This month I offer excerpts from my two memoirs, Masterpiece: A Love Story and The Lie Called Cancer. If you want to buy them, you may. If you want a free copy, tell me in the comments.
“No personal calamity is so crushing that something true and great can’t be made of it.” – Bill W., co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous
It was a day exactly like every other day in recent memory. I woke up and started drinking in secret. Always in secret.
Like every other day, I couldn’t predict what kind of day it would be. Some days I would drink all day and feel unaffected, as though it was only water passing through my system, not hard liquor. Other days all bets were off. As soon as the cycle began I would pass into The Blackout Zone, where I was walled off from the awareness of self, thought, the needs of others, and most important, how I felt about it.
It was a vital daily job – the most vital – because there was a lot to feel, all vastly uncomfortable, and it piled up into a larger mass day upon day, all to be avoided. My life became a landfill where nothing ever decomposed, where everything was saved, and I just couldn’t keep myself from compulsively picking through the trash.
Some days I would drink all day and be able to hide it well enough to keep from being caught out. Other days it was painfully obvious to everyone, despite my denials. My life was out of control.
I had been sober off and on for several years since rehab – mostly off, but I had (I thought) become very skilled at hiding my condition. Months could go by (it seemed to me) before anyone really caught on to the fact that I was drunk. Whatever. It was worth the pain and effort, the incredible hard work and focus of will needed to be slightly squeezed all the time – even if I was caught lying once in a while. That’s the lifestyle of alcoholic bondage, where drinking to kill pain only creates more pain. It was a vicious circle.
A family member told me that coming home to me was like the story about the Lady or the Tiger, and it was never clear which I would be. Frank Stockton’s tale features a courtier who has to choose between two doors for his one chance to win his love’s hand. One door opens to the lady herself and a lifetime of bliss. The other reveals a ferocious tiger, ready to devour without mercy.
On this particular day, August 4, 2003, I had neither what passed for normalcy, nor oblivion, only depression. Or so I thought. Later, when people came home, it was clear to them that I had lied one more time, and had overdone it one more time. There was no hiding. I was more drunk than I thought, and this time they had had enough.
‘Do you remember what we told you the last time you got drunk?’
‘We told you that if you got a bottle, you were going to have to get a room.’
And so the old heave-ho was underway. I quietly gathered a rucksack with a change of shirt, my wallet, my phone, what was left of my bottle (the most indispensable item). Shrugging it on, I headed toward the door, keys in hand. I was reminded not to drive, or a call to the police would follow.
So I took off on foot.
We lived in an exurban area north of Vancouver, Washington – just across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. Between the subdivisions were main roads with steep ditches and no shoulders. Walking on the road was the only option. Someone called my friend Matt who lived nearby. Matt and I had started attending Alcoholics Anonymous about four years before. Matt had stayed sober and I had not, even though the meetings were still a daily ritual, side-by-side with my secret drinking.
This was the schizophrenic nature of my life, as though I were professionally two-faced. I wanted all the benefits of AA and all the perceived benefits of being drunk. Sometimes I would leave a meeting and use a bottle hidden under the seat to get drunk before I drove out of the parking lot.
Oh yes, I drove drunk a lot, possibly several thousand times. Only the grace of God kept me from the gift of a DUI and all that entails: arrest, fines, court fees, mandatory treatment, jail time, not to mention humiliation and despair. Only the outright mercy of God kept me from hurting or killing someone, either in my car or with my car, including my family.
Life without booze seemed inconceivable, yet I was so sick of it I couldn’t imagine drinking one more drop. It was a daily madness that lied to me about the drink being the only cure for the feeling of hollowness that the drink itself caused. Each morning I would come to consciousness and be hit by the craving.
The craving was a gnawing, crawling, grabbing, clutching thing that overpowered all inhibition, removed even the thought of inhibition, because of the certain knowledge that the first drink will bring blessed relief from the emptiness – an emptiness that comes from drinking way too much, way too often, for way too long, an emptiness that becomes a self-perpetuating creature with a will of its own.
Alcoholic bondage is an almost seamless life, where the only demarcation is the unconsciousness of sleep. Life’s one desire is that you leave me alone. In the end, it was all I was able to choose: to be away from you and end all relationship, because if you don’t know me, you can’t hurt me. And I didn’t want to be hurt any more.
Why did I hurt so much in the first place? It was a daily question I couldn’t answer, and I was reduced to knowing only one response to make it go away, a long, dulling pull on a bottle of Windsor Canadian Blended Whiskey.
I had stopped using a glass years before. Why pay the middleman? The plastic bottle was a welcome development. It was pliable enough to be squeezed so that the liquor would push out faster through my gullet. That first drink of the day was very important. It had to come as fast as possible so the relief followed as fast as possible. No matter that true relief only lasted about 20 minutes and the rest was maintenance. As July became August of 2003 I knew no other path.
Matt and I shared the same AA sponsor until John fired me for lying to him about my drinking. That was about two years before I found myself lurching down NE 10th Avenue late that hot summer afternoon. I had just gone by a spot I knew well, where a small brush-lined creek passed through a culvert under the road, a place I often went when I needed a safe place to drink outside the house. Matt rolled up alongside in his Camry. A mission of mercy, but not for me – for my family, so they might know that I landed somewhere safe.
He powered down the window. ‘Hey buddy…’
‘Someone called you..?’ It was a statement more than a question.
‘Yep.’ A pause, a once-over. ‘What’s up?’
‘I got kicked out of the house, need to get a room somewhere.’ He motioned. I got in.
Good question. I was one of the fortunate ones. I had yet to drink myself out of everything I owned or professed to love. Somewhere in the back of my mind I denied that I was only enjoying house and home on sufferance. I was at the cliff but hadn’t leaned over far enough to fall into the abyss that ends in a life on the street.
Life in The Blackout Zone prevented thinking about that, or making any plan beyond the next drink. Life was reduced to a simple state of need: getting loaded, and being left alone to do it. Eventually, the abyss would come in its own time, of its own accord. But I denied that inevitability as well. Little did I know how close it was.