In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I’ll be stopped at a red light, or reading a book, or staring out a window on a cold winter’s day, when suddenly a memory from my drinking-and-drugging days will float into view, like evidence of a crime rising out of dark waters. Maybe it will be the memory of the night I took half a dozen Seconals, washed them down with a couple of six-packs, and then got into my father’s car and wrapped it around a tree. Or it might be the gram of coke that tasted funny to me, but which I finished snorting up anyway, and then had a seizure. Jesus, I’ll think, did I really do that to myself? And the sweat will come out on my forehead, and I’ll feel sorry for my own body the way you’d feel sorry for a small, abused animal.
Or maybe it will be something not quite so spectacular, just some sordid little incident detaching itself from a thousand other sordid little incidents and shuffling into my consciousness, like some shabby old vagrant getting hauled into court:
“And where were you on the afternoon of May 24, 1979?”
“I was drunk, Your Honor, and I passed out in temple and missed my brother’s wedding.”
“And what happened later, at the reception?”
“I danced with one of my cousins and made improper advances upon her.”
“And how do you plead?”
“Guilty, Your Honor. I’m just as guilty as can be.”
Who was that guy? I’ll ask myself in the awed tones of some drab and clueless fellow in a serial Western inquiring after the identity of “that masked man.” I’m so careful now, so deliberative, given to brooding with Solomonic intensity over everything from what shirt I should wear to the sluggishness of my digestion. There are times, as one struggling against a smothering embrace, that I find myself recoiling from the sameness of my days. Of course, I know I can’t go back to drugs. Even if I wanted to, they don’t work on me anymore. As an addict, I’m all washed up. But you can build up a tolerance to sobriety, too.
Once or twice a month, Jason, my best friend from my Alcoholics Anonymous days, will call. He’s almost always drunk, but sometimes not so far gone that we can’t have a halfway lucid conversation. Jason’s one of the smartest people I know. In his younger days, he went around casually picking up graduate degrees like so much loose change.
For a while, before he started drinking again, I was Jason’s sponsor. We’d guzzle coffee by the bucketful and have animated discussions about AA philosophy far into the night. With eyes preternaturally bright as much from the talk as from the caffeine, we’d peer into our coffee cups and contemplate the wreckage of our respective pasts. We’d shake our heads in wonder and ask ourselves yet again what kind of madness it must be that can induce a man to destroy his life — to gut it, like someone setting fire to his own house — in order that he might continue to use substances that have long since stopped giving him pleasure. It seemed to us both, poking around the charred and smoldering ruins in an attempt to find those parts of ourselves that were still standing and might yet be salvageable, that we were on the verge of some great self-discovery.
All of that feels like a different lifetime now. Jason might be going to jail, and in the meantime he has moved back in with his frail and elderly mother. As for me, I gave up trying to figure this stuff out long ago.
A former psychiatrist of mine once told me that addiction is just a symptom of underlying problems. I was offended by this idea because, at the time, it was easier for me to think of myself as “an addict” — a term that, in my mind, retained a certain counterculture cachet — than to accept the much shabbier premise that I was merely a troubled guy seeking chemical relief from his chronic psychic pain. Back then, I think I wanted to be “a drug addict” and “an alcoholic.” It seemed like a step up.
I must have always wanted to be an addict. As a kid, I was fascinated by addiction and read everything I could find on the subject. I loved watching movies like The Man with the Golden Arm, with Frank Sinatra, A Hatful of Rain, with Anthony Franciosa, and The Lost Weekend, with Ray Milland. I was held spellbound by these cinematic depictions of addicts hitting bottom, such as the famous scene in The Lost Weekend in which Milland, broke and sick, staggers up and down the streets of the city in search of an open pawnshop. When he is told that they’re all closed because it’s a Jewish holiday, it nearly breaks him, as if God himself has conspired in some cruel joke at his expense. There are no holidays for the alcoholic, we are given to understand; there is only the next drink.
But my favorite movie around that time was Days of Wine and Roses, with Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon. I was enthralled by the discussion between Lemmon and his AA sponsor, Jack Klugman, about how some people could drink heavily and not become alcoholic, whereas others couldn’t — that, in Klugman’s words, it was a lottery. I was beguiled by Klugman’s conjecture that a perceptive psychologist might have been able to predict Remick’s alcoholism because of her obsession with chocolate. I found riveting (and still do) the final scene of the movie, in which Remick tells the now sober Lemmon that she must keep drinking because when she doesn’t, the world looks so dirty to her.
Before I’d ever had my first drink or drug, I would play these scenes over and over in my imagination. I wondered whether I would be one of those people who could drink as much as they wanted, or end up like poor Jack Lemmon, a once successful public-relations executive who finds himself mistaking his own reflection in a tavern window for that of a skid-row bum. And I wondered what a psychologist would have made of my insatiable lust for black licorice.
I can’t say where this fascination came from. There wasn’t much alcohol in my parents’ home when I was growing up. My small, predominantly Jewish town had no bars, nor even any liquor stores. No one I knew drank to excess, and drugs were, in early-sixties suburban America, almost unknown. And yet, while the other kids were trading baseball cards and riding bikes, I was off by myself, leafing through old Police Gazettes for stories about “reefer madness” and dreamily fantasizing about how, if only given the chance, I would have taken the beautiful Lee Remick back, sober or not.
I drank my first beer when I was fourteen. My prep-school roommate and I talked one of the older fellows into getting us a six-pack, which we hid under some bushes in a remote corner of the campus. A few nights later, we sneaked out and drank it. I didn’t feel anything right away and worried that I hadn’t had enough. (Still shy of my first buzz, and already I was a drunk.) And then, two things happened nearly simultaneously. The first was that the world suddenly expanded and softened, like a seed bursting into flower. The second was a thought: No matter how bad things get, I can always do this.
I got married in my late twenties, mostly because I couldn’t bear the way my girlfriend cried every time I tried to explain that I wasn’t ready yet. There was something immodest in her crying, something shameless and wanton in her raw, animal wailings. As we made love, I’d kiss away her tears and make vague promises that I knew I couldn’t keep. Then one night, with bone-dry eyes, she reminded me of every promise I’d ever made to her and the order in which I had made them. She was relentless and brilliant, expertly trapping me in the web of my own foolish lies. I felt something give way inside me, the last vestiges of my resistance washing away like sand before the sea. I made the startling discovery that it was easier for me to marry a woman I did not love than simply to admit I was a liar.
We moved out of our cozy little one-bedroom apartment in the city and into a rented house in a small town, where I tried, for a time, to look and act like a husband. Mostly, this consisted of mowing the lawn. I was meticulous with the lawn, obsessed, perhaps believing that, within the pleasing symmetry of the long, straight rows of freshly cut grass and the neat borders of our suburban yard, I might yet discover the limits of what was expected of me. It was the summer before I was to start graduate school, something I was trying not to think about. While my wife worked, I’d go out and mow the lawn, then take an old bow that I still had from my summer-camp days and shoot arrows into a hay bale for the rest of the afternoon. I got so good that I could shoot dead through the center of a Dixie cup from fifty yards. In between shots, I’d snort cocaine at a hundred dollars a gram.
School started, and every day I’d go to lectures that might as well have been conducted in Chinese. Between classes, I’d take a few books to the library, find a secluded carrel, and pretend to study while drawing cocaine up my nose in quiet little sniffs — the drug addict’s version of a library whisper. Meanwhile, my wife had taken to weeping again. We fought continually, screaming and snarling at each other like two animals battling over meat. I began to live more and more outrageously. At school, I cheated on exams and handed in papers that I’d written years before as an undergraduate. I stole money from my wife’s purse, looted our joint savings account, and tried to erase the college’s name on my student-loan check so that the money would be paid directly to me. One night, I returned home after hours of drinking to find that my wife had left me.
I stopped going to school, and any semblance I’d been able to maintain of a normal life disappeared. A hush settled over the house in a magnitude equal to the great din that had preceded it. It filled the air with its oppressive weight, squatted in each room like a huge, mute bird. I moved out and began living in a series of ever cheaper apartments, finally ending up in a poor section of a poor city. I slept on an old couch and swatted mice with a tennis racquet. I got a job working nights as a security guard because it was all I could handle, and because, that way, I could drink in peace. I knew I was locked in a vicious downward spiral, but it never even occurred to me that there was anything I could do about it. I fell through the years.
These days, when the telephone rings after eleven at night, I know it’s Jason. My partner, Pam, wonders why I always take the call, but for some reason I can’t seem to help myself. Lately, he seems worse: drunker, wearier. He talks about suicide. I listen to his disjointed conversation but don’t say too much myself. What can I tell him? That he should go to a meeting? That he should go to a rehab? That he should stop drinking because it’s killing him? He knows these things as well as I do. It’s just that, as an active alcoholic, he doesn’t quite believe them.
Trying to get off the phone as quickly as I can, I say, “Jason, it’s late. Why don’t you call me tomorrow. If you’re up to it, maybe we can go to a meeting together.” But as I hang up I realize that it’s myself I’m impatient with: my easy superiority, my eagerness to let myself forget certain painful truths.
When asked, I tell people that I gave up drugs and alcohol on March 21, 1986, but this is misleading, because it implies a certain deliberate and premeditated act of will, as if giving up drugs called for some sort of sacrifice. The fact of the matter is I just couldn’t do it any longer. I no more picked the date of my sobriety than a broken-down car, with a final choke and sputter, chooses a particular spot on the highway at which to coast to a stop. I accepted the praise of family and friends and basked in the applause of my AA group on my first anniversary because I have a need to believe, as we all do, that my life — and especially my suffering — has meaning. But I deserve no more credit for getting sober than you would give a drowning man for filling his lungs with air.
And yet it is also true that the first year or so of what is rather breezily referred to as “recovery” was for me a period of wretchedness for which my life, as desolate as it had been, had offered no precedent. Utterly lost, I found myself doing things that I previously would never even have considered. An agnostic Jew, I got down on my knees every morning to ask God to help me stay sober for another twenty-four hours. A closed and intensely private individual, I forced myself to open up to others. An introvert with a great fear of public speaking, I got up in front of strangers and told my story.
I will sometimes wake up at three or four in the morning. Unable to sleep, I wait for dawn and think about who I used to be: not just the addict and the recovering addict (long gone are the meetings, the public speaking, all that opening up to others), but all my old selves stretching back to the farthest reaches of remembered childhood and beyond. In my darker moments I sometimes see them sprawled like dead soldiers, some on their stomachs, some on their backs, some twisted into grotesque positions, upon the smoking battlefield that has been my life. Why I’ve had to make things so difficult for myself I cannot say, but it might be helpful if I could somehow resurrect all those old selves and get them into the same room together. Perhaps, out of the commotion, some sort of consensus would arise. I doubt it, though. We’d probably end up staring at the floor, pretending not to recognize each other.
When I got to AA, one of the first things they told me was that I had to forgive myself — as if it were a one-time job. I’m tired of forgiving myself, tired of receiving my own stale blessings. My sins are too numerous to count and impossible to keep track of. They are like celestial bodies whirling about in some busy galaxy, with new ones forming all the time, and some that I once thought of as small and inconsequential, perhaps not even sins at all, suddenly blazing into ascendance. When the contemplation of my own sins grows too dizzying to bear, I’ve learned it’s best just not to think about them. This is a tactic born of necessity and sustained by sheer exhaustion. Self-hate is a younger man’s work.
In common with many recovering alcoholics, I sometimes dream that I have made a mistake, some subtle miscalculation in thought or deed that has caused me to pick up a drink. In its tone, the dream is similar to another I have in which I have fallen asleep while driving only to awaken just as my car is about to veer into a bridge abutment. What makes these dreams especially terrifying is that the mistake involved seems so slight in comparison to the consequences, like a small stumble on a high roof. All error, it seems, is contextual. What I can do in one situation, I cannot do in another. What I could do yesterday, I cannot do today. I fish an old pair of running shoes from the back of a closet and ponder my middle-aged knees. I contemplate the medicine cabinet and the half-filled bottle of Percocet, prescribed after dental surgery, that I can’t quite bring myself to throw away. I carry Pam’s granddaughter, a little girl who calls me Pappy and whom I love as my own, down a steep flight of stairs.
I congratulate the anonymous letter writer on his or her ability to feel comfortable in AA. Not all of us are so fortunate. Reading this letter, with its implied exhortation to cheerfulness, I was reminded of the dreaded AA “gratitude” meeting. Like a recurring case of the flu, it would strike each year around the winter holidays. Each member, no matter their current state of emotional or spiritual disrepair, would be expected to talk about the things for which they were grateful. Many enjoy these meetings, I’m sure, but all that mandatory thankfulness served only to make me gag.
Still, AA does have a way of working its magic. Seeing how out of place I felt as a newcomer, a grizzled old-timer took me aside and said, “Don’t worry, kid. We have a wrench for every nut.” It’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.
Kevin H. raises a fair point, one that I’m sorry to say I failed even to consider. I, too, used to feel a certain pang when a member betrayed his anonymity, usually during meetings when a speaker would occasionally give a last name. In this regard, at least, the tradition of anonymity is essentially a spiritual one: that the worth of a story lies in its universality, its usefulness as a vehicle for identification, not in the teller’s name, or the teller’s ego.
But a story told in an AA meeting is one thing, and a personal essay is another. It does seem to me that, in the last analysis, a writer is entitled to the particulars of his own life.
Al Neipris’s essay “Drying Out” [July 2001] was great — with one exception: it should have been printed anonymously.
This is not the first time I’ve read an essay about AA by an author using his or her full name, but whenever it happens, I feel a little pang. Personally, I’m not sure how I feel about AA’s eleventh tradition of “anonymity at the level of press, radio, and film.” I tell pretty much everybody I know that I’m a member. But AA’s tradition asserts that “personal anonymity [is] AA’s greatest protection.” Years ago, the organization sent letters to practically every news outlet in North America, asking editors to kill stories, or delete the names or pictures — and the editors did.
I know how nit-picking this sounds, but AA really did save my life. And although I’m tempted to change its structure, I don’t feel that it’s my place. Its traditions have made it a success for more than sixty years, and it will continue to work, as long as those traditions are observed.
The experiences Al Neipris describes in his essay “Drying Out” [July 2001] parallel my own. I, too, came from a Jewish home and, after many an evening of drinking and doing drugs, awoke to ask, “Did I really do that to myself?” I, too, started at fourteen and was unaware that my substance abuse was anything other than “having fun” or being just a little out of control. And I, too, cannot take the credit for my sobriety. I simply could numb myself no more.
I found my way into recovery a little more than seventeen years ago and began listening, learning, receiving, and finally giving back, all with immense gratitude. I have since returned to graduate school and become an addictions counselor.
A dear friend recently went kayaking for the first time and came back with a story that reflects my current view on life: In the middle of a calm spot, she decided she would close her eyes and meditate for a while. When she opened her eyes again, she was surrounded by an amazing array of butterflies. Not too long after that, she noticed some nasty mosquitoes in the air. “It was just like life,” she told me. “There are butterflies, and there are mosquitoes.”
Al Neipris’s essay should have been titled “Drying Up” — as in the withering of the soul. Clearly, Neipris has the basics of sobriety down, but not the concept that joy is also possible.
I have been sober since 1984. I entered AA with an antipathy toward “God,” whom I still have not defined. I was fearful and anxious, but I paid attention to the people who had attained sobriety and spiritual growth. I wanted to find out how they did it. I continued to attend AA meetings because, for the first time in my life, I’d found a place where I could be comfortable in my own skin.
From my first tenuous days in AA, I remember a man with many years of sobriety who always prefaced his story with these words: “No matter what the weather, today I’m a happy man, because I’m walking on the sunny side of the street.”