I do not recall July 14, 2010, which was three-thousand five hundred and one days ago today. (Five hundred weeks! That number just jumped out at me.) What is more, I did not post or share anything on social media that day, so I do not even have a “Mark is feeling :-)” smileyness 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. No blue thumbs-up for any of my friends from me that day, either. (In fact, there is little that I typed before July 15, 2010, that I much enjoy any longer 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. Up until and through that day, I drank, just as I had done 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 this version of an existence was to end for me.
If I had known, I might not be here right now, able to write this. 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, and there I was, wrapped in those ribbons.
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 seventy-two hours or so after July 14, I am aware that on July 13 I used what money that remained in my wallet to purchase what would turn out to be my last bottles of alcohol. I lived without the thought of a hint that this would be the last Time I would darken the door of one of the three liquor stores in my village (thus far). It was all about to stop.
I do not drive, and the walk four or five blocks to the nearest liquor store and back was so difficult for me that an unknown woman in an SUV saw my baby steps along the sidewalk and she stopped to give me a ride.
It was a hot July day, and this unknown helper was concerned that she was about to drive past someone whose pace was so slow 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.
She greeted me with, “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 told 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 still walk with a cane but 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. I do not know what I might have done if she had accepted my offer of money I did not have. Offer her a drink?
Back in my house, I waited. 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 …” as I said), 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.
By July 15, I had polished off my alcohol supply. I did not intend to spend all of July 16 dry, but the paycheck did not arrive. That was a nervous day. That dry span from July 15 (the date of my last drink, three thousand five hundred 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 five hundred more of those Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays instead of the nine-plus years of the life that has been given to me.
Raymond Carver, in his poem “Gravy,” recounts 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 the rate 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. Sudden cessation of drinking 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 in a tense wait 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, every day.
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. It is a beautiful yesterday for me.
* * * *
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 five hundred and one days ago.
I was taught how to ask for help and how to accept help. There was no self-help book that I could have read that might have made me aware that I did not know how to do either of those things and that this lack would result in my end. There are meetings one can attend in which an individual like me who did not know how to live in this world without a substance gets to learn how.
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 his 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 sixteen or seventeen years ago, I attempted to contact my future self, the 2020 edition of me who has been sober almost a decade. 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 a wreck already, even with a good job at that time, but … I knew little else. I felt that my life was wrong, somehow, that I was in the wrong life, but I could not pinpoint the role drinking played in this disaster as it unfolded, because drinking was the only thing that offered relief inside the disaster. Step Zero represents a terrible cycle: my consumption of alcohol may be related to my life’s troubles, but alcohol is the one thing that relieves the emotions related to those troubles. Some spend decades in that cycle.
I did not come into recovery until July 2010. I do not wish those subsequent several years, the pain of the years between that first call for help that I placed and the day it all ended, on anyone, even people I detest. Heh. Now 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 aware deep down that in my condition I had no future, not welcome in friends’ or family members’ homes, so without the ability to look 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.” Four actions made available by taking twelve steps.
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 when it had been going well.
Three thousand five hundred days sober today and every minute—yes, every minute—is gravy. There have been painful moments and moments of pain that I regret that I have given others. There have been moments of joy and beauty and there still are. Alcohol left my life, I got to know myself, came to love myself, continue to learn to love others. Love is kind of the point to everything, but for some reason I was not able to perceive this when I was in active alcoholism.
“[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 in recovery live.
Three thousand five hundred 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 five hundred and one.
For anyone who has read this far, thank you for your indulgence. Happy Thursday.
* * * *
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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