August 13th, 2013
Here‘s my review of the book. Here be quotes, and they’re all listed chronologically; note that some of the quotes may count as spoilers, even though this book is an autobiography:
I know we did lots of “more.” That’s what we called coke. We called it more because it was the operative metaphor for the drug. Even if it was the first call of the night, we would say, “You got any more?” because there would always be more—more need, more coke, more calls.
We were a fine pair. Now that I had been fired for cause, there was no doubt that Donald would know what to say. “Fuck ’em,” he said when he met me at McCready’s to toast my first day between opportunities. The pills had made me a little hinky, but I shook it off with a snort of coke. Nicely prepped, we went to the Cabooze, a Minneapolis blues bar. Details are unclear, but there was some sort of beef inside, and we were asked to leave. Donald complained on the way out that I was always getting us 86’d, and my response included throwing him across the expansive hood of his battered ’75 LTD. Seeing the trend, he drove away, leaving me standing with thirty-four cents in my pocket. That detail I remember.
Every hangover begins with an inventory. The next morning mine began with my mouth. I had been baking all night, and it was as dry as a two-year-old chicken bone. My head was a small prison, all yelps of pain and alarm, each movement seeming to shift bits of broken glass in my skull. My right arm came into view for inspection, caked in blood, and then I saw it had a few actual pieces of glass still embedded in it. So much for metaphor. My legs both hurt, but in remarkably different ways. Three quadrants in significant disrepair—that must have been some night, I thought absently. Then I remembered I had jumped my best friend outside a bar. And now that I thought about it, that was before I tried to kick down his door and broke a window in his house. And then I recalled, just for a second, the look of horror and fear on his sister’s face, a woman I adored. In fact, I had been such a jerk that my best friend had to point a gun at me to make me go away. Then I remembered I’d lost my job. It was a daylight waterfall of regret known to all addicts. It can’t get worse, but it does. When the bottom arrives, the cold fact of it all, it is always a surprise. Over fiteen years, I had made a seemingly organic journey from pothead to party boy, from knockaround guy to friendless thug. At thirty-one, I was washed out of my profession, morally and physically corrupt, but I still had almost a year left in the Life. I wasn’t done yet.
The moral question of whether you are lying or not is not settled by establishing the truth or falsity of what you say. In order to settle this question, we must know whether you intend your statement to mislead. —SISSELA BOK, MORAL CHOICES IN PUBLIC AND PRIVATE LIFE
To be an addict is to be something of a cognitive acrobat. You spread versions of yourself around, giving each person the truth he or she needs—you need, actually—to keep them at one remove. How, then, to reassemble that montage of deceit into a truthful past?
HERE IS WHAT I DESERVED: Hepatitis C, federal prison time, HIV, a cold park bench, an early, addled death.
HERE IS WHAT I GOT: A nice house, a good job, three lovely children.
HERE IS WHAT I REMEMBER ABOUT HOW THAT GUY BECAME THIS GUY: Not much. Junkies don’t generally put stuff in boxes, they wear the boxes on their heads, so that everything around them—the sky, the future, the house down the street—is lost to them.
Throughout college I had many friends, very little money, and what Pavlov called “the blind force of the subcortex.” Ring the getting-high bell, and I was right there.
On my twenty-first birthday, I went out with Kim, who worked at the Little Prince and would become my wife. I also did coke for the first time. The relationship with the coke was far more enduring and would define the next decade.
A dealer who dropped his money on Dom Pérignon at the restaurant palmed me a Balkan Sobranie cigarette tin when he found out it was my birthday. He told me to open it in the bathroom. I saw the powder and knew what to do. It was a Helen Keller hand-under-the-water moment. Lordy, I can finally see! Cold fusion, right here in the bathroom stall; it was the greatest thing ever. My endorphins leaped at this new opportunity, hugging it and feeling all its splendid corners. My, that’s better. You can laugh all you want, but Proust had a similar epiphany eating a madeleine: “…a shudder ran through me, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that had happened to me. An exquisite pleasure invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.” Every addict is formed in the crucible of the memory of that first hit. Even as the available endorphins attenuate, the memory is right there. The chase is on, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days—in my case, for years on end. I could get high just having coke in my pocket, knowing that I had a little edge that few others had.
I did not date women, I took hostages.
Far from clinically handsome, I have a face that looks like it could have been carved out of mashed potatoes, and my idea of exercise was running the length of my body.
Shakespeare describes memory as the warder of the brain, but it is also its courtesan. We all remember the parts of the past that allow us to meet the future. The prototypes of the lie—white, grievous, practical—make themselves known when memory is called to answer. Memory usually answers back with bullshit.
In the convention of the recovery narrative, readers will want to scan past the tick-tock, looking for the yucky part so that they can feel better about themselves. (Here’s a taste: When I got to detox for what I thought was the last time, they took one look at my arms and brought me a tub filled with lukewarm water and Dreft detergent to soak my scabrous, pus-filled track marks. Even the wet-brain drunks wouldn’t come near me. See how that works?)
Truth is singular and lies are plural, but history—the facts of what happened—is both immutable and mostly unknowable. Can I somehow remember enough to type my way to an unvarnished recitation of what happened to me? No chance.
Over the next few years, I read the books on the list. Faulkner, Mailer, Brautigan, Vonnegut, Wolfe, Hemingway. I read them in a hammock with headphones on and Led Zeppelin cranking. I read them on break from smashing up patios with a 100-pound jackhammer. I read them when everyone else went to sleep. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a writer. I just didn’t want to be stupid.
It was assumed that I would go to Benilde High School, a suburban all-boys Catholic school where my older brothers had gone. We were expected to work summers and pay half the tuition. I caddied at a Jewish country club, came up with my share, and hated nearly every second of it. Benilde had the same triumvirate that existed in every high school at the time: jocks, nerds, and freaks. I self-assigned to the freaks.
In an all-male environment, worth is signified by athletic prowess and the ability to get in a girl’s pants. I was a decent but indifferent athlete, and I had enough friends who were girls that I didn’t feel comfortable talking about the ones I managed to sleep with. I smoked pot instead. Going to school on boy island, a place where idiosyncrasy was pathologized, made getting stoned every day seem like a reasonable activity. We listened to Queen, playing stoner air guitar, and smoked endless amounts of crappy Mexican reefer.
In retrospect, getting chronically stoned, even in high school, was dumb, like driving through life with the parking brake on.
You can’t become normal by pretending you are.
My father is a man who swears frequently, goes to church every day, and lives his towering faith. I am a man who swears frequently, goes to church every Sunday, and lives in search of faith. He is a man who believes that I am not dead because nuns prayed for me. I am a man who believes that is as good an explanation as any.
Mornings for an addict involve waking up in a room where everything implicates him. Even if there is no piss or vomit—oh, blessed be the small wonders—there is the tipped-over bottle, the smashed phone, the bright midday light coming through the rip in the shade that says another day has started without you. Drunks and addicts tend to build nests out of the detritus of their misbegotten lives. It is that ecosystem, all there for the inventorying within twenty seconds of waking, which tends to make addiction a serial matter. Apart from the progression of the disease, if you wake up in that kind of hell, you might start looking for something to take the edge off. Nothing like the beer goggles and a nice bracing whiff of something to help you reframe your little disaster area. Hmmm, just a second here. A little of the hair of the dog. Yep. Now, that’s better. Everything is new again.
One of the lawyer guys slipped me a tissue, but it was not a one-tissue affair. I continued the interview with a huge wad up one nostril, my head filling with blood as I struggled to finish. If someone had lit a truth candle, and the governor asked me why my nose was bleeding, I would have said it was because I had been sticking things up it all night long. That would have thrown Governor Rudy, a meat-and-tatties guy, for a loop.
Soon after we got together, I began disappearing. She became clingy. She swore something was wrong, that I was up to something. I told her she was a psycho. She said I was a liar. In truth, I had met Anna, who had oodles of coke and plenty of time for me. As Doolie became more accusatory, I became scarcer and, strangely, more possessive. We had epic fights. I began, and there is no nice way to say this, smacking her around. I had always remembered that I hit her—my face hot each time that I did—but I told myself that it was always in response to some physical provocation from her. I knew when I saw her again, without even reconsidering, that that was a lie. It is one thing to type those words, but quite another to be sitting on a park bench in Chicago with Doolie, talking about what happened two decades later.
For a time, she lived at Thirty-eighth and Cedar, just down the street from the Relax-a-Lounge, a massage parlor/whorehouse where I had some customers. As she talked, I remember I had stopped there to drop something off and then went to Doolie’s place, and we got in some kind of argument. She reminded me that we ended up out on the lawn, with me kneeling on her arms and hitting her. “You hit me, and you somehow pushed me down. Do you mind if I do this?” she asked, as she put her hands on my shoulders. “It might be kind of pathetic, but you had me on each shoulder, and you were hitting me back and forth and were saying, ‘I’m going to kill you.’” The demonstration was not meant to shame, only to create a clear picture of what it felt like to be her, restrained and pummeled at the same time. The memory comes pouring back to me as she describes that day. Every word of it was true. I had done these things. More than once in those days, she walked away with a black eye and started to get thin and spooky from the long nights with me. Her parents tried to get her to come home to North Dakota, but she hung in, even after she found out about Anna. “The smart girl would walk away,” she said. “But no, I didn’t. I stayed there and took it for another year.” She is smiling when she says this, smiling at her own lack of self-regard. What easily could have hardened into hatred and blame, has, over the years, become something more complicated. There is a mutuality to our discussion—what I did, what she did—that I had neither expected nor really deserved. In the course of an interview, blank spots filled in and mysteries resolved themselves.
When we began dating again after I sobered up, I had company: my twins from my relationship with Anna. We did our best to find what had brought us together with such ferocity, but crawling across all that wreckage was too exhausting. We met, as they say, in each other’s weakness. I was a slow-motion kidnapper, and Doolie served a long, brutal stint in my custody. But now anybody walking by the park bench in Chicago would have seen two old friends, laughing, sharing stories, smiling at each other.
He ended up millions to the bad and earned a long prison sentence when he was finally caught. Patrick has some mental health issues that attenuated his relationship with reality once he was in the thick of things, but that explains everything and excuses nothing.
Patrick said he learned back in those days that getting what he needed out of me as a reporter required some clock minding. “I finally figured out at some point that if I wanted to give you political news, I really needed to do it between about 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.,” he wrote in the summer of 2007. “You were always crashing in the morning and too fucking high at night to deal with.”
We went bar hopping and ended up at Stand Up Frank’s, the kind of place where a screwdriver was a glass full of vodka that the bartender whispered the words “orange juice” over before handing it to you.
Heroin has a pickling effect. Heading out into the world once or at most twice a day to cop, heroin people spend most of their time on the nod, watching soaps and listening to Leonard Cohen.
[…] the eyes that saw too much because they did not close often enough.
In a broader sense, addiction can be enormously simplifying. While other people worry about their 401(k)’s, getting their kids into the right nursery school and/or college, and keeping their plot to take over the world in good effect, a junkie or a drunk just has to worry about his next dose. It leads to a life that is, in a way, remarkably organized. What are we doing today? Exactly what we did yesterday, give or take.
He eventually moved out to Los Angeles and ended up going to the hospital with a massive nasal hemorrhage. I talked to him on the phone that day, as I did whenever he got out of his box. He wanted to know what he should do. And I would always tell him the same thing: If your nose hurts, quit sticking things up there.
“The person who invented crack is so evil,” she suggested. Someone walking by our table at the hotel did a double take when she said that, but she continued. “You have to be really self-destructive to stick a needle in your arm, do all of the preparation, where it’s so easy to stick this pipe in your mouth, suck in some smoke, and the next thing you know, you’re in hell.
I found out that as a birthday gift, her friends had surprised her with a naked young man hanging from the ceiling of her cabin. I was livid. “I can remember being at my cabin, and you giving me a black eye and breaking my rib and throwing me off the dock,” she said. I had not remembered that last part, but as soon as she said it, I knew it had to be true. I did not so much move in with Anna as suddenly become someone who did not leave. Regardless of who is doing the remembering, some nasty, ineluctable truths lie between us. She was in the habit of slamming doors in my face—I called her “Bam Bam” in part because of that—and I was in the habit of coming right through those doors and choking her. She was using crack when her water broke, signaling that the twins had arrived two and a half months early. I was the one who had brought her those drugs. I treated her as an ATM, using her drugs and money almost at will, while she seemed more than willing to make the trade. In spite of the fact that I was the one who stepped up and raised our children, who shook off the Life, there are times when the moral high ground rests with her. I hit her, for one thing. For another, whatever she did, she did out of a kind of love. My presence in her life was far more mercenary.
It is the stopping, the quitting, the walking away that we cannot abide because the ceaseless activity keeps the accounting at bay. The mania of addiction, as expressed by anything—coke, booze, betting, sex—finds renewed traction every time it halts because once the perpetrator stops and sees how deeply and truly his life now sucks, there is only one thing that will make him feel better: more of same. Often the only thing that imposes limits on someone who is hooked on his own endorphins is money.
After Anna found out she was pregnant, she went into treatment at the end of 1987. I watched her kids with the help of her family. When she got back, she seemed to have some new friends from treatment and began disappearing. One night I confronted her at the front door and began fishing around in her pockets, not precisely sure what I was looking for. My index finger came out of her shirt’s front pocket stuck to a needle. I raged, lectured, talking about the dangers of overdose, but probably sat down with her and began shooting cocaine later that same day. It was a dangerous, bloody activity. I feel a profound sense of shame even typing about it. No one can really describe how lost you have to be to get on the treadmill of sticking a needle in your arm, leg, foot, or hand every twenty minutes.
At the time, I was surprised that the cops and the turnkeys were so indifferent, so bored by me. “Lemme guess, lurking with intent to mope, right?” said one of the cops in booking, recognizing a frequent flyer when he saw one. I became just one more part of the human chum that courses through the creaky apparatus of the criminal justice system.
When Anna’s water broke in her living room on Oliver Avenue, I had just handed her a crack pipe. We stared at each other, each of us running the numbers in our head. She had just entered her third trimester. It was hard to tell whether we were in the midst of giving birth or participating in a kind of neonatal homicide. The water beneath her became a puddle of implication. Now look what we did.
One night I was there with all of the kids, and Anna was out somewhere. I was working on a particularly remarkable batch of coke. I had a new pipe, clean screens, a fresh blowtorch, and the kids were asleep. It was just me and Barley, a Corgi mix I’d had since college. When I was alone with Barley, I’d ask her random questions. Barley didn’t talk back per se, but I saw the answers by staring into her large brown eyes. Am I a lunatic? Yes. When am I going to cut this shit out? Apparently never. Does God see me right now? Yes. God sees everything.
Kenny actually has a lot of fondness—in clinical terms, it would be called “euphoric recall”—for those days.
29 THE LAST WORST NIGHT
Yeah but except so how can I answer just yes or no to do I want to stop coke? Do I think I want to absolutely I think I want to. I don’t have a septum no more. My septum’s been like fucking dissolved by coke. See? You see anything like a septum when I lift up like that? I’ve absolutely with my whole heart thought I wanted to stop and so forth. Ever since with the septum. So but so since I’ve been wanting to stop this whole time, why couldn’t I stop? See what I’m saying? Isn’t it all about wanting to and so on? And so forth? How can living here and going to meetings and all do anything except make me want to stop? But I think I already want to stop. How come I’d even be here if I didn’t want to stop? Isn’t being here proof I want to stop? But then so how come I can’t stop, if I want to stop, is the thing. —DAVID FOSTER WALLACE, INFINITE JEST
Just before Thanksgiving in 1988—on November 18, 1988, as I later found out—I called my parents and told them that the twins were not safe, and I needed to bring them by. “You told us that there were no adults in the house, that it was a dangerous place for children to be,” my dad recalled. He said I promised to enter detox right away.
Job? Gone. Girlfriend? History. Dignity? Please. Money? As if. Children? Orphans. The math had been solved. I was at zero times zero.
Avoid writing or reading junkie memoirs. The line between prurience and pratfall is razor thin. Nothing doing here, nothing but triggers, keep moving.
Party but don’t use. A drunk alone with himself is in a terrible neighborhood. Resume life in civil society and go out, but always plan your own escape route just in case a glass of whiskey begins whispering your name.
All angels bring terror. —RAINER MARIA RILKE
About a month after arriving at Eden House, I was surprised to see John, a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, walking through the joint with a staff member. He was taking a tour because he wanted to see for himself where some of the casualties of the crack epidemic were washing up. I stopped him and said hello. Obviously surprised to see another journalist, he asked, “What are you doing here?” “I’m one of the knuckleheads, John,” I said. “I live here.” “Ohhhhhh, undercover, huh? Smart move,” he said. Not exactly. In the last month of 1988, and for the first five months of 1989, this was my place, and these were my people. And while it is one thing to find yourself in a place full of lunatics, crackheads, and career losers, it is quite another to notice that you fit right in.
Many of the guys there were so-called dual diagnosis, MI-CD, which stood for mentally incompetent, chemically dependent.
“I work to help people make a conscious decision and then begin to believe in that decision,” he was quoted in the story, characteristically concise.
Sitting there many years later, he told me plain and simple that the reason he did not let me go was that weddings were slippery places; that in his clinical analysis, I wasn’t ready, and he decided to just say no and see what I would do. It was far from a whimsical decision, but it was a patently unfair one. Then again, there was a sign in the main room of Eden House that promulgated three truths: “Nothing’s Fair, Nothing’s Fair, Nothing’s Fair.”
As I sat there at the coffee shop next to a rolling video camera, I told Marion that I remembered going down to his office to shove that therapeutic no up his ass. But I had left his office, stayed in the program, and had not gone to the wedding. What had he said? He remembered what I did not. “You were on the verge, and I told you, ‘Well, why don’t you just get those two girls high too?’ And you kind of flipped out, because those girls were the loves of your life, and just the thought scared you.”
Midway into our trip, there was fearful talk of some guys on the lake with outboards and twelve-packs of Bud; drunken motorboaters from Canada. Someone said that they had yelled something untoward at the women in our group. It fell to Marion to recontextualize the situation: “There are twenty-three of us. We are people who have been cut up, shot, beat with chains. Some of us shot dope into our eyeballs because that’s where the best veins were. Nobody in their right mind is going to mess with us.”
What if I had not been born in Minnesota, the land of abundant lakes, ample treatment centers, and endless forgiveness? What if I lived in a state or a country or a time—like now, for instance—where after the second or third treatment, they said, “Gosh, Mr. Carr, you seem to be having trouble getting the hang of this. Is this really a good use of the hard-earned tax money of the citizens of our state?” The state of Minnesota, along with the Feds, paid for at least three treatments, gave me general assistance while I was in the booby hatch, and, when I got custody of my children, issued me food stamps to feed them. A few years later, I got cancer, and it paid for all of that too. God bless the welfare state, God bless Minnesota, God bless the milk of human kindness. Not a bad investment, in retrospect. Not only did the state not have to bear the burden of permanently placing the twins in foster care, but I had been a very good candidate to graduate from jail to prison, which is a very expensive proposition. As a citizen with the wheels glued back on, I have probably kicked back more than $300,000 in federal and state taxes. I’m hoping they drop a little of it on a loser like me. Insurance companies now treat rehab like a tune-up, funding a couple of weeks at most. But some are sicker than others. Redemption comes on a schedule known only to God, and as a civilized people, it’s probably best to put good money after bad, hoping that the lightning eventually strikes. Am I right, or is that just me?
Call on God, but row away from the rocks. —HUNTER S. THOMPSON
If that sounds like some after-school special, with the fat ex-junkie dad singing to his misbegotten daughters, well, it is what it is.
The unmanageability of addiction does not begin and end with the addict. All those around them begin to pivot and react to the pathology in their midst. After awhile, I came to understand just a small bit of the mayhem I had inflicted on bystanders. In October of 1989 I found a sheriff’s note on Anna’s door, saying that the house was being foreclosed on. She was inside, surrounded by a collage of junk, puttering around and saying that it would all work out, that she had some money coming in soon. On October 20, I stopped by to get the girls. They looked remarkably out of sorts. Anna talked absently about being short on diapers again and that Steve had said he was bringing some food over, but he had not come. In truth, he had mostly pulled out a couple of weeks before, no longer able to abide what was going on.
I mumbled something about bringing them back soon, and we went to the nearby 7-Eleven on Penn and Dowling avenues in North Minneapolis. The twins were frantic, wailing their heads off, so I could not bring them in the store. More so than most parents, I was freakish about leaving them in the car, a body memory gripping me when I stepped away even for a second. I waited until the spot right in front of the door opened up, and I went and quickly bought diapers, milk, new bottles, and some bananas. While I changed them, they each drained a bottle of milk. And then another. They ate the bananas with an animal intensity while I stood outside the window of the car and stared at them. I decided not to bring them back, not really knowing what that meant other than the fact that I would need more clothes and more money.
In this formulation, when I started pursuing custody, I was just a beefier version of Mother Teresa, all selflessness and calm, and Anna was a nasty basket case.
I would drop them off for a visit with Anna, and Meagan would cut her own hair, or end up in the ER because she had stuck eyeliner in her eye, or had cuts all over her legs from using a razor in the bathroom. Anna would be sober and reasonable for a while, and then something would happen, and she would fall down. In her affidavit at the time, Anna describes it differently. Because I had served time as a wrecking ball in her life, she felt that I was hardly entitled to pull this holier-than-thou crap in court and that she deserved custody regardless of her fitness at the time. In her filing to the court, she said I had: 1. Ruined her life. True, but it was sort of tit for tat. 2. Physically and psychologically abused her when we lived together. Dead bang true. 3. Left her when she became pregnant. False. 4. Forced her to leave for Texas by my abusive behavior. False. I was long past terrorizing her; she was doing a pretty good job of it herself. 5. Ignored the fact that she had been sober and fully employed since she moved to Texas. True to an extent, at least in terms of the ignoring part, because it was all lies. 6. Reneged on an agreement to send the children there along with child support after six months. True, but I had my reasons. 7. Ignored the fact that she called constantly when she was in Texas. Almost never, and if she did, she was geeked or drunk. 8. Used her absence to make a move on custody. True, to a point. I had the children, but no portfolio to go with that fact. And she continued to say she was coming back and never seemed to pull it off.
ANNA: Why can’t you just spend a little money to send them to me? I’m asking you, begging you, to send money so they can come see me.
ANNA: I can’t fucking believe that you took those babies from me, stole my money, stole my drugs, and you don’t even have the decency to send them to their mother!
ANNA: I have not seen those kids in ten years. Ten years! I’m asking you, begging you, to spend a little money so that they can come see me.
ANNA: After you stole my money, ruined my business, ruined my life, really, you can’t fucking find it in your heart to spend a little money to send them to me!
Part of the program that I am living every day requires that I take a fearless moral inventory of myself and share it with another person. The priest listened impassively as I described leaving my children parked outside the crack house on a cold winter’s night. He didn’t react when I talked about leaving them hungry while I took another hit. When I was finished, I was crying. I asked how I could ever be forgiven. Each sober breath you draw is an act of grace, my friend said. You are making amends every day you do not use. I found enough comfort in what he said to forgive myself…
When a woman, any woman, has issues with substances or has kids out of wedlock, and ends up struggling as a single parent, she is identified by many names: slut, loser, welfare mom, a burden on society. Take those same circumstances and array them over a male, and he becomes a crown prince. See the lone white male doing that dad thing and, with a flick of the wrist, the mom thing too! (I found out later that regardless of that conceit, I was not Erin’s and Meagan’s mom. Their mom was their mom.) Why is it that the same series of overt acts becomes somehow ennobled by gender?
Without fail, when one of the kids got hurt in a public place, skinning a knee, some woman would swoop in out of nowhere. More than once I had to elbow aside someone with a hiss. As far as I could tell, taking care of my children did not require ovaries.
On some nights I would find myself outside the door of our apartment, saying a prayer that was really a mix of swearing and muttering. Dear God, please know that these little girls have me on the run. Meagan was not a good sleeper, which meant that she would wake up Erin, which would mean that I would be up, sometimes night after night with one or the other. Absent alcohol or coke for artificial stamina, I began to wear out. Wendy, a playwright who lived downstairs from us on Dupont and loved the girls, called the cops one night because she was absolutely sure that no one with a pulse could sleep through Meagan’s wailing. But there I was, in a coma born of exhaustion. My journals from the time are filled with desperate entries that sound like they were written from a foxhole. Like a lot of newish parents, I wrote longing sonnets about sleep and often wished there was someone, anyone, to take the weight. Women often marry men in the belief that they will grow into something else. That never worked on me, drunk or sober, but these little women landed on me with profound effect.
There was plenty of professional awkwardness to begin with when I was attempting to rehabilitate my reputation after a very public pratfall. Part of the problem with authentic recovery is that you are stuck with the same rhetorical set that you had when you were chronically relapsing. This time, I’m really about something. No, this time. No, now, I really, really mean it. That was then, today I’m completely done with that shit. OK, I know I said it before, but once and for all, it is over. Unless it isn’t. The addict shares the skepticism of those who behold him. Part of it is practical—you have to do the hard work of staying sober—but part of it is mystical. Guys I thought were perfectly fine, running a better show than I ever dreamed of, were the ones who jumped off a bridge, ate a shotgun, OD’d. Yeah, sure, better them than me, but shit, what if it were me? The defining characteristic of recovery from addiction, or any other chronic health issue, is that you are fine until you are not. To the normal person, it can seem completely baffling. In my case, why would someone who was quick out of the gate as a writer with nothing but future piss it all away through self-seeking self-destruction? But civilians are equally bewildering to the addict. I’ve watched people drink a glass and a half of wine and push away the rest. What exactly is the point of that? Regular people, people who are not drunks or addicts, will drink too much, get a horrible hangover, and decide not to do it again. And then they don’t. An addict decides that there was something wrong with his technique or the ratios. Too much coke or not enough. It was the gin; from now on, brown liquor only. And water, I forgot to drink water. Or maybe it was the lack of food. Next time I think about doing shots on an empty stomach at three in the afternoon, I’m going to order a grilled cheese. That should make a huge difference. Addicts are not types. They walk among us. The quiet, prim girl maintaining the computer servers who is sick a lot. The manically controlling überbitch sales manager. The meek, undermining quisling who runs the office and is up in everybody’s business. The back-slapping boss who seems so happy about everything every day that it calls for just a couple of pops. Drunks all. Pill heads. Coke fiends. All flavors, all living nights full of desperation and longing, followed by fitful, mortifying mornings filled with desperate oaths to never let it happen again. But it will.
There was enough avoidance in all that concern that I began to think I had a case of “It,” instead of cancer. How is It going? Did they get all of It? What’s Its status? Oh, do you mean this giant cancerous tumor on my neck that is tipping my head over? “It” seems to be doing fine. The host is a little freaked out, though.
Coo taught my daughters that women make stuff—she adored power tools—and that there was no need to wait for a man to get things going. She had been married to a great guy, a farmer, who cracked the occasional fag joke. Having spent much of my college years hanging out with a coven of brilliant pot-smoking lesbians—and noticing how Coo’s eyes got wide when she was around them—I knew that one day she would wake up and tell her husband she was one of those people.
After I went to Sam, my boss at The New York Times, to let him know about the book, we talked about what such a project might look like. “You know that part about where you dust yourself off and take over the world?” he asked. I said, yeah. “That shit is sooo boooooooring. Nobody wants to read about that.” Still, the fundaments of the genre require me to run close and careful analysis on how exactly I reversed course from certain damnation and came to a professional life beyond all expectation. So here goes: I worked a lot.
Herman Melville, in talking about history, said that the past is the textbook of tyrants, while the future is the bible of the free.
Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. —LEONARD, A MAN WHO CANNOT MAKE NEW MEMORIES AND IS SEARCHING FOR HIS WIFE’S KILLER, MEMENTO.
I haven’t seen you in ages, but it’s not as bleak as it seems. We still dance in my outrageously beautiful Busby Berkeley dreams. —MAGNETIC FIELDS, “BUSBY BERKELEY DREAMS”
With a bit of a drumroll, she cues up “At the Bottom of Everything” by Bright Eyes, a band we both adore that sings about meeting the future with “our flashlights and our love.” It is ostensibly about a plane crash, but its raucous chorus reminds that there is happiness in taking any trip, even one that ends in a fiery death, together. It’s a gorgeous song, full of hope, terror, and portent, all leavened by the power of human love. We are having a moment. The sun is beginning to hide in the valleys we tear past, and as dusk becomes dark, a very full moon makes a spectacular appearance. Her hand slips into mine. We will be fine.
Which raised the question of why I flopped around for three years before admitting that I was right the first time when I said I was powerless over alcohol. But there are benefits to a long, hot soak in booze, especially for the drunk. You say you’re a bit bored by the banal splendors of everyday life? Try taking them away. When I was in the midst of an off-and-on jag with booze, I would have given anything to go to bed like a normal person and get up and go to work, with no consideration of dosage the night before or the shakes that inevitably arrived the following morning. As a drunk, every question asked of me seemed freighted with threat. A simple inquiry like, “What have you been up to?” becomes an indictment in the drunk’s ears. Oh, not much, sneaking drinks at every opportunity, having occasional blackouts, and doing my level best to generate a patina of normalcy over all the mayhem.
To people who do not have the allergy, there is no clear way to explain the unmanageability that goes with addiction. A drunk or an addict picks up a shot or a dose because, same as everyone, he just wants to feel a little different. But it never stops there. I could be drunk tomorrow or shooting dope even as you read this, but the chances of that are low as long as I make a daily decision to embrace who I really am and then be satisfied with that at the end of the day.
I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.
The music I listened to all summer to write the book, to hear something besides the voice of regret from me and others in those long nights of writing? (Songs most frequently played: “Chillout Tent” by the Hold Steady, “Bastards of Young” by the Replacements, “You Love to Fail” by the Magnetic Fields, Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, by Beethoven, “Whatever Happened to the Girl in Me?” by Ike Reilly—2,836 songs, all listened to at least once.) 6.94 gigabytes.