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It’s a Wonderful Life

“He didn’t want to miss out.”

About this time last year, Adam Oakes, a student at VCU, died of alcohol poisoning after drinking a 40-ounce bottle of whiskey at an off-campus party.

On the local news, I heard one of Adam’s family members talk about his kind heart and sweet sense of humor. She said Adam was excited to join a fraternity and make new friends and that “he didn’t want to miss out.”

I released a heavy sigh and said a prayer for Adam’s family and the students who were responsible for his death. Then I started drafting this article in my head. 

We live in a world that sometimes seems to revolve around alcohol. We drink at swim meets and book clubs, grocery stores and football games, weddings and funerals. There are specialty drinks for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And these days, brunch seems to have emerged as a fan favorite specifically because of mimosas, Bellinis, and Bloody Marys. 

Women, in particular, are drinking more – more alcohol and more often.

According to a RAND Corporation study, during the pandemic women have increased their heavy drinking days (that’s four or more drinks in one session) by 41 percent compared to before the pandemic. Another study posted at WebMD said the largest increase in alcohol consumption has occurred in women with children under the age of five who are at home. These women doubled and sometimes tripled how much they drank since the start of the pandemic. 

Drinking is tangled up with many of our rituals and traditions. Growing up, it was a huge part of my family life. We didn’t have much liquor around, but I can’t remember a day without beer in our house. We actually had a second refrigerator in the basement with a keg installed in it and a tap on the side of the fridge. Every year, my dad gave up beer for Lent. He developed a wicked chocolate milkshake habit for forty days. As the youngest of six, I can remember heading to McDonald’s up the street on milkshake duty. 

I started drinking beer when I was fourteen. The legal age to drink in West Virginia was still eighteen, so by the time I arrived at college, I had developed a significant tolerance, or what my dad jokingly referred to as “a hollow leg.” There were two people who influenced me greatly during my college years. One good friend said he was allergic to alcohol whenever anyone asked him why he wasn’t drinking. It was interesting to me that this one person in our circle not drinking was infinitely more intriguing than alcohol’s ubiquity in the rest of our young lives. Another friend, at the tender age of twenty, had already acknowledged her issues with alcohol. I remember thinking how sad it was that she had quit drinking – presumably forever – at such a young age. She was missing out on so much! As for my drinking back then, I was sure I could quit whenever I wanted. I had already followed my father’s blueprint for abstaining during Lent. Plus, like my brother used to say: “I quit drinking every night – when I go to bed!”  

Later this year, I will have been sober for twenty-nine years. When my youngest turned twenty-one last October, I joked that I might start drinking again so I could take her out for a beer. Not a very funny joke, according to my two older women-children. In any case, motherhood is one of, if not the biggest reason I quit drinking. Before I quit, I pondered what drunk parenting would look like for me. It really wasn’t about giving up drinking while I was pregnant, although forty weeks did seem much longer than forty days. It was after the pregnancy, when a tiny human would rely on me for everything from meals and hugs to counsel and inspiration. I pictured myself at the beach, grabbing another beer from the cooler while my kids splashed in the waves and ended up with horrendous sunburns – which as it happens, they all did anyway so I guess the joke really was on me.

I quit when I did because drinking was ruining entire days of my life – days spent nursing hangovers and telling myself I wouldn’t drink that night, only to buy a six-pack on the way home from work. I quit because I knew I had a life ahead of me as a writer, a wife, and I hoped, as a parent. Of course, I wanted it to be a wonderful life, and I knew it wouldn’t be perfect. Above all, I wanted to be present for it. For me, there was only one way to do that. Sober. 

Over the years, I admit there have been times I’ve felt like I’ve missed out. I’ve never toured a winery or drunk a craft beer with my young adult kids or done jello shots with friends at a picnic. Like Adam, I might have thought drinking would make it easier to have friends and feel more comfortable in my own skin. Sometimes I wonder how my life would be different had I been able to drink in moderation – but don’t worry kids, not enough to try it!

When I see the uptick in drinking during the pandemic, especially among women, my heart aches a little. More than anything, I hope you haven’t read this as finger wagging. By sharing my story, I am trying to raise a flag. If you find yourself Googling “dry January” or feeling a little sober-curious as the new year begins, I wish you love and luck. I’m here to tell you, it really can be a wonderful life.  

Karen Schwartzkopf has her dream job as managing editor of RFM. Wife, mother, arts and sports lover, she lives and works in the West End with her family, including husband Scott, who not coincidentally is RFM’s creative director. You can read Karen’s take on parenting her three daughters – Sam, Robin, and Lindsey, also known as the women-children – in the Editor’s Voice.
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