Breaking Up With My Old Friend -- The Wine Bottle

Let's say you have this longtime friend. You know all each other's secrets and stories. She stops by your house every evening for a visit, and once she arrives, you sit around at the kitchen together, sharing the experiences of your day.

And oh boy, do you ever look forward to her visits. You may even find yourself leaning out the window, watching for that moment you catch sight of this friend coming down the street, heading your way.

You can let down your hair with this person as you do with no one else. If you are anxious or stressed before she shows up, you can count on her to make you feel better. For a while anyway. Only one day it comes to you that when this friend goes home, you're always left with a bad feeling. Seeing her makes you feel better for a while, but after, you feel worse. Something about what happens between the two of you doesn't feel real.

You ask yourself if this friendship is a good thing. Are you a better person when you're around your friend? Or might the opposite be true?

For me, the nightly visitor was wine. Wine made its way into my life, like a false friend or a Kirby vacuum cleaner salesperson. (First you're just letting him give you the free demonstration. Next thing you know, you're agreeing to the payment plan and signing the contract.) One day I was an occasional drinker. Then somewhere along the line, I was up to two drinks a night. Sometimes three.

But nobody was calling me an alcoholic. Just a person who enjoyed her wine. I just did what countless numbers of women do all around me (also men, though for men the pattern tends to be a little different). And part of the danger lay in that: how totally acceptable it all looked. Compared to the stories of some people, whose lives have been destroyed or nearly destroyed by addiction (my own father, for one), mine is pretty tame and hardly unique. And maybe my problem had less to do with the amount of wine I consumed than with what it represented for me -- a way to put a veil on sorrow or worry. An escape.

More than the taste of the wine, I had become dependent on the feeling it gave me, of floating a little above the problems of my day. That first glass always left me feeling good, though when I woke up the next morning, not so much.

I told myself that because I didn't get drunk, I didn't have a problem. If you had told me about a woman who popped pills every night, or one who started every day with a toke, I might have suggested that she suffered from a substance abuse problem. But drinking wine was different. Particularly my kind of drinking.

Today I call this "a socially acceptable drinking problem." As opposed to the kind we all know well, and recognize easily as socially unacceptable: The drunkard passed out on the street. The lush falling over herself at a bar. The frat boy jumping into the pool with all his clothes on, or Jon Hamm as Don Draper, downing shots of whiskey in the offices of Sterling Cooper.

Those were never the scenes I identified with. But if you showed me a woman sitting at a café with a friend, with a wine bottle on the table -- a woman who looks like me (which is to say, middle class, with a house and a car and a seemingly safe life -- a solid citizen, a mother, for god's sake!), I could always feel the desire for a drink come over me. It was as if the fact that such a woman gets to have that glass of wine -- and seemed no worse for it -- entitled me to do the same.

Monkey see, monkey do. As simple as that.

It's all around us, this socially acceptable drinking. All I have to do is turn on the Today Show's "fourth hour" -- 10 a.m. -- and there will be Kathie Lee Gifford and her sidekick, Hoda Kotb, sipping chardonnay with their guests. I slip into the chair at my hairdressers', mid-afternoon, and the first question she'll ask is whether I'd like a glass of wine. (I look around. Everyone else has one. Why not?) And maybe for some people, there's no problem with that.

For me, there was.

Six weeks ago, I decided to break up with my old friend. Meaning wine. I had written a novel about a woman with a drinking problem, and when I read it over one last time, it came to me, that woman was me.

I asked myself if wine made my life better or worse, and the answer was clear. This was not the first time I had tried to give up wine, or even the 10th, but I'd never made it past a week or so.

That, more than any other single fact about my drinking, told me I had a problem.

Deciding to quit was one thing. Sticking to my resolve was another. And with no more than a month and a half of sobriety under my belt, I certainly won't describe myself as an authority. But I will tell you what was different, this time, from all the others.

I admitted I had a problem. (I published those words in fact. On this very page.) Then I told my children. I told my husband. And a few thousand total strangers.

It's a humbling thing to do this. But I also believe that acknowledging you've been using wine as the antidote to stress, or the necessary accompaniment to joy -- using it, then abusing it -- is the first step to getting free from its hold.

Somewhere along the line, I think, I'd actually altered the wiring of my brain, as clearly as a mouse in a maze, or one of Pavlov's dogs. My body clock went off at five o'clock (earlier sometimes) and called out for a drink, and once it did, I had a whole series of rituals around the drinking -- the corkscrew, the glass, my reading chair, my plate of cheese.

I've known writers who say they can't produce good prose without a cigarette in hand. For me, that's how I felt about engaging in certain activities without a glass of wine. (Cooking for instance. Reading, even. Listening to certain pieces of music. Having a conversation with a friend. "Just a second," I'd say, before we got too deep into things. "Let me just pour my wine.")

More ominous, maybe, I turned to wine when there was trouble. The hot water heater broke, I reached for the wine. The oncologist called, and I reached for the bottle. It came to me, wine never made the good times better, or the hard times any easier. Wine only fooled me, and only for a while.

So what do you do instead of reaching for a drink, one reader wrote to ask? And of course, I have no magic answer for her. I may be doing a little more yoga these days, and I'm trying to learn to play the ukulele that's been sitting in its case for a year. (Which would I rather say about the year 2016? That I consumed a few dozen bottles of zinfandel? Or learned to play Hank Williams songs on my ukulele?)

It's the most effective diet I've ever been on, by the way -- pouring cranberry juice and mineral water into a wine glass. If I feel tempted to drink, I take a walk. At what used to be cocktail hour, I study the sunset.

A month and a half has passed now since the last time I poured myself a glass of wine. That's not a long time in the world of sobriety, and I don't claim to be an expert on the subject. I know that with every day it gets a little easier. I also know better than to suppose there won't be moments ahead when some piece of news hits me, or some feeling, and I am tempted to have a drink again. (Same thing that happens to the character in my novel, by the way. The woman with the drinking problem, who reminded me of myself.)

But I take sustenance in this, more than anything: That when I broke up with my toxic friend, I reconnected with someone better. My old self. A person who chooses to take life in -- life, with whatever it has to offer me -- without a wine glass in her hand.

Joyce Maynard's new book, "Under the Influence," will be published by William Morrow Publishers on Feb. 23, 2016.

under the influence

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