Addict (drugaddict) wrote,



As dessert ended, the woman in the red dress got up and stumbled toward the bathroom. Her husband, whose head had been sinking toward the bûche de Noël, put a clumsily lecherous arm around the reluctant hostess. As coffee splashed into porcelain demitasse cups, the woman in the red dress returned, sank sloppily into her chair and reached for the Courvoisier. Someone gently moved the bottle away. “Are you shaying I’m drunk?” she demanded. Even in the candlelight I noticed that the lipstick she had reapplied was slightly to the left of her lips. Her husband, suddenly bellicose, sprang from his chair to defend his wife’s honor. But on the way across the room he slipped and went down like a tray of dishes. “Frank! Are you hurt?” she screamed. Somehow she had gotten hold of the brandy. “S’nothing,” he replied, “just lay down for a little nap. Can I bum a smoke?”

That dinner party was almost 10 years ago; it was the last time I saw anyone visibly drunk at a New York party. The New York apartments and lofts which were once the scenes of old-fashioned drunken carnage — slurred speech, broken crockery, broken legs and arms, broken marriages and broken dreams — are now the scene of parties where both friendships and glassware survive intact. Everyone comes on time, behaves well, drinks a little wine, eats a few tiny canapés, and leaves on time. They all still drink, but no one gets drunk anymore. Neither do they smoke. What on earth has happened?

If alcoholism is an addiction — which it is — how can people control their drinking just because it is no longer acceptable to get drunk? What about smoking, another addiction? Addicts are supposed to be powerless; is a little social disapproval more powerful than all the rehabilitation centers and 12-step programs and fancy new drugs?

Does fashion trump addiction?

Addiction specialists and scientists have identified three causes of most addictions: early trauma, genes, and environment. Still, addiction has eluded all attempts at a precise definition or a complete understanding. In most models, environment is thought to be the least of the three so-called causes. But maybe environment is the elephant in the room. In an environment where it is not attractive to get drunk, no one gets drunk.

In his brilliant book about addiction, “America Anonymous,” Benoit Denizet-Lewis describes an experiment done by Vancouver professor Bruce Alexander in which rats in small cages were compared to rats in a specially designed Rat Heaven, a room where lab rats had everything that lab rats like. The rats in cages drank 16 times as much of the sugary morphine solution offered than the rats in Rat Heaven. Can addictions be controlled just by circumstances? Are parties and vacations an overlooked way to treat alcoholism?

In the old days, drunkenness was as much part of New York City society as evening clothes. This is the city where Zelda Fitzgerald jumped wildly in the fountain in front of the Plaza, the city of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” written by another fabulous alcoholic, Truman Capote. It’s the city of late nights with sloshed celebrities at the Stork Club. It’s the city that gave its name to Manhattans and Bronx Cocktails, the city of John O’Hara and Frank O’Hara, of drunken brilliance and brilliant drunks.

I don’t drink. I know the savage, destructive power of alcoholism. It’s a soul stealer. Yet, there’s a mischievous part of me that misses all that extreme behavior, all those nasty but somehow amusing surprises, all that glamor even when so much of it ended in pain, institutions and early death. For us sober people there is a kind of drunkenfreude to watching others embarrass themselves, mangle their words and do things they will regret in the morning — if they even remember them in the morning.

After our host poured the woman in the red dress and her husband into a taxi that long ago night, we all chortled over our nightcaps at their behavior. In his sober years my father used to mix killer martinis for guests and then watch with amusement as they tried to navigate down the stairs of his house to the driveway — stairs that they had bounded up so easily a few hours earlier.

There are certainly moments when it is embarrassing not to drink. A friend will start to pour me a glass of wine and then apologize profusely. At a party someone will notice my club soda and decide to make an issue of it. Why can’t I just have a little white wine? But there were many more embarrassing moments when I did drink, and that’s what watching other people get drunk helps me remember. For me, the psychology is often in reverse. I learn from seeing what I don’t want and avoiding it, rather than from seeing what I do want and aspiring to it. I have been to many wonderful Christmas parties in the last decade and seen many glorious women behave with dignity and grace. I don’t remember them. It’s the woman in the red dress I won’t forget.

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