Until recently, I hadn’t gone to bed sober in twenty-five years. I was a drunk when I first met my wife of twenty-three years, and I have been one ever since. I have been a pretty good drunk, as drunks go, without the usual DWIs, abusive behavior, or too dear a price paid for being too honest after my seventh or tenth drink. I am a flirt when drunk but have never been unfaithful.
I worked hard while I drank, and once wrote three novels and hundreds of nonfiction articles in four years. I believe my work was more lyrical with the help of alcohol. The problem was my love affair with the bottle finally began to threaten my continued existence on this shaky earth.
In the past year, I started drinking in the shower each morning. I was drunk by nine, drunk at noon, drunk at three, drunk at seven, and drunk at ten o’clock. I had pretty much stopped eating, although I still made dinner for my wife, our dogs, and myself, and pretended to enjoy a fine meal in a fine little house on a pretty street in a nice little town. Eventually, my body started eating itself to stay alive. Ketosis is the medical term.
Why my drinking got so out of control after so many years of my being a functioning and productive alcoholic remains a mystery to me. I just know that I had become (and still am) one sick son of a bitch just a step away from the grave because I suffer from the disease of alcoholism. I drank too much. It is as simple, and as difficult, as that.
I love drinking, and am having a hard time accepting that being sober is somehow a superior state of being. It’s also hard to accept that I have to expend even more energy to stay clean than I did when the first thing I thought about in the morning was if I had enough Scotch for the following night. Never having had hangovers, I don’t feel any better when I wake up now than I did when I drank, and I literally have to remind myself that I didn’t drink yesterday.
I do not, however, miss all those questions for which I seldom found answers: Did I black out last night? Are apologies due? Is my wife pissed? How did I get home, and where the hell is the car? Who did I call, and did I insult them? What happened to all the money I had in my wallet? How much did I put on the card? Think now, Davidson. These are questions most drunks have had to ask themselves at one time or another. After a while, I just stopped asking them.
I want to run away and drink. If I die, I die. No excuses or regrets. I want to run away and drink, but I won’t. I will try to make it in this new world I don’t know. I will try those silly meetings that many drunks believe are chaired by God. I am scared now. I am afraid of success and failure in equal measure. But I will try.
If I didn’t begin drinking early and keep drinking, I got the sweats so bad my entire head became soaked with perspiration. My heart hurt so much I was afraid a heart attack was imminent. My hands shook so much I couldn’t drink a glass of water, not that I was so inclined. But of course there was an antidote to my pain — a panacea so profoundly satisfying that virtually everything else became unimportant or nonexistent. One drink of good Scotch and everything stopped. Well, almost everything. I still had quiet cries and a sadness that I just couldn’t drown anymore. During my pre-admission interview with a counselor from Betty Ford, I asked her what I should do about needing a jolt in the morning. She said, “Take a drink and don’t try to detox yourself, or you might not make it here.” So I took a drink. It was now officially my medicine. My psychiatrist had once said that I was one of the most self-medicated persons he had ever met. At last, I understood precisely what he meant: I was the doctor with a fool for a patient.
I find most books that deal with drinking and rehab somewhat smug and self-congratulatory. I am neither confident enough nor sufficiently proud of getting through a day sober to take that attitude. Truth be told, I am confident only that I will have another drink at some point in my life. Maybe today.
I was surprised and more than a little delighted to find that at least some of the bars in the Philadelphia International Airport were open at 6:30 in the morning. Of course, I was prepared if they weren’t. I had purchased twelve miniature bottles of Johnnie Walker Red for the trip.
I was on the way to the Betty Ford Center: sun and palm trees and drunken, pill-popping celebrities. Jesus, maybe I could get a free golf lesson. I was ready.
I remember having a few doubles in Philly before I took off, perhaps another five or so aboard the plane, five or six more in Denver, a few more after we took off again, and then, upon my arrival at Palm Springs at about 12:30 in the afternoon (California time), another seven or eight. These last drinks I downed after telling — in my most apologetic tone — the very nice gentleman from the center, who was there to pick me up and deliver me to my new life, that I needed to have a couple more belts before leaving. This very nice alcoholic stood with me at the bar in the Palm Springs airport, a tender hand on my shoulder, while I put away one after the other.
After that, I don’t remember much. They told me later that I had my last five or six mini-bottles in the nurses’ office. Once word got out that some guy was drinking over in “meds,” my soon-to-be fellow patients came over as a group and carried me back to the dorm, singing, “Show him the way to the next whiskey bar. No, don’t ask why.” Several of them inquired as to whether I had any more booze and tried to impress upon me that sharing was a noble and selfless act. I didn’t have anything left, I am happy to report: the damage I could have caused!
I am also told that, before going to bed that night, I asked the woman in charge of searching my bags for anything that might contain alcohol (including shaving cream) if she would tuck me in, and would it be possible to get a good-night kiss? She smiled and said no, then left with my razor. I was on suicide watch.
The next couple of days are fuzzy. I know that they were giving me some sort of drugs, but not enough, and that I was falling down a lot and hurting myself in the process, then crying when they told me I needed a wheelchair and round-the-clock nursing. A short time later, the maggots and leeches showed up. I kept telling my pretty nurse to find me some Raid. Then I told her to forget it, because my sweet black Lab puppy was somehow between my legs (even though I was damn sure Betty Ford had said no pets and that my dog was really three thousand miles away with my wife) and Raid would be toxic to her. I kept opening her mouth and pulling out maggots, but more kept coming from inside her. They were in my eyes and mouth, too, but I didn’t care. I needed to help my innocent baby first.
In the beginning I was cranky and critical of what I perceived to be rather stupid and pointless rules at the center, such as no saying hello to anyone — especially women — from the other dorms; no newspapers, except from Saturday at five until Sunday night; no caffeine; no unauthorized books; no telephones, faxes, or televisions; no hats or sunglasses indoors; no walking alone after dark; no smoking in the boys’ room or on our private verandas; and no removing the rubber mattress covering from your bed, no matter how much you suffered from the hot, then cold, sweats.
The fact that most of these rules came to make some kind of twisted sense as I progressed through the program was a revelation to me. The counselors talked often about the need to surrender, and, although the word surrender is not in my vocabulary — I have always been suspicious of anything even remotely smacking of authority — I did experience some sort of giving-in to many requirements I either hadn’t agreed with or hadn’t understood at the beginning.
The Betty Ford Center is located in Rancho Mirage, California (a small town with more than a hundred golf courses), on a beautiful campus covering some ten acres. It consists of four dormitories — two for men and two for women — housing twenty patients each, an overpriced bookstore that sells only approved drug- and alcohol-related books, a cafeteria, a swimming pool, a nursing station, an auditorium, and assorted office spaces. Although legally it is a hospital, it feels, at best, like a hotel, at worst, like a minimum-security prison.
In spite of its reputation as an expensive retreat (twelve thousand bucks up front, which our insurance company refused to help with) for rich elites and pretty people who just need to get straight for a while (there is an element of that), Betty Ford offers a program of tough love, a caring and talented staff with the patience of Job, and a rigid schedule designed to educate patients about substance abuse. Former first lady Betty Ford is on the board of the center and a frequent visitor (she lives nearby). Though not inclined to make small talk with patients, she will, with a studied ease, stand up in front of a bunch of drunks and addicts and say, “Hi, I’m Betty Ford, and I’m an alcoholic and drug addict.” And she will go on to tell her story of too much Valium and booze, usually mixed.
A normal day at Betty Ford begins with a 6 A.M. wake-up call. You shower, make your bed, visit meds, then do your daily chores. (Each person is given weekly job assignments that get easier as you make your way through the program — I started out cleaning the laundry room and ended up as clothing monitor, which consisted of telling people not to wear their hats or shades indoors.) After breakfast, there’s a short meditation reading from two books of dated platitudes and wishes for drunks. The rest of the morning is taken up by a “meditation walk,” a thirty-minute lecture on anything from anger management to the medical consequences of alcohol abuse (all lectures last no longer than thirty minutes, since it is the contention at Betty Ford that the brains of alcoholics and addicts can absorb information only for that long), a peer review of the lecture, and then an hour of group therapy.
After lunch there is a “first step” session, in which a patient admits to his addiction and says how sorry he is for messing up. A first step can be boring, dramatic, touching, informative, or funny. For example: “I forgot my wife was with me and left the bar with another woman. I remembered my wife in the morning, though, but she wasn’t there when I went back to pick her up. I guess she left when the place closed.” After first step comes a mandatory recreation period (I never did get to it), then perhaps grief counseling or a smoking-cessation program. Before dinner you’re expected to work on your assignment, such as writing in your diary (which goes to your counselor every day), or some other expressive activity. Then there’s another visit to meds, and dinner.
After dinner (the food is quite good) you attend another lecture, another peer review of said lecture, and then an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or a Narcotics Anonymous meeting for an hour. From 9 P.M. until bed, you’re expected to read alcohol-related materials or AA’s “Big Book,” but more often than not it’s a chance for a snack, a smoke, or a stroll over to the womens’ dorms.
They dispense a minimum of drugs at Betty Ford and don’t seem at all concerned when new arrivals show up at the dorm office complaining of thousands of insects in their beds. One young man, not yet familiar with just how tough the Betty Ford program can be, boasted that by putting half an Alka Seltzer tablet in his mouth and shaking uncontrollably he could get the staff to give him morphine. He said he had done it successfully at other hospitals. Hearing of this, a counselor said: “You know what we would do? We’d throw the little shit out on the lawn and tell him he had an NA meeting in ten minutes and not to be late.” I know from my own experience that the counselor was not exaggerating. The philosophy seems to be that a little suffering goes a long way toward helping you remember what it was that brought you there in the first place.
As I sobered up, I became very concerned about whether I would still be able to write without my source of inspiration and comfort. The fact that I had become moderately successful in my chosen craft only while drunk did not escape me. The glib pronouncements of many people, both in and out of the program, that I would only be a better writer sober (“Just imagine how many new emotions you’ll have!”) was less than reassuring, since most of them couldn’t write a simple declarative sentence if their lives depended on it.
I did worry, after reading over the few letters I wrote to people while at Betty Ford, that I was losing the ability to express myself on paper, not to mention finding it exceedingly difficult to write legibly due to my uncontrollable shakes. A couple of weeks later, sans the tremors and with a more clear mind, I wrote the following for our last assignment before being released, a goodbye letter to whatever put us there, read aloud to the group:
Goodbye, Johnnie Walker
Unlike so many of my peers, I have not based my goodbye to you on the assumption that you are male or female, best friend or hated lover. In all the years of our dubious friendship, never once, even in my most drunken state, did you ever manage to pour yourself into my twelve-ounce glass, containing five half-moon ice cubes, and jump into my waiting hands. You are a fine bottle of whiskey — not a bad thing to be, by any means — but nothing more and nothing less.
It is late Friday night, and here I am having an illicit smoke in the bathroom at the Betty Ford Center and thinking about you. I am wondering if I will be able to find the words to tell you that, as much as I have enjoyed our reckless but enduring friendship, it’s time for us to say goodbye. Alas, I will miss you terribly, but there comes a time when it is not only necessary, but best, to go our separate ways.
You have been a good and loyal friend: When my soul hurt, you were there to numb me. When my heart was broken, you helped me forget. When my dear old man died on Easter Sunday, I said, Goodbye, Daddy, with you in hand. But in the end, I was just another barfly, last guy down on the left. The last guy still there after my drinking friends had babies, changed jobs, bought new homes, or found other places that had five-buck all-you-can-eat lunches. I was left in a place I didn’t like anymore, but I stayed anyway.
Then I saw your power: your ability to put me in the hospital, legs shot, liver wounded, cold sweats, a wheelchair. I saw maggots and leeches on my body, in my mouth. Even before, you made me sneaky, which, by nature, I am not. You made me think of Hemingway and putting a gun in my mouth, too. But then the dog barked and I took her for a walk. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week. But maybe, always maybe, when you are there.
I live in a small house at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in the pretty town of Ardmore, Pennsylvania. It is a prosperous and safe place. I happily share my life with my wife of more than twenty years. She is beautiful and caring, but, best of all, she loves me. We have a fine dog — a black Lab named Samantha — who was born on the Fourth of July in 1995. I rake leaves in the fall, shovel snow in the winter, plant flowers in the spring, and take care of my little garden in the summer; last year — due to noisy storms and assorted quiet animals — it yielded exactly one fat green pepper after an expenditure of $487.
I am an author — a profoundly satisfying calling — and work in a complete and attractive office on the second floor of our home. I am indeed a lucky man. And yet, with your help, I am killing myself, and I don’t know why. So we are over, you and I. I take this action with a deep and abiding respect for both your power and your charm. I will miss you.
Since I began writing this, I have slipped three times. “Slipped” is the term AA uses to describe a relapse. The Betty Ford people say you “fucked up.” I am neither proud nor ashamed that I did indeed fuck up. Nothing will give me back my yesterdays or allow me to relive them, so I won’t try. I will just go on and hope that someday, somehow, I will finally win (if staying sober really is winning).
The first time I slipped it was out of some strange curiosity about what a drink would do to me now and how it would taste. I decided to have a vodka and tonic. The biggest mistake I made (besides just having the drink) was to pour myself a drink of the same proportions — in the same fourteen-ounce glass, no lemon (it takes space away from the booze), just three small ice cubes — I’d used when I was a certifiable drunk. My preferred ratio was about 80 percent vodka to 20 percent tonic. So here I was, enjoying what I thought would be one little drink, and all of a sudden I was toasted, baked, fried.
Of course, once a drunk gets toasted, baked, and fried, all thoughts of moderation go out the window, and the only thought left is whether I really need three ice cubes in the second drink. I did, after a time, call the Betty Ford people to say that I had fucked up. I was crying and disappointed in myself and needed to hear some encouraging words. They were very nice and understanding and said that most of their lambs stray at some point, and that drinking is part of the recovery process so I shouldn’t be too hard on myself — but a little bit hard was OK.
They also suggested that I go to an AA meeting as soon as possible. Drunk but not disorderly, I went to a meeting that night and ended up being asked to leave and not come back if I’d had anything to drink. I was embarrassed and humiliated. The incident was a new one to everyone I told about it, especially to the Betty Ford people, who pointed out that membership to AA is open to all who have a desire to stop drinking. That’s it. There are no other requirements to be a member of that august organization. Basically, I’d been tossed out of a club that will accept anybody.
Since then I’ve given up on AA and decided to make do with my trusty if expensive psychiatrist, my supportive and caring wife, our two dogs (who seem to have a great deal to say about everything that happens around here), my counselors from Betty Ford, and my fellow drunks and addicts and co-conspirators from the program.
I came to truly love and depend on the assorted wackos I lived with in the dorm at Betty Ford. There was a usually profane, even vulgar sense of shared pain, caring, and camaraderie among us. We banded together against the ignorance and antagonism many people showed toward our disease. One night on Sixty Minutes, the resident curmudgeon and commentator, Andy Rooney, was discussing the Baltimore Ravens’ chosen name. He pointed out that Edgar Allan Poe, whose poem “The Raven” had inspired the name, ended up dying in Baltimore on a barroom floor, penniless (certainly a crime in Rooney’s neat white world of the Hamptons) and nothing more than a common drunk. He spit out the word drunk with a venom all too familiar to us alcoholics. So when we, the sick, have the chance to be together in a place where our flaws are not only accepted but embraced, it’s a meaningful and transforming experience.
The first day or two that I was in the wheelchair, I decided — quite admirably, I thought — that I could do everything without help. But the damn doors were just too heavy, and the chair kept tipping, and I kept falling and was always late for meals because I wouldn’t accept a helping hand. Finally, after a particularly nasty fall, I got up the courage to ask someone to help me back into the chair. It was then that I finally understood why Betty Ford urges people to ask for help: we all need it and can’t make it without it.
After I was released from Betty Ford, my psychiatrist said that I’d been “engaged” there, and now needed sustained and continuing engagement if I was going to make it as a former drinker in a drinking world. So I have tried several private counselors who are supposedly experts in dealing with people like me — that is, drunks. The one I’ve settled on is a gray-haired woman, an M.D., smart and hard — and expensive. She told me the insurance companies “fucked her over” too much in the past, so she doesn’t deal with them anymore. Another 120 bucks a week that we don’t have, and for what? To try to keep me alive, I guess. She tells me I’m worth it, but for that much money she’ll probably tell anybody anything. Nonetheless, I will see her again. My shrink said engagement, engagement, engagement. That’s what I need. So I will try engagement.
I want to try heroin. I want to try prescription drugs. I want to get high again on my favorite Scotch. I want to lose myself. But right this minute, this second really, I am sober and I like it.