Every alcoholic in recovery has a collection of anecdotes that can be simultaneously heartbreaking, outrageous, and hilarious. Perhaps they are hilarious only to fellow alcoholics; perhaps they can not even be listened to by outsiders. For an outsider, most alcoholic anecdotes may as well conclude with the same dark punchline, an interchangeable rubber-stamped ending: “And then I got away with it again.” Or, “I didn’t die that time, either.” And then comes the next hair-raising—or eyebrow-raising—tale.
Every alcoholic in recovery is living a story with a weird ending, if they remain in recovery. It is that two-word pair there, “in recovery,” that provides the surprise, the weirdness, a period of life as surprising to behold as some of the antics, the many bizarre actions and activities and inactions and inactivities that were surprising for outsiders to watch unfold in the previous life.
There are two standard anecdotes about the drinking life, one usually about outrageous behavior, and another about the pit at the end of the road. Almost everyone who drinks has a few of the first sort of story. Not everyone who drinks abnormally makes it as far down the wrong road (emotionally, physically, spiritually) as a pit; not everyone who reaches the pit makes it across or out. Not everyone who makes it across remains in the new life, because “new” can be scary, even when it is “good.”
“I thought things were going great and I was happy to be sober and proud to be in recovery, but I kept having these urges. I was in a good mood and I talked about the urges and people helped me understand. And now it’s two weeks later and I don’t remember these two weeks.” That is the second kind of story; I heard it from someone today. The speaker had “picked up,” which is recovery-speak for “drank.” He “went out” is another phrase, euphemistic in the way that decent people have of giving euphemisms to difficult things.
Myself, I have lived the sometimes hair-raising life approaching the pit. I lived in the pit. I live in the life on the other side. I do not intend to visit the road back, but every so often, I need to look over there and re-learn some things.
In her 2013 book, The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing quotes Andrew Turnbull’s biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald:
He describes Fitzgerald in his room at the Grove Park Inn making endless lists “of cavalry officers, athletes, cities, popular tunes. Later, he realized that he had been witnessing the disintegration of his own personality and likened the sensation to that of a man standing at twilight on a deserted range with an empty rifle in his hands and the targets down.” The images are drawn from Fitzgerald’s own account in “The Crack-up,” but somehow have more impact here. (Laing, 84)
That is the second kind of story. The pit.
So is this: Towards the end of my drinking, but really, nowhere near the end, five years before the end so more than a decade ago, I remember extemporizing for several hours straight about NASCAR to a friend. Now, I am in fact a racing fan so I have a casual fan’s knowledge base about the sport, but I remember feeling like I had turned into an obsessed young boy who, has discovered the backside of his baseball cards and wants to read off every single statistic OUT LOUD to everyone. I was in my head yet watching from outside it. And it came from nowhere. I had not been thinking actively about NASCAR before the moment. It just spilled out of me. It was possibly a symptom of delirium tremens, because I had not had a drink, and we were not drinking, and it was not looking like we were going to be starting any time soon; I recall feeling safe in settled facts and unsafe in the open field of conversation. Thus the subject matter was chosen at random, by my unsettled mind, and it could have been any other topic, from specific areas in literature to me simply asking how my friend’s family was doing, but I cleverly picked one that not one of my friends shared an enthusiasm for. There could be no conversation. It was a monologue.
For my friend, it must have felt like what Turnbull described above about watching his friend Fitzgerald and his lists as I rattled off lists of winners and possible routes to that season’s championship for certain race teams. For hours. (“Cavalry officers, athletes, cities.“) I also remember that I detected an intervention from this friend and others in my future, and I figured that if I spoke continuously, monologically, no intervention could happen until I paused and took a breath. Instead, the spectacle of me being what I had become probably hastened one. (It did not work, which is another tale.)
(The only thing I have in common with F. Scott Fitzgerald is we both have lived on this planet. He was a writer; I type. His lists might very well have been beautiful-sounding, even if empty.)
My brain was firing blanks, a lot of them in rapid succession, as confidently as my brain had ever fired off substantive thoughts in graduate school classes or in front of classrooms or while defending arguments, but they were blanks anyway. A line from a Robert Lowell poem, “Eye and Tooth,” kept haunting me: “I am tired. Everyone’s tired of my turmoil.” No one was, not really. Everyone has their own turmoil, after all. Mine was mine as long as it did not become theirs.
Laing’s book mixes travel narrative, expository journalism, and literary biography in pursuit of a personal answer to a large question: “I wanted to know what made a person drink and what it did to them. More specifically, I wanted to know why writers drink, and what effect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature itself.”
She picks six male, American, Twentieth-century, writers—Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver—as her biographical subjects, even though she herself is young, British, female. Being different from her, but not, these figures give her the sufficient distance to look more closely at the subject; she alludes to being raised in a house “under the rule of alcohol.” She adds, “There are some things that one can’t address at home,” and decides to travel to America.
What I wanted was to discover how each of these men—and along the way, some of the many others who have suffered from the disease—experienced and thought about their addiction. If anything, it was an expression of my faith in literature, and its power to map the more difficult regions of human experience and knowledge. (Laing, 12)
(The ‘Echo Spring’ of her title comes from Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” in which Brick, to get away from Big Daddy, excuses himself. Big Daddy asks, “Where you goin’?” and Brick replies, memorably, “I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring.” “Echo Spring” is both his brand of bourbon and the nickname for the liquor cabinet holding it.)
The road to the pit, the story before my second kind of story, is full of crazy anecdotes, and it is that story, the outrageous tale, the prurient narrative, that Laing says that she wants avoid, and she successfully does; the hair-raising bits are kept to a minimum, and, when seen, sketched very deftly, as on page 82: “Once, in the 1920s, he stripped to his underclothes in the audience of a play.” The “he” was Fitzgerald at his hijinks-loving “best.” Fitzgerald’s fellow famous Baltimoran appears in the next sentence, at his most pruriently judgmental. “According to Mencken, [Fitzgerald] shocked a Baltimore dinner party ‘by arising at the dinner table and taking down his pantaloons, exposing his gospel pipe.'”
Laing finds and expresses the empathy that can be found in Fitzgerald’s apparent fondness for drunkenly dropping trou, though, and writes about the mask that baldly revealing oneself can prove to be: “Undressing is an act of concealment sometimes. You can yank down your pants and show off your gospel pipe and still be a man in mortal terror of revealing who you are.” An alcoholic will choose to shock you and then shock you in order to prevent a embarrassing conversation about his drinking.
NASCAR, random comprehensive lists, shocking people in public. When active, I was not going to ask or demand you to care more about me and my life than I cared about me and my life.
It is that mortal terror that animates much addiction and certainly contributed to the art her six writers created; to her credit, Laing’s empathy is clear-eyed and clear-hearted, and she does not look for redemption where there is none. That second kind of story is too heart-breaking, after all, and each of her six writers lived it. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Berryman did not survive their pits.
That life around the corner from the old life, the one that is still just an arm’s length away, living that life is a twist ending. Better than and weirder than in any book.
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This is an expansion and contraction of a column published not long ago, “The Story with a Twist.”
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For my brother it was “you will be so captivated by me — my beauty, my wisdom, my talent or my cruelty that you won’t notice I’m a drunk and have every intention of staying one.” I wonder, though, does this young author consider the alcoholism of these writers as their attempt at self-medicating their actual disease? I believe that with this particular catalogue that is the case. Good post.
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Thank you, Martha.
Yes, Laing neither views their drinking as an aspect of their brilliance nor an extra-special afterschool special example of the burdens of brilliance (both examples exist in the literature concerning artists and alcoholism). She’s pretty clear-eyed about it: both the alcoholism and the literary brilliance are handled as facts. The three who, in my estimation, garner the most empathy (she adores all six of them; the travel memoir of her book is her journey to places important to each, even scary places) from her are Berryman and Cheever and Carver. Berryman was in A.A., even chaired meetings (I chaired mine this morning), but even his recovery fell prey to his grandiosity: he attempted a novel called “Recovery,” which she writes reads like being “locked up in the ward of a treatment center,” and not in a good way, I take it. (He spent time in Hazelden.) In the period in which he was composing it, his journals show evidence he was thinking of his suicide; the novel was part of what he left behind, and ends abruptly, as he did. His ambitions for “Recovery” were immense: in a letter to Saul Bellow, he wrote that it would be full of “encyclopedic data, almost as heavy as Melville’s about whaling.” He wanted “Recovery” to be his (and everyone else’s) recovery. (I relate to this: My first attempt at writing my fourth step [“fearless inventory”] in recovery was close to an attempt at a screenplay. Charlie Brennan, whose obit I wrote and published on this web site, set me straight: “You’re a writer. You aren’t used to writing something without someone handing you a $20. Here’s your life. What’s it worth to ya?” And he asked me for a yellow pad and drew a grid on it and labeled it for me. And left. Scolded me, made me laugh, and held my hand in a quick moment.)
Carver lived the last decade of his life sober and did not lose some of the alcoholic/addict’s tendency (need) to find one’s faults outside oneself. She quotes from his letters complaining to Gordon Lish, his editor, of the deep cuts Lish had made, cuts that in fact gave the world the terse Raymond Carver that emerged in “What We Talk About … .” Carver called moments like those the “willies.” In his interview with The Paris Review, he said he was prouder of not drinking than anything else in his life. He somehow always returned to a sober perspective; before “What We Talk About” was published, before the acclaim and sales, he was thanking Lish for his help.
I don’t believe in God, Carver wrote, “but I have to believe in miracles and the possibility of resurrection. No question about that. Every day that I wake up, I’m glad to wake up.” I relate to that, too. I don’t know why I am in recovery but I no longer question it nor do I insist that my experience of it is definitive for others. I don’t know why that is, either, because I can be pretty insufferable and insistent about a lot of things. (You’ve read my pieces here more closely than most, so, well, yeah.) And then something, not of my making, sends the thought across my mind: “You’re alive. Probably shouldn’t be. There’s worse, and you know how to create it. Don’t.”
She finds the dysfunctional family in each of her subjects; her respect and affection for A.A. does not bring her to the Adult Children 12-step world, which I think is too bad. I am active in both fellowships because both continue to give me me.
I was thinking more along the line of Kaye Redfield-Jamison’s study of the relationship between depression/suicidal tendencies and writers in Touched with Fire. I think she’s onto something with some of these guys, anyway, in that booze was self-medication and, possibly, so was writing. My brother was an artist and mentally ill and art was him when “sane” and drinking was him when fucked up. At the end, he tried to bring the two together (ultimate madness?). He also refused to join a 12 step program because he identified too much which his “specialness.” I didn’t do it, either (the Adult Children 12 step program) because, frankly, I was fed up with the whole subject by the time I learned my mom was a drunk and, of course, my brother. ‘You’ve had as much of my life as you’re getting’ kind of feeling, but I read everything I could find about what it meant to be the adult child of an alcoholic. That “You’re alive, probably shouldn’t be” is in me, too, but not from self-destructive behavior, but from a LOT of near death experiences from accidents and illness. Somewhat creepy and it’s always made me feel somehow indebted to that thing I don’t believe in, fate.
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