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Drinking After Breaking Up with an Alcoholic

My ex was an alcoholic and former heroin addict, clean for a couple of years. He told me that I have a glass of wine in the evening, but I worried every time we were around alcohol, even if I wasn’t drinking it.

In the wake of the breakup, I worried every time I accepted a glass of wine or a cocktail from a sympathetic friend. My ex was an alcoholic and former heroin addict, clean for a couple of years. He had told me that alcohol wasn't his trigger, that it would be different if I were shooting up or snorting cocaine. He told me that I could splash wine into my Crock-Pot, or have a glass in the evening, sitting across a table from him. But I worried every time we were around alcohol, even if I wasn't drinking it and once we broke up, the habit was hard to kick.

While we were together, I learned to look for the interesting non-alcoholic options on the menu, easier to find now than ever. I sampled rosemary honey soda and cucumber lemonade and drank countless bottles of ginger beer. Occasionally, when we were out with friends or family, I would have a drink. He kept me company as I tasted Chateau Montelena's chardonnay, knowing that I would kick myself if I didn't taste the wine that started it all for Napa.

My first job out of college was for a local winery in Washington State, the largest in the area. I did administrative work and poured wine in the tasting room when large groups came in. I learned to swirl the wine in the glass fast and high, impressing my patrons and forcing air into the wine at the same time. Sometimes, our winemaker would make her way up to the office with wine fresh from a barrel and give us sips of something young and immature. I loved wine even before I got that job. I loved the way each vintage was different, and how it changed over time in a bottle or a glass. I loved how many different kinds there were and how it complemented so many of my favorite conversations.

Later, as a precursor to learning to cook in earnest, I began to explore mixology. It started with a Havana Sidecar and quickly became expensive as I mastered the Corpse Reviver #2 and discovered how many different flavors could still be labeled "gin." I delighted in access to a friend's spirits collection at a party, tasked with making something creative that would go down easy.

When I did go out with girlfriends when he wasn't around, I felt a little like I was cheating on him as I ordered a Hemingway Daiquiri or sipped a glass of dry riesling.

When my ex and I got together, the question about alcohol was the first that most of my friends asked. I was happy and in love, which is intoxication enough in its own way. I told them I would be fine drinking less, being considerate, and not drinking with the one I loved if that was what he needed.

Slowly, I gave up the idea of picnics in the park with contraband bubbly, of wine tasting on vacation and discovering beers we both liked. I let go of the hope that had risen in me when I spoke with a recently bereaved friend of my mother's, whose eyes lit up when he talked about the way he and his wife had shared a love for wine, lasting through their life together.

Most of my dating life has happened after I turned 21. Usually, I don't drink on a first date, but after that, alcohol often becomes part of our story. Sometimes, it's the way I'm invited out in the first place ("Would you like to grab a drink with me?"). It can be a way of remembering something about me—my enjoyment of porters and pinot noir being pieces of trivia that make me feel that I've been heard when they mention them a week later. Like a wonderful meal, it can be something shared between only us, a memory that we maintain together.

While my ex and I dated, I would take myself through a mental process when I wanted a glass of wine, questioning my motives and wondering if it was worth the effort. My taste buds were happy with the other flavors I wasn't avoiding. With so little drinking, my normally lightweight self could be done after a half-glass of wine. It hardly seemed worth it to order one. When I did go out with girlfriends when he wasn't around, I felt a little like I was cheating on him as I ordered a Hemingway Daiquiri or sipped a glass of dry riesling.

A couple of weeks before our breakup, we had a conversation that I thought was the end, and perhaps it should have been. When it was over, we clung together, fragile, and he looked at me. "Do you need me to get you a bottle of wine?" he asked. "I would understand." I shook my head wordlessly.

The weekend of the breakup, I was on a trip with my brother in Washington wine country. Though we were there for a concert, we stopped to visit a friend of his, an assistant winemaker for a high-end winery. She pulled out a library wine, a 2008 cabernet sauvignon so smooth and velvety that I barely noticed it on the way down. It was the same cab I had tried right out of the barrel a few years ago when I'd visited the tasting room at the suggestion of another long-ago love interest. Drinking that wine so many years later felt like the best kind of redemption, the purest form of pleasure. I had missed the ecstasy of truly good wine in pleasant company.

As soon as we broke up, my friends came out of the woodwork with offers of support and libations. We drank together and I cried and told my story. We drank white wine in the middle of the day, and shared growlers of local beer in the cool of the evening. But I couldn't shake the sense that I should feel guilty, drinking this poison that could destroy the life of my ex, so soon after our split.

I have seen that alcohol can be an elixir, a shared experience, a gift. I've also seen that it can be an insidious evil, a mistress, a liar.

Before this relationship, I did not worry about the dark side of drinking. I kept company with people who enjoyed the experience, the taste, the texture. We were interested in wine in the same way we were interested in books or art.

Perhaps it was that very fine cab, or the memory of my mother's friend and his enduring love for his wife that made me remember how wonderful alcohol could be. Maybe it was the memory of all those cocktails made in friendly kitchens, or glasses of wine sipped while cooking for two. I held that in tension with the conversation where he told me that he drank the tequila so fast that he couldn't taste it, and what it felt like to have one drink, and not be able to stop himself from ordering more.

I have seen that alcohol can be an elixir, a shared experience, a gift. I've also seen that it can be an insidious evil, a mistress, a liar.

It had been a little over a week since the breakup when I poured myself my first solo glass of wine. It was a lovely rosé I'd been saving for the right occasion for about five years and it was open now, slowly losing the best parts of itself. I made it through half of the glass before I couldn't go on. I couldn't bear the thought that it was just me and that lovely pink wine, alone.