I once went to an MM meeting. MM stands for Moderation Management. I’d read about it in the paper. It’s a thing in America, apparently, like AA or NA but not so serious. You talk about moderating your drinking, not how to never do it again. It was in a church hall, with orange plastic chairs and strip lighting. I was the only woman. I was the only one who didn’t have a history of substance abuse. I looked around me at the men who had been in and out of prison. And then I left, went to the restaurant next door and ordered a large glass of wine. This was not for me, this was not me.
Meeting with Shahroo Izadi, an addiction specialist and my second attempt of thinking seriously about my drinking habits, couldn’t be more different. We meet in a cafe near my office, one I’m used to, one I go to all the time – in broad daylight. The fact that I’m in a public, open, familiar space when I meet with Shahroo reinforces the idea that analysing my drinking behaviour isn’t something that needs to be hidden away in a basement with anonymity and shame. It’s just a really a bloody efficient, helpful and profoundly impactful weekly coffee.
Because that’s what Shahroo does – gets me to ask fundamental questions with a kindness and compassion I normally only reserve for others
To begin with, though, I wasn’t sure anything was actually happening. We just seemed to be, well, chatting. I thought a lot about Shahroo's ability to accessorise and how insanely glamorous she is, and why I really should have brushed my hair before the meeting, but my drinking? She wasn’t really asking me much about that. Instead we were talking about my week at work; we were talking about the drinks party I had been terrified to attend because I knew everyone would be three trillion times smarter than me; we talked about how I wish I was more confident, braver, bolder and how I really needed to start writing all those books I have ideas for. And, before I knew it, I was drawing the lines between what was happening in my life and why I might be having another drink. Before I knew it, I was talking about my drinking.
After a latte, a flat white and an hour together I’d rush back to the office. For the first few sessions, I was still waiting for the magic to happen; waiting for the revelations about booze to fall from the sky. It was as though I’d clicked my heels together three times really hard and nothing had happened.
And then it happened.
At some point – and I can’t really pinpoint exactly when – a mini Greek Chorus arrived and set up a little stage on my shoulder. I first started to hear them when I stood at bar waiting to be served. “You’re having a drink,” they’d merely observe. “Why?” they’d innocently ask. “Maybe if you put ice and soda in it, you might feel a bit better in the morning.”
My Greek chorus is never cruel, and always asks questions with compassionate intent. “Think about what you’re doing, Marisa ... Why are you doing this, Marisa?” Because that’s what Shahroo does – gets me to ask fundamental questions with a kindness and compassion I normally reserve for others.
Did I mentioned that Sharhoo can also see into the future? She knew exactly what was going to happen. I was going to become more self- aware. CHECK. As I became more aware and made more sensible choices about my drinking (I’ll only have a small glass, I’ll order some food), I would fall into what she calls “the complacency trap”. CHECK. After a stressful day, I chose not to drink. I went home and had a bath instead. I was so pleased with myself (my Greek Chorus was practically doing a Mexican wave), I went to the pub to celebrate and leapt into a bowl of wine the very next night.
The words tumble out; some words are harder to say than others; some are more surprising than others; some are more positive than others
And the weeks went on. We’d be back in our cafe: I’d be asking her where her dress is from, she asking me how I’d been. The words tumble out; some words are harder to say than others; some are more surprising than others; some are more positive than others. Sometimes I come out skipping, one time I went and sat in a park for a while and had a good think. I’d tell her how someone joked I could never turn down a free drink but it hadn’t been that funny. I’d tell her that there is addiction in my family and I’m terrified that no amount of walking or yoga or Greek chorusing can lead me away from my genetic fate.
Shahroo (right) and Marisa during one of their weekly coffees
She would listen and say amazing things which were like someone switching on a light: “This is an appreciative enquiry; people shouldn’t feel bad about having insights into their behaviour. We examine what we eat, our finances, our relationships – so why not our drinking?"
"We need emotional CVs,” she’s said more than once. “Why do we never do an audit of how we have developed emotionally? Why do we not record how we’ve got so much better at dealing with life?"
“When I had counselling,” she tells me, “I didn’t find myself, I met myself." And that’s the experience I’m having. Once a week, I meet with Shahroo *and* Marisa. “Imagine this is an alien looking at the world of Marisa,” she says every week. And that’s it. I show up and take a moment to look, openly and honestly, about what I’m doing and why. And that sets the framework for the next week. It’s like a recap at the beginning of a Netflix show; a small pause to remember how and why you got to this point in your own plot.
When I began this course I wrote about a few of my concerns. But I already have a response to a few of those worries:
Am I an alcoholic?
Am I making a fuss about nothing?
No, in the words of Shahroo: “If it’s a problem for you, it’s a problem.”
Will I be boring if I don’t drink?
It’s not actually about drinking or not drinking, it’s about why I’m drinking on that particular occasion.
Will Shahroo think I’m pathetic?
No. It’s her job.
I’m halfway through now. The worries are not gone completely. But the worries worry me less. I know that if I’m prepared to look at my drinking habits directly in the eye, I’m prepared to look at the things in my life that might need a bit of work. Just yesterday Shahroo said that she thinks I think I need drink more than I actually do. And there are countless times I get home from work, pour a glass of wine and don’t actually drink it. But either way, six weeks of flat whites and lattes, with a professional who manages to get you to say the things you’ve been too nervous to say even to yourself, out loud, with no shame, has been the biggest revelation. I’ve had some of the most honest conversations of my life – and not even over a glass of wine.
See you in six weeks.