The end of my drinking began with a phone call. It was five years ago April when a woman I know called from California to say a mutual friend of ours had died. And his death was caused, in part, by alcohol.
For the sake of this story, let’s call the man Seamus. He was a man of many talents — a writer, an editor, an actor, a poet. And like a lot of drinkers I knew, he was a bit of a con artist too. We had worked together at a magazine years before I moved to New York, a regional publication with a small staff. Regularly, on deadline, Seamus would arrive late, unshaven and exhausted in appearance, with some incredible tale of woe. His wife had fallen sick, or maybe his child. Or something had gone wrong around his house — fire, flood, Seamus’s life seemed more plagued than Job’s. At least when we were closing the issue.
Taking pity on him, our boss would always give him a free pass. You need to work at home? No problem. You need to take a day or two to recover before you can do any work? Well, just look at the poor guy, can’t you see how he’s suffering? No one suggested that his personal disasters seem to occur with alarming frequency at the very time the magazine needed him the most. And if anyone had we probably would have chalked it up to stress. So each month Seamus would leave us to cover for him as he departed, looking crushed by the weight of the world’s responsibilities, to go home and drink some more.
For though I didn’t know it at the time, Seamus was in the throes of late-stage alcoholism. I chalked his wildly vacillating moods up to artistic temperament, his clockwork illnesses the side-effects of trying to make it as a writer, while providing for a wife and children. Sure, he could drink prodigious amounts of whatever was being poured without appearing too hammered, but I always credited superior (Irish) genes. On the few occasions I did see him drunk, his state was so alarming that I mistook if for something else.
I recall a party held at a swank restaurant to celebrate the magazine’s redesign. Tout le monde was there — local celebrities, writers, TV personalities, all dressed to the nines and partaking of the copious hors d’oeuvres (shrimp on ice, oysters on the half shell), as well as the strategically placed open bars. Coming out of the men’s room, I was surprised to find Seamus literally standing behind the door. He was weaving a bit, but looked more chemically altered than tipsy. His face was flush, he was sweating, and he wore an odd, almost beatific grin.
“Seamus,” I said, “what are you doing behind the door?”
“Well, can you say that I’m behind the door?” he said mirthfully. “Maybe the door is in front of me. Or the door was here before, therefore…”
I left him babbling to himself and found my date sipping champagne. “Wow,” I told her, “I think Seamus dropped acid for our relaunch party.”
Later, after I had left that magazine, things took a turn for the worse. I began hearing more tales of Seamus’s disintegration — empty bottles found hidden in his office, blown deadlines, missed meetings. Soon he was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness — and he began to drink even more. He left his job and soon separated from his wife. He tried to quit drinking dozens of times and even established elaborate fictions to play the part of a sober person (an actor to the last). He carried water bottles to social gatherings — water bottles filled with vodka. He went on long dry-out retreats that actually turned out to be retreats where he could drink unbothered. Though drink was not the only thing that killed him, it contributed significantly to his death and he would probably be alive now if he hadn’t kept drinking. He was 47 years old.
In the wake of his death, I was asked to write something that would be read at his funeral service. After drinking a six pack of Guinness Stout I did, and as such elegies go, it was a beaut: funny in the right places, heartbreaking in others. If I’d read it at a pub, everyone would have stood me a round. Instead, another mutual friend of ours read it and asked me if, perhaps, I needed to look at my own drinking.
I was 40 years old when Seamus died, and had been drinking since I was 18. I had certainly had my problems with alcohol — I’d ruined a few relationships, wrecked a few cars, had run-ins with a few magistrates — but that was mostly behind me. I didn’t drink to excess now (except when I did, and then I tried to hide it.) I certainly wasn’t out on the street, endangering the general populace. I was married (again), helping to raise a young child (again) and working, well, fairly steadily. Except when I wasn’t. Then I would get depressed and drink myself into a stupor. Until I got a good job, which I would celebrate by drinking myself into a stupor. Then there were those awful in-between times when absolutely nothing seemed to be happening, times I would get through by drinking myself into a stupor…
The discerning reader will notice a pattern here, but I was so securely wrapped in the cocoon of what is known in recovery-speak as denial that my name could have been Dr. No. No, I told my concerned friend, her diagnosis was off base. But thanks for calling, and I promised to think about it. And, against my own inclinations, I did. Looking back over the clues of Seamus’s downfall (the hallucinatory drunks, the imitations of illness, the hidden bottles) I began to see something familiar, painfully so. I felt like a detective in one of those psyche-out mysteries who turns out to be on the trail of… himself! I was waiting at the end of my own manhunt, both victim and perpetrator. I didn’t like where this was going.
I didn’t really drink much in high school. Drinking wasn’t cool; jocks drank, beer and cheap wine mostly, and then puked their guts out of the passenger window of their cherry rides while Creedence Clearwater throbbed on the eight-track. Jocks were lame, ergo so was drinking. The one night I did get drunk ended disastrously — cops, juvie, the whole shooting match. All in all, I preferred the amorphous cloud patterns of marijuana — with an occasional runaway-train ride on LSD.
By the time I was out of high school though, things had changed. Though I still had a propensity to drink more than the company I was keeping (and they were drinking plenty, believe me), I liked the feeling I got from alcohol. I felt more confident, more talkative, more amusing behind a few beers. Or maybe more than a few. Make that a few beers and a shot, and gimme a six-pack to go. Drinking was de rigeur with me and whatever company I was keeping. Invited to a party, I didn’t need to be told to bring my own bottle. I made it a habit after one or two horrible occasions when I arrived someplace to find there wasn’t enough booze to last the evening — or, tragically, that there wasn’t any at all.
It’s not like I was alone in the world. Drunks find each other, as a rule, usually at the bar. Often at parties I would meet strangers — usually men, though not always — doing what I was doing: sizing up the liquor supply, the guest count and, ultimately, each other with utter recognition. “This place is full of lightweights,” we’d agree before making that last liquor run and rambling on into the night.
Throughout my wilder days I lived a fairly normal life. I went to college, worked a series of jobs (sandwich maker, bookseller, cab driver) before settling on writing. It’s an ideal job for a drunk, in some ways: no heavy equipment to operate and if you write a bad line, you can always go back and do it over. (As opposed to, say, helming the Exxon Valdez.) I was married several times and had a series of relationships with different women; a few of them told me they thought I drank too much, but I always took that information with the same wounded sense of denial. Ultimately the accusation made me angry and I cursed the squares who worried about such trivialities as being 86′d from respectable establishments or passing out on other people’s sofas. What was their problem?
As I neared the end of my drinking days, though, the advice seemed to be piling up. It was like those scenes in old black-and-white B-movies, when the hero stumbles through the night hearing the voices (and sometimes seeing the faces) of those who had inveighed against his disastrous ways. (“You’re no good, kid — never have been!”) My own mother dropped me a line once to tell me that she thought I was out of it during the last Thanksgiving and that she was concerned for me and her grandchildren. I shined her on, too, though the only way to really ignore such cavils was to get good and loaded.
But for anyone reading this who thinks they may be living with an alcoholic, I can assure you that your opinion counts. The words add up, sometime taking on a life of their own, burning like scripture in the conscience of the afflicted. About ten years before I quit I went to visit a novelist for a story I was writing. His books — tales of tortured, sometimes poetic souls afloat in a scummy sea of drugs and alcohol — had made quite an impression on me, and I was only slightly surprised to find he himself had cleaned up: gone into rehab at his parents’ insistence, found solace in Alcoholics Anonymous and had even got religion, converting to the Catholic church.
Did he believe in hell, I asked him and his answer weighed on my soul during my long, troubled drive back home. “There is a hell and we can go there all the time,” he told me matter-of-factly. “I’ve been there by total selfishness.”
For most alcoholics, selfishness is the ground zero of their personal destruction — and not surprisingly, it is the realization of that which provides the seed to recovery. For when you boil all the drunken exploits and adventures down to the simple self-gratification — even when the self-gratification isn’t any longer gratifying — there’s nothing left to hide behind. No regrets and resentments, no excuses of the my-mommy-didn’t-love-me type, work; blaming other people, like your boss or your girlfriend, won’t cut it anymore; and fingering your lot in life — your money (or lack of it), your background, your big ears — won’t cover your ass either. When you finally face the unpleasant realization that all your drinking is caused by desire — by selfishness — and the consequences of that are a sort of a wind-up hell that you’ve created and keep winding up in spite of yourself, you really have nowhere left to go but out.
When I say you I mean me, of course. Most people drink without getting drunk, or if they do get drunk, they wake up the next morning with a hangover and vow not to do that again — at least for a while. The difference between most people and an alcoholic (me again) is that I would go through that same cycle in a much smaller time frame. Like once a day. In the week following Seamus’s death I had moments when I sensed something was amiss — I felt funny, what was wrong? I began to realize that those few moments were moments of sobriety, instants between the end of last night’s hangover and today’s drunk that had shrunk almost to vanishing, like atolls in the Pacific.
The night before I quit drinking wasn’t extraordinary. I had bought some vodka on my rounds (something I told my wife I wasn’t drinking anymore) and hidden it in the freezer, but didn’t think much about it. I was hustling a couple of jobs that I really didn’t want, even as my ex-wife was dunning me for money I couldn’t seem to come up with fast enough. I was working at home part of the time, caring for our infant daughter, and though I enjoyed taking care of her, it didn’t get me through the night. Nothing seemed to be enough.
My wife and I went out to dinner with some friends of ours. We went to a neighborhood restaurant that didn’t yet have its liquor license. The good thing about such places is that you can bring in as much beer or wine as you want for far less than they would charge you. The downside, personally speaking, was that I couldn’t get a cocktail before the meal, one of the things I liked best about going out to eat. Instead I had bolstered myself at home with a couple quick shots of Stoli. Maybe more than a couple. All I know is that by the time we started pouring the wine we had brought, I was already half in the bag and my wife was giving me the fish eye. (To her credit, she always called me on my drunkenness — which was one of the reasons I worked so hard to hide it.)
We invited our friends back to our apartment where we continued to drink — wine for everyone and a few fortifying sips of Stoli for me, stolen at moments in the kitchen. I don’t remember much about that evening. My wife went to bed early without saying anything, disgusted as she was with the sight of me. I was busy regaling our friends with tales of something or other, babbling away, lighting two cigarettes at a time. I remember playing them a recording of George Jones and Keith Richards singing “Say It’s Not You” together; I played it several times, as I recall, trying to make some point. The irony of the ex-drunk and former junkie trying to harmonize on what became my drinking’s swan song is not lost on me now.
It may not be accurate to say I awoke with a hangover; I don’t think I had ever sobered up. My wife was up and annoyed, both at my behavior the night before and at having to leave me with our baby daughter while she went off to a wedding shower for a friend of ours. I was too far gone to care what she felt at that point, and was greatly relieved when she finally left. After feeding our daughter and laying her down for a morning nap, I headed straight for the kitchen to make myself a restorative screw driver.
I pulled the Stoli out of the freezer: the fifth I’d bought yesterday was about two-thirds gone and I hadn’t been sharing. I was pouring vodka into a glass filled with ice when I experienced a moment of illumination. The whole kitchen seemed suddenly bathed in a bright, almost white light and I knew I had to quit drinking. Now. I put down the bottle and called someone I knew in AA. He wasn’t a close friend (I knew his wife better) and he didn’t sound that thrilled to be hearing from me at first (I was calling him long distance and it was three hours earlier his time). But once I explained why I was calling, once he had put his bathrobe on and asked me a few questions, he said that he had to admit, I sure sounded like a drunk. He told me to pour out the vodka, wait until I was sober, and then get to an AA meeting.
I didn’t follow his advice to the letter: I finished the drink I had poured and then dumped the rest. Then I called my wife and told her to come home. She arrived, furious at first, until I told her the truth: I was an alcoholic and needed help. Her immediate response was to begin cleaning the house from ceiling to floor but she was, and has been, nothing but supportive of me since. I think she knew the jig was up, too.
It’s been over five years since that day. I started going to AA meetings, and still do (though far less frequently). The first week was unendurable: sleepless, tortured, filled with a craving so bad it made me lopsided. But by the fifth day of not drinking, the fifth day of holding up my hand in front of a bunch of strangers and introducing myself as an alcoholic, the fifth day of hearing a series of very familiar stories from people remarkably unlike me, I began to feel better. If ever I had needed proof of my addiction, I now had it around the throat (or vice versa), but I was also feeling something other than hung over and drunk — for hours at a time. There were adjustments to be made — I spend a lot less time in bars now and there are a few people who are uncomfortable with the prospect of anyone who has forsworn liquor.
But I found most people didn’t seem to care. Alcoholics are plagued by, among other things, a sense of self-grandiosity, and when I quit drinking I felt I had to tell everyone, and was yet terrified to. Yes, a few friends said “Thank god,” or “Finally,” and offered their support and encouragement. But by and large, people didn’t seem to notice. I remember being in an elevator with the woman whose wedding shower my wife had to run out on, not long after I had quit. I was pretty good friends with this woman — I’d watched the NBA playoffs with her and her husband several years running, and had left a few of those games half-plastered. I asked her how things were going and she kvetched about her baby, her work, her husband — but what was new with me? I swallowed hard and said, “Well, I quit drinking.”
“Oh,” she said. “I didn’t know you drank.”
People have their own problems. If the world doesn’t notice when Icarus falls into the drink, why would they care when you stop drinking? It’s a lesson in humility, or in scale, if you prefer. Finding that your problems are actually lost in the small print of the world’s drama can be rather humbling. The uniqueness of you takes it on the chin.
That is the thing a drunk fears most: the lost of individuality. Call it “The Beast In the Jungle” syndrome. In that classic Henry James story a man misses the love of his life because he feels that he is destined for something special — what, he doesn’t know. While the special thing he was destined for may have been the love he squandered. Before I quit drinking, I felt cut off from my life. It was like I was looking at it through a glass — or maybe the bottom of a class — and I liked what I saw, my wife, my children, my work. But I couldn’t touch it. The good life I had dreamed of was there but I was absent. Every day that I don’t drink I feel like I become a little more substantial, like a ghost rematerializing.
But you can still see through me.
(Published in Men’s Health, April 2001)