A friend has given me a large jar of vanilla-scented bath gel. I took a luxurious long bath, all sudsy and spiritually enlightened, and when I got out and wafted into the living room my puppies sniffed at me suspiciously and my housemate said: ‘You smell like Aunt Betty’s Original Sponge Cake mix. If you go out shopping smelling like that, an unrecovered diabetic will come along and take a bite out of your tittie.’ Charming.
How many cabs in New York City, how many angels on a pin?
How many notes in a saxophone, how many tears in a bottle of gin?
How many times did you call my name, knock at the door but you couldn’t get in?
- Paul Kelly Careless
Mary Christine’s post on the year 1977 has led me to reflect on obliviousness. The way life slides out of sight while we are drinking. Thinking back almost three decades, I remember going to speak with somebody I had spent time with over the weekend and asking him if he recalled anything I might have said or done in the course of about 15 hours I could not remember. He was scornful and uninterested in talking to me. ‘You just don’t want to admit to yourself that you are a heartless vicious bitch,’ he said. ‘You’re just looking for ways to excuse your behaviour.’
It was beyond mortifying and if I think back, I would still give a great deal to be able to find out what happened and make amends for that behaviour. Hopefully he has learned something about alcoholism as an illness somewhere along the line. It was my eighth or ninth alcoholic blackout and I was terrified. I had frequent nightmares about killing someone in a blackout and being put on trial where nobody would tell me what I had done. Secretly I wondered if I might be a multiple personality (we didn’t call it dissociation back then), a Jekyll and Hyde monster.
One of the most brilliant insights uncovered by BillW and his companions was the realisation that only one alcoholic can understand another, can speak truth into another’s addled mind. Two drunks together while drinking are hopeless — slurring and colluding in denial and swearing eternal love to one another as they gulp down another drink at the bar counter. But any recovering alcoholic knows from within how it feels and how hard it is to admit the truth of our powerlessness over alcohol. And as recovering alcoholics we have immense compassion for one another as we learn how to stay sober one day at a time for the rest of our lives.
Outraged friends or acquaintances were not being deliberately cruel in withholding information from me – they had distanced in order to protect themselves and owed me nothing. They didn’t understand alcoholism, had no need to understand it because they stopped drinking when they knew they had had enough.
I had no plans to join Black Sabbath. I went out with Geezer and Tony and we got drunk, and I found out the next day that I had agreed to join the band.
- Bill Ward
When I was 15 and at school in what is now Zimbabwe, we were studying James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Our teacher Mrs Maddox was called out of the classroom to take a phone call. It was a hot afternoon and I sat and looked at msasa trees in the grounds below the school, daydreaming and waiting for the lesson to end. Mrs Maddox came back and was flustered, unable to find her place in the book we had been studying. ‘It was page 43, halfway down on the lefhand page,’ I said without a copy of the book in front of me. I had an eidetic memory, that captured pages as a camera might. I had read the novel the previous year and as Mrs Maddox read passages out aloud I would see the pages turning, the headers and paragraphs. I had a very unusual memory that I took for granted.
In the drinking years my memory took on what a lover once called ‘the bitter memory of history’. I nursed grudges and cherished grievances. I could not be dissuaded from the detail my memory provided, I sulked and brooded over wrongs and insults. My version was always the right one. I had not idea that this kind of exact and hostile recall might impede forgiveness, because I thought of myself as somebody who neither forgot nor forgave.
At the same time, my memory often gave me pause: I would realise that the remembered facts contradicted the mood I felt in. I was also very aware that I edited facts and remembered selectively, that over time I revised and altered my memories, subjectively and at a certain cost to the truth. My memory was unrelaible, could not be trusted.
Only in my 40s did I begin to understand the connection between memory and attention. It was bothering me more and more that I knew so little of my friends’ lives, that I had gaps, lacunae, ellipses in my memory, long periods of forgetfulness like blank pages in a book. I wasn’t paying attention because my alcoholism excluded awareness of daily realities. I tried not to think about many things. I lived in a blurry dreamlike world of drunkeness — what I thought of as my ‘lost summers’, endless hot afternoons drinking alone and listening to music, nights sitting out on a balcony looking down at the river and drinking. I could not recall if anyone had been with me. I could not recall what had made me weep.
In those years, I finished theses, wrote essays, chapters, conference papers on days of nominal sobriety when I was hungover and desperate to complete projects, forcing myself to read and reread, hand in assigments and publishing articles that I would later look at with no recollection of having written them. I was running on empty, driving myself with only a limited talent to help me keep the facade intact, the sham of being an academic or writer. Unsurprisingly, the writing suffered. My mind was cutting itself to pieces. In my late 30s I found I could edit well enough — and editing was easier than creative writing. So I called myself an editor and a whole part of myself, that shining golden ball of hopefulness, rolled away out of sight, sliding into darkness. I found softer, easier ways to keep going because I no longer had the energy or persistence to keep trying. I had forgotten what it felt like to be me.
Alcoholism is a search for a common language, or at least, it is a compensation for a language that has been lost.
- Octavio Paz
And when I began going into meetings and listening to the life stories of others like me, I began again to remember. This is what it felt like. This is what happened. This is what was lost. Women who scarely remember the faces of children taken from them as babies. Men who live with the knowledge of their own criminal wrongdoing but not the memory. Those who know they are no longer welcome at family Thanksgiving but have no idea why. The terror of waking in the morning to a body that is bruised or bleeding and there is no way to find out what was done during that night of blackout. Waking in prison or hospital and recalling only the day before. That happy-go-lucky impulse to have a beer on the beach before heading home. To stop at a neighbourhood bar for a glass of wine and some conversation. To pick up a drink on a Saturday afternoon, meaning no harm. And then to walk that inner circle of hell reserved for alcoholics.
Remembering what it was like: the collective memory of sober alcoholics together reminding one another what it was like, holding open the door of memory for one another. And how the story of forgetting and loss became one of redemption, restoration, recovery. What happened; what we are like now.