On My Mother….

By Mark E. Smith

When my mother died – was it 10 years ago? – I was giving a tour of my company. My sister valiantly sat by her bedside for days. I did not.

My sister called me on my cell phone. I knew what the call was about. I’d expected it based on previous updates from her.

“I’m sorry,” I said, surrounded by people. “Are you okay?”

With that, I went on with the tour – and my life.

My relationship with my mother was long strained by the time of her death. She was a profound alcoholic while I grew up, placing my brother, sister, and me in situations that no children should be in. While in my 20s, I made every attempt to both care for her and get her treatment. By my 30s, I was burnt out, resentful, and bitter. I wanted nothing to do with her, and she, still drinking, seemingly, wanted nothing to do with me. My sister moved her to our town, and although my mother lived five minutes from me, I virtually never saw her unless she was at my sister’s by coincidence when I stopped by.

I now realize that it’s impossible to have empathy while caught up in your own pain. I had no empathy for my mother, and I literally had a lifetime of pain regarding her.

What I also understand now but didn’t comprehend then is that people like my mother typically don’t just go down such a bleak path. There’s a causation. I’ll never know the entire causation of her alcoholism, but the clues were there. She often had vocal night terrors, in which she was being violently raped. My sister and I listened to them, not knowing what to do. We asked our mother about it and she shared that they were blocked out memories, but it was likely her grandfather, a despicable man by all accounts, and possibly other men, which was quite plausible given that her mother was a heroine addict, with presumed “Johns” coming and going from the apartment. Even though I knew all of this, I never possessed the empathy to connect these horrific events to her alcoholic behavior. I was simply caught in my own hurt, then anger.

My wife and I recently went to a liquor store to buy a bottle of wine. I waited in our van. A woman came out carrying a semi-transparent bag. She appeared in her 50s, rutty complexion, with a quivering bottom lip, shakiness, and careful steps. In the bag were two, liter bottles of vodka. I recognized the bottles of vodka and the woman’s demeanor as emblematic of my mother. I shared this with my wife and she shared that the woman also had difficulty working the debit card machine. The image of the woman stuck with me.

The following day, my wife and I were at the medical center. We passed a row of those with cancer. As I rolled passed, “Margaret” was called. That was my mother’s name. Out of the corner of my eye, a woman stood up, having a dark complexion, wearing a bob wig. For a moment, in my mind, it was my mother.
I was initially just spooked by the two experiences. However, then my wife and I were at lunch and on the way out, she went to the restroom. As I waited with my own thoughts, my eyes welled up. We made it to our van before I completely fell apart, as they say.

My wife asked what was going on, and I explained that I was finally grieving the loss of my mother – with a lot of personal regret.

I’ve long said that my parents died from alcoholism. Out of hurt and anger, I believed that. However, while my father absolutely died from alcoholism, my mother ultimately did not. She, in fact, had cancer twice, and at age 59, she died of ovarian cancer. It was an eight-month struggle. And, I was not there.

The subject remains complex and different for everyone. Psychologists say that distancing yourself from an addict is vital, that codependency will destroy you. As an unknowing codependent with my mother growing up and in my 20s, I can tell you that it’s true, which is among the reasons I pulled away. Yet, psychologists don’t have it completely right. Love isn’t, nor should be all, or nothing. There’s a gray area that even applies to addicts like my mom, where, above all else, there are times when empathy trumps all. I followed the traditional psychology script and made my role in her life nothing, and in my mother’s final days, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there.

They say that with age comes wisdom. In my case, it has also brought shame, regret, and alas, grieving.


Nights Like the Minetta Tavern

By Mark E. Smith

When I was a child, my stepfather could do no wrong in my eyes. I idolized him, not just as a father figure, but as who a man should be.

Yet, as I overlooked then but realized as I grew older, he was deeply flawed. He was an alcoholic and his relationship with my mother was as mutually as unhealthy as it gets – constant drinking, domestic violence, suicide threats and attempts, drunk driving, and on and on.

However, much as when I was a child, I now, in mid-life, deeply value who he was in the best ways, what he gave me, and most of all, what he taught me.

I recently had dinner at the Minetta Tavern in Greenwich Village. It opened in the 1930s and has since been where men like Paul have gone for decades to celebrate life. The mahogany bar, white tablecloths, and red upholstered booths are timeless. It’s easy to imagine its famous past patrons hanging out there – Earnest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, and e. e. cummings, to name a few – drinking, smoking, and eating, boisterous.

As I sat with my family and friends at a table in the middle of the Tavern, I drifted off from our own decadent meal and storytelling to thinking of Paul. I gazed at the signed, black-and-white pictures of old-time prizefighters on the walls, and was reminded of growing up watching boxing with Paul. Then, there was the Hemingway connection, who, in many ways, Paul embodied – bearded, smoking pipes and unfiltered cigarettes, playing dice at bars, drinking straight whiskey by the glass full, while discussing larger-than-life adventures.

Paul raised me in that spirit, creating larger-than-life memories. He took me to a bullfight in Mexico, offshore fishing in California, game hunting in Nevada. Then there were our trips to Hawaii and Spain. It was all spectacular and, in looking back, always hinged on the cusp of disaster, often fueled by alcohol – that’s how men like Hemingway and Paul lived. And, I, as a boy with severe cerebral palsy, was along for the wild ride.

I was infatuated with it all – not just in the adventurous life, but in Paul embracing me fully as his son, profoundly affecting me after having been all but abandoned by my biological father.

But, there still was that dark side. When you grow up with a Hemingway or a Paul as a father, you witness that which no child should witness: the insanity of a drunk. As I grew into my 20s and 30s, this juxtaposition became increasingly evident. Is a great man who’s deeply flawed truly great? I struggled with this question into early adulthood.

Eventually, Paul lost virtually everything, and he moved into my house, sleeping on our couch. He came home drunk night after night, and I was torn between him, as the father I’d always loved, and the health of my young family being negatively impacted by his behavior. I saw the amazing man I’d grown up with also be that man with my toddler daughter – that is, an amazing grandfather. But, the drinking was then beyond unacceptable to me.

The dilemma was seemingly solved when I moved across the country and we agreed to let Paul remain in our old house for at least a year, till I sold it, my brother watching over him to a degree. That distance gave me time and space to understand Paul’s complexities and the complexities of my emotions.

Paul later visited us annually, and although he still drank and his potential was forever faded, he never stopped loving me or gushing with pride in who I’d become, right till his death. And, my love for him likewise never wavered. There’s no better gift a father can give his son than acceptance, and that remains life-inspiring for me.

I returned to the conversation at our table, looking at my wife and youngest daughter – both of whom radiated the energy of the room – and I realized that what Paul taught me was that we don’t need to be perfect to make a profound difference in the lives of those we love. We just need to love, and that can be enough.

I finished my single glass of wine, admitting that I can’t hold my liquor like Paul, but in other ways, I’m every bit the man he raised me to be: I, with my family, making memories at the Minetta Tavern.

Confessions of a Bad Alcoholic


To John, February 5, 1951 – July 24, 2010

By Mark E. Smith

If you’ve read the research of recent years, then you probably already know about me: I’m an alcoholic.

Indeed, the medical establishment has concluded that alcoholism is hereditary – that is, if your family tree is lined with drunks, you’re a drunk, too. Or, you’re at tremendous risk of being a drunk. Walking past a bar or liquor store is like a metal shaving passing a magnet – it wants to suck you in!

For me, being an alcoholic is torturous because I think it’s the only thing I’ve failed at. I mean, I’m a bad alcoholic – really bad. My parents, grandparents, great grandparents and probably their parents were great at it. I mean, my mother and father had it down to a science – it’s not easy losing everything, including your life. But, me, I’m a terrible alcoholic. I’m so bad of a drinker that I haven’t drank today, nor did I drink yesterday or the day before or the day before or the day before or the day before….

But, my alcoholism even gets worse, pathetic, really. I’ve never hidden bottles, lost jobs, sobbed, Please take me back, ruined a wedding or child’s birthday party, bathed in cologne, slept on the front lawn in my clothes, wondered how my car keeps getting smashed up, vomited blood, feigned vertigo, passed out with a lit cigarette and burned my fingers, lied to everyone about everything, stole money from my child’s piggie bank, stood with belligerent narcissism before a judge, drank because of this or that, drank vodka from a water bottle at church, hugged a tree while the Earth spun at tremendous speed and I urinated on myself, or explained to a bank teller why my signature doesn’t match. Yes, I’m a terrible alcoholic.

However, here’s what I’m really good at: a little thing called personal accountability. Unlike the color of my hair, hereditary doesn’t dictate jack squat when it comes to my being an alcoholic or not. Life gives me free will to choose my path. And, while I understand the science, it’s 100 percent my choice to drink or not to drink. My mother did nine months in jail due to her third DUI, and upon being released, she stopped by a liquor store on the way home and downed a pint of vodka. Time and time again, I’ve watched people around me choose to re-elect life-destroying alcoholism, while others choose sobriety (and the science behind addiction recovery shows that the only time alcoholics maintain sobriety is when they literally choose to).

In this way, I’m among the worst alcoholics you’ll ever meet because I’ve turned my back on my own heredity.

When the Drinking was Done

By Mark E. Smith

“Alcohol and I had many, many marvelous times together. We laughed, we talked, we danced at the party together; then one day I woke up and the band had gone home….” –Harry Crews

I wrote one of my all-time favorite pieces, a short-short story on my quitting sporadic drinking, about a year ago, and never published it. Why? The answer was because I didn’t think that I could live up to it – quitting drinking for good, that is:

When the Drinking was Done (Original)
I asked the hotel concierge – a woman in her 60s, no less – where I could drink in complete anonymity, and she told me to go up to Peachtree Street, hang a right, and look for the shamrock sign over the sidewalk. No, it wasn’t my normal mode of operation by any stretch, but we just have to be honest about these things – especially with ourselves. I didn’t want a party or dressed-up chicks like usual; I just wanted a night of quiet, having been on the road for days, speaking at a conference on one side of the country, then working a trade show on the other. The noise builds up in me – the retention of events and all of the introspection, where I just want quietness, the type I only get from writing in solitude. But, that night, there was to be no writing – just a drink alone, then bed. So, I headed up to Peachtree, hung a right, found the shamrock sign, and a homeless guy opened the door for me. The place was empty – just two guys and a “barman,” as the “bartender” is called in these types of pubs. With my power wheelchair’s seat elevated, I rolled up to the bar, picked up a stool, and set it aside. The barman and two guys just watched. My knees tucked perfectly under the bar – an ideal. “I’ll have a double shot of Southern Comfort, warm, please,” I said to the barman. He set a tumbler glass in front of me, grabbed the bottle, poured the drink to maybe three or four shots, and without thinking twice, grabbed a straw, placing it in my glass. He stepped back as if to see what I was going to do, and I could see via my peripheral vision the two guys just staring at me. I placed my lips on the straw, and downed the glass full, in a single, drawn sip. The barman grabbed the bottle of Southern Comfort, refilled my glass, and said in a strong Irish accent, “This one’s on me.” It was a fine night – they all are on such terms – and when I awoke the following morning, glancing out my hotel window, the quiet was gone, and I knew so had to be gone the drinking – for good this time.

I wrote that literal, biographical short-short story with the intention that my drinking days were done. However, in my public position, if you’re going to tell the world that you’ve stopped drinking – you’d better darn well give up drinking entirely, forever – or everyone will see you as the ultimate hypocrite. If you’re a closet drinker – even an alcoholic – and you vow to yourself that you’re giving up drinking, there’s no real consequence if you don’t live up to it (other than the consequences on your own life). However, if you’re a social drinker like me, and write an essay to thousands of readers that you’ve given up drinking altogether, you’d better do it – as people are watching when you’re out on the town or on the road. Based on this reality, where my written words are in blood, so to speak, I could never get away with publishing an essay on quitting drinking unless I really did.

For the reason of integrity, I never published a piece on quitting drinking because… well… I never quit drinking! That is, despite my truly wanting to give up drinking entirely a year ago, and writing the original piece, I knew that I wasn’t ready — good times on the road, and the occasional flirtatious woman at a party or bar were so linked to a drink or two that I wasn’t prepared to give up those fleeting good feelings that came with booze. But, I also knew that at some point I’d be ready, that I’d have to give up the booze entirely. I felt so much personal guilt about even rarely drinking, that it lingered with me for days, weeks, and months after even one drink – and that wasn’t healthy. I had to just give up drinking entirely at some point.

While my own history with alcohol is one of moderation – I’ve never drank at home, my daughter never saw me drunk, and so on – the history of substance abuse around me has always been present: My great-grandparents were alcoholics, my grandparents were alcoholics and addicts, my parents were alcoholics, my ex-wife was an addict, many of my friends have been alcoholics – and I’ve seen all of their lives harmed or destroyed. And, the question I’ve wrestled with is, How can I see so many lives destroyed by alcohol and addiction, and still touch a drop myself? It’s like playing with fire when you know it burns.

With that said, I’ve had a lot of mixed feelings about my best times drinking, where I look at them with both guilt and fondness. It’s a juxtaposition that I suppose most drinkers face when they stop. I grew up with parents who were Skid Row drunks, so I’ve always known the realities of alcoholism, right down to my family’s demise and my parents’ deaths. In fact, I didn’t drink until I was 33 – that’s how freaked out I was by alcohol. However, once I started drinking, my association with alcohol literally went from the horrific to the glamorous. In my mid 30s, drinking was no longer about Mom neglecting me as a child because she was drunk, or Dad drinking himself to death; rather, drinking was now about high society, where I was at lavish social events, with beautiful people – and drinking just made it all the better. A few shots of Southern Comfort added a glossy sheen to my vision, where I felt relaxed, suave – everything more engaging, like going from watching a movie to actually being in the scene.

But, then, there was always the next morning, then week, then month where I didn’t drink, but the guilt and hypocrisy of such nights stuck with me – too much so. There was always a haunting issue in my mind, where I always knew that I have to be either assuming entire sobriety, or be unrepentant about drinking – and to try to justify living in-between was hypocritical. Sure, I realize that lots of people drink socially, and it’s not an issue. But, for me, I could never roll that line: I was either stone sober or drinking – and I couldn’t be both. Again, if I wanted to keep drinking, then I’d have to learn to be unrepentant in it, not feel guilt, not relive pains of my past, not look in the mirror and see my father staring at me, not see the hurt of a child in my own eyes looking back. But, I’ve witnessed too many around me destroyed by alcoholism and addiction, and for me to glamourize drinking in my own life, knowing all of the hurt washed down with it, seemed not just hypocritical, but morbid.

Cartoonist, John Callahan’s, later years and death have also had a profound effect on my journey toward sobriety. John was a hardcore alcoholic – it’s what led to the car crash that caused his paralysis – and he sobered up some years later, not touching a drop for decades. Despite his in-your-face antics and work, he noted that sobriety added a peace and strength to his life, not the guilt and angst he felt when he drank. If John maintained sobriety – turning off the guilt and angst – so could I.

The catalyst for me to publish this piece – that is, to sign on the page in blood that I’m done drinking for good – is really just where I’m at in life. I’m a 40-year-old, full-time single dad, focused on my career and simply trying to do right by everyone, including myself – and I have to get it all right. I’ve seen too many lives around me destroyed by alcohol, felt too much guilt and pain in myself for too long in even having an occasional drink – and I’ve deemed, Enough is enough with the booze at any level – don’t want it, don’t need it, the drinking is done. Is it a bold declaration? Maybe. Will it remove all of my unsettling feeling surrounding alcohol in my past, dating as far back as I can remember as a child? Certainly not. But, is it a move in the right direction for me to make? Absolutely. It’s one of those situations where if something isn’t working – if it’s inducing guilt, pain, shame, and hurt – stop doing it! Sometimes we just have to man-up and take accountability in ways others may not fully understand, where we say, F- it, I’m going above and beyond simply because it’s the right move to make, and I don’t care what the world thinks. And, I’ve finally said in my own life, F- it, the drinking is done, and I’ve done it for me. …All alone – after all.

At this writing, I have a speaking engagement this week in Fargo, North Dakota. I asked someone from Fargo what’s there to do in town?

“Drink,” he jokingly said. “We have more bars than anything else.”

“Perfect,” I replied. “I’ll have time to read in my hotel room, then.”