Some kids want to grow up to be doctors or lawyers or senators or captains of industry. I wanted to grow up to be an alcoholic. Seriously. In the back of my head, it was my semi-dream. I wasn’t fully cognizant of it, but it was an ambition.
As a young person, I associated alcoholism with adulthood and romance. My father was an alcoholic; this I knew — I knew it even when I was very young. I only ever saw him being drunk one time; I was five, and it was the only time I ever saw him being cranky, and he fell asleep at 9pm, from an excess of drink. After he fell asleep, snoring loudly, I wandered aimlessly around his bachelor apartment (by that point, the drinking had ended his marriage with my mom, and so they were living in separate places).
While I was wandering around the apartment, I found a door, a hidden door, a door that I had never seen before — it was like something out of Alice in Wonderland. The door led to a hallway — a hallway leading to a fire escape — and against the wall in the hallway were a bunch of open boxes; box after box after box.
In the boxes were empty bottles of whiskey; ten… twenty… forty. They were all perfectly empty and clean. Only around the edges, the necks of the bottles, was a trace residue of whiskey, now calcified and jewel-like.
I left the magical hallway, and went back inside.
Years later, after my dad had quit drinking, I asked him about this. He said: “There was no hallway going to a fire escape in that apartment.”
“So did I just dream it all?” I said.
“Maybe so,” he said.
Maybe so. Maybe I did. Who knows?
Part of the problem was that my dad believed in nostalgia. He believed in nostalgia and Anglophilia. And these two things, I firmly believe — even though I’m probably wrong — are where alcoholism comes from. Because alcoholism comes from a tug towards an imaginary past; a past that has never existed.
As a kid under my dad’s influence, I watched Cary Grant movies, Alfred Hitchcock movies, plus a shitload of PBS — which featured such classics as Upstairs, Downstairs, Jeeves and Wooster, and Brideshead Revisited. These films and TV shows were all about posh English people who who drank all the time and never suffered any consequences.
In retrospect, what I wanted was not so much to be an alcoholic; it was more that I wanted a butler. People in films drank all day and all night and nothing bad ever happened to them! Why? Because they were rich people, and had servants to clean up the mess. You can drink all day and start getting weird at 3pm and start saying silly stuff, as long as your servant — someone dressed in a suit who is named something like “Jeeves” or “Wentworth” or “Billingsworth” — is there to clean up the mess. As long as you don’t have to have a job. As long as you don’t have any other responsibilities.
I have always dreamed of a life lived without responsibility, and that is why I became an alcoholic, eventually. My dad aided me in this, buying me my first flask when I turned eighteen, but it wasn’t really his fault. He didn’t really think that I’d turn out to be an actual alcoholic like him.
You can just insert a period of missed years in here; an interregnum, if you will, if that’s not too fancy a word. You can insert an ellipsis here, is what I’m trying to say. Here are some of my memories of that time, and it went on for years:
…I yelled at my girlfriend; I yelled at someone else; I drove drunk in a convertible, and picked up a stray dog; I drove drunk in a convertible and could have killed someone, but I didn’t — I didn’t; I peed on my friend’s door; I locked myself out of my apartment, jumped over a fence to get back in, and broke my leg; I smashed a window; I smashed a chair; I laughed; I saw a landscape — but it didn’t look like a landscape, it looked like a nightmare; I cried; I had sex; I broke my ankle; I felt the endless lure of endless repetition…
…And I almost died. Have you ever woken up in the morning, seeing some random house in front of you, with a random tree, and then you think this to yourself: This is it. I’m going to die. This is the last house — and the last tree — that I will ever see. …Have you? Because I woke up many times, and that was what I thought.
But I made it; I didn’t die.
You want to hear about car crashes and thrown bottles and cursing and bad sex, probably — but what I want to talk about is the fact that I stopped.
I eventually stopped being an alcoholic. It’s hard work, being an alcoholic. Eventually, liquor doesn’t work on you anymore, and you have to drink fantastic amounts — far more than normal people would have to drink — in order to become even minorly drunk. It’s hard work; it’s like having a job, man. You have to be willing to drink until you puke. You have to be willing to drink until you spit up blood. You have to want to have delirium tremens — which, for me, involved seeing spiders when I closed my eyes to go to sleep at night. I tried to discuss this with my friend one time, the visions that I was having. “What were they like?” he said. “They were very… spidery,” I said.
In the end, avoiding reality becomes almost as much work as dealing with reality. It’s all hard work, no matter what you do.
And so, it’s true. I dabbled with being an alcoholic for years, and then I finally had to drop it. I just couldn’t handle drinking anymore. Here’s the thing about being an alcoholic — alcoholics all think that they’re special. Of course, normal people all think that they’re special too; that’s just a facet of human nature. But alcoholics all think that they’re special in a way that normal people aren’t, and that even other alcoholics aren’t. They all think that they’re unique; beautiful little butterflies.
But they’re not. Examined closely enough, each snowflake may be different — but that’s not really the way that life works. In life, we all have to see the long view, and that’s exactly what alcoholics are incapable of doing. If you step back, each unique snowflake is just another identical white dot, falling into an identical fucking field of snow.
Alcoholics think that they have a special knowledge; something that will save them. But in the end, that road leads to death. I’m not trying to be preachy or above-it-all; I’m no better. I almost died from my drinking, and it wasn’t my moral superiority that saved me. I was saved because I was a wuss; because I lack commitment — because I wasn’t ready to die quite that much.
I don’t look down on anyone for being an alcoholic. There are plenty of good, even urgent reasons to be one. Life is very hard. Or, to quote The Princess Bride — “Life is pain, princess. Anyone who says different is selling something.” Yes. That’s true. Having blinders on to the world is a good idea, and I don’t blame anyone who wants to live that way. After all, we’ll all die in the end anyway. Being drunk all the time is sad, yes, but it also contains moments of intense joy and happiness; and I refuse to lie about that.
In the end, though, I just couldn’t handle it. But even to this day, I still see them when I walk into a bar, lingering in the corners — alcoholics; holders of my silent and secret destiny. They raise their drinks and share a rueful smile with the world; a smile that says so much more than words can say.