Susan putting the lime in the alcohol-free coconut and drinking it all up. (Photo: Andy Kropa)
You know that feeling. Your heart starts to pump wildly and you can feel it booming at hi-fi levels in your ears. Like a corset, anxiety pulls your lungs together so tightly you can barely breathe. Your body goes into flight or fight mode and you either find yourself running for the hills or remaining frozen in your extreme discomfort.
You’ve just caught site of an ex. And not just any ex, but one you loved hard and deep. The ending was bad. The parting had been brutal.
And just a couple of weeks ago, I had this experience.
My husband Andy and I were in the Dominican Republic, staying at an all-inclusive resort for a wedding. Shortly after we arrived, I sat in the breezy open lobby overlooking the ocean, waiting for Andy to return with beach towels — and it happened. I spied an ex on the other side of the room.
My face felt hot, and it wasn’t due to the Caribbean sun. Instantly — and pretty much instinctively — I swung my chair around so I was facing the other way.
But then I saw another old flame on the other side, just a few feet in front of me, looking as good as ever. Better than ever, in fact. And shit, suddenly I realized that to my left there were a trio of past loves, all sitting in a circle, on top of an outdoor table.
I honestly didn’t think about how it would feel to see what I once loved so madly — vodka, tequila, rum, whiskey — everywhere I turned, all dressed to the nines in fancy coconut-shaped cups or sleek, glistening glasses. They were showy, given out freely and more or less consumed constantly by the majority of the people at this resort.
So here’s what I did. I closed my eyes and took deep a breath. One of the best tools I’ve learned in sobriety is to “play the tape through,” i.e. think past the initial desire (often disguised as need) for that drink in front of you and instead envision what might happen as a result of drinking that drink in front of you. To remember a moment in the past when I didn’t have this skill, and the shit that hit the never-ending fan of active alcoholism as a result.
Turks and Caicos, November 2011
I was deeply involved in my love affair with alcohol at this point. I had been drinking all day, every day, since late spring.
Andy knew something was not right, but he had been dealing with his own stuff. His mom, with whom he had been very close, had passed away just two months prior. He was still grieving, and I was not the supportive spouse he needed. He was sick of my self-involved behavior, regardless of what was causing it. He stayed away from the apartment as often as he could and came home late. And of course I — usually passed out for the night by 9 p.m. — hardly noticed. Not even a year into our marriage, it was quickly starting to crumble.
So we hoped a Caribbean getaway might be a cure for all that was ailing us, and planned a trip to Turks and Caicos.
What I didn’t realize was that, after more than six months of daily drinking, I was now physically addicted to alcohol. And withdrawal symptoms, whoa do they SUCK.
Luckily, I had taken many swigs from my trusty bedside bottle of Svedka before we left for our 8 a.m. flight, so I pretty much slept through our plane ride and didn’t start feeling funky until after we landed.
But then I did. I was incredibly anxious, my hands were shaking, my palms were sweaty, my head was pounding and my heart was beating really fast. That part scared me the most. Andy asked me if I was ok (I must have looked as awful as I felt), but of course I couldn’t tell him what was wrong, so I just told him I felt woozy from the flight. I dealt with the ick as best I could, through the getting of the bags and the taxi, getting to the hotel and checking in.
And once we arrived, though I still felt like hell I was instantly relieved — mere steps from the beautiful beachside villa in which we were staying, there was a little mini mart, its windows lined with dusty rum bottle after rum bottle.
I ran back to the room, ripped off the Bambarra top, and poured as much rum as I could take down my needy, greedy throat. Ahhhhh, relief. Fucking, holy hell, relief. Ahhhhh.
The trick was getting away from Andy for a brief period so I could stock up on booze and feel NORMAL again. I kept pushing away the thought, I didn’t want to believe that I had become truly alcohol-dependent, but it was undeniable how much my body now needed this stuff. I felt really nauseous and was hiding dry heaves while we changed into our suits. My heart kept pounding faster and faster, and I started to feel these weird “blips” in my head (that’s the only way I know how to describe them) and I was terrified that they were signs that I might experience a seizure if I wasn’t able to get some alcohol in me ASAP.
So once parked at the pool, I “excused” myself to get more sun lotion, go to the bathroom, whatever — and hit that mini mart like it was the last one on earth. I bought an enormous bottle of Bambarra Rum — Turks and Caicos’ signature alcoholic beverage — as well as a handful of minis, brand irrelevant.
I ran back to the room, ripped off the Bambarra top, and poured as much rum as I could take down my needy, greedy throat.
Ahhhhh, relief. Fucking, holy hell, relief. Ahhhhh.
Immediately, headache gone. Shortly after, nerves calmed, hands still, heartbeat regular. I took four or five additional straight-from-the-bottle swigs, feeling more like “me” each time, then hid my purchases in my bag in the closet, brushed the shit out of my teeth and returned to the pool. Happy, smiling and ready to get this vacay started.
And while I was drinking in amounts that may seem excessive, I didn’t really get “drunk” or act in a way that seemed off (or raised suspicion from Andy). I was so dependent on alcohol at that point that I needed it to simply not be sick. So for the next two days, I was “normal,” carefully planning my intake so I would only drink what I needed, and never over do it.
And for two days, this worked. We pooled, beached, swam, snorkeled and parasailed. Now that I had my other lover with me on this trip, I thought, everything would be just fine.
But as it always goes with this disease, things soon became un-fine. That “moderation plan” flew out the window and on night three I ended up blind drunk, blacking out and passing out. In the meantime, Andy found the mini bottles I had stashed in the bathroom for easy shower imbibing. It was obvious now; my affair had been uncovered.
The next morning was pure hell. I refused to admit to anything. After back-and-forth bullshit that probably lasted an hour, I lamely offered this:
“Maybe it was the maid.”
“Oh the maid?” Andy replied, red-faced. “You think our maid is leaving bottles of rum in our bathroom? OK, fine. Maybe you’re right. That’s not acceptable. I’m calling the front desk and reporting it.”
And that’s when my bluff was called. Game over, man.
I confessed (but downplayed how much I physically had needed the alcohol), and basically cried the rest of the day. Andy stormed off, but eventually came back, and being the wonderful man that he is, saw my pain, pushed aside his anger for the time being, and held me for what felt like hours.
That evening, we left. And while I continued to drink when we returned home, two weeks later, I was in rehab.
Snap back to present at the Paradisius Resort in the DR, surrounded by all my exes. Yes, they look nice. And yes, the tropical, fruit-shaped glasses make them seem like they’d be a lot of fun to “hang out” with.
But I don’t want to deal with the planning and the deception. I have a clear, two-and-a-half-year sober head, and a wonderfully supportive husband who I no longer need to lie to. I was in the Caribbean to attend a lovely wedding — one that would be filled with exes — and that was just fine. In fact, I was truly looking forward to it.
It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve learned to live with seeing my old flames about town — alcohol is everywhere, after all. It was that drink-to-excess, all-inclusive vibe of the resort that threw me at first, but I used a key sober tool, remembered that, for me, these “ex-boyfriends” are literally toxic, and moved on.
But man was I glad to see Andy walking back over to me, beach towels in his arms. He had also brought me a Diet Coke.
“You know exactly what I like,” I said, taking his hand as we hit the beach.