While my high school peers gulped down cheap beer from their parents’ basement stashes, I was wearing WWJD bracelets and silently judging them.
My youth group era eschewed anything “lukewarm,” instead opting for extremes. (Or, as we said in the ‘90s, eXtreme!) Being extreme for God meant staying far away from anything that could potentially lead down a dark road. If sex before marriage was sin, nix kissing too. And maybe dating altogether. If you disagreed with a company, boycott it. If an album had swear words, run it over with your car.
Though my dad kept red wine in the basement and advocated moderation in all things, I thought of things the youth group way. If it’s a sin to get drunk, don’t drink at all—not even champagne on your wedding day. Eventually, I tried a strawberry daiquiri, which I consumed with Dad on my 21st birthday. It turned my cheeks rum red and made my head spin. I had no desire to do it again.
A couple years later, I met Starling Castle Riesling. It tasted like honey and sunlight and joy and lightness—all the things that were missing in my life just then. That was the year that I was trying to feel my way through a dark, undiagnosed depression and a soul-crushing church search at the same time. Life felt heavy and bleak, but the wine—the wine made me float. I started drinking wine, and all of the sudden my black-and-white world got a whole lot more complicated.
As a memoirist, when I tell the stories of my life, I have to talk about my journey with alcohol, which started with that first glass of Riesling almost a decade ago.
I love wine. I love the complex taste of it on your tongue, the nuances that I can sense but not name. It brings out the flavors of a good meal. It rivers between friends at a table, carrying the conversation to places you never meant to go.
I love the feel of stemware in my hands and way that red wine glows like a jewel in the kitchen light. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was a glass of wine that Jesus picked up during that Last Supper, when he said, “This is my blood of the covenant, shed for many.” Not water. Wine—with all of its potential misuse. Take. Drink. Do this in remembrance of me.
When we do wine right, it’s communion. It’s a holy mystery. It’s a gift. But it’s also possible to do it wrong—and I have. I pour another glass even when I know I shouldn’t. At times, instead of talking about my pain and failures, my exhaustion and frustrations, I drink about them. It’s a fake and temporary solution at best—and a wicked hangover at worst.
Much of the time, I am able to keep my footing on that spacious path of sweetness and beauty. But sometimes I get off track and end up facedown in a ditch of my own making.
Shortly after the advanced copies of my new book Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark were sent out, I received a series of well-meaning text messages from an early reader. Have you considered AA?, she wanted to know. For the next several minutes, my phone pinged with messages—a mix of concern and advice.
The texts were unexpected, but not out of the blue. When you confess that you’re still figuring out your relationship to alcohol, people tend to worry. There is a very real, terrifying line that we can cross where affection turns to addiction. Certainly none of us—myself least of all—are above a 12-step program, and I am wary of my own heart, which is so bent toward self-destruction.
Yet, at the same time, there is a broad spectrum between one-too-many drinks every now and then...and alcoholism, between bad decision-making and a disorder. The Centers for Disease Control found that most excessive drinkers (90% of them) do not meet the criteria for alcohol dependence, even though their drinking may become problematic. It’s possible to fail spectacularly when it comes to alcohol and still not be an addict.
The healing work done in places like AA is some of the very best, and we need the stories of those who have found sobriety like a rock in the sinking waters of their addiction. I need those stories. But I also think we need to address how we drink well. It takes time and grace and self-awareness to learn your limits, and it’s harder for some than others. If the default answer to “I’m struggling with alcohol,” is a knee-jerk, “Go to AA,” I fear that we’ll create an environment of shame and secrecy and miss a crucial place of transformation.
We need fewer “Mommy needs her wine” memes on Facebook and more honest, conversations about how hard life is…and how easy it is to numb out. I struggle with moderation in many things, but particularly with wine. I want to talk about that honestly, to cultivate a healthy and redemptive relationship to alcohol.
We need people who will remind us that there is a difference between drinking to forget and drinking to remember. We need to hold each other’s hair back with a compassionate, listening ear when we get it wrong; we need to affirm each other when we get it right.
The first time my friend Rachel and her husband came over for dinner, I offered wine. “Oh,” she said, declining graciously. “I’m on a journey with wine.” And for me, it was a deep sigh of relief. A me too moment.
That night, we ate Papa Murphy’s and drank Diet Coke, and Rachel told me about her journey, and I told her about mine. When she feels like she’s starting to veer away from moderation, she takes a month to reset. Going a month without wine helps her remember that she doesn’t need it, recalibrates her mind and heart, reminds her that she is the boss of her desires.
Hearing Rachel talk about the steps she’s taken in her journey helped me to take new steps in mine. I have asked trusted friends to keep an eye turned toward my journey and have invited them to say something if it seems like I’m losing my footing. My husband and I came up with a code word for social situations when I get caught up in conversation and forget to keep a wary eye on myself.
These are small things, but they are important. They are bright stars helping me navigate a journey that can be dangerous, but that I think is worth taking. There are so many gray areas in the years beyond those extreme youth group days, and we need community to be able to maneuver through those spaces with grace. The people who help us to transform in meaningful ways are not the ones who try to fix us. They’re the ones who invite us into their own imperfect journeys, and in doing so become much-needed companions on the complicated, dangerous, beautiful walk home.
Addie Zierman is the author of When We Were on Fire (one of Publisher’s Weekly’s Best Books of 2013) and of the Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark (March 15, 2016, Convergent Books). She lives in Minnesota with her husband and two sons and blogs regularly at addiezierman.com.
In Replacing Sunday Mornings, an earlier article Addie wrote for Her.meneutics, she discusses leaving and returning to church.
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