Twenty-six years ago, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror in my little one-bedroom apartment on 42nd Street. For the first time in a week, I had black rings under my eyes again. My sinuses felt stuffed. I had a thirst that no water could quench. For once I didn’t feel shame. I thought, well, that was yesterday. It doesn’t have to be today.
I had been in school that spring. Before the semester began, I moved in with my aging grandmother, allegedly to “help” her around the house. I did, to some extent. I kept the house clean. I mowed the grass. I retrieved things she wanted or needed from the basement. I did the laundry.
But I was really there for the free rent. I didn’t have a job and couldn’t get or keep one. I just wasn’t employable. Getting in with Grandma kept me from bouncing off the bottom.
Every day, I came home in the afternoon after school and tend to afternoon chores before laying down for a restless nap. In the evenings, I went for a bike ride or to the UMKC gym, where I ran, swam, and lifted weights. When I rode my bike, I’d come home, change clothes, and go to the gym for a steam.
Daily, I drank a half pint of vodka I kept in my backpack before I left the university parking lot. I dropped into Harling’s for a few draws before heading to Davey’s for a couple more. I arrived home about 10 p.m. Grandma and I watched the news and I drank a few more beers—as far as she knew, the only alcohol I ever drank. She would head to bed at 10:30, after which I downed three or four more beers. I kept a couple of bottles of Presidente brandy behind my computer in a little room off the dining room. I’d tiptoe into the room and pour myself a tumbler full of brandy and pass out around 11 p.m.
I was always intoxicated when I came to the next morning. I went about my day, keeping up with school, reading the material I was supposed to, writing the essays I needed to. About the time I started sobering up, I was already on the bike or at the gym, starting it all over again. My liver bulged from beneath my rib cage. My kidneys hurt all the time.
Finally, after months of telling my aunt and uncle that Grandma was growing unable to move around and becoming too much for me to handle, I forced their hand and moved into my own apartment. Miraculously, I got a scholarship for the summer semester, which gave me enough to pay tuition and have some in the bank for rent, utilities, and drink.
The first few days away from Grandma’s, I drank in the afternoon to celebrate my freedom. I went to school every day but ceased going to the gym. Instead, I rode my bike every day. There wasn’t a reason for me to go to the bars anymore, as I could drink all I wanted without having to prove to anyone I wasn’t an alcoholic. I watched television on my 12-inch black-and-white until I saw double. About that time, I downed another half pint and headed to bed.
Without Grandma around, I was completely alone. I had no friends, nothing to distract me from my deteriorating lot.
I didn’t last a week by myself. The vacancy of my life caught up to me. I had no where to go, nothing to do. The night before I quit drinking, I was feeling sorrier for myself than ever. I walked in circles around the living room, drawing off a bottle of brandy and drinking warm beers until I couldn’t walk anymore. I was maudlin. I cried uncontrollably. The end of the evening escapes my recollection.
The next day after school and still hungover, I rode my bike the 10 miles from my apartment to the AA hall on 80th Terrace on July 1. I remember my first meeting. There was a woman, several white guys, and a black man. They all smoked, as did I.
We sat in the dim basement of the hall. They all seemed happy to see me. Over the course of the meeting, they related their stories. They told me of how they lived their lives before they stopped drinking. The woman, I remember, described the process of getting sober. The black guy told of the ways in which his life had changed after coming to AA. He looked at me closely. Not everyone gets it, he said. Many come to their first AA meeting and go out and drink again. I was frightened.
They told me to come to an AA meeting every day, and I did. It was a rough week. In my mind, I had given up drinking for the rest of my life. But on the way out to the hall from my apartment, I drove by the liquor stores where I had spent so much of my money. As I passed each one, it felt like a big magnet in my forehead or, sometimes, my chest threatened to pull me into the store’s orbit. I couldn’t stop thinking of drinking down a twelve-pack and a pint.
One night, on the way home, the urge was especially strong. I stopped at the Berbiglia on 43rd Street and Main and bought a six-pack of Anchor Steam and a pint of Mellow Springs vodka. I took it home, set it on a chair in my living room, and looked at it a long time. I was anxious and nervous. I paced. I couldn’t stop looking at that alcohol. I finally sat down the serious business of drinking. I drank fast, having most of it down in about an hour or so. I wanted to feel that release again. I looked forward to the euphoria I might feel after having been dry for a week.
It wasn’t a disaster. Instead of getting mawkish, I just drank. It was very business-like, almost professional, like an anesthetist pushing drugs into an IV. Beer after beer went down. The alcohol tasted sterile. I was determined to get drunk and forget that I ever tried to stop. It wound up just like hundreds, if not thousands of nights I’d lived through since I was eleven. I thought about the wrecked cars, broken relationships, the nights lost to oblivion, the times I came to on a park bench or in the yard of some stranger’s house, the botched jobs–and all the wine, liquor, and beer I stole from employers–the loneliness. I sat back and said to myself, I’m just a drunk.
But that hopelessness didn’t stick. I woke up early after a wakeful, inebriated night, a pit in my stomach. I went to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror and saw the black circles under my eyes that marked all my years of drinking.
I went back to the AA hall that night and told them that I got drunk. People just nodded their heads. Been there before, one guy said, don’t want to be there again. One guy, Ed, asked me what I drank. I told him a six-pack and a pint. He laughed uproariously. “My God, son, if you’re going to drink again, you could at least drink like a man. Six-pack and a pint, pshaw.” I haven’t had a drink since then.
While I have never had the conscious urge to drink, I still dream about it. Most of the time, the plot of the stories hinges on my being away from people I know. There is the opportunity to drink and I think no one will know. I won’t have to tell anyone. That’s as far as it goes. Sometimes, however, I have real drunk dreams. I start drinking and really get into it. I feel drunk. These dreams are so real that I wake and put my hand to my mouth. I have to smell my breath to make sure I just didn’t tie one on.
Twenty-seven years: A couple of careers, four degrees (two B.A.s, an M.A., and a Ph.D.), two kids, and a wife. Several long journeys that changed my life for good. A house in the city. Two dogs and a cat. A writing life.
I don’t know that I wanted any of these things, except the writing life. Since I was a kid, I only wanted to be a writer and didn’t have the courage to become one until after I sobered up.
Now, I have days as crummy as I ever had as a drunk. But as shitty as things can get sometimes, I think to myself, well, at least I don’t have to drink today. I can live with that.