Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Looking for a Disorder

"Perhaps we should explore David's drinking. The conscious and unconscious reasons for it."

So said our - my husband Mark's and mine - couples counselor Tony. I like him. Natty and trim. He uses his hands like an orchestra conductor to slow, start, and pause our dialogue. He has the kind of haircut that looks like it gets a weekly trim and he peers out at us through glasses with prominent black frames.

Mark and I sit close to each other, side-by-side, on a small leather sofa-ette, which I tend to slip lower and lower toward the edge of the seat. The room itself is carved out of an old New York building without any symetry in the walls, like an aimless parallelogram.

His statement was both a cross-reference to another session and also a nonsequiter within the session.

For context: Tony and I had a one-on-one session two weeks prior, as part of our course of couples therapy. He had brought up drinking then, which had made me uncomfortable.

"If we talk about this, I feel, it then becomes a problem and I don't see it that way."

Look, I drink, but I'm not an alcholic, I thought.

Tony is adept and empathetic so he'd reframed the discussion (which is something he does well): "Let's not talk about it as a problem. Let's just address it as a thing. Something to explore. Perhaps there is something there worth understanding without vilifying it. You do like to drink

"Well, yes," I'd admitted. "Some wine..."

"How much?"

"Mark and I may drink a bottle with dinner."

"And cocktails?"

"Occasionally and moderately."

(Watching "Mad Men" does give me the urge to pour a few whiskeys on the rocks, while I watch it Sunday nights.)

"It's funny. I don't drink to get drunk or even to feel anything. I just like the ritual of it. Wine with dinner, unwinding at the end of the day."

And...I'm not drinking alone. Mark is there too, so why why am I the focus on this investigation? I ponder.

"Do you think- and perhaps just consider this - that it serves any other purpose?"

I sat for a moment and let the quiet settle in my head to see if something would reveal itself to me...about me. It did: "Perhaps, maybe it is an effort to anesthetize myself, a bit. A little. Just to keep the lid on..."

What I then conveyed and we further explored was that the wine keeps whatever anger and frustrations I may have in my marriage depressed. Not suppressed. Let's say less than fully expressed, like a burner turned down to simmer so the pot never boils over.

* * *

My dear friend Angela sent me an email this week apologizing for having "one too many" at my 40th birthday party last Sunday. She had given me the loveliest of toasts but she'd felt as if it meandered and went on a bit too long. She was also holding a baby - not her own, who (true to his disposition) was named "Cool" - during the tribute and he seemed to weigh her down as she spoke. (To read this from her perspective, go to Angela's column on the Huffington Post.)

As I read Angela's email, I immediately thought, what is one too many? The threshold is individual and defined by the consequences. If no one gets hurt and you make it to work the next morning without neglecting your spouse and children then you're no drunk in my estimation.

That occurred to me again when another friend wrote to tell me that she'd sent her husband of 25 years packing after Labor Day because of his long-term alcohol problem. She wrote that she felt like a pot insulting the kettle because she can drink. We used to work together and we'd go out on outings where she would get blitzed. In those instances she was always more of the loveliest parts of herself - more affectionate, more complimentary - and always upright and able to walk herself out at the end of the night.

It is useful to understand that we were both working in a Sales organization where professional drinking should really be a skill listed in the job description.

Her husband has since joined AA for the residue of his past sins will keep him out of their house for the foreseeable future.

* * *

In an earlier session, perhaps a month ago, Mark and I were exploring with Tony an interruption in - shall we say - physical intimacy.

So there had been a break in that interruption. There was a discussion about whether it counted because it had occurred after a night out on the town where we had imbibed a considerable amount of booze.

"Look." Tony paused our quibbling with the flat of his palm. "Sometimes alcohol is a social lubricant right? We do things, or we allow ourselves to do things when we've been drinking that we would otherwise not. Are the circumstances ideal? Sometimes if you wait for the optimal place and time and vibe, you can die waiting. Let's just - and I'm only suggesting that we consider this - let's 'celebrate' this." (And he did make air quotes on "celebrate" god bless him.) "Perhaps alcohol got you to it, but it happened and that's a good thing."

We each sat there silent, considering this prospect that alcohol is not always the villain.

* * *

Wine, beer, cocktails. Alcohol. We pour it out. We bring it to our lips. And we set down the glass when we're done drinking. It can be a balm or an agent for action.

We are so eager to vilify our own behavior that we go hunting for disfunction or tease it out of the obvious suspects, like alcohol. Marriage can be tough. If I gave voice to every frustration or passing gripe, my marriage would have ended years ago. The danger, however, being that perhaps the glasses of wine leave my thoughts muffled indiscriminately - the mundane and the critical subdued into inertia.

After all that pot that has been turned down to simmer may never boil over but it is still filled with scalding, hot water.

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