Fourteen months ago I quit drinking while residing in Abu Dhabi with my family.
Not only was I tired of the cycle of being hungover every morning and craving booze every night, my alcohol use seemed magnified in close proximity to a non-drinking Muslim population. Today, I credit a region of the world that confounds most Americans with bringing me clarity and ending my 11-year run as mommy drunkest.
How did I come to live in the desert and arrive at the decision to go dry? The answer is a perfect storm of identity and landscape. We moved to Abu Dhabi for my husband’s work and a family adventure, despite all that we’d heard about conflicts in the region at large. I stopped drinking because it was starting to kill me. The Middle East helped me reach the conclusion that I was my own worst enemy.
Part of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi is actually a peace-loving and quiet oasis on the Persian Gulf, although a number of hostile nations and situations are located nearby. Airspace is closed over the surrounding countries of Syria and Yemen as battles rage below. Iraq and the frontlines of ISIL are a mere 605 nautical miles away. Ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya add to the region’s complications. Living in Abu Dhabi is akin to being a minnow in a fishbowl next to a tank of piranhas. You’re safe unless the glass breaks.
I began to rely on multiple glasses of wine to silence my fears about being the Middle East. Truth is, I’d been relying on alcohol to assuage the worries I faced everywhere. Getting drunk seemed to mitigate a lot of things, including my family history of Alzheimer’s disease and my angst about raising my son in an increasingly dangerous world. Being in Abu Dhabi gave me added reason to up the booze ante despite challenges in obtaining my version of “mother’s little helper.”
U.A.E law prohibits the consumption, purchase, or possession of alcohol by Muslims. Expats from Western countries can imbibe in hotel bars or private clubs, and buy booze at a handful of liquor stores. Local society is divided along a number of lines, including the drinkers and the drink nots. Falling firmly (and deeply) into the former category, I frequently found myself in the dubious position of instructing a Muslim cabbie to take me to a liquor store.
A concerned driver from Islamabad, Pakistan once asked me if I drank every day. He sipped from an imaginary bottle to be sure I understood. Annoyed, I told him no. But I was drinking every day, with a vengeance.
Inside the dark confines of Spinney’s — windows and doors blackened with plastic bags and duct tape — I’d load up on my favorite demons, chardonnay and Smirnoff. Buying liquor in Abu Dhabi typically requires a license verifying non-Muslim status. But at 5-feet-10-inches, blonde, and blue-eyed, it was so blatantly obvious that I was an American Christian the proprietor never asked for my license, which I never bothered to obtain anyway. The only thing that stood out more than my giant appearance was my huge purchases.
I’d emerge from Spinney’s with clanking black bags chock full of forbidden spirits, trying to muffle the telltale sound with my purse or jacket. But because Abu Dhabi was hotter than hell, I’d walk quickly — and therefore noisily — back to the air-conditioned cab where my son was waiting for me. Yes, I repeatedly left my son in the company of a stranger while I bought booze to go.
At precisely 5 p.m. every evening — an hour before the city’s sunset call to prayer — I’d pour vodka over ice and sit down to scare myself even further by watching the evening news. Meanwhile, my husband Allan worked late as the artistic director of the New York Film Academy campus and my son David played video games to unwind from a long day in fifth grade at the American International School.
By 8 p.m., I’d consumed a second cocktail and an entire bottle of wine. By 9 p.m., I was passed out in bed — claiming exhaustion from the heat and stress. I woke up feeling like I’d been run over by a war tank — swearing that I’d never drink again but praying for happy hour to come quick.
My “come to Jesus” moment in the Middle East arrived on March 28, 2014 when my anti-depressant prescription ran out. Yes, I was taking Celexa and drinking chardonnay in tandem, a toxic cocktail considered by doctors to be a big no-n0.
When I showed up to a hospital clinic to see about getting a refill, the nurse measured my blood pressure and body weight. Both were significantly elevated. The attending physician, who could only provide a 30-day supply of my meds in accordance with local healthcare regulations, wanted to run a battery of tests. What was the source of my soaring weight and BP?
Of course I already knew the answer.
Then and there, I vowed to change the trajectory of my life. I had become a raging alcoholic in the Middle East. I was determined to un-become one in the same region. When I told my son about my decision to give up alcohol for good, his response cut me to the core.
“That’s good,” he said flatly. “You liked wine more than me.”
When David was born in 2004, I thought he was the most terrifying thing on Earth. Overwhelmed by the responsibility of keeping him safe, I discovered that a little wine in the evening helped push back the fear. The older he got, the more wine I needed to shield against the increasing threats facing us both. But my need to drink was making my son less safe and me less of a mother. It was moving to the Middle East — a hotbed of conflict — that led me to this conclusion.
I went cold turkey in Abu Dhabi. For weeks, I endured cold sweats in the soaring temperatures. I lost control of my bowels in the back of a cab. I cried all night and slept all day. But I found strength and inspiration in the Emirate people, who enjoy existence without cocktails. I became a more engaged, present mother who likes nothing more than spending time with her son.
I’ve been sober for 15 months, perhaps one of the greatest and most difficult periods of my life. Recent family trips to Italy and France — landscapes filled with the grapes of my wrath — didn’t threaten my newfound, hard-won identity.
These days, the words “courage, faith, and hope” seem to come out of my mouth as frequently as coffee seems to go in. And wherever I travel now still finds me saying “shukron” (Arabic for thank you) for the privilege of being alive in the world.
Nancy’s brand new memoir, DRYLAND: One Woman’s Swim to Sobriety is currently climbing the memoir rankings on Amazon. Travel, murder, intrigue, and a life story that’s so fascinating it’s almost impossible to believe it’s true.