A few people have mentioned that I write too much about my alcoholism. They say I use it as a literary crutch.
But it's defined my entire life – from when I was about 18 years old until today. That's almost 50 years of dealing with addiction, although I recently completed 28 years of sobriety with no relapses.
Unlike many, I haven't suffered any physical desire for alcohol since I got out of treatment. It was emerging from the egocentrism of drunkenness and entering a world where others mattered that was difficult. I was sober but insane for the first five years. During that time I don't think I made a rational decision, but at least I was sober and searching for a lifestyle that could be considered normal.
In retrospect, it was a horrible time – worse than when I was a practicing drunk. It's abated, now, but once in a while it resurfaces. I often go weeks and never think about the past, but then, suddenly there's a flashback of some ugly act I committed while drinking. That causes a spate of anxiety and remorse that is hard to deal with. It's like a bad back that comes and goes for no particular reason.
Many have commented that I show courage when I openly discuss and am ready to disregard the stigma that comes with the word “alcoholic.” Over the years, I've learned to use my past behavior as a shibboleth when dealing with new acquaintances. It rarely happens, but there are occasions when I find it necessary. It's a refined form of social sadism that takes practice, plus a dedication born of cynicism.
If the subject of drinking arises during the course of a conversation, and the other person shows chagrin or shock when they realize that I am willing to let anyone know of my former social classification, I eliminate them as possible friends. Their cheap prejudices will permeate other facets of their life, and that's something I don't need. I have my own problems and don't want to deal with theirs.
When I'm interacting with those people and notice discomfort on their part, I'll milk the situation by referring to my past life, with statements like, “When I was a lush,” or some other denigrating term. It's entertaining to watch them flinch as they mentally go through their own emotional catalog of things that they're too cowardly to admit openly, or even to themselves. I see their revulsion for me grow as the conversation continues. So I continue.
Both the dialog and the incipient friendship usually end with the other person holding me in contempt because I drank, but then they're envious of the fact that I find ironic humor in having been a drunken pariah for 20 years. It's enjoyable to watch the unease of those who were formally comfortable in their sacrosanct normalcy realize that their fatuous opinions are not respected by an old sot like me.
I choose my victims carefully. It takes practice to be able remark in an offhand manner that it wasn't rare for me to fall asleep on a bar or wake up in a strange place after an alcoholic blackout, especially when my listener is too timid even to admit that they once got a ticket for double parking.
A good friend helped me in this effort by saying about public opinion: “What are they going to do, take away your birthday?” It's a nice attitude, and I cultivate it.
On another level, sometimes I think maybe it's me and not others who hold my former life in contempt. Maybe I throw my past at others in the hope that I can assuage a subconscious self-loathing – like a leper, proudly displaying his affliction while begging on a street corner. Maybe I'm pleading for emotional alms of support and acceptance. It's been 28 years, so you would think that I'd have forgiven myself by now, but maybe not. I don't know, and it doesn't matter.
So I'll continue to play my game, and when I'm forced to deal with the occasional opinionated fool, I'll proffer my drinking past to see the reaction. If it's what I expect, I'll milk the situation for a few minutes, then walk away feeling superior in my assumed courage, plus the fact that I've made a person whom I dislike feel inadequate.
And so it goes.
Richard Geary is a rancher in Helmville. He can be reached at email@example.com.