in this dream, there is an open door

Bar in New York Ci-tay.
Photo by yours trues.

I love him who does not hold back one drop of spirit for himself, but wants to be entirely the spirit of his virtue: thus he strides over the bridge as spirit.

I love him who makes his virtue his addiction and his catastrophe: for his virtue’s sake he wants to live on and to live no longer.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

And the fact that both women ultimately shared and feared the “empty room in the heart that is the essence of addiction.”

Gail Caldwell

Part One.

One night, I sat in my apartment and waited for the phone to ring. I was twenty-one and living in a NE Minneapolis duplex with my roommate, a girl I’d met Freshman year of college. We were in our last semesters at the University of Minnesota, and in many respects, we already fashioned ourselves grown-ups. We stood at the end of our youth and looked out at the future: this place was full of promise and possibility--and it created in me a sensation of paralyzing anxiety.

So on this twilit night, I waited by the phone. Tonight an old friend would be calling when he got home from work—we’d agreed upon that through voicemail—and because he’d recently moved to Vancouver, and was two hours behind, I had some time to kill. When I got home from my part-time job, I waited for those hours to pass, and I waited with a drink in my hand. Then another. It felt like a good decision. Or simply, right.

I was nervous about speaking with him as I’d always harbored feelings that surpassed the level of friendship we’d maintained during the past five years. The fact that we’d nearly slept together when he was in Minneapolis a few months ago didn’t make me feel less anxious. I knew he was seeing someone, and I guess I was, too, but I knew going into the conversation that I’d be uncomfortable. So I poured myself a glass of wine and watched the clock spin its dial. Pouring the wine was simply the way I’d begun responding to difficult or complicated feelings—especially feelings of rejection. Whether drinking was right or wrong was something I’d deal with after, later, at some point in the future. I did have a small twinge of guilt, a flash of honesty with myself about what I was doing, and why. I felt like, I should be able to talk to him without this boost of confidence, this liquid courage, this artificial safety net. But these feelings of guilt or worry weren’t stronger than my desire to drink, my rationalization about its okay-ness, its normal-ness—about my decision to give my power over to the bottle rather than push myself to pull it up from inside.

When he phoned, I answered with a slight buzz and this cut right through the awkward and complicated feelings I’d been experiencing. These feelings were marching out the door with every sip, every pour. We reminisced about times gone by, his old apartment, a coffee shop where we frequently met on rainy afternoons, a party where he threw me over his shoulder and spun me around and everyone said: who is that guy! I drank steadily throughout the conversation. And it went well enough. At least the majority of it did. How the conversation ended is something I can’t reveal with any kind of certainty.

All I know for sure is I awoke with a wave of nausea and a present sense of the outline of my brain. I stumbled into the bathroom and simply sat on the rug on the floor. My roommate peeked in and when she saw me said: yeah, I thought as much.
“What are you talking about?!” I asked, honestly shocked.
“I saw an empty magnum sitting on the kitchen table,” she said.
“Ugh,” I groaned, “say no more about this.”
“Well that and I heard you cackling and screaming and howling into the phone all night.”
“I was talking to Nathan,” I said.
“I could tell,” she said. “He kind of sucks, by the way.”
“By the way,” I asked, “is a magnum one and a half bottles of wine, or two?”
“Oh no,” I said, legitimately upset.
Had she had a glass or two? No. Had she poured out maybe some of the last of it? No. Had I potentially poured out the rest? Poured it down the drain in a fit of sanity? No. I reasoned with myself: OK, you drank TWO bottles of wine. In one night. What exactly the fuck is wrong with you? This is not normal! You have shit to do today! What the hell is you major malfunction?
“Come on,” she said, “call in sick and let’s go see a movie.”

So that’s what I did. I called in sick to my job and skipped a study session for an Italian conversation class and we went to see a movie. It is a testament to the power of my hangover that I don’t remember what we saw. We went to the theater and probably drank sodas and laughed over the previous evening. My roommate most likely consoled me with a tale of her own. She was a dear and certainly had her own list of nights gone awry, as well as, her own list of reasons for why she kept drinking, why she should, why she wanted to and would continue to—and why it wasn’t her fault if she got too drunk on occasion (it was that time of the month, or she hadn’t eaten a big enough dinner, or an ex-boyfriend showed up with a new girlfriend) and why it wasn’t her problem if other people had a problem with her drinking. I felt exactly the same way. What do they know? we laughed! Sophists. Judgey Judgersons. Control freaks. Whatever. Whatever we needed to say or think or feel to rationalize our right to drink.

Yes, the phone conversation with Nathan was sort of shameful and pathetic—but so what? He was kind of a dick. And I deserved to get drunk and act like a fool or an asshole every now and then. And he’d done things, too! And so on. Was this grounds for taking a cold, hard look at my drinking? Were women not held to a different standard than men--at least in terms of being allowed to drink and get loud and bombastic? So I got too drunk. I was emotional. I needed it. It wasn't my finest hour, but life would go on.

Plus, there were so many times when things didn’t go wrong. Where I didn’t get too drunk and forget how the night ended. So many times where I spent an evening wrapped in the warm embrace of the glass, of friends, of discussion and sharing and everything feeling wonderful, magical. There were so many nights where my roommate and I played CD after CD and smoked cigarettes while passing a wine bottle back and forth. We laughed, and talked about life and love and experience. We theorized romantic relationships and our families. We talked about who we wanted to be and what we wanted to do and if we were a little tired in the morning, a little rough around the edges—so what? Neither she nor I ever got a DUI. She did get arrested once (from her graduation party), but, we assured ourselves, it was through no fault of our own. The party had gotten too loud and too many people had arrived. More than ten people were ultimately arrested--could ten people be wrong? We were the innocent victims. The police were out of line! The eviction that came as a result of said party? An unfortunate consequence, but, again, an unfair and circumstantial result. And, in the perverse logic that pretty much every drinker I know uses, the whole situation was sort of funny, an anecdote that we would tell later, a part of our coming of age and a testament to the fact that we weren't part of that class of normative, nice, well-behaved young women.

And, yet, I couldn't help but feel guilty and weird about these events. I hadn’t expected to find myself living in Minneapolis, looking for an apartment that didn’t do a background check (I remember hearing at that time that if you’d been evicted, you couldn’t rent for seven years—whether this was true or not was something I didn’t bother to look into). But, again, it was not my fault. And I continued to drink with the people who I surrounded myself with—fellow drinkers. I said we were united by our distaste for rules and order, our love of books and knowledge and animated discussion, our appreciation for the hazards of experience, but it was interesting that when we were together, drinking was always a factor. I think we did something exactly twice that didn’t involve drinking. We saw The Blair Witch Project as a group, and we went swimming in Lake Harriet. I suppose it bears mentioning that we did smoke joints throughout both endeavors.

It was around this time that I started to worry about my drinking. I mean, I’d worried about it before—when I was living in Italy and using the wine store as my compass—but now I was wondering if there wasn’t a bigger problem; a problem that transcended details like circustance; a problem that perhaps, just maybe, was a wee bit beyond my control or free will. There were nights where I stayed up late with friends, eating pizza and drinking beer and gabbing. Drinking felt good at those times, and right. But there were also nights where drinking felt like a way out. Indeed, the ONLY way out. Or, if not the only, the best. The fastest. The surest. The least taxing on my mental and physical energy. I didn’t have to wrestle with difficult questions or answer the mysteries that life presented. I didn’t have to risk anything or challenge myself. All I had to do was sip the wine. The drink did all the work. And on some level, I knew it was all fake—a cheat—but I wasn’t ready to confront that realization yet, wasn’t ready for the work that would need to be done, internally mainly, but externally, too.

I simply wasn’t ready. Partially because I was in my twenties, still, and surrounded by fellow reluctant adults, “smart party girls” (courtesy of Roger), wine consultants, musicians and people with a kind of bitter resentful irony that seemed particularly authentic. We went out. We stayed in. We drank in groups, in pairs, by ourselves—all of it. We reveled. And it felt good. It didn’t feel bad. At least, most of the time it felt pretty good—and if it didn’t, at least it felt authentic. Things hadn’t gotten too bad for any one of us, not yet. Shit had not yet hit the fan. And until it would (and it always does; drinking problems are progressive) I was going to enjoy a beer, or many, on the porch with my friend Patrick.

Around this time, I was both conscious and unconscious of the fact that I seemed to be forgetting how to engage in social scenarios without a drink. I certainly didn’t look forward to an occasion where I knew alcohol wasn’t going to be present. In those scenarios, I wasn’t able to enjoy myself, be in the moment, open up and feel free to talk, share and actively listen. I just couldn’t. Or if I could, I secretly resented the absence of booze from whatever function I’d just attended. I resented the fact that a girl I hung out with at the time was a slow drinker. I didn’t enjoy our conversations very much (and she was brilliant, by the way) because I was so focused on how my wine glass seemed to empty more quickly. Didn’t she need another drink? Didn’t she at least WANT one? What was HER problem? I simply couldn’t deal with life, my feelings and thoughts in a scenario that didn’t involve alcohol. Hard day? How about some wine. Just took a big exam? Let’s have some champagne. First date? Have a drink first. Going to see a play with an ex? Have a shot before you walk out the door. Lonely night where the past starts circling? Whiskey and beer. Bored? Disappointed? Worried? Haunted? Wine, wine, wine, wine.

The writer Caroline Knapp put it this way: one day at a time goes both ways. Just as the alcoholic in recovery says, I won’t drink today—just today—it’s all I have. The person who is loath to relinquish the drink says, I know I’m drinking today—but it’s just today. Change is something that will take place in the future—when you’re more stable, have a great job that you love and a past that makes sense and a future that’s knowable, predictable, all good.

Part Two.

I’ve lived in Philadelphia for nearly six years—it will be six this August—and in that time I’ve had the amazing fortune of developing a few really tight friends. In this collection of people there are a variety of personality types; there are some men in this collection, but the majority are women. And within this collection, there is another, smaller, group: essentially, my circle.

A dear friend who is part of this circle and I were recently discussing a mutual friend of ours, Andy. Andy is a much better friend, as well as, a sometime boyfriend to her. He’s our age (30 +/-), employed in gardening/grounds work, and a fairly quiet fellow. He doesn’t have the kind of personality where you know you can introduce him to your family and leave him at the dinner table, knowing he’ll take care of the rest. He doesn’t post YouTube videos on Facebook or comment under photos or engage in conversations generated by a thought-provoking status post. He doesn’t even have a Facebook page as far as I know. Andy comes to house parties and backyard barbeques and for the most part, he is entirely pleasant. He sits off to the side and laughs politely when someone tells a humorous story or when someone makes a shrewd comment. He says thank you when someone makes him a drink. He says goodbye when he leaves, and tips his ball cap. He doesn’t initiate conversation or ask others about their lives or make small talk--and that’s perfectly fine. That’s just not his style.

The other day, my friend and I were discussing what was behind the silence, if anything. Was it biologically determined silence (the things in our brains that tell us to speak up being at an abysmal level in his case) or polite silence (don’t speak until spoken to) or culturally conditioned silence (in many cultures, including American subcultures it is considered rude to ask someone about themselves) or was it a judgmental silence (i.e., you have nothing to teach me or share with me or add to my sense of what is important, interesting, worth my time, etc.) My friend confirmed this matter. It was, indeed, the latter. “He needs to be really engaged,” she said. “Unless the person talking is really funny or smart—he’s bored.”

This issue was bigger than just reticence. The bigger issue was this: Andy sits to the side and keeps a low profile, well a low profile in all respects except for one glaring detail. He tends to get pretty quietly wasted throughout the hours we spend in one another’s company. He tends to return to the cooler or the refrigerator or the liquor cabinet pretty regularly and pretty unabashedly. And that is OK. Live and let live, right? Right. But there’s something about this situation that doesn’t sit quite right. If he is so bored that he needs to pound drinks, why doesn’t he find friends, people, another community that engages him? Why doesn’t he pursue connections with wildly intelligent individuals or join MENSA or a similar organization where he can be sufficiently engaged? Is it that I’m not interesting enough to keep Andy from opening that sixth beer, or is that uninteresting people/an uninteresting planet/uninteresting living and lifestyle conditions are Andy’s neat excuse for getting plastered. Or, if the honest to goodness real reason he drinks heavily is the boredom he feels from his interaction with others, then it remains unclear why he hasn’t sought out those communities that would in fact engage him. There are a hell of a lot of interesting people out there—smart, funny, weird, inventive, exceptional human beings who, as far as I know, would likely engage the hell out of just about anyone.

If we were to consider – just consider – that alcoholics are at the mercy of their surroundings as much as anyone else, than why doesn’t boredom or boring people or a shitty job make every person on the planet drink in compulsive or unhealthy ways? Why doesn’t the man looking for work, with overdue bills and two screaming kids pound it? He should be pounding it harder than the guy who makes movies for a living and is surrounded by people asking his opinion on world events and cultural trends and pop culture events and the rest of it. Why does the former not need or want to hit the Jack Daniels? Why does the latter ponder having a cocktail with breakfast or, if not that, keep filling his glass at the party in the Valley? Filling and filling and filling… and then, waking up, the sensation that something awry has happened—something he did not intend to happen. Something that he promised his girlfriend, and his family, his producer, and HIMSELF would not happen again.

Part Three.

Drinking is such a funny thing. Such an easy thing to justify and such a tempting thing to cling to. To ask someone who uses it to consider living without it is like asking someone to live on Mars. You have an idea of what it would be like and the risk is sort of appealing, but, nah, better just stick to this world--even if this world has becoming pretty unsatisfying. Once you're used to that release, that relief, it is hard to imagine denying it to yourself. You believe it might be a good thing, or at least a healthy thing, but you're not quite sure how it would work. And this fear, this unknown, this reluctance to step away from it may be simply a choice--but, in my experience, it didn't feel like a choice. I felt like drinking was a pretty crucial part of the equation. Not always, not everyday, not in great quantities every time, yet often it felt involuntary, inexplicable, unmanageable, diseased. And as time went on, it began to feel more like that and less like good, wholesome, untroubled fun.

And the other thing is this. The memory of those good feelings and that special intimacy that drinking generates--you don't just forget. There are times when you miss it, when you desperately want it back. On TV last night I saw a woman who was feeling upset about an argument she'd had with a friend. She was crying and calling for answers and defending herself while asking if perhaps she was in fact to blame. She was with two other women and one of these ladies called out for a drink—a glass of white! Pinot Grigio! she screams—and the wine arrives and the friend puts it in the woman’s hand.


Just like that. The pain is already slipping away. She has the wine in her hand, soon to follow is the warm feeling, the good feeling—the feeling of safety from feeling, ironically. Into the real feeling comes the analgesic, and then the unreal feeling, and then the void. Which, truth be told, feels pretty good. It feels like a numb dumb happiness. Well maybe not happiness, or yes, maybe exactly happiness—that blithe feeling with little depth.

The next day the other feeling returns. The complex or complicated feeling. What was it? Rejection? Anger? Boredom? Ennui? Fear? Insecurity? Whatever it was, it’s back. It was always there, despite the cover of wine or the beer or the long pull of whiskey—and it still needs addressing.

Let’s say you are this woman.

Do you:

A. Go to Sunday Champagne Brunch with a couple friends who will encourage you to have a mimosa.
B. Go to therapy (a thought so unpleasant you immediately banish it).
C. Lie in bed, thinking for a while, before returning to sleep.
D. Cry into your pillow. Insist that the world has conspired against you and you are hopeless.
E. Wander around the city all day and all night, buying shit you don’t need, staring at children in the park, asking some mystical force or source that seems to have abandoned ship what the hell you should do. Why can’t you just stop? Why. Can’t. You. Just. Stop.

You don’t know, but you know. You won't know, but you know. You know that admitting you can’t control this would involve taking a step—a huge step into a new world. It would involve taking the kind of searching and fearless emotional, moral, psychological inventory that you really don’t want to investigate. But you can't deny the sneaking suspicion that you’re avoiding something, that your life isn’t going the way it should, that if you keep living like this, something is going to happen. If not today, when?

You leave the house and see a man sitting on his front stoop. He’s reading the paper with a cup of coffee in his hand. He says hello when you pass and you say it back. How does he do it? you ask. Why can’t you be like that?

You’re walking down the street. Where the fuck are you going? You’re twenty-one and lost and scared and full of self pity. You spend the day writing in your journal and decide the time has come to get it together. When you get home your apartment is full of people, friends, drinkers. You almost weep with gratefulness. Patti Smith is playing. People are laughing. Your roommate hugs you hello. The guy you’re seeing walks over and hands you a joint. You take a hit before kissing him hello. “There’s beer in the fridge,” someone says. “Thanks,” you say and march to the kitchen, a smile on your face, almost a laugh.

You don’t have a problem, you say. You’re doing fine. A small worry flutters in your chest regarding the promises you made to yourself, the honesty you'd been flirting with only moments before. You cast the concern aside and reach into the cardboard box for a Premium. When you return to the living room, a friend is putting on a record. “For you!” she says. You hear the beginning of Heart of Gold and everyone starts singing.


Anonymous said...

Two thumbs up.

Anonymous said...

Checking in on your McSweeney's quest, AD. This piece was good stuff, loved your rendering/musings on Andy. I'm an alcoholic/drug addict/whatever the fuck you want to call it, I've been all that and am all that, I guess, always have been. Whittled it down to 1 mg of clonazepam a night and 2 mg. of Xanax a week as alcohol substitute (1 mg of Xany per "party" night)...I don't know. I can identify with all things alcoholism/substance abuse related, I guess is what I'm saying, and saw a lot of myself in Andy. Only I don't pound 'em these days, and I've always been unable to not nervously chatter when in the company of others. At various points in my life I've been Andy.

I'm going to go ahead and stop typing now. Well-written, as usual.I consider you one of my peer writerly guideposts, I guess. I have to meet the Abbi standard to feel good about any given piece. Although the last thing I sent McSweeney's was kind of just...silly, and I almost hope they don't accept it. Ciao ciao.

abbimireilledion said...

MQT! sorry i didn't see this earlier! what happened with your latest/greatest submission? my own mcsweeney's quest is on hold as i've suffered a major bout of apathy towards him/them/chris monks and all things submission related. but i'm working my way back to that cliff.

re booze, drugs, meds, the rest of it, three cheers for mood stabalizers that don't have the converse reaction of royally fucking up your life. i'm currently addicted to seltzer. i need/love/live for it. never thought i'd say that and pretty sure i would've despised myself for saying such a thing back in the day, but at this point, well, i have different ideas about a great many things :)

so many cheers. let me know about your last piece!