"I Need a Drink": Lethal Alcoholism, Untalked of and Denied, Lurks Everywhere
"I need a drink." That was the message on a cardboard sign held up by a scruffy-bearded panhandler at a busy intersection in Central Massachusetts.
An honest alcoholic. That is different, though it is no surprise that the panhandler is one. And no one is surprised these days at all the movie stars and other celebrities being exposed as alcoholics with crazy, booze-drenched lives, if you can believe the tabloids and gossip TV.
What's surprising to me is this: having alcoholism and its incredible power to destroy lives march into my little life. For a non-drinker for whom bars and booze constitute an alternate and alien universe, and for one who normally has no brief for or against drinking, this is saying something.
It says that alcoholism must be everywhere.
Official figures from the U.S. Government as well as alcoholism treatment organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous confirm that this is so. There are uncounted millions of us, neither panhandlers nor high-profile celebrities, for whom alcoholism is a background scourge. Unspoken of, routinely denied, this disease -- and that's what it is -- quietly goes about its devastatingly lethal business.
I'm not going to try to tell you all about alcoholism. For that, go to the website of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism I write here today only of examples that have walked into my life.
A call came from a childhood buddy that I used to hang out with over a half century ago in Stoneham, Mass. where I grew up. He said that another buddy from all those many years ago --we'll call him Jimmy -- was fighting for his life at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass.
The caller, whom I had only seen a few times since we were kids together, said that he had just come from visiting Jimmy. "He's in rough shape and we don't know if he's going to make it," he said. "But then we have thought the same lots of times before and he just comes back. Jimmy is one tough son of a bitch."
"What's he dealing with?"
"Everything. He's got COPD. He's having trouble breathing. They have him on oxygen. He can hardly talk. And when he does, sometimes you don't know what the hell he's saying. But you know, it was all alcohol. He drank and drank and drank and always said he was going to stop but never did. He was an alcoholic but would never admit it. Alcohol ruined Jimmy's life. And now it's killing him."
The caller knows that of which he speaks. "I'm an alcoholic myself," he said. "I was in denial for years before I admitted it and joined AA." He said he used to be just like Jimmy, drinking and drinking and convincing himself that it's okay. He said that Jimmy would tell him, "So what if I drink, I've made a lot of money."
Jimmy never moved out of our old tramping grounds. He knew everybody in town and everybody knew him. Go out on the town with Jimmy, and it was "set 'em up, Joe" and "one for the road," with the big spender picking up the bar tab.
For Jimmy, drinking was good business. He used to spend hours a day at the Redmen's and Bear Hill Country Club in Stoneham, Mass. drinking and doing business deals. "Jimmy had a great business mind," said another childhood friend from the old Stoneham days.
Jimmy parlayed his contacts and popularity into a fortune in real estate and as owner of multiple businesses, from restaurants to fence companies. It was said that he "owned the town."
My old friend caller told me that he was in the ICU talking with Jimmy about old times and my name came up. As we age, we can't remember the names of people we talked to yesterday; but names of childhood friends are evidently permanently imprinted on our brains. "Yeah, we were talking about you and so I told Jimmy that I would give you a call."
I can just imagine what Jimmy said. It would have been something like this: That (obscenity). What the (obscenity) has that (obscenity, a different one from the first)been doing all these years, playing with himself? That would have been Jimmy's way of saying that he has fond remembrances of me.
In high school, I used to hang out at his house all the time where I felt more at home than I did in my foster home. Jimmy's mom all but adopted me, giving me a key to the house and access to the refrigerator. I envied Jimmy because he had a Mom and family and I was a state kid.
Stoneham is an ice hockey town. Jimmy and I and many of our buddies played on the Stoneham High Team. Jimmy and I later played on the Merrimack College varsity hockey team. He was a goalie, a good one. During all this time, Jimmy loved his beer. I got used to seeing him with a beer in his hand, but thought nothing of it. His drinking was too common to notice.
I got drunk a couple of times in high school and got so sick to my stomach and got such a raging headache that I swore off drinking. Even during years of college and semi-pro ice hockey when the whole team went out drinking after games, I was usually the only one who did not drink. Jimmy started drinking and never stopped. By dumb luck, I stopped before I started.
I called my old friend to see how Jimmy was doing. He was doing a little better and was out of the ICU but still in the hospital. I asked that a message from me be passed on to Jimmy. I said, "Tell him that I think he's pulling the same old bullshit. This is nothing but attention-getting. I don't buy a bit of it. Tell him to get the hell out of that hospital and stop wasting everybody's time!"
"He'd like that," my old friend said. "I'll tell him."
He knew Jimmy would understand exactly what I was saying: I was thinking of him and pulling for him. Even after nearly 50 years of barely seeing each other, the old days never ended with the two of us. Jimmy is etched indelibly in my memory and my heart. If he died, a part of me would also die.
Well, I got a call a week later telling me that, after days of passing in and out of consciousness, Jimmy died. Before he did, doctors tried to get him to tell them if they should take extraordinary measures to save his life. Unable to talk, he signaled for something to write on. He was given paper and pencil. With difficulty, he wrote, "Pull the plug."
Jimmy's doctors did so.
Barbara and I went to Jimmy's wake in Stoneham. Because Jimmy was so well-known and so popular, the line was out to the street. It was like the whole town had turned out to say goodbye to a beloved native son. After a long wait in line, I offered my condolences to his wife.
"He was ready," she said.
"Yes, I heard what he wrote."
"I still have that piece of paper and I'm going to keep it."
Shortly after attending Jimmy's wake, I received an E-mail from another friend, also from out of nowhere. He said that he was looking for advice about a problem that had him "at wits end." The father of a friend had repeatedly tried to take his own life in the last week. He was saying that "life is worthless" and that "there is no point of living." He is an alcoholic, my friend wrote.
"What can I do? Should I do? What steps can I take to get him the help he needs?"
I replied immediately by e-mail. All I could think of was to refer him to Alcoholics Anonymous. I wrote: "I don't know if they will send volunteers to the home. But if you tell them that this is a case of an alcoholic trying right now to kill himself, they will swing into action. If they can't send their own volunteers, they can refer you to the right people."
That was a quick reply off the top of my head. I should have referred him to the U.S. Government's Center for Substance Abuse Treatment or CSAT. The Center maintains a 24-hour, toll-free number: 1-800-662-HELP. I did so later.
In a follow-up e-mail a few days later, my friend wrote that just before Christmas, and after a big snowstorm, the father "got lost" in the woods. He was found by rescue crews and treated for hypothermia at the ER. He has since been transferred to McLean Hospital and entered their alcohol rehab and depression program, my friend wrote.
Then, while having coffee with a dear friend, I casually said that my next blog was about alcoholism. My friend's expression went goggle-eyed and deadly serious -- and out tumbled these words: "My mom and dad were both alcoholics and so is my sister. She was just admitted to the hospital with terminal liver disease."
That was followed by a teary-eyed tale of how alcoholism has been a family scourge as long as my friend could remember. Part of that story follows in my friend's own words:
It was Christmas Eve 1969. My mother drove the Chevy wagon with all of us kids in it to midnight Mass. My sister was passed out in the back seat by the time we reached our 10-minute destination to St. Anne’s church. This Christmas Eve, like most that I can recall, my parents hosted a family party at our home.
My sister volunteered to make drinks for the guests. How cute, everyone thought, this 10 year old making drinks! Little did we know that my sister was also making drinks for herself, which explained why she was now passed out in the back seat of the family car.
This was my earliest memory of uncontrolled alcohol consumption in my household. Most family gatherings included alcohol. An uncle would stop by on a Saturday morning and out came the booze. It came out to celebrate, it came out to comfort, it was there to pacify, to socialize, to quell anger, to help find courage. Alcohol was always there. It was not uncommon for me to come back home for a visit and find my father passed out and lying in the hallway amidst a clutter of empty bottles.
My sister, unemployed and still living at home, took up residence in the family room. There she would drink and smoke cigarettes to her heart’s content. She had her favorite easy chair, television set always on, ashtray always full, and a vodka bottle within reach. What a life for a young woman in her early 20’s.
People noticed, but because of my parents’ lifestyle and the lifestyle of their friends, no one seemed to think there was a problem. How little we all knew.
Flash forward 10 years. My sister is admitted to a center for alcohol addiction. My brother paid cash for her 28-day stay. Less than two weeks following her discharge, my sister was drinking again. This time was different, though. She was drinking larger quantities and more frequently.
A few suicide attempts and continual dysfunction later, my sister was brought through an ‘intervention’ to another rehabilitation facility. This time she stayed three months. Everyone had high hopes for my sister’s recovery, but it wasn’t long before she was again in trouble with the booze.
During the ‘intervention,’ the alcohol-abuse professional advised us to be aware of ‘enabling’ - either directly or indirectly signing off on her drinking. Everyone listened, but no one stopped her from taking a drink.
Where the rehabs stopped, the hospital ER’s began. Two years ago my mother and I went to my sister’s bedside each day for 14 days while she lay in a drug-induced coma, on a ventilator, following surgery on a collapsed lung. My sister was so deep into her addiction to alcohol that the doctors had to give her drugs to ‘wean her off’ slowly. The doctors had to scrape one of her lungs to remove the nicotine buildup.
Two weeks ago I received a call from a cousin who told me that my sister was in the hospital with end-stage cirrhosis of the liver. Her kidneys were shutting down and she was bloated beyond recognition. She was ‘bleeding out,’ a term for bleeding uncontrollably internally.
When I spoke with the ER Doc, he said, “We are ‘putting out fires’ but there is nothing we can do to reverse the damage your sister caused herself by abusing alcohol and cigarettes”.
My sister is home from the hospital. She miraculously survived another episode. She has cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcohol abuse. If she picks up another drink she will die. She has refused rehab.
She has an insidious disease called alcoholism. Yes, I am sure that there are psychological issues that my sister must address. I am also certain that alcohol abuse is a downward spiral that robs a person of spirit, soul, friends, jobs, family, motivation and, eventually, life.
Then, out of the blue, I received an e-mail from another friend from college days. "Not sure you'll remember me after all these years," he wrote, " but thought I'd reach out.... He said that he had learned of my blog and "read it with tears on many levels."
I wrote back: "Of course, I remember you. You're a fellow scribe." Then I went on to tell him that my next blog was about alcoholism. "And now if you tell me that you are an alcoholic or that alcoholism has impacted your life," I wrote, "it would be too weird. It might drive me to drink."
And, wouldn't you know, he wrote back that he had two brothers who were both alcoholics. One, he said, was a functioning alcoholic. "He made it to work every day but it destroyed him physically and mentally and restricted his social life to a private club." The other brother, he said, "was in very tough shape while I was in college. He joined AA and turned it all around."
"Two brothers. My goodness. This alcoholism is truly everywhere," I wrote back.
What is it with this alcohol?
On the spur of the moment, just before New Year's Day, I decided to do something I had never done before in my life. Go out drinking? No. Go into a liquor store. What kind of people would I find there? Falling-down drunks? Ordinary people? Both?
I chose a big liquor supermarket on Park Ave, in Worcester, shown here. When I pulled into the parking lot, it was packed with cars. That in itself, I found extraordinary. But what I found inside, struck me as surreal.
The scene and the atmosphere were no different from the supermarket I had just come from where I had picked up some groceries. The people looked exactly the same, just ordinary shoppers pushing shopping carts through the aisles and weighing purchases. Some had little kids hanging onto the cart.
The only thing different was that this supermarket sold nothing but booze, and every kind that you can think of. I watched as a little boy, probably about eight or nine, helped his dad load six-packs of beer into a cart.
"Boy, this is a lot of beer," the boy said.
"Yeah, we're low," the father said.
Any close observer of humanity would take one look at the people in this liquor supermarket and easily identify one who did not belong: me. In this alcohol-accepting, if not celebrating, environment, I was an obvious misfit.
I was sure that the surveillance cameras had spotted me as a weirdo obviously up to no good. I half expected, at any moment, to be grabbed and hustled out the door. Looking around to make sure no one was watching, I slid my camera out of my pocket.
I took a quick couple of shots, slipped the camera back into my pocket, and headed for the door before I got caught. In the parking lot, I took a picture of a father and a boy loading beer into the back of their pick-up.
This boy and the other kids like him that I saw are growing up with the idea that shopping for beer in a liquor supermarket is as normal a part of life as shopping in a food supermarket. But, correct me if I'm wrong, isn't food a necessity that we need to live while alcohol is a choice -- and one that can be addictive to the point of life-threatening?
Am I the only one who thinks that the scene inside this liquor supermarket is not as normal and as innocent as it appears? While selling liquor is legal and millions of us drink moderately and responsibly, should there be big warning signs outside and inside this liquor supermarket that drinking can take over your life, destroy it, and kill you?
So long and keep moving.
P.S. Alcoholism is an old, old problem. America's drinking history, from the revolution to Prohibition years to legalization to acceptance and normalization, is a baby compared to that of our mommy: England. In Arts and Letters Daily, James Nichols recently traced five centuries of drinking turmoil in the Mother Country. Indeed, alcoholism is sometimes called the "British disease." Here's all the perspective you need to blame it all on the Brits.
A taste: In 1628 one Richard Rawlidge complained that whereas in London there were less than 130 churches, there were ‘above thirty hundred alehouses’. In 1635 the playwright Thomas Heywood blamed the Danes for first bringing their ‘elbow-deep healths into this land’, but ruefully observed that while north Europeans all seemed ‘addicted to strong and toxing drinks’, it was the English who were
‘most forward to commit this grievous and abominable sin of drunkenness’.
NOTE: My novel, State Kid: Hero of Literacy is now available on Amazon and with the Nook.