We had arrived in upstate New York for the weekend. “What do you want to drink?” our host demanded. He eyed me warily. He knew I had chucked alcohol 23 days before.
“Soda,” I said. “Or juice.”
“You don’t drink a drop? Supposedly?”
He wasn’t the first to hint I was a secret sipper.
“Dry as a bone!” I said. “I’m high on life!” A joke.
Before dinner, he ostentatiously sniffed my glass. “Baudelaire wrote about the braggarts who vaunt their sobriety,” he said.
Later, at the table, I grew argumentative on some point. “You’re no fun,” a woman snapped. “Have a drink and relax!”
“Nobody,” warned a novelist friend who’s been off the sauce since January, “likes a quitter.” It’s an AA precept that new abstainers should eliminate dissipated cronies, but none of my friends are friends just because they are dissipated, so I do not plan to give them up. Whether they’ll be giving me up is something else.
I have been told I first became tiddly at 7 – putting away cider as a kilted pageboy at a wedding. I began drinking for real in my late teens. Yes, it was a way of dealing with the awkwardness of early manhood. And – this may sound fatuous – I was attracted to the bohemian myth, in which drinking was part of the dues. But also (and here drinking resembles sex) there were early experiences I can only describe as transfiguring. Golden times. Think of the light in what photographers call “the magic hour.”
Habit and ego set me chasing that glow ever after, despite dimming results. Intimate friends died, but by some dumb luck, drinking left me physically unscathed.
Well, more or less. I passed swiftly from bonhomie to incoherence to sleep – the pictorial record is plain – sometimes under self-destructive circumstances. I woke up, bloody, in West Beirut, mid– Civil War, and learned I had tumbled down a flight of stairs in the Cavalier Hotel. A girlfriend and I were stabbed fourteen times each in my apartment by somebody I wouldn’t have admitted sober.
The magic hour was long gone.
Some weeks ago, I needed minor surgery – antibiotics, no booze – and took the opportunity to shut that door for good. At first, I was watchful. I was at a party for the photographer Mick Rock at the National Arts Club talking to John Perry Barlow, a songwriter for the Grateful Dead. The Dead! But he was abstaining, too. We left for Serena’s. Diet soda tasted like chemical effluent, so I switched to juice. Juices quickly cloyed. Serena Bass offered me a drink: Perrier.
It tasted … great.
A few days later, I realized I had slept over nine hours three nights running. It was like drifting backward in time – to Before Drinking (okay, childhood). I consulted with Robert Millman, a psychiatrist specializing in addiction. I had once interviewed him about heroin and cocaine. This was closer to home. What should I be prepared for? The shakes?
Millman asked when I had stopped.
Ten days before, I said.
“You’re fine,” he said. “Just don’t drink.”
Some days after that, a friend took me to an AA meeting. Many close to me owe their well-being to AA – three made me the subject of an “intervention” in Los Angeles – but the absolutism of AA bothered me.
“Just hold up your hand,” my friend urged. “Say you’re an alcoholic. And that you haven’t had a drink for 21 days.”
I said fretfully that I was not ready for this.
“I have been a very heavy drinker,” I told her after. “But I hate the word alcoholic.”
She looked at me – first amazed. Then amused.
“Anthony,” she said, “you’re the worst alcoholic I have known in my entire life. Including my grandfather. And he drank himself to death.”
I tried to think up a reasoned response to this.
“Oh,” I said.
A couple of days later, I ran into another old AA hand. He was disconcerted to learn I was planning to write something (this). “It’s premature. It’s presumptuous,” he said. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to you. I don’t feel comfortable talking to you. You’ll be cutting off a lifeline. You won’t feel welcome at meetings.”
I indicated I wasn’t planning to go to meetings. “I’ve watched you drink for years. Open-and-shut case!” he said. “I’ve known five people who did it by themselves.” He paused. “Not five. Three!”
What I didn’t say is that I had stopped drinking because, finally, it bored me. So why would I want to talk about it?