Health

It Took Leaving Two Exes With Drinking Problems to See My Own

Loving and losing another drinker made me rethink my—and my community’s—relationship with alcohol.
June 1, 2020, 5:22pm
leaving-a-drinker
Photo via Getty

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Tell me what I want to hear, Sam begged.

She had just come off the makeshift stage of a small-town bar, having stumbled—interrupting herself in the middle of stories, running off on tangents, forgetting what she was saying mid-sentence—through a performance she had been hired to do. She was visibly intoxicated. She had bombed.

Tell me I’m funny and you love me.

Sam, not her real name, clung tightly to a glass of bourbon.

I told her what she wanted to hear: that she was funny, that she had not bombed, that this was not her fault. She didn’t believe me— I didn’t believe me—but she smiled and went off to the bar. I found her an hour later. She had another drink in her hand and was doing shots.

By the time we got home she was so drunk she passed out on the bed, sobbing, with her back to me. I didn’t know what to do, so I just held her. I lay awake for hours as she slept.

Prior to the show she had been drunk several nights in a row. I know, because I spoke to her each night, and each night she was either still at or coming home from the bar, her voice edged with the slippery, dangerous lilt she got when she drank. When I arrived to see her that afternoon—a three hour drive through a treacherous northern mountain pass in a near-blinding whiteout—she had still been hung over.

I had tried not to be hurt, but I was. It made me feel like she didn’t value me or my time, or the effort I was making to show her I supported her. Lying there in the dark, holding her liquor-heavy body against my own, I told myself that wasn’t true. Sam was just having a tough week. Of course I mattered to her.

Once you start lying to other people, it gets easier to lie to yourself.

When we started dating, Sam and I did all the usual things: dinner, dancing, bars. When I came to visit we usually went out. I felt what we were doing was normal, but I’ve since started rethinking that—it might be that it was just normal to us. I’ve worked in bars for 15 years. What I think of as “normal” drinking probably isn’t.

When we first got together, Sam told me she had been sober for six months and had just started drinking again; she had stopped, she said, because her previous partner had accused her of being an alcoholic “to control her.” It was liberating, she told me, to go out with someone who didn’t begrudge her wild nights or a glass of wine with dinner.

Retrospectively, that should have been a red flag.

This isn’t my first go around with someone who has a difficult relationship with alcohol and drugs. Late last year, I stopped speaking to a longtime friend because her drinking and drug use was out of control. I’ve written openly about my relationship with the man who would end up sexually assaulting me—he, too, had a drinking problem. Likewise, for those of you just tuning into this episode of Lori’s Very Bad Romantic Choices, I’ve had some extremely bad dates involving women who drank.

In every relationship I’ve had with someone like this, what has stunned me is the substance user’s ability to rewrite reality to account for their behaviour. It’s never the booze or the drugs. It’s never them. It’s always the world, or the circumstances, or me.

I’m too hard on them. I’m not gentle enough. I expect too much.

It’s always my fault.

And they’re right.

The common denominator is me.

I am not in a position to judge anyone, beyond to say how their behaviour directly impacts my life. I have chronic anxiety related to PTSD, and I know I sometimes—often—use alcohol as a crutch to abate that anxiety. My drinking has been a problem for me in the past; it was a hole I crawled into when I was depressed, a hole that took me years to crawl out of, that I am still crawling out of. Although these days I am rarely drunk and I have my shit together—bills paid, deadlines met, healthy (safely distanced) social life—I still self-medicate with alcohol. I’m working hard to create better coping mechanisms to replace it, and it's something my therapist, physician and I are handling together.

It’s getting better, but I know it’s a problem.

I’m not sure when things began to slide with Sam, but I do know that night in December was a turning point. I cannot recall more than a handful of occasions I spoke to her or saw her when she was sober after that.

Sam became withdrawn and depressed. She drank more and more and used high-potency edibles often; sometimes she would be talking to me and the weed would kick in mid-sentence and she would stop, so stoned she had forgotten what she was saying, after which any further conversation with her was impossible.

It made me feel lonely, to be with her when she was like that. Like she wasn’t even there. Like she didn’t want to be. With me.

In January, things got real fucked up, real fast.

On New Year’s Eve Sam got so drunk she missed the phone date that was supposed to be our ball-drop kiss, passed out while I waited up for her. She lied about her drinking, breaking promises of sobriety to me, to her doctor, even to a friend she had gone to help recover from surgery. She cheated on me while drunk; the next day she got stoned and suggested a threesome with the person she had fucked. She flew into tantrums of insecurity—I didn’t love her, I was going to abandon her, I wasn’t attracted to her—and argued with me over nothing when intoxicated, which was often. I was frightened she would pass out someplace and get raped, or get in a car accident.

On Valentine’s Day, Sam called me at midnight, very drunk, and told me she wanted to sleep with a couple she’d met at the bar. When I refused, she fell into the sobbing, round-robin arguing of drunks, where no reason can reach them; she claimed she had discovered she was poly, that I had to let her because she deserved it, that my refusal was emotionally abusive. She was still drinking when she cried herself out, and went to sleep.

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When she did I rolled over, took an Ativan and chased it with my prescribed dose of antibiotics. I had been critically ill with pneumonia, too weak to get out of bed, feverish and coughing, for five days. Sam knew that.

I have never felt like I mattered less to anyone.

I tried to talk to Sam; she was a different person when she drank and the way she treated me when she did hurt me. She warbled between outraged denial—this wasn’t really how it was, I just was trying to control her—and bargaining, promising to treat me better, to drink less.

Sometimes she dropped all pretense and turned to pleading. She loved me. She knew I didn’t deserve this. She needed more time—would I please give her more time?

I love you, Lori Fox. Please don’t leave me.

I loved her, so I stayed.

I gave her more time. More love. More patience. More compromises.

I gave her exactly what a drinker really wants.

More.

I look back on how Sam and I behaved together—the late nights in bed with a bottle of wine, beer after cold beer fishing, all the shots at the bar and the whisky in our coffee. It all seems so normal.

I see now though that my relationship with alcohol built the foundation on which it was OK for Sam and all the others to treat me when she drank. Everyone has a right to a good time, right?

Part of that is the culture of the North, in which drinking, and drinking hard, is an accepted, even lauded, common practice. This isn’t just your Friday night up here, this is your Tuesday, your Thursday, your Sunday. Year after year, Yukoners drink more per capita than any other place in Canada and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is a prominent issue—so much so that some bars have placed pregnancy tests in women’s washrooms. Alaska had the third-highest alcohol consumption in America in 2018 and experiences more alcohol-related deaths than other states. Drinking and drugs have a long-standing place in Northern culture but to talk about it openly is anathema.

In 2018, I wrote about driving 500KM for a date to blow me off to do ketamine in Dawson, Yukon. Home of the Sourtoe Cocktail, Dawson has a reputation as a party town. The reaction of some people in the Dawson community was stunningly defensive; I didn’t know how to have fun and needed to lighten up. After that article came out, however, several people in the community reached out to me who feel the same way I do—that there is a culture of silence around drinking and drug use in the North that renders some destructive, even abusive, behaviours untouchable. As one long-time Dawsonite said in a blog post following my story, Northerners expect each other to excuse toxic drinking behaviour and to refuse to do so and speak critically about it results in wholesale social denial, which is “like being gaslit by an entire community.”

If everyone’s drinking is problematic then no one’s drinking is problematic.

I realize now that this, coupled with the drinking culture of service I’ve lived in most of my adult life, has left a blind spot in my judgement. I don’t know what normal drinking even is.

Which is probably why I don’t know problem-drinking until it’s calling me at midnight, crying and asking to sleep with other people.

When the break finally came, it was explosive. Having barely contained my hurt and frustration for so long, I was vicious. I am ashamed of the harsh things I said. I slept with someone else just to hurt her.

Because Sam drank, I no longer trusted her. Because I had stopped telling Sam what she wanted to hear, she no longer trusted me. She repeated the same refrain over and over: It’s not my drinking. It’s not my drinking. It’s not my drinking.

I asked Sam flatly if she was choosing drinking over me.

I don’t want drinking to be like this—a third person in my relationships, a shadow which trails behind me. I don’t want to ask that question anymore. I don’t want to ever be asked that question.

In the end, Sam chose drinking. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but it at least helped me see my own drinking and the drinking culture in my community more clearly. In some ways, I don’t really blame Sam for her choice. Drinking is easy, and I’m not an easy person to love—at least, not as easy as a bottle of bourbon. What’s hard—what’s really hard—is not the part where you stop drinking; it’s leaving behind what drinking really means.

Drinking isn’t really about drinking. It’s about remaking yourself as you wish you were, of maintaining the illusion of possibility when you feel that nothing is possible.

It’s about retreating to a world in which things don’t hurt so goddamn much.

I know. I’ve done it. I still do it, sometimes. I will probably do it again. I’m not alone in that.

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