There are a lot of bad stories out there.
Was the day after Christmas, couple years back. I woke up late that morning—no rush, day after Christmas—although I didn’t really wake as much as a deep blackout passed into something thin and blindingly painful. Got it together enough to leave the bed, struggled to brew some coffee. I won’t belabor a day’s details but by around noon I was thinking maybe I ought to start Dry January a week early; by sundown I was thinking I probably shouldn’t ever drink again.
I’ve told the few people who know me and asked about it later that I started writing again the next day, but that’s some bullshit, isn’t it. There wasn’t much I could do over the next few days but breathe and shake and try to keep the contents of my stomach down. I knew the drill, though. Found a shrink; he wasn’t on my insurance plan but he took new patients. By December 31st my hand was steadier and my head was as clear as it was going to get for a while. I was still blanking on important words when I needed them in conversation—a disconcerting alcohol-soaked brain development over the previous eighteen months: my mouth would begin moving in a sentence but then fail to find and form a key appellation—but the phenomenon had already lessened, and occurred only verbally now, no longer in typing. As far as my fingers were concerned, my words had returned. Just past that New Year is when I started writing again.
I wrote for almost two years.
When finished, I typed THE END.
(No, that Hollywood farewell has never been printed in any of my books, but I type those two words as I complete the first draft of every manuscript; it feels good, like the last cigarette of the day when you know it’s the last cigarette of the day, you grind it out with an extra flourish.)
All done with two years of writing, I closed my laptop, closed the neighboring Moleskine. Blew out the muse candle (yes, shut up). Took my empty tea mug out to the kitchen, placed it in the sink. Through the window, our big dog Bugsy sprawled across a sun spot. He sure looked content. I thought about washing the mug then figured it could just sit in the sink and that would be fine, too. I washed my hands instead, took my time, dried them thoroughly.
I wrote for two years and now I was done. The End.
Well, shit; what the fuck do I do with myself now?
What do I do now.
I started by saying books and music. But that wouldn’t do it because I’d never stopped with books and music. In fact, that had been the triad of the past two years: write, read, soak in music. Besides work, that’s all I did for two years. Now, I still had my books—too many, maybe; stacks and stacks yet unread, I buy books compulsively—and I still had my music, the music I inhale through my Bose and exhale through my Martin. Something was missing, though. Something big. Well, I was done writing. That, anyway. That was missing. I’d typed THE END. Couldn’t start writing something else, not yet⎯first I had to see what happened with this, and man selling a book to a publisher is a process too fraught with anxiety to simultaneously create something new. Plus I had that old unpublished thing from before that I loved and needed to do something with before I started anything else. There was a line, a queue, for the writing, but the line wasn’t going to move right now because I had to see what happened to this thing, this two-year thing, the thing I did instead of drinking, THE END.
My nature abhors a vacuum; I needed to fill that.
More books, more music? Maybe. I’m awful distracted right now, though. Restless. I might need something meatier to sink my hooks into.
Well, I could start drinking again, that would fill the calendar, ha ha, no.
Smoking? Always a great time killer, but yeah, probably not.
I guess there’s life, just life, you know, the living of it: the family, the job; dogs and dinner; making sure the house doesn’t fall down around our ears.
Sure, but I’ve been doing that all along, too.
That’s nice but it’s not new, now is it.
I could take on a different kind of project. Amplify some self-change, make it a focus.
For instance, I’m trying to be a nicer person. I don’t know that I’m succeeding but I’m trying. Failing spectacularly on some days, no joke. But consciously attempting. I could kick that up a notch. As a project. As something to do.
In the early days of researching the two-year prop that occupied my time—a family story, my story, oh boy⎯I found a picture of me I hadn’t seen before, buried in a pile of my dead Dad’s belongings, from maybe 1975 or 1976. The snapshot was hard, almost inflexible, like they used to be. Slightly washed out but not bad. In the photo I’m a little boy sitting on my grandmother’s autumn-colored couch, hands on lap, looking directly at the camera and smiling. No force or pretense, just a genuine kid smile. Not laughing, not a big grin. Just a relaxed smile. I was five or six and things had already been weird in my life but the worst was yet to come. There was a little baggage on the child in this picture but it wasn’t dragging him down yet, and for whatever reason I can see it in that picture in a way that memory has mostly clouded: I was a happy kid, to start. A nice kid; a friendly, gentle boy who liked people and wanted people to like him.
That’s how I was born, that’s who I was.
That’s not who I am.
Okay, trying to crawl back into an innocent childhood skin sounds like a worthy endeavor and all—let’s definitely tackle that, stick that task right on the old to-do—but honestly it’s not going to fill the time, is it?
An email arrives from a literary agent I’ve been courting—it’s been twelve years since I published a book and I have to start everything new—regarding my two-year distraction/manuscript.
You’re a gorgeous writer, Christian, she says—hell, make me blush—but I don’t know what to do with this.
This agent represents two writers I adore, but she does not wish to represent me. Not for this book, anyway.
When you have something new, send it to me, she says. Seriously. But—
Yes, I know. The two most-repeated phrases about me have been, in childhood, “If you would just apply yourself,” and, in adulthood, “I just don’t know what to do with your manuscript.” Not enough application as a kid, too much as an adult.
Little Chris stares up at me from where I tossed him on the desk, smiling that smile of his. I wipe the remains of his mouth with the back of my hand, check my watch, realize I’m running late for a meeting.
For the record, Matthew Klam was seventeen years between books. It’s only been twelve for me. So far.
Maybe that’s something to do: I’ll give it another five years just so I can take the record from Matthew Klam. That’s a thing to do, right?
I quip this to a Twitter friend; he quips right back that Jenny Offill was fourteen years between books. I could top that one, easily. Just by not getting out of bed for a couple years. That’s a thing to do.
Or I could go take this meeting.
Taking a meeting sounds like taking a schvitz. Taking the sea air. Taking the piss, if you’re in Liverpool.
Meetings—shorthand for Twelve-Step Meetings—are held in the Rooms—shorthand for the Rooms of Recovery. Those like me who have cycled through periods of sobriety and then not sobriety are described as Moving In and Out of the Rooms. Those who are securely In the Rooms have a daily moment of silence for Those Still-Suffering Out of the Rooms.
Addiction Recovery is all about Capital Letters, to make sure you Get the Point.
No fear, I get the point: Don’t Drink, Baby.
The hope is you go into the Rooms to learn a little something, but the Rooms are also a great place to just kill time and honestly that’s often a good enough reason to be in there.
These Rooms of which I speak, they’re all different, like rooms in a big, crazy mansion, or some tall, proto-steampunk 1930s concrete and brass WPA city-government tower downtown where every floor feels like it belongs in a different building and there is no clearly marked way to get from one level to the next. The Rooms can be that different from one another. Each Room takes on its own character. Across addiction types, of course: the original, alcohol, and then all the others, whatever your thing is, for folks like me who have almost drowned in various pools of this addiction or that. There’ll be differences across type. But even within type⎯let’s just say booze, the mothership group, to keep it easy⎯from one place to the next, West Coast or East Coast, one town vs another, or the Room in the church basement vs the Room in the hospital annex. Hell, the 7 a.m. Tuesday meeting could be a whole other stripe from the 4:30 p.m. Saturday meeting, even in the same Room.
Meeting vintages take on their own notes of sobriety, do you see what I did there.
The Rooms are all different and the Rooms are also all the same. Enough same that they’re all exactly the same, the heart of them—the Big Book, of course, and the very basic meeting rules. Moving from Room to Room reminds me of being in the Army, shipping from place to place on new orders when you had to. A new post felt foreign walking in: they wear this thing that way over here, they think this so-and-so is more important than this other such-and-such, which is completely opposite than I learned it. But within ten minutes someone says a thing in a way that reminds you, Yeah this is the same Army, we’re all in the same Army, and it’s not the different posts that are different from each other after all, it’s all the places that aren’t the Army that aren’t us. You look a little different or talk a little different but I didn’t have to scratch deep to see you’re my tribe, I know you. And you relax then and are comfortable. That’s the Rooms all over. Well, they light a candle at this one and the candle seems real important to them, or they all stand for this part or use an egg-timer for that part, but whatever: I know you, you’re my tribe, I can relax now, and it’s not the different Rooms that are different, it’s outside the Room, the people not in the Rooms, who are—for better or worse or both—not us.
This one woman, both sober and a sobriety counselor, twenty-some years clean and she was almost fifty before she began that run, now with a social-work degree she wields like a Hanzo sword, she used to drive into Philly on the weekends, into mad, deep neighborhoods, Kensington, Strawberry Mansion, and seek out meetings down there, places where the Rooms sometimes weren’t even in rooms at all, or the Room had to move again because that building was condemned last week. If you’d ask her why do you drive down there—it’s almost an hour, it’s not safe—she’d say, “I need to hear those stories.”
The worst of the stories were fuel for the best of her.
I’ve led a split existence geographically for a long time, more than a decade, officially living in a place I often only see on weekends, on a borderline of woods and village in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but much of most weeks urban, usually New York. I like the Rooms in New York, and I didn’t even have to make like the counselor seeking the darkest corners of Philly; just in boring old midtown Manhattan alone you’ve got so many stories, so many people so far removed from myself that I get taken out of myself, which is ultimately the thing you’re trying to do here, get out of your own head, get out of your own way.
I hadn’t planned on going to a meeting today but I’m beyond restless, I need to get out of my head. I need to hear a story worse than my own, of a day worse than my own. I go to a meeting, I settle in. Folks talk for an hour but no one shares a story worse than my own. Even my lame and whiney people-like-my-writing-but-no-one-knows-what-to-do-with-me isn’t trumped today. In fact, most of the hour is spent in passive-aggressive denunciation of each other over an announcement made at the front of the hour. It seems the Powers that Be are considering rewriting parts of the Big Book by utilizing more inclusive language, especially pronouns. I barely register the announcement as it’s made; seems like a perfectly reasonable course of action. The Big Book is a critical tool, the cornerstone to all of this, but it was originally written in the 1930s, is still cringingly outdated at best, wildly misogynistic at worst (my opinion only, mind you; my experience; I speak for no one else).
A guy sitting down the row from me, though, reacts to this announcement by sharing that this is what Marxism is like, did you know, and Marxism is bad, and people telling him how to think is bad, and now we’re bringing Politics into the Rooms, and he’s very, very angry (his italics, I assure you). He shares in this vein for five minutes, stops suddenly, collects himself, thanks us for letting him share, and is done. There is a collective silent breath then the Room comes alive, hands shoot up. Hilarity ensues. There goes the hour.
No stories worse than my own today, but it doesn’t matter, it never matters, it’s enough. It’s always enough. There were thirty of us in that argumentative Room, and not one of us was drunk. Mission accomplished.
I don’t need to go into the Rooms to hear a story worse than mine, I’ve brushed against all kinds of stories worse than mine (and by mine, I mean my real story, not my daily mouse-shit pathetic writer woes). This one kid I was in the Army with, we sailed together on the LSV-1 to the Haitian invasion—he was seventeen when he joined, so twenty or twenty-one when he got out of the service—he was a happy guy, a good guy, although he’d get a little amped when drunk. He made the common American mistake of thinking that just because you can legally carry a pistol in certain states that you should do so. The very week he got out of the Army a celebratory afternoon of drinking turned into what should have been a perfectly innocent, rambunctious bar fight, except he was carrying his Ruger. Chekov’s rules, pal. Or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s. They’re pretty much the same and get you to the same place. He shot his friend and that’s a bad story for both of them. The friend is dead. And my friend is in prison for the rest of his life. Our boy was so drunk he has no memory at all of the act that led to such stunning grief.
Inside the Rooms, I have heard no shortage of stories worse than mine. Decades of prisons, hospitalizations, rehabs. Entire families who drank themselves into extinction. And the worst, pulling the trigger of the bottle and hitting someone else.
Which is all of us, of course: no one life doesn’t affect another life, and no alcoholic only affects themselves. But there are degrees of affecting. Consider the gentleman who killed a mother and daughter while driving drunk. Specifically, he was on his way to buy more beer as quickly as possible so he could get back home and restart the 1-900-phone-sex call that had already eaten several thousand dollars and the better part of this inebriated weekend. (Due to anonymity, that horrifying multi-addiction convoluted story is one I normally wouldn’t share with you, but this particular guy I’m currently remembering, the saddest man I have ever met, encouraged all who heard him to share his words⎯sans his name⎯as a cautionary tale.)
There are a lot of bad stories out there.
We’re all just collections of bad stories. Stories that have happened, and stories that could have just as easily happened to us as anyone else. There but for the grace of God go I. I could have taken out your wife and daughter with my car. I could have taken out one or both of my own daughters with my car. There but for the grace of God.
I don’t really believe in God, or at least not a God who is likely to intervene in any matter as mundane as ensuring I stay out of jail or a psychiatric hospital or a suicide’s end. That’s not God, that’s luck. I didn’t kill anyone while I was behind the wheel absolutely one-hundred percent because of nothing but luck.
Ultimately there are no worse stories, no comparators. Every life is a mystery and so is every addiction, as well as every accompanying sobriety. Every time I have judged, consciously or unconsciously judged, I have been humbled. Unfailingly humbled.
I like my New York meetings where you’re always sure to get a whallop of someone’s legitimate life shit-storm. But I also like my local, small-town meeting, where you’re more apt to hear about knitting gone wrong or a crap day at the office or garage—or the threat of encroaching Marxism into the Rooms as evidenced by the updating of pronouns in the Big Book.
I want someone’s story to be worse than mine so I can feel better about myself. That’s what I want.
But what I need is to connect with the knitting gone wrong so I can worry less about the narcissism of feeling better about myself and just be better.
I’m suspicious of youngsters and by youngsters I mean anyone younger than my Generation X and anyone at all, no matter their age now, who got sober in their teens or twenties.
Really? I think. Shit. You hadn’t lived long enough to get really drunk.
The writer Leslie Jamison had a great thing in the Times Magazine about drunk and sober authors; really great essay, loved it. (In fact, one short, single sentence in that piece played a large role in my own sobriety; thank you, Ms. Jamison.) For all that, though, I avoided the larger book the piece was excerpted from, about her own journey to sobriety, because, one, Leslie Jamison is thirteen years younger than me and, two, Leslie Jamison got sober in her twenties. Fucking please. You call yourself a proper drunk? Then I went ahead and read the book anyway and as always⎯and I mean always, man, always⎯found myself humbled by another’s story. What the fuck do I know.
Never drinking again—or, as we say in the Rooms, not drinking today—for whatever reason, even when I knew it was the right course of action, that in fact I would almost certainly die soon if I didn’t stop drinking, for whatever reason that just wasn’t even an option for me, wasn’t available as a possibility.
I’ll die soon if I don’t stop, I said that to myself for almost two years and knew it as a fact, but stopping just wasn’t a possibility for me, so there you are. Geoff Dyer plays it like this, writing himself into Lester Young’s head during those dark years the sax man was holed up in hotel rooms: “He waited for the phone to ring, expecting to hear someone break the news to him that he had died in his sleep.” I knew that call was coming. That day was coming for me soon—maybe within the month, perhaps inside my very next binge—and I knew it surely as the condemned can discern the distinct footfall of the executioner. Self-aware but self-awareness not worth a shit; I was as trapped as the prisoner, unable to stop. Stopping was not an option available to me.
Until the day it just was. With no explanation. Was the day after Christmas, couple years back. I have no explanation for it.
There was no warning to my pardon, or signal of inevitability (my last drunk—bad as it was, and embarrassing—was hardly my worst, not even Top Fifty). In the time before December 26, 2017, I’d made my peace with the fact that to continue drinking would mean death, soon, but stopping wasn’t an option I could accomplish, so that was that. And then at some point between noon and sundown on December 26 I said Well, I guess I can’t drink ever again and suddenly it was an option. Worried that the option might be time-limited—like the vulnerability of the blinking ghosts on Ms. Pac-Man—I struck while I could. Which is not to say it’s been as easy as eating a blinking ghost, it hasn’t—eating a blinking ghost doesn’t win the game, it just gets you faster from one level to the next⎯but not drinking was not even an option for me before, and now it is.
I wrote for two years. I typed THE END. I sent the manuscript out into the world. What do I do now.
Well, pal, you need to do something so you don’t start drinking. You wrote for two years and it kept you sober, so you better start writing again.
None of that is exactly true, though. I got sober and I wrote for two years. And now—well, the danger is low (inasmuch as there is always danger, of anything, with me). I’m mostly making internal jokes, being dramatic. I don’t want to drink.
What I really don’t want, though, is to think about my manuscript out there in the world, getting knocked around. I don’t know what to do with this. There’s really only one way to not think about that, and that’s to start writing something else. So, two years and a few months later, I take a morning meeting, come home, I sit down, light a candle, open the laptop, and—not knowing what else to write except right now—type, “Was the day after Christmas, couple years back.”
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Christian Bauman is the author of the novels Voodoo Lounge, In Hoboken, and The Ice Beneath You, and a former regular commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered. He served as an enlisted soldier in the US Army Waterborne 1991-1995, including tours with expeditionary forces in Somalia and Haiti.