If the witches had wanted to double Macbeth’s troubles,
their elaborate recipe of eye of newt and toe of frog should
have included a pint of Guinness, a quart of vodka, a carton of
Marlboro cigarettes, and a pound of marijuana. Or a very, very dry
I came of age in the “Just Say Yes” generation of the late 1970s
and the early 1980s, between the end of the freewheeling 1960s—
an era that my friends and I adored but which wasn’t ours—and
the dawning of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” decade of merciless
greed and cocaine consumption.
How did I stop? With more than a little help from my friends.
By going to meetings in recovery and finding people who are as
crazy as I am. I’ve been sober for two decades and I’m still trying to
change the saying “I may not be much, but I’m all I think about.”
The literature of recovery says that letting go of the bondage of
self is the only way to achieve that “priceless gift of serenity.” Serenity
from the screaming voices in my head telling me that I don’t
measure up, that I’m inferior, that the other guy is better-looking,
that this woman has a better job, that everyone knows more than I
do. Serenity is the absence of self, not of constantly thinking about
me, and of sometimes actually thinking about others. Stopping
drinking was the first step, because drinking is only a symptom of
my disease. My fundamental problem is my lack of acceptance of
the world as it is, as opposed to the way I demand it to be.
A person I really respect in recovery once said to me, “I don’t
know where I got this idea of having a pain-free life. My parents
didn’t tell me—not that I listened to anything they said anyway—
nor did my friends, teachers, doctor, rabbi, or bosses. Somehow
I grew up thinking that I shouldn’t have to experience pain. If I
felt any pain at all, anything that bothered me, I drank or smoked
it away. I mean, that’s the smart thing to do, right? The problem
was that when I stopped drinking and drugging, I was a fourteenyear-
old boy trapped in a twenty-five-year-old man’s body because
I never matured. I never learned how to deal with the normal disappointments,
heartaches, and difficulties of life. The second the
going got tough, I got going to the liquor store.”
In the course of this book, you’ll see that my mother’s approach
and my approach to sobriety are a little different. She hit the bottom
and went to an outpatient rehabilitation center the day before
Christmas 1990 and was a fan of that program for many years.
Though she doesn’t go to twelve-step meetings, she has come to
grips with her alcoholism. We’d agree that anything that gets you
to stop drinking and using is the right approach: organized religion,
twelve-step meetings, living in a cabin in the woods, being
an exercise fanatic. It doesn’t matter. The one thing I kept telling
myself as I was destroying my life with beer and pot was that they
were all I had left. It’s the supreme irony of addictions that what is
killing you masquerades as the answer.
There is a theory in recovery that you stop maturing after you
begin drinking excessively, and that was certainly my case. Getting
sober at twenty-five was more than lucky; it was a power greater
than I, working in my life.
Think getting sober is easier at twenty-five than forty-five?
As a friend of mine in recovery said, “It’s not easy being young
in recovery.” Those of us in our twenties were a minority (albeit
fast-growing). Plus, I hadn’t done anything in my life to help
define me, to give me an identity. No wife, no kids, no career.
And the lies the disease tells you! I remember as a child watching
the TV adaptation of Sybil with a (very young) Sally Field and
wondering what it would be like to have a split personality. There’s
a reason why Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is popular: because alcoholism
is beyond the yin-yang polarity of good and evil in all of us. From
a nice teenage boy I turned into a monster, in a fury at the world
for not being the way I wanted it to be. I was going to show them
all, and if I couldn’t show them, I was going to kill myself.
When I was new in recovery, I completely ignored the slogan
“One Day at a Time” (which I’ve come to believe is the single most
important message I’ve learned in my sobriety) because I could
simply not imagine not drinking or getting high again.
Here are some of my early questions that proved to me I
couldn’t stop drinking:
“What about a business meeting when the client has a glass of
wine? Won’t I appear to be insulting him if I don’t have one, too?”
I discovered later that the only people who care if I don’t
drink are those with drinking problems themselves. No one cares
whether you drink as long as they get to drink themselves.
“What about dating? What if the girl I’m dating has a drink?
Won’t she think I’m a loser if I don’t drink?”
Actually, no. If a girl is turned off by your nondrinking, you
shouldn’t be dating her. Before I got sober, I had to lie about the
volume of my alcohol intake. I used my girlfriends as a control
mechanism on my addiction, as monitors, and that’s not a job anyone
wants. After I got sober, I followed a very strict rule about
dating. On the first date, after the normal chitchat and gettingto-
know-you part, I would tell her at dinner I didn’t drink and
was sober X number of years. I was being fair to them, but more
important, I wouldn’t be tempted to keep it hidden and then want
to drink that glass of red wine that was so large, you could wash
a Buick in it.
“What, can’t I have a drink on my wedding day?”
I didn’t have a girlfriend. I was convinced the FBI was outside
my door, and auditory hallucinations at work were beginning to
be a distraction. I wasn’t getting married anytime soon.
“How can I go to a football game without getting high?”
When I told my therapist that I had been stopped by the police
in Washington Square Park for attempting to buy marijuana (I
was let go without being charged, thank God for the non-Giuliani
years in New York City), he asked why I had done something so
stupid. “Because my regular guy was out, and I was going to go
to the Giants–Eagles game, and I had to have some weed.” When
he asked why I had to get high to watch a football game, I had no
answer except: “What’s the point of going to a football game if
you aren’t stoned?”
I got married thirteen years ago and didn’t have to drink. Now
I can have a business meeting, go out to dinner with my wife, and
go to a football game, and it simply doesn’t occur to me to alter
my state of being with chemicals.
Move over, Moses, because to those who really knew me, that’s
a real miracle.
Martinis are my drug of choice, straight up, on the rocks,
vodka, gin, lemon peel, olive, onion, ten to one. Any martini
drinker knows what I’m talking about. Liquid silver, that’s
how my old friend Harry described it.
Not, believe me, that I disdained other drinks—none of them,
as I recall—being partial also to an old-fashioned, a daiquiri, a
whiskey sour. But nothing could win me over like a dry martini,
although one has to acquire that taste.
I was introduced to drugs when there was really only one hand
to shake: alcohol’s. Cocaine, heroin, marijuana, crystal meth: I
was unacquainted with this happy quartet. I was school-age at a
time when you could go to school without getting shot. That was
a long time ago.
It makes no difference for the purposes of this book. Heroin
and cocaine still rank as numbers 1 and 2 (despite the government’s
obsession with crystal meth), the baddest of the bad. Why
split hairs? When it comes to addiction, they’re all bad.
I’m going to avoid the big-ticket health issue, not because it isn’t
important but because it tends to obscure other issues. (When you
set it against an X-ray of a cirrhotic liver, can you really convince
someone that the drink on the bar is necessary?) You know, we all
know, how dangerous addictions are to our health.
Nor will I talk about addiction as a disease. I don’t know
whether it is or isn’t, but I don’t care whether that martini shows
I have a disease or an unquenchable thirst. I think I’ll knock the
“willpower” card off the table. It’s way overplayed.
Most of life is engaged with filling a prescription. We fill up with
whatever works at the moment: food, drink, smoking, shopping.
A few hours at Target isn’t quite as tasty as a few hours in Barneys
New York, but it serves the same purpose. If you’re starving,
it doesn’t matter who the chef is. And what works best is drugs.
After the official drugs like marijuana and cocaine, alcohol (which,
for some reason, gets separated from the others, for we speak of
drugs and alcohol), we’ve got a long list: food (oh, what a drug lies
there!), cigarettes, shopping, television, Internet, gambling, chewing
gum, romantic love—anything that can fill the emptiness for
a few minutes or hours or months, anything that comes from the
outside, something that you don’t have to work at. It allows you to
escape, no questions asked, just go.
The whole world is our drugstore. We must be drawn out of
ourselves by something.
Maybe that’s why Invasion of the Body Snatchers keeps on being
remade. The body snatchers are only after empty husks. Whatever
was inside—call it mind, call it soul—is long gone, as with Gregor
in The Metamorphosis.
In my hometown, there was a movie house, only one theater
and only one screen and one balcony—no longer there, of course.
When I was young, I would look around at the rows of people,
the glow from the screen bathing their faces in ambient light. I
was struck by how innocent the moviegoers looked, unguarded
as children. They were drawn out of themselves; in a sense, they
no longer inhabited themselves. This condition could change at
any second: At the moment when the film fails to grip them, they
become aware that they’re in a theater watching a movie, which
is failing to keep their attention, but suddenly, it can be captured
again. Anything that erases us from time to time, that loosens our
grip, relaxes us, and lets us breathe again. Anything except death,
although at times I think that’s where all of this is headed. We
don’t “breathe easier”; we’re on life support. We’ve got all sorts of
stuff skating into our systems to keep us alive, and we take this as
good, even great, since we’ve left ourselves behind.
For the body snatchers.
We say we can’t have a good time without a drink. Yet I remember
years when I could have a sublimely good time without one.
I was a little kid, or a bigger one, or even an adult. So why did I
tell myself later on that I couldn’t have any fun without a drink in
my hand? A dinner party or any sort of gathering where we stand
around and share small talk? No. You need to have a drink just to
A few years ago USA Today did a series of reports on dieting,
a challenge they invited readers to take. One doctor or nutritionist—
who did an incalculable service for all of us dieters—said that
dieting is hard: “You might as well learn to play the violin.”
That’s how hard it is. Willpower be damned. Some USA Today
readers probably thought the good doctor was brutally discouraging.
I thought just the opposite: She told us what we were up
against and why we failed time and again. When you fail in a diet
you feel like a fool or a lout. Surely anybody should be able to turn
down a doughnut. No willpower.
Stopping drinking is like this.
You might as well learn how to play the violin.