Clean and Sober

Drink Freely: Drinking: A Love Story/ Clean & Sober

"The problem with self-transformation is that after a while, you don’t know which version of yourself to believe in, which one is true. […] For years my therapist said to me, “Sit with the feelings. What happens when you just sit still, by yourself? What happens when you just sit with the feelings?” I suppose he was trying to get at those very questions: What kind of person was I, really? What was I afraid of, angry about? Who was I when I didn’t have other people to cue into? I couldn’t answer, of course, because I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t sit still for ten minutes without a drink, without the anesthesia; I really couldn’t."

"One of the first things you hear in AA—one of the first things that makes core, gut-level sense—is that in some deep and important personal respects you stop growing when you start drinking alcoholically. The drink stunts you, prevents you from walking through the kinds of fearful life experiences that bring you from point A to point B on the maturity scale. When you drink in order to transform yourself, when you drink and become someone you’re not, when you do this over and over and over, your relationship to the world becomes muddied and unclear. You lose your bearings, the ground underneath you begins to feel shaky. After a while you don’t know even the most basic things about yourself—what you’re afraid of, what feels good and bad, what you need in order to feel comforted and calm—because you’ve never given yourself a chance, a clear, sober chance, to find out.

Alcohol offers protection from all that, protection from the pain of self-discovery, a wonderful, cocooning protection that’s enormously insidious because it’s utterly false but it feels so real, so real and necessary."

"The movie Clean and Sober is a somewhat simplistic look at addiction and recovery but there’s one very vivid scene, about midway through, when Michael Keaton comes home from rehab and spends his first night alone in his apartment. He scrubs the place until it gleams, light from halogen lamps glinting off the chrome furniture, and then he sits. Sits on one chair for a few minutes, then gets up and sits on another. He’s restless and edgy and you can tell from the way he keeps getting up and sitting down that he feels completely at sea, clueless about how to comfort himself, or entertain himself, or just sit there comfortably in his own skin."

"I saw the movie in 1989 when it was released, and during that scene I flashed onto the various apartments I’d lived in by myself over the years, and I squirmed. One of these days that’s going to be me, I thought, forced to figure out how to live alone, without the armor."

"The armor, of course, is protection from all the things we might actually feel, if we allowed ourselves to feel at all. Although he doesn’t quite claim that abstinence from alcohol led directly to the depression he documents in his 1990 memoir, Darkness Visible, William Styron vividly describes what happens when a drinker is suddenly left without the armor, left without the self-constructed wall that stands between the self and acute self-awareness: 'Suddenly vanished,' he writes, 'the great ally which for so long had kept my demons at bay was no longer there to prevent those demons from beginning to swarm through the subconscious, and I was emotionally naked, vulnerable as I had never been before.' Without liquor, which had 'turned' on him suddenly, Styron felt numb and enervated and fragile, subject to 'dreadful, pounding seizures of anxiety.'"

"Over the course of my last years of drinking, I lived in another studio apartment, this one in Boston’s North End, New England’s version of Little Italy. On nights when I had no plans, I’d stop on my way home at the Prince Pantry, a convenience store on the corner near my building, and pick up a bottle of white wine. The store had next to no selection—a cheap Italian Soave and a couple of overpriced California Chardonnays—but there was something about buying wine in a convenience store, as opposed to a fully fledged liquor store, that helped me feel like I wasn’t really shopping for booze, just picking up a little something on the way home, the way you’d pick up a quart of milk or a box of cereal for breakfast. The wine would be my primary staple for the evening, but during those last few years I began to understand that a single bottle wouldn’t quite suffice, wouldn’t quite do the trick, so I’d usually pick up two beers while I was there as well. Not a whole six-pack, just two lone bottles of Molson Golden, which always looked perfectly innocent sitting on the counter beside the wine when I went to pay.

As soon as I got home, I’d crack open the first beer and drink it with a deep relief. In ways, I acknowledged that my little stockpile of booze was an ally, just as Styron described it: a defense against my own subconscious, against the demons that threatened to swim up from wherever they hid inside. Sometimes I’d actually think about that scene from Clean and Sober, about the way Michael Keaton just sat there in his apartment, restless and staring. My place was modern and high tech the way his was, with halogen lamps and cool gray carpeting, and I’d understand that the beer, and the one after that and the bottle of wine after that, served a very specific purpose: it kept me from that piercing consciousness of self, kept me from the task of learning to tolerate my own company." 

"Without liquor I’d feel like a trapped animal, which is why I always had it. Without liquor I didn’t know what to do with myself, and I mean that in the most literal sense, as though my thoughts and my limbs were foreign to me and I’d missed some key set of instructions about how to use them. I used to feel that way on Sunday mornings, when I’d wake up alone in the apartment with nothing before me but unstructured time. Here I am, in my apartment. Here I am, puttering through the kitchen. Here I am, washing a dish and setting it on the rack. Here I am, in my apartment. Here I am, puttering through the kitchen. Here I am, washing a dish and setting it on the rack. Here I am . . . conscious of being alone, conscious of my own breath and my own skin and my own thoughts; here I am, waiting waiting waiting and if I keep doing this, if I don’t find some way out of my own head, I’ll die of boredom or go insane or explode at any moment."