Well, it’s Day Sixteen, and I’m pleased to report that I’ve felt no very strong urge to drink. It’s not that I’ve enclosed myself in any bubble; since the Sunday before last, I’ve passed by innumerable bars and liquor stores. True, I haven’t actually parked myself at a table with a bunch of friends who were hitting it, but since I did most of my real boozing when I was by myself, I’m not sure that’ll be the sternest test.
Could this mean I never descended into the kind of powerlessness Bill W. wrote about? Maybe, but this seems like the wrong time to start splitting hairs. I had a nasty habit; now I’ve kicked it. Why trivialize that? When I told a friend I planned to quit drinking, she protested I wasn’t suffering delirium tremens or vomiting blood — therefore, my resolution must be premature. As they say down South, bless her heart. (I understand this to mean: “What a ninny.”) Why should people wait till they’re in the last extremity before changing their lives for the better? Whatever happened to “An ounce of prevention…etc”?
No, as things are shaping up, the real challenge is in living with myself unanesthetized. Most people have no occasion to realize this, but binging four nights a week ensures that a quantity of alcohol remains constantly in the bloodstream. It has the effect of hanging a thin curtain between the conscious self — the part that handles the details of daily living — and the parts that form long-term plans, hunt for the big picture, make value judgments. I have the sort of mind that infers oceans from drops of water; as I’m just now starting to remember, this isn’t always as much fun as it sounds.
An example? Last Thursday or Friday, I happened upon a short opinion piece that purported to instruct Catholics on how to write. It threw me into a tizzy, not only because I found the author’s premise — that none of us know how already — damned insulting, but also because she seemed to be calling for more of the reductive, high-intensity screeds that make me, when I’m the reader, feel like someone is slamming my head in a car door.
With its pointed tone, the piece took me back to my sales days, when every so often management would oblige us to attend a seminar in some hotel’s conference room. The presentations were aimed at beguiling and shaming us in equal measure. With slogans like “TAKE OWNERSHIP!”, the presenters did their best to convince us that failure to close betokened a failure of will and nothing else. In my own interpretation, I failed to close when a prospective buyer turned out not to need what I was trying to sell, or could get it cheaper somewhere else. Soberly acknowledging these facts and moving on did not, to my mind, make me a lily-livered slacker, and I resented management for trying to make me believe I was one.
At times like these, booze comes in handy. Management must have known this, because, like captains from the Age of Fighting Sail who dealt out grog in tandem with the cat, it tended to schedule these galling events on Fridays. Depending on the company, this meant either that our weekly team-builder had ended several hours earlier, or that it would begin a few hours hence. When still half-smashed or happy in anticipation of becoming fully so, I could just manage to keep a poker face. With my psychic nerve endings stripped bare, I reacted to the offending column by storming around the room, cursing under my breath and shaking my fist, like a (barely) overgrown Rumpelstiltskin — or perhaps like a coked-out Lenny Dykstra, which amounts to the same thing.
But for all its apparent drawbacks, I can foresee one advantage in this new accessibility to grief, rage and high dudgeon. That is in discovering material for good fiction. Yesterday, in the New York Times Sunday Review, novelist Jeffrey Eugenides defined consciousness as “being in a room with stuff that just won’t go away.” This is also a letter-perfect definition of sobriety. When that “stuff” is particularly bizarre or out of proportion, it mustn’t be projected onto the outer, existing world, as in an opinion column; doing so would brand the writer as a crank. If, on the other hand, he cannibalizes it to build an imaginary world, he might, with a lot of elbow grease and a lot of luck, turn out to be Kafka.