By Christopher Turner
A few minutes after 4 in the morning and you come to, not wake up because your body wasn’t sleeping. It was detoxing.
Your first sense of semiconsciousness is the physical effort of simply opening your eyes and then feeling the sick of every muscle and bone in your body. It’s a gargantuan effort just to mutter a barely audible and slurred obscenity: “Fuck!”
Cognition is blurred, muddled, out of sequence, and you notice that you’ve beaten the 5:30 alarm as always and think again why you even bother to set the damn thing. Then you realize that you have 2 1/2 hours before you have to be at work and hope you have enough time to get yourself together.
First, though, you need a couple of minutes to gather strength just to get out of bed. You already know from experience that no amount of aspirin or coffee will do anything for your throbbing head and that you’re just stuck with it. Your stomach is churning and you think you can feel better if you can just throw up. But you didn’t eat anything the night before because cooking and eating interfere with the whiskey sours. Your stomach is empty, and there’s nothing to throw up. But you try to force yourself to puke anyway and you try gagging yourself. But instead of throwing up you’ve only given yourself the dry heaves and, like the headache, you know you’re stuck with them.
You slide your left leg over the side of the bed as you raise up slowly until you feel your foot on the floor. Then you hoist yourself slowly and slide your right leg over the bed and onto the floor. You push yourself up with your right bed on your bed, still slowly, until you’re standing, usually barely. There you look over your bed and pillows while you run your hand lightly over your chest, checking for puke from throwing up again while you were passed out. No puke today, you think to yourself with hope that the day just beginning might not be too bad after all.
The routine of the rest of the morning before heading off to work is so firmly entrenched that it take little cognitive effort, thank God.
First, to the kitchen to start the coffee and, while it’s brewing, a swig from the nearly empty whiskey bottle from the night before. Then to the bathroom for the daily doses of psychiatric meds – an antidepressant, another one for anxiety, one for low blood pressure, one to wake up from the sleeping pill the night before and two or three others for vitamins and diet supplements.
The morning shower is slow and arduous. By the time it’s done and you’re dressed, you have a half-hour to get to work. But one last task before setting out: fill the thermos with a couple of shots of whiskey, one for the mid-morning break and the rest for the drive home after work.
On the drive home, you think to yourself the day was good because no one at work said anything to make you paranoid about being “found out” for being hung over or drinking at work. Years later, in sobriety, you find out no one asked because they already knew, and some colleagues were silently tortured to watch what you were doing to yourself. They already knew, and you were the only one you fooled.
Back home from work, you find the enthusiasm to race inside, lock your doors, draw your curtains and get out the packaged whiskey sour mixes and open the new bottle of whiskey you stopped and brought at a liquor store on your way home. As you’ve done virtually every night the last three to four years, you slowly drink yourself into oblivion and, in the morning, you get to do it all over again.
Until one morning something you can’t see or define screws up the daily routine. Counting out your morning meds, you get a surprise glimpse of the man in the mirror. The image is nothing less than spellbinding as you think to yourself that the person looking back at you is not who or what you could or want to but is a pathetic and loathesome man you don’t know and don’t want to know. The reflection is you, not who and what you want to see.
In that moment, nothing registers and all you understand is that life is not worth it if this is how it’s always going to be. You don’t remember filling one hand with the pills from the bottles of medication or going to the kitchen and pouring the glass of whiskey you have in the other hand. But you have the searing memory – despite the hangover and already with a couple of drinks in you – of looking one last time in the mirror and your exact words: “God, forgive me. But I don’t know what else to do.”
For three days, you do not know that you are in a darkness that is strangely welcoming and safe. There is no truth or lie there, no struggles, no pain, no happiness, no fear, no more fighting – only the blissful nothingness that you have unwittingly sought so long.
Until the fourth morning when you open your eyes, this time not with the same kind of soul-weariness and physical agony of every morning before but with a sense of you are someplace unfamiliar. As the world that leads you out of the darkness takes form, you hear a low and regular beep somewhere in the background and you see in the front of you the back of someone in dark blue clothes. The figure turns, and you hear a woman’s voice: “Oh my! Look who’s awake! I’ll call your doctor, honey.”
Doctor! You realize you’re in a hospital but don’t know why. Years of alcoholic drinking have twisted your thinking into paranoia and fear, and you wonder you crashed while driving drunk. Then you look quickly to see if your wrists are handcuffed to the rails on the sides of of the bed. If they are, you know you’re going to jail. But there are no cuffs. So what happened?
Back home two days later, the hospital doctor and your psychiatrist have both given you hell for trying to kill yourself. Your thinking is still twisted. In that convoluted realm, you are mad as hell as whoever God is for not letting you die, so you decide you have no reason to drink if you can’t die right. Your first act at home is to find all your stashed booze and pour it down the kitchen drain.
You are not capable then of understanding that in giving up drinking, even for a reason that makes no sense, you have embarked on a journey toward awkening, toward recovery and toward becoming the kind of man you can face in the mirror tomorrow morning.
But you learn that sobriety might come with a price. It could be relationships with people who enabled and even encouraged your drinking. You are disappointed but try to undertand others who may reject you because of the hurt, injury and pain you inflicted on them in your drinking days. You also find out there is truth in the saying that “sobriety isn’t for sissies.” It takes time, sometimes a lot of it, to rebuild broken bridges of trust in your personal and professional relationships.
But the benefits far out-weigh any frustration and impatience in making a “normal” life without booze. Taking life “one day at a time” is more than a motto.
It’s now been years since that desperate but pivotal encounter with the man in the mirror, and it’s truly by the grace of God that you are still sober. Now you sigh when people who knew and didn’t know you back in the day ask if you “miss” not being able to have a beer on a hot summer day or can’t usher in a new year with a champagne toast. You can say honestly that waking up in your own vomit, never having even one day without a hangover and not feeling anythying good are nothing to miss. You know, too, that all of that is there to take back and that it’s no farther than one drink away.
You’ve also acquired a respect, maybe fear, of a dire warning you’ve heard a few times through the years: if you can’t remember your last drunk, you haven’t had it.
You hope you never forget your last one.