THE STORY WAS buried deep in the newspaper, but the headline stopped me dead as liver failure. “New Studies Link Red Wine to Women’s Breast Cancer Risk.” Just one drink a day increases a woman’s cancer risk, one study declared, with Seattle’s own Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center swooping in with the chaser: Two or more drinks a day ups a woman’s chance of breast cancer by 24 percent.
“Are you drinking red wine every day?” my husband Tom asked.
“Of course,” I snapped. “It’s heart medicine.”
“Not anymore,” he intoned, audibly wielding the medical degree he picked up from Grey’s Anatomy reruns.
Easy for him to say. Being a man, he gets a free pass on two drinks a day. But for some reason I sat up and took notice. Why not give it up for awhile? He gives up drinking every year for Lent, letting the DTs that don’t come prove one more year that he’s dodged alcoholism, a disease we both have splashing around in our gene pools.
But for me it was less about fear of abuse than a general desire, heightened by the day’s news, to cleanse. I am not a lush—to my friends who are reading this, election night was about kissing strangers and sobbing in public—but I have been a social drinker since I was approximately 21. I savor a glass or two of wine with dinner. Sparkly cocktails are glorious fun at parties or on sun-drenched summer patios. I relish a chilled Belgian ale after a day in the garden; a warming belt of a good aged single malt around a campfire under the stars. My intake registers somewhere between reasonable discretion and lie-when-the-doctor-asks-how-much.
I wasn’t worried; everyone I know lies to their doctor. I was just overindulgent. So then and there, before God and The Headline, I quit—and immediately craved a Manhattan.
The first week was awful. All I could think about was the little Oregon pinot I should be enjoying with my grilled rockfish. When I analyzed it, I realized it wasn’t just the culinary harmony of wine with food that was lacking; it was enjoying an evening out with a special drink. I tried to work up some enthusiasm for mocktails. “I’ll have a virgin margarita!” I chirped to my waiter at an upscale Belltown restaurant.
“Wow,” she blurted. “Okay, that won’t be very good.” She was right; it tasted like glycerin with a shot of Mountain Dew and some seriously pointless salt. Given how long it took me to cultivate a taste for alcohol I was startled to realize that I actually longed for its bracing bitterness.
Olfactory sensors being what they are, I found I could almost approximate the taste by allowing myself to breathe on the number 43 bus. But nothing I found could approximate the buzz. And let me just admit it: that fuzzing out around the edges of consciousness—the apotheosis of relaxation and all that is carefree and happy in this world—that’s what I missed most.
“Have you tried kava kava?” asked a kindly colleague who is into such things. It’s a potion brewed of a South Pacific root, with relaxing properties said to produce a buzz similar to that of alcohol. “Try it,” she urged, pouring viscous brown fluid out of a thermos into a cup. “It tastes like dirt!”
Hmmm, promising. I took a sip and realized that dirt wasn’t nearly foul enough a comparison. After I gagged on the third swallow she produced a slice of apple. “You might want to eat this with it,” she offered meaninglessly. Like a slice of apple was going to sweeten the sewage drain I now had for a mouth. Save your stinkin’ apple, I inwardly screamed. I want an APPLETINI.
As the weeks passed I couldn’t deny that I was feeling better—healthier, clearer—with other welcome side effects. No more woolly tongue at 3am. No more maroon smile. My not-so-little belly (my “wine cellar,” as a Sonoma friend calls hers) had diminished; so had my grocery bill. So, slowly, had the habit of drinking—leaving room for a more unexpected renewal, of that quality that makes people kinder partners and more thoughtful mothers and more authentic humans. I was paying closer attention.
These benefits were wonderful, really, but cold comfort against the dawning reality that my friends didn’t seem to like me anymore. “You did what?” barked my friend Jane after I ordered plain soda with a twist of lime at the Top of the Mark. Stupidly, I hadn’t considered my girls’ weekend in San Francisco when I went off the sauce. “How could you give up drinking before our girls’ weekend!?” she demanded, exhibiting a bizarre degree of personal investment in my adult-beverage life.
But I understood. Not only is the teetotaler a walking, talking buzz kill, corroding the fun from any gathering by bringing self-denial to the party—she makes everyone else feel completely terrible about themselves. “I know I should give it up, too,” blurted my friend Jenny, the dermatologist, defensively. “But every time I’m ready to start I have a really stressful day, and then when I get home I have to pour myself a martini. I think it would take an unlikely number of good days in a row for me to pull it off.”
Sitting in a bar watching my girlfriends get loopy was a new one for me; I’d never seen it before, as I was always getting loopy right along with them. Similarly unprecedented were sober entertaining (I kept neglecting my guests’ empty wineglasses) and sober delivery of what was supposed to be a witty tribute at a friend’s birthday roast. What I’d conceived as jaunty, lighthearted ribbing just came out sounding vindictive and morose. Talk about sober. My unlubed litany of humor-free jabs provided the bridge between ribald hoots of laughter and the awkwardly silent official kickoff to Mr. Birthday’s midlife crisis.
Apparently, much depends on getting a little bit drunk. It’s a social currency right up there with table manners and inoffensive breath—ironic, since it can do a number on both—a reality I never appreciated. Understanding this only deepens my compassion for one of the most valiant species of human on earth, the recovering alcoholic.
But the realization also leaves me puzzled. Right now, at 8:53 in the morning, I could hoist a jug of Jägermeister and knock myself out if I felt like it. I could dust off the lamp shade and revive my reputation as Fun Girl, bringing untold relief to my concerned friends (who I think have been planning a reverse intervention). I could bring back cocktail hour, dulling the sharpest edges off the bad days and numbing all those pesky feelings that accompany them.
But I haven’t.