If alcohol were a person …
… I would have killed it for what it’s done to my life.
That’s what I heard someone say about their relationship with alcohol. Looking back on his drinking life, with sober eyes, he reflected upon the misery alcohol had wrought in his life. And every word he said struck me as true.
My version of “if alcohol were a person” goes like this:
Alcohol took my money. A lot of my money, money I didn’t have to spend. It told me I was glamorous and smart – when I was sloppy drunk and out until 2 a.m. It lied and told me my life was great – when I woke up with hangovers wanting to kill myself. It happily became my best friend as I pushed real friends away.
It told me other people could never understand how very special our relationship was. It isolated me from those who loved me. It told me that, as long as I had another drink, it would be okay. Better than okay, that it would be great.
Looking back on it now, I think the marker of when alcohol became personified in my life – an entity external to me with which I had a relationship as if it were a person – was when I photographed a Bloody Mary at an airport bar and posted the picture to Facebook. I remember that day, as I sat by myself in that bar, that Bloody Mary seemed profound and beautiful to me. It was emblematic of how awesome I was, or so I thought.
And here was the evidence. I was traveling to – somewhere. It didn’t really matter where. Traveling was proof to myself and everyone else (because “everyone else” was deeply interested in me, I was just sure of it) that I was somebody, that I was successful, that I did things like sit in airport bars, nonchalantly drinking, secure in my status and place in the world. Especially my status of being the kind of person who could drink when I wanted and where I wanted.
Most importantly, of course, was the symbolic meaning this particular drink had for me. It meant I had money to travel, that I was sophisticated enough to order the right drink with the right liquor, that I was self-possessed and in charge of my own destiny to an ultimate degree as demonstrated by my decision to drink during the middle of the day. As if to say, “Hey, look at me, I’ve got it all together, I’m drinking when you shleps are working.” And the absolute truth of the matter was I believed every single word of that bullshit I was telling myself.
So there we were. That drink and I, keeping each other company. Blithely unaware and uncaring that people in the world needed and loved me, it didn’t matter. I had a relationship with alcohol. Couldn’t they see how very special that made me? I went to my cousins’ weddings. I called my parents on their birthdays and smiled in family photos. I was a good kid, clearly. Plus, I wasn’t hurting anyone by sitting in an airport bar in the middle of the day. Well, if I was hurting anyone, I was only hurting me, or so I thought.
And so I posted that picture to Facebook like other people post pictures of babies or snapshots of themselves with friends. I had framed the photo as well. It was well lit and the color tones thoughtfully chosen. Because, after all, I know a lot about art, unlike most people – which was further evidence of my special status in life. Up went the photo, perfectly framed, a portrait of my dear friend, Bloody Mary.
It took another year and half before I admitted to myself that alcohol had me, that it was no longer fun like it had been in the beginning. That it was, in fact, more painful than fun anymore. It took me time to figure this out for a couple of reasons.
I had friends who drank. They had jobs, cell phones, dressed well. So that meant I didn’t have a problem, right? Because how could we all have a problem? Even though the sample size wasn’t large enough to prove one thing or another, I was sure in my analysis. There was no way we could all have a problem. So therefore none of us had a problem.
Plus, there were still the laughs, the insider jokes, the plans that made us all feel exclusive and special. Wasn’t that proof that I was okay? If I felt exclusive and special, didn’t that mean I was actually exclusive and special?
Of course it did. How else did special people know they were special? Because they just can justfeel it.
In my mind, every bar was putting out the red carpet for my friends and I. We were the Bon Vivants of the world! Didn’t everyone know that we were the special, blessed ones who really knew how to live? Well, of course the rest of the world did! It was evident by the way I walked, the way I talked, the smart, cynical things I said. Those that understood, who were special like us, could come along for the fun. Those that didn’t want to come along, who didn’t “get it” as far as I was concerned, could have their boring lives. The fact that those people didn’t come around was further evidence of our uniqueness. Everything, whether it was people who were drinking with me, or those people who weren’t drinking with me, became further evidence of my awesomeness. I lived as if everything was about me.
It was only after I had pushed everyone else away and I was alone with alcohol that I saw the faintest glimmer of the hopeless person I had become. Those boring people weren’t even thinking about me at all it turned out. They weren’t thinking about me because I had not been actually living. I had been slowly dying in the dark back corners of bars – bars that had become increasingly sleazy. But I thought that by the time I frequented the dirtiest and scuzziest of bars, it was proof that I could drink toe to toe with the greats. I imagined famous artistic and literary figures sitting next me, ghosts from the past, sure that I was channeling their genius and actual lived experiences. So I imagined Henry Miller, Anais Nin, William Burroughs, that Piano Guy that Cool People Like that Everyone Knows is an Alcoholic because he wrote that song about the pianos that drank. And, that’s where my list stopped. That was enough evidence for me. I was secure in the notion that I had earned my place in the Pantheon of Bon Vivants. I had conceived of the club and had accepted myself into it all in one move. Further evidence of my brilliance, I thought.
These are the thoughts that come to mind on the eve of my second year of sobriety. Two years ago today my life was hellish. Today, I am happier than I ever have ever been. Well, actually, this is better than happy. It is joyful and serene.
It was hard to ask for help. It was hard to admit I needed help. But, it was exactly what this arrogant, self-centered alcoholic needed – to be humble enough to say: I don’t know how to do this, could you help me? That was perhaps the most important turning point of my entire life.
One of the remarkable things about sobriety is memory. I can remember the past two years, for the most part, and I still remember what it was like to be that kind of drinker. It wasn’t pretty. But I really had no idea at the time. To me, that life was normal. Today, I think I can see the look I must have had two years ago. It’s mostly in the eyes. It’s a self-centered, fearful look of a heavy drinker. There’s just a blankness in their gaze, a hallowed out way they hold their eyes. And, I’ve seen many people “come to,” put the drink down, keep it down, and wake up from an alcohol-fueled life.
There are few things more amazing than to see deadness in someone’s eyes be replaced by life. The whites of their eyes glimmer, their eyes sparkle, there is energy and vitality in their entire being. And, most importantly, there is kindness and gentleness in their eyes and the way they carry themselves. That is a truly remarkable thing about recovering from heavy drinking. That a burnt up, hardened, cynical, arrogant, know-it-all can be transformed into a kind and loving person who walks humbly and participates in life is nothing short of a miracle.
One thing I’ll say, it’s been wonderful to meet other people on this journey who know the hard-drinking life and have grown beyond it. Not just stopped drinking. That’s different. But have grown.
We still have the insider jokes, but now they have a touch of irony, bemusement and gratitude – gratitude for our very lives. I really can’t imagine anything better than that. But then again, I never could have imagined how wonderful sobriety would be and every day is more amazing than the previous.
Henry, Anais, William, Piano Guy … did you end up here, too? I hope you didn’t get off the train too early like so many people and beloved friends we lost along the way.
The most beautiful words I may have ever heard were spoken to me when I was about 30 days sober. They were: “It gets better. I promise.”
It did. And it does.