I do not recall July 14, 2010, which was three-thousand and one days ago today. What is more, I left no social media footprint that day, so I do not even have any words or sentences or “Mark is feeling :-)” emoticon that I may have typed that morning on Facebook that could spark a memory.
Of course I looked. I looked just now with a grimace of anticipation on my face in the worry-slash-hope that I would find something I had written that day to someone about anything at all. Nope. (In fact, I do not enjoy looking at anything I typed before July 15, 2010, for reasons that I hope will become clear.) There is no journal entry, no blog post.
I do not recall much of anything from that day, July 14, 2010, because there was nothing to notice about my life that day. There is nothing to remember. I drank. Just like every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday—(it is likely that you know the order of the days of the week, but on days like this one, it is worth it for me to type them out)—Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for five-plus years at that point.
I did not know that it was the day before the day it was going to end.
If I had known, I might not be typing this right now. I might have made poor decisions about issues in my life that day. A lifetime spent with a low tolerance for pain coupled with poor impulse control equals sequences, unspooled ribbons, of bad decisions.
What little I remember about June/July 2010 as a time period remains in my mind in mostly soundless fragments of snapshots. Based on what I know about the subsequent 72 hours or so after July 14, I know that on July 13 I used what money that remained in my wallet to buy what was going to turn out to be my last bottles. There was not an inkling of a hint that I would not once again darken the door of one of the three liquor stores in my village in two or three (two) days.
I do not drive, and I had so much difficulty walking the four or five blocks to the nearest liquor store and back that an unknown woman in an SUV saw how slowly I was manufacturing my baby steps along the sidewalk that she stopped to give me a ride home.
It was a hot July day, and this Good Samaritan was concerned that she was about to drive past someone walking so slowly that heatstroke was the only obvious explanation. I wasn’t about to collapse, though. She also did not know what I had in my backpack (inside were my last two handles—large, plastic bottles with indentations on either side to grip, hence the term “handle,” I guess—of a clear liquid that makes everything it touches unclear) or which store I had just left.
“You’re awful young to be walking that slow.”
“I hurt my back a few years ago,” I chipperly fibbed as I hoisted myself up and into her SUV, a lie I had been telling people for a few years to cover my fear that something was going wrong with my body. (I have spinal muscular atrophy, a form of muscular dystrophy, something I was born with and would have affected my life whether or not I drank alcohol. This was not learned until 2012. I walk with a cane and with greater confidence than that day in 2010.) Two blocks later, she dropped me off at my house. I offered her money that I did not have for her time, which she graciously did not accept.
In that house, I waited. You see, the final paycheck from my then-most recent ex-employer was due at the end of the week, July 16. I had been fired two weeks before. I now had enough of my liquid supplies until then. At that time in my life, for years at this point (“Monday, Tuesday, Wed …”), this was the only type of calm moment I had in my existence, the calm that comes with the thought, “I have enough,” and it is not food that one has enough of.
But the check did not arrive until July 17, and the absence of my favorite clear liquid from when it ran out on July 15 (the date of my last drink, three thousand days ago today) until July 17, a forced, sudden thirty or so hours of sobriety, almost killed me. I awoke in hospital on July 17 after a seizure brought on by alcohol withdrawal. If the check had arrived on July 16, I would not be writing this. I would have gotten drunk that day, and now there would be three thousand more of those Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays instead of the eight-plus years of the life that has been given to me.
Raymond Carver, in his poem “Gravy,” remembers a detail from the end of his drinking life: “[H]e was told he had six months to live/at the rate he was going.” When one drinks heavily for a time—and the fact is that no one knows how long that time should be or how much one ought to drink in that time for the “rate he was going” or I was going to qualify as too much or too long—one ought not quit abruptly without help. Go to a doctor. Go to the ER. Doing it without help almost ended my life, but I did not know that my first hours of sobriety were my first hours of a new life. I was only waiting for a paycheck to arrive.
In my specific case, “how much?” was a bottle of hard, clear alcohol a day, and “how long” was five years, one day at a time.
Regardless, I am here, so how it happened is the best thing that could have happened for me, because it is the way in which it happened. I can not improve it.
* * * *
Alcoholism is a disease, a psychological and physical one, in which a craving for alcohol supplants all emotions, becomes its own emotion, and that emotion of craving directs all actions. All addictions seem to share this simple, self-centered rule and to draw vitality from this circular emotional logic. The solution is simple but difficult: for me—in particular for me; I write this for no one but me, and what works for me may not work for others, but it seems to—for me it involved rejoining a life already in progress, doing for others, doing things with others, and, worst of all, taking notice that I am not the center of the universe and that all of you are not my creations or figments of my imagination. The trick was to get me to want this, to notice that I did not know this or that I had forgotten all this. I did not know what I did not know three thousand and one days ago.
Every day is another day in a life I still consider “new.” I do what I can to keep it that way. Friends and fellow travelers help.
* * * *
No other word will do. For that’s what it was.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.”—Raymond Carver, “Gravy”
The plainspoken poem “Gravy” was not published until after Raymond Carver’s death in August 1988. It appeared in The New Yorker that month, and it is on his tombstone in Ocean View Cemetery in Port Angeles, Washington, along with one other poem that is given the title, “Late Fragment.” Either Carver himself or his wife Tess Gallagher—who was also his literary executor—treated his tombstone as a final publication, which, at its plainest, every tombstone indeed is.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.—Raymond Carver, “Late Fragment”
Carver stopped drinking on June 2, 1977, just after his thirty-ninth birthday. Told that he most likely would not live past the age of forty if he continued to drink as he was drinking, he became one of the few lucky alcoholics to outlive his disease, and he died sober. “Eleven years/ago he was told he had six months to live/at the rate he was going.”
Many years ago, maybe eleven, maybe sixteen, I attempted to contact my future self, the 2018 edition of me who has several years of sobriety. I called the A.A. hotline and a kind person listened to me for a bit and then he told me he would get me in the morning and bring me to a meeting. Of course I did not go. Perhaps it was a cry for help. Perhaps it was research. I was drunk when I called, of course, so the fact that he was not rude to me and did not hang up or tell me to call when I got sober (all things friends had said and done on the phone over the years) meant that recovery with the aid of similar people to me made sense the day I left the hospital many years later.
In recovery, Step One is to admit “we were powerless over (whichever substance or thing or action)—that our lives had become unmanageable.” When I called that hotline, I was on Step Zero: I knew my life was becoming a wreck already, even with a good job at that time, but … I knew nothing else. I knew that my life was wrong, somehow, but I could not pinpoint the role drinking played in the unfolding disaster, because drinking was the only thing that offered relief inside the disaster. I did not come into recovery until July 2010. I do not wish those subsequent several years, the pain of the years between the first call and the day it all ended, on anyone, even people I detest. Heh. That is a thought that would never have crossed my mind or entered my heart once upon a time, that I would not wish ill, even on people I dislike.
The day before it all ended for me was spent in a cloud of unknowing, and not the good one. I do not know what June 1, 1977, was like for Raymond Carver, but July 14, 2010, my personal day before it ended, was as sad and scary a spot—unemployed, unemployable in my condition and secretly knowing deep down that in my condition I had no future, not welcome in friends’ or family members’ homes, so incapable of looking at myself in a mirror that I covered them—as any I have seen in horror movies. So sad and scary that the words in Carver’s poem, “Gravy,” written while he was dying of cancer, well, they read like a how-to manual for a good life even though his was coming to its early end: “Alive, sober, working, loving.” I understand Carver’s desire to place the poem on his tombstone as his final publication.
It is an embrace of life instead of a petulant cry of resentment at a life brought to a sudden halt just as it was going well.
Three thousand days sober today and every minute—yes, every minute—is gravy. “[H]e changed his ways/somehow.” That word “somehow” is the linchpin to Carver’s poem. This is why it is is the first word on its line even though it ends a sentence. For every alcoholic or addict in recovery, that line break is its own poem, essay, play, 3-D film in a multiplex. That line break is where we live.
Three thousand days of somehow have been given to me so far, which I do not profess to understand. I do not need to. If I wake tomorrow, I hope it is day three thousand and one.
For anyone who has read this far, thank you for your indulgence. Happy October 1.
* * * *
This is a revision of a piece I intend to continue to visit and re-visit and add to. I hope I continue to need to.
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