Alcohol and Nostalgia: Confessions of an Unwitting Drinking Problem

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Empty glassElissa Schappell’s recent piece in The New York Times, “A Glass All Empty,” chronicles her happy, hard-drinking young adult years alongside her husband—and his subsequent, troubling (to Schappell, at least) decision to stop drinking alcohol altogether. Ostensibly, the article is about Scheppell’s husband’s choice and how it affects their relationship; but the piece reads more like a chronicle of unhealthy drinking habits tacked onto a eulogy for times past.

In her own words, a younger Schappell would drink “to the point of hallucination” and experience glued-to-the-couch hangovers, “getting up only to be ill”—statements she quickly follows with, “But it wasn’t all pleasant.” Frankly, there’s cause for concern if the hallucinations and the hangovers were the pleasant points.  Not to mention the fact that, according to the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy, moderate drinking for women means one drink per day—a number that Schappell is clearly surpassing.

Yet despite the unpleasantness of past drinking binges, Schappell seems deeply disturbed by her husband’s newfound teetotalling. Her article does a good job of raising those awkward questions that many family members and friends have when someone quits drinking: “Can they ever have a drink again?” and the inevitable “If he needed to quit, (or is an alcoholic)…what does that make me??” It’s undeniably tough to empathize when someone close to you gives up drinking. You feel a sense of loss, a move away from normalcy. Of course, for people who aren’t in recovery and don’t have a predisposition to addiction, moderate social drinking isn’t detrimental to health. But Schappell’s starry-eyed, alcohol-clouded reminiscences indicate that she’s romanticizing the unhealthy drinking habits of her past.

When you drink heavily, it’s often a habit learned early on from family members. You grow up with it, you’re used to it, and you gravitate towards other people who also drink that way; surrounding yourself by heavy drinkers makes your own drinking seem like the norm. But appearances can be deceiving—look at the late 70s and early 80s, when “the norm” for some was to snort cocaine at a bar or in a restaurant. It’s all about the environment, and Schappell has clearly been relying on her own environment to make her feel OK about excessive drinking.

The world is full of people like Schappell’s husband—those who quit or dramatically reduce their alcohol consumption for various reasons, from health to athletics to starting a family. Many of these folks are able to quit without any sort of treatment, like Schappell’s husband did. Sure, based on Schappell’s description, her husband certainly seemed to have been drinking like an alcoholic, but many would say that he wasn’t an alcoholic because he was able to quit without assistance. A major hallmark of alcohol dependence is the inability to cut down or quit despite repeated attempts, and this clearly does not describe him.

The bottom line is this: whether or not Schappell’s husband was an alcoholic, that’s a question for him and him only. Schappell may need to stop and periodically look at her own drinking habits. If you do this and realize that your drinking is keeping you from doing things you want to do, or getting you stuck on behaviors you wish you could stop, or causing you to miss important work or family events…it’s time to cut back.

I hope Schappell comes to realize that her loss of a spousal drinking buddy is not such a bad thing. She hasn’t lost her husband; she’s simply lost that version of her life with him, and the era dominated by their drinking. Her dreamy recollections of alcoholic moments are tied into her nostalgia for the past and her own youth; she admits “it is hard to not be nostalgic for that time, for that seemingly limitless sense of possibility.” Schappell says her husband is “simply not as fun” anymore, but he’s still that same great guy she once knew and they can absolutely learn to have fun together again—just without the numbing haze of heavy alcohol use.

Deni Carise, Ph.D.
Chief Clinical Officer
Phoenix House


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  • Alisha

    Dear Deni,
    I really enjoyed reading your perspective on Elissa Schappell’s article. The romanticizing throughout her piece was alarming to me. I was struck by her ability to be incredibly honest and sumultaneously in denial fascinating. Great stuff.