That’s me in the photo above, happily-not happily sipping my favorite non-alcoholic cocktail, the Moscow Maiden. Recipe will follow at the bottom of the page. But really, today’s post is about living without alcohol. It has been 19 months since I’ve felt tipsy.
Maybe you want to try “Dry January.” Maybe you and alcohol just don’t get along very well. Maybe my experience will be of interest to you. I hope you read on, no matter your relationship with alcohol.
In May of 2017, I was diagnosed with a rare disease called portal hypertension. The disease went undetected for several years and damaged my liver. The cause of this disease is a mystery. A blood clot from a previous abdominal surgery may have been the culprit. Since diagnosis, I can no longer drink alcohol. And while the forced abstinence is the least of my problems, it has been challenging.
As I adapted to a dry life, I decided to keep a journal. Here are some excerpts.
This was my first Memorial Day shoveling wood chips without the reward of a Corona with a lime. I guess I’m like a little kid again. Get out the cherry popsicles.
Now that I can’t have it, I see references to booze everywhere. Dumb napkins printed, “This might be the wine talking but I love wine!” “My book club reads wine labels.” “Friends until the end of wine.” Ugh. Our entire society is centered around alcohol. And look who’s talking. My shop is filled with drinking accessories. Martini glasses, wine buckets, bottle openers. I guess it’s time for a Foster Brooks clearance sale.
Baba insists on going to my medical appointments with me. He wants to speak doctor-to-doctor with my specialist and make sure all bases are covered. In the waiting room I say to him, “Can you please ask my doctor when I can dip my tongue in a glass of wine?” Baba answers, “The outside of the glass? Go ahead.”
My friend Josh asks me what day was my last drink. “I don’t know exactly,” I say. “We were in Nashville last spring.” “So you’re not really an alcoholic,” he says. “Because they know exactly when and where they had their last drink.”
I might not be an alcoholic but if I’d known that glass of chardonnay would be my last, I sure as sh*& would have relished it A LOT MORE. Swirled it around my mouth. Breathed in the pears. I’ve heard women express regret about the last time their child climbs into their laps or calls them ‘mommy’. Those endings didn’t really bother me. This one, though? It hurts.
My cousin, who stopped drinking cold turkey six years ago, told me that she can smell gin like a perfume. She knows exactly how many days it’s been since a cocktail has passed her lips. She carries her O’Douls to parties where she is still the center of attention. She told me she can get a buzz just off a crowd of people having fun.
This was my first Thanksgiving making the gravy without a glass of "Mother's Little Helper", aka Chardonnay, at my elbow. There are a lot of teetotalers in my family. And all their names begin with ‘m’: Mary, Marcella, Mahin, Martha. They drink sweet tea or black coffee and never say anything bad about anyone. I guess that’s my club now. And I guess it’s about time I stop talking trash about perfectly nice people who just happen to like Trump.
Miracle of miracles, eggnog without rum is sooo good!
Reading David Sedaris’s “Theft by Finding” and he talks about celebrating two years of sobriety: "I know, I'll have a tea party and invite all my invisible friends!"
This NO ALCOHOL is bullsh*&. It goes against my Julia Child philosophy which has held me in good stead: Everything in moderation, including moderation. All the popular diets over the years — low fat, low carb, no sugar, no bananas, etc. I’ve adopted tiny aspects of each fad. Tiny! I never stopped cooking with butter, never gave up bread, and I eat candy every Thursday night when blogging. And chocolate every day.
But zero alcohol? In Wisconsin? In February??
At book group, Ellen dips her fat-knuckled finger in her glass of Cab and puts it in my mouth. I suck like a baby and the other women are startled — by Ellen’s generous gift or by my appreciation for this spontaneous gesture. That night, I can’t see the progression of my friends from sober to tipsy but I think about what they must be feeling. The warmth in their gullet and on their cheeks. And I can certainly sense when the mood lightens. The room feels happy and it is contagious. No different from being at a concert and the conspiratorial buzz you sense when miniature weather systems of pot smoke float above the crowd.
Talking with L, who suffers from depression, about all the different reasons people stop drinking. She says alcohol hasn’t been good for her. Especially being on antidepressants. “They say don’t mix. Do I listen? No. How stupid.” L says that since menopause, she’s gained fifteen pounds. “That’s a wine flask,” she laughs. "But nothing takes you out of yourself like alcohol. When you don't want to deal anymore, wine takes care of that."
I find a bunch of references to authors and booze. As a serious drinker, Jack London would require himself to write 1000 words before his first drink of the day. In “True Grit,” Mattie Ross says to a drunk Rooster Cogburn: "I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains." Faulkner said, "A writer without a bottle of whiskey is like a chicken without a goddamn head."
Returning to France as a non-drinker sucks. When I studied abroad, my only ‘A’ was in dégustation. The agonies of not drinking complimentary champagne at our fancy hotel. On our third night, I break down. I explain to the poor waiter that my doctor has declared alcohol “interdit” but that “je vais boire un verre trés bon.” So we buy a mini bouteille of a very fine white burgundy from Beaune, near Dijon where I once studied. It’s 100 Euros. I have a few swallows. It’s good but honestly, I can no longer distinguish a fine wine from wine out of a box. It’s just alcohol. That’s the primary taste in my mouth. My palate makes me feel badly about the price tag. We take the unfinished bottle back to our room and stick it in the mini fridge to give to our son and his friends tomorrow.
In the morning we forget it.
I am at Summerfest with my niece and her friends. It is nice not drinking. I can be the designated driver. I can enjoy their youthful exuberance without even a moment’s thought about trying to drink my way into feeling twenty again. The drive home takes forever. I ask my niece Leila if her mom yells at other drivers from inside her car too. Leila says, “Yes, but not as much and not as meanly.”
Fake beer is really really good. Give me a frosty bottle and I can forget all about this disease. Fake wine, on the other hand, is like drinking barnicle water. It tastes like a sad cliché, like a bad saxophonist on a New Orleans street corner in the rain.
Gary drinks bourbon. I have a ridiculously strong sense of smell and it perfumes the room when he makes his favorite old-fashioned. It tastes like heaven when I kiss him. That being said, he is definitely drinking less since I don’t drink. Pretty soon we will be Mennonites.
Frank Sinatra once said, “I feel sorry for people who don’t drink. When they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.” He’s absolutely right. I feel really great every single morning. Clear-headed. Content. Optimistic.
After six months of lousy test results, this month yields some improvement. I have the luxury to think a little further out. Like, maybe if I live to be 80, I will take up alcohol again because at that point, who cares. It is really nice to contemplate this scenario.
I host a holiday party for a bunch of women. The music is loud, the food is good, the drinks are flowing and I’m having a blast. At one point, I take a swig of my Moscow Maiden and think to myself, “Man, I’m not feeling buzzed. This is one weak drink.’ And then I remember that my drink is non-alcoholic. I like that in the heat of the party, I’ve forgotten my status. Truly, as the night wears on, I do feel mildly intoxicated. It’s the electricity coming off of everyone else and I love it.
Recipe for a Moscow Maiden
It’s simple really. A club soda poured over ice with a splash of non-alcoholic ginger beer and a squeeze of lime. Serve in a copper mug. Delicious and refreshing. Skol!
Photos by Renn Kuhnen