This happened five or six years ago: On the way home from work I decide to stop in for a drink at the bar down the block from my apartment. My friend and roommate, Leaf, calls this joint “the local” and he spends easily twenty hours a week here, so I’m not surprised to find him inside. Leaf is amused to see me specifically at this moment, however, because, as he explains, he’s just used meeting me here as an excuse to get away from someone.
“I’m off today, so I was drinking at another spot and started texting this chick from work. Trying to get her to come down and meet me. She does, so we have a couple drinks and then go back up to the pad and screw. Then I want to get rid of her, you know, so I tell her I’m meeting you here. She came with, I don’t know, maybe to see if I was lying. I just kept saying you must be running late. She just left. Then you showed up anyway. Crazy, right, dude?”
The minor coincidence does not particularly impress me. I’m more amazed by how often this idiot gets randomly laid. Leaf has horrible breath, but he’s also got swagger, confidence and basic good looks. He expects it, and so it comes.
That he thinks women really like the stench emanating from his oral cavity is something of a curiosity to me. He claims he’s been told he smells like a man. A man, sure, but a man who smokes cheap cigarettes, drinks rotgut, and eats gas station sausages only appeals to certain types of women. I’m not so sure they enjoy his aroma as much as they just hate themselves.
The next day, after he’s had his coffee, Leaf tells me he’s got to get out there and find some action. He says he hasn’t scored in a while, maybe a month.
I say, “Except for yesterday, you mean?”
Leaf looks at me blankly. “What?” he says.
“When I saw you at the bar you said you’d just had sex with some chick from work earlier. You told me the whole story about how you got her to come and meet you and then you lied to her about meeting me to get her to leave after…”
“What, dude?” Leaf says. “No, that was like three weeks ago. That girl from the hostel I met at the coffee shop.”
“No,” I say slowly. “I’m talking about yesterday. Check your text messages.”
He’s still blank. This is not the first time I’ve filled him in on gaps in his memory of the night before. But I saw him at 6pm and he doesn’t even remember communicating with this woman hours before that, let alone taking her to his bed, which must have happened at least an hour earlier.
He checks his messages and then says, “Oh man, I really fucked that up.”
So he was blacked out more or less all day. That was unusual even for him. Not remembering sex at the end of the night is one thing, but not remembering an afternoon delight with a novel lover screams of a problem to me.
That problem is alcoholism. Leaf’s friends – myself included – were enablers, and if we weren’t, he’d have found others who were. He was jovial, smart. And he generally took care of himself, even if he smelled like a vomit-filled dumpster and couldn’t remember whether he’d had sex or not the day before.
The question of how functional he was is another matter. He almost always made it to work and did his job well (bartender). He saved money when he wanted to, and he was liked by plenty of people. Sure, he was annoying, but mostly he was just harmless fun, or only a danger to himself. One day he woke up in bed with road rash all over his face and no idea where his bike was. Figured he’d crashed into a tree and walked it off.
I’d later learn he was incapable of communicating about anything mildly serious without a drink in hand and a few working their way through his liver. Even then, he’d get loud and aggressive. And then he would not remember most of whatever was discussed.
There’s a gap between blacking out and passing out that I call the Open Window. It’s like going away for the weekend and leaving a window open in your house or your car. Anything could happen while you’re away.
For some drinkers, the Open Window only lasts five minutes. For others, it could be five hours, maybe more. And look, I drank; many times I got much drunker than I should have any reason to be. But I tried not to black out much. If I ever heard that I did something grossly out of character, or even just socially unpleasing, it made me not want to drink as much. Just as often, but ideally fewer ounces.
The embarrassment was real. Maybe that’s social anxiety, I don’t know. It’s not the sort of thing that I shrugged off and kept on going with. Leaf seemed to have no problem with that. Maybe that’s addiction. Or narcissism. I don’t know. Maybe he was drinking because he did not want to remember the present, which is easier to forget than the past.
Maybe if you have a big Open Window, you just cannot control it. Before you know what’s going on, you don’t know what’s going on anymore. Happens to the best of us.
I drank for about twenty years (~18-39). The main reason I stopped was on medical advisement. Alcohol is fucking crazy. But I always wanted to remember what happened. Maybe that makes me a writer. I made a rule after Magnolia that I’d only drink for fun and never allow myself or anyone I was with to try to talk serious on the sauce. It’s unproductive. And sometimes offensive.
It’s been less than two years since I quit. Because I’m not an alcoholic, it wasn’t a problem. And I still have a drink now and then, and when I want to get really loose, maybe two. But no more binge drinking.
At first I could feel the pull of soft drunken ease that you cannot get from one or two drinks. It was like a cool little breeze at the top of a ski slope, when you’re craving the crisp wind of a rapid descent down the mountain. Maybe you get closer with three drinks, if you drink them fast, but it’s better just to give it up.
Being sober has made me feel smaller, more restrained. Maybe I was lubricating my way through social anxiety, the awkwardness of dry conversation. I was definitely drinking myself away from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, although I was also giving myself increasingly awful hangovers, which come with a host of unpleasantness that often includes anxiety and panic sensations, symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Freedom from the hangovers is worth forgoing the simplicity of the bottle. Most of the time. But I don’t give into it when it seems like it’s not. And I haven’t tried to replace it with anything else. I just manage the cravings. Mostly.
Transparency: I have not really figured out how to socialize completely without booze. And I still spend most of my leisure time around people who are drinking. It usually doesn’t bother me; although I’d prefer not to have to be a custodian to drunks, I don’t mind being a designated driver. I like to be around people who are having fun.
Viewpoint: While I’d like to be as healthy as I can be, I am happy I experienced the drinking life, or a drinker’s life, if that sounds better. It’s a flavor of humanity that cannot be understood without living it. Alcohol afflicts people differently and observation only goes so far. Leaf seemed like a problem drinker to me, but he knew people he considered much worse than himself. Sobriety teaches one that drinking –or not drinking — is not a competition. And maybe anxiety illustrates that comparison is futile when it comes to mental health.
Or, as Mark Twain put it, “Comparison is the death of joy.”