My Higher Power must be pleased. I just returned from my first AA meeting in possession of a “24-hour chip” — an object that looks like an outsized arcade token, stamped with Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer. I’m told that if it melts in my mouth, then I can have a drink.
How drinking became both a crutch and a near-occasion of sin, and how I came to see that it had, is another story for another day. Maybe. I’ve found that only the best-written recovering-addict memoirs can hold my interest. Much more often, they run to the mawkish. (That James Frey saw fit to tart his up with car chases and the like is hardly to be wondered at.) The point for now is that it did happen, and that I did see, and that, having seen, I am resolved to act.
My commitment to AA itself is still an iffy thing. I can’t say I found the meeting a terribly uplifting experience. The people looked shabby and tended to babble when they “shared.” (It now occurs to me that AA meetings might have been the first places where “share” was used to mean “confess,” and the first places where people were thanked for doing so.) Frankly, I couldn’t wait to get out of there. But my commitment to leading the sober life is real enough. If nothing else, showing up and formally declaring myself a souse was an important symbolic gesture.
It’s amazing that no one thought to appoint St. Paul patron of substance abusers. Though I’ve never heard it suggested he had a wine problem, he spoke for every lush, junkie, cokehead and tweaker since Noah when he coined the term “slave to sin.” He was speaking generally of mankind’s fallen state, but a chemical dependency feels like nothing so much as Original Sin deluxe; not only does the addict fall short of the glory of God, he falls short of the glory of ordinary people. With minimal volition on his part, a habit forms and banishes his best self offstage. Most striking of all is the fact that many addicts are anything but slavelike in other areas of their lives. In the 1980s, a cocaine problem was a sign that a man had arrived, a nouveau riche answer to membership in the Knickerbocker Club.
I wish I could claim that alcoholism looked so incongruous on me, but if I’m being honest, I must admit it does not. In Last King of Scotland, Idi Amin asks Dr. Garrigan, his corrupted personal physician, “Is there one single thing you have done that is good?” A bit later, he predicts, “I think your death will be the first real thing you have done.” By “real,” the field marshal and president-for-life means “active and wholehearted,” as opposed to passive and ambivalent — states far more characteristic of Garrigan. Replaying my life, I find that, alas, those states are also characteristic of me. Good and real acts, though not wholly absent, are far fewer than I would like them to have been.
This upsets me for a reason that will strike many people as frivolous: the slimness of my firsthand knowledge of the good and the real limits me as a writer. Extending the principle of “write what you know,” an English novelist named Hugh Kingsmill once said that no writer “can put more virtue into his work than he practices in his life.” Whether or not that’s true of fiction writers — who, after all, tend to be blessed with an overabundance of something called imagination — it’s certainly true of pundits. A divergence of author’s words from author’s deed that might be called a cunning multiplication of selves in a short story, becomes plain stinking hypocrisy in an opinion column.
That might explain why I’m so attracted to humor, which is essentially amoral. Yes, it can be pressed into service for some worthy cause or other, but when used as a didactic tool, humor is more often clever than side-splittingly funny. (Once you’ve guessed the lesson, it is unlikely that any delivery system will catch you that far off guard.) At their worst, moralizing wits like Joseph Epstein, Bill Cosby and, yes, G.K. Chesterton, can sound unbearably smug. Often, the most effective jokes — if we agree to rate effect by the loudness and suddenness of the laughs it provokes — are the ones that make us gasp, “That’s just wrong!”
Well and good. The world needs this stuff. Most of us are simply not cut out to wage culture war 24/7. But at least in my own case, humor can serve to unburden the conscience just a little too quickly. Many have been the times when, tied into knots pondering the ultimate meaning of this or that unsettling event, I’ve quipped and kidded myself, half-consciously, into believing that all of life is absurd, random, and finally meaningless (though a real thigh-slapper). Now, having acted decisively in what could have become a matter of life or death, I humbly acknowledge that, in certain instances, there can be real importance in being earnest.
I am hopeful. If my experience means anything, not drinking can be as habit-forming as drinking. With my usual perversity, I took barely a drop during all four undergrad years. In ought-seven, I was able to swear off booze for the 40 days of Lent. In both cases, and during various other periods of abstention, the rewards of sobriety — more money in my pocket, fewer causes for self-reproach, and, yes, earning a BA, along with a magna cord, in four short years — were addictive in their own right.
I am fearful. As easy as I’ve sometimes found it to abstain, the gloomy fact remains that every single time something pushed me off the wagon. Usually, it was a snarl of problems that struck me as both unsolvable and undeserved. “As long as I’m screwed, I might as well be stewed,” does justice to the general drift of my thinking. Life having gotten no simpler or fairer since my last stretch as a teetotaler, I’ll have no choice but to keep my guard up as long as I live.
In the final scene of Trainspotting — the best addiction movie ever made, with the possible exception of Boogie Nights – Mark Renton, having decided to kick heroin for good, is running in slow-motion through London, suitcase in hand. (He’s bound for the cross-Channel ferry, and from there, to Amsterdam, hardly the Betty Ford Clinic.) In a voiced-over monologue, he says: “The truth is that I’m a bad person. But, that’s gonna change — I’m going to change. This is the last of that sort of thing. Now I’m cleaning up and I’m moving on, going straight and choosing life.” He goes on to promise – or perhaps warn — the audience, whose settled existence he’s spent the last two hours mocking, “I’m going to be just like you.”
Well, that’s rather a proud series of boasts. I’m not sure I’m ready to match it. Certainly I’ve never wanted to be like anyone but me. Instead, I’ll just repeat, simply, that my name is Max and I’m an alcoholic.