Writing About Alcohol Brought Me Back from the Brink of Addiction
Hope Ewing on a Paradoxical Path Out of Family History
I was born, if not an addict, then a facsimile of one. I crave things. It gets intense. Every year as a child I tried to give up chocolate for Lent with the same result: sitting at a cafeteria table, glowering at my plain milk, irritable and snappy in a way I wouldn’t recognize until I discovered nicotine withdrawal, 20 years later. For as long as I can remember I’ve required daily doses of sugar, cacao, and caffeine. I credit being consistently broke and awkward through my young-adulthood for keeping me away from harder drugs, which are expensive, and take some finesse to acquire. My relationship with alcohol has been intermittently fine, dysfunctional, and occasionally straight-up abusive.
My family talks about the “alcoholism gene” with half-ironic dread. Both sides of the family have stories. The grandmother smuggling gin in a perfume bottle. The uncle that used to drive himself home and crawl up the stairs. Stories of epic blacked-out shenanigans from cousins and siblings were so normalized in my childhood that they seemed like common rites of passage.
We were right to be wary, but too simple in our fears. We talked about the gene as an all-or-nothing prospect. The unlucky ones had addictive brains like bear traps: once triggered, near-impossible to shake off or control. In digging into some WHO and NIH reports, I learned that the gene is in fact multiple genes, certain variations of which affect one’s susceptibility “toxic, psychoactive and dependence-producing properties of alcohol.” One report notes that having alcoholism in one’s family can “negatively affect the family situation during childhood,” raising the chance of trauma and future addiction. Meaning, yes, many addicts are born addicts. But problem drinkers are also made by circumstance.
Many of us exist somewhere in the middle, however, not physically dependent, yet not exactly what a reasonable person would consider moderate. We in-betweeners—the heavy users, the bingers, the everyday drinkers—are frequently the children or grandchildren of alcoholics, and we walk a dotted line between craving and revulsion when it comes to booze. I can only speak from my own experience, but I believe those of us on the edge of trouble can make a break for healthy drinking lives. I’ve been on the catastrophe train, myself, and changed direction with the least likely of allies: booze culture itself.
I’ve always loved bars—not just drinking, but having a place to go where I can socialize or scheme or read publicly for the small price of one beer an hour. Ray Oldenburg’s “Great Good Place.” But, as a problem drinker, my relationship with the public house has not always been rosy. At 22, I met a man in a local pub who would save—then ruin—my life. At 26, I was in sizable debt and miserable with office life, and I attempted to douse my discontent with gallons of beer and whiskey. The constant low-grade hangover of my late 20s provided the challenge and sense of accomplishment in daily life that my jobs did not. Life isn’t pleasant when getting out of bed feels like summiting K2, but it isn’t boring. By 29, I was out of debt but realized I might very well drink myself to death “blowing off steam.” Did I quit going to bars? Of course not. I quit my job.
I left my burgeoning career in fundraising to pursue a writing degree. In that transition, I found steady employment and a new family—behind the bar, this time. This was a privilege, of course, as I was childless and my parents set for their retirement, and I was grateful for it. From my first shift, I was hooked, and not just on the unlimited access to tap beer. Finally, I had a job where I could run around, where every day brought different faces, where conversations started and ended and disappeared into the night like cigarette ash. I still drank too much, but so did everyone around me, and it felt like much less of a problem. While anxiety and impostor syndrome stalked me at school, I found relief among the bar crowd. For the first time in my professional life, I felt competent. I loved hospitality. I still do.
Eventually I finished school, left academia, left my little Brooklyn bar, and followed a boyfriend to LA. Life was in flux, and a pattern emerged: drink because of boredom, because of anxiety, because of convenience. Drink to blot out the suspicion my relationship wasn’t working. Drink to forget my student loan debt. Wake up, attribute all my existential woes to the serotonin deficit of hangover. Drink to feel better. Repeat. Do not think about the short story collection, languishing on my hard drive in that folder still labeled “Thesis.” Don’t think about how long it’s been since I read anything that wasn’t on BuzzFeed. Don’t think about the debt. Do not, please, think about the debt.
I will always contend that hangovers, like breakups, get more difficult with age. If not physically, then existentially. Kingsley Amis—the godfather of modern cocktail writing—goes off on this at length in his essay on the “metaphysical hangover.” You wake up with a headache, but what really ruins the day is the shame. That sense that, even if you spent the entire previous night drinking alone, talking to no one, sending no mortifying text messages, doing no harm whatsoever, you are still filled with shame and the suspicion that you will never get anywhere in this life. This became the theme of my post-MFA period. Appropriately, the day after my self-thrown graduation party at the bar where I worked was most excruciating brunch shift ever experienced by man or beast. Growing up and getting one’s shit together had become a game of musical chairs, and I was up dancing by myself in the corner, unaware of the silence.
At no time was this as obvious as the months leading up to my best friend’s wedding. Having spent the money to fly 3,000 miles for pre-wedding festivities, I spent day two of the bachelorette weekend prostrate on the sofa of our Airbnb, having somehow consumed way, way too much of the Jerry Thomas-inspired pisco punch I’d made for the group the night before. A few weeks later, I spent the entirety of the bridal shower running back and forth to the bathroom in a fancy Staten Island Chinese restaurant, still sick on the previous evening’s libations I’d enjoyed while visiting my pals at the old bar. The bride, tactfully, ignored me. But I could read the thought pulsing behind my friends’ annoyed glances: I was not in control.
I wasn’t. That was clear. I didn’t have to drink to function, and I rarely drank during the day, but that threshold between going home and having a bender came closer and closer to the beginning of each night. I began to feel awkward around teetotalers. I feared them as I did vegans, imagined them lying in wait to pass judgment on my gin-guzzling, meat-eating ass. Secretly, I envied them. How much more would I have accomplished had I not spent a quarter of my adult life inebriated or incapacitated?
A change took place after the move to California, but slowly. I had a terminal writing degree, but no appetite for adjunct-hood, having found the end of the MFA rainbow was populated by thousands of talented kids scrabbling for the same inadequate pot of employment gold. I’d been working a serving position at a craft cocktail place to pay the rent. I was in awe of the bar. Scores of liquor bottles I’d never seen crowded the shelves. The bartenders meticulously measured out each and every ingredient into metal tins, added thick blocks of ice and whoosh! They shook, poured, and garnished each drink like they were making it for their mother on her birthday.
After a year-long stint waiting tables, I went through the eight weeks of daily training to become a different kind of bartender. This was a whole new school of drink-mixing than I’d known back in Brooklyn, descended from contemporary legends like Sasha Petraske and Dale Degroff—names I would come to learn along with the long and dramatic history of the cocktail. I became privy to an American culinary tradition, established in the 19th century, destroyed by Prohibition and slandered by the sickly-sweet club drinks of the 1980s and 90s. A novel breed of bar had come to prominence, one that frequently took itself too seriously, but that focused on libations in which flavor reigned above intoxication.
For two months, I memorized drink recipes dating from the 1860s, then tasted and took notes on six to ten different liquors each day before getting behind the bar for speed trials. While I was memorizing specs and the names of mezcal-producing Mexican states, the academic fire returned. The more I learned and tasted, the clearer it became that not every drink was worth the hangover. Knowing how each spirit and beer is made, the work that went into a bottle, gave me a new respect for my addictive pal, ethanol. Respect is the antidote to abuse, whether its directed at yourself or the potential abusee. I joined a fellowship of serious practitioners to whom big-drinking Friday nights were known as “amateur hour”: the professional drinkers. I still managed to find an occasion to imbibe frequently—a “family meal” shot each shift, a visit to a friend’s bar, a busy Tuesday—but I no longer partook to blot out my daily life. It was part of my daily life, and I wanted to remember how everything tasted.
Another year passed, and hangovers became fewer. I accrued a library of cocktail books from the new millennium’s bright bar stars. I met a woman who wrote about wine and liquor for a cool online outlet. I told her I wanted her job. She said: so do it.
In order to write, you have to observe—perceive and reflect. My first attempts at wine and beer reviews were disastrous. Notes became scrawls, tasting reflections turned into bad poetry. I slowed down and spat more. I pitched stories about the latest trends in whiskey, obscure alpine liqueurs, the wines of Mexico. I talked to spirits experts and celebrity bartenders and distillers and commiserated about the things we loved.
I’ve spent the greater part of the past year working on a book, talking to brewers, distillers, winemakers, bartenders, brand owners, distributors, even people in the packaging industry—all of whom happen to be women. Among a great number of other things, I learned something invaluable: the ones in it for the long haul don’t overdo it. The nature of their work demands careful self-monitoring. One gin enthusiast from St. Louis gave one simple admonition: Taste, don’t drink. She loved a cocktail, but to sip, appreciate, and then give away. She enjoyed the spirits her career was built on, but for the flavor and feeling of them, with just a hint of buzz and few, if any, lost days ahead.
All this time I’d been ordering cocktail after cocktail, trying out all the wines I could afford, downing full glasses because I wanted to try everything. It dawned on me that there is plenty of booze in the world, and plenty of time to taste it. I worked with it every day. No need to have all of it at once, and no shame leaving a half-drink on the table.
I will still happily occupy a bar stool for hours if scheduling permits, but the objective is different. I owe this shift to the focus I’ve directed at my frenemy, ethanol. I keep close tabs (ahem) on its machinations in my body and brain. The pleasure one can experience imbibing and not getting drunk still feels novel, as is actually feeling good about engaging with the world before 2:00 p.m. This is not to say there’s not an occasional dust-up at a wedding or birthday party, but I have joined the ranks of people who save drunkenness for special occasions. I’m grateful to be walking this line. It’s not a simple situation, nor might it be a permanent fix. There are few simple solutions when euphoria and danger sit so close together, as when crammed into a bottle.
Having looked over the cliff at full-blown dependency, keeping my footing has become more important than ever. I’ve witnessed too much lost time and love, too much needless trauma in service of addiction. As my age increases at an ever accelerating rate, making and retaining memories is an all-important task. I still want to experience the human joy of mild intoxication, but prefer to keep my inhibitions right where they are. Experience has shown them to be vital survival mechanisms that prevent you from stealing from your family, disrupting sacred unions, urinating in public, and so much more. Borrowing a concept from the recovery community: I am still a problem drinker. It’s just not a problem right now. I am hoping, if I keep focused and continue transcribing life instead of blotting it out, that it will remain so indefinitely.