“That’s the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.”
— Charles Bukowski
I have been sober for 8 months and change. The interesting part of sobriety is that people will congratulate you with the same level of enthusiasm regardless of the length of time one claims to have been sober. The same congratulatory tone was expressed by friends when I shared that I was one week sober as when I mentioned I was 8 months sober. Perhaps this is in part due to my friends’ intimate knowledge of my past habit — I was a boozehound.
I’ve shared this admittedly personal side of my life because I felt that it would help keep me accountable to a certain degree and potentially provide some comfort or courage to others who might be going through a similar situation. Those who know me are well aware of my generally tight-lipped nature. I appreciate privacy and always found it uncouth to talk about oneself. This felt like something I should share, it’s been therapeutic to a certain degree.
Alcohol was my previous form of therapy.
“I’ve been a wild rover for many’s the year,
And I’ve spent all me money on whiskey and beer.
But now I’m returning with gold in great store
And I never will play the wild rover no more…”
— The Wild Rover, Traditional Irish Folksong
I used to bury my face in the cold wood of a bartop, my head weighed down by whiskey-enhanced gravity. I used to wake up in the morning intoxicated, the remnants of the previous night’s ethanol reservoir still polluting my blood. I used to stagger down the street, helplessly zig-zagging across the asphalt like a leaf caught in a crosswind gust.
I used to sweat in the middle of the day, sharp chills jolted me from passive daydreams. My brain, as consistent as a well-maintained clock, was sounding the daily alarm — time for a drink.
I used to drink.
“I went to an alehouse I used to frequent,
I told the landlady my money was spent.
I ask her for credit, she answered me nay,
Such a custom as yours I can have any day…”
It must be easy for teetotalers and the general sober population to fall into a mindset of superiority — “The sight of a drunkard is a better sermon against that vice than the best that was ever preached on that subject.” I used to be the drunkard of example, so I’ve never been able to view drinkers through a negative lens, even after I hopped onto the wagon. I’m sure many reconsidered the drink after witnessing me at my worst. I never understood how some people, excluding those with medical conditions, could willingly choose not to drink. I never peer-pressured anyone of that inclination, even defended them when necessary. I would normally say something along the lines of “power to ya, but I’ve personally found everything I’ve ever needed at the bottom of a bottle.”
I’m surprised I never turned into a flower — I spent hours staring at myself in the reflections of empty bottles and glasses. The image was always a bit distorted, similar to a fun-house mirror. The man’s eyes were glazed over, bloodshot with seemingly permanent bags under them. His hair was disheveled. His shirt’s collar wrinkled and unkempt. A poor countenance, an even poorer disposition. I thought how awful that person looked, the picture-perfect image of the stereotypical drunkard.
I drank more, hoping the individual would look better due to that wonderful side effect, courtesy of Mr. Booze, that enables lessened inhibitions and makes everything on this Earth of ours seem beautiful.
He never did look any better, but I always finished the drink or bottle just to get another peek regardless.
“I brought from me pocket ten sovereigns bright,
And the landlady’s eyes opened wide with delight.
She said: ‘I have whiskeys and wines of the best,
And the words that you told me were only in jest…’”
I expected St. Patrick’s Day to be the most difficult test of my resolve. It was. I used to take pride in learning the far limits of the human liver every year on that holy day for Hibernians and non-Hibernians alike. St. Patrick was supposedly responsible for driving the snakes out of Ireland and solidifying the grasp of Catholocism on the, at the time, pagan populace. In modern days, we wear green and drink copious amounts of alcohol.
We take the term “spirits” quite literally.
I met up with friends to catch the beginning of the parade. A triumphant display of police, school marching bands, police, elected officials, firemen, police, firemen, and Irish cultural societies swarmed 5th Avenue from Midtown to the Upper East Side. Bagpipes pierced the cold March air, an overcast threatened to drench the city at any moment. We stuck around until 1:30, opting to find the first pub on what would turn out to be a hajj that lasted into the following morning.
“Any N/A beers?”
That simple response, a response I’m now very accustomed to hearing, causes me to automatically frown and nod with very visible apathy.
The options for adult beverages for sober adults are admittedly less than ideal — I can only drink so much soda. Guinness was my beer of choice, it has been incredibly hard to not stare enviously at any person I happen to spy enjoying that world-famous Irish stout.
A miracle occurred. We arrived at our second stop, an Irish pub with a less-than-Irish name in Hells Kitchen. My friend caught sight of it first, the holy grail.
“Look, non-alcoholic Guinness!”
I was over the moon, I couldn’t believe it. It arrived at the table in a can, I responded in the affirmative when asked if I’d like a glass to go along with it. Tragically, I was not provided with the classic Guinness glass that the drink calls for but I made due all the same.
Later, one of the waiters came over to our table. He was Irish, his accent immediately betrayed him.
“Is it any good?”
He was talking about my Guinness, the alcohol equivalent to the ambassador of his nation. He sounded apprehensive, staring at my glass as if it was an upside-down cross.
“Indeed, it gets the job done!”
“I haven’t been able to bring myself to try it. Maybe sometime soon.”
I felt like a parish, I knew this was heresy to some degree.
Imagine a scentless flower.
I managed to put it past me, the moment was too important to let one naysayer ruin it. I finished the drink with pride, wiped any remnants from my beard, and made my way to the door with my friends.
Not one second was spent trying to recognize the fun-house reflection that sat waiting at the bottom of the glass.
The biggest temptation occurred later at McSorley’s Old Ale House, long my favorite bar in the city. In continuous operation since the mid-19th Century, McSorley’s is as much a museum as it is a bar. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln patronized it, ancient newspaper clippings and various leaflets drape the walls, sawdust coats the floor, the only two options for a drink are either “light” or “dark” served in a round consisting of two small glasses.
I spent many nights in that bar, it’s a relic just like me.
On St. Patrick’s it resembles a packed subway car more than a pub. Getting in took around 30 minutes — this was at 3 P.M. We were brought towards a table, the waiter asked us to pick our poison.
My friend said, “one of the light and one of the dark.”
I said, “if you happen to have any N/A, if not, Coke is fine.”
I hadn’t been to McSorley’s since I quit the drink, I was hoping since my last visit they might’ve stocked up on some less than potent potables. They did not.
“Oh, if you aren’t drinking we can’t sit you. You’ll have to stand by the bar.”
Sober discrimination? Does such a thing exist? I suppose it does now. I wasn’t mad, I understood that seating needed to be reserved for the boozehounds in order for the boys at the bar to maximize the day’s take. McSorley’s didn’t allow women to patronize the establishment until 1970, a much less forgivable form of discrimination.
A ladies' room now sits comfortably in the back, women down “lights” and “darks” with the same fervor as any patron of the male persuasion, shoulder to shoulder with them.
Alcohol does not discriminate, it merely intoxicates.
We stood near the bar and started conversing with two such women. The one closest to me had Elvis as her phone background. She said I was a baby when I informed her I was 25. I wanted to tell her that while my time on this planet could be measured as such, the state of my liver would show otherwise.
I looked around at the walls, took note of a portrait of Jack Kennedy. The first Catholic President, people thought he would turn the White House over to the Pope. They turned Jack Kennedy over to God.
“That’s the problem,” I said to her about the drink, “God invented whiskey to keep the Irish from taking over the world.”
I wanted a drink.
I wanted one badly.
I managed to resist the call to arms, even as the scent of ale overwhelmed every other sense. What kept me at bay was the reflection of a man at the bottom of my mini-pint glass, peering through the thin layer of Coke that remained at the bottom.
His eyes were flush and white, no bags sat beneath them. His hair was an absolute mess but well hidden under a green flat cap. His shirt’s collar was crisp and clean, his green tie sat comfortably against his shirt and vest. A decent countenance. A visibly struggling yet, hopefully, genuine disposition.
Wishbones, supposedly from 1917, hang over the bar — the scraps of a pre-deployment gift for the youthful doughboys heading to the trenches of the Marne and Somme. They hung them on the wire with the intent to remove them on their return home.
About two dozen remain.
I recalled a song sung by the soldiers of England in that same war, “If the Sergeant Steals Your Rum”.
If the Sergeant steals your rum;
If the Sergeant steals your rum;
Though he’s just a blinking sot,
Let him have the bloody lot,
If the Sergeant steals your rum,
The more relevant lyrics to me at the time were as follows:
If old Jerry shells the trench;
If old Jerry shells the trench;
Though the blasted sandbags fly
You have only once to die
If old Jerry shells the trench;
In my case, it wasn’t “Jerry,” the Germans, that I feared bringing my untimely end about. It was me, with the assistance of drink and the lovely scent that emanates from it which continued to flood my mind.
I’ll tell you this, I came damn close on plenty of occasions. But, as the song says, if I had succeeded I wouldn’t be here telling you about it now, would I?
Blessed are the late-to-realize, for they can speak of the need for consciousness.
You know what’s funny? “The Wild Rover” is often viewed as a drinking song, rather than one of temperance.
I’ll go home to my parents, confess what I’ve done,
And I’ll ask them to pardon their prodigal son.
And when they’ve caressed me, as oft times before,
I never will play the wild rover no more…
The night continued on, as they do. I managed to resist temptation bar after bar, ended up in bed around 2:30 AM as sober as a nun. My temperance is not founded in any spiritual or religious belief, it’s purely selfish — I only have once to die.
Regardless of that fact, I do take comfort in the serenity prayer, popularized in part by Alcoholics Anonymous:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
— Reinold Niebuhr
I cannot change the fact that I’m an alcoholic. I can face the fact that I once wanted to make that reflection of the man disappear, rather than change. And I know that part of this awful, confusing, beautiful existence of ours is being aware of our limitations.
God may have invented whiskey to keep the Irish from taking over the world but, thankfully, I’m quite content sharing it with others. Sobriety allows me to focus my anger on the vultures of society, those who prey on the weakest and can make a person take to drink, rather than that sorry sack at the bottom of the glass I hated for so long.
Though, on occasion, that guy can still be something of a bastard. But he’s trying, and trying.
And it’s no, nay, never,
No, nay never no more,
Will I play the wild rover,
No never no more…