and asked if he would make sure I drank water and had no more than two drinks. “I am not going to count your drinks,” he said, “but I will make sure that you don’t get out of hand.”

My hands were shaking when we walked up to the outdoor seating of the bar. I knew that I wouldn’t know most people at this event, or any other throughout the weekend. I like meeting new people, but only after I’ve had two or three beers. With a drink in my hand, to sip it when the mood gets too awkward, I let the alcohol hush down voices who are convinced this person thinks I’m boring. Under a dizzy buzz, I can make friends with anyone and it’s become my crutch in most situations, gulping at least two glasses of whatever in the first hour. That’s how I summon fun, charming Heather, and the night sails on with laughter and insightful conversation. I’ve haven’t found a channel to that uninhibited version of myself without alcohol, and being in this place with these people I knew there were would be the temptation to throw back a few long-stemmed glasses to get to her, for the sake of me and everyone else there. But, I didn’t want to drink that much because, again, I know that it rarely stops there.

As soon as I gave the bride a hug and sat down next to her friends from North Carolina, the waitress approached us. “Would you like a glass of prosecco or a beer?” E asked for water, while K added that she’d have the wine. I took a deep breath. I knew what I wanted. “Prosecco please.”

We met their families, asked basic details (where are you from, what do you do, how did you get here) of the other wedding guests and then welcomed another Peace Corps friend who had flown over for the occasion. I sipped my glass slowly, watching K’s drink and forcing myself to match hers as to not go too fast. When it was empty, I stared at it, sometimes not listening to the conversation around me, thinking about what I do next. I wanted another, and maybe another, but the sun hadn’t even gone down yet.  I waived the waitress away once before I eventually ordered a second glass, making it last as long as I could so as not to be talked into a third.

Once the party died down, a group of us went to dinner at a small restaurant off the main path. There was no question that wine would be ordered, and I didn’t stop the waitress when she pulled my glass to her body and filled up. A second bottle came around and I enjoyed that one as well. After a delicious meal of pasta, we went to a bar with ship wheels for tables and ordered musty beers that came in thick clay steins. With a mid-range buzz, I fell asleep easy that night.

The next morning, I felt guilty about how much I had drank. It was way more than the plan, and with the wedding still ahead of us, I couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t push my limit further. I asked E if he was upset with me about how much I had drank, four glasses in total. “Why would I be mad at you? You did nothing wrong. You weren’t obnoxiously drunk and you didn’t do anything dumb. You were having fun with your friends. There is nothing bad about that.”

Again, I debated about not drinking at the wedding, but I was less nervous this time. I didn’t refrain, drinking two glasses of prosecco during the reception, wine with dinner and a couple of beers on the dance floor. The drinks were well spaced with time and water, and by the end of the night, at 4 a.m., I was fairly sober. I drank more than two drinks, but it certainly could have been more, especially since there were constant Italian men at my shoulder with fresh bottles of white wine.

I had come out of the wedding weekend having dipped my toes back into drinking, but never overdoing it. I enjoyed, yes, but I also managed my liquor in a way that seemed unusual for my typical drinking habits, or at least what I make of them now.

For the rest of our trip, I ordered a beer when I wanted one, in Irish and Scottish pubs over small stacks of chips. I didn’t deny myself, but I also never leaned on excess. I could have one or two, and then walk away.

There were times I didn’t order a drink, even though the permission slip had been handed out. I didn’t want to drink just because I could. If I was going to order an alcoholic beverage, and pay for it, I made sure there was a real want. A few times, even after I made the intention of ordering a drink at dinner, I sipped sparkling water throughout the meal instead, and then convinced E to find the nearest ice cream shop.

As the trip came to an end, I wondered about stopping this project. There is a long summer ahead of weddings and dinners on patios. I could say that I gave sobriety a try, and start a new healthier relationship with alcohol. I had proven to myself that I can stop at one or two drinks, and so why not sip the ales of the season and return to happy hours with friends?

I’m not going to do that, though. I am resuming my year of sobriety, after the asterisk, following the plan I had made seven months ago. There is still more for me to learn about myself in this sober state, and I want to stick it out. I can’t say for sure what will come out of these 12 months, but I don’t need those answers yet. The journey is still continuing.

It’s only been a week since we’ve got home, and I haven’t had too many temptations for alcohol. As E and I enjoyed dinner al fresco last night, I did want a drink but the urge didn’t haunt me more than a few moments. I thought that maybe, after the trip in Europe, it would be harder to pass up booze and there will be plenty of times this summer when the temptation will be great (including two more Peace Corps weddings). But, I also know that I do like the sober version of myself. That, even though the glass of wine in Italy and beer in Ireland was delicious, I am still comfortable ordering just water. I can be around others and pass up drinking, I know how to do that now. What I learned from our trip is that I feel better about myself when I am not drinking. I don’t always need it to be me, and no craft beer or 40-year-old wine tastes that good.

 

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