friendship

'How a carefully worded email made me realise I was a drunk.'

For Sarah Hepola, alcohol was “the gasoline of all adventure.” She spent her evenings at cocktail parties and dark bars, where she proudly stayed till last call … until she realised the fuel she thought powered her was draining her spirit instead. In her hilariously funny and honest memoir Blackout, Sarah writes about her road to sobriety and the friends that helped her along the way.

I can’t believe I’d once thought the only interesting part of a story was when the heroine was drinking. Because those can be some of the most mind-numbing stories in the world.

Is there anything more obnoxious hero than a dead-eyed drunk, repeating herself? I was stuck in those reruns for years – the same conversations, the same humiliations, the same remorse, and there’s no narrative tension there, believe me. It was one big cycle of Same Old Shit. Sobriety wasn’t the boring part. Sobriety was the plot twist.

My friend Charlotte met me for lunch on a sparkling day in fall.

“So you’re not drinking,” Charlotte said. “How’s that going?” A fair question.

It was, perhaps, the only question I cared about. But I could not take the emotional splatter paint in my chest and translate it into words for her benefit. What could I possibly say? That I could sense every drinker in the room, and I hated every one of them?

Drinkers had started to throb from every patio and sidewalk. A few days before, I’d gotten a whiff of a drunk homeless guy in the subway and my mouth watered. Like a vampire.

“Good,” I told her, and stared at the floor for a long time, which is always super convincing.

Sarah. Image: Twitter.

Charlotte is my friend Stephanie’s younger sister. As teenagers, we met on back porches with domestic beer in our hands and shared the frustration of standing in Stephanie’s shadow. As adults, we met at smoking windows with purple mouths to complain about the ways the world still placed us second. She was one of my best friends in New York. We used to share rooms on girls’ weekends - two days of binge drinking and sisterly bonding - and I would go home feeling so understood, my stomach sore from laughing.

Now we sat at the table with nothing but awkwardness and salted butter between us.

My glass of Perrier was such flimsy compensation - all the fizz of champagne and none of its deliverance. Why couldn’t I tell Charlotte the truth - that I was miserable without drinking? Isn’t that what friends provide - a soft landing for your complicated pain?

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But I relied on the alcohol to loosen my tongue. Actually, I would say, leaning in after the second glass, 'I’m a wreck'. 'I’m a wreck, too!' the woman would say, because every female was hoarding some secret misery. I couldn’t achieve such pliability at noon on a Saturday, though. And I didn’t want to bore Charlotte with lame stories of 12-step meetings and day counts. (One of the many downsides of my snarky attitude toward “recovery people” was the mortifying discovery I was one of them.) I felt sorry for Charlotte, confined to sit across from such a wretch. Sobriety could be so isolating.

I relied on the alcohol to loosen my tongue.

Sometimes I felt like I was living on an island, where all I did was hope a friend would float by, and when they finally arrived, I began to wonder when they’d go away. I was a fire starter once. I could talk to anyone when I was drinking. I played therapist, devil’s advocate, clown. I actually used to brag I could be friends with Stalin. And it never occurred to me to ask: Who the hell would want to be friends with Stalin?

But the woman who threw open her arms to despots had become the woman who couldn’t meet the eyes of an old friend. I felt judged and evaluated by Charlotte. Not because of anything she said, or any look she’d given me, but because judging and evaluating is what the old me would have done in her place.

I used to hate it when a friend wasn’t drinking. Good for you! I’d say, but inside, I was steaming. Drinking was a shared activity, and one person’s abstinence was a violation of protocol. I measured a friend’s loyalty by her ability to stay by my side. Could she go another round? Would she take a shot for me? My friends didn’t necessarily drink as much as I did, but they were often the women who stuck around till the lights came up. We remained in the foxhole as long as our comrades needed us.

Lisa and I used to joke that we couldn’t leave the bar till at least one of us cried. What were we crying about? It’s hard to say. We were both editors, and we got tired and worn down. Our napkins would be smudgy with mascara by last call, and I’d pat her on the back as we left. I think we did some good work today.

A few months after I quit drinking, I went out with Lisa, and she didn’t even order a beer. I hated that my sobriety had become her punishment. My therapist didn’t understand my objection. “Is it possible Lisa likes supporting you?” Maybe. But the arrangement didn’t seem right. I had a lot of vegetarian friends, and none of them took away my bacon.

Sarah's book, Blackout.

I think some part of me felt guilty for quitting. Drinking was central to our connections. A necessary prop of companionship and commiseration. As a friend, I considered myself clutch. Forever willing to split a bottle (or three) and play midwife to your sorrows.

But my drinking had not brought me closer to these women. In fact, the opposite happened. The last time Charlotte and I drank together, I met her and some friends at a nice restaurant. I arrived late, and the waitress was slow to bring my wine glass, so I grabbed the bottle from the middle of the table and took a slug. My dress was on inside out. (“I got dressed in the dark,” I explained to Charlotte, though I neglected to add, after three margaritas.) At a bar later, we started talking about female orgasms, and nobody was listening to me, so I kept having to yell.

Charlotte gave me $20 for the cab ride home, and I wrote her an email the next day to thank her profusely. It took her two days to respond, which was probably my first sign she was choosing her words.

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I love you so much, she wrote me. But sometimes when you are drinking you act irrationally. You were a little hostile on Friday, and it was extremely uncomfortable for the group.

My eyes skipped over the parts where she said how great I was and stuck on the other words instead. Hostile. Extremely uncomfortable. For the group. Women are so careful with each others’ feelings. We know the world shoots poison daggers into our egos - and we shoot them into ourselves - and so we rush to each other’s sides for triage: Yes, you were fine last night; yes, you are perfect exactly as you are. (Classic Onion headline: Female Friends Spend Raucous Night Validating the Living Shit Out of Each Other.)

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We become such reliable yes-women that any negative feedback is viewed as a betrayal, and the only place we feel comfortable being honest is behind each other’s back. Did you hear what she said last night? Did you see what she wore? These are the paths of least resistance - the unswerving praise, the gossip dressed up as maternal concern - and it can be very tricky to break rank and say, out loud, to each other: No, you weren’t fine at all.

There is no good way to confront a friend who is drinking too much, although doing it when you’re not drunk is a good start. Anything you say will cause pain, because a woman who is drinking too much becomes terrified other people will notice. Every time I got an email like the one Charlotte sent, I felt like I’d been trailing toilet paper from my jeans. For, like, 10 years.

I also burned with anger, because I didn’t like the fact that my closest friends had been murmuring behind cupped hands about me, and I told myself that if they loved me, they wouldn’t care about this stuff. But that’s the opposite of how friendships work. When someone loves you, they care enormously.

Now I was four months sober - in part because of exchanges like the one with Charlotte. I made this lunch date with her, in part to prove how together I was. I hadn’t seen her since the night I grabbed the wine off the table in front of her friends, and I wanted to replace the unseemly memory with a better one.

“I’m sorry I’m not very interesting,” I told her. I’m sorry. Two words I said so often I wanted to hire a skywriter to emblazon the blue horizon with my regret. I’m sorry for everything. After lunch, I walked Charlotte to the subway, and we hugged for a long time, and neither of us knew what to say, so we said nothing.

Some recovering alcoholics believe you need to distance yourself from your old friends.They’re triggers and bad influences. But what if your friends were the ones who saved you? Who closed out your bar tab and texted with you until you made it home safely?

What if your friends were the ones who noticed when you disappeared, who rummaged around their own insides until they could find a compassionate way to say: Enough?

Was I supposed to cut them out now? When I needed them more than ever?

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This is an extract from Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola, published by Hachette, $29.99. You can purchase the book here.

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