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.”