Depressed woman
Photo: Li Kim Goh/iStock
She never threw china, drove under the influence, or sabotaged her marriage. But drinking was taking over her life, one wineglass at a time.
I remember the exact moment I developed my drinking problem. I was writing a scene for the NBC soap opera Sunset Beach. The show's sweet young thing had just been abducted by a Mayan-themed cult, and my boss told me to "up the drama and make it real." I thought, "I can't—not without a glass of wine." So I got one.

That was seven years ago. Nothing terrible has happened since. Except an occasional glass of wine became a glass of wine every night became two glasses of wine became sometimes three and, if no one was looking, most of a bottle—which once emptied, I would hide. I also became intensely interested in time. To make sure I wasn't becoming an alcoholic, I never allowed myself to drink before 6:00 P.M. But very quickly I knew that our bedroom clock was the fastest in our home, and therefore the authoritative household timepiece every evening.

I never drove drunk. I never endangered my daughter. I never let loose with a single hateful tirade. I never wound up strung out and naked in some skanky guy's pickup.
But I knew that hiding bottles from my husband wasn't a great idea. The problem was I didn't know what to do next. I couldn't imagine showing up at Alcoholics Anonymous...what was I going to say? "One morning I woke up [dramatic pause] bloated." Plus, I didn't ache for an alcohol-free life. I pined for the relationship I had with the stuff for the first 18 years of my drinking life—supercasual, occasional one-night stands, a sweet feel-it-and-forget thing.

I'm not shy about asking for help in figuring out ways over the molehills that appear in my path. At first I got two useless pieces of advice from friends—"Check into Betty Ford!" (and pay for it how?) and "Relax, the entire population of France drinks more than you do!" Finally, my friend Lisa, whose husband is a substance-abuse counselor, suggested I call New York City's Center for Motivation and Change. "They're flexible," she promised.

"I want to be a normal drinker again," I told Nicole Kosanke, PhD, the psychologist I met at my two-hour "psychosocial/motivational evaluation."

"What's normal?" she asked.

"Not drinking at home."

"How much when you're out?"

"Two glasses to start," I said. "But when I get better, I won't be so rigid."

"That's a good beginning," Dr. Kosanke said.

My snake-oil radar clanged. Sure, I was absolutely desperate to keep Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve in my life, but every recovering alcoholic I'd ever met swore up, down, and sideways, "Half measures avail us nothing!" And seared in my memory was the day Audrey Kishline, the founder of the "responsible drinking" group Moderation Management, killed a 38-year-old man and his 12-year-old daughter while driving drunk.

Still, I answered Dr. Kosanke's questions. I'd started nonsocial drinking because I was anxious (that Mayan-themed scene I had to write), convinced I was a hack and would never be able to finish a script. Then, after I had a baby, drinking took the edge off my most dirty little secret—boredom. 

I swear nothing has made me happier than motherhood, but God forgive me, I find parenting after work between 5 and 9 P.M. a Sisyphean hell—picking Play-Doh out of the carpet; putting Polly Pocket clothes in one bin, shoes in another; coaxing my daughter into the tub; apologizing for the soap in her eyes and snagging knots in her hair; making dinner and lunch for the next day; folding laundry; strongly suggesting table manners; cleaning up dinner and more toys; and finally reading stories about lizards and princesses and talking cars. What can I say? It's a lot easier with a little buzz going.

Dr. Kosanke has me do a cost-benefit analysis about my alcohol consumption. I rate how drinking affects my relationships, job, health, and finances. I discover that, for me, the benefits of alcohol consumption slightly outweigh the costs. Wine worked. If it hadn't, as Dr. Kosanke pointed out, I would not have kept using it. The list showed me wine makes me a calmer, if hazier parent; and it's not very expensive since I like only cheap Chardonnay. On the downside, my sleep is totally disrupted, and my husband is worried because I've begun drinking every day. (Also, I am really bloated.)

"So, um, do you think the fact that it sort of works means I should keep drinking?" I ask.

"I think that you need to find other ways to get the benefits you get from alcohol," says Dr. Kosanke.

The Center for Motivation and Change is a freesia-scented, tastefully decorated place on New York's Fifth Avenue and 30th Street. It is staffed by bizarrely good-looking psychologists who offer a spa-like menu of services, such as a "mindfulness immersion day" (yoga, breathing, and meditation exercises), a two-week "readiness for change" evaluation (to see if you really want to give up your habit), and a "tracking program" (a way to assess how using drugs or alcohol is affecting your life). Inside its East-West/postmodern chicness, though, one of the center's philosophies is the extremely basic 33-year-old community reinforcement approach (CRA).

Taught by psychologist Robert J. Meyers, PhD, research associate professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, CRA works on the principle that the most effective way to get people to reduce their substance abuse is to make sobriety more rewarding than addiction. "Some people drink because their personal relationships are terrible," says Dr. Meyers, who is the coauthor of Get Your Loved One Sober: Alternatives to Nagging, Pleading, and Threatening. "Others drink because their work is meaningless. Some are depressed. Some are anxious. Some are just bored. A few are burdened with a genetic predisposition for alcoholism. Many drink for an amalgam of all those reasons. But if you ask a person what they want out of life and help them start to achieve it, they're more likely to reduce their drinking than if you just tell them to stop drinking."

CRA has been lauded by the Journal of Studies on Alcohol as among the most cost-effective alcohol treatment programs and has been shown, in studies funded by the National Institutes of Health, more effective than traditional interventions. For instance, in one 2001 University of New Mexico study, alcoholics were randomly assigned to a CRA program or a 12-step treatment program. Over a six-month follow-up period, the CRA participants averaged 3 percent of drinking days, and those in traditional treatment averaged 19 percent of drinking days. In an earlier in-patient study, the CRA participants averaged only 5 percent of days unemployed, but the hospital's Alcohol Anonymous participants averaged 62 percent.

Still, CRA has never been widely implemented because many substance-abuse counselors think it's dumb (and potentially dangerous) to let people with drug and alcohol problems use at all. They cite the Kishline case. They point to Mel Gibson.
Dr. Meyers acknowledges that "the world would be a better place if no one used drugs or alcohol at all." But he thinks that the reason 21 million drug and alcohol abusers in America are not getting help is that our culture tells them that their only hope of getting better is giving up the thing they can't imagine living without. And giving it up every day for the rest of their natural lives. "If a guy goes from drinking a fifth of Jack Daniels a day to drinking a couple of beers a day," Dr. Meyers says, "and in that process he does better at work and his relationship with his wife and kids improves, I think that's success."

Three weeks later, back at the Center for Motivation and Change, Dr. Kosanke and I barely talk about my drinking. She has me fill out another form—a Happiness Scale—and we strategize how to make my life more joyful. She coaches me to talk back to the "You suck!" voice in my head and to ask my husband and mother-in-law for more help with childcare. (They both say yes.) She wonders if I could buy more prepared food for dinner and asks where it is written that 6-year-olds need to be bathed every night.

I still crave Chardonnay and am drinking about three glasses, three or four nights a week. I complain that my therapy isn't working.

"You still haven't found something you like to do more than drink," Dr. Kosanke says.

"I have meaningful work and relationships. You think I need a hobby, too?"

"Yes," she says.

This is not a novel idea in addiction treatment. In fact, many studies have found that lab rats ignore food and water in order to gulp drug-laced solutions.

"I like watching TV," I tell Dr. Kosanke.

"Too passive," she says.

Over the next several weeks, I try furniture refinishing (a puke-green-paint disaster), Shakespeare and American musical theater (too expensive), opera (didn't get it), meditation (dullsville for me but surprisingly useful for my daughter), and sex (my husband began to appear frightened whenever I looked at him).

"I'm not a hobby person," I wail.

"You go to ballet," Dr. Kosanke says.

"So I don't get fat," I say.

"You make dinner," she says.

"Because I have to," I say.

Turns out a lot of people endure lives that are cages of sorts—they have grueling, mind-numbing work; they spend time with selfish relatives; they are lonesome. Me, I put myself in a cage by thinking task instead of pleasure.

Dr. Kosanke thinks this is a bad habit I can basically cognitive-behavior myself out of. I worry that I don't have whatever synapses you need to anticipate fun. Although I often enjoy parties, I don't look forward to them. Ditto travel, romantic dinners, even shopping. I think the best I can cognitive-behavior myself into is imagining fun as a dear, devoted friend—one always out there, waiting for me to arrive.

By now, my fourth month in treatment, I'm doing what Dr. Kosanke calls reducing the risk—when I drink, which is a few times a week, I pour myself two glasses of wine and dump the rest of the bottle out.

She gives me another worksheet—one that assesses which people, places, times, and feelings are "triggers" for my alcohol consumption. I tell her we already know that I drink because I'm anxious and bored, and that I'm probably one of the few people on the planet who is surrounded by teetotalers.

"How about not keeping any wine at home?" she suggests.

"I'll give in and buy it at the wine store," I say.

"Where's that?"

"On the way home from my daughter's school."

"Arrange to be doing something during your 'witching hour.' Take a ballet class. Go to a movie with a friend. You don't have to tell them they're babysitting."


"Do something pleasant every single afternoon," she orders.

The next month is much less stressful than previous months: My work anxiety is being argued with by the new voice Dr. Kosanke had me practice (When I think, "I suck," the new voice says, "You sure get published a lot for someone who sucks." Or, "I hear Van Gogh sometimes thought he was a lousy painter." Or just, "That's not a very helpful thing to think.") My home life is much improved because my husband and mother-in-law are doing much more childcare, and now (big surprise) when I'm with my daughter, I enjoy her more than resent her. And since my family is around more, we have dinners together, which are relaxed and fun because I've recently discovered the joys of heat-and-eat meals.

When weary of being positive and engaged, I indulge myself with a vengeance. I get a massage, a manicure, a stupidly expensive headband, a puppy, Botox. I think I watch every Law & Order episode ever made (even though TV isn't on Dr. Kosanke's list of approved hobbies) and take more bubble baths than I have during the previous 40 years of my life. I stop drinking for a whole ten days...the last three of which I spend counting the hours to an Academy Awards party, where I—a newly normal drinker—am going to enjoy two glasses of wine! (Wow, my joyful anticipation synapses roar to sudden life!) I wind up guzzling four filled-to-the-brim glasses and cease and desist only because my hostess stops pouring and I'm too embarrassed to ask her to open a new bottle just for me.

The next day, because I'll be staying in, I plan not to drink at all. But the second my bedroom clock hits 6:00 P.M., I call the liquor store and ask them to deliver me a bottle pronto, which I suck straight down.

"I can't be a normal drinker," I tell Dr. Kosanke.

"So what do you want to do now?" she asks.

Part of CRA is reassessing goals," Dr. Meyers had told me. "When people come in, they are overwhelmed by the idea of never drinking again. So we get them to sample sobriety to see what it's like. Then we talk about how they're doing and how things are changing. We coach them to supplement their drinking with other fun activities."

It dawns on me that Dr. Kosanke probably knew I couldn't be a normal drinker. She admits that she thought it might be difficult. "I was concerned you might not be able to be a controlled drinker," she says. "But if I had told you that in the beginning, you probably wouldn't have believed it. I thought it was more useful to examine the role alcohol was playing in your life, then make a decision that you could feel good about and one that would be sustaining."

"Do some people come here and choose to keep alcohol in their lives?"

"Sometimes," she says, "after a period of abstinence. When they create a new relationship with alcohol."

I want more than anything to be that kind of person. But deep in my soul—a hardy though delicately edged thing I'd come to know far more intimately during the past six months—I feel that even if half of France drinks more than I do with no problem, I was still in the cold, wretched clutch of something that, if I let it, would drop me someplace very, very bad.

I quit drinking completely.

It's hard. Brutally so. I don't go to parties when I'm feeling like being boozy. I meet my favorite drinking buddies only for lunch or breakfast. I spend too much money on flowers, furniture, clothes, and cosmetic procedures. I imagine my daughter finding me dead, drowned in my vomit, which is how a friend of mine's alcoholic mother died.

Dr. Kosanke tells me that she feels our work is pretty much over. (Dr. Meyers says CRA tends to be short-term—its therapists want their clients out mountain biking or writing poetry.) In our last session, I ask Dr. Kosanke if I'll ever be able to return to casual drinking. "That's probably not a question you should ask for a couple of years," she says. "But if you do have a drink, it's not the end of world. You always have everything you learned in here."

Some days I feel it would have been more useful to have been released into the world with an admonishment to stay sober no matter what. I guess it's the little girl in me who's used to being punished, not soothed when she misbehaves. But another part of me is relieved to know I don't have to be perfect to be better. And every day, I'm grateful to no longer be living for the tick, tick, tick of my bedroom clock.

To find a CRA program, call 505-925-2361


Next Story