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Lori Fradkin

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Why I Stopped Drinking (Pretty Much)

Posted: 01/19/2012 8:37 am

It had been a while since I'd seen the girl sitting to my left at the wedding reception last summer. She didn't know that the guy to my right was one of my best friends, that we'd been close since the days of doing math homework together in middle school. I can see now how our comfort level might have been misread, but at the time, it didn't occur to me that she would think anything of our relationship. When she revealed that she'd been under the impression we were married, I was stunned. "And you weren't drinking," she explained, "so ..."

It was true I'd been waving away the waiters as they tried to fill my glass, ultimately telling them that they could just take it away. But pregnancy was not the issue. This was, instead, the first wedding at which I was determined not to drink.

I never aspired to be a party girl. I was the girl who went to a coffee shop in Amsterdam and ordered coffee, the girl who could win the game "Never Have I Ever" by ending the sentence with "smoked a cigarette." I didn't drink more than my peers on average, but starting in college, I would sometimes wake up unable to remember the previous night, as if the gentlemen from "Men in Black" had paid me a visit. I'd worry that I said something I shouldn't have, did something I shouldn't have, kissed someone I shouldn't have. I'd cry and call my friends and talk through everything that had happened.

The words "blacking out," I have learned, can conjure up an image of behavior inconsistent with my own. I wasn't raging every night and never had any desire to. I might have uttered the phrase "I need a drink" after a long day, but I didn't need a drink. I was a social drinker whose body happened to react to a certain amount of alcohol in a very specific way. I could go to dinner and have a glass of wine without consequence. But a long night spent at a bar or party -- the kind of night where you don't think about how many refills you've had amid all the other activity -- could leave me with no recollection of what had transpired.

Even scarier, perhaps, was that my behavior and my condition didn't always match. I might not have known what I was doing, but those around me didn't necessarily know that I didn't know what I was doing. I might seem tipsy or even drunk because, yes, I'd been drinking, but I could still have a conversation that didn't raise red flags.

The whole thing mystified me until I read this in the New York Times last year:

Blackouts tend to start at blood alcohol levels of at least 0.15 percent, about twice the legal limit for driving, especially when a person hits that level quickly. When alcohol floods the hippocampus -- a brain region that records our lives as they unfold -- neurons stop talking to each other and capturing memories, said Aaron White, a researcher with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

When the hippocampus is off, no matter how hard one tries, a memory will not be recalled because it will not have been recorded in the first place, Dr. White said.

Yet a person in that condition can still be conscious and "interacting with people, talking, driving a car, having sex, engaging in all kinds of complex behavior," said Kim Fromme, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has researched alcohol-induced blackouts.


In other words, I wasn't forgetting. My neurons had just stopped talking to each other. I had antisocial neurons.

Knowing this didn't make my problems go away, but I did feel somewhat relieved that what I experienced was a real scientific phenomenon, one that other people experienced as well. Why me, I don't know, but I suspect my relatively low weight played a role. Because of my size, I probably hit 0.15 percent much more quickly than someone else who drank the same amount. And because I would reach this point before I could fully feel the effects of the alcohol, I would say yes to another round.

In retrospect, it seems stupid that I didn't do something about this sooner. In the aftermath of these evenings, I would be terrified, unable to believe I'd put myself in this type of situation. But in a city where "Let's get drinks!" is a common refrain, I wanted to respond without hesitation. Everyone else seemed capable of handling it. Why was I able to be so in control in other aspects of my life and unable to get it together here? I was less upset about my actual behavior than about the fact that I was doing things I didn't consciously decide to do. And every time I would tell myself -- or the person I was apologizing to -- that it was so uncharacteristic, that I wasn't really like that. But how many times can you do something and say it's an anomaly?

About a year and a half ago, I started taking breaks from drinking, hoping to strike a balance. In a way, it worked. When each period of self-imposed sobriety ended, I found myself consuming far less than before. (My social life revolved around more one-on-one dinners than parties anyway.) Still, on nights that involved more than a few drinks, the side effects returned. My neurons would put on their sunglasses and slink quietly into the corner. They were masters of the silent treatment.

And then one day, it was enough. It was the morning after another friend's wedding reception, and I woke up in my childhood bed to hear my parents talking. "I just worry about her when she's in New York," my mom was saying. Suffering as I was from the type of hangover where you're not sure you'll ever feel better, my reaction was to explode at her, screaming that she didn't understand, that this was no longer typical, that I now barely drank in New York and had just had a bad night. We went round and round until she forced me to go to the brunch for my newly married friends. There, I sipped water, stared at bagels, attempted to show enthusiasm for a friend's new baby and walked briskly and repeatedly to the bathroom to throw up. I didn't remember getting home from the reception, but a friend informed me that she had deposited me in my mother's care.

"Paying the bill, we stumbled out into the street and back to our apartments, where we spent the rest of the night jealously reading the manuscripts of those who actually wrote and didn't just drink about it."

This line in David Rakoff's essay "Lush Life" resonated with me when I came across it in his book "Fraud." Aside from a few mornings when I felt sheepish about what I may or may not have said to co-workers the night before, alcohol had never really affected my career. But how much more could I accomplish if I gave it up? I started drinking when I was 17 or 18, which meant I'd had ten solid years of experiences with alcohol. This seemed like a good stretch, a neat encapsulation of a sometimes messy part of my life, and now it was time to be more consistently clearheaded. During the brief periods when I'd quit before, I'd seen benefits that went beyond a lack of blackouts. I woke up on weekends with an unclouded head, ready to drink coffee, read the paper and start the day. I slept more soundly and felt better prepared for morning meetings. I lost weight without really trying. I finally read "Infinite Jest."*

At the wedding where I set the record straight about my non-pregnancy, I watched at the end of the night as a group of my friends and my dad's friends gathered at the bar for tequila shots, and I wished I could join them. It wasn't the alcohol itself I missed but the festivity of the ritual. What I had to remind myself then and have to keep reminding myself as I go on is how small this sacrifice really is, how infrequently I've had to make sacrifices at all in my life. I've always been a little shy, so it was nice to have a liquid nudge in social settings, but I now know it can push me too far. I still have an occasional glass of wine or a cocktail with someone close to me, someone who understands what I've dealt with, but now that ordering a drink is not a given, I think about whether I really want it. Usually, I'd rather eat ice cream.

* Not true

Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that Mr. Rakoff's first name is Daniel. His first name is David.