Illustration by Ward Sutton
I wasn’t excited about going to my brother-in-law’s 40th birthday party. Then again, I haven’t been excited about going to any party since becoming old enough and flush enough to buy my own personal cake and ice cream on arbitrary weekdays. Why the ennui? Simple: I’m bad at parties. Self-conscious. Uncomfortable. A terrible mixer. All this rapidly becomes obvious when my wife, Lauren, a world-class mixer, inevitably goes off to mix and I’m left standing amongst the cheese trays and nut bowls scanning the room for another lone soul in need of a conversational beard. That person, a quick, party-wide scan reliably reveals, does not exist. Everyone’s in pairs, having ongoing conversations I find it impossible to step up to, sure I’ll interrupt at a punch line or the climax of a story, or as they’re revealing themselves to be closet racists or anti-Semites or—God help me—cat people, and turning to me, seeking universal affirmation of their deplorable biases, will say, “Right?”
So I stand. Conspicuously alone. All eyes upon me, damning me as the loser no one will talk to or the arrogant bastard who’s too good to talk to anyone. I tense up in their disapproving glare. Not wishing to risk eye contact, I shoot nervous glances here and there. It soon becomes obvious no one is looking at me. Everyone’s having too good a time to notice…my aching, involuntary aloneness. In short order, my anxiety is joined by despondency: I have no friends, no one cares, this party is my life in microcosm, and I clearly macrosuck.
At some point, the quarantangst (quarantine + angst) becomes too much and I look for Lauren. She’ll let me attach to the group she’s chatting with. Übermixer that she is, however, she won’t remain in the conversation long before moving on. Whereupon one of two things happens: the other person quickly exits, too, and I’m the same old alone in a new location. Or, second scenario, the person I’m left with is a yakker, i.e., someone who never asks a question, never shuts up, and never, no matter how much I will it, contracts accelerated leprosy causing his tongue to fall to the floor with a moist thud. And as I stand there, trapped, without the social skills to extricate myself from the bottomless soliloquist, my brain bored, my ears bleeding, I know the only thing that will bring me true happiness is to be alone. Like before. When I was truly miserable.
But those are my boilerplate, broad-spectrum party misgivings. My sister Nancy’s invitation to her husband’s shindig filled me with more particular apprehensions. To wit:
Scott. In my late teens and early twenties, Scott had truly been like an older brother. We were tight. That meant hanging out a lot, listening to music, playing chess, playing cards, golfing, camping, fishing, talking in such torrents about the plagues of the Vietnam War, Watergate, disco, et al., you might have assumed we were getting paid by the word. (In fact, we were both frequently out of work and not being paid for words or anything else.) Oh, and in a criminally egregious instance of burying the lede, we smoked pot. Constantly and zealously.
Over time, though, Scott stopped being the older brother I never had and turned into the second father I never needed. By 40, his views had turned highly conservative (as did his memories, with both the world’s and his own histories becoming laughably revisionist) and the torrents of talk came almost exclusively from his spliff-hole, telling me what to think without pausing long enough for me to actually say what I thought. He’d settled into a steady factory job doing piecework, a largely laissez-faire environment that didn’t require him to surrender those last vestiges of hippiedom he still embraced—namely, the long hair and recreational activities. Meanwhile, I’d taken a more whimsical path, becoming a copywriter, then creative director at an ad agency. Along the way I’d forsaken the weed—a decision no one regretted except the Doritos division of Frito-Lay, Inc. The ultimate upshot being we didn’t hang out anymore, just crossed paths a couple times a year at family get-togethers.
But in light of our past and the milestone occasion, I couldn’t refuse the birthday invitation. Besides, that’s why some passive-aggressive megamind had invented arriving late and leaving early.
The guests. When I hung with Scott, I also saw a lot of his friends, most of whom allowed me to think they were my friends, too, because—why not? It’s not like I had their phone numbers or wanted to borrow money. They, too, were older than I was by three, four, five years, and such age gaps being magnified by youth, I was generally treated as a man-child, not really their intellectual or worldly-wise equal. To be honest, they did seem more informed, more authoritative, further along on the road to enlightenment, albeit via potent illegal hallucinogens I’d yet to consume. On the night of Scott’s 40th, I hadn’t seen any of those guys in, minimum, 10 years. The question was: What could I expect from these ghosts from my past: Casper, Beetlejuice, or Banquo?
Me. Full disclosure: I hadn’t so much abandoned the reefer lifestyle as swapped it out. Several years of bartending, before and during college, had opened my eyes to the ease, the joys, the advantages of alcohol, especially binge drinking: instantly procurable, less expensive, completely legal, and cripplingly more numbing. Meaning any given “wet” social gathering held the potential to turn into one scarred by regrettable behavior and followed by a remorseful morning after. Such nights had, in fact, happened sufficiently often that I’d occasionally felt compelled to make a pledge to quit. The use of the word “occasionally” will alert sharper readers to the non-binding nature of my pledges.
As Lauren and I drove to Scott and Nancy’s house, I considered the dangers and devised a comprehensive strategy. 1. Keep contact with Scott to a minimum. 2. Be an adult and an equal with any old acquaintances in attendance. 3. Do not drink.
Yeah. Let’s party!
I did not wake up; I slowly regained consciousness. Though cognizance remained a stranger. The time? The place? Unknown. I had no memory of, well, at that moment, anything. I lay, fully dressed, tangled in a sheet on a twin bed. Winter sun poured through a window. I squinted at my watch: nearly noon. My head was an empty hanger echoing with distorted guitar feedback, feeling tender as a stubbed toe. Trying to focus, to process, I began to catalog elements of the room around me: a baseball poster, a small desk, a low pine dresser, a carpet circa Nancy and Scott’s old apartment. Struggling through the neural goo, I was at last able to grasp I was in my teenage nephew’s room.
How and why this came to be were questions I could barely form, much less answer. A more immediate issue was the dawning need to empty my bladder. From such a move, I knew, even through my stupor, there was no turning back. Because once I’d flushed the toilet and alerted those in the house I was awake (alive?), I’d have no choice but to go downstairs and walk my suffering into the spotlight.
Plodding down the hall and into the bathroom, I strained to dredge the missing hours tucked deep in the throbbing folds of my brain. Nothing. I could only recall our arrival; an hors d’oeuvre or two; chatting with a ghost here and there; failing to connect or impress or release; and not drinking. Then the screen went black.
By the time I reached the living room, Scott, Nancy and their son, Brian, were all there awaiting my appearance. Three toothy, good-natured smiles told me it was even worse than I’d feared.
“So, you made it,” my sister said. “How’re you feeling?” Nancy is a nurse and never in my life did I have more need of her medical skills. The conservative course of treatment being a craniumectomy.
That the group all looked wide-awake, in good condition and spirits, only deepened my depression: Wake up in a group hangover and you’ve gone with the flow, made the same mistake as everyone else; wake up with the only hangover in sight and you’ve gone too far, lost control, let your weakness, your failing, show. This room was unanimous in feeling better than me physically, and was in a justifiable position—practically obligated, in fact—to judge me psychologically, emotionally, and morally.
“What happened?” I asked. This was not curiosity. It was to append the incomplete neurological record and cast light on the worrisome shadows of my dread.
And so I listened. Heard about being cajoled by an insistent ghost into the kitchen for a group toast. A shooter. A single drink that, evidently, woke not a thirst but an obscene hunger. More shots followed, I was informed. I’d very quickly gotten loud, kept drinking, started lurching, kept drinking, become hilarious, and kept drinking. My fervor grew as my reason dissolved. I danced, reeled, waved my arms about, exhorted the reticent to join the fray. Falling hard, I broke a lamp. Astonishing as it may seem, this demoralizing tale was told with good humor. No anger, no disgust. At some point, I stopped listening. It was all too humiliating. Too shaming. Too terribly familiar.
“Is Lauren here?” I asked. There was no good answer to that.
“She left last night. Said you guys are supposed to take Mom to the Home and Garden Show today,” Nancy reported.
“She was pretty mad,” Scott added. “Said you could find your own way home.”
Jesus. Memory gone. Self-respect gone. Wife gone. And I was still facing three smiles. Irony is heartless.
Scott drove me home. On the way, he kindly and thoroughly explained me to me. And for all I know, somewhere in his monologue he hit upon the true essence of who I am, how I function, and what my place in the world is or should be. But if he did, I missed it. My compromised mentality was preoccupied by the phone conversation I’d had with Lauren a few minutes before. She’d answered on her way out to pick up my mom, fulfilling a commitment I’d made. Our exchange had been terse, the silences doing most of the talking. The sign-off lived in my unsettled gut.
“So, I’ll see you later,” I said.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Spoiler alert: I’ve never had another drink and Lauren didn’t leave me. For my part, I made the only decision that made sense; Lauren made a far more dubious choice. And I’m not being disingenuous.
In the immediate aftermath of my shame, I’d showered Lauren with heartfelt apologies and earnest promises she had no reason to accept or believe. She didn’t. Yet she stayed. Correction: Conditionally paused. Told me she’d reached her limit of pain. Said she would now be responsible only for herself. Declared our future tentative. Offered no commitment to stay beyond day to day.
In light of all the grief, my breaks of faith, can I explain why Lauren allowed me even that slender thread? No. But not because I don’t know; because I have no right. Lauren’s story isn’t mine to tell, only embrace.
What I can say is this: I’ve never been so near to losing everything I had and wanted in the world than on that day. Never have I felt more desperate and wretched, more sad and afraid, more detestable and worthless, more purposeful and resolved. That Lauren, faced with a husband she could not trust, who’d exploited her affections, didn’t walk away was a gift too precious to squander.
I’ll spare you the details of my recovery and redemption. It is, mercifully, boring. Replete with counseling, devoid of relapses. I don’t get thirsty or jumpy or envious when surrounded by drink and drinkers. I’m not “active” in my sobriety—that is, I don’t attend AA meetings or chat online with other lapsed drunks. Neither have I reverted to pot nor switched to pills. I even have a small cellar of French wines I like to serve to dinner guests. My rehabilitation has been so thorough, is now such a nonissue, some readers may doubt the severity of my problem in the first place, disbelieve my addiction. That’s their right. I only know it was bad enough for me.
Others, I realize, may fear my nonchalance demonstrates an arrogance that can only end inside a bottle. Maybe. Long sober doesn’t mean permanently sober. But just as surely as love revealed the necessity of sobriety, and provided me the chance and impetus to achieve it, something else entirely gives me the strength to maintain it: video.
I own the footage. A few milliseconds of silent images, vivid as the day they were recorded 20-plus years ago. Two shots cut together, back-to-back, screened randomly but persistently, unbidden and unwanted, on the flip side of my forehead. Shot one: Interior, Nancy and Scott’s kitchen, my POV. I stand in a circle of partiers holding brim-full shot glasses all around. We toss them back. Before the alcohol can burn my gullet, cut to: Interior, my nephew’s room. From high in the corner of the ceiling, I peer down on a twin bed to see me stir awake: Bob, The Drunk. Lost and exposed.
The footage is a vicious blow every time. Its power is raw, undiminished by time or my hundreds of views. These are not moments recalled but wreckage relived. I get still, like prey in a dangerous wood. My heart tumbles. Sometimes there are tears. And I tell myself: That can’t be me. Except I know the only way it can’t be is from that defining day forward.
We’re not done. Before I stop typing, I’ll confess a little something more. What I’ve written here is a story—a life experience that I never share. Never. Truth is, I very rarely tell people I’m an alcoholic. I prefer to allow friends and neighbors, colleagues and casual acquaintances, the option of seeing me as timelessly flawless, a godlike entity worthy of admiration, if not awe. (Whether they do or not, I can’t say.) Why I’m revealing the worst of me to you now, here, in a place where I can’t take it back or run from it, isn’t quite clear to me. Perhaps I’ve over-shared, unwisely rung an un-unringable bell. Wouldn’t surprise me. Stopping drinking didn’t solve all my problems, just my worst one.