Psychologists call it being “parentified,” when a child is forced to be the “parent” to herself and siblings, and often to her own parents too. This doesn’t have to be the result of abject abuse or neglect; it can occur when a child’s parent or parents simply don’t have the capacity or inclination to give her the protection and nurturing she needs at a young age. So, the child must parent herself.
This was the case for me.
My dad left when I was about 2-years-old — a drunk — and my mom — a bank teller raising two small girls — did all she could just to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. And attachment theory wasn’t a thing in the 70s. So…
As it turns out, when kids are parentified, they often spend their lives searching for that feeling of belonging and self-worth. They often struggle to be able to self-soothe and comfort themselves in a mature and healthy way, because they never learned how. I haven’t read any books on this yet (at the suggestion of a good friend, I just ordered one and it’s on its way), but I’ve heard enough in my group therapy to realize that this is huge for me.
And a huge reason I drank.
One thing is clear since I finally quit drinking: I’ve had to face the reasons I was drinking too much, and they stem all the way back to my feelings of belonging. Being included and a part of a tribe. Being accepted and feeling worthy.
I’m 206 days alcohol-free today, and this week, for the first time since I quit 6-1/2 months ago, I almost drank.
I was at a work/team off-site at a beautiful resort in Florida. I just adore my work colleagues, and we work hard and have a lot of fun together. They have also seen me drink quite a bit in the past, as we had big trips abroad (Italy! Europe!) together to launch projects, or have had other team outings where red wine is always an integral part of the program.
It was the fourth night of long days of meetings and fun, and we were all sitting around a fire pit under the stars. They were all drinking expensive red wine and the glasses were refilling fast. Finally, the conversation came around again to asking why I wasn’t drinking. I know we sober folks like to think that drinkers don’t even notice when we aren’t drinking, and sometimes that’s true. But this time, I stuck out like a sore purple thumb.
Over the last few days I’d been fending off their questions, telling them I was off alcohol “for a year” because I wanted to mitigate the perception with my colleagues, and honestly, I’m not really ready to say out loud to anyone that I have quit forever. So, I figured I’d tell them a half-truth: Alcohol was making me feel like shit, so I quit for 100 days. When I got to 100 days, I decided to keep going to a year. I’m over half way there.
I suppose I could have left the situation and gone back to my room, but I just didn’t want to be left out of this experience. This is the bonding time and the inside stories time, and I wanted to be a part of it. I thought I could be a part of it, with my sparkling water and cranberry juice, but I quickly wanted something more interesting to drink (there wasn’t anything) or some way to blend in a little better (there was no where to hide).
Maybe they sensed my wavering, my discomfort, my desire to dance on the edge of both worlds, because they turned up the volume a bit. They pressed deeper, questioning why I would quit for so long, and teasing me about it. It was meant in fun, but all eyes were on me, all attention was on me, and while it had been moderately sucky before, as an introvert who doesn’t love so much attention, now it was almost unbearable.
So, I got up and walked inside. I was going to do it. A glass of wine wouldn’t kill me and I could deal with telling my sober therapy group and my sober friends tomorrow. It was more important to me in that moment to belong and relieve the pressure than to not drink. It was more important to stay part of the pack.
And something else was also true: Sitting around a fire pit, under the stars, drinking a beautiful glass of red wine out of a beautiful glass, laughing with good friends, is one of my most favorite things to do in life. It was, anyway. It’s what some call a “peak moment.” This was a peak moment of my life and I was unable to fully enjoy it because I was hating the sparkling water and cranberry juice I was drinking, and I was not fully “in” because I was drinking it.
I can hear what you’re probably thinking: It’s not the wine that gives us joy in those situations. It’s not the wine that defines our belonging.
Believe me, I’ve had enough therapy around this and I’ve read enough blogs and posts and books to totally get it.
And yet…in that moment, there was nothing else but that. It was a primal need to belong and bond with my tribe.
I came back outside with the glass. “Alright,” I said. “I’ll have a glass.”
The tone shifted. One of my colleagues who I have shared a lot of laughs with, including over lots of red wine, reached up to put his hand on my forearm.
“Wait. Have you really not had a drink in over 6 months?”
No, I haven’t.
“Well then don’t break your streak for THIS,” he said, and he gestured toward the fire pit. “Don’t do it for this.”
Another colleague spoke up, “Did you make a promise to yourself that you would be breaking if you drank tonight?”
I nodded. Yes, I did.
“Well then don’t do it. Don’t break your promise to yourself. Don’t drink tonight.”
I looked at them now and they all looked back a me a bit sheepishly. They were on my side. I turned on my heel and put the wine glass back on the kitchen counter. I wouldn’t be needing it tonight.
That was the first time since I quit drinking that my resolve actually dropped. I’ve had days with strong urges, days when my mood was bad or I wanted to disappear or stuff feelings or I felt like I wasn’t sure I would be doing this forever, but I always knew even if it sucked, I wasn’t going to drink. This was the first time I was actually tempted, or actually, more than tempted; this time I was going to do it.
But I didn’t.
And the silver lining is that it brought into stark relief what I really need to focus on. The work I have to do.
It brought into focus that I’m not convinced.
I have powerful issues around a need for belonging. And self-worth. I have work to do around intimacy and letting myself be vulnerable. I have powerful associations with wine as part of what is the “best of life,” and the peak, best moments of my life have almost always included wine. Not wine to excess, just wine as one element of many. I conjure those moments in my mind and they represent:
And so much more…
Do I really want to give that up for the better life that could be? For the “miracle” that still hasn’t come?
Some have told me that the miracle turns out to be real connection and joy in the small moments of everyday. Being awake for life. Present in it.
Yes, I’m sure that is so. And maybe that is the work I need to do, now that I can see it, working on true intimacy and connection with those around me.
No, I can’t be disappearing into a bottle of wine every night and think I’m going to also work on my inner self. Ain’t gonna happen.
But this is part of the challenge of being a “high bottom” drinker. Nothing really bad ever happened, but I felt like I was blotting out my light. After experiencing trauma about five years ago (and after an emotionally abusive marriage), I was drinking to stuff it all down. I wasn’t doing the work of healing.
Now… TRIGGER WARNING. This is me working shit out in writing and I wouldn’t want to cause unease in anyone who is unsure about quitting or staying quit. We are all on our own journeys. We each have our own needs.
And this is the risk of thinking I can go back to drinking at some point. That I’ll have learned enough in “My Year of Sobriety,” on what will certainly be a lifetime assignment toward feeling belonging and vulnerability, that I can dip my toe in again.
That my journey will have changed my path.
My ninja group therapist must have sniffed a bit of this on me yesterday when she went straight in for the kill. She (kindly, lovingly) said that the thing about those of us who got to the place of using alcohol as “dangerously misguided self-care” is that once we’ve crossed that line, there almost always is no going back. What was a friend (alcohol) is no longer a friend.
There’s no going back to just being a normal drinker.
- I know there is a freedom in not having the negotiation of whether or not to drink (or how much to drink) in any given situation. I do that with food already, and it does get so, so tiring, but would it be different now with wine?
- Yes, I’ve read ALL THE THINGS (seriously, ALL the things) that say drinkers always think they can moderate and they can’t. Yes, I tried to before too and it never worked very well. But moderating wasn’t my issue, stuffing down my feelings with wine was, and what I really needed to do was get to the root of WHY I was abusing alcohol.
- Yes, I hear everyone who says it gets easier to be the non-drinker in the group, but part of me wonders if I’m ever going to really be that person.
- Yes, I know that if I started drinking again and then wanted to quit again, it may be much harder next time.
- Yes, I remember the hangovers and the embarrassing late-night cringe-worthy texts, and the men I shouldn’t have gone to bed with.
- Yes, I don’t want to lose my sober community, whom I am growing to love and feel part of more and more each day.
- Yes, I know that amazing and beautiful moments don’t depend on wine, but so often the wine has been a binding agent in all of it.
- Yes, I know this — all of this work I’m doing — is supposed to be about the BIGGER YES, my higher purpose, the Hero’s Journey, but I’m struggling to see how my life on the whole is better yet. I don’t want to trade the amazing highs for a series of smaller joys. That’s never been the way I’ve lived my life.
Yes, I know how this sounds.
And still… I’m being completely honest here… I just want to belong again.
With this experience I realized that I don’t want to give up those peak moments for the hope of small moments of joy along the way. I want to LIVE and I want to LIVE BIG.
Fuck. Bradley Cooper, where are you when I need you??! 🙂
I am committed to going one year and then checking in with myself.
I’m committed to being open-minded and I will not harbor a secret hope that I can/will drink again in July. The next 5-1/2 months are going to be about 110% self-love and discovery. Doing the work I need to do (to be determined) to get at those core issues around belonging, self-worth, intimacy and vulnerability between now and July.
And how can I use exercise and movement to help me with anxiety and soothing, and to feel more connected to myself?
These are the questions.
I look forward to checking in more often, and if you made it all the way to the bottom, I welcome your thoughts.