In March 2017, I sat on a boat in Hạ Long Bay, just off the coast of Vietnam. I’d been drinking with a bunch of new friends I’d met from Ireland and Australia. Although we knew we had a 7 a.m. call to go hiking the next morning, when 4 a.m. rolled around and one of the Irish guys pulled out another bottle of whiskey, I figured, “Why the hell not? I’m on holiday! I’m in Vietnam! I’m on a boat with a bunch of strangers, we’re listening to The Smiths, and this is great!”
I don’t remember making my way to my room down the rickety stairs that were badly in need of some work—stairs I was even apprehensive about sober. But I managed to wake up at 7 a.m. for the hike. The heat and humidity in Vietnam can feel like a deadly combination, especially when you’re hungover. Sure, I knew I wouldn’t die; I’d survived hundreds of hangovers in my life. But part of me hoped I would die that day.
Again, the alcohol addiction I already knew by then that I had won.
As for my new Irish friends, they didn’t crawl out of their room until it was time for dinner. I told them about the beautiful views they missed on the hike, the views that I, too hungover, couldn’t even fully appreciate. I hated myself for it. Again, the alcohol addiction I already knew by then that I had won. And, again, I missed out on an experience that should have been far richer than it was.
I laid on the top floor of that boat that would’ve never passed a safety inspection in the States, running out of drinkable water, and counting down the seconds until we arrived at Cát Bà Island. I felt shame. I planned to get as much bottled water as possible when we reached the shore, load up on spring rolls, and lay in bed cursing myself. But before I left the boat that day, I took a selfie. I wanted to make sure I had a photo to remind me of just how hungover I was and how much I’d been missing out on since I started drinking heavily in my mid-twenties. I guess I’d finally reached my breaking point.
When I returned to New York City, it was April—Alcohol Awareness Month. Every year, Bustle, where I’m a sex and relationships writer, asks if anyone has any alcohol-related essays they’d like to write. I looked at the picture of me in Hạ Long Bay that I’d printed out and taped above my desk, and wrote back to my editor. I indeed had an essay about alcohol and my unhealthy relationship to it.
When the essay was completed, written in less than an hour because it just poured from me, I was proud. Something I don’t say often about my work, if at all. I’d poured out my heart about my struggles with alcohol. I’d admitted I come from a long line of alcoholics (much to the chagrin of my father). The piece was, by far, the most honest and candid thing I’ve ever written—even after sharing my abortion, the humiliation from being cheated on by my husband, and my miscarriage. It was really the only thing I had left to keep private.
I couldn’t bring myself to call myself an alcoholic, though. As I wrote in my essay, I didn’t fit the stereotype. I wasn’t drunk all the time, I wasn’t falling down stairs, I wasn’t reaching for vodka first thing in the morning; I was none of that. I was, simply, a girl who liked to drink and drank a lot. I drank to forget sad things. I drank to celebrate good things. I indulged in drunk brunch every damn weekend. And what’s a beautiful summer day in Central Park without a picnic basket full of wine and cheese? I was also, as I pointed out in my piece, in what I thought was a subtle way, a girl who drank just as much as her friends did.
That sentiment was not received well by some of the people closest to me. Although strangers—and there were many, many of them—reached out to commend me for my brutal honesty, for putting all the things they’d experienced and felt into the words they could never find themselves, on the other side came the reactions from my friends. Those hard-drinking friends who, like me would drink until last call and even then be the last one to leave the bar.
I was also, as I pointed out in my piece, in what I thought was a subtle way, a girl who drank just as much as her friends did.
“Are you calling me an alcoholic?” one friend asked me. I was not, I explained politely. It was not my responsibility—or my place—to call her an alcoholic. Or anyone at all.
But what pushed me over the edge was a dinner with a bunch of friends a couple weeks after the essay came out. Five of us sat around a table on the Upper West side and when the waiter asked how many wine glasses for the table, one friend responded, “Just four. Amanda is an alcoholic.” It was a slap in the face. She was making a mockery of what took me years to confront and admit to, as opposed to offering support. Although she would later apologize, after she had several glasses of wine, she did say and I’ll never forget it, “You have no right to call me an alcoholic.” If that’s what she took from my essay about me, then that’s her issue; not mine.
Since the publication of that essay last April, I’ve had some drinks, but haven’t been drinking. Although I’ve realized my idea of “drinking” and other people’s ideas of drinking, especially those who are completely sober, are very different. I drank an entire bottle of wine when my husband died on July 7, 2017. I got totally drunk at my friend’s wedding two months later and would have had no idea how I got home if it weren’t for my Uber receipt.
But other than a few slip-ups when my depression is at its worst—which, yes, I know how unbelievably absurd it is to put a depressant in your body when you’re already suffering from major depressive disorder—I’ve been doing OK. I even spent the week of Thanksgiving in Rome and only had one glass of wine. For me, that’s a big deal; that’s actually a huge deal.
But these days, if I were to drink, I wouldn’t talk about it. Even if I went out right now and had five martinis, I wouldn’t dare admit to it. I feel like once I put it out there, once I wrote the words, “My name is Amanda Chatel, and I’m an alcoholic,” I opened myself up to prying eyes and judgment. So, I have to remind myself over and over again: My struggles with alcohol are my business. Yes, I publicly put it on display for people to read and relate to, but it’s still mine. It has nothing to do with the strangers who responded to me, the friends I angered, or the fact that I could totally go for a glass of Côtes du Rhône right now.
Although my days of heavy drinking are long gone—I haven’t had a drink since April—and I consider myself sober on my terms, I know my struggle is far from over. I know it will always be an uphill battle; some days I’ll win and other days I’ll lose. But no matter what I drink or don’t drink, the fact remains: My alcoholism isn’t about you.