One important question to me is, did you lie to your doctor about drinking? Is feels so wrong to ask someone this question, and it's not about hope, but I welcome the opportunity to ask.
When my daughter was six weeks old we – my husband, daughter and I – moved to Colorado. For about three months we lived in the basement of my dad’s house. It was a tough, tough time. My husband was unemployed after just completing his JD/MBA. I had a few freelance gigs but nothing that could support us. We were facing bankruptcy. It was 2010 and the job market was scary bad. We were in our early 30’s with five advanced degrees between us, no money, a dog and a new baby, living in the basement of my dad’s house. I still couldn’t figure out how the fuck to breastfeed.
I stopped being able to eat. One night after our evening ritual of wine with dinner, then more wine for me, I sat on the floor of our room, my back to the side of our bed, scratching the tip of a clothespin across my thigh. Over and over until I drew blood. I kept doing it, curious about the fact that I could barely feel anything. I’m not sure how long I sat there doing this, but eventually my husband walked in and asked, concerned, what the fuck I was doing. I lost it. I started sobbing. Heaving. He held me until I got my breath back and I said, for the first time, that I needed help. Like, real help.
I made my first trip to a psychiatrist the next day. She sat there doing the intake and I told her about all the things I mentioned above: the stresses, the move, the new baby, the loss of appetite. I explained all my symptoms in detail and provided a family history of disease and mental illness. I nodded and smiled, trying to look like someone who was in a lot of pain, but was still alright. What I failed to mention was I’d drank every single night since my daughter was born, even if just a glass of wine or two, but often a lot more. I didn't say that wine seemed to be the only thing keeping me from losing my mind altogether, but that it had stopped working recently, that it only seemed to make me feel more anxious, that this really concerned me. I told her I wasn’t drinking much really, what with the new baby and all, and breastfeeding. She wrote me three prescriptions: one for anxiety, one anti-depressant, and one sleeping med. I never saw her again.
Back in Massachusetts a few months later, when my marriage really started to tailspin, my husband and I each began seeing a therapist. It was a husband and wife team; I saw the wife, he saw the husband. They practiced out of their home and she had the coziest office with a makeshift coffee and tea station, lavender incense and hundreds of books. Her cats would slink around the room during our sessions and once in a while one would settle on my lap. I’d pet it with my shaky hands, relieved for the break in conversation. I'd ask about the cat’s name – What was it again? – feigning interest, willing time to pass by so I could get the fuck out of the room. Most of my appointments were on Saturday or Sunday mornings so I was always at least a little hungover. My heart and mind would be racing like a squirrel on speed and she’d say, “You seem well, you seem calm.” I’d nod, “Yeah, I feel alright, I think I’m making progress.”
I really liked her, too. She was about as good of a therapist as I could’ve had: gentle but direct, inquisitive but not pushy, deeply spiritual, a voracious reader, a meditator, a yogi. The books on the shelves were written by many of the same authors I cherished and had on my own bookshelf: Pema Chodron, Marianne Williamson, Ekhart Tolle, David Hawkins. I really wanted to let her help me. I wanted to begin to uncoil the wretched twist of story in my stomach. I tried and I’d get some of it out, but then choke. I was willing to let her in on 50 or 60 or 70% of the truth about my marriage, what we were facing, how I felt, but I certainly wasn’t willing to talk about how much I drank, even though I had an inkling deep down that it was at the center of all the issues I kept distracting her with.
I eventually stopped going and said it was because of money, which wasn’t a total lie.
A year or so later, when we were nearing separation, I went to the ER after a god awful panic attack I had at work (following a big bender). I lied. Stress. Work. Lack of sleep. New baby. Does this happen often? Nah. A few drinks a week, that’s all.
When I saw my physician, I always lied. My anxiety? Fine. Better now with meds. A few drinks a week, that’s all.
Later, when I got a DUI, and then totaled my car and went to the hospital (and somehow didn’t get another DUI), I lied. I talked about the stress. The lack of sleep. Being a single mom. Newly separated. But my health insurance rejected to cover the hospital visit because a high level of alcohol was detected in my system. Just a few drinks a week, that’s all.
A few months ago I was talking to a dear friend about this and she was so flabbergasted I’d lied to my therapist(s). WHY would you pay money to lie? Just…why? You’re paying this person to help you! I laughed, nodded – I know, it’s insane. It really is.
But the thing is, it’s really hard – and eventually, almost impossible – to hear yourself lying when it’s in your own voice. The denial gets so thick, so congealed to every aspect of your life, you become it. You become the denial. You lose track of what’s true and what’s real. You lose your ability to reason, to think straight, or in accordance with a higher, wiser self. And the truth was, often times there were big, challenging, painful things going on – real issues – that were easy to point to and say, here. This. These are the reasons. This is what needs to be fixed. It wasn’t a lie in my mind, but it was a partial truth, which is really the same as a lie. Cause and effect were all tangled up together. I often saw the drinking as a coping mechanism, not a catalyst. As Caroline Knapp says in Drinking: A Love Story, "You know and you don’t know. You know and you won’t know.” I knew and I didn't. I wouldn't.
So the answer is yes. I lied to everyone. Doctors, therapists, anyone who could’ve helped me – I lied to them all.
This is such an important question because it points to one of the most damaging, pervasive and fundamentally confounding aspects of alcoholism and addiction: dishonesty.
I would’ve done anything to protect this thing I thought was holding me together. And I did, unknowingly. I lied to doctors and therapists, but also to everyone else, including myself. I lied not because I am a liar, but because I was sick. It has taken me a long time to wrap my head around that notion, but I believe it now with my whole heart.
I’ll end with one final story.
A few years ago, a good friend and colleague invited me over to his house for coffee one Sunday morning. We’d had a few bumps in our relationship and the invite felt a bit ominous. I had a feeling we were going to have "a talk.” I was in the thick of my drinking then, newly separated and untethered and wild with fear all the time.
When I walked into his house, he gave me a kind smile, hugged me and brought me to his kitchen table. He made me toast with honey and Teddy Bear chunky peanut butter, coffee with almond milk and set a bowl of chocolate covered almonds between us. I sat across from him at the small white IKEA kitchen table and waited for him to talk while I squeezed my hands together under the table.
He said, “First, I didn’t bring you here to yell at you or scold you or fight. But I wanted to tell you that you don’t have to lie.”
I swallowed. My face grew hot.
He continued, “You lie even when you don’t have to, Laura. I see you do it all the time. You don’t have to do that, you know?”
My eyes welled up. Fuck.
I tried to speak, but couldn’t. Hot tears streamed down my face and they felt good.
“You’re beautiful and wonderful and you don’t have to lie. I don’t know why you do it, but I want you to know you don’t need to – not to me – ok?”
I cried for a while longer. I didn’t touch my toast or my coffee or the chocolate covered almonds. I was embarrassed, but there was a crack of relief in my chest, from the release of crying, of being seen for what I was and still loved. I left his house, got in my car and listened to My Morning Jacket while tears fell softly down my cheeks the whole way home.
I think about that conversation a lot. “You lie even when you don’t have to, Laura.” Like most truths, it was hard to swallow and incredibly freeing, too.