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Rob Roberge is the guest. His new novel, The Cost of Living, is now available from Other Voices Books. It is the April selection of The TNB Book Club.


 
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Not long ago, I stood in the office of Records Management in the Indianapolis City-County Building and watched as a man with crooked glasses punched my name into his computer. It was spring. A bright blue sky, sunlight danced between the glass and steel of the taller buildings. I was there in the sub-basement to search for criminal records—my criminal records.

Outside it was sixty-five degrees. The landscape was turning green, flowers were blooming—everything was being renewed, coming back to life, starting over.

Becoming Abby

By M.J. Fievre

Memoir

You, my dear, are a party pooper.

You’re the one who doesn’t drink the offered glass of Pinot Noir because you’ve recognized in your own drunken eyes your father’s propensity for yelling and hitting. You’re the one who refuses to puff the joint because Daddy says drugs are bad for you; besides, you heard marijuana makes one sleepy and you really want to read a few chapters of Zola’s The Human Beast before going to bed. Weeds make you hungry too, they say, and you want to finally fit in these bell bottom jeans that are so in vogue in Port-au-Prince. Party pooper! You won’t dance too close to Ben under the flashing lights because that might give him ideas and you’re only 15 and you don’t want to get sidetracked when such a bright future awaits you.  On a large piece of cardboard on your bedroom wall, you’ve written down your life goals: finish high school, finish med school, open a clinic downtown, buy a house in the mountains of Kenscoff. You’re boring, you know. But keeping focused allows you to forget the insomnia, the dark thoughts, the darker impulses, your fear, your cynicism. Eyes on the prize, and you’re the perfect follower of rules—the perfect Catholic teenager, a candidate for salvation.

DeWitt Henry is the author of the novel The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts (winner of the inaugural Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel), and a mid-life memoir-in-essays, Safe Suicide: Narratives, Essays, and Meditations.  Both are sequels to his latest memoir, Sweet Dreams, about growing up on Philadelphia’s Main Line.  The founding editor of Ploughshares literary magazine, he is a Professor at Emerson College in Boston.  (For more details, please visit www.dewitthenry.com.)

Perhaps the most notable thing about the passing of essayist Christopher Hitchens was not that he retained his atheism to the end, but rather that he retained his love of alcohol. His esophageal cancer, which owes its appearance partially to genetic factors, was not aided by a lifetime of pre-noon scotches. But he never apologized for his drinking. He was born, he drank and wrote prodigiously, and then he died. At no point did he waste time with regret. A clean and sober Hitchens may have been humorless, or perhaps he would have reached Einsteinian levels of insight. Ultimately, his drinking was a choice he made that shaped who he was and how he died.

Shannon Cain’s The Necessity of Certain Behaviors was the winner of the Drue Heinz Literary Prize for 2011, showcasing a collection of short stories that speaks to us about love, need, and irreversible actions. What is necessary, what behaviors do we implore when seeking freedom, family or peace? When you are in love with a man and a woman, how do you decide between the two, amidst puppies and wives and a bed filled with the ghosts of your lovemaking? Would you be willing to deal drugs, to sell a large quantity of pot in order to keep your family intact, to chase that plastic package into a dark river, riddled with fear? A mother caught in a steam room masturbating her way into another world, another life, the one she wishes she had lived, cannot overshadow her own daughter’s questionable love for a teacher, a coach, an older man. Lost in the jungle, one woman finds that her sexuality knows no boundaries, instead captivated by the slick dark flesh of men and women alike, trying hard to leave behind the civilized world, in order to embrace her true self. A queer zoo, Bob Barker, and a AAA travel guide eager to get off the beaten path, round out this body of work, the stories in this slim bound volume heartbreaking, alluring, exotic, and lush.

For an explanation of the 30 Stories in 30 Days, start at Day 1.

Today I thought I’d go back to the beginning. The VERY beginning. It’s the story of the day I was born, which I love, because it seems like it was a difficult and ridiculous day for everyone involved. I obviously have no memory of it, but I’ve been told it went something like this:

Origin of the Me-cies

Sacramento, CA, 1972: My parents have recently moved across town to a new house. As far as I know, they don’t really know many people in Sacramento—they moved there when my Dad got some sort of construction job at the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant (home of “the third most serious safety-related occurrence in the United States!”).

My brother, Todd, is almost five and our cousin Bridgette (also five) is visiting, along with her mother and grandmother. Between my dad’s job and his as-yet-unchecked alcoholism, he’s keeping pretty busy, so his mother and sister have flown in from Texas to help take care of things whenever my mom goes into labor.

That was the plan, anyway. I am more than a week overdue (“Never too early to start being late for stuff!” –me) and my grandmother and aunt are getting impatient. They spend each day asking my mom “When is that kid gonna come?!” and entertaining two five-year-olds with trips to local attractions. My cousin tells me that she and my brother were promised a trip to Disneyland the day before I arrived, and that my being born ruined it. (“Never too early to start ruining stuff!” –also me)

Losing patience, my grandmother makes my mom drink a glass of Castor oil to induce labor (the seventies!). Late that same evening, her contractions begin. It’s after midnight. My dad is out drinking beer and playing poker somewhere and has our (only) car.  Wherever he is, he can’t be reached by phone. And he doesn’t have one of those “Daddy Beepers” because beepers don’t exist because they haven’t been invented yet because it isn’t the future. (Help us, TIME CAT!)

My mom knows that calling an ambulance will be too expensive, and apparently taxicabs won’t pick up a woman in labor, for insurance reasons. So, out of desperation, my mom calls her former neighbors from across town—a couple in their 50s that she barely knows. She wakes them up, explains her predicament and they rush over to take her and my aunt to the hospital. My grandmother stays home with the kids and waits for my Dad (her son), with whom she (and everyone) is now furious. I mean, have you ever had to call a casual acquaintance in the middle of the night to ask for a hugely inconvenient favor because you are out of options? I can imagine my mom spent every non-contraction moment feeling either mortified or livid or both.

WHAT A JOYOUS DAY TO BE BORN!

Hours later, my Dad arrives home. My grandmother hears him come in, and doesn’t confront him right away. She is waiting for him to realize that my mom is missing (in the middle of the night), panic, and come to her, looking for answers.

Instead, he passes out in the bed, completely unaware that anything is out of the ordinary. My grandmother waits a few minutes, then bursts into his bedroom and yells, “JUST WHERE THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOUR WIFE IS?” To which my dad replies, “Guh?” and then slowly gets it together and leaves for the hospital.

For the next 30-some-odd hours, my mom is in labor, and after a day and a half she is craving sleep, food and cigarettes (the seventies!), which she is not allowed to have. When my dad, grandmother and aunt are not busy eating and smoking in front of her, they complain about how long this birth is taking. If my mother hadn’t been exhausted, in constant pain and living on nothing but ice chips, she might have punched all of them in their smoking, eating faces. Instead, she kept quiet and carried on forcing a human being out of her vagina.

THE MOST SPECIAL DAY, AM I RIGHT?

Finally, I am born, and I am pretty awesome (so I’m told). I am named after the daughter of one of my Dad’s Navy buddies. My Dad just liked the name Darci, and he won the coin toss that determined which of my parents got to choose the name. A quarter landing on “heads” instead of “tails” is the only reason you aren’t currently reading the story of the day Chrissy Ratliff was born.

Almost four decades later, my cousin and my brother have still never been to Disneyland. You know who has been to Disneyland? Me. (YA BURNT!)

My wedding date was set for June 16, 2001. My ex-husband, Jim, and I spent every spare minute over six months planning the day down to the last detail. We reserved a large, beautiful cabin with the sleeping capacity for 75 people at Silver Falls State Park. We ordered wine and beer and worked with a caterer to feed the 50 guests we’d invited to our wedding, and we bought enough extra food for the 20 people who would be staying in the cabin with us for the three-day wedding festival. We found the perfect minister in the classified section of The Willamette Week and hired a local Celtic band. We had our simple, country-peasant wedding clothes custom tailored. We invited friends and family from every corner of the country. We were ready to get married.

Guests started showing up four days before the wedding. Many of Jim’s friends from his youth in Chicago came into town. His mother and her husband, his father and his girlfriend, and all three of his sisters also came.

Unfortunately, and much to my unhappiness, nearly nobody from my pre-Portland past was able to make it due to time and money constraints. Unlike Jim, who came from an affluent, middle-class childhood where almost everybody he knew had grown up to be successful, most of my kin were destitute outlaws skulking in the margins of society. Despite the fact that my mother was severely depressed and making every effort to kill herself with alcohol, Jim and I agreed to include flying her to Portland in our budget. We also paid for my sister, Kim, and her two children to come for our party. It was a time for family and loved ones, so we consciously ignored the fact that having my mom out would potentially be disastrous.

Once I saw on the sidewalk a man shooting up. He knelt at curbside as though praying, his skinny white ass peeking out from his too-tight jeans and too-short shirt. Thwap-thwap-thwap went his needle. We walked away before we could see him do anything. When we returned, he was gone.


Everyday is a good day! Grab your bottle and raise it! Cheers to everyone!

January 7, 2011 at 3:56 PM

Do rite and kill everything! Merry Christmas to everyone on facebook! Don’t forget to pop those bottles open at midnight tonite for Santa clause! Cheers !!!!

December 24, 2010 at 3:57 PM

30 pack of beer is great, bottle of ghoose is even better, adding a little yager with that and watch newton, and aurban whip ass, is priceless!!!!

December 4, 2010 at 3:47 PM

Happy dead turkey day everyone! Time to get out that bottle of wild turkey and do some shots!!! Cheers!!!!!

November 25, 2010 at 2:47 PM

Yo, 2 years ago, a freind of mine, told me aliza and crystal really blows your mind! Drink early, and get to bed early!! Cheers!

November 13, 2010 at 10:58 AM

Rain, rain, go away, that’s what all my haters say! Always good when you open your fridge and you have one beer left for breakfeast!!!!

November 10, 2010 at 10:38 AM

Dosent matter what day of the week it is, they are all the same when you are half in the bag by noon! Cheers!!!

September 16, 2010 at 1:57 PM

Is it a bad thing when you would rather have a beer for breakfeast, lunch, and dinner instead of food??

August 29, 2010 at 2:23 PM

Always good to open that fridge and grab a cold one, even better to grab 2 or 3 out the fridge after that, sucks when you open it up and they are all gone, it’s priceless when you wake up and that was a dream, I would never run out of beer!!! Ha!

August 3, 2010 at 11:54 PM

Every time you look up in the sky you want to be that star! I say we are all stars in are own way, even if you are down and out, as long as you can look up and see the stars! And yeah I forgot cheers !

July 28, 2010 at 12:36 AM

Rolling down the street smoking endo, sipping on gin and juice, laid back!!!!!

July 22, 2010 at 12:06 AM

We pop champaign cuz were thirsty! ( grey ghoose would be better! Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa !

July 21, 2010 at 12:10 AM

All day everyday, crack open that cold beer on these hot days and drink them down! Don’t forget the yager behind that! Ha! Txs everyone for the b day wishes! I will be changing to non acholic beers very soon………….

July 20, 2010 at 7:28 PM

Holy shit! Thanks for all the b day wishes everyone! Can’t wait to get off work and have some tea and crackers for my b day! I’m done with drinking! Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Maybe for just one more day I will have a couple of beers, then I will be done! Done way too much drinking over the years! Yager bomb anyone? Lol!

July 14, 2010 at 11:56 AM

On vacation from work is great, to be out in the sun all day getting a tan is even better, to fall asleep with your beer in your hand and have a sunburn spot of a beer on your chest is priceless!

July 5, 2010 at 7:32 PM

Better late then ever! Where is all my Boston fans at now? It was a good game, till the lakers did work! 3 peat next year! Any bets yet? Feels like I won the lotto! Was gonna quit drinking, but a 3 peat, I guess 1 more year of drinking! Cheers everyone! Go lakers! Fuck Boston! Whoop whoop!

June 18, 2010 at 3:36 PM

Drinking wiskey out the bottle not thinking bout tomorrow……..

June 14, 2010 at 7:15 PM

JOKE OF THE DAY: Two fleas on a pussy, one is a burgular & the other one is a junkie. HOW CAN YOU TELL THEM APART: The burgular is hiding in the bush & the junkie is sniffing the crack!!!!!!

June 14, 2010 at 4:27 PM

Quote of the day ” drinking non alcholic beer is like going down on your own cousin, it taste the same, but it’s just not right!

June 9, 2010 at 2:29 AM

When you can’t sleep after working too many hours this weekend ! might as well have a shot and a beer to pass out! Don’t forget to reach for the stars! Like biggie said! Go lakers all day!

June 1, 2010 at 1:41 AM

Everytime your glass is half empty, fill it up! Then your glass will always be full! Cheers! Go lakers, whoop whoop!

May 11, 2010 at 3:26 AM

Life is all about a dream! You try to make the best out of it that you can, even when you get confused and don’t know what to do in life! You keep your head up and cheers it up, cause dreams do come true!!

April 22, 2010 at 2:27 AM

Time for the big decesion, what to drink? Dark or clear? Let’s crack the ghoose open and get a little crazy on this fine Sunday! Cheers!!!

April 11, 2010 at 5:40 PM

Still finding beers that the Easter bunny hid! They just seem to pop up! Lol!

April 4, 2010 at 7:40 PM

Time to go to ace and get the stuff to make a beer bong! Easy way to save money! Buy a 6 pack and put it thru the beer bong then pass out! Gonna see if that works!!!!

March 4, 2010 at 2:04 PM

We sip champagne cause were thirsty!

February 13, 2010 at 12:03 PM

99 bottles of beer on the wall,99 bottles of beer,take one down pass it around,98 bottles of beer on the wall! Let’s see how many beers come off the wall today!!

January 23, 2010 at 12:22 PM

Anyone in for some wine tonite? Lol! Only time I can have wine, if the liquar store is closed and there is no more beer!

January 21, 2010 at 12:32 PM

What a great football day! Dallas and chargers both loose! Love it! Might have to jump on the jets bandwagon! Cheers to all those fans that watched your teams loose! Might as well drink away the bad game that they played! Lol! Lol! Whoop whoop!!!

January 17, 2010 at 7:35 PM

Everyone cheers it up for the end of this year and for many more years to live a good life and keep your heads up! Life keeps going on and so do we! This is the sober me, only had 8 beers! Just getting warmed up! Lol! Have a good new years everyone! Cheers!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

December 31, 2009 at 11:25 PM

I met Jen in rehab in 1995. She was trying to kick a methadone habit and I was in an ugly battle with the bottle. She’d been in treatment a few weeks before I arrived. And when I did arrive I was running on a two-week binge that had me buckled over and racked with blurred vision. I could hardly move except for my hands that wouldn’t stop rattling. I showed up at their door with a duffle bag full of clothes and a couple of books. One of them being Camus’ Exile and the Kingdom.

They immediately put me in detox. In the bed next to me was this young dude who was hooked on speed. On the other side of me was a middle-aged man whose drug of choice (DOC) was morphine.

“I got addicted after a car accident,” he told me, his eyes pale and gone. He lost two fingers in the accident. “That was the first time I tried morphine. In a hospital of all places.”

When I was in the clear they put me through an assessment and found that I was highly depressed, was loaded with anxiety, suffered from sleeping disorders, and had a problem with alcohol.

I was a walking time bomb.

I was lethal.

I already knew this.

One of the first things they tell you when you enter rehab is that it’s not a place to find romance. Don’t look for a boyfriend or a girlfriend in rehab. That’s not what you’re there for. You’re there to rewire your brain. You’re there to get clean. You’re there to fix yourself. You’re not there to get fucked. You’re already fucked. That’s why you’re in rehab.

But when I met Jen there was an instant attraction between us. She was pretty, had beautiful green eyes, fair skin, and short brown hair. Over the next week I’d see her around the facility. We’d stop and chat, talk about our treatment and whatnot. Small talk. But there was something else going on. One night after a group session I was walking out to my car and she stopped me.

“So, what are you doing tonight, Reno?”

“Try not to walk into a bar and get shellacked,” I said, laughing.

“Sounds like a good plan. How about some coffee? Want to join me?”

That night over coffee and her burning cigarettes we told each other’s story. She came from a wealthy family, was born and raised in Miami. Two brothers, one sister. Mom was a materialistic pill-popping bitch and dad was a functioning drunk who owned a Budweiser distribution center that allowed him to fill up his houses with kitschy shit and wrap his neck and fingers in diamonds and gold. Her brothers were alcoholics and her sister, who owned a successful talent agency, was addicted to everything. Coke, booze, opiates. She was a professional addict who never missed a day of work, never lost control, never went to rehab.

“She has her addictions under control,” Jen said. “If there’s even such a thing.”

Jen worked as a graphic designer and was heavy in the Miami art scene. That’s where she was introduced to methadone. Like many addicts, she experimented with all kinds of drugs including alcohol. But it was methadone that did her in. Her story was the typical drug tale: at first her using was recreational, a weekend thing. And then quietly and suddenly she was in the throes of full-blown addiction: methadone was running her life, waking her up, putting her to bed, and calling all the shots in between.

She avoided friends and family. Her work started to suffer and then disappeared all together. She lost self-respect, her dignity. And then she didn’t care. Didn’t care what happened to her. She packed up and drove across the states to Vegas not remembering much of the drive. I knew the story all too well. I lost my fiancé over alcohol. I disconnected from friends, family, and eventually myself. I told her that when my addiction was at its worse I knew damn well I was killing myself but didn’t care. The pleading voices over the phone didn’t mean a fucking thing. The concerned faces of those who loved me were featureless, blank, nothing.

The bottle won and was eating me alive.

We started to see each other a lot. We’d go to the movies, have dinner. We’d jog the Vegas Strip, hike Mount Charleston. We flew to California and sipped lemonade on the Santa Monica Pier. We watched the sunset and held each other. We couldn’t change the past. What the future held in store for us was a mystery. There were no guarantees—our promises just fragile utterances that could be snapped by the deceitful, cunning, and destructive voice of the addictive mind. But we were sober today. That was our mantra.

Today.

Today.

Today.

On the night that it happened we were walking in Sunset Park and I reached for her hand. We walked for quite a while without saying a word. But there really wasn’t much to say. Our hands weaved together said all there was to say.

“Want to go to my place?” she asked.

We sat at her kitchen table listening to Derek and the Dominos and talked long into the night. We wondered and worried if we were ever going to kick our habits. We knew we were in trouble, that our addictions had a stranglehold on us. We knew that if we continued to use then the end result would be the grave. There was no doubt about it. Two months before I lost a dear friend to heroin. A year before that another friend lost his fight with alcohol. One dead at forty-one, the other at twenty-seven. Good men. Funny, intelligent, gentle. But sick and damaged beyond repair. I was right behind them. So was Jen.

We knew we were in control of this.

We knew we were out of control.

“Reno, I know you don’t love me,” Jen said, looking through me. “But will you make love to me?”

My ex-girlfriend’s face flashed in front of me. Her telling me to wait, to not sleep with anyone, love anyone, that it will only complicate matters, not yet, get clean, please, I’ll wait. I shut off my picture-making machine, pushed away her words, and followed Jen to her bedroom as the opening lead to “Layla” slurred behind us.

Let’s make the best of the situation/Before I finally go insane/Please don’t say we’ll never find a way/And tell me all my love’s in vain

I woke up to Jen sitting on the bed Indian-style reading a book of poems I bought her. She looked beautiful, peaceful, her green eyes bright and clear.

“Hey,” she said, in a soft voice.

“Good morning.”

We stared at each other, examining each other’s face looking for something. I finally sat up, held her face in my hands, and kissed her. Tears rushed down her face. And then I started crying. We crossed over. We broke the rules of rehab. We cared for each other now. We wanted each other to get well, to be happy. We wanted the best for one another. We wanted each other to be clean and sober. We held each other thinking the same thing: please don’t use, don’t drink.

* * *

After three months we completed the program. Jen finished before me, but continued her treatment at another facility. We continued to see each other, but as time passed we saw less and less of each other. We were in love, but knew that because of our addictions a serious long-term relationship would be a precarious situation. We were dangerous for each other and didn’t want to bring the other down if our addictions surfaced again. The statistics said there was a high probability they would. This terrified us and eventually broke us up. We cared for each other too much to take the chance.

I remember our last phone call which would be the last time I’d hear her voice. We thanked each other, wished each other good luck, said that we’ll always love one another, but that it just couldn’t be. It was devastating. I hung up the phone empty, crying, lost, but sober. To this day I can still hear her voice coming over the wire.

“We’ll be all right, Reno. We’ll be O.K.”

Those familiar with my Nervous Breakdown posts know that I’ve long crusaded for a secular alternative to AA. My complaints have been vociferous, my voice loud enough that I might have written each piece in ALL CAPS. Recently, however, I decided that it was time to act. I located a secular group with a philosophy in line with my own, one based on the work of Albert Ellis and his Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. The group: SMART Recovery. The Facebook site, which I invite anyone interested to join: SMART Recovery Fan Page. If AA works for you, continued good luck. If not, I’m here to say you have a choice.

My mission is two-fold. Rather than debate AA — always a useless exercise — I have joined forces with SMART Recovery. Rather than bash the ubiquitous nature of AA, my first goal is to create a meeting here in Sarasota. My second goal, now underway, is to assist SMART Recovery (referred to as “SR” from this point forward) in a volunteer public relations’ capacity. But the latter is not my purpose here. Rather, I come to you as a citizen with a message. If your needs are not met by AA, alternatives exist, and SR is there for you.

First, visit the SR site. Stay a while; there’s plenty to do. You can read how the program works. You can participate in online meetings. If you wish, you can seek a meeting in your location. Such a meeting may not exist…yet. In that case, consider applying to become a facilitator. You can create an SR meeting yourself and do so fully prepared by SR. You will become a local hero for all those like you who searched for a secular meeting but couldn’t find one…now they will find one. Consider the pleasure to be had in knowing that you created an alternative that didn’t exist and which others like you can now access. Furthermore, by becoming a facilitator, you will in turn become steeped in the wisdom underlying SR.

You don’t often read the word “wisdom” in my posts, both because I lack it and because I rarely find it. But Albert Ellis was a wise man and, like most wise people, had two feet on the ground as he reached for new solutions to ancient problems. His approach is deceptively simple.

In short, it works like this: ABC. No, I don’t mean Always Be Selling.

Instead, I mean:

A: Activating event.

B: Belief.

C. Consequence.

Lastly:

D. Dispute.

Let’s apply this to drinking in a very simplified example. This is my description of REBT. For a much more in-depth understanding of the process, see the SR website and/or visit their Facebook Fan Page.

Back to my example. What is an “Activating Event”? In this example, it’s whatever makes you want to drink. For heavy drinkers, virtually everything becomes an “A.” This occurs because heavy drinking by itself produces irrational thinking. It kills rational thinking. No rational person decides to lose control over drinking. So why do they lose it? Drinking causes them to become more and more irrational.

I’ll use a typical “A”: “Today sucked. It kicked my ass.”

Now we move to “B.” What’s the drinker’s belief likely to be? Something like this: “I need a drink, and plenty of them.” Further, the drinker thinks, “Soon, it will all disappear. Here comes euphoria.”

And the “C”? The first consequence is easy to guess: hangover. That’s bad enough. But the consequences for heavy drinkers increase. Not only a hangover but the shakes commence, creating a brand new “A.” The drinker’s belief: “A few drinks will fix that.” In this case, the drinker is correct. Bizarrely, irrationality becomes the drinker’s new rationality. It’s rational to end the extreme anxiety that heavy drinking ultimately causes as part of withdrawal. However, irrationality has led the drinker to this point and without his knowing it. He may have rational moments when he considers quitting, but those moments quickly fade. Irrationality has become embedded in the drinker.

How to keep from getting to that point? And what should you do if you’ve already gotten to that point? In the latter case, you may need medical care. Seizures become a real possibility. Worse can happen. You may need to face detox. At the very least, you require supervision in case you do have a seizure. These medical issues lie well beyond my purview. Consult a loved one. Ask for their help. You need someone rational at your side and to help you find the best care available if you do require hospitalization.

If you’re not to that point, or you’ve gotten past that point, it’s time for “D.” The “D” is going to become your best friend. You can turn to “D” at any moment of crisis, anxiety, difficulty, irritation. “D” refers to disputing your irrational beliefs.

Going back to the example of a day that kicks your ass, the process of disputing your beliefs might go like this: “Sure, I’ll feel better for a while, but I’m going to feel like hell tomorrow and for much longer than I feel better tonight.” Run a cost/benefit analysis. How many hours does alcohol improve your life compared to the number of hours it ruins your life? If you’re a heavy drinker, or approaching the trouble zone, I guarantee you won’t be able to deny that the ratio does not weigh on the side of making you feel better. In fact, the day may well have kicked your ass because you drank the night before it.

A person can avoid the worst outcomes of heavy drinking by beginning this process now and working on it. Again, consult the SR website and/or their Facebook Fan Page for more information. I’m trying to get you to hope and the idea that there are alternatives to the “treatments” many of us simply cannot find our way into or around. For those who believe in reason and rationality as a means to overcoming problems, an alternative is required, unless, like some, you can find your way to a higher power through whatever means avail themselves to you. That’s your business. I’m not here to dispute your beliefs.

I’m also not here as an official representative of SR. I speak for myself and from my experience. REBT smashed my once-crippling anxiety and has reduced my melancholic as much or more than any anti-depressant. Is every day a pleasure? Hell, no. And I no longer expect every day to be a pleasure. In surrendering an insane demand, I surrender my insanity.

There is a secular alternative available to you. In fact, there’s more than one, but I happen to believe in SR’s approach because I know REBT is simple, effective and easy to put into practice. The rewards can be almost immediate.

When it comes to drinking, a lot more work will be required. Returning to the ABC YouTube link, will you do the work? Will you? Will you do the work? Or will you go to a three-cocktail lunch?

I. 1987

I’m eight years old and everything is different.

We live in a new house, one we moved into after my mom finished divorcing my dad and she and her boyfriend G. sold our old one. This one has an extra bedroom where G.’s daughter can stay with us on his visitation days. My little sister and I have to go to a new school and make new friends.

The reasons for the move are never explained to us. My mother simply lets G. slip into the void left by our father and place his firm disciplinarian hand on the tiller of our lives. All the rules we now follow are his.

Nothing I do seems quite good enough for him, though he never actually says so. The disappointment and disgust are veiled in perpetual comments and criticisms. There is always a shake of the head or a disdainful grunt whenever he sees me in the yard with my toy dinosaurs instead of skinning my knees in a game of street football with the older boys up the block. The way, I am endlessly told, that he did at my age.

One late Saturday evening when he and I are home alone I take a couple of my favorite dinosaurs out in a far corner of the back yard to play. The damp soil clings to my shoes and when I come inside to watch TV I track some on the couch without noticing.

When G. sees it he shouts my name and lunges at me. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t touch me, but his arms corral me in on either side and his face is less than an inch from mine. Once at dinner he let me sip from his beer, and now his breath smells the way it tasted. I retreat as far back into the cushions as I can.

“What is this?” he barks, pointing at a spot on the couch where my shoes have been. “You got mud on the couch.” I steal a glance, and just see some loose dirt, which could be brushed off with a swipe of the hand and not even leave a stain. “What the hell is wrong with you, boy? Don’t you think? Or are you just a dumb animal?”

He demands an answer and I don’t know what the right one is, so I just say, “I’m sorry.” When I do G. cuffs me across the face with his open hand. The shock of the blow winds me up into a ball of raw fear, too terrified of further punishment to even think.

He stares at me for a long minute. “Clean it up,” he growls, then returns to whatever he was doing elsewhere in the house, leaving me alone again. I sweep the dirt up into my hand and throw it out in the back yard. Then I go huddle in the corner of my room farthest from the door with my favorite paleontology book. The words slip around the page a little bit when I try to read them.

Because I believe G. parents with my mother’s full consent, I don’t ever mention it to anyone.

Not long after G. and my mother get us kids out of bed early one morning and have us dress in our good clothes. We go down to a botanical garden, where a Justice of the Peace marries them. G. is now my stepfather, his daughter my new slightly-older stepsister.

Afterwards we take a family trip to Disneyland. At one point my mother takes me aside and informs me that it would really make G. happy if I started calling him Dad.

II. 1989

I’m nine years old, almost ten. A dental abnormality requiring surgery has been discovered in my upper jaw, and I’m wearing a set of uncomfortable braces intended to space my teeth out enough so they can operate. I’ve become that kid who never really smiles when adults are around and who prefers to play by himself behind a closed bedroom door.

It’s early spring and we’re moving again, this time into a house we’ve bought in the eastern part of town. The entire upper floor is a single master bedroom with a walk-in closet and bathroom.

We have a sort of picnic celebration in the new empty house the day before move-in, sitting around eating pizza cross-legged on blankets and inflatable mattresses. My aunt and uncle are there with my little cousin, who is almost two. He’s recently started walking, and toddles around aimlessly with a big smile like it’s the best thing in the world.

After lunch we kids are sent up to the master bedroom to play with the few toys we brought with us while the adults drink beer and talk amongst themselves. The girls entertain themselves by improvising dances to the pop music station playing on my stepsister’s little radio and by doing somersaults and other acrobatics. My stepsister, who is taking gymnastics, demonstrates her handstands.

On impulse I tickle her during one of them. She collapses in giggles just as my cousin toddles past, pancaking him to the carpet. He starts bawling, and my aunt, like any first-time mother, comes running at this sound, whisking him downstairs. My sisters follow, telling the adults about what I did.

I wait until all the crying and fussing from the living room quiets down before slowly approaching the stairs.

G. is waiting for me halfway up, in a wide stance so I can’t rush past, his arms outstretched to either wall. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asks, quietly. His voice reminds me of unsheathed knives, flat and cold and hard and ready to hurt something.

I know enough about alcohol at this point to know that G. is drunk, even though he never stumbles or slurs like the drunks on TV. I’ve seen him drink an entire pitcher of beer by himself without effect.

He takes me into the walk-in closet, and here he rips into me, about how I’m just a horrid, loathsome kid, rotten through and through, for daring to do something like that to a little boy. He prods me into the far corner with his finger, advancing as I retreat until I’m backed up against a wall that still smells of fresh paint.

This time I don’t even finish saying “I’m sorry” before he thumps me across the face so hard my head bounces off the wall and I slump to the floor. Because I am prone to nosebleeds I know the taste of my own blood as it seeps from my sinuses into the back of my mouth. I sniffle, trying to keep it in, because I’m sure he’ll kill me if I bleed on the new carpet.

He thinks I’m starting to cry. “Fucking baby,” he spits at me before he goes downstairs, leaving me in the back of the closest.

After I’m sure he’s gone I go into the bathroom to clean myself up. My already-tender gums are bleeding too, little red rivers seeping between the braces. Because there are no towels I have to dry my hands and face on my shirt.

I go back into the closet and stay there until someone calls up that it is time to go. No one really speaks to me. I’m sure they’ve all been talking about what a bad kid I am.

III. 1991

I am eleven years old, and on perfect trajectory towards becoming a teenage malcontent. My family considers me humorless, mostly because I don’t laugh at G.’s incessant teasing. I almost never speak around adults.

Standardized aptitude testing has revealed a higher than average intelligence in me, and I am shuffled into advanced education classes at different schools every year. No one ever explains what this means to me, or asks if it’s what I want.

I have no social life to speak of. Because I change schools so frequently I no longer really bother with making friends, as I know I’ll lose them once the academic year is over. When I am bullied at school I simply take it without fighting back, as I am conditioned to believe I deserve it.

At home I spend much of my free time in my room reading science fiction novels and comic books or building models, mostly sailing ships and spacecraft. My interest in prehistoric life has taken a backseat to space travel and adventure stories, and I spend my allowance money on the supplies to build these tiny vectors of escape.

G. is showing more and more gray in his hair, and has taken to working out more frequently. He swims laps in our pool most mornings and runs a few miles around the local park in the evenings. He’s mounted a basketball hoop over the shed at the far end of the yard, and sometimes drags me out there to shoot hoops with him.

One afternoon he comes into my room without knocking, as usual. His basketball has gone flat and he’s looking for the handheld bicycle pump I won at a school raffle. It came with a needle attachment for inflating athletic equipment, but the one time I tried to use it the needle detached inside the ball and I needed pliers to get it out again.

I explain this when I hand it over, but G. brushes my warning away. This is common; even though I am frequently told how smart I actually am nothing I say is treated with any merit.

I return to sanding down the mainmast of the two-cannon pirate sloop I’m working on. I barely have it fitted to the deck when I hear G. roar my name from outside. He storms back into my room, clutching the ball in his hands. Just as I predicted a half-centimeter of the needle is poking out from the rubber seal.

G. shakes the ball around like he wants to throw it at something, angrily sputtering about how he thought I meant something other than what I said. “I told you so!” I blurt without thinking. It’s the first time I have ever back-talked to an adult.

The ball launches out of his hands like a cannonball and hits me square in the face, immediately sending a gush of blood out of my nose. Either the ball or my flailing arm sends my model crashing to the floor.

I clutch my hands to my face and double over on my desk, expecting a rain of similar blows to crash down on my back and sides. The warm blood pools between my palms and my face.

When I open my eyes G. is gone, having taken the ball with him. Out my window I can see him in the backyard, sitting on the diving board and taking long pulls out of a bottle of beer. His face is unreadable.

I know that I did absolutely nothing wrong and yet was punished anyway. As the blood drips out onto the plastic drop cloth on my desk I begin to understand for the first time that I do not deserve the treatment I am receiving. And that I should not have to take it.

The next spring I tell my mother I want to start taking karate lessons.

Recently, I’ve been involved in an academic debate regarding the concept of alcoholism and addiction as diseases. During that debate, I discovered what I consider to be a major contradiction between the diagnosis of alcoholism (upon which I will focus in this post) and its “treatment.” That discovery led me to a second and even more startling revelation.

Without doubt, the advent of alcoholism as a disease accomplished some positives. E.Morton Jellinek was the major force behind the development of the disease model. Without going into Jellinek’s ideas and the conclusions he reached from his research, some of which are unquestionably wrong, it need only be stated for now that without Jellinek, alcoholism might still be considered the result of “character defects.”

Redefining alcoholism as a disease seemingly de-stigmatized alcoholism. However, that de-stigmatization occurred only in the definition of alcoholism, not its treatment. That contradiction is the subject of this essay.

While nearly every therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, and physician in the United States accepts the disease model of alcoholism and other addictions, they almost-uniformly refer every one of their patients to AA as the one and only road to recovery. Remember that these professionals have, as part of their acceptance of the disease model, obviously concluded that diseases are not caused by “character defects.”

But at the same time, in its primary document (the Twelve Steps), AA members “must” (of course they can ignore it, but no reason to attend AA exists in that case) accept the 6th Step, i.e, being “entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character” [bolding and italics mine].

This raises two points, the first being the most important.

  • (1) Because almost all therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and physicians accept the disease model of alcoholism, they also by default accept that a disease does not result from “character defects.” However, the only “treatment” they offer is referral to AA, which, while paying lip service to the disease model, clearly views alcoholism as the result of “character defects,” otherwise known as a “sinful nature.” Such “treatment” negates the very essence of the treatment community’s own diagnosis. That’s precisely parallel to a physician who knows the use of shark cartilage as a cancer treatment goes against everything he believes about the disease of cancer, but he still points every cancer patient to shark cartilage as the only treatment that “works.”
  • (2) Because AA accepts the disease theory of alcoholism, at least on the surface, its own 6th Step repudiates the definition of alcoholism as a disease and AA as a coherent “philosophy.” AA inculcates the idea of alcoholism as the result of “character defects,” the very idea Jellinek, the founder of the disease model, disputed. Thus, AA is entirely based upon a “sin and redemption” approach. While it may work for some, it is, without question, a faith-based organization, as both the Twelve Steps and the fact that, at least in my experience, every AA meeting ends with the specifically-Christian Lord’s Prayer and the Serenity Prayer (“God grant me the wisdom…”) attest.

Point (1) is far more important than a blatant contradiction. That the sole recovery model to which patients are referred denies the very diagnosis and understanding of alcoholism that the entire treatment community accepts is an almost unbelievable fact. Of even more concern is that no one has ever noticed this unbridgeable gap between the treatment community’s diagnosis and understanding of alcoholism and the sole model of recovery it suggests.

The point is not to engage in argument with AA or its members; rather, the point is a psychological, medical, economic, and political one: Why is AA never questioned as the sole road to recovery by those who so depend upon it when “treating” patients? Why has no one else ever noticed the black hole between diagnosis and “treatment”? How can the treatment community not notice that AA’s primary document stands in direct opposition to its own accepted definition of alcoholism?

The American Medical Association’s own diagnosis states: “Disease means an involuntary disability. It represents the sum of the abnormal phenomena displayed by a group of individuals. These phenomena are associated with a specified common set of characteristics by which these individuals differ from the norm, and which places them at a disadvantage” [again, bolding and italics mine].

The American Psychiatric Association never mentions AA in its Substance-Related Disorders Position Statement. Its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes only criteria; it no longer addresses etiology in regards to any disorder or, in the sole case of alcoholism/addiction, “disease.”

Despite this avoidance of the issue at hand, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, The American Medical Association, and The World Health Organization all consider alcoholism a disease. And to prove how the medical community and AA are becoming still more integrated, some medical schools are now including AA “education” as part of their academic requirements.

What does all of this mean for the patient? Isn’t the treatment of a disease the role of the treatment community? Or is the treatment community’s addiction to AA psychological, so that it refers patients to the most available “resource” as a stress reliever? Is it economic, since AA is free, much like church? Is it political, with “disease” more likely to gain legislative support that in turn provides funding for research, grants, etc.? Is it simple ignorance? Going back to the patient, left to a cold war of the self, the answer hardly matters. However, were the treatment community to recognize or admit the discrepancy between its diagnosis and treatment of alcoholism, it would make all the difference in the world.

In conclusion, given the treatment community’s ubiquitous acceptance of alcoholism as a disease and acceptance of AA as the sole recovery model for alcoholic patients despite AA’s insistence that alcohol is the result of “character defects,” the entire psychological, psychiatric and medical communities are not only complicit in the inevitable relapse of patients but engaging in nationwide malpractice.

Vaselina operates five port-a-potties next to Kazanskaya Cathedral off Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg. In Russian, she’s a Babushka, which means grandmother. Whether Vaselina really has grandchildren makes no difference. She’s one of an army of old post-Soviet women who pour down streets and sidewalks with pocketbooks clutched in one hand, plastic bags of raw meat in the other, linebackers who will, without question, run you the fuck down if you step in their path, especially if you’re inostranetz (foreigner).

 

This photograph was taken at two a.m., during the late June white nights. Operators of port-a-potties wear blue aprons. Vaselina charges ten roubles (32 cents) to use the port-a-potty and fifty roubles (the price of a cab ride) to use the VIP unit located on the far right, which is purported to feel less like slip n’sliding down Satan’s phlegmy asscrack than the port-a-potties to the left.

 

If you’re me, you’re ten shots and six beers into a bottle of Russian Standard Vodka and just tried to carry a very large and famous writer back to his hotel room, but since he’s one hammered ex-marine, and you’re a skinny Jewish boy, you left him on the Griphon bridge propped against the iron railing, legs over the side, facing the Griboedov Channel. If you’re me, your T-shirt is soaked with blood, Baltika 7, Vodka, sweat, and ripped down the middle from when said writer placed you on his shoulders, and dropped you into a mosh pit. You landed elbow-first into the forehead of a Russian Putin-youth who went to punch you, then hugged you, then bought two shots of Standard, then asked if you would like to elbow him in the forehead once again. If you’re me you’ve been looking for a bathroom since you left the bar because the line to use their bathroom extended out the door and into the local produkti (Russian 7-11). You only have a one-thousand-rouble bill, and know from experience that if you ask a Babushka for change, even if you are trying to buy port-a-potty admission, she will sigh tragically, shake her head, and call you one of the many Russian words for pedophile.

 

You could try an alley, or a bush, and before you wiggle it out, you’ll be surrounded by five Russian cops, smacked in the back of the head repeatedly, robbed, jacked, humiliated, and then have your passport held for ransom. They will tell you the penalty for being a drunk inostranetz trying to piss in their alley is a night in the drunk tank. They will tell you to use the port-a-potties like everyone else, that there are five of them located right next to the cathedral and that it only costs ten roubles.  They will tell you if you want your passport back, then come to the police station with one hundred US dollars, in twenties. Ask them what the thousand roubles bought you, they’ll tell you it was a bonus (gratuity).

 

Which puts you back in front of the five port-a-potties, penniless, bladder hot and pumping. You’re pacing. You’re ranting. You’re saying back home they’d never fuckin charge for this. You’ve used American port-a-potties and granted, several nose hairs were singed off at the root. You’re shouting where the fuck do you people get off.  You’re on about how Russian bathrooms ain’t right, how prior to tonight you found that every public Russian bathroom has been Jackson Pollocked by brown fart sprays from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Take a train from Moscow to The Ukraine and you’ll get a primer course in the fecally incorrect. Take the famed Siberian Railroad, and feel what it is to not shit for five days because you’ve already opened the bathroom door, a mistake for which you would rather be hospitalized than repeat. Ask a Russian how it’s possible for a nation to collectively decorate bathrooms so thoroughly and watch their faces contort into shrieks of wild joy and secrecy.

 

Do you ask Vaselina in broken Russian for a free pass? Say you’re desperate, drunk, tired, and will pay her triple later? That the police just strong-armed you for everything you had, stole your passport, your money, your dignity and your registration card? That you’re too wasted to remember where your hotel is situated and you won’t make it ten yards before you get a urinary tract infection? Do you say pretend I’m your very own grandchild, and look into your heart?

 

Not when Vaselina has been doing this for over forty years. Seven nights a week. Even if you spoke the language better, the chances of your breaking through that defensive line are rail-tie thin and less than shit. The pervading philosophy in this country is fuck you. Linecutting is as common as empty toilet paper rolls. You can’t walk ten feet without hearing battered women weeping behind windows. The cold, gloomy weather causes such depression and tense relations it has its own word (pasmorna). Even your Russian friends, fellows and acquaintances will steal from you and overcharge you and assume you understand this in no way affects the depth and sincerity of your relationship.

 

You watch a Russian man in a Puma running suit pay up and enter a unit. You hear the sounds of the steady stream flowing into a deep dark hole, and just like your own grandmother, who, if she could see you now, would sigh tragically, shake her head, and call you a plastered asshole, Vaselina asks Running Suit Man if he’s okay. Vaselina asks if he needs any help. Vaselina says boy, it must sure feel good to let it all go. And as she says this, she leers at you, and her lips peel back, and sun glint bounces off her gold teeth. That’s when you take out your camera, a camera so shitty the cops weren’t interested, and snap her photo for eternity as your dignity, your Vodka, and forty-five minutes of piss warm motherland bureaucracy runs down your leg.