But for serious boozers like me, knowing that you "ought" to quit is right up there with politicians knowing they ought to vote their conscience or 21-year-old dudes being aware that they really, really ought to use a condom. Just because you have a realization doesn't mean you have to do anything with it.
And so politicians continue to sell their souls. College kids continue to knock up their girlfriends. I continue to get drunk.
I first knew I had a problem with alcohol when I was in college. When I say this, people laugh and roll their eyes. "Didn't we all," they say. "Didn't we all." Well, no, not quite. We didn't all go straight from being a teetotaler to getting shitfaced practically every night. We didn't all pass out on the Quad or the bathroom floor. That was me. Alas.
Some people get a drunk a few times and realize they hate it or that the hangovers aren't worth it. Not me. I loved the feeling of spinning out of control, the blurring of reality. I rarely was hung over. And I couldn't seem to stop getting drunk.
I actually went to see a counselor in college to talk about my drinking. I'd been brought up to be a nice girl, and other than the drinking, I pretty much was: straight-A student, chairman of the campus volunteer network, editor of the college paper. I actually taught Sunday school on the weekends. Even with an increasingly bad drinking problem, none of that changed. I'd do keg stands at a frat party, rely on a good friend to get me home, wake up at 7 a.m., and rush off to Sunday school, wondering just what had I done the night before. I wasn't always sure.
I thought the counselor would tell me to stop. I had this idea that I'd have to drop out of college and I'd wind up in some cold, clean place where I'd scrub the floor and do group therapy and (of course) quit drinking.
But my counselor wasn't into my celebrity rehab fantasy. Nor, it turns out, was he into the idea of alcohol as a disease. "You don't need AA," he told me. "You don't even need to quit drinking. You just need to learn to control how much you drink."
That's when he told me about Moderation Management.
In the mid-'90s, a problem drinker named Audrey Kishline had posited that alcohol wasn't necessarily a disease — people like me may have a bad habit, but it's one they can control. Maybe that wino in the alley has to give up the sauce completely, but not Kishline, and not me. We never fail to make it to work in the morning. We never drink alone.
I didn't have to quit, the counselor told me. I just had to take control.
"You need to be mindful of how many drinks you have," the counselor said. "For every drink, you should drink one glass of water." You could even, he suggested, drink straight tonic every other drink — just pretend your glass had gin in it, too. (Sneaky!)
Above all, he warned, you never, ever drive drunk. That was the biggest deal.
Of course, the idea of control appealed to me, big-time. For one thing, I didn't want to have to quit. I liked drinking. Just as importantly, though, was that self-reliance is a big thing in my family. The idea of admitting I was an alcoholic seemed right up there with flunking a class or going on welfare.
I followed Moderation Management all the way 'til graduation.
The good news is that, overall, I drank less; the bad news is there were still nights when everything went all blurry. When I look back on my days of hardcore Moderation Management, what I remember most is the struggle: the fight to say "no" when I really was dying to say yes.
All too often I just gave up. "Screw MM," I'd tell my boyfriend. "I'm having another. Will you get me home tonight?"
It turns out I had nothing on the founder of the movement.
Kishline started the first chapter of Moderation Management in 1993. In January 2000, soon after I graduated from college, she announced she was in trouble and quitting drinking altogether.
Three months later, drunk off her ass, she climbed into her pickup truck and, driving the wrong way down the highway, smashed into another vehicle. When she woke up in a hospital bed, her sisters had to tell her what had happened: She'd killed two people.
I suppose that should have been my wake-up call. The weird thing is that it wasn't.
I don't even remember Kishline's crash, even though I was dimly aware it had happened. I think it was easier to ignore the details (a 12-year-old girl, dead; a flask of vodka by Kishline's side) than to confront them.
And so I've kept trying to moderate the unmanageable. I still count my drinks, on my more vigilant nights. I still tell myself that it's not really a drinking problem as long as I never drive drunk. I still, occasionally, pretend to drink gin when it's really just tonic.
I bargain with God, telling Him that I'll quit someday. Just not — please God — not now. Now I need that drink.
It occurred to me this year that the two things in my life I worry about the most — my waistline and my bank account — would no longer be issues if I just gave up the booze. Of course I could easily lose that five pounds if I wasn't slamming back a bottle of wine most nights. Of course I'd have lots of money if I didn't always offer to buy the next round.
But we problem drinkers are nothing if not delusional. And so once again, I write up my list of resolutions for this year, and once again, going cold turkey is nowhere on it.
Next year, I tell myself. Maybe next year.