I have been courting a new friend this past month or so, the mother of my Big Girl’s new best friend. It’s a delicate business, this courtship, because at the age our daughters are, there are still a lot of non-drop-off play dates, which means that you have to establish common ground enough to spend chilly hours clutching hot coffee in various playgrounds.
In this case, a shared love of old fashioned English children’s literature and a vague feeling that we are the poorest people in an affluent village has served to unite us, and so yesterday I lugged several small children over to her house and spend the day chatting.
Here is a thing about me: I am a storyteller. Here is another thing: I am not particularly good at compartmentalising. She offered me coffee and then proceeded to follow a hilariously convoluted coffee ritual which involves hand grinding speciality beans, heating through a jug of pouring cream and about ten other steps, and we fell to talking about rituals, and coffee. And I said that I had deliberately constructed a five pm coffee ritual because I had noticed myself getting too much into the habit of having a glass of wine at five pm, and now I’ve come to rely on a good decaf coffee instead.
‘Oh, I did that’, she said, glancing at an open bottle of red that stood near her stove top. ‘Especially when mine were really little.’
‘Right, me too’, I confessed, ‘but then when I stopped picking them up at daycare and getting home at 5pm, and started picking them up from school and getting home at 4pm instead, my mind was telling me that 4 pm was the end of the day, and that’s really not a path I wanted to go down. Thus the coffee’.
This is what I mean about not compartmentalising. I did manage not to shout ‘hi! I’m an alcoholic, let me tell you about hiding bottles of wine in my fabric stash!’. So that’s progress.
She laughed. ‘Yes, I suppose so. For me, I would have a glass of wine when they were having their dinner, because you know how it is, you’re hungry too but you’re waiting for their Dad to get home, and they’re mucking about and making a mess. So I’d have a glass of wine, and it didn’t matter as much if they ate their beans’.
And then we fell to talking about the difficulties of feeding dinner to small children, and our mutual suspicion that our husbands time their arrival home to miss the child-shift but maximise the post-bedtime leisure time, and that was that.
But it got me thinking. Her account, of having a glass of wine at 5 or 5.30 pm while her kids ate dinner, is completely normal. Every mother of small children I know would smile in recognition of that particular tactic. There is a special kind of hell involved in supervising children eating when you’re not partaking of anything yourself: they dawdle. They swing on their chairs. They mush their toast into their soup and then dribble puréed pumpkin onto the table. By the time they’ve finished, their food is stone cold and you have aged approximately ten years. A glass of wine, to take the edge off, is absolutely fine.
Whereas what I had started doing was coming home with various small children in tow, making them a snack, sending them upstairs to play and pouring myself a glass of wine. At 4 pm. And I knew that I couldn’t tell anyone that.
5.30 pm – normal. 4 pm – problem. There’s a joke in circulation: “Oh, well, it’s five o’clock somewhere!”
Different people have different ideas about what constitutes a problem. Everybody recognises that drinking in the morning is a problem – it’s used as a defence by those of us who didn’t do that, as a marker on the road that we haven’t reached. What about drinking alone? I used to think of that as a sign that a problem might exist, until I had small children, a travelling spouse and no babysitters, so when else was I going to drink? It didn’t occur to me that some people just…don’t, unless they go out. These things are why most diagnostic tests around alcoholism don’t focus on when and where you drink, but rather how you feel about your drinking and the effect that it has on your life and the lives of others. The truism is that if you worry that you might be a problem drinker, you probably are.
But this is why alcohol is such a dangerous drug: because it is so normalised, and it is such a gradual descent for those of us with a problem. Imagine you’re on a beach. You’re on the high, hot, fine sand, drinking your first drinks, the wind in your hair. You’re like a commercial, glamorous in your bikini. And even when you go down to the cooler, firmer sand near the edge, that’s fine too. Brisk walks and sandcastles. And then paddling! Who doesn’t love paddling. Cool water tickling your ankles. Slightly deeper water, with small waves sucking the sand out from under your arches. Swimming; the reckless cold against hot skin, the weightlessness, the freedom.
But there are rip tides in the current, and you can get sucked out to sea.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be rescued. And maybe, sitting in a towel drinking hot sweet tea for the shock, you’ll look back and try and work out when you started to be in danger. Perhaps you should have stuck to paddling. Perhaps you overestimated your swimming prowess. Perhaps the tide was just too high.
There are those who will say that if you have the alcoholic gene, you were in trouble the moment you took your first drink; the moment you slipped your shoes off and exposed your toes to the hot sand.
It feels like an impossible question. There is no bright line. I don’t know when I should have turned back. I only know that I can’t go in the water again.