Through the clear plastic recycling bag and pressed against the Tropicana orange juice carton and Dannon yogurt cups, I saw a flattened cardboard six-pack container for O’Douls Amber. One of those “fake” beers.
“Ah,” I thought. “Another alcoholic lives nearby.”
This was on 85th Street between Broadway and West End, about two blocks from home. It was steps away from the Victoria’s Secret to my left on the corner of 85th Street and Broadway, a store whose floor to ceiling windows I self-consciously avoid staring at, with its posters of nine-foot “Amazon women” (as a friend refers to them) beckoning to men to shop for other women who will not wear the stuff. I glanced instead to my right toward the kosher restaurant, whose red awning sported the inviting tagline, “And bulls will be sacrificed.” My left hand navigated the iPhone song selection, while in my right hand were two opaque plastic grocery bags with Entenmann’s donuts for the boys, two Luna bars for Karen – one for now, one for later – a half-gallon of milk, a quart of half-and-half (“not fat-free, please!” Karen had reminded me, still groggy as I shuffled out of our apartment) and a Sunday Times.
The first copy of the paper I thumbed through seemed to be lacking the Book Review, and I found satisfaction in being the kind of New Yorker who would return the paper to the stack since it lacked this particular section. (As opposed to being without “Automobiles,” which is read, after all, by people who move here from the suburbs and haven’t really gotten over the parochial love of cars. My father always looked first for “Arts & Leisure.”) After I paid the $4.00 and started to walk away, I felt a pang of guilt that I had not let the kiosk owner know that the first copy was incomplete. Then I rationalized away my negligence by assuming that most people would not care, and if they didn’t check for the Book Review to begin with, then they wouldn’t mind missing it later as they sat in their living room poring over the Rangers’ or Knicks’ box scores. Or the Automobiles section, heaven forbid.
Elitism in my heart had been restored.
As I passed the O’Douls box, I paused mentally for a moment and wondered why the drinker would have chosen that brand over the options – much better in my opinion – of Becks N.A., Kaliber, St. Pauli Girl N.A., or even Buckler. I wondered if maybe they were the designated driver and simply chose for one night to drink beer with no sting. No, I told myself, there’s no reason for someone to drink this stuff unless you really want to drink the real stuff but can’t.
I started to wonder about this drinker whose life was spoken of in the garbage. I felt an affinity, because he or she had suffered as I had. Maybe still does. (This, of course, is the chief way we feel an affinity: either one relates to how desperate it is to stand in a soup line, or one confesses to a peer the pressures of managing an eight-figure retirement portfolio. We all “suffer.” It’s how we do that creates our commiserati.) Now, back at the apartment, having read a Times Magazine article on the Houston Rockets’ Shane Battier and new metrics to understand basketball players’ contributions on the court (not really a sports story so much as a business innovation story…just so you know), and having started a Book Review article on the financial meltdown, I was compelled instead to think about that O’Douls box.
Most of my friends in A.A., at least those in small-town Jonesboro, Georgia, and I’m quite certain elsewhere, would strenuously object to my drinking non-alcoholic beer. First, they’d point out, it isn’t 100% “non-alcoholic.” That each bottle contains less than 0.5% alcohol by volume is 0.5% too much, they’d say, and I am in denial about my addiction. Second, they’d claim it’s a trigger to others, if not myself. In defense of their position if not their intent, I did indeed worry for some time that others who knew my story and saw me drinking a Kaliber at a party would wonder if I had fallen off the wagon or, worse, was a hypocrite. Talking like a recovering alcoholic but acting like an active one was a much worse state than either extreme in most people’s eyes.
Yet the more I listened to scores and even hundreds of people talking about alcohol, I realized that the substance itself had taken on a mythical power. We were “powerless” over it, and we had turned over our will to a higher power. God, as some would say, would be our guide and would – after assuming control of our lives – remove our defects and shortcomings.
The more sober I got, however, the more unsettled I became with the tendency to ascribe every addictive evil to the substance itself and not more to the drinker. I was the problem, not it. So when my friends frowned on “non”-alcoholic beer, perhaps some were worried that 0.5% would lead me to 5% and then to 10% and on to 100-proof. And perhaps there were enough stories of that happening and they were/are right. But perhaps I am an anomaly, because I have drunk N.A. beer for 12+ of my 14 sober years, always stopping at two if not one, and never has it left me wanting something stronger. I have acquired a taste for the concoction and an obvious snobbery for the imports. Perhaps, too, they know that many who finally admit that they are “alcoholics” realize that their body chemistry cannot tolerate alcohol at all – they have a disease – so that N.A. beer indeed could lead down a slippery slope. To date, not so with me. (I suppose there’s always tomorrow.)
Regardless of whether I am of the disease-variety of alcoholics or the Repeatedly Failed Life Choice variety, my musings on the reputed shame of addiction may be anachronistic. In our western society of proactively exposed sin, self-revelation, and introspection, which when written well garners multi-million dollar book advances, it is almost fashionable to admit that you don’t drink because you had a problem with it at some point, causing relational firestorms, excessive credit card debt, and “tore-up cars” (a favorite subject for those living in Jonesboro). (And it is certainly more fashionable for one to state in religious circles that you don’t drink because of your moral failings than to admit in secular circles that you don’t drink because of your religion.) When you share your story to people outside A.A., the more grotesque the outcome of your misery, the more stunning your fall from grace, the louder the implicit applause you receive from a grateful audience accustomed to seeing life through eyes trained by either Greek tragedy or Hollywood narratives.
To be a failure, when handled correctly, can advance your career.
Not only does the audience feel a sense of both awe at the failure-turned-success and their own good fortune of but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I-ness, but also the speaker gets adulation and has a whole new idol to find a support group for: pride. That’s what we now need: Prideful Alcoholics With Names.
There is indeed a peculiar and sinful delight I take in telling my story. I demur at first, of course, when someone asks me to tell it. I kid myself: Oh, I am too humble and too insignificant. God has done so much for me. Who am I to tell this story? Yet, what always crops up – what always hisses in my ear – is that small and then growing sense of uniqueness. Among the lives of many whom I tell the story to, there is little suffering of the scale and luridness that I describe. When I sense the person has been relatively upstanding, my story becomes more bleak – not embellished in any way but rather digitally remastered in its presentation of facts. Headlines of gross irresponsibility and self-destruction are organized in my narrative in a way to impart maximum effect on the listener. Events that are less sensational, even if they are key to the plot (like my first glass of wine, at age nine during intermission at a Broadway performance of Godspell), are moved to the middle of a paragraph. I am analyzing the listener as I speak line by line: I am watching for where they want the story to go. Which train wreck in my life will shock at which point? What accumulation of facts in which order will stun them into admiring me more for my weakness? After telling the story so many times, I tend to know which elements are the most hair-raising to the listener. These parts get played by Brad Pitt or Will Smith; the event is muscular and charismatic. The more pedestrian episodes get Dom DeLuise.
On the other hand, the more the person I am sharing with has suffered, the more buffered my story. I tell it chastened. I tell it as an apprentice would.
And of course, once I venture into a room at AA, there is such universal suffering – admitted and denied – that my story contains little in the way of dramatic effect and includes even a constricting of individuality. I indeed skew toward anonymity while sitting in that metal folding chair in the church basement and drinking that awful coffee made by a Bunn that is forty years old. I hear the same jokes and one-liners from women and men I sit with in meetings day after day, like the guy with no front teeth and such a strong Southern accent that I could never quite make out what he said to recreate here in a quote, but somehow I knew it was wise. I would watch the nodding heads and hear his tone, one of reluctantly assumed authority. I hear their stories, or pieces of them, over and over, like looking at parts of a large-scale installation artwork one at a time, not able to grasp the entire parking-lot-sized steel structure in one gaze. Their stories, told again and again until their edges are smoothed, finally become like burnished bronze, reflecting light rather than emanating it.
Not only do I not feel pride in telling my own story, but there is no space for pride. It cannot flourish or even exist in those rooms. It is like a flame put under an overturned glass jar: there is no oxygen to keep it burning. If the jar is lifted and the fire flares, there is someone with twenty years or more of sobriety who will step in and snuff it out in the breath of one brief statement, usually with more expletives than nouns and usually with the effect of a veteran comic on an over-zealous heckler. Like Ann, a 70-year-old lesbian who married a 30-year-old one and wore bedroom slippers and sweatpants to meetings. Or Sue, who finally realized she had a drinking problem when, in a whiskey-blind stupor, she accidentally pulled the trigger of her husband’s loaded 12-gauge shotgun and blew off half the head of her 5-year-old daughter. In that kind of atmospheric heat, pride and pretense evaporate.
We are all the same, we alcoholics. Our sin, our addictions, our idolatry of alcohol, which was essentially an idolatry of self, was so consuming that to tell the story of it among each other does not bring us glory. Rather, to tell the story of what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now is to tell the story of the strength of AA. The strength of friends in AA who helped us. The undeniable strength of that higher power to which we all turned to for help and, when completely surrendered to, changed our lives. Telling the story helps us remember; it is also used by another force than our own to beckon to the one who suffers yet hasn’t admitted or surrendered. Whether the sufferer turns or not is up to her. As is often said, “A.A. is not for those who need it; it’s for those who want it.” Truly, one must willfully turn over her will.
Telling one’s story rarely translates faithfully outside those rooms. The temptation of pride on the part of the narrator – at least for me – is always there, always too much to bear. Always stronger when we’re alone with someone who’s not an alcoholic than when we’re with a fellow sufferer. For the listener, the inability or lack of desire to identify is always a mountain to climb: a feeling, a bias, a judgment that the storyteller is somehow different. A difference in essential kind or type: upbringing, social class, fate.
And there is a temptation for either person to assume that just because you didn’t blow a child’s head to smithereens with a shotgun that somehow you’re in the clear.
art: Felipe Bedoya