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June 10, 2009

The Drinking Diaries: Go Ahead, Have Another

Four women plumb their own complicated relationships with alcohol.

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woman with a drink at a bar

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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"MY BOYFRIEND'S ABSTINENCE WAS A BUZZ-KILL."
Lauren Streib, 25

For the record, I'm not much of a party girl. On a typical Friday night, I'm in bed by 10 o'clock with a stack of magazines. But every other weekend, I reward myself for carving out a fledgling career in New York City by hitting the town hard, joining my friends for a night of full-throttle bar-hopping until last call, then capping it off with a greasy burger at a diner. It's my version of debauchery. And for a while, it was Drew's, too.

Drew and I met in North Carolina. I was a college senior three weeks shy of graduation; he was a university administrator five years my senior. His easy wit, honed by years of improv comedy, instantly drew me in. The courtship was fast—two months after we met, I moved to Manhattan, where I'd found an entry-level job as an assistant to a media honcho. Drew flew in to help me move, carrying boxes up three flights of stairs to my cramped Brooklyn studio. A month later he quit his job, moved to New York, and my first apartment became ours.

The transition wore on Drew. When he wasn't working, he watched TV, played online poker, or hung out at pubs. It wasn't long before I was regularly helping to prop up his 6-foot frame as he slid off his bar stool, the umpteen pints of beer transforming my usually playful fella into a snarky boor. It went on like this for several months until, exasperated, I called him out on his excessive drinking. He promised to change, which I assumed meant cutting back. But Drew meant cutting out booze altogether.

The change was swift and absolute. He wouldn't join me for drinks after work and took offense if I even brought home a bottle of wine. Drew's new spartan routine felt chilly and rigid; it was as if I were suddenly sleeping with a marine in basic training. I missed the old Drew.

A few months later, I invited him to be my plus-one at a party for my boss. I was giddy at the thought of finally introducing him to my colleagues. But Drew never showed. When I confronted him afterward, he said he didn't want to be around all that drinking. I stood there, speechless, unsure whether to praise his resolve or rip into him for being such a self-centered wuss. Then it occurred to me: Drew's abstinence had become the ultimate buzz-kill. Once he stopped drinking, our relationship lost its fizz.

Drew moved out not long after that. We agreed that we just weren't on the same page anymore. His sobriety made me realize that, yes, at this stage in my life, I want a partner game for a raucous night out. Now and again, when I'm shuffling home at dawn, spent from another Saturday all-nighter, I reach for my cell phone, thinking I might call Drew and convince him to grab my flats and meet me at our old subway stop, as he'd done so many times before. And then I remember how much more fun it was tag-teaming on our all-nighters, shuffling home together at dawn.

"I DRINK TO UNWIND, OF COURSE."
Jessica Henderson, 32

If bar-hopping on weekends were a martial art, I'd no doubt be dubbed a tipsy Mr. Miyagi, replete with a black belt in flip cup. So when I whimsically wondered aloud what it would be like to stay bone-dry sober for 30 days (kind of like the way I've wondered whether Elvish is really a language), I was surprised when my friends double-dared me to do it. And thanks to a fierce competitive streak—and because we were well into our third round of drinks—I accepted the challenge. For the next 30 days, I trumpeted, I would be a Betty Ford Clinic of one.

The next morning, I instantly regretted it. I drink to unwind, of course, but really, to connect with my friends. Over cocktails, we commiserate about our teeny apartments, speculate where Brangelina's next baby will come from, self-medicate after a particularly gruesome date. No booze would obliterate my social life. So I consoled myself with sunny thoughts of how much healthier and more productive I'd be, alcohol-free. I envisioned the stack of cash I'd save, the pounds I'd drop (buh-bye, carb-packed microbrews), all the extra time I'd have to finish household projects I'd constantly put off.

But just one week in, I realized that sobriety wasn't all I'd imagined. I pretended to enjoy nights out with the gals as they guzzled vodka sodas and I sipped my Diet Coke. But it turns out, there's no sadder, more miserable spectacle than that of a dive bar just before midnight as seen through the eyes of the sober one: sloppy girls in too-short skirts, macho guys with bad haircuts, sticky floors, spotty glasses, a maddeningly loud jukebox playing the entire Ace of Base catalog. I almost threw myself out of the bar.

Sobriety didn't earn me bundles of time or money, either. I frittered away hours catching up on mindless TV, like What Not to Wear. Though I managed to hit the gym a few more smug Saturdays than usual, I was also eating out more—trading that glass of wine for a rich dessert. After work, all those happy-hour-free evenings meant I had time for sale-rack scouring. In a week, I spent more on clothes than I ever would have spent on drinks. The only upside to my abstinence was the realization that my life was way too frenetic and overscheduled. I spent so much time maintaining a buzzy career and social life that I never allowed myself time to just be.

Four weeks later, I won the bet, and my friends rewarded me with, yes, a boozy night on the town. They pressed me for insight into how I survived, as if I'd landed a plane on the Hudson River. It wasn't the booze I missed, I told them, so much as the camaraderie. Our addled evenings tease out the candor and silliness tucked beneath our layers of clothes and attitude. And nothing signals the transition from work-time to my-time as quickly as the walk from the front door to the bar. Strange as it sounds, drinking with the girls centers me. Hey, that whole "wax on, wax off" thing doesn't work for everyone.

"AT HAPPY HOUR, I'M ONE OF THE GUYS."
Lauren Iannotti, 34

Jameson's on the rocks, please." I said it nonchalantly, to convey to the male colleague standing next to me at the bar that, yes, I do this all the time, no big deal. I also used the possessive as I'd heard real Irish drinkers do—that was for the bartender. It garnered the desired response: He nodded approvingly. I was one of a handful of women in a very male office, but when it came to happy hour, I was one of the guys.

My need to hold my own among the boys, booze-wise, dates back to high school. I remember watching a Bud commercial with my older brother that featured a tall blonde holding a longneck. "There's nothing cooler than a hot chick drinking a bottle of Bud," he said. That was all I needed to hear. I did my first keg stand at a backyard post-prom party, after all the other girls demurred. In college, I went beer-for-beer with bruisers from the football team who had 100 pounds on me. I often hid how drunk I really was, because God help me if I ever became that Fuzzy Navel—slurping drunk girl who stumbled out of parties into a puddle of her own sobs. Nope, not me. I drank as a feminist statement, to prove that I was on equal footing with men. Also: I really wanted them to like me.

When I landed my first big job, I listened intently when my whiskey-sipping dandy of a boss—his desk outfitted with a collection of bottles—offered this pearl: "A person should have a signature drink, something seasonal." It was winter, a time for dark spirits, he said. He poured me a glass and motioned for me to sit. I loved how each sip burned a bit, like when you're in front of a fire and your face gets a little hot. But more than that, I loved how he smiled when I asked him to make the next one a double.

Studies show that people who drink earn up to 14 percent more than those who don't. In our office, this seemed about right—the only guys who abstained were the recovering alcoholics and the been-there-done-that dads. The rest of us would raise a glass on the premises at least once a week. I was always game, drinking whatever they were pouring.

But I began to realize that for every boss I impressed with my taste for the dark stuff, there was one I disappointed by being a bit slow the next day. I found myself smearing on undereye concealer—and were those lines forming over the dark circles?—before choking down an egg sandwich and powering through my day, wired and edgy. So one evening when colleagues tried to coax me out for a quick drink as I was preparing an important presentation, I actually declined. Later, I thought of them kicking back at our favorite bar, without me, and I surprised myself by being kind of OK with it. Drinking had become my all-access pass to an exclusive men's club, but did it have anything to do with my intelligence, my skills, what I was capable of on the job?

Now I work with mostly women who don't seem that impressed with my hairy-chested drinking ways. On our occasional nights out, my new colleagues order Chardonnay, sweet vodka concoctions, even—gasp!—pink drinks, which loosen them up for unfiltered office gossip just fine. They get what they want, regardless of who's watching. And I do, too. Walk up to the bar, ask for a Jameson's, and savor being one of the girls.

"I WAS A HIGH-FUNCTIONING ALCOHOLIC."
Sara Cox, 39

My drinking became a problem after college. I'd gotten a job as a high-school teacher—a difficult profession for an alcoholic, because you have to be ready to go when those kids walk in at 7:45 a.m. I'd wake up feeling miserable and then have to entertain teenagers for eight hours. It was brutal. So I planned all my benders around vacations and personal days, going out the night before, drinking a bottle of wine or a 12-pack of beer, then spending the next day recuperating. Once I was pulled over for a DUI. I was petrified that school administrators would find out and I'd lose my job. They never did. But interacting with kids that early in the morning got old fast. After seven years, I gave up teaching.

That's when I became a real-estate broker—the perfect job for an alcoholic since you make your own hours. I'd drink, sleep in, then go to work. I'm married with two young children, and my relationships with them suffered badly during this period. I'd rush my kids to bed just so I could start drinking on our patio. My husband would come home to find me blacked out in a chair. Obviously, no one drinks to feel like that, but the alcohol almost magically dissolved all my insecurities—about the kind of mother I was, about my career and my marriage. I couldn't even imagine dealing with anyone without a glass of something in my hand. In my experience, a lot of alcoholics are high-functioning. We're driven and we overcompensate for all the time wasted recovering from hangovers. I was a very successful realtor—I made five times what I did as a teacher. I can't tell you how many contracts I negotiated over a beer. But last year, when the real-estate market crashed, I started drinking all the time, and I just couldn't bear the thought of what it was doing to my kids to see me like that. I finally joined an online support group last summer and started going to AA meetings. I've been sober for five months and counting.

I'm now an event planner for a large restaurant. I'm so much more productive sober—I make all my morning appointments and am kicking butt. My relationship with my family is a hundred times better. I used to fly off the handle so quickly. Now I'm so much more easygoing. For me, it's all about planning for those triggers: You know your husband is going to piss you off again; you know your coworkers are going to happy hour. So what's the plan? I check in with the online support group once or twice a day. That's my plan right now.

The Consequences of All Those Cocktails
Even casual drinking exacts a toll on the body over time. We checked in with the experts to assess the cumulative effect that years of tippling have on your skin, memory, and metabolism.
By Jihan Thompson

20-somethings
DRINKING STYLE: You yo-yo between after-work white wines and Stoli-soaked weekends.

THE DAMAGE
Memory: Excessive drinking hinders the brain's ability to convert short-term memories into long-term ones. Over time you may forget small but important details, like passwords.

Weight: A few high-calorie mixers in a single night won't tip the scale. It's the reckless choices inspired by a boozy outing (the lumberjack brunch the next morning) that will.

Judgment: We've all been there, drunk-texting the ex after a long night out. But binge drinkers may make even riskier choices—like showing up on his doorstep—according to researchers at the University of Missouri—Columbia.

Sexual Health: Your chances of getting an STD at this age increase, largely because you're more sexually active and prone to binge drinking.v
Skin: Consider cutting back on booze if you're battling blackheads: Alcohol undermines your skin's ability to defend itself against bacterial infections.

30-somethings
DRINKING STYLE: You routinely get tipsy at after-work schmoozefests.

THE DAMAGE
Fertility: Social drinking won't make you infertile, but it can inhibit egg production. Consistent, heavy drinking can mess with your menstrual cycle and endocrine system.

Skin: That flushed look you get after a couple of martinis is caused by dilated blood vessels in the face, which can actually prompt skin capillaries to break, leaving your skin blotchy and red.

Brainpower: Chronic social drinkers whose consumption is a third of their daily caloric intake experience deteriorated motor skills, even after they've been sober for a day or so, according to a study by Toronto's Rotman Research Institute. In other words, you wouldn't want to drive behind someone who'd been out drinking every night of the week.

Hair: Your locks aren't immune to alcohol's dehydrating effects. You'll increase your risk for unsightly split ends when indulging in other damaging routines like blowouts and highlights.

40-somethings
DRINKING STYLE: Even a glass of wine with dinner has you reeling the next day.

THE DAMAGE
Weight: Fat absorbs alcohol, and since your fat-to-muscle ratio typically rises as you get older, you'll feel the onset of a hangover sooner than you once did in your younger, leaner years.

Cancer: A recent study by Oxford University found that after two drinks, every serving of alcohol consumed per day dramatically increased a woman's risk for breast cancer.

Brainpower: Even low to moderate drinking among middle-aged adults can lead to a decrease in brain size and diminished cognitive skills, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

Vision: Alcohol reduces contrast sensitivity in your vision, according to a study from the University of Western Ontario. If you enjoy a cocktail with lunch, you may find that objects appear faint, even in broad daylight.

Digestive System: Imbibe three drinks a day, and you'll increase your risk of developing mouth and esophageal cancers.


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