I Drink, Therefore You Am Not
By Alan Bisbort

There comes a time in all serious drinking lives when a point of no return is crossed. This point is not just the line in the sand, the Rubicon of alcoholism—whatever that is—but the very moment when it dawns on a drinker that there's a good possibility he or she can not turn back even if the desire were there to do so. The ground zero for this point is "bottoming out," that seminal, sometimes apocraphyl moment (that is, it takes on mythical proportions if, by some miracle, it leads to a cessation of imbibing) when something so deranged, debauched and destructive occurs as a result of one's drinking that it shames the drinker into seeking help, being imprisoned or hospitalized.

Seeking help is not always an option for those who've crossed the point of no return. They "bottom out"... and keep going. Even if they could get that impossible thing, a "cure," they would not be back to square one, that time before they started drinking. They would not have a clean slate, so to speak, a new beginning.

For starters, they are biologically damaged, and the remainder of their lives will—even free of alcohol—be a series of dealings with slowly debilitating and ultimately horrific medical conditions that were brought into being by dim drinking binges of long ago. How unfair, one will think at the time, how unfair to have stopped the destructive habit and yet to be waylaid by its medical fallout. What was the point, one will wonder as livers weaken, possibly kidneys, bladders and prostates, too. Once the first gland pops a gasket, they all peter out in succession, like dominoes.

Thus, the point of no return is something of a Faustian bargain drinkers (and smokers, for that matter) strike with themselves. They intuitively know what's waiting, and they agree to simply go on with their behavior. They feel the fate at hand—premature death and lots of heavy drinking and/or smoking in the interim—is better than two fates in the bush of the future.

What made me think of this is a recent quandary into which my wife has fallen. She has befriended a drunk. But, in her naïve attempt to save this person, she has been pulled into the quicksand with them. When I say "drunk," I don't mean this pejoratively. A drunk is a drunk is a drunk, and even those who go to AA meetings call themselves this. Some even wear the title, a drunk, as a badge of honor. Basil Wolverton, the warped cartoonist of the 1950s—that quaint era of John Cheever and John O'Hara and office parties with mistletoe and expressions like "three sheets in the wind", "shnockered" and "smashed"—even based his most popular characters on the archetypal hopeless but lovable drunk.

But my wife's friend, a woman she met at the gym (of all places), is a practicing drunk who clearly does not want to stop drinking. She exercises with that same delusionary focus that weight-watching drunks turn to "lite" beer (which they drink a case at a time). She has, in my estimation, crossed the point of no return. The AA phase of her drinking is over. Her head of steam sent her past the life preserver AA tossed near her overturned sailboat. She has drifted steadily onward, toward the Niagara Falls of premature death.

The trouble is that I know this in my bones, and I knew it when my wife first befriended this woman. I have known drunks the way Langston Hughes has known rivers. I have known drunks up close and personal, all my life, and I have stared in the mirror and pronounced myself one once upon a time, and I have lost friends and a brother and nearly a father to alcohol. I know drunks. And, boy oh boy, do I know the stench of the point of no return.

I know the glint in the eye, the feigned self-awareness, the neurotic insistence that the troubles are OUT THERE, not INSIDE THE BOTTLE. I can smell it the way one can smell the pukey fruit odor of a three-day bender in the skin and bones and clothes of a confirmed party animal. This awareness is beyond language; it's visceral, gut level, unmistakable, and indisputable.

But my wife can't bring herself to give up hope for her friend. She does not know drunks the way I know drunks. And so, we are subject to urgent phone calls, often as many as ten a night and on more occasions than I care to count, from this distraught woman. Her cover seems to be that she's perpetually on the verge of ending a long-term relationship and that her mate is doing some kind of head job on her, pushing her to leave by being alternately affectionate and hostile. If I know my drinking scenarios right, her perception is one hundred percent false. The mate is desperate for her to stay. Nothing makes the mate feel more alive than to have a suicidal drunk under their control.

Case in point happened the other night. The phone rings at 1 a.m. Since the connection is unplugged in the bedroom, we hear it tinkling distantly downstairs. I ignore it, but my wife wants to get it. It, she says, might be an emergency. And she's right, in a way. To someone like her new friend, life is one long emergency. So, I dutifully hook the connection in the wall and my wife gets on the horn.

Surprise. It's her friend, who is hysterical. Her mate said something mean to her, or some other such nonsense. My wife tries to calm her down, stays on the line for half an hour while her friend weeps and babbles uncontrollably. I can hear it coming to me, almost like laughter, finding little aural folds in the pillow and blanket that I am holding over my head to drown it out, finding a way to enter my ear and ruin my sleep and disturb my household. Even the dog is upset and cowers at the foot of the bed.

Finally, my wife says calmly, "I'm going to hang up now." And she does, handing me the phone, which I replace on the cradle and unlatch the cord. For the next hour, the phone rings, distantly on the downstairs extension, every ten minutes. It is nearly 2 in the morning. Welcome to the world of the drunk, whose clock always registers 2 in the morning.

The next time my wife sees her sober, presumably hungover friend, she's upbraided for dismissing the friend's feelings on the phone. I was there. I saw and heard everything. There wasn't a scintilla of dismissiveness on my wife's part. If this she-drunk had wanted dismissiveness, she should have spoken to me. And, of course, not a word of apology is offered for waking us up, for disturbing our home, for the sheer rudeness and egomania of blindly assuming a momentary bout of anxiety at 2 a.m. is on par with a member of our family dying or being taken to the hospital or...

Goddamn, do I know drunks and their pathetic games.


No subject on its face is more boring than drinking, don't you think? And no people are more boring than alcoholics. Years ago, when I was groping my way through my own drinking endgame, I wrote a long poem called "Drunk," a copy of which, on a whim, I sent to Allen Ginsberg. To my surprise, Ginsberg responded; he, even more surprisingly, took the time to read, and offer thoughts on, what I'd written, among which were, "I don't think the poem's great but it sure is interesting and inventive, spotty, eccentric, sometimes quite honest, but the end is disappointing and somewhat repetitious (like alcoholism)."

I had no way of knowing that Ginsberg's longtime companion Peter Orlovsky had had his own battle with the bottle. Like most drunks (and probably most poets), I—in a fit of near desperation—had merely tossed out a lifeline to someone I admired. And though I haven't the courage to reread that old poem, I vividly recall the emotions that inspired it, just as I remember the scenarios that unfolded before and after its writing. "Repetitious" is a kinder, gentler word for what it really was: boring, hackneyed.

Frederick Exley

I had this same sensation as I recently read Last Notes from Home, the final volume in the autobiographical trilogy by Frederick Exley, a writer I once greatly admired. As I read it, I was aghast at how bad it was. Not the writing—no, Exley was one of the most talented writers of his generation—but the spirit that infused it: broken down, self-pitying, repetitious, and not funny in the least. How could I have so admired such a person? There was something so pathetic in his feigned jollity, not to mention contrived plot, that almost brought me to tears—for all the wrong reasons. Exley, I discovered in Misfit, Jonathan Yardley's thin memoir about him, shared my wife's friend's propensity for 2 a.m. phone calls. And no apologies.


To too many "recovered" drunks, or self-proclaimed "heavy drinkers" (God forbid they use the more accurate term), their drinking days are World War II, Woodstock and the World Series all rolled into one, and they can be made nostalgic at the drop of a beer coaster recounting various moments of degeneracy with alcohol. The look on their faces, when they've completed a particularly rich and juicy reminiscence—one with lots of blood, a hapless scuffle with a policeman or an emergency room intervention—is the same as that on the face of someone who has just recalled a great running catch in the bottom of the ninth inning in Little League or a time in junior high when they caught a touchdown pass just before diving out of the end zone.

Words like "little" and "junior" seem appropriate here. These people have ceased growing. They are paralyzed, frozen in time with their memories. Jimmy Buffett has them, unwittingly, pegged with his celebratory "Margaritaville" and the frozen concoction that helps them hang on. That jaunty song has such an undercurrent of existential dread it's amazing that people use it as theme music at parties. It should be playing in the day room of a detox unit. Then the real meaning would come to them, a meaning even King Parrothead Buffett never knew was there.

But who said you had to grow, anyway? I have, in fact, always recoiled from people who say things like "I've really grown in this relationship" or "You have helped me grow." There's something equally telling in that, isn't there? That is, if you've really grown, why are you calling attention to yourself?

But, on the other hand, who said you have to sit and listen to the broken tape loop of those who are in the thrall of the bottle or some other hopeless repetitious destructive behavior? Or those who refuse to grow up once you've either done just that or simply moved on in your life's story? The truth is a drunk's life is a book with about three chapters in it, and a lot of blank pages in the back. And, of course, no fucking index. You couldn't find the major players with a compass and a flashlight. It's all a blur. Everyone's a major player at closing time.

Still—and here's the part where I probably get myself into trouble—the cure is often as repetitious as the disease. How many AA meetings does one really need to attend before realizing the same stories are being told, over and over and over, the same styrofoam cups of vending machine coffee are being swigged, and the same bodies being devastated by the same endless inhalation of cigarette poisons (and heedless exhalation on those in the general vicinity). AA is terrific as an interventionist tool, especially for those who would not be inclined to ever seek out "professional help." But it seems, or did to me, pervaded with the same self-centered-ness, and repetitiousness, as the disease. They may be "sober," but it is still always 2 in the morning.

So, what's my point?

Just this. All wannabe drunks or "recovered" alcoholics might try something brand new, just as an experiment, in their 12-step regimen. Try thinking about something besides yourself and/or your higher power as you grope through your endgames. If you are merely confused—and it is a confusing new world, but a brave one, when you no longer have alcohol to rely on—try avoiding other drunks completely, even recovering ones. Ultimately, the most effective means I found (and everyone is different, of course) for curbing the urge to imbibe was exhausting sessions at the gym, meditation and a complete absence of alcohol in my house and alcoholics in my face. In short, I had to change my life completely.

If you are desperate and/or suicidal, there are places filled with professionals where you can seek safe haven. Seek it. But please do not pretend, presume or assume that anyone else you know, or profess to love, is required to give a shit about your need for self-immolation. This is not intended to be cruel; I, frankly, wish someone had told this to me when I was ruining the lives of friends and neighbors in my haste to reach the bottom. If someone had told this to Frederick Exley—instead of treating him like some kind of misunderstood genius—we might now have more books as great as A Fan's Notes, the first in his trilogy, the most honest, the least tainted by alcohol.

Further: Rather than thinking about the damaged "self," think on the kids whose lives you've ruined with your drinking, or the parents who've been put through hell because of you, or the neighbors who've had to listen to your drunken rages or your inexcusably blasting—at-3 a.m. —stereo or the stranger who has to pick up all the cans and broken bottle shards you've left in your wake in the neighborhood, hallway or on the sidewalk, or the pets you've abused, tied up in backyards in freezing weather while you drink yourself into a self-pitying stupor inside, the idiot antics of a cartoon world devised by TV providing your cranial massage?

This is the part that always perplexed me about AA. Only one step of the 12-step program is allotted to making amends to those whose lives, besides your own, you've ruined. This, in my opinion, lets the drunk off too easily, just as my well-meaning wife is not doing this friend any favors by not hanging the phone up in her face. My 12-step program would have the first four steps devoted to some form of penance, some form of making amends, and my next eight steps would be toward moving forward, always forward—showing, not telling, of your intent to change.

And the 13th Step would be to get involved in something non-passive, something productive, like political activism, volunteerism or community service. Not that it was the yellow brick road before this date, but after the infamous events of Sept. 11, 2001, the road just got longer and tougher for all of the inhabitants of this planet, including all members of the animal and plant kingdoms.

Everywhere you look now there is suffering, neglect, hatred, misunderstanding, most of it caused by other human beings. And, likewise, it can be stopped or at least alleviated by other human beings. Sober human beings. Even if it's nothing but walking around your neighborhood and picking up litter or driving an elderly neighbor to the store, it is something. And it is never repetitious.

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