I have no idea how they found me or decided I was worthy of an interview. But I was delighted. The women who write Drinking Diaries —Caren Osten Gerszberg and Leah Odze Epstein—have spoken to Jennifer Egan, Joyce Maynard, Dani Shapiro and Susan Orlean. Their territory is everything related to women and alcohol. Drinking is one of those hot-button topics… They say in their notes on founding the site. We want to reach out to women, like us, for whom alcohol—for whatever reason—is also a loaded topic.
They certainly succeeded with me.
I was amazed at how many personal stories came out through the lens of drinking. My loneliness on an isolated island in the Pacific Northwest … The nightmarish year when I nearly lost my older son … My first, hopeful, blighted marriage to a man with addiction issues. It was with this last topic that Gerszberg and Epstein concluded our interview. I’d described the devastation—financial, emotional, marital—and finished with this thought: “I’ve never really known if alcoholism is a disease or a choice—or both. But I do know that it ruins everything.”
Not two hours after the interview appeared, I received a note from a woman I absolutely adore, and if a Facebook message could sputter, it did. She was appalled. “I am 100 percent sure that alcoholism is not a choice,” she wrote. No one, she went on, would ever choose to ruin lives.
Now, I offend someone with nearly everything I write or say. I’ve received angry messages about nearly every blog entry I’ve ever written. Money, weight loss, couple friends, marital sex. Each of these has deeply offended at least one friend or stranger. I’ve emailed more apologies than I can count.
So you’d think I’d be toughened, that I’d shrug off the critics. But I don’t. Every time someone writes I re-examine what I’ve written. In one case, I actually unpublished an essay because it brought out weirdly harsh messages on both sides (some lambasting me and others the subject of my blog). But most times I simply listen and try to see the story from a different perspective. It’s rare that something haunts and bugs me.
This drinking exchange did.
By now, I’ve spent countless hours on the Internet researching the prevailing theories of alcoholism, as well as every legitimate dictionary’s definition of the word “disease.” I’ve discovered that both the American Medical Association and the Mayo Clinic call alcoholism an illness. There seems to be little doubt there’s brain chemistry involved—that some people are programmed to crave alcohol “like it’s food or water” (as the official doctrine of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism puts it). I recall watching my young husband drink to the point of pain without any apparent control.
There clearly is an organic component to alcoholism and I apologize if my interview implied the contrary. But here’s where I keep getting tripped up.
The drinking led to lying—lying about everything. About money that had disappeared, about the job he lost but pretended to go to each day. It led to violence. It led to forgery: my name on credit card applications that would allow him to keep buying alcohol. It led to endangering people’s lives by driving while intoxicated (several times). It led to petty crime and busted relationships. It led to bad parenting. I finally asked him to move out when his drinking began to degrade our children’s lives.
At Al-Anon meetings, I would recount these things and get the same advice each time: “That’s his disease,” the older women would say. “It’s not your business. Your job is to take care of you.”
And I would want to howl (in fact, I believe once or twice I did): HOW???? How do I take care of myself—and my children—when everything keeps spinning out of control?
Since that marriage ended, I’ve been drunk myself a few times. And I want to go on record saying I did some odd and unspeakable things. Once, I broadcast a 2 a.m. message, blathering on about a family secret that wasn’t mine to tell. Once, I crashed to the floor at a dinner party, breaking dishes and embarrassing everyone assembled. Once, I got into a stupid, raging, kicking shouting match on Amtrak and nearly got thrown off the train. Those are hard things to admit; I’ve done things I consider completely out of character when wasted. I had zero judgment and my moral compass was seriously askew. But I’m not sure I didn’t have a choice…
I feel unbounded affection for that young man I married in 1987. Also great sadness for the things both of us lost due to his alcoholism. A marriage. A family. Trust, most of all. I’m happy to say he’s living a different life now. He’s sober and raising a second set of children. He rues every single one of those drunken events—just as I rue mine. When I gave him the manuscript for my first novel, which was based on our early life together, he left it for me with a signed legal release and a five-word note: “You made me too good.”
I haven’t talked to him about this lately, but throughout our marriage and then the aftermath—throughout our divorce and our friendship and the writing of my book—my ex took full responsibility for his alcoholism. And he insisted that I refrain from calling it a disease. The past was his to bear, he said. His life, his mistakes, his business. He asked that I respect him by allowing him to own what he was and what he did.
I’ve spent nine days wrestling with this question: disease versus choice—or both. And I still don’t have an answer. What I do have is a great and powerful admiration for people who fight their demons hard and win.