It was back in September, and the Korean doctor was running the ultrasound wand back and forth across my lubed-up abdomen, shaking his head and looking stern. “Patty Ribber” he repeated, three or four times, pointing at the monitor, on which I saw nothing but the usual indecipherable patterns of amorphous grey blobs. I nodded like I knew what he was saying, which is my usual strategy. After nearly 15 years since I came to Korea, I’m still not that great at parsing things out when I’m in an unfamiliar situation.
The doc sat back down behind his desk while his disconcertingly attractive nurse wiped the lube off my stomach, and started talking at my wife, in the arrogant tones that Korean doctors favour. I was catching one word in three, as usual, but when she grabbed a piece of paper from a stack on the shelf beside her and handed it to me at his behest, and I saw the picture, “patty ribber” suddenly resolved in my brain to “fatty liver” and my blood ran cold.
While reading the recentposts 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.
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.