Last week, my boyfriend brought home a bottle of 10-year-old single-malt scotch. We keep alcohol in the house – wine, gin, beer, and Italian liqueurs – and so far it hasn’t been a problem. Scotch never appealed to me. But for some reason, this lone bottle had a different effect than all the others that have come and gone without issue (or relapse).
The night he brought it home, my boyfriend poured a meager amount into an ice-filled glass, and sipped at it leisurely. When I caught a whiff, it turned my stomach, and transported me. The smoky-oakiness of the scotch reminded me of my last night in Oaxaca about 10 years ago, a night when I drank far too much mezcal and ate nothing but the accompanying orange wedges and a handful of cayenne-fried crickets (yes, crickets). On the overnight bus ride back to Mexico City, I threw up into a bag of souvenirs I’d purchased from Oaxacan artisans, surrounded by what I’d imagine were several native Mexicans rolling their eyes: Dumb drunk gringa.
Like a lot of my darkest drinking moments, this happened while I was alone, or at least not surrounded by people I knew and who could hold me accountable. This is partially what allowed me to convince myself that I didn’t have a problem and to continue drinking for so many years.
A few days after my mental Mexican journey, my boyfriend left for the second-to-last of several work-related trips. He packed his things and got on yet another airplane, obviously leaving the nearly full bottle of scotch sitting on our kitchen counter.
Alone on the couch that night, I felt bored and lonely and in desperate need of distraction. I ate an unsatisfying meal purchased from the market and watched end-to-end episodes of Wallander, Project Runway, and Hannibal. Still, a feeling of dissatisfaction and emptiness persisted and I craved something to fill the void.
I was very aware of the bottle of scotch on the kitchen counter. Even though the smell and taste bordered on nauseating, I was acutely aware of the potential to be found in that bottle.
The concept of satisfaction has been on my mind lately. Having reread the new edition of Intuitive Eating, I was reminded of my own tendency to make consumption-related decisions in response to external stimuli. For example, eating foods I consider “good” as opposed to “bad,” eating at conventional mealtimes regardless of physical hunger, and the tendency to disregard my desire for certain foods in favor of what I “should” be eating.
In some ways, drinking alcohol was very satisfying to me. Without it, I recognize that I often feel deprived. What I choose to eat and drink is thereby often in response to this feeling of deprivation. Whereas I could make up for an unsatisfying meal by having an extra glass of wine in the past, that same unsatisfying meal now feels more troubling, and there is a greater sense of urgency to find something that satisfies me. I now have a tendency to purchase expensive indulgences like imported artichoke hearts, Marcona almonds, macadamia nuts, and fine dark chocolate in an attempt to substitute them for the missing indulgence (and satisfaction) of drinking.
If someone so much as suggests that I stop drinking coffee for some reason, I hear myself vehemently scoffing, I’ve given up enough! I’ve certainly emptied more breadbaskets and consumed more desserts since I stopped drinking, not to mimic the physiologic effects of alcohol’s sugar content but as a psychological substitute, a reward for teetotaling.
Some friends of mine gave up drinking for a year or more and now are able to drink moderately. I envy them but don’t dare try it for myself because I fear nothing has changed in my relationship with alcohol except for the choice not to drink it. While I miss drinking a glass of wine while cooking or having a cocktail with friends and family, I also miss drinking alone, on lonely, bored nights like the one I described above. I miss nursing my feelings of dejection, like wrapping myself in a warm blanket to ward off the cold. I miss the privacy of it and the indulgence of finishing a bottle of wine without any judgmental onlookers.
If I were to start drinking again, I’m fairly certain I would rely on external stimuli to determine how much I drank, for example, controlling the amount of alcohol I have in the house, something that becomes more difficult when you live with someone who can drink moderately and does not have to limit available quantities.
This is all to say that for all my thinking and writing about Buddhism, impermanence, and learning to become comfortable with discomfort, I still miss booze. It is true that if I sit with the discomfort and the desire, the moment eventually passes. But by no means have I meditated away my desire to drink. It is something I think about regularly and for good reason: by keeping it front of mind, by noticing the different drinking behaviors that distinguish my boyfriend’s healthy relationship with alcohol and my abusive one, perhaps I reduce the risk of being blind-sighted by a relapse.
I should say that I resisted the bottle of scotch that night and every night since. It’s still sitting there, the level dropping by a half-inch or so every couple of nights as my boyfriend enjoys it moderately. I, on the other hand, am still learning to sit with the knowledge that I’m different and the awareness that not drinking is one of the tradeoffs that comes as a result of being honest with myself.