An editor's journey with alcoholism
Reprinted from "Alcohol" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 2(9), pp. 18-19
I think I realized I was an alcoholic as I was trying to convince myself I wasn't one.
I was a young man and quite fancied myself as a smart man. I had showed some promise through school, a promise never quite realized, but it was enough to convince me of my own genius.
Beneath the thin ice of my self-confidence, there was a deep, dark pool of frigid water, a drowning pool of fear, self-loathing and insecurity, and like all plumbing problems, the longer I ignored it, the more flooded my basement became.
So I did everything I could to avoid the truth. I didn't "drink" I was a "party animal". I drank like the young Hemingway, romantic, resolute, and, if doomed, it was an attractive, deferred kind of doom.
But who was I kidding? I was drunk before I got to the party, and by the end of the party, a babbling, drooling lunatic. The next morning was a frenzy of forensic archeology, piecing together the shards of a blackout, a broken mind, frantically hoping I didn't really say that or do that or act like that.
My life revolved around drinking. I would line up the weekend based on drinking events: Friday night: go out for dinner, get bombed; Saturday: pub crawl, get bombed; Sunday: start with brunch, get bombed. And that was just the weekend. I could easily consume a bottle of wine at lunch, sometimes two, if I was feeling expansive. Every meal required alcohol — food was optional.
Yet, those were the 70s and wretched excess was cool. So I told myself. It was no more cool than it is today, but I could drink like a rock star even if I couldn't sing or play the guitar. Thirty years later, I break out in a cold sweat just thinking about the way I was.
One day, I remember, the illusory music died. I was reading Time magazine, which I disdained because it wasn't Rolling Stone, didn't speak with the voice of a generation, and if it did, that generation wore plaid. The article in question was about alcoholism, which didn't apply to me, and the article featured a sidebar quiz: Are You an Alcoholic? No, I snorted, and filled in the quiz. As it turned out, I was right. Of the 36 signs of alcoholism, I only exhibited 34 of them. See, I told you, I said to the long-suffering woman who eventually became my wife (and who continues to be my wife today, thank the Lord), I'm no alcoholic.
At the time, I literally could not drink coffee in public. I was unable to raise the cup to my mouth without shaking so violently, I would spill the scalding coffee all over the table and myself. On those rare nights I was sober, I would lie in bed afraid to close my eyes in case I died. I would often drive home from the pub after consuming 24 glasses of draft beer. But I was not an alcoholic.
These days, I believe the only test you need is that you want to keep drinking. Back then, I was elaborately parsing and spinning every manifestation of my addiction to alcohol. But that test stayed with me, and like the writing on the wall, it refused to go away. I found myself referring to it almost daily, as I continued to knock them back, arguing and muttering to myself. I would weave my way to the men's room, banging against walls, staggering over the urinal, reassuring myself that I wasn't an alcoholic because I failed to qualify on two out of 36 points: I didn't drink alone or because drinking did not affect my work. It got to the point where even those self-justifications were out of date, but no matter—when I took the test, that was the case, and the test became my rock, my reference.
How could I be so stupid and blind? Well, it was pretty easy. I was a slave to alcohol and alcohol was calling the shots. It was a very near thing. Finally, I think, a tiny shred of that IQ I worshipped so vainly saved my life. My intellectual pride forced me to read the writing on the wall, and the message could not have been more plain: "You may have dodged two of the 36 signs," it said, "but, you idiot, you've admitted to 34! You're at least 90 per cent an alcoholic! What's more important," the writing on the wall continued in a more compassionate vein: "you're suffering so much…why do you want to suffer so much?
It was not an epiphany. I was not suffused in white light. In fact, I was more than a little bit in love with my own suffering. Finally, however, the prospect of further humiliation won the day. I didn't want to stop, or the alcohol that I craved didn't want me to stop, but I had become fat and uncomfortable and a distinctly old 27. My hair had gone grey at the temples. I was becoming a social pariah. Even then, I quit three times (to lose weight, I told myself) before I took my last drink: New Year's Eve, 1982. I was 32 years old. I was lucky to see my 30th birthday.
I'm a big one for ceremony. I actually quit for real one morning during the previous November, after downing more than a dozen jumbo martinis with a "friend", being rolled by a cab driver, left drooling in the snow, and crawling home. But I allowed myself one more night on the town, then said goodbye to alcohol. At that point, I finally knew that drinking was going to kill me, and all things considered, I was more afraid of dying than not drinking.
I've been sober ever since. Like the rest of my fellow non-drinking alcoholics, I take it one day at a time. I realize that every person's addiction is woven into a unique tapestry of genetics, environment and upbringing. No two snowflakes are alike. It has become a lifelong quest to read the tapestry, to pore over it like a medieval manuscript, looking for illumination: Why me? Therapists and I have sifted through the clues, and slowly, self-knowledge is accumulating. But self-knowledge is not a cure. It helps, but the pool is still dark and deep. And if I don't watch myself, I know I'll drink it dry.
About the author
Paul Sullivan has worked in media for more than two decades. He was former Western Editor for the Globe and Mail, Managing Editor of the Vancouver Sun, Host of the Early Edition on CBC Radio Vancouver, and has been an editor, editorial vice president, producer or columnist for West Magazine, The Journal (CBC TV), Telemedia Inc., The Winnipeg Sun, the Winnipeg Free Press, and Globe Investor Gold. He is currently President and Chief Strategist of Sullivan Media.