ife has a certain quality or property quite inimical to fiction. It is shapeless, it does not point to and gather round anything, it does not cohere. Artistically, it’s dead. Life’s dead.
Only artistically that is. In down-to-earth realist and material terms, of course, life is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and has everything to be said for it. But then life ends, while art persists for at least a little while longer.—Martin Amis, Inside Story, page xix
The annual end of June and start of July is a calendrical territory laden for me with reflective moods and a bit of wonder at how I am still here at all. Twelve years ago at this time, one chapter in my life concluded and the next one opened, except I was unaware of this on July 15, 2010.
I was in the shapelessness of my life, of life itself, and whatever narrative powers I may have summoned to give it shape had long been dormant. I drank on July 15 and I did not drink on July 16. In my memory of this moment, this may as well be represented with the sound of a door slammed shut—or slammed open, to be more correct, as life, my life, has opened with possibilities ever since—but in the experience of the moment, there was no difference between the two days.
My last drinks were of the quietly desperate sort: Because I was unemployed and had no money to my name, I had no full bottles of alcohol in the room I rented back then. I also did not have any food. The evening of July 15 was spent in a dig through a garbage bag of “empties” in the hope that a shot glass or two might be filled with the drips and drops that empties sometimes yield. Like water from a sponge that isn’t a sponge at all.
There was neither a drip nor a drop. The self that I had been was a completist in his alcohol consumption. They were empty. I spent July 16 in a stare down with my cellphone: my final paycheck was due to arrive at my now-former employer’s store that day. The final paycheck represented nothing more than a couple more bottles to drain and add to the future empties.
The check arrived a day late, or the phone call was a placed to me a day late. That right there is the sound of a door slammed open. I was unconscious to it, though, both literally and metaphorically: thirty hours without alcohol after half-a-decade of daily consumption (and years of regular drinking before that) led to a grand mal seizure, a hospitalization, and my first attendance in what we call meetings.
A door slammed open. It did not feel like a world of possibilities had suddenly appeared at first. To face life full-on after years of avoiding life, dodging the details, afraid of its incoherence, was perhaps the most difficult challenge for me … and life continues to present challenges and happy conclusions and sad endings, as life does.
And it is up to me to assign coherence to it, find the narrative, create the storyline. Like the above: it is a narrative of one moment in time as it linked to the next moment in time. In the experience, it was unshaped, incoherent, if only because I was the incoherent portion of it. My friends had an unfolding narrative about me back then, I am certain; life handed me what appears to be the Hollywood ending of sobriety.
So this date, July 15, carries a weight for me in my private calendar that is similar to my birthday.
Life has been somewhat incoherent around me once again this past year, and this fact started to make the anniversary seem pointless to me. I did not want to write about it. I haven’t been the incoherent part of it, though, and that is thanks to everything that I have experienced for the last twelve years. Any one thing that I have experienced over the past year, both happy or difficult, is something that the July 14, 2010, edition of me would have responded to with a search through his empties. I no longer live there.
The last year in sum: four different addresses (I am now at a permanent address, or as permanent as can be), some deaths, a friendship that looked solid was ended by the half that isn’t me, and this ended several projects for which I volunteered my time and skills. (The projects were in Hollywood, so that is another “Hollywood ending,” I suppose. The sound of a door slammed shut, but with an echo effect and the clash of cymbals, just like in a movie.)
I’ve learned enough in recovery to look at the incoherence and try to make sense of it rather than avoid it. For instance, have I abandoned friendships abruptly like this one was ended? I have, even in sobriety, which is something I am sad to confess. My newly former friend gave a reason to cut me off, but not one word of it made sense to me, because none of it was a part of me. The work to fit the incoherence of this ending into the coherent narrative of my life is work that I have experienced before, and it is work that I have probably forced others to do for themselves in the past.
Everything in my life these last twelve years has been worthwhile, and I would not erase even a split-second of it. Even the sad or infuriating parts. That’s the coherence that a sober life offers to someone like me, a life that the July 14, 2010, version of me could not imagine.
* * * *
The origins of alcoholism as a condition in society have been the subject of study for centuries: many people have answers, many others have questions, and it seems like too often the answers and the questions rarely line up. The origins of alcoholism in an individual seem to differ from one alcoholic to the next; thus, my story may resonate with a person who reads this, and it may not for another.
I think I was born an alcoholic in the sense that from childhood I seemed to always want to feel different from how I felt: sad, I wanted to not be sad; happy, I wanted to be happier. There was always an “-ier” or “-er” that I felt was needed in my inner life. I do not know if someone had said something like the above to me when I was a teenager if I would have understood it or if I would have quietly rejected it. If someone had told me when I was a teenager that I have the power to manage my emotions, because all human beings have that power and it is a skill that can be cultivated, I probably would have rejected that thought.
When alcohol came into my life after my freshman year in college (later in life than some stories I hear), I had in my hands the power to feel different from how I felt, and in an instant. I said to my first-ever drinking companion, “This is going to be a problem,” which was less an expression of prescience than my attempt at a one-liner (the friend knew this was my first time intoxicated). It got a laugh.
Alcohol gave me the power to escape in plain view of everyone, which is a devious magic trick. The trick was executed so well for so long that some friends only learned that I had a problem with alcohol when I got sober.
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. I still don’t, but that is no longer something I deny.
* * * *
Thank you for your indulgence.
Mark Aldrich is a journalist, award-winning humor columnist, and writer/performer with the Magnificent Glass Pelican radio comedy improv group, now in its thirty-second season:
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