Years ago, I started writing a book about a drunken private detective, circa 1953, over the last seven days of his life. He was a fumbling failure, a not really stupid man, who had fucked up his life so seriously because he was too scared, too damaged to function responsibly in the world he inherited and despised. Now my style of writing in those days was a lot more extreme than it is today, although without the rigidity of craft I attempt to impose on even stream-of-consciousness discussions such as this. No, back then I used to describe myself as a ‘method-writer,’ exactly the same as a ‘method-actor,’ or one who consumes themselves so deeply inside of their characters that they have trouble telling themselves apart.
Which is just a pretentious was of saying that I intentionally turned myself into an alcoholic, and tried to explain it away through the amorphous notion that one can make their own life into a work of art.
It is not our right to make ourselves into a blistering portrait (and you can await my hypocrisy on this statement shortly), and we represent nothing other than ourselves for as long as we live. We must leave it to historians, or social psychologists and the like, to define us in hindsight after we are gone. And of course some of us will graduate into works of art, but we will never know this. We can imagine ourselves to be anything, but it’s all presumption, arrogance, or fearful self-hatred.
But that is (slightly) off topic. I was talking about addictions. We are all addicted to something. The more self-destructive among us try to use our addictions to hide from the world, from all of those things that cause anxiety and fill us with uncertainty or dread. And yet once you become an addict it is no longer for this sense of escape, or the need to be comforted. No, when you are so far gone addiction becomes all about alleviating boredom. You are bored all the time. You haven’t been sleeping. Have a drink. Smoke a joint. Do a line. Fuck the first person you see.
This is not to say that being drunk or high or going on a spending spree can’t bring you down (it usually does in its bi-polar frenzy), and the truth is that the more addicted you become, the harder it is to escape shame. You have to use more, to spend more, to pray more, to scream more. We all have these addictions, whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not.
That is one of the key attributes of addiction: an inability to recognize the moment it becomes a problem. I will use a personal example to illustrate this. Such autobiographical details, while they sometimes appear on this site, are rare for me. I prefer to sit on the outside and watch the world spinning, seeing all the problems coalesce and then, trying to be an objective outsider, declare my judgments. But one’s life experiences are really what forms our beliefs in anything, so I will crack the window a little, and tell you a small piece about myself.
I once suffered a serious injury–what they call a Traumatic Brain Injury, which left me dazed and lost and damaged, my short-term memory scattered into pre-Alzheimer levels. Sometimes, after I at least physically recovered enough to nominally function again, I would go outside and walk around, usually with my dog, and often I would forget where I was and where I planned on going.
Early on I momentarily forgot the name of my daughter. My children will never know the person I used to be (they were both very young when this happened), but only the damaged goods I have been reduced to: someone with a vast vocabulary, still with a passion for words, but who gets easily confused and frustrated when interrupted ,and loses his train of thought. Generally in these situations I am unable to continue whatever it is I was doing without specific guidance and re-direction (and I can tell you, my wife is really tired of this, perhaps almost as tired as I am).
I have stated here before that I used to be a high school English teacher, and I was a pretty good one. English class, for most, is the least favorite subject students are forced to endure. It is a class that requires a good deal of work and effort, and is considered ‘more important’ than everything other than Math (I disagree, by the way. I tend to side with Science and History, which is where my friends among co-workers came from. English teachers are often arrogant bullies, and Math teachers sometimes arrogant jerks). But I was able to interest the kids, occasionally, with some staunch and advanced literature just so long as there was a bit of profanity, and occasionally graphic violence or tame sex scenes–
Here’s an example of what I am talking about with interruptions: Just now my wife called me. She was annoyed about something. I listened with the blank ‘yes, dear’ pose we husbands sometimes have to put on when they are otherwise occupied. But now I return, the rhythm gone. Writing, to me, is about mathematical precision, or like a jigsaw puzzle, shuffling the words around until they find their ideal places. Of course this is mostly a pipe dream, but sometimes you can cull a sentence from the diaspora of distortions and missteps, forming a nimble line of questionable beauty; imagining yourself an artist set loose upon the world.
As a teacher the kids mostly liked me because I let them write uncensored in their papers, and because often I would interrupt the lessons with some side discussion of a current event that might have a real impact on the world and their lives (some ‘Editorial History,’ if you will). This is the sort of thing that sometimes very opinionated parents reject wholeheartedly about ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ teachers, trying to brainwash their children with some vague agenda. My only agenda was to help the kids to find their own voice, no matter how talented or untalented they may be. I tried to get them to know themselves. I wanted them to share their beliefs, and sometimes argue with their rivals. I believed I was preparing them for the world better than many other teachers.
Perhaps I should say that my head injury had nothing to do with the students, who were horrified that I was so terribly hurt. It was the end of my teaching career. Imagine instructing a room full of thirty-seven students in a cramped space, maybe three of them interested in what you are saying, when you cannot remember their names, and feel terrible pain when more than one person is talking. I was forced to retire. I spent several years, after this, sulking at home. (For how I was injured I will dedicate a whole piece to this sometime in the likely distant future, when I decide to talk about myself again.)
Addictions are born out of disappointment. I was a drinker. I would get plastered during the day, then sober up mean-spirited, with a hang-over, just in time to greet my children home from school and my wife back from work. I had a bitterness that was difficult to contain. I nearly begged to have a drink with dinner, to the disapproval and consternation of both my wife and my daughter (my son was probably influenced even more gravely, seeing Dad’s problem as something he may someday have to overcome).
So I drank and drank, then I tried to once again turn my life into art. This was the self-justification process, the denial of addiction as it creeps up slowly on you. You never think you have a problem until you are screaming at the wall, pissing your pants and then throwing up all over everything. I pissed my pants in an airport in Seattle with my children watching, after returning an hour later, having wandered off, sitting by myself in an overpriced airport bar. I passed out in a chair. I threw up all over myself. I knew, finally, that I had a problem.
I am a cold turkey quitter, and so I struggled through about a week, more of desperate yearning, than physical agony. Every stray moment my thoughts would turn to booze. I would glance around, think about walking to the liquor store, or maybe just buying a six-pack to ‘settle my nerves.’ But I didn’t–never did again. And this had less to do with noble will-power than with a new addiction to replace the old: collecting books; finding a way to live through my unhappiness.
I volunteered at an animal shelter and a used book store (getting paid with even more books.) I developed a new addiction–the news, listening to the degeneration of facts into mere opinions. I watched and developed theories about the direction the world was going, with my already bleak outlook trying to find a new justification for my thoughts and behaviors and actions. I was now a news junkie. I had opinions on everything.
All our lives we swim through these processes, momentarily exaggerating the importance of our passions for however long we can keep from drowning. And we simply quit. Cold turkey. This leaves us feeling empty. It makes us wonder about the meaning of our lives. It is in these moments of weakness that we seek out a new idea to obsess over, a religion, or a political affiliation. We fanatically start following a sports team or celebrity–anything, any new addiction that we believe will give us back our identity..
Most of us are addicted to life, pure and simple, our ideas and opinions about everything else be damned. All of our beliefs finally prove temporary as we grow and change, and watch everything we ever cared for be exposed as less than we imagined, as just another disappointment. I understand that today I am preaching a particularly miserable message (any regular reader might not notice the distinction), but this, unlike elsewhere, is not a judgment on humanity. It is a warning, an acknowledgment. We all need to control our addictions, no matter what they are.
Addictions never go away, even if the physical part of some of them wanes with hard work and time. But the psychological scars, the very reasons that you started your self-abuse, they are never truly resolved. A drunk in a 12-step program following a list of rules, and then finding Christ, becomes addicted to their new way of life. Often they even condemn people smugly who are like they used to be. They wonder why these winos can’t control themselves, feeling nothing for people that remind them of who they used to be.
We should embrace our addictions, while at the same time renouncing them, removing the mysticism and magic from then. All there is is awareness. And awareness, a creeping self-honesty, is the only addiction worth our time spent living our lives.