Last call for alcohol: A Drunkalogue

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

And when the game is over, we will buy a keg of booze,
And drink to California ’till we wobble in our shoes…
Drink, drank, drunk last night,
Drunk the night before;
Gonna get drunk tonight
Like I never got drunk before;
For when I’m drunk, I’m as happy as can be
For I am member of the Souse family.

“California Drinking Song,” ca. 1939, copyright U.C. Regents

Well I got a bad liver and a broken heart/yeah I drunk me a river since you tore me apart/but I don’t have a drinking problem ‘cept when I can’t get a drink

“Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” Tom Waits, 1976

My name is Jaime, and I’m an alcoholic, though I’m not supposed to tell. I’m not supposed to tell because the disease of alcoholism is, shamefully, still a matter of shame, which is why alcoholism is a disease usually suffered in secrecy.

Of course, many people don’t think alcoholism is a disease at all, but a moral failing. Or a character defect. Who knows for sure? Even if it is a moral failing, what of that? Who is exempt from moral failings? Or character defects? Confronting moral failure or defects of character is a noble thing, a mark of courage and dignity, wouldn’t you think?

But the shame is deeply embedded in our culture, nonetheless, and it keeps people from getting smart, getting help, and getting well.

When people get to the place where they determine to confront their disease, most of them wind up in AA, if they’re very lucky, and part of the way they get sober is by telling each other stories. The stories they tell are referred to as “drunkalogues.” This is mine.

A little more than a dozen years ago, I woke up with the fiercest of hangovers, a loaded revolver on the nightstand, and a crumpled suicide note stuck to my cheek. On such mornings, (and there had, of course, been others, though none quite this black and hopeless) I kept my eyes closed against the false twilight created by the sun slicing through the mini-blinds, illumination more depressing than darkness, bearing recriminations of every kind. The attempt to block out the sun is a seductively apt metaphor. There is a stage in the disease of alcoholism where shutting out the light is part of the condition.

I kept my eyes closed for a long time, not wanting to know the hour, the condition of my apartment, or what I had done the night before, though my mind would tease me with jabs of memory, like a boy tormenting a rat with a stick, each poke or prod a glimpse of a drunken phone call I’d made, or a complaint from a neighbor that my music had been too loud.

Or the writing of the suicide note, out by the pool at who knew what time, out there with the pistol in the pocket of my bathrobe, a Walkman on my head playing music to kill myself by—Bob Dylan, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, over and over again, and Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, until hell wouldn’t have it. There was a nearly empty fifth of Johnny Walker by the side of the pool chair. No one else was around and the complex was still, so it must have been late, the hour of the wolf. That’s what the Swedes call the hour before dawn when the wolf is set loose and our darkest fears escape their cages. It is not a good time to be awake.

It was the night O.J. Simpson had slaughtered his wife and the ill-fated Ron Goldman. My imagination now gives me to believe that I was loading my revolver in the depths of a California Walpurgisnacht, the wolf loose and loping throughout the tarnished Golden State, seizing by the throat anyone whose mental and emotional defenses weren’t properly secured.

Alcoholics are, almost by definition, unsatisfied with the simple truth of things, and my desire to make my personal chaos cosmic on the night of my near-suicide is probably no more than grandiosity and ego. Still, even in the clear light of day a dozen years on, I can hear that wolf growling, the menace rumbling deep in its throat.

I didn’t keep the suicide note I wrote that night. I wish now that I had because I would like to have it verbatim, would like, I guess, to wallow in that slop. Surely there were no felicities of language in it; I know this with certainty from long experience of writing while drunk, carried away by the staggering muse and striking my head on every door jamb of invention, all the while thinking my words were divinely inspired, one with the ages of human sighs and suffering, but more exquisitely rendered and brought to life.

The sun always brought the truth. The writing was incoherent, puerile, whiny and sometimes utterly indecipherable. And that is surely how my suicide note must have read, with a dollop of martyrdom in it, all fussy with regret and reassurances to my grown daughters about how they should not grieve, and how I really wanted it this way, and “I’m sorry” in every variation, as though there could be an apology that could cover an affront like suicide.

I doubt there was anything in the note to my then-estranged wife. I had called her, I learned later, some 32 times that night, but she had turned the ringer off after the first two or three calls. Those calls were abusive, ugly, and I don’t blame her now for choosing not to talk to me, though I blamed her then. Not mentioning her in the suicide note would have been consistent with the aggression that is such a part of the act of doing one’s self in.

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

It was the phone bill, about a month later, that told me of the 32 calls. Part of that night is lost to blackout, and most of those calls were in that blackout period, but the message machine at my wife’s apartment recorded all of them.

I remember, though, cocking the revolver out there by the pool, cocking it more than once, and enjoying the neat little metallic clicks as the cylinder rotated a live .45 round into position under the hammer. I remember the feel of the muzzle against my temple, and I remember changing the angle of the gun several times, factoring the trajectory with a crude understanding of cranial geography, determined to ensure that I would not botch the job. I remember the tension in my forefinger, testing my determination to see the thing through. And I remember, time after time, bringing the gun down and setting it on the arm of the chair, still cocked. I would take another swig of Scotch, mostly for the wolf circling me in the night.

Then it was nearly noon, and the suicide note was stuck to my cheek with tears or saliva or night sweat. The sheets were twisted around my legs, testimony to a struggle, a man wrestling with a wolf. On most of the drunken nights in my last years of drinking, my mind would become obsessive in half-sleep. It would seize on a phrase or a single word and simply repeat it endlessly in that space the mind keeps for echoes of thought. I don’t know what word or phrase my mind selected for me that night—it might have been “moribund” or “Milky Way” or “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t"—but I’m sure there was such a word or phrase, repeated and repeated and repeated on the public address system in the lobby of madness.

In popular culture, hangovers are usually treated humorously. The cartoon character with the ice bag on his head, the movie character for whom every sound is amplified. To people unschooled in hangovers, it must seem they are little more than very bad headaches, amusing because they are self-inflicted, a paradigm of human folly.

In reality, there’s little funny about a hangover, especially in the latter progressions of the disease of alcoholism. Those hangovers, for me, were a brutal combination of physical and psychic pain that I visited upon myself about once a week in those days, one enormous bout of shame and humiliation and nausea to be endured in a day or sometimes two days that were utterly lost.

By my reckoning, I’ve spared myself more than 600 hangovers since I quit drinking. Taken together, that’s going on two full years of feeling miserable every moment, and that’s a pretty good argument for getting help all by itself, though there’s a better one and that is simple survival. The note and the gun and my complete disgust with myself combined to make my way of living no longer endurable. It came to me not as a moment of clarity, but in a fog of self-loathing: I simply could not risk another night like the one that had left me in such a condition. I could not let the wolf so near my throat.

Still, even with those starkest of options, the disease asserts itself. In the sickly light slanting through the blinds, I called a rehab two counties away, afraid that a local facility would bring me into contact with people I knew. The woman who spoke with me on the phone that morning encouraged me to come and check in that very day, but I told her I needed a few days to get my affairs in order for the 28 days I would be away. Those three days of postponement could have been fatal. Each day that passed allowed for the internal litany of rationalization that is part of the disease. “You’re not really an alcoholic,” the voices said, “you just had a bad night.” By the third day, I was pretty much convinced that I’d overreacted, that I wasn’t a candidate for rehab, that I wasn’t, in fact, an alcoholic because no one, ever, wants to tag themselves with that word. And, after all, I only really drank once a week (never mind that nearly every weekend binge led to uncontrolled excess). Real alcoholics, I told myself, were people who drank every day, were people who lived on the streets, had lost their jobs, whose hands shook when they talked. I didn’t fit any of those categories. I was a professional man who never lost a day of work to a hangover.

On the day before I was to check into rehab, I did an inadvertently fortuitous thing: I got a bit drunk, whistling for the wolf once more. I went to a bar and ordered the best Scotch they had, drank two of them, announced grandly to the bartender that this was the last booze that would ever pass my lips, and bought a round for the house. Later, I bought a half pint of lesser goods and took it home and drank it out by the pool. It wasn’t enough to take me anywhere close to the depths I had plumbed four nights earlier, but it was enough to give me a dull headache, a dry mouth, and just enough disgust with myself to force me to get behind the wheel of my car the next morning to begin the drive to the rehab facility three hours away. That hangover was the ax I needed against the chains of denial that bind every alcoholic to his disease.

Rehab, one wit noted, is where you pay $5,000 in order to learn that AA meetings are free. The facility where I got sober was a nice Betty Ford-ish kind of place, and my insurance paid a good chunk, though my share of the costs was enough to serve as a small element of my recovery. Except for the money I paid the hospital for the birth of my two daughters, the money I paid to provide myself with a solid base of sobriety was the best money I ever spent.

More than a dozen years have passed since that black night out by the swimming pool, and it is doubtful I would have seen all of those years had I not sought help.

Now, all these years later, I sometimes come awake in the middle of the night, pad out to the living room to take up a book away from the bedroom where my wife lies sleeping. We are reunited, a great blessing of recovery, and I do not wish to disturb her sleep with my wakefulness. I read in the sweet quiet of the night. Sometimes, my cat will come and curl up on my lap and her purring will add to my sense of peace.

The gun I once held to my temple is long gone, sold to a man I hope will not have reason to turn it against himself, or anyone else. The hour of the wolf is once more at hand, but I am not afraid. My fires are well banked against the darkness, and the wolf is in its lair, far from my hearth. I will read a book until the sun comes up, or until sleep beckons again and I take myself back to bed. The hour of the wolf holds no terrors for me now, and when the sun comes full, I have no hesitation about opening the blinds and letting in the light.

But, for most alcoholics, getting through that dark night of the soul and finding the way back to the light is no easy journey. It begins with a hard first step, and that step is admitting that one is powerless over alcohol. It’s a hard first step because no one, ever, wants to admit powerlessness, especially in a culture that puts such a high value on personal autonomy, and such a stigma on the word “alcoholic.”

Here’s a curio from The Sacramento Union, a long-defunct newspaper that published the thoughts of a local doctor in November 1939, four years after the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. It represents the conventional wisdom of that doctor’s day, a view of alcoholism not much different from that held by most people today, even people who suffer from the disease. Among other things, the good doctor wrote:

The causes of regular imbibing are set by a psychologist as follows:

• Escape from situations that cannot be faced.

• Social drinkers who have drifted into the habit.

• Maladjusted personality.

• Symptoms of major mental disturbance.

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

• To relieve pain.

• Constitutionally inferior persons who drink because they like it.

I rather like that last one. So helpful. So non-judgmental. So likely to encourage a sufferer to come forward and say to a doctor, “Hi, I’m a constitutionally inferior person who drinks because I like it. Can you help me?”

No. 3 isn’t bad, either. “Hi doc, I’m a maladjusted personality and I think it’s manifesting itself in bouts of drinking that tend to end with me face down in a puddle of puke. Can you help?”

Which may be why denial seems to be hardwired to this disease. It’s a natural self-protective response to cultural prejudice. You might drink too much, you might even embarrass people close to you. You may have had a DUI, lost a job, lost a couple of teeth, a couple of spouses even, but damned if you’re a “constitutionally inferior person,” or a maladjusted personality. So set up another round.

That doctor from 60 years ago also sketched the outline of a drinker’s life as follows:

The stripling. Age 20. The other boys drink; he doesn’t want to appear afraid.

Sociable fellow. Age 24. Sure, glad to have a cocktail.

Regular guy. Age 28. Occasionally gets a little too much. Easy to quit now.

Booze artist. Age 33. Can drink anybody under the table.

The rummy. Age 40. Doesn’t get any kick out of it, but can’t quit.

The soak. Age 45. At it all the time. No thought of quitting.

Just another bum. Age 50. (If his liver hasn’t downed him.)

Having spent most of my professional life as a college teacher, I’ve seen quite a few students from a couple of generations go through a similar progression. I’ve seen their acculturation to booze, seen the insinuation of heavy drinking into their still-forming characters, seen the relentless press of advertising and peer pressure taunting them to overindulge as a means of becoming more confident, more cool, more attractive to potential sexual conquests. Whatever else they learn in college, which tends to be hit and miss, most of them will surely learn how to drink.

My sister-in-law attended Chico State back in the late 1960s. Every time she returns to town for a visit, she points out a place where she threw up one night after hitting several of the local bars. It occurred to me that there can hardly be a square inch of downtown Chico that has not been vomited on over the decades of college drinking done here.

Occasionally, I would talk about this in class, disclose my own battle with alcohol, and it never failed that after such disclosure, at least one student would sidle into my office and, following a certain amount of hemming and hawing, reveal his or her worries about the amount and frequency of their drinking. In one such class during my last year of teaching, seven out of 15 students paid me such visits. Though the stats on drinking suggest that about 1 in 6 Americans is an alcoholic, my experience suggests the number may be higher. The shame that attaches to the disease makes diagnosis, even self-diagnosis, spotty, underreported and unreliable. Before I quit drinking, I confessed my worries to half a dozen doctors, and not one of them took the problem seriously.

I was luckier than some, however. I didn’t become “just another bum” at 50, though I was surely on a full-tilt boogie in that direction. By the time I was 45 and a “soak,” I was thinking of quitting all the time. I just couldn’t manage it, and one of the reasons I couldn’t manage it was because I couldn’t admit it to myself. It’s no accident that the first step toward recovery through AA is to admit the problem. It took five years—five bad years—for me to be able to do that, to be able to say to myself that there was something I could not control, could not handle by myself.

Which is why I think that the shame-based attitudes in that old newspaper piece are so detrimental, and sometimes deadly, to those seeking recovery.

When I first got to rehab, I was astonished to find so many young people there, some of whom were not yet of legal drinking age, but whose alcoholism was already in full control of their lives. At first I didn’t believe that it was possible for them to be alcoholics at such youthful ages. In my mind, and in the popular imagination, alkies were aging people, mostly men, mostly shabby. It took time and persistence to develop full-blown alcoholism, I thought.

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

But one kid I met in rehab was only 22, and he’d been drinking alcoholically since he was 16, a rich kid who’d wrecked three cars by the time he reached legal drinking age.

His youth and the protective cocoon of money and denial kept him from taking his disease seriously, despite the mounting evidence of a problem, until a court ordered him into rehab. Youth and good health are enemies of recovery because those qualities encourage denial.

As a social problem, alcoholism has lost much of its cachet. People have found new substances to abuse, and those substances draw more media attention because of their relative novelty. Methamphetamine is perhaps more dramatic, OxyContin is perhaps more insidious, and ecstasy is more trendy with the young, but that old granddad of addictions still beats ’em all in terms of damage done, lives destroyed, and wreckage left in its wake. It’s still the King Kong of addictions—in scope, in breadth, and in overall costs. Because it’s legal, socially accepted, and even culturally promoted, more people are called to its abuse than any other drug of choice, and if you belong to a family without at least one relative afflicted with a drinking problem, you are a rare person, indeed.

In a single year at the close of the last century, 25 Butte County people died in DUI cases. In a county of some 200,000 people, that may not seem like a large number—roughly an average-sized college class, but the people devastated by such a number ripples outward. If Butte County had lost 25 people in a single year to war, or to a specific infectious disease, the newspapers would be filled with alarms, but we are accustomed to deaths due to alcohol, whether on the highway or on fraternity row.

People who’ve lived in Butte County for a long time will recall the festivities once known as Pioneer Days, a traditional fall observance dating back some 78 years, an event killed by alcohol-related abuses that had come to characterize the event. The scale of the rioting that took place every year in the late 1980s was such that the story repeatedly made national news and led to the end of that traditional observance.

Mike Ramsey, District Attorney then as now, was mentioned prominently in national wire stories about those student disruptions. As a result, he heard from people he had not heard from since his own college days at U.C. Berkeley back in the late ‘60s. Most of them wanted to know what had triggered the rioting. As people whose views of student life were formed during the period of social and political activism that characterized their own times in college, they assumed that some sort of deeply felt political or philosophical difference had touched off the rioting, but they were appalled when Mike Ramsey, their old college friend, informed them that the rioting had begun when a mob of students on one side of the street began chanting “tastes great.” That chant was answered by a bunch of drunken students on the other side of the street who chanted “less filling” as a counter-argument. What began as mindless inebriated fun soon devolved into angrier taunting from one side of the street to another until someone threw a bottle, and then the fight was on, resulting in dozens of injuries and thousands of dollars in property damage, all because of a dispute over a beer commercial.

It has been an ongoing struggle since those days for Chico State to combat its image as a school for novitiate alcoholics, and it’s a virtual certainty that for every hundred students who pick up a degree and a career path at the college, a dozen or so pick up a lifelong drinking problem.

And with those drinking problems come a huge social problem, with costs that are enormous.

“Eighty percent of all felony crimes are substance-abuse related,” according to D.A. Ramsey. And though court-ordered counseling and rehabilitation for problem drinkers has a low success rate, it is usually better than nothing at all. “Obviously,” Ramsey says, “the person who has reached bottom on his or her own knows what he must do, but sometimes a nudge from the criminal justice system can be a wake up call for people who have chosen to ignore their problem.

“You know that T-shirt you see so often?” Ramsey asks, rhetorically. “The one with the little joke, ‘Drinking problem? What drinking problem? I get drunk. I fall down. No problem.'”

He pauses for a moment, then adds, “but that’s not the way of it. You get drunk, you get stupid, and that is a problem. Take that hazing episode we had here last year. The one everyone points to in order to argue that alcohol isn’t the only killer; even water kills students, they say. Well, that case was about frat brothers sitting around drinking heavily and losing judgment. They’re sitting in jail now, and they understand. It was booze that caused them to lose sight of the fact that the kid they were hazing was in trouble, was dying because of what they were doing.”

The problem is not confined to high-profile media stories.

Alcohol-related crimes run the gamut, from murder to rape, with stops at all points along that spectrum. “A number of our rapes are alcohol-related,” Ramsey says. “The victims are often extremely intoxicated, and they aren’t usually raped by strangers.”

“One of the sad things,” according to the D.A., “is that we have a great deal of help available in our drug court and through Proposition 36 for the ‘white drugs,’ (cocaine, heroin, etc.) but not a lot of help for the stone alcoholic.”

Public resources to help alcoholics may be limited, but private help is readily available—for those who have answered their last call for alcohol. Dozens of AA meetings take place in Butte County each and every day, and there is, thus far, no better path to recovery. If your life is slipping away from your control, help is everywhere.

Once, long ago, a recovering alcoholic introduced me to another recovering alcoholic as “a high-bottom drunk.” What he meant by that was that, relatively speaking, I had found my way to recovery before I’d managed to sink as low as those who didn’t get sober until after they’d lost jobs, lost houses and lost most of their dignity.

Still, his description of me came as a bit of a shock. By my lights, I’d gone as low as I could go, as far down as I could bear, and his words reminded me of just how lucky I’d been compared to other people who had to chase their disease even farther down the hole—even to madness, homelessness and disease.

If you are reading this piece on a morning blighted by a searing hangover, perhaps these words and that pain in your head will coalesce into a message you may need to hear, and though I don’t mean for this piece to be a temperance lecture, sometimes a lecture reaches us at just the moment when we need to hear it.

For a great many people like me, what begins as pleasure ends as a torment, and for some of us, that torment can end in death. In the nearly 13 years I’ve been sober, I’ve known many people who could not maintain their sobriety, and many of those people are now dead, their lives claimed by a disease they could not conquer.

My personal drunkalogue began when I was a teenager. Alcohol seemed like rebellion, an expression of newfound freedom, a proclamation of adulthood. All of those words seem foolish and ironic to me now. That change in perspective was hard to come by because the romance of booze had penetrated every element of my consciousness. There were all those self-destructive writers and artists and musicians I’d admired for as long as I could recall, and there was all the macho posturing that drinking wraps itself in, and there were dozens of other culturally-encoded lies that kept me wedded to my disease for far longer than I wish had been the case.

But shame was surely a key agent of my disease, and it is that shame I hope I’ve done battle with here. Once, long ago, I read a collection of short stories published under the title All Our Secrets Are the Same. Shame makes us keep secrets and secrets keep us sick.

In the weeks before I sought recovery, I could not imagine my life without alcohol in it. Perhaps you are reading this piece at a time in your own journey when such a booze-free life is unimaginable to you, too. Knowing that others share your secret, and have already taken the journey you might now be contemplating could, perhaps, help you imagine a life without alcohol, help you wrestle with your own wolf in the hours before dawn, and help guide you to a new morning when you have lost the fear of opening the blinds and admitting the light.