I’m in 2nd grade: Mrs. Hogan, my teacher, tells us about The Saturday Evening Post article and Alcoholics Anonymous. Fifty years later, who else remembers this? Mother, no stranger to the rapine path of “the drink,” sits me down to watch “Lost Weekend” the way other families watch “The Wizard of Oz.”
I’m nine or ten, and we are entertaining Father’s client. Mother is out front, teaching us to drink responsibly like worldly European children. I’m wearing a suit. I sip some wine. It’s terrible tasting yet, seductive.
I’m a good boy; when the adults retire to the living room for cigarettes and coffee, I clear the table. With two hands I carefully carry the goblets to the kitchen and drain each before setting it down. Years later at Mass, I recognize the move when a priest finishes up the Communion chalice. I’m on the couch buzzed laughing at stories I don’t understand when Mother leads me off to bed.
A week later—while a puzzled babysitter watches—I drink two bottles of Welch’s Grape Juice and am surprised it does nothing for me. I know wine is made with grapes. There isn’t room enough in the refrigerator for the gallon jugs of cider we buy in the fall, which get stored in the garage. I learn about the sweet spot between cider turning to alcohol and turning to vinegar.
I’m 15: Tomorrow is my 16th birthday and the guys and I are drinking pitchers of Schlitz at the College Inn. When I rode past Cagney’s as a kid, the open door leading to darkness, the strange smells, sounds, and smoke, were scary. A booth in a bar turns out to be a womb; a stool at the bar, a saddle.
I’m 16 and painting houses for the summer. We order paint, and, while it is mixing, duck into Uwe’s for nickel beers in juice glasses. I ride to school in Bugs crammed with bodies and marijuana smoke. (Two years later one of the drivers will be dead of an overdose.) I drop a fist full of white crosses for soccer games, smoke a joint before skipping rope in the steam room to make weight, and drink a few tequilas at lunch time on lacrosse game days.
I’m 18; I smoke a J, drink some beers, and give a class graduation speech.
I’m 19 and drink my way out of the Ivy League. My Dad and I have a few epic fights and some extraordinary benders. I get into a real bar fight with my junior-high football coach.
I’m not yet 21 and at the town dump, 2,000 miles from my family, unloading a truckload of my garbage bags. Hitting the ground, they split with the weight of beer bottles. I am embarrassed or, more accurately, paranoid about the neon-green caps from the U80 syringes with which I shoot coke and speedballs.
I’m 23; after a particularly humiliating weekend I announce to my running buddies that I am going to AA. They explain that alcoholics are old men in grubby raincoats, and pour me a shot and a beer.
I eat half a dozen DUIs, under a couple different names, the way other people deal with oil changes. I’m arrested on live TV during Sweeps Week, and the guys at the Punch Bowl pass a hat for my bail. Even the cop who got the call about my sideswiping the Eyewitness News van is sympathetic.
I’m 27 and have relocated back to my home turf. I have a driver’s license in my own name with no DUIs on it. At a bar I tell some story about running my own construction firm. I’m indignant when another barfly calls me on my bullshit, observing that I drink like he did before being cashiered from the Air Force, and suggests that I will end up on my ass, too.
I’m 27 and attending a family wedding; there is my hell raising, ass-kicking, hero-cousin with a wife, house, and a child. My reaction is, “Shit, shit, shit … .” He is in AA, and I hear footsteps.
I am 27; I’m scratching a lottery ticket and have an auditory hallucination from behind me: “You won’t hit the lottery until you quit drinking.” I am alone in a pickup truck.
I’m 28 and find one of the all-time hall of fame gentleman bartenders. He pours my morning shot 2/3 full and turns his back to prep fruit. I dip my head and lap the first drink; horrors splatter the bar if I attempt to use my hands. After several gentle minutes Jimmy returns, says “I think I shorted you on that” and pours me a full measure. I’m a functional alcoholic, most are: drinking and drugging is expensive. After work, in the same bar, I vomit red blood in the toilet and order more whiskey for its astringent values.
I’m 28; I wake up a week after Halloween, covered in blood, hands broken.
I check my head for lacerations and, amazingly, find none. I don’t know if I’ve killed someone or been slaughtering hogs. Aloud I ask, “Where the fuck do I surrender?” and call my cousin. He explains: “Right here and right now.” I end up washing Thanksgiving dishes for forty people in rehab.
For some reason, I exhibit classic PTSD symptoms: I duck when the shadow of an airplane covers me. I have not used since the day I called Ronnie. Ten years later I repay the bartender’s kindness by sitting with him through his first white-knuckle week in church basements. Over the years I tell many people, “I don’t care if you want to drink, I will care if you don’t”; succinct, glib and so true until now.
It’s almost Labor Day. I’m 55 and attending the family-education session in the same rehab where I washed those Thanksgiving dishes. I’m here for my 17-year-old son. I sit in a room of upset parents in a state of acceptance, if not serenity. I’m glad he is here, though I had no real expectation of his living through the summer.
Perhaps if he gets it now, he will graduate from college, may not worry about his liver, and might choose a spouse wisely—preferably one without the addictive line in her family.
I’m disturbed and dismayed these past several years at the hubris of my youth and my denial that the child of two junkies would, almost, have to end up a junkie. He hates me, and I don’t care all that much. His value system and mine have been at odds for years.
Perhaps we will find some future commonality past the genes with which I damned him.
As he is the spitting image of me, my heart bleeds.
Image courtesy of orphanjones/Flickr