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 alcoholismwhatever
that isbut 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.
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 willeven free of alcoholbe
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
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 handpremature death and lots of
heavy drinking and/or smoking in the interimis 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 1950sthat
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
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
Goddamn, do I know drunks and their pathetic games.
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), Iin
a fit of near desperationhad 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,
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
writingno, Exley was one of the most talented writers
of his generationbut 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 tearsfor 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.
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 reminiscenceone with lots of blood,
a hapless scuffle with a policeman or an emergency room
interventionis 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.
Stilland here's the part where I probably get myself
into troublethe 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 confusedand
it is a confusing new world, but a brave one, when you
no longer have alcohol to rely ontry 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 Exleyinstead of treating
him like some kind of misunderstood geniuswe might
now have more books as great as A Fan's Notes,
the first in his trilogy, the most honest, the least tainted
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 blastingat-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
forwardshowing, 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.
years after its publication, Fred Exley's A Fan's Notes
still smells like genius, but how to account for its unassuming
source? We ask Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Jonathan
By Bobby Maddex