That Tipsy Session
“This is the first time in years that I am feeling proud of myself,” Chris announces with a timid smile. His eyes are unusually bright, his pale face beaming with a new energy.
He has not been drinking for a month, his longest stretch without alcohol in almost a decade. His words trigger the memory of a year-old incident that still sends waves of shame through my body.
That day, Paris was just opening after its very strict first lockdown, and I had lunch with a friend. We sat at the newly-created terrace of a restaurant just behind the Palais Royal. My beautiful friend had already ordered drinks. “Just one glass,” I thought to myself. We sipped the crisp white wine, a well-deserved celebration under the shining sun of that spring as she recited her lockdown poems.
Two hours later, I was back to my office, covered with sweat and dreading the session to come. With a bitter taste in my mouth, I was appreciating the particular irony of the situation: getting tipsy just before the session with Chris, my alcoholic client. As his familiar face appeared on my screen, a fleeting thought popped into my mind about one advantage of online therapy—at least he could not smell the alcohol on my breath.
“I hate being stuck in this place,” he offered immediately, skipping the usual icebreaker about the weather with which my British clients often begin their sessions.
His company had switched to remote work, and Chris had fled London for his parents’ home in Spain. They had acquired the house a couple of years earlier. Their move to Spain had been hastily decided without consulting their son; seemingly out of the blue, they had swiftly sold their home in England, along with almost every belonging that had been part of Chris’s childhood.
“Why did they have to go?” Chris had wondered many times, struggling with this sudden loss. His parents’ decision had seemed senseless at the time, inexplicable. Chris’s previously unremarkable drinking then spiralled out of control. Freshly graduated from college, unemployed, and lonely, Chris had simultaneously lost his home and his family following the crazy self-exile of his parents. At that point, his life seemed to come to a halt; his drinking slowly but surely replaced everything that he was missing—friends, career, and any challenge that could have given him an opportunity to feel good about himself.
Locked-down in Spain, Chris complained: “It is so weird to be here, locked down in this dreadful villa… it feels surreal.” Every time he spoke about his parents, he looked confused, his grey eyes wandering, slipping away from my gaze. Chris was spending all of his time with his parents, something that had not happened since he had left home for college. Outside and all around the otherwise beautiful Spanish villa-turned-prison, there was a foreign town, blindingly bright under the scolding sun, a town in which he knew no one.
“In the evening they just sit in front of the television, staring at some random Spanish talk show… I feel like an idiot. I have no clue what it is about,” he grumbled, more puzzled than ever.
“Do your parents speak Spanish?”
“No, they don’t, apart from a few basic words. This freaks me out… I simply feel like I am playing a part in a bad movie,” he shared, his eyes filled with loss.
“Is this feeling something you have experienced being around your parents before?”
“I am not sure… I don’t have much recollection of my childhood… at least not about my feelings… my parents were working a lot. I was spending most of the time at school, or at my friends’ places.”
In our previous sessions we had tried to make some sense of his confusion, but something seemed to be missing, a piece of information without which we could not move forward. We stumbled, and Chris was drinking in his usual solitary and well-controlled manner.
“I think I am fine,” he reassured me (or himself) every time I inquired about the approximate amount of alcohol he had drunk during the week.
“Fine? What do you mean by ‘fine’?” I would stubbornly ask, reminding him that at the age of thirty-two he had no close friends, no experience of romantic relationships, and no exciting career, despite his reasonably successful studies.
After a year of weekly conversations, we were stuck in a dynamic that had left us both steaming with frustration. This is when that dreadful “tipsy session” happened.
I was sitting in front of my screen, fighting the dizziness from my drink at the Palais Royal, when Chris delivered the piece of information we had been missing: “My father spilled everything out,” he announced without noticing my discomfort.
The previous evening, his mother had been down with a migraine, and his father had brought him to a nearby recently-reopened eatery. He had ordered a bottle of wine and emptied his glass immediately. Then he explained: back in the UK, Chris’s mother had had an affair with the local pub landlord. This was the only reason for their sudden decision to expatriate. This had been his ultimatum, and the only way they felt they could keep their relationship together.
As I was doing my very best to focus on Chris’s words, his face magnified by my screen, I was painfully aware of failing him. I knew that his father’s telling this difficult truth might open a window for Chris to share his own. But could he use it? After all, shame had been keeping him silent. The window of possibility was closing quickly, as Chris’s return to London was planned for a few days later.
“How do you feel about what your father has disclosed to you?”
“I didn’t know what to say… I couldn’t imagine anything like this was going on… they are too old for that!”
“This must have been difficult for your father to open up about…”
“So awkward… We sat there, drinking and trying to avoid each other’s eyes… He never told me anything this private before,” Chris admitted, fidgeting uneasily in his chair.
“So, you were not the only one withholding something important from your family?” My own allusion to his drinking resonated with an obvious irony.
“What do you mean?” he hissed, pretending that he had no idea about what I was speaking about.
“Maybe this was an opportunity for you to talk to your father openly about your struggles with alcohol?” I made another desperate push.
Chris shook his head with resolve. He had been keeping his drinking problem for himself for years, and the shame he had accumulated in the process was an obstacle he could not overcome. Not yet.
I sighed and let him go with a certain relief. Even if I made it through the session without a major blow, by the end of it I was exhausted and, for the first time, wished to be elsewhere, not in front of my screen with Chris.
For the full week following that session, Chris stayed on my mind. To tell or not to tell? I was not sure whether a self-disclosure would break the brittle trust we had both worked hard to establish. The next time Chris appeared on my screen, I plunged in first.
“Before we start, I have to share something with you,” I announced, and his face dropped in response, preparing for bad news. “During our last session… you may have noticed that I was not fully present,” I stumbled forward, and he nodded. “I thought you were distracted for some reason… but it was ok,” he added generously.
“No, it wasn’t ok,” I sighed and stumbled further. “Just before our session, at lunch, I had a glass of wine. It was a mistake, and I have to apologize.”
“So, you were drunk?” he giggled, and I could not figure out whether there was more confusion or relief in his voice.
“Well, a little tipsy, I guess,” I nodded, trying not to avoid his eyes.
We stayed silent for a minute before he asked, perplexed, “Why are you telling me this today? You didn’t have to…”
“No, I didn’t… but I value our relationship, and owe it to you to be honest… but I was too ashamed to tell you last time,” I shared, hoping that we could capitalize on this example of self-disclosure.
“I know what you mean…” he sighed and looked sideways.
From that point on, Chris finally started opening up. Instead of endlessly complaining about his mother’s misstep and other misfortunes, he now talked honestly about himself.
“I actually know exactly when this whole ridiculous affair started… I got really drunk one evening at the pub, and the landlord had to call my parents to fetch me. My mother came, and this is when they took it off…”
Chris’s discovery that his drinking was somehow at the root of what he saw as his family’s downfall added a new dimension to the shame he was constantly feeling about his unfulfilled life. It took us much longer, of course, to realize that his mother had other reasons to cheat on her husband which had nothing to do with her son but rather with her husband’s very quiet but steady drinking, which had been going on unnoticed for years.
“This was probably his one and only way to relax…” Chris had always seen his father returning from work and pouring himself a large glass of whisky, calling it his “medicine.”
Through our increasingly honest conversations, Chris was slowly learning the power of vulnerability. After several months he became strong enough to tell his parents about his own struggle with alcohol. Initially, his father met his honesty with defiance. Chris’s admission put him in an uncomfortable place where he had to face his own addiction. In the weeks that followed that confrontation, from a distance I witnessed their family stumbling through an uneasy change of dynamics. They talked more openly about the drinking issue that had run in the family for a few generations, and Chris eventually opened up about his therapy work. The change was slow, but with each passing week, he felt stronger about his decision to quit alcohol and soon started experimenting with sober days, then weeks… Today he has not had a drink in a month.
“I am really proud of you today, what a journey,” I say, and then I finally ask the burning question that has been on my mind since that dreadful session: “Did my telling you about that drink I had before our session play any role in your recovery?”
“I was first shocked that you would tell me… then I felt angry about it… but somehow this helped me feel less ashamed about my own drinking… I remember thinking that if you didn’t die from shame when you told me, then I wouldn’t die either if I told my parents,” he admitted.
Through his further conversations with his mother, we have now learned that her affair had been a desperate attempt to recover the intimacy she had lost with her husband. My turning up tipsy for the session was probably a similar kind of act. That incident, or rather what we were able to make out of it, strengthened our therapeutic bond. On a more immediate level, by self-disclosing, I demonstrated to Chris in the here-and-now of the session that shame does not kill you.
Thinking back, I am still bewildered by that shameful drink, which fortunately became a step on Chris’s path towards pride.