My father grew up here in Atlanta, at the south end of Grant Park. Pop was a smart, driven kid from a striving lower middle class family, so the resume of his young adulthood is golden. Straight A’s, student body president, finished college in three years, that kind of thing. All this was familiar to me from an early age, but it wasn’t until many years after my father died that I became aware of his most astonishing youthful accomplishment.
I acquired a box of memorabilia that my grandmother had saved. It included a clipping from the Atlanta Journal, from September 24, 1956. As a college student, my father won a speech contest. A NATIONAL speech contest. For the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. I don’t know how much you know about the WCTU. They were founded in the 19th century and were one of the driving forces behind alcohol prohibition in the twenties. Although the WCTU blended a nasty dose of white protestant nativism into their campaign against alcohol, they were surprisingly progressive on some issues, such as women’s suffrage and fair wages for laborers. But like most people, I have tended to think of the WCTU in only one way: as a mob of blue-haired killjoys, frowning sternly on any form of pleasure with a hint of sin to it. I had no idea they were still alive and well and sponsoring speech contests in 1956. The photograph in the clipping shows my father as I never knew him – skinny, with a crew cut, in a nice blazer – receiving a pin from a stereotypical old WCTU matron. The article also reveals the title of his prize-winning address: “The Bottle or the Cross.”
The title made me laugh, not just because of its moralistic tone, but because it was so out of step with the father I knew. If the Ramon Veal of his thirties and forties still believed in eternal salvation, he had definitely found a way to reconcile it with alcohol consumption. I wished he were still around so I could tease him about it. Yes, it was funny to discover that he had crafted rhetoric to espouse the rigid pieties of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Funny, but not surprising. He came from a hyper-religious, teetotaling household.
But my amusement about Pop’s speech was quickly overshadowed by something else I learned from the article: the location of the award ceremony. It was at the old Biltmore Hotel. Down on Spring Street.
I know the Biltmore well. It was the first place I ever got drunk.
In 1978, when I was in the 10th grade, I earned a spot in a program that gave a small group of students a chance to learn about state government up close. We would come to Atlanta from all over the state for three-day visits. Each time we would make trips down to the Capitol and visit influential people to learn about their work. We also had visits from guest speakers in the political world. One was making his first successful run for Congress: an arrogantly self-confident fellow named Newt Gingrich. Our group was quartered at the Biltmore, which was in that day a formerly glamorous hotel that had fallen on hard times. Midtown had not yet completed its transition from hippie underworld to upscale paradise. It was pretty seedy.
During one of our visits there were some conventioneers at the Biltmore who were having a keg party in a suite on our hall. Of the four boys in my room, one was that guy every group of would-be teenage drinkers wants as part of the team: he had a beard and a deep voice and a confident manner about him. Pretty soon he was serving as our waiter, delivering cup after brimming plastic cup of cheap beer from the party down the hall. If I had any qualms at all about joining the fun, I don’t remember them. What I do remember is that I had no idea what my limit was and that I finished the evening on intimate terms with a toilet.
That experience, and the splitting headache that followed the next morning, should have tipped me off. Maybe this isn’t for you, I should have thought. But I was just getting started.
I was 15 when that happened. The eight years that followed were lousy for a number of reasons, but the main source of lousiness was that I became an alcoholic.
If I were to follow the conventions of confessional writing about substance abuse, this would be the part where I present you brutally candid accounts of my self-destructive behavior, culminating in a DUI arrest or a stay in rehab. Such “hitting bottom” stories are central to the literature of recovery. Mary Karr, one of our best contemporary writers, recently published a powerful memoir about her struggle for sobriety. She writes of visiting AA meetings and hearing stories of people hitting bottoms far below anything she descended to. At one meeting a stylishly dressed woman took the floor to reveal the absurd lengths she went to to keep drinking after her family had pleaded with her to stop: “She used to tuck her vodka bottle inside a turkey carcass stashed in a basement freezer. While cooking dinner, she’d run down and yank it out and guzzle a bit. And her family, who’d done two interventions, kept rifling laundry hampers and closets, looking to no avail for her stash. Then one night, she tells us in a demure voice, the frost had built up so deep she couldn’t midwife the bottle out, so she just upended the whole bird, guzzling out of it.”
I don’t have any comically lurid stories like that. I never drank out of a frozen turkey, I didn’t get arrested or committed, and I didn’t end up living in a van down by the river. What happened was rather commonplace, but ridiculous enough just the same. As an overwrought teenager, I found that alcohol could round off the corners and loosen the knots in my mind like nothing else, so I began drinking as often as I could get away with it, resorting to the ploys that all underage drinkers resort to. I thought being a little buzzed made me better socially, and even kidded myself that it made me a better writer. In college, with alcohol more accessible, I gradually became a daily drinker. The results could not have been more predictable. Alcohol did not make me charming or brilliant. I finished college with an embarrassingly low grade point average and a heartbreaking pile of missed opportunities in my wake. I had a well-earned reputation for unreliability among my professors and friends, and I had lost the confidence of my family. In one respect I was fortunate: the sensation of being very, very drunk, out of control drunk, was more frightening to me than pleasing, so if I ever got that blitzed it was only by mistake. As such, I was able to stay out of serious trouble. But “staying out of serious trouble” is a poor standard to live one’s life by. Daily drinking took a bad toll.
Along the way it often occurred to me that I really ought to cut this out. I could see the difference between my insatiable thirst and the prudent drinking habits of the many non-alcoholics I knew. At the restaurant where I worked, I left every evening with a huge to-go cup – illegal in New York huge – full of beer I had filched. This isn’t normal, I would tell myself. This really isn’t normal. Where’s my straw? The reality of what I was doing to myself did not come home to me until I was facing surgery, shortly after I graduated from college. I had torn a knee ligament playing ultimate. In preparation for ACL reconstruction surgery, I was filling out forms for the anesthesiologist. One form asked me to reveal the extent of my alcohol consumption. I knew I drank every day, but having to write it was unsettling. Even more jarring was recognizing the nature of my daily drinking. It was not just the fact that I drank every day, but the way I did it. Usually alone. As the most important part of my schedule, something I planned for carefully because a day without drinking was unthinkable. Often accompanied by lies to my friends and loved ones. Sometimes endangering myself and others. As a preoccupation that distracted me from everything that really mattered. For eight years I had been leading a shriveled life.
The lying was the worst. It is an inevitable side effect of alcoholism. The times and places that are appropriate for alcohol consumption are few. No alcoholic cares for those limitations, and the only way to get around them is to be sneaky and deceptive. I don’t have to tell you how corrosive that can be to one’s relationships. I could have figured that out that night at the Biltmore. The organizers of that program, the ones who had given me this wonderful opportunity, had trusted me, and I had violated their trust in a most heedless way, putting the whole program at risk. But instead of learning my lesson then, I spent the next eight years continuing to violate trust and put things at risk for the sake of my habit.
So, shortly after my ACL surgery, I quit. Cold turkey – but one without a bottle of vodka in it. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was hard as hell. AA meetings helped. They helped a lot. Moreover, quitting seemed imperative, and one of the things I’ve learned in life is that it’s amazing what you can do when you have to. Things got better. The family and friends who had forborne my sketchy behavior when I was drinking showed me kindness again by making it easy for me to be a non-drinker. I began to learn how to loosen up and access my high-spirited side without resorting to alcohol. As for academics, my graduate school performance was as impressive as my undergraduate performance had been unimpressive. I became a teacher. Over time, I found that the habit of not drinking, once established, could feel effortless. Elvis Costello quit drinking the same way I did, by just stopping, and he recently said that for him, drinking is merely something he used to do that he doesn’t do anymore, like collecting stamps. Sometimes it felt just that easy to me, too.
I should have kept my guard up. Inside, I hadn’t really let go of my wish that liquid mood changes could be a harmless part of my life. Five years after going on the wagon I slid back off. While on vacation, against my better judgment, I decided to have a beer. I knew as soon as my buzz started that I had made a mistake, that I liked this sensation too much to have any control over it, but that didn’t stop me. I became a daily drinker again. As always, I knew how to finesse my habit and my responsibilities well enough to keep my life basically afloat, but all the bad consequences I had experienced before gradually came back upon me, especially the dishonesty. As Mary Karr writes, the lies of an alcoholic only intensify his loneliness and isolation. It was past time to finally surrender to the reality of my addiction and do what needed to be done about it before the inevitable disaster happened. Four years after resuming my drinking, I quit again, hopefully for good. I repeat, hopefully. As we like to say, one day at a time.
Recovering alcoholics are known for their sayings – “one day at a time,” “easy does it,” “first things first” - but other than “the bottle or the cross,” the only hard-core temperance saying I know comes from the novel True Grit. When offered a drink of whiskey, the hardnosed heroine Mattie Ross says, “I will not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains.” My sense is that the author is making fun of her – Mattie’s self-righteousness is an object of humor in the story – but I actually kind of like that remark. I will not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains. I wish I had known it that night at the Biltmore. Not that it would have stopped me, but maybe it would have shortened my path to sobriety. It is a versatile little saying, too. I can change the nouns and get very close to expressing why drinking is wrong for me. I will not put a thief in my mouth to steal my future. I will not put a thief in my mouth to steal my integrity. I will not put a thief in my mouth to steal my already limited ability to be unselfish.
So. History repeats itself. It seems that every fifty years or so someone in my family delivers an oration on the dangers of alcohol. But my situation is better than my father’s was, isn’t it? He grew up to be an exemplary man, but that day in 1956 he was just an inexperienced kid, probably gunning for some scholarship money, telling a bunch of reactionary old ladies what they wanted to hear. This is different. True, I’m not going to get a pin when this is over, but I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’re not the annual meeting of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. I like y’all a lot better, and I like this place better than the Biltmore. Better history here. Thank you for listening, and please take care of yourselves.