Ask Amy

Do you read advice columns? I do every day. The Washington Post runs a daily column by Carolyn Hax that I read while eating breakfast. As I crunch away on my Special K Chocolaty Delight cereal, the game I play is to compare my off-the-cuff response with Carolyn’s. Mine: a knee-jerk reaction to a seemingly obvious problem that almost always involves confronting one’s mother-in-law. Carolyn, on the other hand, offers a well-researched and thought-out response that gets to the root of the issue and often recommends therapy. It’s easy to see why nobody asked me to write an advice column.

Clustered around Carolyn’s column are three or four additional advice columns. People in DC must need a lot of advice. This letter to Ask Amy caught my eye:

My wife stopped drinking and then stopped going out

Dear Amy: From the day we met, more than 40 years ago, my wife and I have been social drinkers. Get-togethers at weddings, holidays, concerts, sporting events, etc., have always featured alcohol. While I can have a couple of drinks and stop, when it comes to my wife — not so much.

She will keep ordering drinks right up to 2 a.m. And while sometimes stupidly funny when we were younger, as we’ve aged the results were becoming frequently embarrassing. I was becoming very concerned about my wife’s drinking and her health.

One night when she went way over the edge, I filmed her, sent the video to her, and told her that I no longer wanted to be a part of that lifestyle. I dumped all the alcohol in the house, and neither of us has had a drink since. I hardly miss it, and she had no trouble quitting, either, but mentally it has been very challenging for her.

Alcohol was her social lubricant. Alcohol is what allowed her to get past her social anxiety and self-esteem issues. Now she either doesn’t attend events at all, or sometimes we leave early because she is so unhappy. How do I get her to see that she can still enjoy these events without using alcohol as a crutch?

— Sober Husband

Finally, a letter I can truly answer.

This question could have been asked by Susan. In fact, maybe it was. My nights of embarrassing drunkenness ended in the nineties, but that didn’t make my 2016 sobriety assault any easier. I’m just like Sober Husband’s drunk wife. As a drinker, I was funny and confident and charismatic. My circle of friends was massive. I loved going out, crashing parties, meeting new people in bars.

But as I gained control, things got difficult. The less I drank, the less comfortable I felt in social situations. Not surprisingly, no alcohol equals no comfort. In unstructured gatherings I’m simply awkward. I can’t wait to bail, if I show up at all.

To describe Drunk Wife’s quitting cold-turkey, Amy uses the phrase “white-knuckle her way through recovery.” I can’t think of a better description. I often felt like I was hanging off a cliff, holding on for dear life. During the white-knuckle phase, I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to socialize. All my energy went into not drinking. By the time I got through the painful years, I didn’t have any friends left. I learned that without alcohol, I didn’t know how to socialize. Now, the only place I feel safe is on my couch.

Amy simultaneously nailed and also whiffed her response. Amy and Sober Husband call drinking a crutch. It’s not, it’s a mask. It’s a way for Drunk Wife to hide herself from the world. Without her mask, she’s exposed. If she can’t be drunk, she’ll hide at home.

Amy appropriately encourages professional help to address the unresolved addiction draw, suggests therapy and spending time with others in recovery. But if Drunk Wife is anything like me, addiction isn’t the primary concern, maybe not even the problem. It’s a symptom. Addiction is a distant second to the dis-ease she feels socializing without alcohol. Drunk Wife will get through her white-knuckles just like I did. Like me, she may even begin to enjoy being a nondrinker, but until she fixes her social anxiety, she’s going to stay home.

Sober Husband finishes his question with “How do I get her to see that she can still enjoy these events without using alcohol as a crutch?” Sorry, she can’t. It’s not how she’s made. The last time she was confident socializing without alcohol was over forty years ago, if even then. It’s wonderful that the husband got sober in solidarity with his wife, but I’m sorry to say, if he wants to really spend time with her, he better get used to staying at home.

~ ~ ~

Some wordplay I wrote in 2018 while still struggling with the most basic elements of sobriety:

The lubricant of my relationships.
Reduces the friction of forced communication.
Unsticks the cogs for flowing conversation.
Untoxicated, oxidated.
The machinery grinds to a halt.

Photo by Yutacar on Unsplash

14 thoughts on “Ask Amy

    • I couldn’t find any info on Amy’s credentials, which I assume means she doesn’t have any. Carolyn Hax is upfront about having no professional training. I think your comment gets to the point that an advice columnist, whose primary directive is to entertain, is a stupid place to look for advice. In truth, I often only read part of the response. It’s the question that interests me. When I was young, I used to read Ann Landers simply to make my blood boil. She *always* missed the mark.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Wow – this line, “Untoxicated, oxidated.” Brilliant.

    I love how you extended Amy’s answer. But here’s my question – are you happier on your couch than with the friends that alcohol made possible? It seems if the friendships went away when you stopped drinking, there wasn’t much substance there. But I also think it’s a shame that society makes us think we should have 10’s k of dear friends when really most of us have 1-2 that we really count on!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for calling out that particular line. I was so proud of myself when I wrote it. You’ve really asked the $1,000,000 question. I call this thought process ‘the sobriety paradox’. Many of my best memories linger from the period when I drank without caution. I was wild and fun, but I’m also lucky to be alive. I found myself in some very dangerous situations. By the time I had scaled my drinking down to what I (and most other people, probably) consider to be a reasonable amount of alcohol–a couple of drinks a few days per week–I was miserable. All I could think about was my next drink, even if I knew it was days away. My mental and emotional addition was off the charts.

      Something I don’t mention in my essay is that I’ve finally deemed myself cured enough to restart life. I’m spending a lot of time out of the house now (enough that I’m having trouble finding time to write). I mention that it’s unstructured activities that are hard for me. I’ve started seeking out structured activities. Spin class and yoga, a writers group, a new book club at my library. I’m finally doing much better, but I had to gut through that period to break my addition, and then get frustrated enough with my social isolation to make changes. It doesn’t help that my wife and kids are my best friends. I’ve very content hanging around with them, but I see the need to branch out. Thanks for commenting Wynne, your question brought up even more introspection.

      Liked by 1 person

      • What an interesting point you make about structured and unstructured activities. That makes so much sense to me. And I love that your wife and kids are your best friends. I imagine those relationships have benefitted a great deal from the time you spent “getting cured” as you put it.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Georgia. When I first started writing, a post like this would have ripped me apart with anxiety. Now, I’ve written so much about it that I don’t feel like I’ve got any secrets. Many people tell me that I’m relatable. There are too many topics that, while universal, aren’t discussed anywhere near enough. Much like a couple of posts that your wrote about your mother. While very different from my familial relationships, they still strike a chord with me.


  2. Now THIS would be an advice column I would read with regularity: one that offers “a knee-jerk reaction to a seemingly obvious problem that almost always involves confronting one’s mother-in-law.” Hah!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Half of them really seem to be related to self-absorbed or narrow-minded MILs. Carolyn Hax (who I mentioned in my essay) started back in the 90s as sort of a tough-love adviser. She’s become more thoughtful but less funny over the years.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey Jeff, great thought provoking post. I used to read a column in the Boston Globe, but I don’t get ‘the paper’ anymore. I got sober a little over 3 years ago. While I don’t think I was necessarily Drunk Wife, I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. I always thought I was an extrovert and now I think that was the just the mask as you so we’ll described. The opposite of addiction is connection. Connecting with a community of like minded people, going through a similar experience. I found a sober community and for me that has enabled me to stay sober. My husband joined me in solidarity too and it’s great. I think the sober husband needs to know that it takes a long time for someone with addiction issues to feel ready and if we don’t put our sobriety first we stand to lose whatever we put ahead of it. He should be glad drunk wife is steadfast on her journey. He can film her on the couch and rest assured she’s doing the work and hitting the pillow sober.


  4. Lots to think about in this post, Jeff, much of which I could relate to, as is often the case with your posts. I’ve not heard of Ask Amy, but then if it’s in a US paper, it’s not surprising. We’ve had many ‘agony aunts’, as they’re called here. One that came to my mind was Marjorie Proops (what a great name for an agony aunt!) She died in 1996 – I only know that because I googled her name to ensure I’d got it right, only to find she was buried in the same cemetery in Golders Green, London. There’s a piece of useless information for you!

    I could relate to the drunk wife and you as we have talked a lot about alcoholism together in the time we’ve known each other. I can understand the social anxiety aspect of drinking, but it wasn’t a problem for me because I was a ‘closet’ drinker at the time. If, on the odd occasion, I went out with friends, I would drink socially and like other people, and it wasn’t until I got home that I’d crack open a couple of bottles to drink alone. As you know, I’ve been sober for many years now. I don’t have a large number of friends, but I prefer it that way. I have one or two best friends, who I really enjoy being with and who know I don’t drink anymore. I also have a few casual friends, but I much prefer the company of one of my best friends. I’ve never really been that confident in social situations at the best of times, alcohol or not. I’m so glad to hear that you enjoy the company of your family most of all, especially as they’re the people you spend most of your time with.


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