While reading the recent posts from Mike Golby about the struggles with alcoholism buffeting his family, as well as being struck both by the bravery of his candor and the lucidity of his prose and wishing there were something I could do to help him in his dark times, I got to thinking about my own long and deeply intimate relationship with the booze, about the times I’ve been called an alcoholic, by myself and others over the years. This is hopelessly self-indulgent and journally. I thought I’d share, because that’s what it’s all about, right? I beg your forgiveness. Blame Mike for starting me on this train of thought.

Have you ever decided to stop drinking for a week or so, but it only lasted a couple of days?
Do you wish people would mind their own business about your drinking?
Have you ever switched from one kind of drink to another in hope that you wouldn’t get drunk?
Have you had to have an eye-opener upon awakening during the past year?
Do you envy people who can drink without getting into trouble?
Do you need a drink to get started, or to stop shaking?
Have you had problems connected with drinking during the past year?
Has your drinking caused trouble at home?
Do you ever try to get “extra” drinks at a party because you do not get enough?
Do you tell yourself you can stop drinking anytime you want to, but you don’t stop?
Do you have “blackouts”?
Have you ever felt your life would be better if you didn’t drink?

I had an uncle Ron, who wasn’t really my uncle, but was the husband of the woman who took care of me when I was an infant, while my mother worked. About him (and about most of my childhood, if truth be told) I recall little but mental snapshots, with thick white borders and faded-to-sepia colours. In my mind, he has a perpetual 5-o’clock shadow, and wears the sort of white, sleeveless t-shirt with suspenders over the top in the hot weather that is iconic of the home-from-the-office man of the first two-thirds of the last century. If my memory serves, he had ruined his stomach with rotgut whiskey, and had taken to drinking his rye with milk. He was the first and only person I’ve known who did this. He was a kind man.
I recall one evening, my parents were sitting with Ron and Nina and their linoleum-topped kitchen table, drinking, smoking. It must have been 1969, or 1970, or somewhere around there. I was about 5 years old. Everyone would have been about 10 years younger than I am now, but they seemed ancient, Easter-Island monolith old, to me. I was tear-assing around the place, as usual. Ron stopped me up on one of my laps past the table, and I jumped up on his lap. Curious about the pungent smells wafting around, what the small city of bottles on the table meant, and why everyone seemed so animated and good-natured, I pointed and asked. Some meeting of eyes must have happened over my head, because to the chuckles of the assembled, Ron poured out about a third of a water glass of rye and handed it to me.
One of the few times I've ever puked blood was after a session with Captain Morgan. Scary, scary stuff.
I took the glass from him, drank it down in about 4 swallows, then hooted in rough-throated glee at the gobsmacked faces around. I remember running around some more, less and less steadily, giggling at the gravitational anomalies that had suddenly manifested themselves, before settling myself cross-legged on the floor in front of their big console TV in the den, and slowly toppling over backward as the Flintstones flintstoned and the lights went out.
I suppose, if one was to pick the very beginning of a love affair, the instant at which your eyes meet and those mental tentacles spring out and grapple greedily and invisibly with the object of your desire, well, that’d be it.
A decade later, I was a pimply teenager in a tiny town in the deepest northern interior of British Columbia, a town where the only real option for entertainment was booze. I was 15 or 16, and I’d finished a 26’er of rye with a couple of my buddies in the trailer out back of Leon’s house. For some reason, we felt it necessary to make the trek to Brian’s house, a hundred metres or so up the alley. And over the fence. I recall with a seraphic clarity — though it was two decades ago and I was piss drunk — that endless moment of teetering atop the man-high wooden fence behind Brian’s house, then falling like a rock and landing on my head. The moment of impact was a revelation. It didn’t hurt, not a bit. I was so astonished by this fact, by the sheer wonder of it, that I sucked in the summer night air like it was rocket fuel, jumped up with mud on my face and laughed and danced and whooped like a monkey.
My illness and pain the next day was my introduction to the wages of the drink.
It was a good while after that before I had my first real night out with the boys and, guilty but filled with the wonder of boozy camaraderie at the end of it, hauled my ass into my parents’ kitchen by the watery light of a northern BC dawn.
It seems like I’ve always been a drinker. By the time I was finishing high school, and had headed off to Vancouver for university, I had carved out an identity for myself, one that I came, I see now, from the marriage of a desire to stand out from the sea of small-town boors, to excel, to exploit the Big Fucking Brain I’d been gifted with and for which I’d been so lavishly praised, and the overwhelming desire to belong, to Be A Fun Guy, which seemed easy, and to Get Chicks, which seemed utterly impossible. In that tiny little town, the possibility of finding a high-school social milieu not intimately tied to the consumption of alcohol and the concomitant possibility of finding yourself a young lady with which to frolic pastorally and learn the ways of love, was, if not precisely zero, so miniscule as to be invisible. Which is to say: I didn’t get laid much, in those early days.
It turned out that my ‘Uncle Ron Experience’ as a child had been prophetic, and that I was capable, through sheer animal robustness if not sheer force of will, of swilling oceanic quantities of liquor, and never ever devolving into headbutting, gutter-puking beast mode. At worst, go-home-and-sleep-mode, but always: under my own power.
I was painfully shy as a teenager, until I found the drink. After the fencetop revelation, I consciously worked the booze and its magical inhibition-loosening properties, and zeroed in on people in a way I never had before. I was hungry, jesus I was ravenous for stories, for the meat of life. In a complete turnaround from my reticence to ever ask any questions of anyone, I would quiz people, girls mostly, about the most intimate details of their lives, and they would, without fail, tell me all. By the time I was in my early twenties, I’d heard so many personal tales of rape and molestation, of broken homes and familial violence, of harrowing pain and loss, and yes, of the horrors of alcoholism, that I sometimes felt like my eyes must glow in the dark. Times I felt guilty were few, because most of the people who spilled their stories to me eventually became intimate friends, and told me, at the gravel pit or the graveyard, how relieved they’d been to unload their burdens.
There’s probably some sort of unpleasant pop-psychology term for the way I behaved back then, but it filled the hollow at the center of my soul with stories, and it seemed to help many people who later became friends or lovers to get over childhood traumas of their own. Booze was the tool I used to grant me the unselfconsciousness to get into people’s heads, and let them into mine. I loved the stuff.
The drunk-on-life’s-joy, clever-though-smashed, writerly-but-boisterous persona worked well for me. I was popular, well liked, and socially successful. I had a group of close friends who knew me intimately, and trusted me implicitly, as I did them. I was reading voraciously all the while, and some of my favorites recommended to me a controlled madness that appealed, irresistably.
These last couple of years of teenagerhood and first few years of university saw the first few times it was suggested that I was an alcoholic, though. I would, like any boozy university student, go on binges. Mine, being as closely married to the bottle as I was, were perhaps a little longer or more intense than most others. It was still a competition to me – I was King Boozer, while also determined to get the best marks in the hardest field, to be the best lover, the wildest madman, and write the best damn stories too. I wasn’t entirely successful, but it was enough. I did some astonishingly silly things while drunk: ledge-walking on the 17th floor, driving while blind, the usual array of bad judgement calls that reformed boozers trot out to show why they eventually stopped.
Now, see this is the point in most people’s Tales of Booze where it all goes to shit, and they begin to outline their inexorable descent into alco-hell. I’m sorry to disappoint, but this didn’t happen to me.
I thought long and hard about those first few accusations of alcoholism, coming as they did from friends, often after my more spectacular examples of bad judgement. Mostly female friends, for whatever reason. But I just couldn’t see it, to be honest. (‘The alcoholic can never see it’, came the standard rejoinders…) My drinking clearly wasn’t affecting my studies. (‘You just think it has no effect’, sang the chorus) I did do some stupid stuff sometimes, but life without some danger was not worth it, I reckoned, all Hemingwayesque. (‘You’re rationalizing your dangerous lapses in judgement’, tra-la-la) I sometimes went for weeks without a drink, and didn’t miss it at all. I loved being drunk, not shambolically, mindlessly drunk but playfully, lightheartedly drunk. But if I were asked to choose, and I was, a few times, I would always say in an instant that I preferred to be sober. A life of constant inebriation would be hellish – a life of constant sobriety less enjoyable, perhaps, but no worse for it.
So I continued on in my boozy ways, graduating university and hitting the road. I’ve been wandering around the planet for more than a decade now, sometimes drinking, sometimes not. There’ve been a few times when I wondered if my drinking was unhealthy, or destructive, and stopped, effortlessly, for a while. Two decades after I started my career as an afficionado of the drink, three decades after my first taste of the stuff, I am happy, healthy, wiser, and if not especially wealthy, quite comfortable. Of the pure, heart-squeezing joys that I’ve felt in my life, those shivering moments of connection to other souls or to the world itself, many have happened when I was sober. Of the most memorable, ecstatic and monumentally fun moments so far, many have happened while inebriated.
I weave the drunken threads and the sober ones together, and the fabric is all the richer for having both. My life would be infinitely poorer for being drunk all the time, but would be very much impoverished too were I never to taste the sweet madness that the liquor brings.
I beg those of you who have made it down this far not to take what I say as in any way devaluing the stories from Mike and Mark and others about how much the liquor and the craving for it have damaged their lives. I mean no disrespect – just the opposite, in fact. I understand and respect their decisions to attempt to banish it from their lives : I’ve been close enough to the deceptive janus-face of it myself enough times to understand that as much as I feel it’s been a good thing in my life, it can be the Destroyer as well. Hell, it killed my father.
I tell this fragment of the story in part because, as many mature and beautifully-written tales about the horrors of the drink as I see, I see very few paeans to it written by anyone other than drunken frat boys.

Me|dia, Reminiscences, Uncrappy
, ,

Join the conversation! 14 Comments

  1. I see a lot of myself now, the way you were in your story. It always feels a little more dangerous, doesn’t it, when alcohol grips a parent (or, in my father’s case, a 25-year-long cocktail consisting of whiskey, heroin, and various other mixers)?
    I’ve often wondered, sitting in the middle of a group of friends who insist I’m the most harmless alcoholic they’ve ever met, if I’m really an alcoholic – although never quite as eloquently as you did here.
    I like to drink. I probably like it too much. I’ve been on spectacular binges, found myself three hundred dollars poorer after a night at the bar without remembering how I spent the money. I’ve had a habit of drinking a shot for every year I’ve been alive on my birthday for a few years now, but that’ll end soon. After the debauchery that 24 shots inflicted this past year, I just don’t know if I can make 25.
    Like you, drinking tends to bring me out of my shell. There are bartenders in my hometown who will feed me booze for free just to see what happens.
    Babble, babble. I don’t know. It’s weird that you would post this tonight… I was just thinking it all over, not an hour ago, after my sixth shot of Jagermeister at a gig. I tend to convince myself that drinks like these don’t count, though. I’m a rock star, right? It’s working, right?. When fans hoot and holler and buy me shots, it’s all in the name of furthering my career, right?
    And then I think, “That’s such a cop-out.”
    But I haven’t hurt anyone, most importantly me. I guess the best I can do is re-read your story and agree with you. Because obviously, you’re far more articulate than I am when it comes to intelligently rationalizing a fondness for the sauce.
    So, thanks. And amen.

  2. I have work and home and a place between. It is that place between, where I go alone to read and write and drink and smoke and shun company, that keeps my head on. I recently took ten days off, went home early every day, drank more tea than usual, but eventually I missed the peace of it. Nothing is as quiet and isolated as sitting right under a speaker in a noisy bar and not listening to the music and not hearing anyone who might try to speak to you.

  3. Thanks Shannon, and thanks for the spell-check, E-P.

  4. ”Booze was the tool I used to grant me the unselfconsciousness to get into people’s heads, and let them into mine.”
    I’ve never thought of it as a tool. It’s always been a sort of minor lubricant for me, maybe less minor when I was young and a musician working parties and bars and doomed weddings…
    What popped out for me, besides the grace of your writing this at all, was the “analogy,” if that is the word, between the tool of booze and the tool of the envelope of writing to each other, from our positions of relative nakedness and safety, on the net. Different can openers, similar effects?

  5. Yeah, Tom. Yes. In glacially slow motion, yes.

  6. Tom Waitts has a line …”There ain’t no devil, that’s just god when he’s drunk.”

  7. But if I were asked to choose, and I was, a few times, I would always say in an instant that I preferred to be sober.
    Me too. But, like you, I also enjoy drinking. Drinking has never affected my job, never became the burden it had become on so many people I know.
    I understand alcoholism as a physiological condition. I have it in me. I also understand it as a mental condition. That is where the control I have over it lies.
    It used to be that when I drank, I drank. I didn’t fuck around. Drinking was serious business and had to be done right. There was a period when I spent the time between drinks with a deep longing to be back in the buzz. These days, and I mean within the last five years or so, I don’t see it the like that.
    At some point in time I realized the same thing you have, I like being sober better. Always? No. Most of the time, though, I’d rather be a bit more lucid, a bit more in control of things.
    The people I know that don’t have this kind of control over the bottle seem to also share the same feeling. They like sobriety better. They’re happier when they’re sober. It’s just that they’re not happy being happy. I don’t have that propensity for self-abuse. I am way too self-involved to treat myself like that.

  8. Thanks, Chris, this is another great, lyrical piece bound to cause a stir. I too never saw booze as a problem. It was my perennial solution to most things and, hell, it worked for a long time. I do not, cannot, and will not pretend to regret the great, “heart-squeezing” days of drunken revelry, reflection, friendship, adventure, and sheer all-out exuberant aliveness the stuff gave me.
    The truth is that there is nothing wrong with alcohol and, in most people, it does what it’s designed to do – give a buzz (yeah, your stories put you in a category of your own but then nobody’s going to dispute the fact that you deserve one). For me, eyeballkid hits the nail right on the head with his seemingly contradictory statement, “It’s just that they’re not happy being happy. I don’t have that propensity for self-abuse. I am way too self-involved to treat myself like that.”
    Some people, myself included, are naturally of a disposition where they seem to be “not happy being happy”. Whether it’s physiological, psychological, or extra-terrestrial, I don’t know or care. This naturally gloomy outlook fucked up my drinking (and the carousing, the women, the things I swore I’d never do but did, the all-night discussions and parties, the “sweet madness” as you so aptly call it) and took me to death’s door. Why? Because I preferred being drunk. In fact, it went beyond that. I preferred oblivion.
    Finding sobriety, I discovered that the good folks of the pharmaceutical industry had developed drugs for my kind of naturally grey-scale view of life. They call it dysthymia, by the way, a chronic, low-level depression brought on by being born (or something). However, I’ve found over the years that I can’t stand the bouncy bonhomie of most of my fellow human beings. Worse, I can’t stand it in me. It stops me writing because, hey, who wants to get into that shit? It’s too heavy, hard work and, besides, who cares?
    To the best of my knowledge and gut feel, I believe that what I write about and think about, if somewhat gray in tone and color, is the way things are. And I just enjoy writing about the stuff I do. A happy disposition kind of blots it all out. Call it a white-out. So I chucked the anti-depressants and, to this day, remain cheerfully miserable. And somewhat skeptical about the motives of the pharmaceutical people.
    Where I differ from eyeballkid is in his belief that this desire to see the world naked is self abuse. I don’t believe it is or that I’m a masochistic deviant. I’m just me. Drinking too much made me self-involved, to an unhealthy degree. Taking chemicals to alleviate my natural tendency to depression made me detach (another form of oblivion). Either way, I was nether here nor there.
    Cheerfully glum is just about right. It’s my level. Sadly, it precludes having a good, strong drink. So have one for me – two if you can manage it :). And yes, I’d have to agree with Tom’s insight – to a degree. For me, the effect is far more rewarding this time round even if the can opener is a damned side more unwieldy.

  9. Mike, you are so cool. I mean… really.

  10. So I’m thinking I’ll find some Whitman here and what do I find but Golby (commenting at length) and others like me who have seriously and less-than-seriously overindulged on ethanol and whatnot. I never would have quit if it wasn’t killing me, but unlike some folks quite close to me, I chose life at a time when it was still a choice.
    I would still rather have a free bottle in front of me than a pre-frontal lobotomy, but at this point I’m sure the effects would be quite the same.

  11. Mike Golby said Finding sobriety, I discovered that the good folks of the pharmaceutical industry had developed drugs for my kind of naturally grey-scale view of life. They call it dysthymia, by the way, a chronic, low-level depression brought on by being born (or something).
    Been off those drugs myself for just over a year now…glad to know I’m not the only one who views the world through dysthymically blue colored glasses. Alcohol and recreational drugs got me through until I was 27, when my son was born. Then it was an experiment in cold turkey that ended with a call to a suicide hotline 3 years later, newborn daughter in my arms. I didn’t tell anyone how bad it was, I just needed to be stopped before I hurt them. Anyway, survival via prescription was only recovery with a new crutch in place of the old and only the acceptance of my perpetual gloominess and the occasional backslide toward the gaping maw of depression has allowed me to ride this shit out.
    I could drink more … hell, it’s easier than this … but now it’s just not feasible. I’ve got small people that depend on me and no back-up system. Oh well…maybe I’ll get to die as a lonely alcoholic like my dad once the kids are on their own. Time will tell and it is, as they say, in the genes.

  12. Thank you all for sharing your stories and thoughts with me.
    This blogging stuff can be pretty great, ya know?

  13. Thanks to all for tackling this so openly and directly. May I speak up to head off a point that someone might infer from the last couple of posts (though I don’t assume Mike or sharon o meant this)?
    I see a lot of depressed people, really dpressed people, and if taking anti-depressants gives them back the lives they reach for but can’t grasp, then God bless them.
    I reject a morality of ingestion that atttributes higher virtue to a life without anti-depressants; you may want not to take them, and that’s fine, but let’s not [further] stigmatize people for whom anti-depressants open a door to life with colors and laughter and freedom-from-gloom. Please.

  14. I’m just another great fan of your blog.

Comments are closed.