I lived near Union Square Park in Manhattan for almost 20 years. Union Square during that time was infested with rats. NYC subway rats so large, bold and brazen that the first time one scuttled past my foot on a bright fall morning I mistook it for a cat. Union Square is better now. There is a wonderful farmer's market held there several days a week and the rat problem is nowhere near as bad as it used to be.
What I liked most about Union Square when I lived nearby were the liquor stores. There were at least three competing liquor stores around the park in the 1990s and I could not have been happier. In the beginning of my alcoholic decline I would get off the subway after work at the Union Square station and head straight to Union Square Liquors. They had a wine that I loved called Estancia which was a cheap-but-expensive-tasting not too sweet rich oaky chardonnay. (Funnily enough, my first sponsor Anne had her own history with Estancia, which she’d affectionately nicknamed “Euthanasia”.) I would buy a bottle every 2 days and mix it with cassis to make my nightly Kirs. Over the months, 2/3 of a bottle a day turned into at least a full bottle. But that was fine; I was working, newly married, in a nice apartment, no kids yet, and except for the somewhat brutal daily hangovers my drinking was not a problem. Not a problem for me, anyway.
One day my husband came back from a business trip. He got home before I did and saw that there were 4 wine bottles in recycling. He had been gone 3 nights. That evening when I got home from work, fresh bottle of Euthanasia in hand, he was waiting for me. He asked me, pointing to the recycling bin "What's that all about?" I froze. My first thought was "damn it. I forgot the empties! The jig is up." I felt paralyzed with a surge of pure anxiety. But I'm an alcoholic, and you know what they say.
Q: How can you tell when an alcoholic is lying to you?
A: His lips are moving.
So I recovered quickly. "I had a dinner party" I said. "You did?" he responded. My husband is a wonderful man, trustworthy and trusting, but I sensed that my “dinner party” excuse stretched even his faith in me. "You did?" he asked again. "With who? What night?" "Tuesday" I said. "Not really a dinner party, more like wine and cheese.” "But who was here? Who came over?" He pestered me. "Jesus H. Christ" I thought to myself, suddenly very irritated, "this dude needs to get off my case." "Just some friends from work" I said dismissively. "You don't know them." Then I grabbed the recycling bag and ran downstairs to put it in the trash. But when I came back from “getting rid of the evidence" the hubs (annoyingly) had something to say. "You know" he said "based on the genetic nature of alcoholism and given that there are so many alcoholics in your family maybe you should cut back a bit." Oh man was I furious. FURIOUS!!! But I'm a good actress and a good liar so I went for it. "Maybe you're right" I said, all innocence and gratitude. "Maybe I should cut back. Thank you. After all, 2 glasses of wine a night (that is what he still believed I was drinking...I think) is so dehydrating, and who wants to be dehydrated?"
Then I lied and said "I'm going to take a shower". I went into the bathroom, started the shower and locked the door. I was full of rage at my husband but I was also scared. So much so that I my hands were shaking. This was going to require some deep thought. So I sat down on the closed toilet, in that steamy bathroom, and I put my thinking cap on.
Suddenly it came to me. The answer arrived as if sent from on high. "Get a bottle of vodka and hide it somewhere in your apartment. That way you can drink less in front of the hubs but you can still get your recommended daily allowance of booze without that idiot breathing down your neck and passing judgment." Eureka! Brilliant plan! Now, I don't think my husband is an idiot, not at all, but my disease certainly did. In fact, anyone that was going to stick their nose into my drinking habits was an idiot and I had little use for their advice or suggestions or, quite honestly, their company.
"You need to go undercover" my disease told me. "It will be fun. Our little secret. We can do it together. We'll be like James Bond. No one will know. Just us." And that was thrilling. I used to love having secrets. In active addiction, holding my secrets provided a little bit of an exhilarating coke-like high. I still need to be wary of harboring any secrets. Yes, secrets do come with a sharp, scintillating energy but I have never seen it end well. Never. Either everyone finds the secret out and that's a disaster or the person living with the secret just can't stand the burden anymore and outs themselves. It's a dangerous and completely exhausting way to live.
The next day, coached by my addicted brain, I went not to my usual Union Square Liquors but to the one across the street, on the east side of Union Square Park. I had never been there before and man, was I in for a surprise. This liquor store, sadly no longer there, was something out of a different New York. A 1970s down and dirty, no children allowed, Serpico-tough New York. The store was tiny, maybe 10 feet wide and 15 feet deep. There was just a door and a little walkway that went into the store. Like a vestibule. This vestibule was completely encased in what I was to learn was bullet proof glass. About 4 people could stand in the vestibule at a time. When I entered it was me and 2 large men who were already drunk and looked like they may have just gotten out of the slammer. Being jammed into that vestibule with them was quite scary but also thrilling. "This is where I belong" I thought, "with the bad asses." The men were motioning to the man behind the glass and pointing and yelling at the pints of Hennessy. The man apparently running the place squeezed into a sliver of space between the glass and the shelves of the store, took the bottle down and then yelled through the glass "12 dollar". The men started arguing and slamming their palms against the glass separating them from the proprietor. They were very aggressive and I was a little concerned, but not concerned enough to leave. The man, safe behind the protective glass, regarded them with a bored amused expression. Finally, after emptying out all their pockets, the two men scraped together the required funds. The men placed the singles and change in a small receptacle that the proprietor had shoved through a small opening in the thick highly scarred glass. Once he had counted the money he put their pint into the drawer and slid it out to them. Finally they left, hitting the glass, kicking the door to the outside very hard, and bitching about people that "don't belong in America”. I was appalled.
I was alone in the vestibule and wasn't quite sure what to do. It was then that I realized that almost all the bottles on one side of the aisle were pint bottles. The proprietor was looking at me expectantly so I pointed at the pint of Smirnoff and said "vodka, please."
With zero emotion the man pulled down the pint and said "7 dollar". I slid the money into the drawer and the vodka was placed in the drawer and slid out to me. I was so excited. My secret plan was going to work. I left that liquor store, skipping. "Woo hoo!" I thought. "Everyone who has "concerns" about my drinking can go suck it! This is where I belong. No questions or looks about why a nice young lady like me is buying a pint of vodka. That's what I'm talking about!!!" I congratulated myself. "This is how we do it!" I hummed as I went home and put that pint bottle under the sink in the bathroom behind a big mess of cleaning products.
Soon enough I was buying several pints a week, along with 2 or 3 bottles of wine. I became a regular. In fact, the owner of the "bad-ass" liquor store would see me enter and he would pull down the pint bottle without me even having to ask. I loved that. Having a secret place to get my secret pints with no sense of being judged.
One week I was having a hard time at work and needed a little more moral support (alcohol) than usual. I remember going to my store 2 days in a row. The owner (whose name I had learned was Feng) smiled and said "Back so soon?"
And again I got that same feeling that I had had when my husband suggested that "based on my family history" maybe it wasn't such a great idea to be drinking 2 glasses of wine a night.
I was outraged. "Fuck Feng and his ghetto liquor store" I mumbled to myself. "Who does he think he is anyway? Some nerve. How dare he! I don't need that shit in my life. Who is he to judge me anyway?"
The next day I went back to Union Square Liquors across the street and got what I knew I needed. I purchased a bottle of chardonnay and a GALLON of Absolut vodka. I went home and made space for that gallon under the sink and the rest, dear friends, is history.
I think I lived another 2 years with that secret gallon tucked safely under my sink. Of course not the same gallon. That would be replenished as needed. At the end of my drinking, straight warm vodka "as needed" became every single day at an earlier and earlier hour.
Eventually, I just couldn't handle it. I just couldn't live hauling that shame-inducing self-destructive secret around with me anymore. Anyone who has battled addiction knows that feeling. The feeling that you are going crazy. That you are completely out of your own control. The secret of knowing you're addicted but trying to act normal. The obsessive and relentless thoughts about alcohol. The fear. The pain of it all. It was a miserable, sad, lonely way to live. So I outed myself. I told my husband that I had a problem. I started going to A.A. I commenced doing the deep and highly uncomfortable work that was required of me to get and stay sober. I came to believe that it would only be with consistency at meetings and over time in the program that I could hope to get sober. I also had to get honest. I had to unburden myself of my secrets. All of them. As it says in the Big Book: Time after time newcomers have tried to keep to themselves certain facts about their lives. Trying to avoid this humbling experience they have turned to easier methods. Almost invariably they got drunk.
So now I live my life without booze. I also live my life without secrets and without shame. I sometimes miss my buzzy little secrets, but not enough to start collecting them again. In A.A. we say that we are only as sick as our secrets. And that is especially true for me. I have learned the hard way and over time that secrets and I are not a good match.
And never will be.