Last Sunday afternoon, when I was walking through one of those lovely summer festivals, with lots of people milling about eating street food and listening to music and picking up little bits of crafty goodness, I wanted so much to join the people on the outdoor patios and have a drink. I had no intention of doing that, but I hadn't felt that strong pull to drink in a while, and it was a powerful reminder of how small things can bring it on again, and how strong that pull can be once it sets in. For a little while, I felt pretty darn sorry for myself that I couldn't just join in on that part of the summer fun.
But a couple of days later, I found the old drinking journal I had been looking for. (The upside of having to crate everything in the apartment in preparation for the exterminators was finding a few misplaced items. A wee but welcome little bright side for sure.) So on Tuesday afternoon, I sat in the midst of piles of crates and boxes and read my own alternately sad and hopeful words, written over the span of a year or so, about trying to deal with what I was starting to realize was a big problem, my drinking. I have to do that sometimes, because it's impossible for me to remember how unhappy I was about how bad the drinking had got, and how hard I was trying to fix it.
Some of the things I did to control the amount I was drinking are a little bit funny, even though they're deeply sad. I remember thinking that it was completely daft to have any more than two drinks and, fully convinced that it would help me, I wrote myself a note that said, "Don't be daft!" and put it on the fridge. The note had absolutely zero effect on how much I drank, of course, but I think it did help me see that, once I started drinking, I saw no problem in being daft after all. I also had various notes and charts to help me count how many drinks I would have but I only ever kept them going for a week or so, because it's really quite dreary to write, day after day, "Planned drinks: 2; Actual drinks: somewhere around seven but I lost count."
More heartbreaking to me was the lists of problems I knew drinking was causing me--my hands hurt, my head hurt, my thinking was blurry too much of the day, I was achey and bloatey, my eyes were looking pink, and I was falling into some nasty dark spells. It was tough, reading my own words, telling myself how I was going to solve this problem because it didn't make sense to feel this awful. As soon as I felt better, I always started to think it was OK now, and then I would write that I had had one glass (or two) at some event or with dinner and that it had been really lovely and now I was planning to be super careful because I didn't want to run into the old problem again. And then the journal peters out until a few months later, when I was in the middle of the problem again, and was once again drinking way too much and trying to get a grip on it.
At one point, I had written, "What's so great about wine, anyway?" Reading it now, the question startles me. It's the right question to ask, and I think it was asking it that helped me start making the decision to really quit drinking. When I asked the question, I didn't quit right away, but I couldn't come up with a good answer. I still can't. There isn't anything all that great about wine. I had cultivated a taste for it, and though I currently don't even like the smell, I know it's a powerful drug and I could develop a taste for it again if I wanted to, but I can't really argue that taste is the reason for drinking. (As far as taste goes, I actually prefer the homemade sparkling water, lemon and bitters concoctions I rely on these days. And they go equally well with food.) I don't actually like the fuzzy feeling of being drunk. Once I started trying to have spells of not drinking for a week or month at a time, I realized I enjoyed being social more when I wasn't worrying about whether I could have another drink yet or whether anyone knew I was getting drunk. I found I am often at ease with people, which is something I never knew because I thought I needed a drink to relax and be sociable.
I think there isn't a logical answer to my question, "What's so great about wine?" because the wine story isn't based on logic. There's an enormous cultural narrative around drinking and relaxing and the adult way to have fun, and culture works on the level of story, not on logic. It's all about symbol and image and feeling, not about what makes sense. So there is a strong pull to sit on a patio on a sunny Sunday and drink with laughing friends, except I can do that without putting wine in my glass. A pretty drink in a pretty glass is a symbol of relaxation, and it can be just as strong a symbol if there's no booze in the glass. I've been working on this: taking a look at what the cultural myths are around drinking, and seeing if I can re-imagine those same stories and symbols without the alcohol. And I think I'm getting somewhere. So I can sit on a sunny patio and drink, except I'm drinking sparkling water. I can enjoy a fancy dinner in a French restaurant with San Pellegrino or Badoit instead of wine, and experience the meal as a real pleasure. I don't think it's helpful for me to pretend that this strong cultural ideal isn't there, and it doesn't get rid of it just to say, "It's a myth." We live in culture, so we live our lives through myths all the time. But culture changes, and I think this is how we change it: by seeing what the story is--the relaxing evening, or the summer festival, or the summer picnic--and reworking it to include me, or you, a person who wants to live a good life in the world we're in and who is doing that without drinking alcohol but 100% engaging in the big ongoing world. There isn't anything great about wine. It's just a powerful symbol of a whole lot of good things, and we need to rework our symbols so we can participate in life and not miss the wine one bit.
I'm not quite there yet. Sometimes, like on that sunny Sunday, I did miss wine for a while. But later that evening when I sat with my glass of sparkling water with fresh mint, lime and bitters, it was delicious, and it looked pretty in the glass, and my partner and I raised a toast to the good life we were actually living. And we didn't need wine to do that after all.
It's almost dinnertime, and I'm about to make bouillabaisse: tomato and fennel and chunks of fresh salmon and halibut and yes, a little cooking wine, because I haven't figured out how to cook without wine in some recipes. (Wine actually makes a decent cooking ingredient, so that's one good thing, maybe.) We'll have a relaxing, romantic dinner, with some more of those fresh strawberries that are still in season for dessert along with the cardamom cream we're getting good at making, and maybe then go for a walk in the late evening light. All lovely stuff, and no need to put booze in a glass to make it special. I'm looking forward to it.
Peace and joy to you, and lovely wine-free summer evenings, too (or winter nights if you're in the other hemisphere!) xo