Full text of author Ann Dowsett-Johnston’s talk titled “Drinking and How It Changed My Life” at TEDxHomeBushRdWomen conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Drinking and how it changed my life by Ann Dowsett-Johnston at TEDxHomeBushRdWomen
Thank you very much.
You know, there’s a story that they tell about a writer who heads up to the pearly gates on a very, very busy day. And she is not quite sure if she’s going to end up in heaven or hell.
And she waits in line for about three hours, a little bit longer. And she’s a good researcher, and she gets very frustrated.
So finally, she goes up to the front of the line, and she says, “Do you think I could see God?”
And God comes out and says, “Can I help you?”
And she says, “Not sure if I’m going to heaven or hell, but I might as well start with hell. Do you think I could have a sneak peek?”
And God says, “Of course. First door on the right.”
So she goes and takes a little peek at hell, and she sees her worst nightmare. She sees a whole room full of writers chained to their desks, clearly they’ve missed their deadlines. The clock’s going around and around like this. There’s sweat pouring off their brow, their hair is disheveled, they’re tap, tap, tapping away.
And she says, “No, not for me,” and closes the door, goes back to the front of the queue and says to God, “Do I have a minute to see heaven?”
And God says, “Of course, you do. First door on the left.”
So she opens the door, and, lo and behold, she sees the same damn thing.
Same damn thing. There’s all these poor writers that missed their deadlines, and sweat’s pouring off their brow, and they’re tap, tap, tapping away, and the clock’s going around like this.
She closes the door, and she goes up to God and she says, “I don’t know, God. I don’t see much difference between heaven and hell.”
And God looks at her and says, “My dear, there’s a huge difference. In heaven, the writers get published.”
And that was my truth, that was my heavenly truth this fall. My book got published. It got published. My first book. This is the way it looked here in New Zealand and Australia, and this is the way that it looked for the rest of the world.
And it was just a heavenly fall that I had. Maybe spring for you. But wherever you are in the world, I had a heavenly couple of months. That was the good news.
The bad news was that I outed myself to the entire world as an alcoholic. In fact, worse than that, this was my very public face. I outed myself as the poster girl for today’s modern alcoholic. And she is female, she is well-educated, she is professional, she is high functioning, and she is high bottom — “high bottom” meaning she hadn’t lost everything.
That was me, that was me. And I went on the publicity circuit all around the world, and I was asked about my story.
And people would always end with the same question: why did you want to write this book?
And I ultimately considered it just about the rudest question you could ask me, because what they were really saying was three things: number one, are you crazy, number two, don’t you realize you’ll never get hired again, and number three, how much did you drink?
And the truth is: number one, I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy. I believe that our secrets keep us very sick.
Number two, will I ever get hired again? Well, let’s just say, I applied for a job I really cared about, about a month ago, and I didn’t even get a call. I think when you write a book called “Drink,” probably they’re not so sure they want you.
So the stigma’s large, and I’m pretty aware of what I’ve done in outing myself.
Number three, how much did I drink? Well, I drank a lot more than I should have, over a very short amount of time, and probably a lot less than you’re imagining.
But this was the book that I wanted to write, and I have to tell you, they say we have private lives, and we have professional lives, and we have secret lives.
And my secret life was the fact that I had grown up with a beautiful, beautiful mother, lovely, lovely mother. This is how she looked. I’m the one in the glasses in this picture.
I wore glasses from a very young age. And she was beautiful, and she was lonely. My father traveled all around the world, and she raised three children by herself, and it was pre-email.
The doctor gave her Valium, and she drank on the Valium, and she was, indeed, the poster girl for her era, the 1960s, mixing cocktails during the day as a stay-at-home mom who really devolved over about three decades into someone who looked very different and who was very different.
And it was really tough in our house. And it was the one thing I was sure I was never going to do was to become an alcoholic. I was really sure. That was not on my wishlist.
I did not look like my mother, I didn’t drink in the day, I didn’t miss work, I won awards at work. I really was sure I wasn’t an alcoholic, or I prayed that I wasn’t one.
And it wasn’t until I received this very beautiful handmade card from my 22-year-old son that I realized maybe there was no denying it. I received this card from him seven years ago, and I opened it up, and I thought, “How extraordinary. He’s an artist, it’s handmade, it’s got a heart behind me. It says, ‘Happy Mother.’ ”
And I thought, “This is perfect.” I hadn’t read the fine print. I had had a root canal, and I hadn’t been drinking for three weeks, and he had seen me really sober, sober every evening.
He’d watched me sleeping well, he’d watched my moods be very smooth. And he wrote on one side. I don’t know if you can read it, but it says, “No bags under her eyes.” And it says, “Writing, not editing.”
He knew that I wanted to write and that I was betraying myself as an individual. But most importantly, he said, “Perrier, not wine.”