On an anonymous day in June I will celebrate 25 years of sobriety. On that night in 1988 I came careening down a hill in Vermont and slammed my Honda Accord into an empty parked Subaru. Dazed, but unhurt, I got out of the car and stood in the street while the Subaru’s owners, a couple, came out of their house and yelled at me. “We were planning on selling it soon!” the woman screamed. They then went back inside to call the Vermont State Police. I got tired of waiting, and got back in my car, which I discovered that despite its banged-up state, still started, and was drivable. I drove home. The couple had made note of my license plate number, of course.
This typical lapse of judgment led to a trip to the local State Police barracks, where I took a breath test and was charged with Driving Under the Influence (DUI), and leaving the scene of an accident. I was issued a citation for a court appearance in Burlington, driven back home by the cops, and told not to drive until the next day.
In court I lost my license for 90 days, and was told that to have it officially reinstated I needed to complete a drunk driver’s rehab program called “Project Crash,” which I did one night per week for a month. I paid a nominal fine, the amount of which now escapes me. And the wise old judge told me that my auto insurance rate would likely double, and that that itself was more punishment than he could mete out for a first offense: in other words, that’ll teach you.
Early on, I attended a few AA meetings. I met a pleasant, well-dressed married couple who had sobered-up together and become evangelical Christians after having met while both were getting a free meal out of a dumpster behind Burger King. One man, obviously wealthy and a good raconteur, told funny stories about hanging around car dealerships during his blackouts, and buying cars. He’d wake up from a binge with his wife not only screaming at him about his drinking, but about the shiny new BMW parked in the driveway. But the meetings were mostly depressing. I decided that I would stay sober without them, and if I drank again I would make myself go back. So far, so good.
I’m amazed that I’ve done this. The night of the accident was an epiphany for me, and after that I wasn’t interested in “getting sober” (I’d been “on the wagon” many times), but changing my life. Most alcoholics who succeed at sobriety do so by having the simple insight that the status quo can’t endure without scary consequences, including death. And all the rest of it: health problems, mental instability, damaged relationships, work and money problems – all are a slow death by misery.
That misery shows itself most of all in “the hangover.” When you’re young, hangovers are physical affairs. The body withstands the insult with minor symptoms such as headaches and queasiness. In those carefree immortal days a pick-me-up isn’t even required. Hangovers are shrugged off and laughed at.
At a certain point — in my case, my thirties — hangovers take on a sinister aspect. They become of the mind, metaphysical in nature; Scott Fitzgerald’s “dark night of the soul.” The unpleasant physical symptoms are yet present, but the worst of it is a sense of existential dread. This despair darkens one’s view of human existence. Life is bleak, and death is not only inevitable, but an ever-present companion to exist in tandem with being alive. This explains the high rate of suicide among alcoholics. They’re soul-damaged and already half dead.
Not that I didn’t have a lot of fun being a drunk. After all, that’s the flip side of all the pain and misery. There were late nights full of laughter and slapstick hijinks.
I was forever falling. I fell down flights of stairs, embankments, and once, head-first off the top of a ten-feet high wall and into a hedgerow while sneaking into an outdoor rock concert for which I lacked a ticket. Another time I plunged eight or ten feet off a bridge and into a rocky, dry creek bed in Northern California. I was young and all those confrontations with gravity never cost me more than a few scrapes and bruises. They say that God watches over drunks and fools, especially those hurtling through His space.
And I was forever getting sick. I once vomited over the railing of a second story apartment terrace onto someone’s freshly-laundered sheets hanging on a clothesline below. While in a car and on a date with a young woman, I threw-up on her shoulder and arm. So much for first impressions. Nausea was many times the main symptom of the common morning-after hangover, experienced thousands of times over twenty years. A lot of drunks sober up because they’re simply sick of being sick.
I’ve awakened (without going into sordid detail about strange beds, etc.) in cars and on couches in unfamiliar living rooms. One perfect summer Saturday morning in California I felt the warm sun on my closed eyelids, and thought it inordinately bright. Then I heard a loud lawnmower start up, but then shut off, and a voice inquired: “Are you all right?” I sat up with a start. I was fully clothed and on the lawn in front of my house. My friend and neighbor Howard, a few years older than I, married and somewhat respectable, was looking at me from the other side of a fence. “Wait here,” he instructed. He went into his house and returned with an ice-cold can of beer. “Here,” said Howard, sardonically. “You’ll need this.”
Nowadays, all I need is non-alcoholic beer enjoyed at the Owl Club in Salmon, Idaho, as I watch Colorado Rockies games on a big screen with friends. It’s the top of eighth and there’s grace in that.
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