Q. My name is Marie. In our marriage, my husband had one stretch of three years sober, three periods of two years sober and there were six times when he was off it a year. Plus he always gave it up for Lent. In between, he was always drunk.
I stayed with him for the sake of our children. Now our youngest is off to college, and divorce is not far from my thoughts. I love Fred, and would be happy to live with him for the rest of my life, but not this way.
In your newspaper column, you often say the subject is hope. But Fred says with his lousy job, having a drink with some interesting friends is one of his few pleasures in life. To him, you're just some newspaper know-it-all, not a doctor, not a psychologist, not even a licensed alcohol and drug counselor -- no degrees in the subject. Is he right? He says there's nobody worse than a reformed drunk who wants to kill everyone else's fun. What qualifies you to offer any realistic hope that alcoholism and addiction can be overcome?
A. The first page of the first book I ever published began like this:
There was a fountain in the center of the room of a bar I used to make when I first came to the Village. I remember a brass merman perpetually sounded a sea trumpet there, forever calling surrounding mermaids to a wilder dance. No cold water flowed from that fountain -- something better: The great basin offered all the bottled wines of the world. It all seemed an image of the way I wanted to live -- generous, naked, overabundant, and noisy.
That was how my drinking career began. What follows is how it ended, a picture of myself walking around London, someone left back home, crying.
Wearing a black raincoat, I have a pint of gin in each pocket. At every little red telephone kiosk, I stop and take a bottle out. I hope I don't drink it, I say to myself, and drink it. I hope I don't buy another, I say to myself, and buy two.
My (then) wife may have thought I'd slammed out to buy a newspaper, or have a drink and get over our most recent quarrel. I don't know today where I got the money, how I got the ticket, why I was carrying a passport -- I flew the Atlantic in a blackout and woke fully dressed on the floor of a little apartment we kept in New York.
I did not ask how I got there, what had happened, was anyone worried about me. I looked around. I was alone. I was an alcoholic. I knew what to do. I got on the phone and ordered a case of gin.
There were some pills in the medicine cabinet -- left behind by who knows who. I washed them down with the first martini, drinking my way into two hospitals in the next 10 days.
That was over 20 years ago. I went to a 28-day rehab in Pennsylvania -- then carrying (for historic reasons) the slightly comic name, Chit Chat, now the very eminent Caron Foundation. On New Year's Eve six months later, overconfidence (hubris, the Greeks called it) led to my one relapse. It lasted two weeks -- perhaps the worst of my life. I haven't had a drink since.
The way liquor worked for me, it speeded me on the way I was already going. If I were gloomy or sad, it made me feel worse (not bad enough, of course, to stop). If I felt good, it lifted me higher. But ultimately, in some existentialist sense, I don't know why I began drinking, I don't know why I stopped. I don't know why so many of the people I used to drink and dope with -- people smarter than me, more talented and many more useful to the world -- I don't know why they chose not to stop, why they died. I am not sure questions like these have an answer.
What is important is that I did stop.
A few years ago, I trained as a volunteer facilitator at the famous rehab run by Scripps Memorial Hospital in San Diego. I did that work at the McDonald Center for Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Treatment for two years. One of my jobs was to give an orientation lecture to new patients. Occasionally, an M.D., new to the place, and wishing to get familiar with all aspects of treatment, would speak first. He'd give a very knowledgeable talk, then ask for questions.
Trembling, hungover, suffering withdrawal, sick in mind, body and soul, a patient would get up.
"Doc, you ever been addicted yourself?"
No, the doctor would say. But I've trained for 14 years in the field, and written extensively on the effect of intoxication on the cells of the brain, published 52 papers... etcetera.
Eyes would glaze over.
"Medical knowledge is important to recovery, but addicts don't care how much you know -- they want to know how much you care. There's a vast literature on how addicts will trust another recovered addict when they will not trust a doctor, no matter how experienced."
So says Larry Bouchard, a friend of mine -- a clinician with the mental health providers in the county where I live. "When addicts hit bottom, and denial no longer works," says Larry, "when they realize they DO have a problem, and better seek treatment, they very often have the feeling no one else can understand what they've been through. Doctors and trained counselors are very important in treatment, but nobody ever got sober listening to lectures on brain chemistry. What people seek at first point of contact is reassurance -- that they are not alone, that whoever is talking is non-judgmental, has been through addiction too, and come out the other side OK. Most important, that the speaker has reached recovery him/herself... that the promise being made, the hope being offered, that addiction can be overcome, is first-hand, personal and real."
Larry goes on: "In working with addicts for over 20 years I've come to think recovery is not an exact science. It's 80 percent art, 10 percent science and the rest, guts and hope."
I believe that's true in my own recovery and for most people I've met in AA. I know the pleasures and joys of intoxication, I know the despair to which they can lead. In over 20 years since I left rehab, I've gone to more meetings than I can count, talked to and listened to thousands of drunks and dopers -- first-hand experience in seeing what works, what does not. I'm sober today.
One of my favorite writers, Elmore Leonard, once described a conversation, one guy asking another how he went through $10 million so fast. The man says he spent maybe $5 million on horses, women and booze, "and the rest I wasted." It was my favorite joke, I understood that joke, at moments of utmost gin and crystal clarity, I knew it was no joke
Like my caller, a reader too may ask who am I to offer hope that alcoholism and addiction can be overcome. That's where this book is unique. Sobriety is in the title; sobriety is the way I've run my life for over 20 years. My qualification is I've been through it myself. This is my second life. I represent no bullshit hope.
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Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.