woman swimming

woman swimming

A chicken recipe calls for a half cup of red wine, but you never have leftover wine for cooking with because why on earth wouldn’t you just finish it? A corked bottle, at someone’s house, with two inches of wine at the bottom? It’s so quaint it makes you chuckle. What are they — Amish? You open a bottle, pour half a cup into the pan, and then drink the rest of it while the chicken cooks, like a normal person.

In the shed outside your house, where the garbage goes, some of your empties are stashed on the floor in assorted bags and boxes because the 50-gallon recycling bin is always already full of them. When you see them, you flush with shame.

In a story collection, you read Claire Dederer’s amazing “Javelinas” in which she sees the empties in her recycling bin and flushes with shame. By the end of the piece, she has stopped drinking, which gives you whatever the oppositive of schadenfreude is — when someone else’s good fortune fills you with dread.

You take various online quizzes about whether or not you drink too much. Your drinking doesn’t interfere with your work! You’re able to quit for three weeks every January! You never drink during the day! You don’t usually drink hard alcohol! You don’t drink secretly and most nights you only drink two beers even though they’re massive and strong and each one is really probably more like two. Plus, you love drinking! You’re funny when you drink and, when you’re not being belligerent, happy. Is this good or bad? You’re not sure. “If you’re taking a quiz about whether you drink too much, you probably drink too much” you read somewhere, unhappily.

More often than not, you set a limit for yourself — usually one drink — and go over it. More often than not you wake abashed and resolved, even though the resolve will not stick. By noon, you are thinking about drinking at five and how nice it will be. You won’t usually drink tons, but you sometimes will. Also, you will drink more than you want to.

Your lovely, serene husband, who would always pick a Yoo-hoo over a Manhattan, assures you that you are not an alcoholic. But, then, his young mother drank herself to death on a case of beer a day, so he is maybe not a reliable narrator of how much is too much. Also, why did he pick you in the first place? Also, one morning you wake up and he is so mad at you that he is crying — even though you’ve only seen him cry three other times in the 30 years you’ve been together — and you have no memory of why.

You start to have a weird pain under your ribs. “Pain under ribs + liver” you search. “Pain under ribs + alcohol.” Most liver problems don’t seem to present with pain, you are relieved to discover. You schedule an appointment to see a new doctor and, on the intake form, you write “14” where it asks you how many drinks you have a week. It feels like too much and also like it’s a lie. The new doctor has tattoos and doesn’t weigh you, so you trust her. “I think I drink too much,” you blurt out, surprising yourself, and she says, “You do. Try to cut it back to seven.” Later, when some of the results are in, she tells you to cut it back to four.

You put an accountability app on your phone. You tell the app you can drink four drinks a week and then you tell it when you have a drink. If you go over, it tells you you’ve gone over, but — because you are lucky and because you are afraid and because you really, really don’t want to die if you can help it — you almost never do. You quench your big, big thirst by sipping seltzer with a dash of bitters or sour cherry juice with a dash of nothing. Also, you spend a lot of the week thinking about your four measly drinks and when you’ll drink them, and you wonder if it would be easier to not drink at all. You are buoyed — kept almost literally afloat — by friends and family, many of whom start drinking less in solidarity. Nonetheless, you become more of an introvert because being around people, sober, is so exhausting.

When the rest of the results come back in, the medical team — there’s a team now — tells you that you can’t drink at all while they figure out what else is wrong. A lot else is wrong! It wasn’t that you were drinking too much; it’s that you were sick! You have a major autoimmune illness! (Also, you were drinking too much.) Annoyingly, while you’re not drinking at all, you feel great. Your skin looks fantastic, your hair does. You are energetic and proud and excited about all the spicy, fizzy mocktails. You start polar plunging. At the end of a day not drinking, you feel awake and sparkling with life. If you wake in the morning and don’t remember the evening? It’s just because of menopause. You didn’t do anything you need to worry about, though, besides sit around in your nightie laughing for no reason.

Later, everything diagnosed and treated, you are allowed to return to your four drinks a week, and you do. That’s who you are now. A person who drinks four drinks a week and sometimes five or three. A person who gets their main fix from swimming in burning cold water. A person who goes to make coq au vin and has two corked bottles of wine on the counter and two in the fridge. You buy twelve pounds of chicken and use it all.

Catherine Newman is the author of the novels We All Want Impossible Things and Sandwich. You can follow her on Substack. She has written for Cup of Jo on many topics, including what it’s like being an empty nester and raising teenage boys, and her house tour broke the internet.

P.S. “Why I gave up drinking — and how it changed my life,” and how Joanna changed her relationship with alcohol.

(Photo by Branko Starcevic/Stocksy.)