Bestselling novelist Ann says she took to drink because it made her feel smarter and funnier: ‘I just liked to drink a little wine after everybody else was asleep. And then I liked to drink a little more’

Author Ann Leary

Author Ann Leary

We all know the shameful story of the alcoholic mother. She leaves her children alone at night to run down to the pub for a few drinks…that turn into a few more.

She sips during the day while her kids are at school and arrives at pick-up time reeking of booze.

There are empty bottles hidden all over the house, a sainted husband who stays by her side when most men would have left, and terrified children who are conditioned to maintain the family secret.

These stories are heartbreaking, and yet there was a time in my life when I found solace in them.

These pathetic women were alcoholics, I reasoned. I, therefore, was not. I never drank during the day, never left my kids alone so that I could go out drinking at night. In fact, I didn’t drink at all for most of my adult life.

My kids saw me drunk just once, at a Christmas party in our home, seven years ago. But the truth is that I am an alcoholic; part of me has always known this, and a day finally came when I could no longer turn to drunk-by-day Lee Remick in the film Days of Wine and Roses to convince me that I wasn’t.

I was a quiet closet drinker. I drank at night. I just liked to drink a little wine after everybody else was asleep. And then I liked to drink a little more.

Of course, I hadn’t always been a closet drinker. I started drinking with friends when I was 14. My family had moved to a small New England town where all the kids rode their bikes to the beach at night and got drunk on beer and cheap rum. Being a new arrival, I was a little insecure, very awkward around boys, and the first time I went to one of these shindigs, that beer and rum combo really worked for me.

Ann with her actor-producer husband Denis Leary at a charity event in New York last year

Each anxious gulp made me smarter, prettier and funnier than I had been just moments before. I have a vague recollection of tackling a boy on the beach, that first night, and then it was the next day and I was at my friend’s house, having no understanding of how I got there.

I repeated the booze, beer, inappropriate lunging and odd geographical awakenings throughout high school and college.

Often, I tried to drink less, but whenever I drank, I never got to the point where I felt like I had had enough. I never left a party or pub after a couple of drinks and thought, ‘That was great, now I’m satisfied.’

During my adolescent and early adult years, I went to college, worked as a writer on stories and screenplays, held waitressing and other jobs and had lots of friends.

My friends all liked to drink, but somehow I was usually the one that nobody was speaking to the next day. Why? I don’t know.

I was a blackout drinker and couldn’t remember. From what I’m told, I embarrassed people. Most of all, I embarrassed myself.

Somebody told me, once: ‘The problem with you is that you just don’t know when to stop.

After a couple of drinks, when you start to get that out-of-control feeling, you should switch to water.’ I remember nodding tearfully. I was reeling with shame about some incident from the night before, but in all honesty, I had no idea what she was talking about.

After two or three drinks, I always start to feel in control, life is suddenly glorious, all is right with the world. I’m at a party, dancing, chatting with a friend…

And cut! It’s the next day, and the person I was chatting to won’t answer my calls. I have a bruise on my behind. There is gravel in my nose.

Things changed when I was 20 and met Denis Leary, my future husband, who drank a little differently from the way I did.

He had fun, but he was never really drunk. I stopped drinking after we had been together a couple of years. He didn’t insist that I stop, but he was glad and relieved when I chose to join an outpatient alcoholism and addiction treatment programme in Boston for some counselling.

‘There is so much I regret about those years of secret drinking’

I quit drinking in 1986, and didn’t have another drink for 14 years. When I gave up, it was a tremendous relief to surrender to something that I had sort of known from the very beginning of my drinking. I drank differently from other people. I lost control when I drank. Friends had told me that many, many times, but I finally came to accept it as a fact rather than as an attack on my character.

Soon after I quit, my obsession with alcohol disappeared. I no longer looked repeatedly at the clock every afternoon to see if it was almost 5pm – the respectable hour to start drinking – and I had a surge of joy every morning when I woke up and remembered going to bed the night before.

As a result, my relationship with Denis improved. We got married and had two children. His career, first as a stand-up comic and then as an actor/writer/producer, took off and we were no longer broke.

We moved from Boston to Manhattan and later to Connecticut. In New York and Connecticut, nobody had ever seen me drunk.

When my new friends asked me why I didn’t drink, I explained that I had been a little wild when I was younger and that I just liked my life better without drinking.

Most people were fine with that, but several friends told me that they, too, had been wild in their youth, that they’d also been binge drinkers who occasionally suffered blackouts, but they had grown out of that behaviour.

Ann and Denis with their daughter Devin and son Jack

I started wondering if I’d jumped the gun with this whole abstinence thing. Maybe I would have become a moderate drinker, had I just given myself time to mature.

Then one night, while on holiday with Denis and the children, who were eight and ten at the time, I was accidentally served a rum punch. Instead of rejecting it, as I would have done in the past, I decided to drink it and see what happened. Nothing did happen. I didn’t rush off to the bar and drink myself senseless.

I didn’t even have another drink. I now had proof. I was capable of controlling my drinking.

When we returned home, I made a pact with myself: I would drink moderately. I would drink only wine, nothing harder.

If I ever had a blackout or felt that my drinking was out of my control again, I would stop. I told Denis about this clever scheme, and at first he was sceptical, but after spending a few nights with the new (old) me, I had him convinced.

For some people, alcohol lessens their inhibitions and makes them more relaxed about sex. I’m rather uninhibited naturally – my baseline is just a fraction above exhibitionist – and when I drink I’m what one boyfriend once called ‘maybe a little too wild, but lots of fun’, so who could blame my husband for overlooking, with me, the signs that I was not really in control of my drinking?

We started having all that fun, after the kids went to bed, with my being a little too wild again. Plus, he was away a lot of the time, so he didn’t see me really drunk, and I was careful that the kids and my friends didn’t either.

When I was out, I never had more than one or two glasses of wine.

I had to drive home and I wasn’t going to drive while intoxicated. That’s what alcoholics did. After I arrived home, checked on my sleeping children and sent the babysitter on her way, I would enjoy another glass of wine. Then another. Well, I would usually ask myself, why not another? Just one more.

Although I had previously attended 12-step meetings and read books on alcoholism, addiction and recovery, once I started drinking again I was unable to recognise the signs of my own alcoholism. I believed that I was in control.

I made excuses: I hadn’t eaten enough, I would say. It was red wine that gave me hangovers. It was easy to believe that I didn’t have a problem, because unlike my earlier drinking, nobody else thought I had a problem.

So what if I didn’t remember going to bed? I had obviously gone to bed, that was what mattered. I never drank during the day. I was too busy. I had active children.

My first book was published during that time. I went on a book tour and attended book parties, very careful to drink only moderately while out. I served on school committees. I was active as a volunteer in our town. I was working on a second book.

I’m not an alcoholic, I would assure myself, as I poured the last drops of a bottle into my glass. Right?

I asked myself, a little later, as I staggered back to the fridge for a fresh bottle. Right? I would ask the next morning, as I tucked the empty bottle under the other rubbish, my head pounding.

Eventually, there was our Christmas party, and I got hammered in front of the kids. The next day I told them about my history with problem drinking, apologised for being drunk and promised them that they would never see me that way again.

Their responses? ‘All the mothers were drunk at that party.’ ‘We didn’t even know you were drunk.’

But I had been drunk, not just that night – all those nights that they didn’t know about. I realised that even though my children never saw obvious signs of the disease, they still had a mother who was sick with alcoholism.

It felt, the morning after that party, like I had opened my chest and revealed a malignant tumour to them.

If I had closed it back up and said nothing about it, I would never have been able to treat it, and my disease would have infected the family. Not by turning them into alcoholics necessarily, but by depriving them of a safe home environment, one that is filled with an atmosphere of truth and honesty, rather than secrets and lies.

There is so much that I regret about those years of secret drinking. There was, of course, some lying, some covering up.

I don’t really suffer from migraines. I haven’t had the ‘flu’ since I quit. I’m not proud that I was sometimes so hungover that I used these excuses to explain why I had failed to fulfil an obligation.

But ultimately the experience is what inspired me to write my novel The Good House, which is told from the viewpoint of Hildy, a successful 60-year-old real estate broker who is in denial about her drinking.