The Atlantic

Alcohol as Escape From Perfectionism

The pressures of being a "superwoman" are dangerous.
Source: Courtesy Ann Dowsett Johnston

Racing in from a long day at the office, an evening of cooking and homework ahead, my first instinct is to go to the fridge or the cupboard and pop a cork. It soothes the transition from day to night. Chopping, dicing, sipping wine: It’s a common modern ritual.

For years it was me at the cutting board, a glass of chilled white at my side. And for years this habit was harmless—or it seemed that way. My house wine was Santa Margherita, a pale straw-blond Italian pinot grigio. There was always a bottle in my fridge, and I’d often pour a second glass before dinner, with seeming impunity.

In the years when this was my routine, I rarely thought to put the kettle on instead. These days, my go-to drink is Celestial Seasonings Bengal Spice tea: a rich mix of cardamom, cloves, chicory, cinnamon, pepper, and ginger. But back then, as I burst through the front door, laden with groceries, wound up from the day, my first instinct was to shed some stress as quickly as I shed my coat. Once, after an unusually difficult day, my fiance Jake pointed out that the fridge was open before my coat was off. It pained me to hear this, but I know it was true.

Within a few minutes, I would be standing at the cutting board, phone cradled on my shoulder while I sipped and chopped and chatted, often to my friend Judith or my sister, Cate. Nicholas, my son, would be upstairs, doing homework, and dinner would be in process. Sip, chop, sip, chat, exhale, relax. Breathe. With two parents who had their own serious troubles with alcohol, alarm bells should have been ringing.

But my habit seemed relatively harmless. Common, even. A glass or two seemed innocent enough.

And truth was, believe it or not, I got a lot done when I was drinking. In my alpha dog years—when I was holding down a senior job at a magazine, raising an artistic, athletic young man, giving speeches on the circuit—life was more than full. Alcohol smoothed the switch from one role to the other. It seemed to make life purr. I could juggle a lot. Until, of course, I couldn't.

That’s the thing about a drinking problem: It’s progressive. But for a long, long time, alcohol can step in as your able partner, providing welcome support—before you want to boot it out.

On a recent November evening, I took a stroll through the elegant streets of London’s Chelsea district around that witching hour—an hour when many had yet to pull the shades for the evening. Heading up from the Thames River, north on Tite Street, I passed more than one window with a woman standing at her kitchen counter, a half-drunk glass at her side

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