That Smell

woman in bed
By Gina Easley

By Jennifer James

It happens everywhere, in all kinds of situations; I’ll walk up to someone and smell That Smell. The last time it happened to me was the first day of Advent when all the families with young children gathered in our church parish hall to construct Advent wreaths. The smell wasn’t the first thing I noticed. In fact, when I first arrived with my husband and three children, the room smelled of old wood, fresh coffee, and evergreen boughs: genuine magic in the air. The Christmas tree stood in the corner, waiting for its bright lights and colorful ornaments. There were already some jars of peanut butter and Campbell’s soup under the tree for the food pantry. For me, it was the best of the Christmas season.

Then one of my favorite peeps at church, this young, amazing mom, with two little kids, came up and gave me a hug. I smelled the smell. You know it too, and it’s not armpit odor, or old urine, or greasy hair. It’s the smell of human skin trying to metabolize, to slough off, the stench of alcohol. You also probably know that this smell is not emitted (generally speaking) by some emotionally stable person who spent the previous evening nursing a tepid glass of merlot. Nope. This is the smell of poison, the result of one person consuming too much alcohol for his or her body to take. I know about this smell. I used to smell that way, too.

The first time I noticed my own skin generating alcoholic stench was one sunny December morning when I was teaching preschool. My husband’s company Christmas party had taken place the night before and there was lots of wine and beer. Lots of wine for me. Then, lots of chit chat. Chit-chat with my table mates about abortion. My Catholic tablemates. Whoops. Any grace I’d come to the table with had gone down with the third or fourth glass of wine. The next morning, I woke up nauseated and ashamed. This was a significant occasion for me, this one morning.

It would be very nice if I could tell you that I knew I’d been drinking too much, that I needed to stop or cut down. But no. I realized that I needed to do a much better job of hiding my relationship with alcohol. Otherwise, the jig would be up. And I was nowhere near ready to surrender my favorite thing, so no more drinking excessively in public.

There is a book called Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp. Not surprisingly, she likens her relationship with alcohol to one with a lover. I like the analogy because, like it or not, most of us have loved someone who or something that is bad for us. Sometimes the loved one is a parent, a lover, a boss, a friend. Sometimes a job or food. But no matter how disastrous the relationship is, there’s always a moment, an episode, an element of deep, searing satisfaction to the whole mess. In an abusive relationship, it might be the part when the abuser begs for forgiveness, swears that his victim is kind and generous beyond belief, that he might cease to exist without her. Shit, that’s heady stuff: who among us doesn’t want to hear that? If only the truth in those promises lasted more than an instant. And eventually, alcohol does something cruel to its lovers: it tries to kill us.

For years, I hated alcohol. My mother was an alcoholic. She was one of the kindest, bravest, most loving people I’ve known, but her relationship with alcohol sucked away a lot of that. She was quietly depressed her whole adult life, so far as I could see. She was never violent or cruel, not short tempered or really angry. She was just irreparably sad and the alcohol made it very hard to hide that. I didn’t want that for myself.

Because I was afraid of becoming as sad as my mom, I didn’t use alcohol in many of the glorious ways that so many miserable adolescents do. I didn’t use it to fit in or to grease social skids. I didn’t use it to feel more confident or brave. Nope. I went through high school as a bona fide misfit. I was pudgy (and this is before the so-called obesity epidemic hit America) and as a child, had been raised in a series of small, international communities. It was no big deal for me to have one classmate who spoke three words of English and another who was fluent in three languages. So when my family returned to the U.S. for good when I was fifteen, I had no idea how to navigate The American High School. When most of my peers were exploring chemical solutions to adolescent angst, I didn’t touch the stuff. In retrospect, this may have been a tactical error: I desperately needed some social lubrication.

Probably, these years of social pariahism helped make my introduction to alcohol so dramatic. Alcoholism is tricky business from a scientific point of view. The current thinking seems to be that some alcoholics are alcoholic from their first sip of alcohol, that their first drink was like a first kiss or something, that the compulsion to drink came with the first rush. Then, there are others who drink themselves into addiction: the folks who start by drinking “a couple“ of drinks a night, and gradually work into “a few” drinks a night, and then somehow start using it to make it through the day as some people use Diet Dr. Pepper or Starbucks. Some people are lucky enough to get some nifty little psychological tic (sometimes not until their thirties or forties) and find that deep breathing and Zoloft are not nearly as effective as a well-timed glass (or tumbler or stadium cup) of Chardonnay. I’ve known people with all these backgrounds. In a way, I am a person with all these backgrounds.

I had a proclivity to anxiety and panic attacks from the start (my psychological tic), started consuming a few drinks about mid-way through college, with little effect. I was waiting for a magical transformation to transpire from the elixir smuggled into dorm fridges via grungy backpacks, and when it didn’t happen, I lost interest. That was probably the point in my drinking experience when I could have stopped. I was well ensconced in the life of a social misfit in college, just as I had been in high school, and I could have muddled through the social challenges unaided by alcohol if I’d been truly aware of how my genetics and experience made me such a likely candidate for alcoholism.

That was the time when I could have stopped. That doesn’t mean I would have. And I remember the night I started drinking with purpose, with an understanding that an alchemy occurred when enough beer was consumed. Some friends from high school had gotten together at someone’s house, the parents conveniently out of town, and rum, beer, god-knows-what beverages running freely. I got drunk. Like, crawling up the stairs, stumbling into things, drunk. And while the hangover hurt like childbirth, I had found some magic in that night: for just a little bit of time, I felt normal. I felt good, even. Pretty, funny, accomplished. Ha.

Alcohol was my first love. It was like a secret passport, giving me license to be a person I never knew I could be. Add beer and I wasn’t afraid of anything. Because I started this chapter of my life in college, I could look to the right and to the left, and always find someone who was drunker than I was. It never occurred to me that I might have a drinking problem: I was having a good time! It wasn’t like I was a diligent student before I discovered alcohol, and drinking didn’t make my schoolwork much worse than it had been previously.

Despite the hangovers and ill-advised hook-ups, I survived college intact. I collected a degree and a boyfriend. The boyfriend, Ed, was an anomaly. Ed was handsome, kind, wise, and funny. He was nice to me. He drank beer right along with me, but I didn’t have to be drunk to be with him. God bless him, he married me. And besides alcohol, Ed was the only thing I’d ever found in my life that made me feel whole.

Shortly after college, my husband and I were struggling professionally and financially, and I was having trouble finding work. I spent a lot of lonely days in our crappy little apartment feeling sorry for myself and watching whatever VHS tapes were available for loan at the local library (my Blockbuster habit was breaking us). I noticed that a beer (or three) around four in the afternoon helped to make the evening more pleasant. And again, alcohol became the only way I knew to feel okay again.

But even alcohol and a kind husband weren’t enough to fix everything that was broken in me. I was a hot mess. By my mid-twenties, I was overcome with weird, irrational fears, and some whiney-flavored depression. I was working at the preschool with young children, whom I loved. I didn’t always love the adults who came with them, however, and frankly, young children in groups bigger than—well, two, being generous—makes me a little panicky. So, I would come home from work at about four and drink a bottle of wine. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

In the meantime, I was having gruesome nightmares involving faceless vampire-like beings and dead people who inexplicably opened their eyes. I was convinced that I would die very soon. It would be cancer or AIDS that did me in, and I was too petrified to even contemplate going to a doctor to confirm or disprove my insanity. As a result, I would require my poor husband to examine my lumps and bumps and to tell me I wasn’t dying, really. You can imagine that Ed had his hands full. But somehow he managed not to drink a bottle of wine every night. It was a mystery.

Eventually, after one particularly grueling night of drinking and weeping (I had just watched a chick flick about a young woman who died of cancer: surely, I was next), I called a counselor. God bless Eleanor, she talked to me and my inner child, and we all talked about my mom and I actually got better, kind of. Every good alcoholic knows to lie about their alcohol intake unless they’re itching for an intervention, so I never told Eleanor how much I drank. I started taking Prozac and it helped my brain even out some. I wasn’t so worried about dying all the time, and got down to the business of living. I still had wine as an ally, but I was trying to control my drinking now. Only weekends and such.

For me, it wasn’t long before the weekends seeped into Wednesdays and Mondays and who could really blame me for a glass of wine on Tuesday night? A couple of years passed. I left teaching and tried another couple of gigs: travel agent, legal secretary. I settled in as a receptionist at my local veterinary clinic, feeling sorry for myself for my lack of ambition.

By the time I was miserable enough to quit drinking, I was not missing days of work, only occasionally driving drunk, and not closing down the bars. I’d never had a drink in the morning. I’d never cheated on my husband. My life was simply, quietly, a mess. Because alcohol had become the most important part of my life. I loved my husband but only wanted to spend the day with him if the day included alcohol. I loved my newborn nephew but resented the idea of caring for him over a weekend’s time because I knew I’d have to stay relatively sober for the duration.

So I quit. After much consternation and many false starts, some meetings in church basements and coffee shops were involved. Reluctantly, I acknowledged that I couldn’t stop drinking on my own. I went to meetings because I was more afraid not to. I didn’t find them as comforting as many people do, but at least I was in the company of other people who understood what it was like to love a drink more than anything or anyone else in the world. Eighteen years later, I still don’t drink and still go to meetings.

In my experience (and only mine), the twelve-step programs are kind of like church: you can find a fundamentalist church if that’s what floats your boat. If you’re more of a universalist who doesn’t dig creeds or rituals, you can probably find a worship service to accommodate those preferences. As alcoholics go, I’m more of a universalist. I couldn’t have maintained my sobriety or sanity without good therapy and a lifelong relationship with antidepressants. I don’t like it when people make a list of rules that I have to follow if I want to live. That doesn’t feel like hope to me—more like a threat. Still, those famous twelve guidelines and the people who brought them to me were a part of my salvation because they promoted humility, honesty, and kindness. There aren’t many places you can find those attributes in this life.

I stopped drinking because one morning I understood that I couldn’t have a full life if I kept drinking. One of my friends from work had come to visit me the night before. She was a much more advanced drunk than I was. At least that’s what I told myself. We sat around and drank and drank until we could barely stand. We felt sorry for ourselves together. We watched soap operas and god knows what else. When my husband came home from work that night, I am quite sure that he felt that sickness in his chest that all people who live with alcoholics feel when they open the door and find a stranger inhabiting the body of their loved one. My friend and I slurred our greetings to him, giddy with our chemical wisdom and angst, and then my friend got in her car and drove home. Yep. Just like that.

And when I woke up that next morning, it was with That Smell emanating from my pores. That same smell I get when I hug a person in the parish hall at church, when a bank representative leans in to show me where to sign. I know that the person across from me is suffering, not just from processing toxins through their pores but from trading away little bits of their soul, one glass at a time. There are a lot of us out there. You can tell us by the way our eyes light up when someone pours a drink. The way we joke about needing a drink. All the time.

All of us stop drinking at some point. It’s just that for some people, that point is death. When people “die” from alcoholism, it’s often not from cirrhosis or an automobile accident. It can be a fall. Or a fight. It can be a quiet, chemical whisper telling you, “one more pill won’t hurt.” After alcoholism seduces its victims with easy laughter and imaginary confidence, it sets out to spread darkness, like a nasty cancer. You’ll know the darkness when you choose a glass of wine over your child’s cry or a blurred drive home over your personal, legal, and moral safety.

So when I smell That Smell on someone else, I want to hug them. I hope they’ll drink a lot of water and get a nap later in the day. I want them to know that they are not alone, that other people have woken with that same crust on their souls.

For me, kindness made all the difference. I had to understand that I was suffering from a physical, moral, and spiritual disease, and that I had to find a way to live as it was, not as I wished it was. And damn it, life can be a mess sometimes. It can be magical, uncomfortable, frightening, tender, tedious, and exhilarating—sometimes simultaneously—and none of it is in your control. Still, there is a certain freedom in accepting this chaos and in walking through the messiness with your spirit intact.

Weirdly, I found myself enjoying being a sober person. I found that it was okay to be wickedly uncomfortable at social settings, that I didn’t have to punctuate every event, good, bad, or boring, with a drink. Sometimes I wonder what the hell I’m doing with my life.  But I don’t wake up poisoned anymore, with That Smell on my skin, or in my heart, for that matter.  And that is a reason to celebrate every new morning, whatever the day ahead might hold.


JENNIFER JAMES lives with her husband and three children in rural Virginia. After graduating from William and Mary in 1989, Jennifer moved to Gloucester County, where she found work as a teacher’s assistant and veterinary receptionist until 2000, when her first child was born. After an approximate decade of diapers and interrupted sleep patterns, Jennifer started writing with purpose in 2010 and has been at it since. This is her second essay for Full Grown People. A good story is her favorite thing.

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31 thoughts on “That Smell

  1. Jennifer, this spoke to me in so many ways. Family members, strangers, friends. Sometimes me, too. The Smell is a heartbreaker, a homewrecker. So glad you don’t live in its shadow anymore. Thank you for writing this.

  2. What a terrific essay! I love your writing style – so conversational and full of genuine emotion. Your story really got to me. I’ve lived with an alcoholic husband for the last twenty-four years (good guy, great dad, successful career, but lots of heartache and disappointments) and I know “the smell” well. With my children now both away at college and my husband frequently oversees for work, my own one glass of red wine a night has turned into two, and I see how easily it could turn into three. Wine is good company! Reading your story has made me realize the importance of stopping bad habits before they become unstoppable. Thanks!

  3. Wow. Just wow. As someone who lives with someone who drinks too much, I know how “the smell” perfectly encapsulates the problem, and the recognition of the problem. I know the smell, but never thought to put it like this. Very real, and such a slippery slope.

  4. Life is a mess. I thought it wasn’t supposed to be a mess and when it is, sometimes I get panicky. Not surprising that I smooth over the messiness with Merlot. And not helpful either. Thank you for your courage and honesty and kindness.

  5. Fabulous. Been there. Done that. You really captured the spiritual malady and how it’s passed through generations emotionally — not just physically. Thanks.

  6. I loved and related to this essay so, so much. I knew, and was humiliated by, “the smell” for many years. Sadly, the coffee shop customers I waited on back then were also regularly treated to my appetizing stench. Thankfully, it’s been 25 years since I’ve reeked of stale alcohol. And I also loved and identified with “Drinking a Love Story.”

  7. Thank you so much for your kind words, everyone. I don’t think I could’ve made it without Caroline Knapp! SO sad that she died at 44–of LUNG CANCER! ugh. Anyway, thanks from the heart. I was tremendously lucky to be surrounded by good people with wise, kind hearts along the way.

  8. Jennifer, I enjoyed this essay so much and the skill you have for letting the reader into your life that I searched out your previous FGP essay that was published in December. Somehow I missed reading it back then. You write from your heart, both essays take me a world I can relate to. I look forward to reading more.

  9. This is one of the best things I’ve ever read on a relationship with alcohol, Jennifer. Really blew me away. I know so many stay-at-home mothers who’ve quietly slipped into this relationship, and it’s so, so easy when you’re life turns out not what you expected or wanted and there’s this glass or bottle of magic that makes it all feel better. When I first got married, an elderly friend of mine (in her 80s, who’d spent most of her life following her husband to his administrative jobs at oil fields around the world) told me, “Watch out for the sherry parties.” Took me years to realize what she meant.

  10. I was riveted. Teary. I love your writing style. This touched someplace deep inside me. Wow. Thank you for writing this. So powerful.

  11. I know that smell. I lived with it for 22 years until my husband died. Your words struck something deep inside that may, just maybe, help me forgive him a little.

  12. Thank you – what a compassionate and moving story. I hate that smell – it smells like my father who died of alcoholism at 58. I feel a mix of sorrow and disgust when I smell it, and I hope that as I learn to love and forgive more fully, I will be able to leave the disgust behind. There but for the grace of God… I’ve been in a twelve-step program for friends and families of alcoholics for many years and expect to spend the rest of my life there. It is a fierce disease that affects everyone it touches.

    Have you read Gail Caldwell’s story about Caroline Knapp, “Let’s Take the Long Way Home?” It’s really beautifully written.

    Be well – thank you for sharing so honestly.

  13. Jennifer. This is ME. I have always wanted to put it into words, and have not been as successful as you have been in this wonderful, eloguent essay. I know that smell, and it repulses me now, but I wonder, if some days it was I who stank in the clutch of someone’s arms. It took me until I was 45 to give it up and my husband-who went the rehab route-was 48. But we are a healthier happier family, and I have educated our only daughter into being careful with her own body. Alanon saved my life. I mentor an Alateen program so I can help others. It is important work and it reminds me how insidious this disease can become. My mother drinks too, but only one glass when I visit! It was a hard way to grow up, and harder to admit she did it, because I love her so much and felt so disloyal . I too take antidepressants and they have helped tremendously. I am happy , sober and after 14 years, rarely think about it. It does, however make others uncomfortable, but, well, that is their issue to face. Thanks you more than I can say for writing this.

  14. Thank you all so very much for your beautiful words of support and appreciation. They mean more than I can say. Happy travels and much love as we trudge on together.

  15. Beautifully woven together with strong threads of truth. As a food addict, all I needed to do was replace “drink” and “alcohol” with food and it’s the same story–only food addicts don’t necessarily have “that smell”. Instead, we have those hips, that butt, those mudflap arms…

  16. Wonderful article – and so true. The story of my husband and me was like the movie “Days of Wine and Roses.” We had great times together, had 2 beautiful girls. I stopped drinking, he had the smell every single day, but his the amounts of his consumption very well, until at age 42, still functioning and working full time, he went to the hospital and never came home. 2 days later he died with a died with a diagnosis of cirrhosis. Just like that, and completely ” out of the blue.”

  17. What a courageous essay. I lost my brother to alcoholism last year and it was the hardest thing I’ve been through. I wish he’d had the courage to seek a better life.

  18. Love Carolyn Knapp’s book. I also love that Jennifer talks about the church basements. They saved my life. Thanks for sharing.

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