The morning after watching Sebastian Lelio’s 2019 film Gloria Bell, a semi-comedic romance about mid-life carpe diem, I woke up hungover.

I hadn’t been drinking — even though our theater sports a bar and I used to love the movie-date menage of me, my husband, and Mommy’s Night Out Pinot Grigio. At 54, I’ve been sober for over a year, so the hangover in question resulted from a dream about binge drinking — by myself, in an airy-messy room like Gloria Bell’s.

Opening my eyes (but still mid-dream), I found myself next to my husband in our own bed, cotton-mouthed and headachy. Shame flooded me, that relentless needing to apologize to someone (but whom?) for something (also forgotten).

When the alarm sounded at 7:00 a.m. that Saturday morning, I awoke for real, remembering my plan to run with friends and relieved that my pain was only a phantom identification with Gloria Bell’s title character, played by Julianne Moore.

At 54, I’ve been sober for over a year, so the hangover in question resulted from a dream about binge drinking — by myself, in an airy-messy room like Gloria Bell’s.

My identification continued to haunt me, however. Although our interests differ, Gloria represents the kind of passionate older woman I strive to be.

We see Gloria work with humorous diligence to relate to her adult children and clients. Timidity notwithstanding, she’s an enthusiastic dancer and courageous dater — wowing in a scene where she rips off new lover Arnold’s (John Turturro’s) hernia bandage. Throughout the movie, Gloria maintains youthful optimism despite stresses — a druggy, violent upstairs neighbor; senior eye problems; a co-worker/friend who loses her job because of ageism — and disillusionment when her romantic boyfriend turns out to be a codependent, married father. Incidentally, makeup-less she looks older AND beautiful.

Gloria’s laid-back insouciance appeals to me, even though it’s helped by a drinking/weed culture no longer mine.

In one scene, Gloria smokes her neighbor’s weed (if you can’t beat em?) then lies on her floor laughing at his misogynistic rants through the walls. She shrugs off her ex-husband’s angry outburst with a chill, “he was drunk.” She takes her fired friend out for cheering up drinks. When friends worry about an apocalypse, she raises her wine glass and toasts to “going down dancing.” I try to see myself handling life with Gloria’s grace while sober, but I draw the same blank I draw when I try to revive my retirement fantasies. How can I go down watching endless sunsets on a houseboat with my coolest friends without wine to smooth my edges? I probably can’t.

How can I go down watching endless sunsets on a houseboat with my coolest friends without wine to smooth my edges? I probably can’t.

No one thought I had a drinking problem, except sometimes me. Mostly I liked drinking because “drinking keeps us free and young.” Then my teenage daughter developed a substance use problem. No freedom there. Deeply grateful for her tough, life-saving choice to embrace recovery, as a social drinker, I nonetheless couldn’t imagine lifelong sobriety. Shy (like me), how would she survive college, work, young motherhood, aging without wine? Who would her friends be? How would she have fun?

Only when I chose sobriety, and my own friendships, interests, and talents blossomed, did I consider the evidence against my assumption that substances keep us attractive, open, and friended.

After being ditched by her boyfriend in Vegas, Gloria gets drunk, groped, lost, then passes out poolside sans phone, purse, and one of her shoes. Her elderly mother rescues her and the movie ends on a note of satisfying comedic revenge. Still, I kept worrying about the painful image of Gloria’s regressive drooling on the deck chair.

Despite having sillier aspirations than Gloria Bell, Wine Country, the recent Netflix movie written and directed by Amy Poehler, continued my rethinking of the belief that the fountain of youth contains wine. A group of friends from their pizza-serving twenties reunites in Napa Valley for a fiftieth birthday party. Starring Poehler and Maya Rudolph among others of my favorite comedians, Wine Country surprisingly failed to deliver on its threat to make me miss drinking.

The reuniting friends are straw characters, including the selfless organizer; the work obsessive, and more stereotypes, who feel superior when their rental house owner (Tina Fey), a loner, tells them they’re going to need a boatload of wine to get through the weekend together.

Turns out one boatload of wine, another of meds, are not enough. The friends — drunk, hungover, drunk again — repeatedly reference their “amazing weekend” in sarcastic, air quoted tones — despite the beautiful countryside and lovely house with hot tub, pool, each other, and even a male chef/driver/cook.

These women bond only when they’re hating on others — millennials, the vineyard staff. Eventually, they get drunk enough for a few pitch imperfect 80s song jams and to reveal their unfunny inner shit. They “can-I-just-say looooooove” each other. Except that one has been hiding the fact of recent cancer tests; another thinks the others resent her success. The organizer aside, no one (not even the birthday girl) wanted to come on this trip. When said organizer confesses she lost her job and is soooo embarrassed to complain because, like, global warming and oh yeah racism and poverty, the others (predominantly white, presumably all rich), tell her they’re her friends and friends care no matter what.

But while I do care about my friend’s and my own largely privileged struggles, drunken emoting isn’t struggling.

By mid-movie, I’d folded my laundry and painted my nails, so maybe I missed something? But while I do care about my friend’s and my own largely privileged struggles, drunken emoting isn’t struggling. When you’re not the one doing it, it gets old quick. And plot-less, quicker. Even when you ARE doing it.

After all, how much wine would you need to sustain life over five decades devoid of friends you trust? In which your pizza-serving job of thirty years ago is what you cling to?

When I started “experimental” drinking at 17, it thrilled me. Get drunk enough and anything could happen!

Only nothing real ever did. Decades pass. Two of Wine Country’s women hook up with their paella-maker. But meh. “I guess I slept with him?” one jokes.

But whether or not drinking feels like a problem, the “chill” attitude it enables, however appealing on the surface, can keep us stuck, in denial, or disconnected.

I admire people at any age who connect with friends, family, emotions, talents, passions, loves, fears. In both drinking friends and teetotalers, I respect a zest for life. But whether or not drinking feels like a problem, the “chill” attitude it enables, however appealing on the surface, can keep us stuck, in denial, or disconnected.

As a grown woman, I’m done with that. Thinking back to Gloria, why should we (drink or smoke to) resign ourselves to ageism in the workplace, or to a woman-hating neighbor, an explosive ex-husband, or diffident adult children? Why blind ourselves when someone we care about lies and then drink ourselves sick once we see?

And why vacation with friends a la Wine Country, if we can’t stand to do it in our right minds?

I have no idea what my life plot would have looked like if I’d embraced sobriety younger, any more than I know what my future — or my daughter’s — will look like alcohol-free. I’m learning to love the heart-pounding uncertainty though.

Not drinking keeps me younger than I’ve ever been.