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Problem? What Problem?

by Jacqueline Sewall Golden

Oh boy, do I have a drinking problem. I never said that to anyone, much less myself.  A drunk never says that.  Heavy drinkers are dominated by denial, unlike any other life situation. I usually thought, if it crossed my mind at all, that the pressure from (fill in the blank) was so strong that a drink would be just the thing, or that the stress from (fill in the blank) was so great I just had to have a drink, or that my hangover was so terrible I just had to (fill in the blank). 
     I drank in college, nothing serious, and maintained a social drinker status until the mid-seventies when, like someone who had taken an aspirin for an occasional headache now took Percodan four times per day, I realized that life seemed so much nicer if I had three or four drinks under my belt.  I didnt consider the occasional fit of rage to be serious, but it was definitely an underlying symptom of a serious, deadly problem.  My house was a sty; I rarely washed dishes, only doing so when there werent any clean ones; didnt go anywhere other than work and the store, and slowly deteriorated physically and mentally. I just kept doing pushups on my own sword. 
     I sought psychological help but the doctors prescription (for depression) just exacerbated alcohols affect.  I never told him I drank excessively and he never asked.  Then came the suicide attempts, all very serious, no cry for help here.  I truly wanted to get out of life.  I continued working, never losing a day unless it was because of a real sickness.  There were many times when Id have to sneak a look out the office window to see if my car was in the parking lot.  I had no idea how I got to work.  I was Lady Drunk.  No one had a clue, except my children, who were growing away from me. And like most addictive personalities, if one drink was good, three drinks would be great. 
     I developed a theory: that those of us who consistently get drunk or take drugs simply dont feel good.  Our existence is gray. We have no energy, and even when not drunk, feel draggy, sad.  A beautiful sunset, a party with friends, going on a shopping spree;  nothing brings the pleasure that we read about and we are confused and deeply unhappy that we cant feel what 'Normals'  feel.  So we drink to be able to laugh, to enjoy, andto feel.  I had never, ever, in my life, had sexual relations sober.  I had never traveled any distance without a bottle handy.  I couldnt visit my son in college because I wasnt sure when I could get to a drink.  My friends were bar people, never seen outside in daylight.   My life was planned around drinking.  Thats why I became isolated. 
     The medical community then, and for the most part now, doesnt know how to treat alcoholism.  If youre female, they tell you its just a nervous condition,  'so here, take a nice little Prozac and take a few days off'.  Few,  if any,  doctors are sufficiently knowledgeable about  the disease to determine an appropriate treatment. Dr. James West, then medical director at The Betty Ford Center, called it the 'ten/seven':  ten hours of study on the disease of alcoholism during seven years of schooling.   Sufferers are forced into care by the very few doctors who have made a specialty of the disease. It is truly a disease that can never be cured. 
     I married my second husband in 1984.  For a long while, things were very pleasant as he had insisted that I stop working. So we traveled and slept late,  and ate a lot and and did a lot of fun things.  I enjoyed the new freedom to drink whenever I felt like it; mornings with brandy in my coffee to halt the sickening hangover; then a liter of white wine with lunch followed by a teensy nap tosleep it off; vodka tonics to get things goingagain, and then to bed.  I called it falling asleep.  Its known as passing out.  We went through a half-gallon of vodka every twenty-four hours. 
     It was two years into that marriage that, one hot day, I climbed out of the pool at our home in San Diego, went into the house for yet another drink and heard my husband on the phone.  I stayed behind a corner and listened to an intriguing conversation.  The words alcoholic and excessive drinking were mentioned a few times. It turned out that he was making inquiries at The Betty Ford Center, not for him (he was the drunk, for heavens sake) but for me.  I was simply astonished, as I certainly didnt have a problem.  Later we shared some words on the matter but his decision was irrevocable and my time to report was set for January 5, 1987. 
     We moved back to the Monterey house and the holiday season was a blur.  I wanted to get all the booze down my throat before it was too late.  We visited the Center to see the layout and receive more information about the 28-day program in which I would enroll, and to become familiar with the rules. 
     So  the day before I was to report to the Center, I drove alone down good old Highway 101 through the hills of the central California coast.  I checked into a nice motel in Santa Barbara.  I vaguely remember those few hours in the room but most of them were spent on the phone, drink in hand, calling everyone in my phone book as if I was saying good-bye.  The next morning, sick and scared, I attempted breakfast in the motels dining room before stopping at a liquor store on the way to buy two 4-packs of wine coolers, then headed the car south for the three-hour drive to the Center.  I arrived at Hershels, my favorite New York-style deli in Palm Springs,  where I chased the wine coolers with a pitcher of beer.  Then to my car and 39000 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage. 
     There will be those of you who will wonder at my ability to drive. Call it good luck or the presence of God or a protective angel, but in all those years of drinking and driving, Id never received a ticket nor had an accident. 
      I told the pleasant counselor, Malcolm,  who welcomed the red-eyed, pale, about-to-vomit creature at the appointed hour, that I was very frightened and he went to some length to soothe my fears.  It was later that I realized I was extremely fearful of losing my best friend, booze.  I was handed over to a case worker who, as I answered her questions, went through all my luggage thoroughly, right down to pouring the liquid out of my steam iron. (Other seekers of clean living had used that little storage tank for something other than water.)  She checked the mouthwash (any substitute was not very clever and too obvious), toothpaste tube, the handle and tube of the curling iron, perfume and other cosmetic bottles, the suitcase itself for false bottoms and sides, the pockets of my clothes and finally declared me clean. 
     We walked down the long hallway that bisected the Firestone administration building, and went through large glass doors outside to the compound.  It was a beautiful, bright,  cold January day in the Southern California desert, and the walkways were lined with flowers and all the trees had their foliage. Around me were several large, attractive, modern-office-like buildings, one of which was to be my home for the next four weeks. 

Part Two >>


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