September 15, 2002
Necessary Spinning

"I remember when we used to play a game
Take you by the hand and spin you very fast
Midspin, let you go, stop yourself
Switching into statues, rock hard
Necessary spinning in the front yard, necessary spinning in the front yard,
Everybody's spinning in the front yard
Necessary spinning in the front yard
Sometimes I wish that I were nine years old again ... "

~ "Necessary Spinning," Translator

June 1974

The date isn't going well.

We ran out of conversation ten minutes after he picked me up tonight. Who is your favorite teacher? What kind of music do you like? Do you think we'll win the State Track Meet next week? Now we're parked in front of Taco Time, in his orange Volkswagen Beetle, trying to decide how to spend the remainder of our evening. Should we go see "The Sting"? Should we drive downtown and walk around the Food Circus? Should we cruise the neighborhood and see if we can find Adamson's end-of-the-school-year party?

Or should we just sit here in this car for the next three and a half hours and listen to the blood rushing in our ears?

I am in despair. I really like this boy. He's cute, he's nice, he drives ... he's got a smile that lights up a room like a bazillion-watt light bulb ... plus he's a popular upperclassman, a lettered athlete who usually dates blonde cheerleader types. The idea that he would deign to ask me out -- me, a lowly Sophomore Nobody -- is almost beyond my wildest romantic imaginings. 

As far as I can tell, he likes me too: his face turns an adorable shade of AB Negative whenever he smiles at me. Considering the way this first date is going, though, I'm seriously beginning to doubt whether there will be a second date.

And that's when he asks me if I'd be interested in having "a drink."

"I've got a bottle of gin at home," he says hesitantly, turning all moist and pink around the edges again, as though he's just suggested that we roll around semi-naked in the back seat of his Volkswagen. (Later, after we've been dating for a few weeks, he tells me he was afraid to suggest alcohol that first night because he'd heard a rumor around school that I was a 'Jesus freak.')

I don't know which of the two of us is more surprised when I say "OK."

We park his car half a block from his house, presumably so his parents won't hear the engine in the driveway and invite us in for an evening of popcorn and interrogation.  While he sneaks inside to retrieve the bottle from its hiding place in his bedroom closet, I sit shivering nervously in the orange VW. I am bombarded with second (and third, and fourth) thoughts. What am I getting myself into? Is it too late to back out? Would he notice if he came back to the car and I was gone?  My grandmother lives right across the street: maybe I could go knock on her door and seek sanctuary there.  But before I have time to finish formulating an escape plan, my new beau returns to the car. Triumphantly, he pulls an unopened fifth of liquor from the inside of his blue and gold letterman's jacket. 

"I hope you like dry gin," he says. One look into those twinkling blue eyes and that bazillion-watt smile ... and I am doomed.

"Dry gin is my favorite," I squeak.

We stop at 7-11 to buy some mixer, and then we drive up to the abandoned road overlooking the airport runway -- a notorious local make-out spot -- to enjoy our very own private cocktail hour. As he hands me a paper cup filled to the brim with dry gin and 7-Up, I think to myself, "Now you're going to find out what it feels like to be drunk."

And I take my first cautious sip.

It tastes hideous: like carbonated fingernail polish remover with undertones of fresh Christmas tree. I have trouble getting the first swallow to go down. Then I have trouble getting the first swallow to stay down: for one horrible moment, I am sure I am going to vomit gin and Big Gulp all over the pristine interior of his Volkswagen. But somehow I manage to keep the awful stuff down, and a few moments later a wondrous thing happens: I feel a slow delicious warmth begin to spread through my body, from the pit of my stomach to my fingers and my toes and all the nerve centers in between. It reminds me of that light floaty feeling I used to get as a kid, by spinning around and around in circles in the middle of the yard and then throwing myself down on the ground:  that glorious, out-of-body sense of altered perception.

I love it.

Suddenly, conversation is effortless. Everything is funny,  especially me.  In fact I've never been funnier, or more confident, or more attractive. Before I'm quite aware of what's happening, I've emptied the entire paper cup. When he asks me if I want a refill, I giggle and say "Of course."

Forty-five minutes later, we are rolling around semi-naked in the back seat of his Volkswagen.

I knew right away that I was an alcoholic.

At age sixteen or seventeen I might not have articulated it precisely that way -- I might have said that I had a drinking "problem," or pointed to some of the other drinkers in the family and said "This is where I get it from" -- but I think I understood immediately that the way I drank and the way 'regular people' drank was different.

Right away, for instance, I was a lot more interested in drinking as a recreational activity than any of my friends were. I was the one who suggested we filch some Canadian Club from my dad's liquor supply and get drunk before the basketball game, or that we skip the basketball game altogether and go to Steve Peterson's keg, instead. 

If my friends didn't share my enthusiasm for drinking  -- which they didn't, a lot of the time -- I stayed home and drank by myself, alone in my room, listening to Moody Blues records and scribbling in my journal.

Right away I began drinking inappropriately, too: in the mornings before school, occasionally.  During family get-togethers. Before choir practice or Wednesday Night Bible Study. One time I snuck a flask of Canadian Club along on a youth group rollerskating party. While the rest of my born-again friends were out on the roller rink, witnessing for Jesus, I was barricaded in the ladies room, quietly getting ripped in the middle stall.

And right away drinking began to get me in trouble.

August 1975

Sunday morning.  I am crawling out from under a noxious cloud of hangover,  weak and disoriented as a kitten trapped in the spin cycle all night. I'm still wearing the clothes I was wearing when I crawled through my bedroom window at 4 a.m.  ... if Dad heard me sneaking in, I'll be grounded for eternity ... and I feel wretched. Worse than the roiling stomach, though -- worse than the brain-blistering headache, or the bottom-of-the-diaper-pail taste in my mouth -- is this nagging sense that I'm forgetting something.

Something important.

I roll around in the tangle of blankets and squint at the alarm clock. 7:15, it says, in blinking red numbers. 7:15. 7:15. 7:15.

Wasn't I supposed to be somewhere at 7:15 this morning?

At that moment, the white princess phone on my nightstand rings."Where ARE you?" shouts my best friend Karen. "The bus is leaving in fifteen minutes!" 

And that's when I remember: today is the day our youth choir is performing on Vashon Island. I'm supposed to play the big piano solo in "My Gift of Love."

Oh god.

"I've got the flu," I croak into the receiver ... head pounding, heart sinking, gorge rising. I give Karen a ridiculous song-and-dance, all about how this really awful influenza bug hit me last night, out of the clear blue sky, and how it's probably better if I don't show up and 'infect' all of the other choir members. "Let Connie B. play my piano part," I mumble.

Karen is clearly not buying my story -- this isn't the first time I've let the group down in a crunch lately -- but at this point there isn't much she can do about it. "I'll tell Dave," she says tersely. The choir director is going to be only slightly less sympathetic than my best friend, I'm sure. A moment later she slams the phone down in my ear without a goodbye.

Filled with self-loathing, I roll over in bed and plunge my throbbing head beneath my pillows, offering up a weak prayer for forgiveness, strength, healing ...

... and a lobotomy, maybe.

I didn't grow up in a drinking household.

It's not that Grandma and Grandpa were teetotallers: I observed the occasional glass of port with Christmas dinner, or the single can of beer during a summer barbecue.  But that was the exception, rather than the rule. 

There was no liquor cabinet in our house. No six-pack of Olympia in the refrigerator. No half-empty bottles of Canadian Club, stashed in a bedside nightstand behind a stack of old National Geographics. During the ten years I lived with my grandparents, from the ages of four to fourteen, alcohol simply wasn't part of our family culture.

So I didn't think about it much.

When I did have occasion to think about alcohol and drinking, as a child, it was rarely with any sense of longing or curiousity. Alcohol smelled bad. It tasted bad. It made grown-ups talk too loud and hug too hard and act all silly and sloppy and clumsy, like Otis on The Andy Griffith Show. 

Plus drinking got you in big trouble with God. In Mrs. Pierce's Sunday School class, we were taught that people who drank -- along with people who smoked cigarettes, people who said bad words, people who got divorced -- were sinners.

(In which case, I sadly realized, both of my parents were heading straight to hell.)

Hell was not a place that Young Terri was interested in visiting, thank you very much.  And if that meant no drinking ... well, I was more than fine with that.

August 1978

Dad is due home from work in less than an hour, and I am so drunk I can barely walk.

A long Saturday afternoon spent sunning in the backyard, drinking whiskey & cola, has left me toasted in more ways than one. I've got exactly forty minutes to wash the dishes, clean up all the puppy poop, run the vacuum cleaner around the living room, iron a couple of my father's work shirts and gargle with enough extra-strength Listerine to mask the smell of booze on my breath.

Plus I'll have to water down Dad's fifth of Canadian Club some more.

I hadn't planned to drink so much today. I hadn't planned to drink at ALL, as a matter of fact: I was going to spend the weekend hitting the books, not the bottle. I've got a Culture & Man final on Monday, and I've got to pass it: one more failed class and I'm officially flunking out of junior college. As soon as I got up, shortly after noon, I headed to the backyard with my textbooks and my jumbo size bottle of Johnson's Baby Oil, determined to knuckle down and get in some serious cramming ... plus a little sunbathing, while I was at it. 

After a couple hours of perspiration and patrilineal descent, I decided that I'd earned a "reward" for my efforts. So I went into the house and fixed myself a tall whiskey and Shasta Cola ... heavy on the whiskey, siphoned directly from Dad's liquor supply. It took me to that light "floaty" place right away. When the first drink was gone, I fixed myself another. And another after that.

The next thing I knew, I was having trouble folding my lawnchair.

By the time Dad's car pulls into the driveway, I've accomplished little more than throwing a T-shirt over my oily bathing suit and dumping all of the dirty dishes into the sink. Dad takes one look at the landfill in the kitchen -- and at my bleary, bloodshot eyes -- and the jig is up.

"Well, this is nice," he says sarcastically.

I pretend I don't know what he's talking about. How wash your day? I inquire sweetly, holding onto the kitchen drainboard to keep myself from tipping over. And then I launch into a ditzy, convoluted story, all about how I accidentally brought the wrong textbook home from school, then had to wait all afternoon for a friend to bring me the correct book, then had to do my homework all over again from scratch.

"Thash why I couldn't do the houshwork," I conclude.

But Dad isn't buying it. He's hot, he's cranky, he's exhausted from a long day of driving a mail truck around Burien: the last thing in the world he's in the mood for is a drunken twenty-year-old daughter.  (Especially a drunken twenty-year-old daughter drunk on HIS liquor.)  The next thing we know, we're standing in the middle of the kitchen screaming at each other. Or at least one of us is screaming. I'm sick of living under your thumb! I shout at him. I'm sick of your tyranny and your stupid rules and your fucking fifteen-dollars-a-week allowance! I'm an ADULT, forcryingoutloud: who the fuck do you think you are, telling me what to do??

And then I hit him.

Not hard enough to hurt. It is more a sort of flailing, useless thwack on the shoulder. Dad looks at me with murderous calm and says, "You'd better not do that again." 

Part of me -- the sober part of me, lodged inside the wild woman -- is watching all of this in horror. How did things get so out of control, so fast?  But another part of me -- the part of me fueled by anger and alcohol -- is exhilarated by a heady sense of emotional freedom. I can SAY what I want!  I can DO what I want! 

My father, meanwhile, is still watching me. As I raise my hand to strike him again, he calmly reaches out and grabs me by the wrist. I wrench myself free from his grasp -- something in my wrist pops, in the process -- and I run down the hallway to my room, where I slam the door shut and dial my boyfriend's telephone number on my white princess phone.

"You've got to come get me!" I sob hysterically. "My dad is beating me up!"

Five minutes later my boyfriend's Camaro screeches into the driveway. As I run out the door, overnight bag in hand -- the nearly-empty bottle of Canadian Club stashed into the bottom, along with my clothes and my college textbooks -- I don't even look at my father. 

"I'm never coming back!" I scream at him. "Never!"  With that, I wobble out the door and climb into my boyfriend's car, and we drive off in a cloud of defiant, wrong-headed twenty-year-old glory.

And as it turns out, I never do go back. Ever.

I've often wondered -- in the sad, useless way we wonder about such things -- how differently my life would have turned out if Grandma hadn't had her heart attack.

I was fourteen when I was sent to live with my father, a sweet, funny, lovely man who loved me to pieces but who knew absolutely nothing about raising a teenaged daughter. If Grandma hadn't gotten sick -- if I'd continued to grow up within the lovingly protective embrace of my grandparents -- would I have maintained a 4.0 GPA all through high school?  

Or would I still have ended up graduating in the bottom third of my class? 

Would I be teaching Music Appreciation to a classrom full of third-graders today, or would I still have dropped out of college half a semester short of completion?

Would I have married my nice born-again boyfriend, or would I still have abandoned Jesus for a Dixie cup full of gin and 7-Up?

Would my life have turned out differently? Happier? Healthier? Better?

The danger with thinking this way, of course, is that it places the blame for my own self-destructive behavior on everybody but me. Dad is to blame for giving me too much freedom at too early an age. My grandparents are to blame for getting sick and sending me away.  My mother is to blame for being mostly absent from the situation. Everybody is at fault here except for the person who made the crappy choices of her own free will: me. Plus it overlooks the obvious factors of heredity, peer pressure, the culture of the times, my own predisposition to run counter to authority. 

While it's easy for me to imagine a healthier, happier, squeakier-clean version of myself at age 16 or 18 or 22 -- living in the rarified atmosphere of my grandparents' home -- it is equally easy to imagine that 16 or 18 or 22 year old version of myself chafing  in rebellion at what would have surely come to feel like an antiquated values system eventually.

I think that in the end I still would have gone to hell in a handbasket. I simply would have taken a different route getting there.

December 1979

"Slow down!" I shriek, gripping the dashboard in white-knuckled terror.

But the Balding Aluminum Sales Guy isn't paying any attention to me. High on Peruvian Silver and Cuervo Gold, cigarette dangling from his lower lip, he is manifesting himself as his hero, Hunter S. Thompson. Smiling, he punches the gas pedal to the floor, sending us careening across the bridge at 100 miles an hour.

I'm going to die now, the little voice inside my head says mournfully. I'm going to die at age twenty-two, and I've never gotten married or had children or written my book ...

My life, I feel, has acquired a dangerous edge of dysfunction in recent months. Our heady, sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll lifestyle -- a lifestyle which seemed so deliciously, dangerously sophisticated for the first six months or so that we lived together -- now just feels dangerous. And doomed.

And stupid.

We fight all the time lately. If we've been drinking or drugging, our fights often turn physical, with me just as likely to throw the first punch (or the first beer bottle) as he is. He's begun staying out all night, occasionally, without letting me know where he is or when he's coming home. Usually it means that he's out with Bruce and Randy, hitting the bars, but once he spent the night in jail and I didn't even know about it until he bailed himself out the next day. Money dribbles through our fingers like Perrier: trendy clothes, pricey vacations we can't afford, new cars, expensive toys, fast food, alcohol, drugs.

Lots and LOTS of drugs.

The BASG has recently started dealing coke out of our apartment, more to supplement our habit, frankly, than our income. Shady characters traipse in and out of our security complex at all hours of the day and night; I find myself living in a constant state of near-nervous collapse. I don't know whether it's the coke that's making me feel this way, or paranoia. I suspect it's a lot of both.

I'm praying that the move to Oregon next month will save us.

With any luck, the transfer to his new job will keep The BASG too busy to get into trouble, and my own job searching efforts will keep me too busy to worry about The BASG. Plus we'll be living hundreds of miles from our old friends, our old lifestyle, our old temptations. Drugs, hopefully, will soon become a thing of the past. In Oregon, we'll be able to wipe the slate clean and begin a clean, happy, settled new life together.

Maybe he'll even re-think that vasectomy.

By the time we finally reach the Bellevue side of the bridge, I am shaking like a leaf. But at least we're both still in one piece.  Home -- and safety -- are just minutes away. The BASG slams on the brakes and brings the car to a screeching stop at the first stop light. He takes another swig of Cuervo, straight from the bottle, and turns to me with an expression of maniacal glee. 

"You and me, Babe," he says. "The 80's are going to be our decade."

I smile weakly at him in return. "Yep," I say. "Our decade."

If we live that long.

I wasn't always faithful to my drug of choice.

There was a brief but memorable flirtation with hallucinogens in high school (pink elephants on the Sophomore Biology classroom wall) ... my painfully-thin Amphetamine Period ... my extended marijuana phase during the college years. (I stuck a bunch of dried flowers into my red ceramic bong, plopped it on top of my bedroom TV, and told my dad that it was "a vase.") 

The Balding Aluminum Sales Guy introduced me to cocaine, and for a long time that replaced all others in my affections. 

Later in life there were other, darker chemical infatuations that I don't talk about much (and won't talk about until all three of the Tots are safely grown and out the door and I am no longer paying their father child support, every month).

These other relationships were fun while they lasted. But always -- always -- I returned to my first love: 


October 1980

It's Saturday night, and I am literally bored to tears.

This is the third weekend in a row that I've been cooped up in this crappy apartment: broke, hungry, alone, maddeningly sober. I can feel myself sinking into another slippery black depression, like the one I went through last year when the Balding Aluminum Sales Guy dumped me just days before we were due to move to Oregon. My roommates are out on the town tonight -- neither one of them asked me to come along, of course: I'm persona non grata with them both at the moment -- and all of my old friends and drinking companions seem to have completely forgotten I'm alive.

How did this happen??

Just a couple of months ago I was the toast of the East Side: cruising around town in my red Dodge Dart Swinger, answering phones at the health club by day, partying at the bars until closing time by night. I had my choice of cute bartender boyfriends, and a free pass to all the hottest clubs in Bellevue. Now here I sit with no car, no job, no social life, no boyfriend, and -- unless I can come up with two hundred and seventy-five bucks by Monday morning -- no place to live. I'm going to be sleeping on my father's sofa by the end of the month, I just know it.

God damn Terry and Ray. I blame them for all of my current misery. My former roommate and her stupid boyfriend not only wrecked my car,  they wrecked my life. Of course, the argument could be made that I had a hand in my own downfall. I'm the one who handed the keys to my roommate that night and said "Sure. You can drive."

But then again, she's the one who ran the red light. That makes it her fault.

I wander into the kitchen, stomach rumbling. My shelf in the refrigerator is distressingly empty: half a jar of dill pickles, a bag of stale hot dog buns, a couple of rubbery radishes. Naturally there isn't so much as a drop of alcohol, anywhere in the entire apartment: I've looked. Apparently my roommates have learned not to leave their beer sitting around unless they're here to guard it. I've got two dollars and thirty-seven cents in change, rattling around in the bottom of my purse: all the money I have left in the world. Maybe I should walk to the nearest source of alcohol and food -- the crappy little Chinese restaurant, half a mile down the road -- and hang out in the Wah Me lounge. I can buy a small vodka screwdriver and nurse it for a while, just long enough to fill up on the free chicken wings ... maybe sweet-talk some nice accomodating old geezer into buying my drinks for the rest of the evening ... maybe meet the fabulous next Mr. Right who is going to rescue me from all this.

Or else maybe I can just sit here in the apartment and feel sorry for myself some more.

I'm just about to curl up on the sofa with a blanket and "Love Boat" on the tube -- I've decided that feeling sorry for myself requires less effort than getting dressed and going out -- when my private pity party is interrupted by a knock at the door. Cautiously, I crack the door open and peer around the chain guard. I am astonished to see Terry's dopey boyfriend Ray standing on my doorstep.

"Can I t-t-t-talk to you for a minute?" he says quietly.

For a moment I'm tempted to slam the door shut in his face -- Thanks for wrecking my car, asshole! -- but something stops me. He doesn't seem particularly menacing, for one thing. He's dressed all in white, from head to toe -- white jeans, white shirt, white tennis shoes -- but on his head he's wearing a ridiculous black cowboy hat with a feather poking out of the brim.

For another thing: he's carrying a five-pack of beer.

I invite him into the apartment, and we sit down on the edge of the sofa, miles apart from each other. He offers me a beer -- "Thanks," I say, chugging down half of it in one swallow -- and then he opens one for himself. As we drink, he explains why he's here. He and Terry have split up, he says ... this time for good. She skipped town a few days ago ("She still owes me a hundred bucks," he says morosely: obviously he knows he's never going to see that money again) and he hasn't seen her/talked to her/thought about her since. Now that she's gone, he felt obligated to come by and unload his conscience about something. Before she left town, it seems, Terry stashed a lot of personal items in his carport. 

"I'm not s-s-s-sure," Ray stammers, "but I think that some of the stuff is y-y-yours."

He inventories some of the loot: record albums, clothes, jewelry items, a guitar, a hairdryer, a couple of suitcases. There's also some sort of little round jewelry box: when you lift the lid, he says, it plays a tune. "It l-l-looks pretty old," he tells me.

Jesus. That's my grandmother's music box.

"I didn't even know any of this stuff was missing," I say, flabbergasted. When I moved out of Terry's apartment last summer, I just tossed everything into boxes and fled. I didn't pay a lot of attention to what I was packing, and the boxes have been sitting in storage ever since. I haven't felt *at home* enough, anywhere I've lived since then, to unpack any of it.

I look at Ray with mingled gratitude ... and curiousity. Why did he do this? Why did he drive all the way across town, on a perfectly good Saturday night, just to warn me about Terry ripping me off? What's in it for him? It's not like he and I are friends, exactly. While he and Terry were going together, I privately thought he was sort of creepy. That whole hearing-impairment thing: it's very difficult to have a meaningful conversation with him. And it's not like we're attracted to each other now or anything. He's not really my type. 

(Although I have to admit that he does have pretty hair, and nice brown eyes, and he looks a little bit like Doug Henning, that magician guy on TV.)

We both crack open another beer.

Ray says that he would be glad to haul my stuff over in his van, any night that's convenient. Or, he suggests bashfully, he could drive me over to his house right now. "M-m-m-maybe we could stop at The Somewhere Else and have a couple of b-b-beers, on the way," he says.  If I don't already have plans, that is.

"I'll get my coat," I tell him.

I didn't get married for love, or for sex, or for money, or for any of the usual reasons people get married.

I got married because I was tired.

I was tired of wondering how I would pay my rent next month. I was tired of never having a place to hang my clothes. I was tired of new relationships turning into old relationships before the first side of the album was over. I was tired of bars, and I was tired of dating, and I was tired of waking up in the morning and finding myself laying next to strangers.

Most of all, I was tired of worrying about whether or not I was ever going to get married.

I didn't consciously set out to marry an alcoholic, of course.  That wasn't my plan. But if you spend all your time, say, in a potato chip factory -- if the only people you ever spend time with are other potato chip makers, or the friends and family of potato chip makers, or other people who like to hang around with potato chip makers -- the chances are pretty good that you're going to hook up with a potato chip maker yourself, eventually.

And that's what happens when you spend all your time sitting on a barstool.

It didn't seem like such a bad idea at the time. Marrying someone who liked to party seemed like a convenient way to ensure that my own good time would contine uninterrupted. And marrying a drinker who was even further along than *I* was down the alcoholism road seemed like a good way to make sure my own dysfunction was always eclipsed by his.

December 1981

"You have a beeeeeeautiful baby," croons Fat Jennifer, leaning across the corner pocket and peering into the wicker Moses basket.  

She holds a Virginia Slim in one hand, wedged between dimpled fingers, and a schooner of Rainier in the other hand. Inside the basket, parked carefully in the middle of the pool table, my one-week-old daughter slumbers peacefully beneath an avalanche of yellow receiving blankets, oblivious to the tavern noises going on all around her.

On the jukebox, Eddie Rabbitt is singing about how much he loves a rainy night.

"Thank you," I wince, shifting uncomfortably on the bar stool. The episiotomy stitches still bite when I move around, and my butt feels bruised and tender, the way it did after the car accident last year. This is my first excursion out into the *real world* since Jamie was born last week -- a combination early holiday/late birthday celebration -- and I'm not at all sure that this is where I want to be. In my smelly maternity pants and my twenty extra pounds of postpartum weight, I'm feeling frumpy and dumpy and decidedly un-festive. There is a fake Christmas tree set up in one corner of the bar, and a jar of broken candy canes on every table. Above me, a string of Christmas lights shaped like miniature chili peppers hangs across the top of the bar, except that all the red lights have burned out, leaving nothing but the green and yellow lights, twinkling frantically.

For some reason all of this just makes me feel worse.

On the other side of the tavern, I spot my husband in huddled conversation with Mikey R. and One-Armed Cindy. I wave at him in what I hope is a discreet fashion, trying to get his attention. Maybe we can just pick up a half-case of Rainier and an Athen's pizza and have a little party-for-two at home. But Ray steadfastly refuses to look in my direction ... whether by accident or by design, I'm not sure. From the intensity of their discussion, I assume they're either talking about the football pool or drugs. I hope it's the football money, or else we'll never get out of here.

I unwrap another broken candy cane. On the jukebox, Joan Jett is singing about how much she loves rock and roll.

Fat Jennifer is prattling on and on about birth weight and car seat regulations. As far as I know, Fat Jennifer does not have any children of her own. I watch nervously as she waves her cigarette around in the air above the basket, her unattended cigarette ash growing longer and longer. Just as I'm sure the ash is about to dislodge and drop directly onto my baby's head, Dave The Bartender appears out of nowhere, placing a clean ashtray in front of Fat Jennifer and a schooner of beer on the bar in front of me, right next to my abandoned Tab. 

"Here you go, Little Mama," he says jovially. "On the house."

Oh what the hell. It's Christmas.

Sixty minutes and five schooners of Rainier later, I'm feeling lit from within ... like a Jack O'Lantern, hollowed out and warmed by candle glow. This is my home, I say to myself, gazing fondly around the little tavern. And these people are my family. I've spun down a couple of levels to the place I like best: the gentle, easy, floaty place where the world is beautiful and everybody is my friend and no problem is so great that it can't be solved with another spin or two around the yard.

In the middle of the pool table, my infant daughter continues to sleep the sleep of the untroubled. On the jukebox, John Cougar is singing about how sometimes love don't feel like it should.

Fat Jennifer and I are now official best friends. We've swapped life stories. We've traded phone numbers: I have hers written down in black eyeliner pencil on a paper napkin in my purse. I can't remember ever feeling closer to another human being in my whole life. In fact, I'm thinking of asking her to be Jamie's grandmother. (Or godmother: I can't remember which, exactly, but it's the one where she promises to take care of Jamie if something ever happens to me.)

My husband sidles up to me, just then, with our jackets slung over his arm and Jamie's diaper bag in his hand. 

"You ready?" he says. "I'm going to get some beer to go."

"Why are we leaving so soon?" I pout. "I was just starting to have fun."

The beauty of the co-dependent relationship is that everybody gets what they want.

At least for a while.

The "problem" drinker -- the person whose drinking is causing the most visible disruption, in his life and in the lives of those around him -- has somebody to clean up after him, and to call in sick for him, and to generally act as a buffer between him and a harsh, unforgiving, disapproving world.

And what does the partner get, you ask?

The partner gets to play The Martyr.

Martyrdom --  in my case, blaming my alcoholic husband for all of the things that went wrong in our lives and in our marriage -- became just as addictive for me, in its own way, as alcohol or drugs ever were. 

Ray was the one who stayed out all night. He was the one who came home after a weekend bender, stinking of beer and cigarettes.  He was the one who picked the fights. He was the one who wrecked our cars and spent our money and went to jail. 

He was The Bad Guy.  

Meanwhile, I was the virtuous spouse who stayed home with the babies ... who indulged only on the weekends, and then "only" a couple of beers, here and there ... who tried to keep her dysfunctional little family together as best she could, without any support or help or encouragement from her big screw-up of a husband.

I was The Good Guy.

In some sad, sick way, we were both perfectly comfortable with the arrangement for a long time.  

October 1987

"No BEER for YOU, Mom!" announces four-year-old Jamie, as we're standing in the middle of the beverage aisle. 

I'm pretty sure they can hear her all the way over in the Produce Department.

I whirl around and glare at my small noisy daughter. "For your information," I sniff, "I was looking at the POP."  I open the cooler door and, ignoring the Rainier Beer completely, I extract a six-pack of Diet 7-Up and dump it into the shopping cart, next to my sleeping infant son.  And then I stick my nose into the air. 

"So there," I say, with elaborate snootinesss.

Jamie and her three-year-old sister Kacie both dissolve into giggles.

Grocery shopping is one of my favorite things about our new life. I love getting into my car and going to the supermarket, any time I feel like it. I love buying anything I want to buy, without having to ask someone for permission or advice or twenty bucks. I love clipping coupons and making grocery lists and looking for bargains. I love pushing the cart around the store, with my baby son tucked into the front basket and both of the girls trailing along behind, like a couple of baby ducklings. I love the freedom I feel, and the independence, and the brand-new sense of being in charge of my own destiny for the very first time ever. 

(The only thing I don't love about grocery shopping is paying for everything with food stamps. The reasonable part of me knows that there's no shame in being on public assistance, especially when you're a single mother with three small children. The unreasonable part of me is terrified the check-out clerk will turn out to be someone I went to high school with.)

Life without my husband is turning out to be much easier -- and a lot more fun, frankly -- than I'd ever dreamed.

The kids and I moved into our moldy little apartment two months ago. Privately I refer to the place as "The Crack Apartments," because the first night we lived here I encountered a group of teenagers getting high in the stairwell next to our front door. But of course I don't tell the kids that. This apartment is all we can afford, anyway. Technically, my husband and I are separated. After he lost his job last summer -- right after our son was born, and our rental house was sold out from under us -- we made the decision to split up. It was mostly an economic decision, we told everyone. I would take the kids and go on public assistance for a while: Ray would move in with friends and look for work. This would give us both time to regroup and recover and figure out where our marriage -- and our family -- would go from here.

Of course I've already made MY decision.

"Can we get some Cocoa Pups?" asks Kacie, as we roll our shopping cart past a towering display of overpriced kiddie cereal. Oh why not? My children deserve the occasional indulgence.

It's been two months since I've had anything to drink: not even a beer or a wine cooler or a watery Denny's cocktail. Except for third trimester abstinence, it's the longest I've gone without alcohol since I was seventeen years old. I've never felt better in my whole life. I wake up in the morning and I'm filled with energy and resolve: I crawl into bed at night, after a long day of childcare and housework, and I sleep the sleep of the righteously exhausted. I'm losing weight, too. By next month I'll be able to squeeze into the Size 12 Levi's. My mother, herself a recovering alcoholic, is beside herself with joy over my transformation. She says that I've begun to lose that peculiar, jaundiced look I'd been sporting the past couple of years. 

"I'm very proud of you," she tells me, and I bask in the warm glow of her approval. I'm so in love with my new life -- and with all these new feelings of self-confidence and empowerment -- that I don't even miss my Saturday night beer binges.

Once they were the centerpiece of my week. Now they seem like part of another life altogether.

When we've finished shopping, the kids and I load our groceries into the trunk of my car -- a beat-up 1971 Chevy Malibu, purchased with my first welfare check and a loan from Grandma -- and we head for home, singing along to the tinny AM radio. As we pull into the parking lot, I notice someone loitering near the stairwell next to my front door, smoking a cigarette.

"It's Daddy!" shouts Jamie, joyously. She and Kacie race across the parking lot and hurl themselves at their father like two pigtailed torpedos.

My heart sinks. I knew Ray would probably materialize on my doorstep eventually this weekend -- he doesn't seem to be taking our 'separation' quite as seriously as I am -- but I was hoping he wouldn't show up until tomorrow night. Tonight I just wanted to cook a nice dinner for the kids, and watch some TV, and spend a quiet, relaxing Friday night alone with my children. Now, instead, I'll be spending the entire damn weekend cleaning up after him ... watching him eat my groceries and read my newspaper ... fending off his clumsy sexual advances ...

... and trying to ignore *his* half-case of Rainier sitting in *my* refrigerator.

The first time I tried to quit drinking, it was for all kinds of good reasons. 

I wanted to feel better. I wanted to look better. (Serious weight loss was impossible, I'd discovered, when you're washing down your Lean Cuisine entree with a six-pack of beer.)  I wanted to live longer. I wanted to create a better life for my children, and for myself, and for the fabulous second husband I was certain was waiting for me out there in the world somewhere.

(As soon as I got rid of my pesky first husband.)

The attempt failed, ultimately, because I wasn't quitting for the one reason that really counts: if I didn't quit drinking, it would kill me.

Secretly I nursed the belief that someday -- after I'd been sober for a while, and the damage caused by ten years of alcohol abuse had been magically reversed -- I would be able to return to the drinking life. I could become a social drinker: one of those people who can walk into a bar and order one screwdriver or one beer or one glass of wine ... and not automatically want to order a second.

Let alone a third, or a fourth, or an eighteenth.

I didn't know enough yet about the nature of my disease -- nor about the peculiar way that my addict's brain is wired -- to understand that quitting was going to have to be more than a temporary means of losing weight or attracting men.

I didn't understand yet that it was going to have to be permanent.

June 1995

I can hear him in the car, cracking open another can of beer  ... for years, my least-favorite sound in the universe.  But for once it doesn't make me want to scream at him or call him names or run right out and file for divorce.

It only makes me weep for him.

The hospital parking lot is starting to fill up. When we first got here, half an hour ago, the place was a veritable ghost town: now all of the Tuesday morning physical therapy appointments are beginning to arrive. I've been walking back and forth between the parking area and the rear entrance of the hospital for the past thirty minutes, pretending to admire the flowerbeds ... pretending to feed the ground squirrels ... pretending that I'm not a woman on the edge of blind, blithering panic.

What I've really been doing, of course, is giving him a chance to say goodbye to alcohol in private.

I glance back toward the car. He is still sitting there, hunched over in the driver's seat,  taking occasional furtive sips of his Rainier. I can tell by the way his shoulders heave up and down that he's crying again. He's saying goodbye to his best friend, I realize. In the fifteen years that I've known him -- fourteen of those years as husband and wife -- I can't recall a single day when he didn't have a can or a bottle or a schooner of Rainier in his hand.

This is going to be a huge change for all of us.

I look up at the sky. "This is one of those pivotal days, isn't it?" I say out loud, to nobody in particular.  I never thought this day would come. I never, ever in a bazillion years thought that my husband would be walking into a rehab center, of his own free will, asking for help. Of course, technically this wasn't his idea. His boss is the one who laid down the ultimatum: check yourself into rehab or you're fired. But it's still hard to believe this is actually happening. I honestly thought that he would continue drinking until it finally killed him.

(And that we would both be trapped in this marriage until that happened.)

At 9 a.m., I circle back to the car and tap on the window. "Time to go," I say to him gently. 

He nods and lifts the beer to his lips one last time. When he's finished draining the can, he crunches it with one hand -- the soft aluminum caves inward with a 'pop' -- and he stows it beneath his seat, with the rest of the empties. I'll have to remember to clean them out when I drive the car home later.

As we walk down the long concrete pathway toward the hospital entrance, he instinctively reaches out and takes my hand. "I'm s-s-scared," he says shakily.

"I know," I reply. And I squeeze his hand in return.

Maybe I won't go back to the office today, after all. After I get Ray admitted -- after we meet his counselor and sign all the papers and get him checked into the hospital, his 'home' for the next four weeks -- maybe I can call my boss and tell him that I'd like to take the rest of the day off. I can say that this whole thing has been a lot more 'emotionally draining' than I'd expected it to be. My own attendance at work has been pretty spotty the past few months -- lots of "stomach flu" and "family emergencies" -- but I don't see how my hard-hearted boss can fail to understand something like this. Then I can just go home and spend the rest of the day relaxing. Maybe I'll plan grocery lists for the next four weeks. (While Ray is in the hospital, I'm in charge of everything from bill-paying to grocery shopping to jump-starting the car in the mornings.) Maybe I'll make some phone calls and break the news to the rest of the family. Maybe I'll take the kids out to dinner tonight, when they get home from school. Maybe I'll just curl up on the sofa and take a long afternoon nap.

But first ... I think I'll stop and pick up a bottle of wine on the way home.

Our roles reversed practically overnight.

That's what happens when one partner stops using and the other doesn't: all of a sudden, he became The Good Spouse, and I became The Bad/Weak/Destructive/Dangerous Spouse.

I paid lip service to his efforts to stay clean and rebuild his life. I made sure he got to his AA meetings on time ... but I never went to a meeting with him. I encouraged him to read his Twelve-Step book ... but I never picked it up and looked at it myself. I told other people how "proud" I was of him ... but privately I all but stopped speaking to him altogether.

I supported his efforts to stay sober ... but I continued to drink.

I'd spent almost fourteen years blaming him for all of the problems in our marriage -- everything from financial trouble, to lack of communication, to the simple fact that I didn't love him the way a wife is supposed to love her husband, and I probably never would -- and now I had to face the fact that *I* was just as much to blame for the mess our lives had become as he was.

It was a bitter pill to swallow ... especially when I tried to wash it down with a gallon of cheap chablis.

Fall 1996

I have made an amazing discovery this summer: if you drink every night, you're never hungover!  

Or you're not as hungover as you would have been, say, if you'd enjoyed a Wednesday night chablis-and-chat-room bender, and then you waited until Saturday night to drink again. I've found that when you do that -- when you wait too long between drinking nights -- you actually allow your body too much time to recover. By the time Saturday rolls around, your body is so thoroughly detoxified that you get drunk way too fast. You're basically worthless after one carafe. Plus the next hangover is completely delibitating.

This simply isn't a workable system for me.

I've discovered, through trial and error, that if I drink a little bit every single night -- one of the small carafes of Paul Masson, maybe, or half of a big bottle plus a couple of wine coolers, or a four-pack of wine coolers plus a small bottle of Lancer's -- that I can drink for five or six nights in a row without a single 'down' day.  I still feel lousy in the morning when I first wake up -- I actually threw up on my steering wheel last week, driving to work  -- but by mid-afternoon the worst of the hangover has usually burned off. By the time I get home from work,  I'm feeling almost normal and ready to drink again.  Sometimes I vomit up the first glass of lukewarm chablis almost as soon as I finish drinking it. But then I simply force myself to guzzle a quick "medicinal" second glass, and eventually the wine stays down, and the rest of the residual hangover dissipates, and pretty soon I'm enjoying that nice light floaty feeling again.

And most importantly, I never miss a night in the chat room.

My cyber boyfriend expects me to be online every night. The nights when I fail to show up, he says, "break his heart." Of course he doesn't know that I didn't sign on because I was hungover: I tell him that I was "tired," or that I had to go somewhere with my kids, or that the husband was lurking nearby all evening, monitoring my computer activities. My boyfriend knows that I drink, of course: I joke about it in the chat room all the time. ("I'm going on another cheap chablis run!" I'll type. "Anyone need anything while I'm at the store?" And then I pretend to take all of these stupid fake orders for pork rinds and red licorice and Camel Non-Filters.)  But I think he believes the drinking references are simply part of the whole goofy SecraTerri persona ... like typing backwards in the chat room, or referring to myself in the third person, or sneaking into the room using a silly temporary alias that everybody recognizes immediately, like "TerraSecri" or "GuessHooIYam." I suppose that if he was aware of how frequently (and how much) I'm actually drinking, every single day now, he'd have something to say about it, the way he has something to say about smoking and caffeine consumption and Metallica records.

He IS a doctor, after all.

So I'm careful to never let him know when I'm hungover, just like I'm careful never to let him know when I'm drinking in the first place. Fortunately we have a nice safe three-hour time difference between us. By the time we both get online at night it's almost bedtime for him over on the East Coast, but here on the West Coast, my evening -- and my buzz -- are just beginning. He "sees" me only during my quick and funny first-bottle-of-wine period: he isn't online at midnight, when I'm slumped over the keyboard, typing with two fingers, struggling to remain vertical.

Next month we'll be meeting face-to-face for the first time: a six-day medical conference in the Caribbean. My husband believes that I'm going on this trip with "a group of friends" from the chat room. (I have no idea what story The Doc is telling his spouse, but I hope she's as gullible as mine is.)  I'm very nervous. Obviously I'm not going to be able to drink while we're on the trip together.  As a matter of fact, I don't know what scares me more: the idea of him seeing me naked ...

... or seeing me sober.

Alcoholism and the Internet went han-in-hand for me.

My desire to communicate with other people -- coupled with an absolute lack of social confidence, a lifetime of self-esteem issues and a spectacularly awful marriage -- made me a perfect candidate for cyber addiction. 

The online world was the engine that breathed life into my ideas, my words, my feelings ... and my self-destructive impulses.

Alcohol simply provided the fuel.

September 15, 1998

I've been looking at this same glass of lukewarm chablis for over an hour now, willing myself to take a sip.

It sits on the desktop in front of my computer monitor, right next to the unpaid utility bills and the slice of four-day-old pizza. I can see the liquid, glistening in my very best thrift-store wine glass. I can smell the acrid fruity smell of it in my nose and on my lips and in the back of my throat. I can feel that last swallow, still percolating in the pit of my stomach, an hour after I forced it down.

What I can't seem to bring myself to do is drink it.

As I sit here in silence, looking at the untouched wine, The Oregon Boyfiend's voice ricochets through my head like Jiffy Pop gone berserk. Don't bother calling later, he said when he was driving me home from work tonight. You're just going to go home and get drunk, anyway. And he dropped me off in front of my apartment building, without ceremony, gunning the Jimmy down the little crooked alley without further comment. What irks me the most about the whole thing, of course -- more than his snotty tone of voice, more than his refusal to stay and finish the argument, more than the fact that we're probably breaking up again for the bazillionth time -- is the fact that he's absolutely correct.

The first thing I did when I walked into the apartment was head straight for the kitchen.

I yanked the nearly-empty bottle out from under the kitchen sink and dumped the remaining chablis into my solitary wine glass. As I raised it to my lips, my stomach clutched in protest. You said we weren't going to do this anymore! it groaned. After last week's three-day bender -- and the apocalyptic hangover that followed -- I had finally decided that this was it.

I was going to quit drinking ... for good, this time.

It wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision. This is something I'd been thinking about seriously for weeks. I'm forty years old, and my life is in embarrassing disarray. I'm living alone in a crappy little apartment a million miles away from my children ...  I'm making ten dollars an hour at a knife factory  ...  I have minus eighteen dollars in the bank ... and I've just managed to fudk up my third romantic relationship (my marriage, my affair with The Doc and my rebound relationship with The Oregon Boyfiend) in less than a year.  It's starting to feel like time is running out: if I don't do something to pull myself together, now, I'm not going to get another chance. 

Plus -- and this is a big plus -- I'm sick of hangovers. I'm sick of feeling low-level horrible all the time, even on the days when I haven't been drinking the previous night. My head always aches. My eyes always burn. I always feel like I'm running a fever, even though the thermometer says otherwise. I alternate between sleeping too much and sleeping too little: either way, I'm exhausted all the time. Food tastes like nothing. Sex is more work than it's worth. Walking down the little crooked alley to my bus stop every morning leaves me winded and sweaty for hours afterward. I can't even remember what a regular bowel movement feels like.

I'm sick and tired, as they say, of feeling sick and tired.

But the main reason I want to quit -- the main reason I'm ready to quit -- is because I understand something, finally, that I've never fully understood until now.

If I don't stop drinking, it's going to kill me.

It might not be liver failure or heart disease or alcohol-related stroke that does it. It's just as likely to be something stupid, like falling down a flight of stairs, or passing out with the stove burners on, or running my car into a freeway embankment. But one way or another, I'm going to be dead.

And I'm not ready to be dead yet.

I've been doing pretty well so far this week, too. I'd gone three whole days without so much as a millisecond of temptation, even with a quarter of a bottle of leftover chablis foolishly stashed beneath my kitchen sink. But then The Oregon Boyfiend went and messed things up tonight, with his snotty tone of voice and his know-it-all attitude. You're just going to go in there and get drunk, anyway ... You're just going to go in there and get drunk, anyway ... You're just going to go in there and get drunk anyway.

God, I hate him.

But The Boyfiend's voice isn't the only voice haunting me tonight. As I sit here,  waiting in vain for a nice light floaty feeling I know is never going to come again, even if I drink a thousand boxes of Mountain Chablis,  I hear a veritable Who's Who of voices. 

I hear the voice of my high school boyfriend, offering me a paper cup full of liquid courage. I hear my ex-husband on the phone, broken and weeping, after I walked out on him on our sixteenth wedding anniversary. I hear my grandmother on her deathbed, telling me that I'm a wonderful mother. I hear my oldest daughter's message on my answering machine, shouting that she has no mother. I hear my Sunday School teacher telling me that people who drink alcohol are an abomination unto the Lord. I hear my father warning me that I'd "better not do that again." I hear my boss, looking at my bloodshot eyes and asking if I need to "talk." I hear my mother telling me that she's proud of me.  

And above the chorus of betrayal and disappointment and abandonment -- above the voices of people I've loved and people I've left and people I've fucked over -- I hear the voice of a sick, exhausted, dizzy little kid.

"I'm tired of spinning," she says plaintively. "Can we stop now?"

On any other night, I would probably tell her to suck it up and quit complaining. This is the life we chose, I would say to her. This is who we are. This is what we are. "You can't get that nice floaty feeling," I would remind her, "without a little necessary spinning."

But tonight, for a change, she and I are on the same page.

I get up and walk into the kitchen, and -- without ceremony -- quietly dump the glass of wine down the kitchen sink. And then I get a fresh Hefty bag out of the drawer, and I drop the empty chablis bottle into it, along with the wine glass and the corkscrew collection and all of other empties from under the sink, and I carry the bag out the door and up the stairs to the dumpster. As I climb the stairs, I imagine I hear the chorus of voices cheering me on.

It's funny. I always thought that when this moment came -- when I stopped spinning, finally, knowing in my heart that I had stopped spinning for good -- I would be doing it all alone.

But it turns out I've got an audience, after all.

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