It comes back to me in the strangest ways, at the strangest times. I took my last drink eight years ago and have even lost some of my sensory memory of the smell and taste and effect of the stuff. But just the other day I was idling at a stoplight on Lemmon Avenue in Dallas when my gaze happened to fall on a wispy street guy who was lolling on a bench at a bus stop. He was tippling from what appeared to be a brown-bagged quart of beer. It was a muggy afternoon, and when he held the bottle just so, I could see the beads of sweat on its amber neck twinkle in the sunlight, a tiny, esoteric image that apparently meant a great deal to my subconscious.
“Damn, that looks good,” I said under my breath, startling myself. Then, just like that, the thought was gone, but it served as a reminder that no matter how far I think I’ve walked away from the Beast, he’s always just a step behind me. I may have stopped drinking; I may have even stopped wanting to drink. I may, as I frequently do, feel so well that I forget I was ever sick. But I’ll never stop being a drunk, not really.
Not that I was the worst drunk I’ve ever seen. I was what is called a “maintenance drinker,” meaning that I tended to keep a healthy amount of alcohol in my bloodstream at all times. By healthy amount I mean, in my prime, eight, ten drinks a day—more or less evenly divided between lunch and the cocktail hour—or more, if somebody was throwing a party and invited me and sometimes even if they didn’t. While my consumption definitely qualified as pathological, it produced, miraculously, only moderate damage to my life and none to my liver.
Don’t get me wrong: My bottom was plenty low enough for me. But in terms of gross damage, I’ve heard and seen much worse. Guys who lost everything and wound up living in their cars—I mean lawyers and accountants. Guys who had to head off to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to escape the Beast. In rehab I met a heroin addict who, when she was temporarily discharged to get emergency care for a heart infection, dropped by her favorite dealer on the way to Dallas’ Parkland Hospital, scored some scag, and got high. I later heard that she had died of complications from the infection—the ultimate way to escape the Beast, I guess.
But if I wasn’t the worst drunk I’ve ever seen, I will admit to having been the most vocal and, in my way, the most shameless. I wrote expansively of the virtues of the drinking life, first in a story for this magazine in 1983 titled “The Bar Bar” and later in a book for Harper and Row, The View From Nowhere: The Only Bar Guide You’ll Ever Want—or Need. In both gospels, I endeavored to describe a great bar—what I called a bar bar—as a kind of church, and attendance therein as a form of worship. It was, I was told, an instructive and amusing conceit, and so I did what writers always do when they’re told that: I rode it until it dropped.
A bar bar was where people went to drink—not to dance or flirt or cut business deals. Its faithful drank beer or whiskey, not piña coladas or margaritas, and the only decor required was what I referred to as mineshaft darkness. (My drink of choice in those days was vodka because it was cheap and it left no odor on my breath, and I frequently intensified the buzz with “fuel injection,” shooters of peppermint schnapps.) I argued that the emergent Neo-Temperance Movement was just another meaningless paroxysm of political correctness, and that the drinking man was not some cultural dinosaur but was, actually, somehow righteous. I even imparted the wisdom that barflies don’t really hang out in bars for the booze but for the people. Yeah, right.
In time I fancied myself a kind of cult hero. After all, the Today show called to book me; so did National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. In this culture, you get Bryant Gumbel laughing along with you on national television, and that isn’t just approval. That’s validation. Maybe other heavy drinkers (which is what I’d decided I was) had to ponder whether they had a problem with the stuff. I’d written a book about it and gone on tour, for God’s sake, so I couldn’t possibly have one.
So what happened? Well, somewhere along the line I went from being a mere acolyte of my self-styled faith to being a zealot. But it’s much more complicated than that, and after years of clearheaded rumination on my slide into the gutter, I still haven’t unraveled it entirely. That’s the first thing you learn about alcoholism and the thing that remains true no matter how long you’ve been sober: You never completely know what hit you.
Which is one reason why it has taken me so long to muster the courage—and gain the insight—to write this. There are a couple of steps among the twelve that make up the Alcoholics Anonymous program of recovery that involve making amends to those you have harmed in any way through your drinking. It would be the height of arrogance for me to assume that my musings about the drinking life were so persuasive that they actually led anyone seriously astray. But I still feel a certain discomfort at having so fervently glorified the lifestyle. As it turned out, there was much more to the story than the View From Nowhere. So here’s my View From Somewhere.
When I went off to alcohol and drug rehab in February 1993—at the suggestion of my wife, my agent, and my lawyer, not necessarily