The first thing my sister and I did the night my plane touched down in upstate New York was get wasted and run into the country dark. We drank a bottle and a half of wine with our Chinese food and wove each other’s hair into tight fishtail braids. Then, we stuffed a backpack with essentials—our phones, two flashlights, a knife for protection, and a jam jar filled with the Jameson I’d bought her as a housewarming present—and fled toward wildness and each other.
It was early September, lightless beyond the buzzy bulb of her landlord’s garage. We pushed, hushed but laughing, through the tall pines and long shadows demarcating the yard from the property he rents to farmers. On the other side of the tree line was fallow land clotted with mud as thick as horse shit, red-black and laced with rivulets of the rainwater that had been falling until my arrival. We walked more, the hair on our arms feathery from gooseflesh, passing the whiskey, until we reached an abandoned house, shingled and low-slung. Molly had seen it in the daylight, but she saved exploring it for when I got there, as a special treat. The door glinted with spiderwebs we traced with flashlight beams in our shaky hands, but it was unlocked. Inside, the walls were plastered with posters from 2011 that advised the workers who once slept here, their twin mattresses and cots now stripped of sheets and covered in dust, of their OSHA rights. We whispered to each other. Because of who we were (two white women) we were playing with danger by breaking into property, rather than being in any real risk, and we knew it. Uneasy now with our trespass, we left.
Back outside, it started to mist. I suddenly needed to use the bathroom. Out of the dark, a blue porta-potty appeared. Inside was immaculate and even had toilet paper. “How did you do that?” Molly breathed, incredulous as she ripped on her Juul on the other side of the door. When we went a few days later to look for it in the daylight, it was gone.
Once refreshed, we cracked open our whiskey, each took a slug, and walked carefully along tractor tracks pooled with water. Mud sucked at our shoes, devouring us to the ankle. We heaved each other up and ran, our faces licked by the harsh tongues of stalks higher than the crowns of our heads. Above us, the night was moonless, but the stars spun. They watched us flounder through the mud and corn to a crick on the field’s far side. Following the crick would lead us to a road, we hoped, but we weren’t sure. There might be fences unseen, and dogs. Backtracking made more sense, but we’d already walked a mile and, though we’d followed the tractor lines, still didn’t want to risk ruining anyone’s crop with more footprints. I don’t remember how we decided to go forward, only that we did, following the water where it wanted to go, which turned out to be under a road we tumbled out onto. Wet, scratched, thrilled, we walked each other home.
Molly is almost nine years younger than me, funnier and sluttier and better stacked. For a while, her ringtone was “Country Girl (Shake It For Me).” She can save a life and shoot a gun and has scars in the shape of braces on her knuckles from the time a girl in high school called our brother, who is disabled, retarded, and Molly, who was also in high school, beat her to shit. We shared a room from when she was a toddler until I left for college. One of the pleasures of my life these last few years has been getting to know her as her own person, beyond the milk-skinned baby girl I longed for after watching our mom pop out three boys, and beyond the dreadful teenager who screamed a lot when I came home from college. One of the many things we like to do together is drink.
My sister and I share a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. Maybe. Who actually knows what our genes carry, and scientific study of addiction, its causes and its care, has historically used a pretty narrow framework and lens. In the U.S., we largely leave people with addictions and substance use disorders to religiously assisted study and care. This abandonment means knowledge about alcoholism, for better and for worse, primarily exists in lived experience, folk understanding, and family lore.
For example: drinking is a sin. For example: it’s wrong to drink in the morning but it’s fine to drink at night. For example: liquor before beer. For example: one great-grandfather drank his way out of a professional football career, though his multiple head injuries probably didn’t help, and turned to terrorizing his wife and kids until he died in his 50s. Another was too drunk for even the Catholic Church: his bones still reside on the wrong side of the cemetery, in the unhallowed ground saved for poor non-Catholics and suicides. A third, while courting his wife, showed up tanked at a church picnic. When she refused to see him, he drove his roadster on the wrong side of a freshly paved road all the way back home. When my mom was a kid, before the road was repaved, she could still see her grandfather’s tracks.
Alcoholism is almost exclusively a male trait in my family, though there have been quiet rumors around of a few women, too. It’s hard, however, to have room for our own problems when we’re so busy trying to protect our men from their own. Again for example: my brother Hank, who I’ve written about before, started drinking in his early teen years and lately seems to be showing signs of brain damage associated with prolonged severe alcoholism in part associated with his other mental health problems. For decades, my parents and siblings have done everything we can to keep him alive. I love him, and for so long, I’ve been afraid for him, but Hank and I have been increasingly estranged, which has allowed me to recognize how afraid I am of him, too. There’s another loved one, alternately the sweetest and gentlest of my male relatives and also the most angry, who has had 11 traumatic brain injuries (again, football), two of which occurred as a result of his drunk driving, one of which left him with over 30 stitches in his scalp and a dislocated leg that almost popped out his back.
These are not minor problems. These are not low stakes. And yet, I drink, and so does my sister. Why? For one, it’s fun. For two, unlike some of my other family, I don’t have to worry about what she’s going to do or say—to me, to others, or to herself—if she gets wasted. The third is harder to articulate, but I feel it deeply. It has something to do with the pleasure of fucking up, the sour gravel feeling of regret, and learning from that regret—go slower, do less, don’t drink after donating a pint of blood.
I know how many drinks I had that night because I always count, partially because I’m traumatized by my family’s history. Of course I want the spectrum between alcohol use, alcohol abuse, and alcoholism to be quantifiable. I want it badly, a binary of good and bad, healthy and unhealthy. Even though culturally we repeat stories to each other about how a glass of wine a day may be good for you, the reality is booze isn’t nutrition or morality. There is no “good” or “bad”: there are choices, experiences, and outcomes. Some of those outcomes are addiction. And even if I didn’t know all that, I could look to my home: in my family, there is no rule or reason, other than some of us are cursed, and some of us aren’t.
So again, why? For me, when I’m not just having a good time, drinking laps at the edge of a forest in my head where gender, violence, and autonomy grow entwined. My sister and I both have had periods where we’ve drank too much. There was a terrible year in my 20s where I drove my body through Chicago like a drunk drives a car, crashing into others and watching what happened next with a muted disinterest. Molly has her own stories. There are times when alcohol has hurt us, when our choices around alcohol have caused us harm, but there are many times when we don’t drink, and there are many, many times when drinking has provided us with pleasure, good memories, and new experiences. Drinking, and surviving it, is some kind of promise that we’re alive. For whatever reason, we’re alright. Our drinking doesn’t chain us halfway to our grave.
Years ago, I read the poem “Sylvia” by Gerald Stern. It’s about his reckoning with his sister’s childhood death:
Across a space peopled with stars I am
laughing while my sides ache for existence
it turns out is profound though the profound
because of time it turns out is an illusion
and all of this is infinitely improbable
given the space, for which I gratefully lie
in three feet of snow making a shallow grave
I would have called an angel otherwise and
think of my own rapturous escape from
living only as dust and dirt, little sister.
In the decade and a half since first reading this poem, I’ve memorized it, never being able to articulate to myself why it means as much as it does to me. Thinking about that first night visiting my sister in her new life, drunk under the stars, it comes back. I don’t know why our genes landed how they did, or why they’re sick the way they are. I don’t know why our men have made some choices and my sister and I have made others. I do know that their past isn’t our future. My brother isn’t dead, but neither are we. I drink to our rapturous escape.
Author’s note: For readers who want to learn more about addiction, especially if you have a loved one you’re trying to understand, the episode “Addictionology (ADDICTION)” from the podcast Ologies (featuring licensed mental health counselor and addictionologist Erin Parisi) was profoundly helpful to me. I wouldn’t say it’s a happy listen, but it is a hopeful one.
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