Why Don’t You Just Relax and Have a Drink? by Kase Johnstun

Editor Carrie Seitzinger, Editor's Choice, December 11th, 2014

I have always worried about becoming an alcoholic...

kase johnstun essay nailed magazine
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I stood in line and waited for my turn to talk with the airline customer-service agent at Denver International Airport. There were only a few people in front of me, it was early in the morning, and the agent had a smile on her face, the day yet to beat her down with customer complaints, disgruntled looks, and foot pain, so I was hopeful she could help me.

My wife and two-year-old son weaved between the thousands of people who waited for flights, wandered over to McDonald’s or Wolfgang Pucks, or rushed to catch a flight.

I had just gotten off a short, miserable flight from Kansas City (MCI) where I was stuffed in the middle seat between two strangers. The airliner didn’t assign our family seats when we booked months earlier, and every time we called to ask if they would, they told us to check in at the gate on the departure day.

We were about an hour from boarding our much longer flight to Sea-Tac airport, and when I looked down at my boarding pass, it showed that I would have another flight in the center seat, my wife and son two or three rows behind me. Just seeing ‘Seat B’ in slightly smeared black ink on the white paper in my hand, made every pore that speckled my flesh cry tears of anxiety, and, at that moment, I did what I could to not let real, actual tears leave my eyes in public.

Right before the customer service agent waved me over to her section of the desk, I turned to see my wife and son wiggle through people, his feet dangling from his stroller and his mouth letting go of a laugh. She caught my eye and gave me a “you can do this” type of smile. I waved back with fake confidence and pushed out an “I hope so” grin. A drip of sweat dropped from my back and into the crack of my pants.

I am a claustrophobe.

I’d always hated tight places growing up, but I never knew how debilitating the phobia could be until I walked into a cramped, communist-block elevator during my early twenties while backpacking across Europe. Within the half-minute ride to the top of the building, I touched insanity.

After an anxiety attack in my late 20s on a flight from Baltimore to Salt Lake City, I began to take all necessary measures to avoid being trapped in the middle or window seat on planes. I call to make sure that I have an aisle and usually it works. That morning in the airport, however, I pleaded my case to the customer-service agent, but she just stared down at the screen that told her that there were no available seats on my flight, so when I finally got the courage to ask her if there was anything she could do to help me out, she just said, with a flippancy and wave of her hand in my direction, “It’s full. Why don’t you just go get a couple drinks at the bar.” She smiled, and without looking at me again, waved the next customer to her desk.

I have friends who don’t drink because of faith. I have friends that don’t drink because they drank too much in their lives. I have friends and family that once the first taste of alcohol of the day touches there lips, they will drink until the day ends, even if that day began at the bar at eight in the morning, and I know many people who have missed planes because they sat down at an airport bar with too much time on their hands.

I have always worried about becoming an alcoholic. Alcoholism runs deep in the veins and in the branches of my family tree. Three out of four my grandparents fell victim to addiction: one a binge-drinking Mormon who became violent and unstoppable for days at a time; one a home brewer who had his grandkids stir brew in a pot so big that if they fell in, they would drown while he left them alone in a basement to stir; and one who moved from alcohol to pills and back to alcohol again for 40 years. I’ve seen it rip apart family members and friends, leaving some homeless and others trapped in a cycle of drinking, apologizing, and restoring shredded relationships. Like my claustrophobia, I have done things throughout my adult life to avoid drinking too much, and, I believe, I have made it to a point in my life that I can say I’m safe (Is there ever that point?), but I still stick to the rules I made for myself years ago: I don’t drink when I’m sad (I run instead), I rarely drink when my son’s awake, and, unless its for a very special occasion, I don’t drink in the morning. And if I do, I am lucky to be able to push myself away from the glass, the bottle, or the bar stool. Many, including many I love, cannot push away.

For the next ten minutes, I told my wife that I would be okay and that I could muster the self control to handle a three-hour flight in the middle seat without freaking out, but ten years into marriage, my wife pulled out a 20-dollar bill from her purse and told me to go get a drink, so I did. I pulled up a chair at the bar. I could see our departure gate across the terminal. My wife and son played and giggled and waited to be called to board. I sat with wine in my hand and watched, knowing that if I were to survive the flight, I would need to relax. But I felt like a complete asshole who leaves his family to go to the bar in the morning to calm his nerves.

Then I watched the customer service representative at her desk, smiling and typing and raising her hand for the next customer. I imagined the extremely tall man who needed an aisle just to fit his massive legs in the row, the strictly religious person who liked the front of the plane because she needed to see the door to feel safe, or another person like me who is a claustrophobe but is also a recovering alcoholic. A drink would not make the tall man’s legs shorter. It could not solve the problem of the teetotaler, and it could send a recovering alcoholic into a tailspin.

I sat and sipped on my chardonnay. Am I lucky that I could have a drink that morning and walk away – I guess so – but I wondered if the agent knew how heavy and destructive her flippant response could be, how, for many people, her response not only doesn’t help them but hurts them. Yeah, I know, “Why don’t I just chill out and have a drink.”

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Kase Johnstun is an award-winning essayist and author of Beyond the Grip of Craniosynostosis (forthcoming from McFarland) and co-author/editor of Utah Reflections: Stories from the Wasatch Front (History Press) whose work has appeared nationally and internationally in journals and magazines such as Creative Nonfiction Magazine, The Chronicle Review, Label Me Latina/o, Prime Number, and as a regular contribution to The Good Men Project. He is a lecturer at Utah State University.

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Carrie Seitzinger

Carrie Seitzinger is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Seitzinger is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.
Learn more about her at her official site.