“I Need a Drink”
On Sunday night, I needed a drink. The reasons were not spectacular. I’d had a long weekend visiting my boyfriend’s father in the Bay Area. His family is quite nice, but there’s still that edge of ‘not-my-family.’ We’d braved the weekend crowds at Pier 38 to get some of the most awesome frozen yogurt in the world, along with some great cheese, bread, and chocolate. Earlier that afternoon we’d had a lovely lunch, and then Colin and his father set off for the airport, dropping me at the Caltrain station along the way to start my journey up to Berkeley. Once there, I think Google found for me the most direct and also steepest route to my destination, the 19th Century dorms of Church Divinity School. Thereafter, I determined I needed dinner and, if possible, a drink. It had been a long day, but I was still strangely enervated and I wanted to relax and sleep well that night.
One would think this would be an easy quest to fulfill. I even started out at a vegetarian Japanese restaurant (gotta love Berkeley) that served warm, unfiltered sake, a particular favorite. But then I thought of the walk back up that hill, in the dark, through unfamiliar (but not remotely threatening) streets, by myself, and I chose hot tea instead. I then determined to find somewhere I could get a drink to go, but I wanted a glass of whiskey or wine, not an entire bottle. Thus, stalking the isles of first a Walgreen’s (they really are everywhere) and then the local, indy grocery, I was stymied. What is there for the single drinker? I settled for a single-serve packed of hot chocolate, some cookies, and an organic, fair-trade chocolate bar. And I did not sleep well that night, despite the cozy, quiet of my little attic room.
This desire comes on me from time to time, more frequent than my desire for really good New York cheesecake and far less frequent than my daily craving for coffee. Perhaps once every week or two I have one of those days that leaves me exhausted but enervated and I have the thought “I need a drink.” My drink of choice is Jameson whiskey, neat. It’s smooth to sip and, unlike an open bottle of wine or sake, whiskey will keep in my cupboard until the end of days. Occasionally, I may have on hand some of those individual bottles of red wine, the ones that come in a four pack. Those I’m more likely to have with dinner, if I need to continue working after, but the whiskey I like just before bed, sitting in my chair watching The Daily Show or the like, waiting for the buzz to carry me off to sleep. In my drafty old apartment, I had an entire ritual around my Friday-night bath which involved a little Jameson, and now I can scarcely take a bath at all without craving the delightful fumes in my nose.
I drink alone more often than not, which is one of the warning signs AA lists on its handy questionnaire for “Are you an alcoholic?” It’s the one question to which I must answer ‘yes.’ I am often alone when I drink, though I don’t often drink alone, if you understand the difference. I do not drink when I am unhappy, upset, or sad, because I find, for myself, that alcohol has the propensity to amplify emotions – to say ‘yes’ to everything to which I so often say ‘no.’ That ‘no’ often comes in the form of control, for me. So alcohol I use only to celebrate or reward, never to drown or forget. Sometimes, it’s been a bad day and I think “I need a drink,” but turn away from the cupboard.
But lately I’ve been thinking. I am an infrequent drinker, but so many are not. For others alcohol is a poison, to which I should not contribute. The Fifth Precept clearly calls for abstinence from intoxicants. Some Buddhists and Buddhist traditions have interpreted (or rewritten) this precept to preclude the abuse of intoxicants, thereby exempting their moderate recreational use. I have never had any such illusions. It has always seemed perfectly sensible that the Buddha would advocate for the elimination of anything that might dull or twist the mind. And, as my teacher now quite rightly asks, if alcohol is just an occasional thing anyway, why not give it up? So why not?
Well, I like alcohol. Just as I like coffee and cheesecake. (Although an argument could certainly be made for giving up caffeine and sugar as well.) I also like the effect it has on my mind when used judiciously. In some sense, it’s useful. So I don’t want to give it up. That’s really all it comes down to.
It wouldn’t be that hard. I don’t hang with a bunch of hard-drinking friends. Neither my boyfriend nor my family drink. The question is not logistical or relational, but rather moral and personal. Do I have the moral conviction to forgo a personal pleasure? Maybe I can build the moral conviction as I investigate deeper how alcohol effects persons, families, and our society – just like PETA shows slaughterhouse videos to encourage vegetarianism. It’s very easy to say my personal alcohol consumption isn’t harming anyone, but I’m not entire certain that’s true. These questions will continue to work in me for the foreseeable future. And that bottle of Jameson is still in my cupboard. But will I buy a next bottle? Do I need that drink?