Posts Tagged ‘wine’

Very happy to have been reviewed by Kirkus Indie:


“Hollenstein (Understanding Dietary Supplements, 2007) makes it clear from the start that her book has none of the drama of typical addiction memoirs. She has no harrowing, cinematic rock-bottom moment to report, for example; instead, she focuses on her slow realization that “[a]lcohol numbed both [her] pain and [her] joy.” This quiet process of introspection, however, proves to be just as engaging as any tale of alcohol-induced havoc. Hollenstein writes eloquently of the complex role that alcohol once played in her life, and her insights into drinking’s cultural currency are especially sharp. Of alcohol’s transformative power, for example, she writes: “Champagne with oysters transported me to Paris….I drank whiskey to express my saltier side.””

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wineFull disclosure: I don’t drink anymore. More than 6 years ago, on my 33rd birthday, I drank my last glass of wine. It wasn’t particularly memorable except for the fact that it marked what I sometimes think of as the beginning of my new life. More on that later.

For many years before that last drink, and ever since, I have spent a lot of time thinking about alcohol and drinking. Before I quit, that thinking came from a place of guilt and shame, and the mounting worry that I had a drinking problem. Since I quit, my thinking about alcohol has been more objective; it has come from a place of curiosity rather than obsession. And it is from that place that I would like to share some potentially unpopular, but very honest, thoughts about drinking.

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“The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there’s no ground.” ~Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche


It’s been two months since my job ended. Since then I have tried to bring the structure of my working life into the vast abyss of my unemployment. Somehow I fill my days with errands and small tasks that must have gone uncompleted when I was working. That and I watch a lot of bad TV. I’ve become mildly obsessed with doing everything right – working out 5 times a week, cooking a variety of nutritious meals, using up all the produce in the fridge before it goes bad, getting the best price on bananas. At the end of the day I’m often not sure what happened. But I feel exhausted.

By filling in the time, I haven’t really been dealing with the fact that I’m confused and uncertain and scared. I guess I have felt this way for much of my life. Like a lot of people, I want to understand the meaning of life, the meaning of my life. To find a way to live that makes me relatively happy and also makes the world a little better when I leave it. I have tried on different personas to see how they fit. One of those personas involved drinking – the wine-savvy dietitian, the friend who was always ready for a cocktail. Before I quit drinking more than 5 years ago, it seemed that alcohol had become so intertwined with my very personality, I wasn’t sure what would remain in its absence. As it turned out, that wasn’t who I was at all.

Since then, and especially since I began to practice meditation, the question of who I am has become all the more poignant, scary, and unclear. As I unraveled the layers of behaviors and habits, there seemed to be less and less there. And yet I have felt more and more myself.

The other day I was standing on the corner of 60th and Lex waiting to go down into the subway. It was raining and I was on the phone with my meditation instructor, who was telling me not to be afraid of my confusion and lack of ground. As often happens when I hear something that feels purely true, I had tears in my eyes.

During the next few days, I realized that the things I’ve done in my life that have felt the most important – falling in love, working on myself in therapy, rebuilding a once-shaky relationship with my parents, quitting drinking, even writing this blog – I’ve done from a place of utter vulnerability. In each instance, I felt I had bottomed out, in a good way. That I was out of rationalizations, that I could only listen to my heart, take a risk, drop expectations, and see what came of it. I never knew how these things would turn out. It’s only in retrospect that each feels momentous.

So perhaps my confusion now is not something to shake or beat into submission. Perhaps, if I allow myself to feel its full weight, its bottomless-seeming depth, it will allow me to see what I need to see.



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La France sans alcool

When anticipating my recent business trip to France, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to speak the language. Though I studied French for some 12 years, I feared that learning Italian during the last year would erase my French memory and that when I opened my mouth to communicate, Italian words would come out. What I did not anticipate, surprisingly, was being surrounded by the temptation of incredible French wines, spirits, and ales. Somehow I had forgotten to worry about this.

In the nearly 5 years since I quit drinking I have found that some of the most difficult moments are the 15 to 20 minutes at the beginning of a meal with friends or colleagues while they select their pre-meal cocktails and discuss what wine to have with dinner. Ordering a seltzer with lime or some fruit juice-sparking water combination, or creating the physical barrier of hand flat atop wine glass to signal my abstention, often elicits at least a friendly raised eyebrow if not a verbalized “you’re not drinking?” to which I must decide if I will respond “Nope” or “I don’t drink anymore” or “it’s a condition of my parole.”

In France, however, where I have not been since I quit drinking, the presence of wine and other alcohols seems much more continuous. Beginning with the assumption by flight attendants that a glass of wine will be consumed with whatever the airline has decided to place on a 8×10 inch plastic tray for dinner. Extending to lengthy lunches that are much more likely than those in the US to include wine. To the sumptuous dinners – especially in Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France and therefore the world – where the meal begins with an aperitif, continues with carefully selected wines, and often finishes with a digestif.

I am sure that France has it’s share of abstainers from alcohol, from alcoholics to a significant Muslim population, but the responses I received to my usual wine-decline seemed a touch more surprised. What’s a nice girl like you doing not enjoying some of our best national product?

Of course, this could just have been my projection on a people I longed to emulate from an early age, a sort of shame in response to not being able to enjoy alcohol in moderate quantities as the life- and meal-enhancing element it was meant to be.

Surrounded by people seemingly enjoying wine and other alcohols so “normally,” I wondered to myself, as I sometimes do, will I ever be able to have just one glass of wine? When I recall my earlier attempts at moderating my alcohol intake, how they all failed and yet it seemed I just hadn’t found the right moderation management technique yet, I see this delusion for what it is.

Though I take my sobriety one day at a time, I realize I probably will never be able to enjoy moderate alcohol consumption in my lifetime. That the enjoyment is in fact so brief before it crosses the line into guilt, shame, and loss of control, removes some (but not all) of its appeal. And so during those moments when others are anticipating their first sips and I’m sitting there holding my breath, I remind myself to inhale and exhale, to watch my desire to drink rise, abide, and dissolve. And to take special pleasure in enjoying my morning coffee with a sense of clarity, not remorse.

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Over the years, I did a lot of reading about drinking and alcohol abuse. Let’s face it: you can’t swing a bottle of Jameson without knocking over another alcoholism memoir. My shelf is full of them. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Lit, by Mary Karr
  • Parched, by Heather King
  • Dry, by Augusten Burroughs
  • A Drinking Life, by Pete Hamill
  • Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott
  • Drinking: A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp
  • Loaded: Women and Addiction, by Jill Talbot
  • Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, by Koren Zailckas
  • Blackout Girl: Growing Up and Drying Out in America, by Jennifer Storm

Each of these stories hit a nerve, sometimes several. There was always something I connected with viscerally: rotating my patronage of wine and liquor stores so I never rose to the status of “regular”; a heightened awareness of the drink in front of me and the realization that not everyone was having such a complicated relationship with alcohol; the unsuccessful attempts at cutting back and watching the pendulum swing ever more violently between teetotaler and heavy daily drinker.

But as I read the last words and closed the back cover of each story, I’d think to myself, that was amazing, but it’s just not me. I kept coming back to bookstores, hoping that some day I’d find the story about the person who fell somewhere in the murky gray area between the true moderate social drinker and the falling down drunk, who never had a DUI, arrest, or major injury, who either finally got control of her drinking or decided to quit. I’ve yet to find it.

Would a story like that even get published? Would it be entertaining enough? Part of what makes the stories out there so successful is the hijinks the authors got into while wasted, the extreme highs and lows that are at once hilarious and shocking.

Then I think about all of the people I’ve spoken to over the years who have had questions about their drinking that were similar to mine. And the people who’ve commented on my blog so far. And the ones I know are out there and who probably have questions or know something is not quite right but might not have said the words out loud yet.

The young mother who feels completely overwhelmed and can’t wait until 5 pm so she can have a glass of wine, perhaps even thinking that drinking makes her a better mom. The man or woman who’s not quite on the career path he or she had hoped and is not sure how to change course, so each unsatisfying workday ends with cocktails at a local bar. The shy 35-year-old single guy who can’t imagine dating without a drink in hand or the 50-something divorcee who goes home every night to no one but a bottle.

That’s why I’m taking the risk of sharing, exposing, and quite possibly embarrassing myself. In case you were wondering. I know there’s a story here.

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