Some Thoughts on Wine After 5 Years Without It

I get a rush when I see a woman lift a glass of red wine, part her lips, tilt her glass and head at just the right angle, and let the liquid pour into her mouth. Not because I like to watch, but because, vicariously, I’m drinking it myself.

I find these experiences tedious. The predictable swell of emotion, the anguish of longing and not having, then weepy stability regained, similar to the shaky relief after a bout of stomach flu. Since I now understand the instinctual automaticity created by the neurobiology of addiction, I note these episodes without judging myself or others. Still, I try to put myself through this as rarely as possible. When people say, “Come on over! Just don’t drink!”, I think, “Right. Be around air, but not breathe, except in little gasps? No, thanks.”

Kittens Ted and Ken

This Medscape article has been updated, but the line I read several years ago is still the same: “Patients who have been sober for 5 years are likely to remain sober, but they are still at risk for relapse.” I thought if I could just hold out for 5 years, I’d be done with this.

I’ve been asked, “How do you abstain?” Since the primary symptom of addiction is an inability to abstain, I don’t. I can’t directly command myself to abstain. Instead, I help myself not drink. I do hundreds of things every day, choosing from among the myriad ways research suggests help people not drink or use.

When people congratulate me for five years of abstinence from alcohol, I’m not appropriately or humbly grateful. Since addiction is a medical condition, not a moral one, abstinence is not a moral achievement. While some people recover from addiction on their own, a whole lot don’t because being without is so very difficult. And knowing ethyl alcohol is a neurotoxin doesn’t help.  Reasons don’t change minds. I help myself the best I can, but I’ve mainly just been lucky with this illness.

I have wondered if, given a choice between opioid use disorder and alcohol use disorder, I should choose opioid use disorder. Although opioid addiction is much more rare than alcoholism – 2 million vs. 16 million – at least there’s medicine for it.

I get in trouble with people in recovery when I say I think my life would be better if I could drink wine again. I feel as much desire to have a bottle of wine tonight as I did five years ago. Personally, everything wine did for me would be done again. Socially, oh my gosh. My town, Blacksburg, Virginia, and its environs, were rated the drunkest locale in the state of Virginia by USA Today. Now, where I am to go, or with whom am I to be, in a town where beer and wine are served at the movies, even church? We have recovery support groups, but talking about not drinking often elicits the automaticity thing in me. Let’s have a drink while we’re talking about not drinking, shall we?

Alcoholism has stripped me of my life with others.  I get that a sense of social connection and possession of social capital – even the existence of love – are considered essential to human thriving, as well as to recovery from addiction. But they’ve been hard to come by in my town. Stigma certainly hasn’t been a pal, either. Inability to be around alcohol in a drinking town puts defeating constraints on prescriptions for happiness that I, or others, might derive.

I hear the “you-shoulds” starting. You should be happier, Anne. You should think differently, Anne. You should want more for yourself, Anne. You should do something about this, Anne. And for heaven’s sake, you should write an uplifting recovery story at 5 years sober, Anne!

It’s un-American to not try to manufacture good times, to not set things up to make better things happen, to not toil now for future reward.

My peak experiences were chemically created in a brain not built to be overwhelmed by chemicals. Nothing in life since – no sunrise, no kitten licking my nose, no lover’s touch, no work achievement – has done for me what wine did. Why would it?

How I have found a modicum of contentment is decidedly un-American. I don’t wish things were different. I practice extreme, intense, relentless, radical acceptance of reality. I laugh at the appalling absurdity of giving work-loving Anne something that work won’t fix.

Then I become available to take delight in what’s available.

The first person I ever saw do this was my father. He usually takes his coffee black but once, when I was a little girl  standing by his chair at the dinner table,  he poured cream into his coffee.

“Look at that swirl,” he said. He pointed for me to look. I peered into his mug. I can still see the star of white cream, black coffee, and caramel.

A few moments like that each day, day after day, make a sweet, little life. Not a grand, famous, or accomplished one.

When my thoughts turn to tragedies in the past or worries about the future, I become aware of this, and I just shift.

I have a friend who nearly daily cooks an astonishingly exotic meal for himself in a studio apartment’s tiny kitchen, plates it, and sends me a photo. The colors and textures are gorgeous, the imagined scents heavenly. I chortle over what he has wrought today.

A friend fosters cats who need special care before they can be adopted. She blocks off the entry way and hall to her house to make them a safe haven and invites friends over to help socialize them. We sit on pillows on the floor, and pat the cats. She describes every nuance of each cat’s morphology, gastroenterology, and kinesiology as if uttering lyric poems.

My former owner of my house and I share joint custody of her garden, and she and our gardener coach me on the wonders in our yard. Who knew breathing in the scent of lavender could bring such a sense of tenderness?

I have adopted two of my friend’s foster kittens. I have named them Ken and Ted for the boy dolls my sister and I had as little girls. My elder cat and I rub chins when we meet, but she would bolt when she smelled wine on my breath. She hasn’t run from that odor in five years, my middle cat has never needed to, and maybe these kittens never will, either. I can’t say one way or the other. Protecting them is neither an incentive nor a disincentive. Addiction persists despite the fear of negative consequences or the promise of positive ones.

Substance use disorders occur on a spectrum, and so does recovery from them. Some people claim gratitude for having developed addiction because of new gains. I do not. I had a quarter century as a respected teacher, and a lovely new marriage, when alcoholism delivered its sucker punch when I was 50. Alcoholism cost me everything I valued. I am okay with this good-enough, workaround life. But, gee.

To my friends, family members, and to anyone who thinks they might even have the hint of a problem with alcohol, maybe wine like I did, perhaps my tale can serve as a cautionary one. Limit yourself while you can. Once you can’t? You do not want this.

Ah, wine, my lost love. I miss you so.


Looky! The markings on Ken’s and Ted’s fur swirl like cream newly poured into black coffee.


  1. What a marvelous, honest, yet oddly hopeful post. I practice “shifting,” too, just because I have a tendency to get stuck in my head. (My staying away from narcissists has also limited by social sphere. Being afraid of people makes it hard to go out and meet them – and I don’t like to meet them in bars!)

  2. really great writing!!

  3. Lael Arango says

    Anne, thank you for writing this and sharing it. My brother used alcohol to self-medicate schizophrenia for years. Earlier this year he died unexpectedly from heart disease that was caused in part by genetics, but also by chronic alcoholism. I never understood why he always went back to alcohol when there were “legitimate” pharmaceutical options available to him. I am starting to understand that his alcoholism became another way that his brain chemistry betrayed him, and us. I don’t know if my understanding could have helped him, since his brain chemistry distorted reality, diminished executive function and demanded social isolation. But it has softened the edge of my anger that he chose the relief that alcohol delievered over the relief provided by pharmaceuticals.

    • Oh, my dear Lael, my heart aches for your and for your brother. You used the one word that sums up my 1000+: betrayal. How could a source of such solace, such heart-easing, such thought-calming, turn on us so? I am so very, very sorry. I feel eased and calmed by your words. You understand. That’s balm for my spirit. I offer you the profoundest thanks for your writing and your sharing.