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Many of my husband’s habits as an alcoholic were terrifying and infuriating. Some were just perplexing. Why do alcoholics keep their empties?
During his decline into alcoholism and my surfacing from denial, I began to snoop around the basement man cave, looking for evidence of my husband’s drinking.
I remember the first hidden empty I found. As I rummaged through drawers and poked around Robert’s desk and shelves, I started to feel like someone else. It’s creepy and unsettling to be snooping. I shuffled stuff back and forth so it didn’t look disturbed. Nothing. Then I sat in his recliner, perfectly positioned in front of the TV. As I was observing the landscape of his home office I noticed a tiny piece of black plastic peeking out from behind a small bookcase. I knew before I tugged at the bag what I’d find.
A bottle of Dewar’s White Label Scotch. Empty.
My stomach lurched. Everything was silent and still. The clear glass—the bottle’s amber liquid gone—took on a sinister look, the red lettering on the ivory label seemed shouty and loud. Although a Dewar’s bottle was something I’d seen for years at my in-laws’ home and in ours—Scotch being their preferred drink—this Dewar’s bottle looked completely different. It looked like a warning.
I began regular explorations, measuring the liquid in hidden bottles not yet empty, drawing a light pencil mark on the label, my attempt to document how much my husband consumed. These probes into Robert’s hiding places gave me a false sense of control, as if keeping apprised of my husband’s drinking made it less scary.
On the contrary, these discoveries made life more frightening. During one round of due diligence, I was looking through his closet, conveniently tucked away in the basement. It was once a photographer’s dark room erected by a previous homeowner that Robert converted into a walk-in closet. Ties were strewn on the floor; discarded t-shirts and underwear were heaped in one corner. In the back corner, his hangered pants on the lower bar bulged suspiciously due to a poorly hidden black trash bag, the size used for fall leaves–full of Dewar’s bottles. I counted 23, all different sizes from the big jug to the mini airplane size. All empty.
The knot in the pit of my stomach twisted and my breathing was jagged. Twenty-three bottles! How much Scotch can a person consume?
In Pete Hamill’s memoir, A Drinking Life, Augusten Burroughs’ Dry and other stories written by recovering alcoholics, the landscape is littered with empty bottles. Is it a cry for help? An act of rebellion? Laziness? Robert went out of his way to hide his drinking in other respects–with breath mints, mouthwash and cologne. Why didn’t he sneak the empties out as methodically as he secretly stocked his lair?
Dr. Chris Johnston, Board Certified in Addiction Medicine, is the Chief Medical Officer of Pinnacle Treatment Centers. He said this behavior speaks to the power of alcohol on the brain. “The most likely answer is that the intoxicated or hung over person is focused on getting more alcohol. A person who knows that consuming alcohol is unwise but the cravings overwhelm him, is filled with guilt and shame and does everything possible to hide it from people who are concerned or upset, hence the hiding of empties,” Dr. Johnston explained. “And the normal disposal of them is delayed during the process of acquiring more alcohol and the cycle repeats endlessly.” The alcoholic mind is hijacked by the addictive properties of alcohol, the phenomenon of craving dominates all behaviors resulting in the empties.
I never asked Robert why he kept the empties. What would be the point? Could any answer have appeased me? My question would only have sparked an argument and invited his vitriol. In the wicked spiral to rock bottom, I was too consumed with keeping our lives from unraveling. But in the tranquil aftermath, my curiosity is unleashed. For those who have survived an alcoholic, many questions remain.