Confessions of a serial networker

Illustration by Sonia Pulido

Before I got sober, I often joked that I became a journalist because it’s one of the few professions where drinking on the job isn’t just allowed, but practically required. Now I’m pretty sure that wasn’t a joke.

I was not invited to my first exclusive Washington party. Rather, a reader of my blog who was at the Radio & Television Correspondents’ Association dinner sent me a tip that the event seemed under-attended and no one was checking to see if guests had tickets. These were the Bush years, and the RTCA dinner was a kind of poorer cousin to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. “If you wear something fancy and act like you belong here, you’ll probably get in.” This is good advice for life in general, and it worked in this instance, too. 

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Aside from the giggling giddiness of just getting in, I don’t remember much about the event, primarily because I was drunk. But the kludgy, fickle archives of the blog I edited happen to have successfully preserved the “pool report” I filed on the evening, and in the nervous light of today it seems…indistinguishable from any other periodically exclusive Washington party thrown since then, right up to today. Omarosa was there. 

The lazily themed after-parties (one was “disco”) had open bars, and attendees gravitated to whatever not-Washington celebrities made an appearance. The biggest pleasure was in eavesdropping on people most Americans would not recognize as being worth eavesdropping on. (Joe Trippi: “Yes, I threw a cell phone. I guess I’m the only campaign manager in the history of the world to ever lose his temper.”) Reading my coverage now, I can’t tell if I was genuinely excited about the event or parodying others’ excitement or just playing along with the conceit that there was any reason to be there at all.

During the years I covered Washington as a quasi-pundit media gadfly (roughly, the second Bush term through Obama’s first term), I believed going to parties like the RTCA dinner was part of my job. It would be more accurate to say I made going to them my job; I turned them into content, at least. 

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Did I have fun? I think so, sometimes. I liked a lot of the people who went to them, and they were staging grounds for other, less performative gatherings, as well as an opportunity to put names with faces. They were parties, after all. What I find so baffling in retrospect is that they seemed so important, and that Washington has an entire culture that facilitates the illusion of their importance: generations of breathless coverage about what are essentially industry parties that bear greater resemblance to the last night of a regional sales meeting than the Golden Globes.

 

Little happens at Washington cocktail parties that couldn’t happen somewhere else, and a fair number of things happen at them that shouldn’t happen anywhere.

 

During the Obama years, a lot of effort went into trend pieces about how Barack and Michelle made Washington “cool.” But in the seven years I was around, the presence of the occasional genuine celebrity in DC was more than offset by a deep plunge in the value of a boldface name. But what did I get out of these dim-star-studded gatherings? A few connections. Some amusing anecdotes. A shelf full of books I never even pretended to plan to read by second-tier political consultants and forgettable congressmen who only barely pretended to write them. Mostly, I got a fuzzy sense that I was on the inside of something—that I had access other people didn’t.

This delicate conviction of mine should probably be kept separate from debates about “access journalism,” though it might be related. I am prepared to believe that the politico-journalist community suffers from imposter syndrome at a somewhat higher rate than the rest of the world. But I know for sure that a constant monologue of self-doubt was my own date for most of these parties, though I could keep her quiet by working the room and—even more effectively—plying her with booze. The next day’s hangover would inevitably amplify and add ammunition to her litany of failures, but I might have a “SPOTTED” mention to show her—flimsy evidence of my value, but at times the only value I thought I had.

I knew I was using alcohol (and a small selection of other substances) as a crutch. The difference between more-or-less-harmless social lubrication and addiction is the inability to let go of the chemicals even after the crutch has become a weapon—and to pine for it when it’s gone, no matter what pain it’s caused. 

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I kept trying to quit, and I could even go a few days, maybe a week or two, without. Still, social situations where alcohol was present were excruciating—and yet I persisted in attending, insisting to others and myself that I was fine I was fine just fine fine thankyouverymuch, despite a sense that my itchy skin was two sizes too small and my heart pounding so hard it was about to burst.

Toward the end, I had a new ritual: Instead of putting away a few or five glasses of wine at the open bar, I’d sip gingerly at my club soda, feeling as distant and fragile as if I were the one encased in glass. I’d gracelessly mingle until I couldn’t stand it anymore and then make for the restroom, where I’d sob as silently as possible, chest tight not with grief but a burning mix of self-pity and anger. In the hot resentments of my addiction, I extrapolated beyond the adolescent conviction that “everyone was having fun without me”; I mourned that everyone else was absentmindedly partaking in something that was only a recreational drug for them, whereas for me it was a cure. 

So, of course, I’d eventually drink, a failure of willpower I could tally as evidence of my inherent worthlessness. It would take months of grinding through the motions of sobriety—all the meetings and sayings and steps and prayers—before I finally came to realize that succumbing to my addiction was never a sign that I was weak. I was just looking to the wrong things for strength.

 

I don’t remember my last Washington soirée, but I vividly recall the last party I wanted to go to. I went to rehab a few weeks before the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. If I had stayed the typical 28 days, it would have landed me back in town just in time. After the seriousness of my addiction made it clear that my stay needed to be extended, “but the President will be there” was an actual, earnest argument I made for leaving as originally scheduled. My counselor’s counterargument—“You could die”—was the one that seemed overdramatic. In the end, I relented, but not with any particular grace.

I called Rent the Runway to cancel my dress from the brick-like landline phone in the hallway of my unit; I am pretty sure I cried. (To be fair, almost all phone calls in treatment centers end in tears.) I begged my counselor for computer time so I could un-RSVP from the after-parties, but I’d been restricted from the internet (“too triggering”). She was pretty nonchalant about me missing what was so clearly Very, Very Important. “It’s work!” I pleaded. “I have to go for work.” 

“I think they’ll survive,” she said. “And so will you.”

In the beginning, I wasn’t sure. Who was I if I wasn’t on a list? Who was I without a byline? If someone isn’t “spotted,” are they, in fact, invisible?

Those questions became less important as I got on with just trying to make it through the day sober. It may have helped that I went to several meetings a week where I was not just recognized, but people, as a group, shouted my name. It was only my first name, but in those rooms, no one used their last.

After four months of treatment, I left DC behind. I was 38 and I went to live in a halfway house where I had chores and a curfew. Very few of my housemates were interested in cable news—the TV in the shared living area was usually tuned to the Country Music Channel. The 2012 election was just starting to take shape, but our heated debates were about who forgot to put a liner in the trash can, and did someone make an unauthorized long-distance call? My roommate (and by this, I mean the person I shared my room with) liked the various CSI and Law & Order flavors mostly, but once when we were channel surfing she lingered on a panel of pundits. “I know that guy,” I told her, experimenting with the idea of letting people know who I used to be. “Huh,” she said.

Eventually, I started writing about politics again. Eventually, I started going on television again. I have visited DC occasionally, even. Others can evaluate whether my journalism has suffered from my lack of physical proximity to the Capitol; I can tell you that people regularly assume I still live there, and I am not sure whether I take it as a compliment or a slight. I have come to realize that little happens at Washington cocktail parties that couldn’t happen somewhere else, and a fair number of things happen at them that shouldn’t happen anywhere. My disappearance from that particular scene has also handily sorted out those people I am actually friends with from those people I was merely happy to see.

It’s been seven years since I went to what can properly be called a Washington cocktail party, and in that time the only black-tie event I’ve been to was Samantha Bee’s “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” which was, obviously, not the Correspondents’ Dinner. 

I was going to list all the ways the Bee event was different, but the most salient comparison isn’t between Bee’s event and a typical Washington party, but between who I am now and who I was then. I can remember most of what happened at the Bee party. I left early. I wore flats. I don’t really care if I’m invited back.

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Ana Marie Cox is a political columnist and culture critic whose writing has appeared in The New Republic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Esquire. She hosts With Friends Like These, a podcast from Crooked Media. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.