In recovery we celebrate the worst day of our lives. After all, you don’t get sober with the help of a 12 step group if you’re doing just fine – you usually have to come in the door beaten and battered. Some people come in on their own two feet, but most of us come in on our knees. More than a few come in on their backs, wheeled into a hospital or jail.
But it’s like the Smashing Pumpkins song Today, which is all about how the worst day of Billy Corgan’s life was also the best – because he knew it couldn’t get worse. Hitting bottom doesn’t just imply that you have no further to fall, it implies that you’ve landed, and now you can start standing up.
Originally on this, the second anniversary of my sobriety, I wanted to write about my bottom and how it wasn’t just one event but rather a long skid of alcohol-fueled disaster that stretched throughout 2016. People sometimes think that a bottom means you decided one day that you had a problem, when the reality is that you knew for a while. The bottom is just the moment when you can no longer ignore that problem.
Writing about my bottom seemed self-indulgent, though, and maybe a little too “look at how I suffered!” Perhaps I’ll tell the full story of my annus horribilis at some point in the future, but I don’t think that story will be helpful to anyone except me today. What I do think might be of some help is if I tell you how I drank.
Many times over my first year of sobriety I sat in recovery meetings and asked myself, “Do I really belong here?” I listened to people tell their stories about compulsive drinking, about waking up with a shot, about being unable to function without being soused, and I thought “I simply do not have what these people have.” You see, I wasn’t the guy who started my day with a beer. I would have a lot of hungover mornings where I swore I would never drink again, in fact. Sometimes I would go a couple of days or weeks or, when on a diet, even a few months without a drink. I didn’t have that compulsive need to drink that I saw so often.
And, frankly, that I knew from TV and movies. My drinking career was 20 years long, and it was able to go that long for two reasons: one was that I kept engineering career situations where drinking was not only allowed, it was advantageous. Every job I had from age 21 to 42 were jobs that gave me the space to get lit, to wake up late, to behave badly.
In that situation I experienced very little by way of consequences for my drinking. If I had been working a normal job and had drank the way I did from 1994 to 2016, I would have been unemployed by the new millennium. But my drinking actually helped me get ahead, helped me be social and involved and allowed me to hang out with the other heavy drinkers who made the decisions about who gets to advance.
More than that, though, was the fact that I believed an alcoholic was a trembling compulsive drinker who always smelled like booze. This was the character I had seen on TV and in the movies, and I was not that guy, ergo I was not an alcoholic. I just liked to drink. I liked to party. Yeah, I blacked out. Yeah, I got into fights. Yeah, I said crazy ass shit when I was loaded. But I wasn’t an alcoholic! I sometimes had water with dinner and loved it!
But the reality is that compulsive, obsessive drinking, being physically dependent on alcohol, is just one kind of drinking problem. This is why I’ve come to like the term ‘alcohol use disorder,’ because it doesn’t have the same ‘junkie’ vibes ‘alcoholic’ has, and it doesn’t give you the room to convince yourself that your drinking, while heavy, is okay because you don’t need a beer in the morning.
I remember my first real drink. I was one day past 21 years old, and I had just started a job at a non-profit that I would hold for a decade. I had never had a drink before – a sip of beer, maybe – because my mother’s side of the family was silly with alcoholics. More than that, I thought booze sucked. It was the bourgeois drug of the hopelessly square. When I was 17 I was doing every drug this side of heroin, but I didn’t want to touch the bottle. It was too fucking lame. This is back when the Mad Men era looked shitty, like it was a bunch of toxic dudes who listened to Lawrence Welk. I thought the Jack and Bud lifestyle of hair metal bands sucked too. I wanted a big experience, and I wanted that mind-expanding acid and mushroom and mescaline lifestyle. Throw in weed and coke and maybe whatever pills we could score (we had a drug dealer who delivered in his car, and sometimes he would let us scour his backseat floor for any loosies that had come out of their bags) and I was happy.
But when I turned 21 I started this job and the culture there really caught me. It was a big drinking culture, and I had, by 94, started to associate drinking with my Irish heritage. I wanted to be a writer, and writers drank. I knew that. Irish writers really drank. After a lot of years of doing acid laced with rat poison and speed, I was ready to change it up a bit.
My first drink was a Jameson rocks. I walked into the bar with my new boss – the picture of the classic alcoholic, a guy who never ate, who trembled all the time, who would be drinking as soon as he awoke, who always smelled like mouth wash – and I saw another employee at the bar. It was a downtown New York City dive bar, back before the Towers fell and Giuliani cleaned up the city, the kind of bar that had sawdust on the floor. I saw this employee, who had already been there about five hours (drinking usually started at about 3 at this job), sitting at the bar with a mug of beer in front of him. As we walked in he turned his head, vomited onto the sawdust, spit, and returned to his beer.
My first thought, I swear to God, was, “I want that.”
(The ability to boot and rally was something I chased all my life. I never learned the skill. Vomiting ended my night every time)
Somehow it all just got worse from there. Eventually I became part of the crowd that started drinking at 3 or 4, and we would drink until 4, when bars close in NYC. Then we’d get locked in to the bar and drink until 6, at which time we would go to a bodega, where beer sales were just beginning. Coke would get you through the hazy hours, and sometimes there would be a fist fight or someone reduced to tears through merciless bullying. I was bullied horribly until I learned how to bully the people newer than me, a rite of passage and a survival skill.
A lot of the stories I have from this period used to be funny, but today it’s shocking that I took all of this shit in stride. I was in my 20s, I guess, and new to drinking, but I used to pass out on the subway going home regularly. I would miss my stop on the A train most nights and wind up at Rockaway Beach at dawn. I liked this – passing out on the train with all my belongings was a perk, because I got to watch the sun rise at the beach. Always look on the bright side of your alcohol use disorder.
It eventually became clear that I had some kind of problem, and in my 20s I was already trying to control my drinking. If there’s something in your life you’re trying to control, it means that by definition it’s out of control, but I thought there was a way I could drink that would allow me to NOT wake up covered in blood or vomit, and I was dedicated to finding that solution. I tried different drinks, different drinking rituals, different meals, different rules about when and where I could drink. Nothing worked.
But my problem drinking, it turns out, came and went like waves. There would be bad periods and there would be okay periods. A lot of it depended on my life situation; if I had something bigger than me to worry about, I wouldn’t drink so heavily. I would get out of the spiritual hole that I was in and was trying to fill with whiskey, and I would be okay.
The most sustained dark period of my drinking was my first ten years. By the time I got to 2004, 2005, I was out of the hole. My entire life in the late 90s and early 2000s revolved around getting fucked up – all of my work socialization was drunk (and official events, conferences and retreats were all built around drink tickets and kegs), and I had fallen in with a group of internet hipsters who were heavily drinking and drugging. In recovery we talk about ‘low companions,’ and my life in this period was almost nothing but low companions.
(Many of these people have gone on to become wonderful folks who live incredible lives, and who are inspirations to me. Some died. Some, I have no idea. They disappeared.)
It all sped up in the couple of years after 9/11. I worked a few blocks from the Towers, and it’s become clear to me that the trauma of that day just rang my bell, and the vibrations continued on for a long, long time. I remember being on a trip to California at the end of 2001, visiting a woman I had met on the hipster internet message board, where I tore up a hotel room. The cops came, and I broke down telling them how much I respected first responders ever since so many had died that day. It was wild – I was sort of spinning shit to get out of being arrested, but I was also dead serious.
I knew this was a very dark period, as Dewey Cox might say, and I was beyond miserable. I didn’t know HOW dark it was – it wasn’t until 2016 that someone told me I had sexually assaulted her in 2003, and like a lot of stuff in 2003 I had no memory of it – but I knew it was dark. So I moved to Los Angeles, figuring it was sunnier here, and thus it would be less dark.
The dark phase did (sort of) end. But the next phase of my alcohol use disorder would be the phase I would be in until the end. It was the Russian Roulette phase, and it was maybe more insidious than the ‘doing cocaine in the bathroom of a hipster nightclub with the drummer of a very famous indie band’ phase.
See, my drinking calmed down on a weekly basis. I discovered good beer and expensive booze. But what I also discovered was that if I had a drink I was taking my life into my hands, because I never – NEVER – knew what one drink would lead to next.
Maybe I would have a beer at lunch and then go back to my desk and write. Or maybe I would have a beer at lunch and that would turn into six and then I would get my friends to meet me and that would turn into shots and then I would get coke and text any woman who had ever had sex with me to see if I could have sex tonight (even though I had a girlfriend I lived with) and then I would go home and throw up or break something or get into a fight on the internet.
But sometimes I drank like a regular person! And I held on to those times, even though I had a revolver with three bullets in the chamber. I knew that I had a 50/50 chance of my night going really, really bad. And I would pick up the drink anyway.
No matter how often I told myself I wouldn’t drink like that anymore, I would. And because I didn’t do it daily, because I wasn’t doing it at unreasonable times, it wasn’t clear to me that I had a problem. Because I hung out mainly with other heavy drinkers it definitely wasn’t clear that I had a problem, because I seemed to be maybe – MAYBE – a slightly heavier drinker than they were.
My thing on a bad night was that I was a thrill seeker. As my amygdala got suppressed I would engage in riskier and riskier behavior. Fights, petty theft, vandalism, I acted out all my internalized misery and resentments on these nights. I’d turn on my friends and cut them down – I had the gift of seeing people’s weaknesses and being drunk gave me permission to be aggressive about it. The internet eventually gave me a reach I never could have imagined – instead of being a dick to people at the bar, I could be a dick to people around the globe.
I never see this in the movies or TV – the guy who seems pretty normal, who seems to be the guy who just likes to have a good time, but who never knows what will happen when he has that first drink. I finally saw it on My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which had one of the characters realize he was an alcoholic, and his song really sums up my own experience:
It’s not that he was dependent – he isn’t singing about having that eye-opener – it’s that he couldn’t control himself when he drank. And he couldn’t seem to avoid that first drink.
This long-winded drunkalogue is not a boast. I’m not proud of the way I drank, although I used to be. This long-winded drunkalogue is an attempt to communicate to you that alcoholism isn’t just The Lost Weekend with Ray Milland sweating for a drink and selling his typewriter. That’s the conventional warfare of alcoholism. There’s also the guerilla warfare of the Russian Roulette alcoholic, the guy who is pointing a gun at his head with every beer he picks up. Maybe the hammer clicks on an empty chamber and it’s all good and you have a great time… but maybe it falls on a bullet, and you suddenly have your brains splattered all over the walls.
The consequences of my drinking caught up with me in October of 2016, as I was confronted with my behavior from 13 years earlier. But I’ll tell you what – my drinking was catching up with me in the summer of 2016, and I was on a collision course with my bottom no matter what. Maybe I’ll tell that story some other day, but the bill for 20 years of hard drinking, consequence-free binging, was coming due no matter what.
I woke up a lot of days filled with regret, shame and horror. I swore I would never get loaded again, and then I would go have a beer that night, thinking I could control myself. But I couldn’t. I never could. I had to learn that the only way to keep it under control was to never start drinking in the first place. I haven’t had a drink in two years, and I’ll tell you what – that’s been easy. I was lucky that I wasn’t alcohol dependent, so there wasn’t any detox for me.
But the easiness of it scares me. I have this voice in my head that tells me, “You’re not like these other drunks. You didn’t drink every day. You didn’t need to be sauced to go to a work meeting. You didn’t even drink before you did speaking engagements! You rarely wrote drunk! You’re fine.” I’m scared that this voice will trick me, and that I’ll pick up that one beer on a sunny afternoon.
I’m scared because maybe that beer will be fine, and I will stop at that one. I’m scared because then I’ll say “See, you got this shit licked. You healed yourself. You can enjoy a drink like everyone else now.” I’m scared because I know – with TWENTY YEARS OF EXPERIENCE – that eventually I’ll have another beer and that beer will trigger the part of my brain that makes bad decisions, and I’ll follow that beer with another, then another. Then shots. Then…
I know there are bullets in this gun. I know that I barely survived one bullet to the head. Maybe if I put the barrel to my temple and pull the trigger it’ll click mercifully empty. But I’m no longer willing to take the chance, because I know that once I start pulling the trigger I won’t stop until I’ve painted the bar with what’s left of my fucked up, sick brain. For the time being I’m going to keep that brain in my skull and keep working on healing it.