How do you square that madness of loving what alcohol does to you for a few hours while suspecting that it’s killing you?
“Men intoxicated are sometimes stunned into sobriety.”
– Lord Mansfield (1769)
Today marks five years since I had my last drink. Or maybe yesterday marks that anniversary; I’m not sure. It was that kind of last drink. The kind of last drink that ends with the memory of concrete coming up to meet your head like a pillow, of red and blue lights reflected off the early morning pavement on the bridge near your house, the only sound cricket buzz in the dewy August hours before dawn. The kind of last drink that isn’t necessarily so different from the drink before it, but made only truly exemplary by the fact that there was never a drink after it (at least so far, God willing). My sobriety – as a choice, an identity, a life-raft – is something that those closest to me are aware of, and certainly any reader of my essays will note references to having quit drinking, especially if they’re similarly afflicted and are able to discern the liquor-soaked bread-crumbs that I sprinkle throughout my prose. But I’ve consciously avoided personalizing sobriety too much, out of fear of being a recovery writer, or of having to speak on behalf of a shockingly misunderstood group of people (there is cowardice in that position). Mostly, however, my relative silence is because we tribe of reformed dipsomaniacs are a superstitious lot, and if anything, that’s what keeps me from emphatically declaring my sobriety as such.
There are, for sure, certain concerns about propriety that have a tendency to gag these kinds of confessions – I’ve pissed in enough alleyways in three continents that you’d think the having done it would embarrass me more than the declaring of it, but here we are. There’s also, and this took some time to evolve, issues of humility. When I put together strings of sober time in the past, and over a decade and a half I tried to quit drinking thirteen times, with the longest tenure a mere five months, I was loudly and performatively on the wagon. In my experience that’s the sort of sobriety that serves the role of being antechamber to relapse, a pantomime of recovery posited around the sexy question of “Will he or won’t he drink again?” I remember sitting in bars during this time period – I still sat the bar drinking Diet Coke during that stretch – and having the bartender scatter half-empty scotch tumblers filled with iced tea around the bar so that when friends arrive, they’d think I’d started drinking again. Get it?! So, this time around I wanted to avoid the practical jokes, since in the back of my mind I’d already decided that the next visit to the bar wouldn’t necessarily have ice tea in those glasses. Which is only tangentially related to my code of relative silence for the last half-decade – I was scared that the declaration would negate itself, and I’d find myself passed out on my back on that sidewalk again. So, at the risk of challenging those forces that control that wheel of fate, let me introduce myself – my name is Ed and I’m an alcoholic.
Here’s the thing though: for many addiction specialists, five years marks long-term recovery. Very few who try get here, and not everyone who does stays here, but by some strange combination of luck, contemplation, and white knuckles I’ve strung together one day after another and if not exactly proud (well, a little) I’m more than anything amazed. Because had you asked me even a weekend before my last drink, when I purchased an old-fashioned cocktail shaker for myself as a gift marking the start of a new semester, if I could have conceived of a month without drinking, much less five years, it would have been unimaginable. During a previous attempt to dry out I contemplated the idea of having a designated wet weekend each month when I’d lock myself away without computer or cell phone and get shit-faced black out drunk because the idea of a life without alcohol seemed so impossible, and now I’m the sort of person who wakes up every day at dawn (and not on the sidewalk this time). I can count the days before my sober anniversary each year like part of the liturgical calendar, often made possible by social media’s annoying tic of reminding you of every bad decision you’ve ever committed, so that I can chart the last time I drank with this or that drinking buddy, the last time I went to the bar after work, the last time I drank on the patio of my apartment complex. What always strikes me is how that morning of the last drink, when I got up, I was looking forward, as I always did, to go to the bar. My quitting, thank God, was never planned. Had it been I doubt it would have taken.
If you detect a hint of nostalgia like the tannins in a glass of chianti, you’re not amiss. They call it euphoric recall, the way a brain the consistency of Swiss cheese can edit out all of the bad things, the embarrassments, the traumas, the pain, but only remember the conviviality, the solidarity, the ecstasy. The way in which you recall the electric hum in the skull when sitting like a god with your broken shoes on the brass rail, staring at a neon sign and feeling infinite; but not the pile of vomit on your chest, surprised that you haven’t choked to death. The memory of all of the friends you made at dives around the world, but not that nothing either of you said was worth remembering. The feeling of instant, almost supernatural, relief the moment a lager, a shiraz, a scotch hits your tongue, but not the shaking hand that brought the glass to your lips. The sense that accompanies drunkenness which holds that within the next fifteen minutes the most amazing things were going to happen, that limitless potential always was about to occur, but not that it never did. Sobriety becomes possible when you begin to remember the bad that outweighed the good – when you continually force yourself to understand that.
Now some people may wonder why you don’t just avoid all of that stuff, why you can’t just moderate. As the dark joke goes, if I could moderate my drinking, I’d get drunk every day. I used to make a big deal about how angry I was that I couldn’t just have a drink or two, that there was such privilege in being able to wax poetic about the vagaries of hopiness levels in India Pale Ales without publicly shitting yourself, of being able to savor the peatiness in a single malt Laphroaig without stumbling back home unremembered to yourself and the world, but I never really wanted those things. Anger was performative for the counterfeit stints in sobriety, when the real thing happens and you know it’s dryness or death, then different emotions emerge. And the truth is that because I have no interest in drinking that way, in moderation, I begrudge nobody who wants to do it, who can do it. I suspect that moderate drinkers have never concocted baroque rules of order around drinking based in how much of which thing you can drink in what location for what amount of time (which you still break anyhow). I suspect that moderate drinkers never fear that the moment alcohol hits their lips that they’re ceding part of their sovereignty, not the part of their soul which keeps them from stumbling out into traffic so much as the part of their soul that cares. I suspect that moderate drinkers always know for sure that, barring the regular kind of calamity, they’re certain to come home safely at the end of the evening (probably before the nightly news).
I’m not angry – at all – over the existence of the moderate drinker. What I am is confused. I don’t understand that aspect of them, I can’t grasp their reality. Once you started drinking how could you not want to keep doing it? How could you not pursue oblivion or extinction unto joy, or at least the pretending of it? For me, the thought of half a pint is anathema, the idea of not sucking the ice cubes clean of whisky is confusing. This is not to say that I was completely incapable of putting the glass down, of leaving the bar at four in the afternoon and being able to twitchily abstain until dinner drinks. This is not to say that responsibility, or duty, or love couldn’t compel me to stave off a binge, nor is it to say that all drinks (or, honestly, even most) would result in a mad spree of boozing. You don’t necessarily pour the bottle down your throat every time. What it says is that once the cork comes out, there’s always a sense of being not-quite-right unless you’re chasing your chaser with a chaser, playing the drinking game of taking a shot for every time you take a shot. You can force yourself to not take that next drink (except of course for those times when you can’t), but you’re forever itchy, at least until the djinn is out of your system.
There has always been a sense, as I think Carl Jung (or somebody similarly evocative) put it, that alcoholism is a physical solution to a spiritual problem. While I’m loathe to romance the affliction that much, for it simply exonerates too many assholes, I doubt that anyone who is an addict doesn’t at least share in some sense of incompleteness, that liquor plugs a hole in the spirit which of course comes rushing out all over the floor. For most people, I’ve heard, alcohol is something that accompanies food, or celebration, or unwinding, that occasionally there’s a bit of giddiness at having imbibed a bit too much – that some of these folks even have stories about that time, or even a dozen, when they had a bit too much in college, or at a birthday party, or a wedding. Alcoholics have a different relationship to liquor, an understanding of why spirits are called such. “I had found the elixir of life,” Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill W. wrote in recounting the first time he got high from some Bronx Cocktails served at a party in 1916. Later, in the “Big Book,” which constitutes the scripture of AA, he writes that “Gradually things got worse.” Same as it ever was.
Every drunk is in an abusive relationship with this thing they think they love, and which they dangerously hope loves them back. A lot of fantasizing, mythologizing, and philosophizing can surround justifications of drunkenness (or then again, not); a lot of denial, and the assumption that you have any agency in this thing tend to be even more universal to the disease. But the result is all the same. I’ve heard a lot of people in recovery say that they hated drinking, but that was never exactly my experience. I hated what it resulted in, the ruined friendships, the uncertainty, the physical ailments, the strange fear at 25 that 30 might not come, the knowledge at 30 that 35 definitely won’t. But here’s what I loved – the fraternity of talking, talking, talking (even if it’s nonsense), the courage to belt out the lyrics to “Thunder Road” at inopportune moments, feeling the almost mystical materiality of the bar’s surface (every warp and swirl imbued with infinity), the sense of adventure and limitlessness, even while doing nothing. Here’s what I hated – shaking, shaking, shaking (never nonsense), being surprised that you’ve woken up again, laying hungover in bed and pretending to be a corpse, the delirium tremens for when you try and dry up a bit and you see those flickers of blackness in the corner of your eye, checking your shoes for evidence of what route took you home, checking your email outbox to make sure you didn’t send the wrong message to the wrong person (or the wrong message to the right one), the shame at having gone out for one or two and having imbibed twenty. The dangerous situations, the emergency rooms, the police. How do you square that madness of loving what it does to you for a few hours while suspecting that it’s killing you? I’ll have another round. The best description I know comes from my fellow Pittsburgher Brian Broome in an essay from The Root: “I miss getting drunk, but I don’t miss being a drunk.”
I’ve put that into my arsenal of magic incantations which I carry around in my skull and as of yet have prevented me from picking up a drink in 1,827 days: “Play the tape forward,” “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” “If drinking caused you problems then you have a drinking problem,” “A pickle can never become a cucumber,” “One drink is too many because all of them is never enough,” “Lord grant me the serenity…” If recovery is built out of anything, then it’s built with the bricks of cliché and the mortar of triteness. That’s not a bug, it’s the feature, and it’s why it works. I’m obviously not the first person to notice this; David Foster Wallace says as much in Infinite Jest when he observes that the “vapider the AA cliché, the sharper the canniness of the real truth it covers.” Recovery slogans are like axioms from some ancient wisdom gospel, they’re a jingle-jangly hard-boiled poetry written in a noir vernacular, and as dumb as some of them are the knowledge that “Nobody wakes up wishing that they’d drunk more” has miraculously kept me from picking up that first bottle.
When I drank, and had that resentment of recovery language that only an alcoholic with a bit too much self-knowledge can have; those sayings seemed like the bars of a cage to me. Now I know that they’re the ribs in the belly of a life-boat. That’s not to say that I’m endorsing any program of recovery, or admitting to being in any myself, other than acknowledging that I’ve read wide and long on the subject, and I try to approach it with some humility, take what works for me and leave the rest. What I’ve found is that intentionality is crucial, for it’s the cavalier, the laid-back, the lackadaisical that caused me such grief. Again, I tried to “quit” thirteen times before it seemed to stick a little; I tried to moderate almost every time I drank (except when I didn’t try). There is a tendency towards amnesia, a valorization of the good times, and the bracketing out of the awfulness was a wet brain’s survival strategy. Everything was an exception, an extenuating circumstance, an anomaly. The obviousness that drinking was at the core of virtually every awful, dangerous, or depressing thing in my life since I started drinking at the age of 17 was easily overlooked in favor of the idea of a beer (beers) at a ballgame or a shot (shots) after last call.
Because the idea of choice is so complicated in alcoholism, I’ve long interrogated at what point the desire to drink became a compulsion. In every evening there is the drink that saturates you, the hinge point when you’re already strategizing which bar you’ll grab another six pack from on your perambulation home from the first bar (the third one, maybe), but I wonder if there is one cosmic drink in life that shifts you from the weekend warrior into the sort of person that people wouldn’t be surprised to hear had choked to death on their own puke. Was it the first Bloody Mary that I had after that time an ex-girlfriend passed out face down on a Pittsburgh sidewalk, a crowd of our best friends whom we’d met for the first time just that night standing around a half-remembered house somewhere in Shadyside, an ambulance spiriting us both through the summer night? Perhaps it was the Yuengling I had a few days after I nearly broke my ankle on a slick of Pennsylvania ice, forced to walk on crutches for two weeks because I chose to protect the six pack that I was walking home with rather than bracing my own fall. Or maybe it was that Guinness that I drank in about a minute in a Greenwich Village pub, after nearly five months of sobriety, convinced that I was all better, even though that summer a liver sonogram had indicated that there were fatty deposits surrounding that beleaguered organ like a ring of gristle around a raw steak. You’d think that the indignity of sitting in that waiting room, in the presence of joyful expectant mothers and framed pictures of new born infants on the office wall, to learn that my dangerously high liver enzyme levels were a sign of exactly what my doctor was worried about, would have staved the need to drink. And it did, for a bit, for around twenty weeks, until a New York bar convinced me otherwise. I drank for three more years after that.
Poet Denise Duhamel writes about the sort of spirit that animates that madness in her appropriately named lyric “The Bottom.” She recounts a drunken late-night stumble to a liquor store for (another) handle of Smirnoff, when two men in a truck try and abduct her off the street. The narrator is able to dodge the men, running up the hill (and away from El Prado Spirits), suffering at worst some trash thrown at her and screamed obscenities. When she makes it to the store, the clerk at the counter asks if she is alright, and the narrator lies, since the possibility of having to file a police report will only stall the entrance of ethanol into her blood stream. “I stopped drinking,” Duhamel writes, “when I realized I was fighting/for the vodka at the bottom of the hill/more than I was fighting against the terrible/things that could have happened to me.”
That’s the most succinct and truthful encapsulation of the disease which I’ve ever read. There is finally that very unsweet spot of fearing that you can’t live without alcohol while also knowing that it will eventually kill you. Sobriety is the strange inverse of drunkenness, and as every person in recovery is haunted by the ever-present threat of relapse, so I remember that while an active drunk I always wondered what was going to be the drink that finally brought it all to a close (in any sense of that phrasing). My last summer of active drinking certainly felt more extreme to me – I’d seen my father die of cancer only a few months before I quit, I was mired into the sort of depression that doesn’t even allow its own philosophizing (or indeed recognizes its own face in the mirror, mistaking falling for flying) and even the general mood of the country seemed to shift towards something darker (that same something that we’re all still in). In that apocalyptic summer of receipts found in my pockets from bars that I didn’t remember having gone to, and of scraps and scabs from falls barely considered, there was a sense of rushing towards something – and so I was. As Duhamel writes, “I stopped drinking even before I had that last sip, /as I ran back up the hill squeezing a bottle by its neck.”
Rock bottoms are a personal thing, but the stories, in an archetypal way, are strangely similar. That’s one of the things you learn to appreciate in recovery; a respect for narrative’s elemental basicness. In various Midtown church basements I’ve heard stories of last drinks that were precipitated by things as dramatic as manslaughter and DUIs, to one Upper East Side socialite who admitted that she had to quit after she forgot to feed her beloved Yorkshire Terrier (I understand this, innately). The nadir of your drinking is, as they say, when you quit digging, and there’s a final freedom in that defeat. What distinguished that final drink, the one that I can’t remember (it was either a G&T or a beer, based on that summer)? Certainly, it was the consequences, the being shepherded to the hospital. But worse things had happened to me. When I called a friend to pick me up at the ER an hour or so before dawn, I can still remember keying into my building and thinking about what a great bar story this would make for all of my drinking buddies next time we went out.
The morning was like a thousand other ones; my mouth dry and my head pounding, I would lay in bed and cinematically pretend to be dead, mildly surprised to still be alive. I was in the early stages of dating a woman who would become my wife, and I knew that continuing in this way would kill the relationship; I had been languishing for the better part of a decade in a doctoral program, and I knew that continuing in this way would kill my career; I had been harboring moleskin fantasies of being a writer, and I knew that continuing in this way would keep those dreams forever embryonic. Because the drinking itself was worse than normal, I called a friend of mine from back home who was never one for knocking them back, and I recounted the usual litany. How my intestines were embroiled and my hands shaky; my memory incomplete, and my guilt unthinkable. Of how I was greeted every hungover morning by “The Fear,” that omnipresent specter of shame, fear, and uncertainty. This friend (he knows who he is) was used to these phone calls, having fielded dozens of them over the decades, and he was always uniformly supportive and sweet, listening with concern and seemingly devoid of judgment. On this day he said something that if he’d mentioned it before, had never stuck – “You know, you never actually have to feel this way again.”
I’m not big on Road to Damascus moments, but that simple observation clarified, explained, and encompassed everything. I haven’t had a drink since. When you’re an active alcoholic, you always expect that something great is going to happen in the next 15 minutes, but that that moment is forever deferred. It’s also true that sobriety delivers what drunkenness promises. There are things bigger than me, more important than me. My relationship with my wife (who has made this possible); now my relationship to my son. Sobriety isn’t always easy, but it’s always simple. My life is such that I could have scarcely imagined it that shaky day in 2015. My life isn’t just different because of sobriety – it’s possible because of it. There are certain conventions to this form, what people in recovery sometimes lovingly (or not so lovingly) call the drunkalogue. It’s a venerable genre, the redemption narrative, the recounting of how it was, what happened, and how you changed. Your experience, strength, and hope, etc. The didacticism is precisely the point, but the broad interchangeability of the form is also crucial. Because in all the ways that I’m different, I share something with all of these other people, with the people who got clean, but crucially also with the ones who didn’t. It’s that ultimately this beast inside you is so thirsty, that soon it’ll devour you as well. For those of you reading – the drunks, the junkies, the addicts, the alcoholics, the dipsos, the losers, the hopeless cases; to the ones who can’t quite remember coming home or who need an eye opener, to the ones who’ve alienated everyone they know and most of the people that they don’t, to the ones the ones who scarcely know a sober night, to the ones who need a drink to turn the volume down and are scared of putting the glass on the counter forever – I understand you. What you need to know is that you never need to feel that way again. Be well.