Sober

More than a decade ago I wrote about the virtues of the drinking life and the comforts of what I called a “bar bar.” Then I hit rock bottom. It’s been eight years now since I took my last drink—and I’m finally ready to tell the rest of the story.

July 2001By Comments

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 in that order—I was in an existential funk. Not only did I not know what had hit me, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do about it.

I was desperate enough about my drinking to have checked into one of Dallas’ better treatment facilities, the Substance Abuse Unit at the main campus of the Timberlawn Mental Health System. My life was in tatters. During the preceding year and a half, I had been arrested for DWI three times, my writing career had dwindled to “working on a novel,” and relations with my wife had been strained almost to the breaking point. Given all that, one part of me knew that the program would probably involve quitting drinking altogether, since self-styled efforts to moderate my consumption had failed. But another part of me still believed that I wasn’t that bad off and hoped that the counselors could just help me get out of all the trouble my drinking had caused without my actually having to quit. Like they say in rehab, denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.

Of course, the first thing I did at the treatment center was look around for someone to blame. Sitting alone in my room, which resembled a Holiday Inn Express suite in, say, Amarillo, I mulled whether it was my parents, my wife, or my various editors, agents, and colleagues who were at fault. I even blamed my bartenders for overserving me and the police of Highland Park for having the gall to haul me in on a charge of DWI when all I’d done was weave through their town at an indecent hour and then mangle the alphabet on the field sobriety test. None of the cops seemed to have read my book, either.

I was not a happy camper, and the most maddening thing was, I couldn’t find any sympathy. My peer group consisted of newcomers like me, who had their own bruised egos to look after, and jaded “rehab rats,” addicts who’d been in and out of treatment facilities three, six, even a dozen times—like the young fellow who said he used to relax by sniffing a little paint thinner and then chasing it with an animal tranquilizer or two. “It’ll really twist you up, man,” he allowed during our one conversation. (My rehab center didn’t make distinctions among addicts based on their “chemical of choice.”)

One good way to measure how much a chemical addiction has come to dominate your life is to evaluate that life in the absence of said chemical. How desolate my life seemed without booze and bars in it! I realized that normal drinkers might count on a drink to relax at the end of the day or maybe to get through being fired or something. But I had come to depend on booze just to feel normal. Without it I felt utterly bereft, suddenly soulless, as if I had lost a loved one in a violent and unexpected way.

A counselor at the treatment facility told me that, in fact, I was grieving over the loss of a dear friend: booze. “Just let it pass and allow us to beat a little sanity into you for a while and you’ll be surprised by when and how you’ll see the light,” he added.

“Right,” I said, as if I understood completely. “I really wasn’t all that bad a drinker, by the way. Not really.”

“Right,” he said with a knowing nod. “No one who comes here ever is.”

Fortunately, in rehab, as in life, sanity is where you find it. In this case, one afternoon about four days into my stay, I happened to be listening carefully when a younger patient said something that prodded the first stirrings of an epiphany in me. We were sharing a cigarette on the back porch, which had been dubbed the Starlight Lounge. In the midst of my complaining about one thing and another, he interrupted and, with quiet incredulity, asked, “You gotta problem with booze and that’s it?”

“Yeah,” I said.

He shook his head. “Well, I gotta problem with booze too. And cocaine. And I’m a diabetic who has to jam a needle into myself four times a day to stay alive. You may not believe me, man, but you’re lucky. Take advantage of it. I wish my only problem was just the booze. My problems …” He shrugged.

The next morning I woke with the sense that I knew something I hadn’t known the night before. I had no idea what it was until later that day when, uncharacteristically, I volunteered to “share” during group therapy for the first time. For the uninitiated, “group” is the heaviest cudgel with which they beat the sanity into you. At its worst, it is interminable, rambling self-examination or pontification by people with either depressing or uninteresting lives. At its best, however, it is a setting in which you can hear yourself say things that you need to hear yourself say.

“I’ve decided something,” I said. “I’ve been sitting here looking for someone to blame. But there’s no one to blame but me. I’m the one who drank too much. And I’m the only one who can do something about that.”

My fellow patients offered me expressions that ranged from blank to skeptical to supportive. The animal tranquilizer guy looked vaguely pissed off, like he was thinking I had some nerve to actually take this treatment business seriously.

All of a sudden, though, I was taking it seriously. I couldn’t get enough of our cloistered existence, the hours of group therapy, music therapy, and lectures on relapse prevention. Maybe I’d simply had the requisite sanity beaten into me. Or maybe it was that, even after just a few days, I felt so much stronger physically.

There was something else I needed to do, I was told, to make a clean start. I had to begin calling myself an alcoholic. As motivated as I was to get on with my recovery, this gave me pause—and, to tell you the truth, still does. Officially, an alcoholic is someone who is addicted to alcohol, which I most certainly was (and which I always will be, according to those who believe that alcoholism is a chronic disease, like diabetes, that can only be managed, not cured). But the word reverberates loud and long and—even in this age of Oprah—tends to be equated with abject dereliction, or at least a level of hopelessness that I found difficult to incorporate in my self image. In fact, the hardest part of sobering up was saying for the first time, “I’m Jim. I’m an alcoholic.”

Painful Introspection

They tell you that sorting out the causes of an addiction is kind of like peeling an onion. With each layer exposed and examined, a new one appears. The process seems endless and often futile and is further complicated by the fact that everybody’s drinking problem is different. I mean, no drunk is able to indulge in moderation, but the extent of the problem, the age of onset, the putative reasons for that onset, the sorts of behavior caused by the drinking, the ability to manage the addiction—all differ from addict to addict. I met young alcoholics in treatment who seemed so genetically predisposed to the condition that they had begun dipping into their father’s whiskey stash at age eleven or twelve. I also met patients who hadn’t begun to drink abusively until late in life and who seemed to be suffering from little more than a bad habit. Most of us fell somewhere in between. We had experimented with alcohol as early as adolescence but hadn’t had any problem with it until middle age. Alcoholism did not necessarily run in our families—it didn’t in mine—but we had developed a true addiction to the stuff that had caused palpable damage to our lives. Almost all of us had tried quitting on our own, usually many times over, and had failed.

After peeling back a layer or two, I could recall nothing remarkable about my early relationship with alcohol, no harbinger of pathology to come. I had sneaked my first drink as a high school junior and chugged my share of beer as a frat rat at the University of Texas in the late sixties. But what, my counselors wanted to know, had been going on inside of me?

You don’t ponder that when you’re young. You’re certainly not on the lookout for whether your mid-forebrain bundle (the area of the brain believed to be associated with addictions) is responding too readily and intensely to chemical stimulation. But the more I thought about it, the more I could see the pattern developing, even as a young adult.

For example, as a reporter at the Dallas Times Herald in the early seventies, I didn’t think twice about joining the older editors and writers after deadline for a few pops at a joint near the paper (the original bar bar). And as my adulthood progressed, I was never without a bar or two in my life, someplace to drop by for a few after work—or, for that matter, in the middle of the day. It never occurred to me that this behavior was outside the mainstream. I thought that guys who didn’t have a bar where they were regulars were the strange ones, and I actually felt a little sorry for them.

It also never occurred to me that drinking alone, whether at home or in a bar, might be a sign that my relationship with alcohol was not normal. And I was surprised to learn that drinking just because I wanted a drink—not because I was depressed or angry—was a dead giveaway that I was headed for a future problem. Popular wisdom holds that alcoholism results from overindulgence in response to crisis or tragedy—for example, “After his wife’s death, he succumbed to alcoholism.” But drinking one’s way through bad news is more a normal drinker’s way of coping. Alcoholics need no excuse to drink and are not likely to drink any more or less for any reason other than the demands of the Beast.

Thinking back on it, I realized that I had fallen into a fairly serious drinking life without even noticing it. I held my liquor so well that I could carry on a bar life and a “normal” life without the two worlds colliding. Indeed, as I peeled back more layers, it seemed to me that for a lot of years my drinking, far from interfering with my life, seemed to be a help. Booze really did make me smarter, sexier, stronger, more creative, assertive, sociable, and so on. I considered the hours spent at my favorite bar bars—usually in the company of other writers and editors—as a kind of extracurricular work time when ideas were generated, exchanged, and critiqued, all in the finest Hemingway tradition. I considered booze a partner in my success as a magazine writer who had won numerous awards and authored two books—and who also had a happy marriage and more friends than he could count. Did someone say he thought I drank too much? Well, I’ll have you know that’s what all writers do.

Betrayed By The Beast

In our culture, having a “drinking problem” has commonly been cast as a matter of poor Soberwillpower—nothing more, nothing less. But the scientific evidence that addiction is a disease now seems irrefutable. Addictionologists have developed elaborate proof that an unmanageable compulsion to drink or take drugs has to do with a heightened sensitivity to such mood-altering chemicals. Getting drunk or high seems to compensate for a so-called “neurochemical deficit”—shortages of certain neurotransmitters that are responsible for our feelings of pleasure, reward, and satisfaction. The Alcoholics Anonymous “Big Book,” the organization’s bible, casts this susceptibility to booze as a kind of allergy of the body and obsession of the mind. In my case, I know that I drank because I felt uncomfortable in my own skin. More than merely making me happy, a belt—or three or four—made me feel safe.

If you have any doubts that alcoholism is a disease, just talk to an addict who has been through the phase of drinking that I call Right at the End There—those days, months, maybe years when he was boozing not to be sexier or wiser but merely to keep the shakes at bay and some semblance of a self together. And a miserable self it was.

I’m not sure when my drinking eased into this stage of the pathology. I do know that along about the time I turned forty, in 1989, the drinking life became less of a joy and much more of a chore. The Beast had always been my buddy, but now he seemed to be turning on me. I began to have more trouble snapping back the morning after, noticed a bit of a tremor in my hands some mornings, seemed to need more booze to get to sleep at night and more to get me going the next day. More than anything, though, it became increasingly difficult to get a legitimate buzz on.

Being a drunk became a lot of trouble. I’d consume the same amount I always had—or, as time went on, more, because this is a progressive disease—and yet I wouldn’t feel the slightest bit tipsy. This strange physiological phenomenon, which I would later learn is quite common, led in turn to other troubles. Sometimes, in pursuit of a buzz, I’d drink so much that I’d black out—a state of inebriation in which you can walk and talk just fine but after which you don’t remember anything you said or did—and forget that I’d run into certain friends or had long, boozy conversations about this or that. I was told I even promised to quit drinking a time or two in such a state.

I call this stage of the disease the Betrayal of the Beast, because that’s precisely how you feel. It’s like being jilted by a lover, turned on by your best friend. As in those situations, the first instinct is not necessarily to get mad but rather to blame yourself, to seek to patch things up, to try to restore the relationship. In the case of alcoholism, of course, this involves going back to the bottle in a vain attempt to recapture lost love. In every alcoholic’s story—or at least the ones I’ve heard—there is a point at which he finds himself trying to drink his way out of his addiction to booze.

The desperate chase of the old, familiar buzz took me downhill fast, and no amount of danger or humiliation, it seemed, could keep me from heading back to the trough. One night spent in the Highland Park drunk tank apparently wasn’t enough. I got arrested again. And again. My relationships with my wife and friends began to fray. I even suffered a grand mal seizure.

After each crisis, legal, medical, or otherwise, I’d promise my wife that I would climb up on the wagon, and I think I meant it, as much as any alcoholic can really mean such a promise. I even began seeing a psychologist. But the addict in me was still firmly in charge and obviously considered this DWI business and the seizure just bothersome distractions. What you really need, my addict self would counsel, is another drink to keep all this stuff from getting you down.

Oh, I guess I knew dimly that I was in a kind of death dive. But like most addicts, I had become resigned to the fact that, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t do anything about my plight. I was in an altered state of consciousness governed by denial, shame, paranoia, and plain old confusion. In retrospect, I think I had not one “bottom” but several that finally left me with no place to run but the treatment center. I’ve since learned that that’s pretty common: Booze finally saps even your energy to destroy yourself.

I’ve never felt lower than that first evening at the treatment center. As I ate greasy fried chicken and lumpy mashed potatoes in one of the meeting rooms, where a TV was tuned to a Gilligan’s Island rerun, I realized that, for the first time since my adolescence, I didn’t really know who I was.

Welcome to Reality

Nine days later, when I was discharged from inpatient treatment, I had a somewhat better idea, and more important, I had managed to channel some of my considerable angst into my recovery. But all was not sweetness and light out in the real world. Survivors of other serious conditions are rightly cheered for their courage when they leave the hospital. But when a drunk checks out of rehab, most people couldn’t care less that he has just faced down a potentially fatal disease. Or maybe they simply don’t believe it.

Some of my reentry problems may have had to do with how I reintroduced myself to the world. Because my discharge was kind of last minute and my wife’s schedule was tight, after she picked me up I had to accompany her to NorthPark Center Mall, where she had a business meeting, before we headed home.

Let me try to describe the sound of the cultural collision when a fellow who has been in intense alcohol rehab runs into the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at a mall. It was a David Lynch movie. The people, the cacophony—and everybody seemed so damned happy and well adjusted and yet somehow menacing. Didn’t they know what I’d been through?

I finally got a Coke at a McDonald’s and found a bench just outside one of the entrances to the mall, where I smoked about twelve cigarettes in an hour or so. I felt like a stranger in my own life. Staying sober in the rehab center was easy. But when you get out in the real world—a world that you suddenly notice is suffused with alcohol and mostly unsympathetic to alcoholism—you have to make a lot of adjustments to keep the Beast at bay.

I learned this the hard way a few months later, when I was invited by some of my former bar buddies to join them for a glass of soda at one of our favored haunts. Nobody was trying to corrupt me; the gang just wanted to catch up. For my part, I had to admit that I missed my buddies at least as much as I did a good, stiff belt and expected that I would find them just as entertaining over a couple of Perriers as I had over several vodka-and-sodas.

I was on my second Perrier when I realized a couple of things. First, there truly is a difference between abusive drinking and alcoholism. Many of these guys had matched me drink for drink over the years, and yet, I realized soberly, none of them had crossed over the line into addiction, where the drinking life interfered with a productive one. Second, I realized that it’s a rare man indeed who can hang out in a bar sipping Perrier and have a good time. No offense to my buddies, but from this side of sobriety, they seemed like a bunch of loud people who tended to repeat themselves a lot. I didn’t begrudge them their drinking, but I had to face facts: There were a lot of places and people that had made up the fabric of my drinking life that would have to be pushed out of my sober one for a while.

Fortunately, there was no shortage of people telling me how to fill my time. I had a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous who seemed to have daily marching orders for me. I had a probation officer who oversaw the two years’ probation I’d gotten for my DWI. I had another county bureaucrat making sure that I kept up with the 240 hours of community service that was part of my sentence, not to mention the managers at the halfway house where I’d signed on to do the community service.

Soon, sobriety began to change me. I found that I welcomed the structure and the opportunity to reestablish myself as one of the good guys. And as a practical matter, I began to feel so healthy and strong that I couldn’t imagine trying to grapple with a hangover ever again.

I didn’t realize how much I was changing until I attended a lecture sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, which was another requirement of my probation. I went in expecting the worst sort of moralizing but was surprised to find the MADD program both enlightened and enlightening. By the end of the program, which featured horror stories from the relatives of people who had been killed by drunk drivers, I had not only seen the error of my former ways but also found myself agreeing with everything on the MADD agenda.

A good dose of fanaticism, I discovered, is helpful in negotiating the first six months or so after treatment. I lived like a monk. I got up and went to a halfway house for paroled felons to perform my community service, which consisted of chores ranging from making sack lunches for the parolees to helping some of them with literacy problems. At noon I’d go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Afternoons were spent working on the novel I’d started in what I now call my previous life.

As time went on, I’d fill the late afternoons with increasing amounts of exercise. I began writing magazine stories again, primarily about health and medicine for Texas Monthly. In my previous life I’d written about crime, but suddenly health in general—and my health in particular—was of paramount importance to me. And I set about trying to make things right with my wife. It would be impossible to ever pay her back for the largeness of soul she’d shown by sticking with me. But I could try to make amends for all those nights I’d stumbled in late by never allowing her to wonder for a second where I was.

At first I hated Alcoholics Anonymous. It seemed cliquey, strangely shallow, and most of all, boring. Unlike group therapy in rehab, “sharing” in AA is unanswered testimony—you say what you want for pretty much as long as you want—and I found that I had no patience for listening to the rants and ramblings of others. But I soon discovered the method to the madness. You don’t just learn from what the other addicts are saying; you also learn from having to sit there and listen. And since I had to attend ninety meetings in ninety days—the common initiation to the program—I did a lot of listening and stewing for three months. But by the end of the regimen, I had learned two things that 43 years of living hadn’t taught me and that form the foundation of my recovery to this day: patience and humility.

Which was a good thing because the twelve-step program that I then had to complete over the next few months required, let’s say, a more modest view of myself than I had been accustomed to taking. The program involves some daunting challenges, such as step four, in which you perform a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of yourself. This mainly involved making lists of my misdeeds, excesses, faults—for example, resentments I held toward others and my role in them. But if done properly, it is an exhausting, exhilarating experience that will lighten your personal baggage and, in the process, strengthen your spine and soften your heart.

There’s a surrealness to recovery that never quite wears off. During my first couple of years of sobriety, not a day went by that I didn’t think about what I might have been doing with it just a few months before. I really did feel as if I were living the second part of my life as a completely different person. I felt weird. I also began to feel isolated and lonely. Although a lot of AA acolytes don’t like to call it a cult, AA most certainly is, and I don’t see how it could be anything else and help people get sober. Taking on the Beast requires both the commiseration of fellow addicts and the seclusion from the mainstream offered by a cult.

And that mainstream culture, you realize, is positively drowning in booze. Right after I sobered up, I had a tendency to think that drunks were the only ones preoccupied with liquor. But the more I looked at the world through clear eyes, the more I saw that the entire society is flush with it. Consuming alcohol is a vital part of the major rites of passage: reaching adulthood, receiving a job promotion, getting married, the birth of a baby, the death of a loved one. It is considered an almost indispensable part of many forms of social contact, ranging from family reunions to business confabs. And don’t kid yourselves. Now that I’ve been to a lot of cocktail parties completely sober, I’ve learned that even you social drinkers get quite drunk, quite often.

People like to talk about booze too. Indeed, ever since I dried out, it seems that all anybody wants to talk to me about is drinking. Some people want to be reassured that they don’t have a problem. Others want to know how much I miss booze. (Not at all, until you brought it up.) Still others want to know what I think they ought to tell their teenage kids about drinking, especially if they sneaked a drink or a toke as teenagers themselves. (My advice: Tell them that just because you experimented with alcohol and/or drugs doesn’t mean that it was right or that they can.) A few have asked me recently what I think about George W. Bush’s drinking past. (I’m happy he’s sober.) And finally, a couple of friends have wondered if I still like them, as our friendships were forged in varying degrees of inebriation. (I do, unless I have to be around them when they’re drunk.)

But as absorbed as society seems to be with alcohol, most people know shockingly little about alcoholism. Here’s a disease that afflicts between 5 and 10 percent of the population; causes half of all violent deaths from accidents, suicides, and homicides; triggers fatal diseases ranging from cancer to cirrhosis; and costs Americans about $180 billion a year. Yet smart, educated people don’t even accept that it’s a disease or that it may be our most egregiously undertreated epidemic. In Texas, for example, only one in five indigent addicts is able to get treatment, and for those addicts who can afford insurance, it is increasingly difficult to find policies that will cover rehab. So why all the—you should pardon the expression—denial when it comes to the concept of alcoholism as a disease? After many years of ruminating on this, I’ve decided that you social drinkers are too often guilty of seeing the world through only your own eyes. Down deep, a lot of you still figure the disease concept is just an excuse that addicts use, since you’ve always taken a drink whenever you wished and never had any pathological cravings for another. I also sense that some of you are reluctant to accept alcoholism as a full-fledged disease because that would diminish the virtue of being able to hold your liquor, an admired American attribute. How do I know this? Because that’s the way I used to think.

At the same time, we recovering addicts must take at least some of the blame for the lack of public sympathy for the disease concept. We’re the ones who’ve insisted on a level of anonymity just shy of that demanded by the average CIA mole, so it’s no wonder that alcoholism and alcoholics are misunderstood. Maybe the secrecy is still necessary to ensure that addicts feel free to come in out of the cold, but it breeds ignorance and contempt. Did you know that alcoholism is regarded as such a minor medical problem that it attracts only 15 percent of the research dollars that go to cancer?

Finally, after eight long years of sobriety involving thousands of AA meetings and aftercare sessions and volunteer work with other addicts, I feel an obligation to state for the record that the drinking life isn’t all I once cracked it up to be. And while I can never forget that I’m carrying a potentially fatal disease, over time I’ve found myself drifting back toward the mainstream. My several selves eventually merged into one better (I think) self. I’ve figured out who I am all over again. I’ve learned how to survive at holiday parties (leave whenever the decibel level of the drinkers exceeds that of the ordinary cat when his tail is stepped on). I’ve renewed friendships with former drinking buddies and even conducted a business meeting or two in a bar over Perrier and not felt uncomfortable. There is, I’ve learned, liberation in abstinence. Eventually I found myself neither craving nor hating alcohol but oddly neutral about it—except for moments like that day on Lemmon Avenue.

My recovery from this disease remains something of a mystery to me. I don’t like to throw around the word “miracle”—or even “mystical”—lightly. But I will say that there continues to be something magical about it. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done in my life that I still can’t completely explain, and maybe that’s why it is, and probably always will be, the most important thing I’ve ever done. It’s a heady feeling to know that you’ve seen the worst of yourself and that, even in middle age, you can change for the better from the inside out.

The other day I was thumbing through my book The View From Nowhere in the course of preparing this article. I wanted to see how the book felt now—whether, as friends often ask me, there’s anything in my paean to boozing that I still agree with. Some of it I found very funny, though it seemed only dimly familiar, as if someone else had written it. I couldn’t find much that I still identified with, except for a pithy bit of irony that my bar buddies and I used to get a pretty big hoot out of because it was so true. Clean and sober, I found it still so true—though in a completely different sense.

“Reality,” I had written, “is for people who don’t drink.”

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