Excerpt from Bottleneck (East Shoreway Recovery, $16)
When you’re armed with an English degree and a thirsty liver, marriage suddenly seems like a pretty good idea. Carrie and I had been dating for a few months again. She wasn’t sold that I’d gotten everything out of my system — and she was right. I always had a delayed sense of fun. When most everyone was settling down in their careers and families, I was still trying to squeeze the last few drops of irresponsibility out of the dishrag. If my life was measured in bars, I was always running up against Last Call.
So I had to act the part of Responsible Adult. I had to make a show of getting out of bed in the morning, doing chores, looking for jobs. I had to pretend to have some semblance of normalcy about my life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everything around me was practically melting underfoot and soft to the touch. Carrie, on the other hand, was completely stable: trusting, fixed, rooted, put-together. She knew that I was broken, and I honestly think it kept her coming back. I was a project. As a nurse, she cared for others in a way that baffled me. She could also enjoy a half-glass of wine and leave the rest of it sitting on our kitchen counter. I didn’t understand that, in all the ways I didn’t understand people who were wired to care for other people as a job.
For me, the wedding reception was about the only thing I cared about. I hadn’t even told my parents that the wedding was happening. I was making decisions about flatware and tasting dinners and desserts, but I hadn’t summoned up the courage to admit that I was taking the easy way out and marrying Carrie at my lowest, most lost point in life. She wasn’t getting a husband — she was getting a burden.
A few weeks before my wedding day, I needed to send an email from my parents’ house. When I flipped their laptop open, a Word doc was sitting there. It was only a quarter-complete, but it was enough to see where it was going. It was a letter that my mom was writing to me. It was about how unprepared I was for marriage — how irresponsible and unready and thoughtless I was. I flashed red. I immediately called Carrie and told her what I’d found. She assured me that I wasn’t any of the things my mother was calling me in the letter. But deep down, I knew she was wrong. My mom was right. I made a beeline for my parents’ liquor cabinet and swallowed a slug of warm whiskey straight from the bottle, settling my nerves.
I was entitled to it.
Frankly, the only thing that mattered to me was me. My alcoholic brain knew exactly how to parasite my fiancée, like one of those face-huggers from Alien. I didn’t try to or want to — I just did. Even better, she worked late nights at the hospital, which meant I could really let my alcoholism fester, like mushrooms in the dark. After taking a honeymoon through Napa Valley, we filled up our wine cabinet with bottles of expensive stuff. We frequented a quaint little wine shop in the German Village area of Columbus, too, where we rented a tiny brick house amidst cobblestone streets and wrought-iron fences. Across the street was a German cookie place that only opened for Christmastime. It was pretty idyllic.
For Carrie, wine was a hobby; for me, it became serious business. And by serious business, I meant I pretended to get interested in it so I could get close to the drinking. I got notebooks; I borrowed books on grape lineages and terroir from the library. I got downright academic about my alcohol. I desperately wanted to learn about viticulture, only because knowledge over a vice means that you’re in control of it. I could even legitimize my drinking by becoming a sommelier, I reasoned. There were certifications out there. Someone could rubber-stamp my problem and make it seem almost noble. I knew the taste of different varietals on my tongue. The fat spice of a zinfandel; the lush butter of a syrah; the bright grassiness of a good pinot grigio.
You’d also think that getting married would’ve tempered some of my drinking habits. Nope. Not in the slightest. I got skilled with corkscrews and wine bottles. I had it down to about six seconds, slicing the foil off and uncorking the bottle. When that first bright wave of chardonnay would hit me, I knew I was home free. The next few hours would be about me steadily sinking into oblivion. If I was lucky, I’d wake up the next day without having emailed anyone two pages of emotional tripe or without ordering $100 worth of used movies and books. (Not going to lie: there is some weird part of me that really enjoyed getting packages ad- dressed to me, containing exactly what I’d want to see or read.)
I was starting to collect my wine bottles from the week in a trash bag, wrapping it tight so the glass didn’t clink too loudly, and driving to a grocery store alley where I’d throw them all away like the Mafia burying a body upstate. Some part of me was deeply in love with the madness. It was like observing my life from a distance, quietly wondering just how bad it could all get.
For future reference: Ambien and absinthe don’t mix. I’d beaten my poor doctor down with enough stories of me not sleeping so he’d finally prescribe me Ambien. Because I’m an alcoholic, I needed a shortcut to sleep. Around that same time, I was ordering bottles of absinthe straight from Europe, back when it was illegal to have it in the States. One bottle had a stalk of wormwood in it. I studied up on the stuff. I bought the accoutrements; I got sugar cubes and the real-deal absinthe spoons. I’d never felt so goddamned refined in my life. It was exotic. I learned how the right amount of water turned it louche, as the French called it — a milky-green that meant it was watered down just right.
I’d put the sugar cube on the spoon, light the sugar cube on fire with a torch, then flip the cube into the glass. It was like the poor man’s heroin. There was real showmanship to it, even when I was doing this alone on a Wednesday night when I had work in the morning. I didn’t even like the taste of it — the bright anise hitting the back of my throat like I’d been huffing licorice all day. I don’t know how many times I’d accidentally knock the burning cube off the spoon and catch our kitchen table on fire — a wide blue flame spreading out in every direction.
I’d pop 10 milligrams of Ambien, just to pump the brakes on my night, which was just about the worst idea imaginable. Once, my wife came into the living room and I was apparently having a full-on conversation with people who weren’t there. I remember them — they’d emerged like they were from another dimension. I was living in one of those Victorian novels I half-read in grad school with the coquettes and stiff-lipped prudes. There were parasols and laughter alongside high-minded conversation and nodding.
Lots of nodding.
“What are you doing?”
I mumbled something in return. I just remembered her standing there, amidst my imagined parlor room, not quite sure what to do or think.
I lost count of how many times I’d come to, standing in the corner of a stranger’s house or apartment, peeing. Carrie would be screaming at me not only to stop, but to wake the hell up. A couple of times she’d gotten out of bed at three-thirty to visibly shake me out of whatever Blair Witch corner-reverie I was in, then take me by hand down to the actual bedroom.
We’d lie back in bed in the dark, minutes later, nothing there but embarrassment and the smell of a carpet cleaner and water thrown on the carpet. The words didn’t need to be said, but they were there — big, bright cinematic blocks like the ones from the opening of North by Northwest, hanging in the air. They loomed high over the bed: People know you’re an alcoholic. One Christmas, I drank so much that I successfully pissed off every single person I came into contact with. I made fun of my relatives and their menial-sounding jobs. I went on and on about why Die Hard is the best Christmas movie of all time. I angrily pointed out that I missed Arizona so much that I blamed Carrie and her family for ruining my life.
We lay in bed that night, the blackness of those voices and slurred behaviors bubbling between us, and I kept thinking: It couldn’t be that bad. It couldn’t be as bad as the night my parents had a blind wine tasting, and Mark and I ended up across the street at an abandoned house where we downed an exceptional zinfandel on their empty patio — all while Mark swore he saw a ghost up in one of the little windows. We mocked it. We laughed and teased it. The next morning, we recounted the tale to my very unamused parents who told us a family had moved into that house a few weeks prior. It’d been a terrified three-year-old girl in that window.
Yes, I was an alcoholic.
I didn’t know what to do with that information. I had people I couldn’t let down. People expected me to drink, dammit, and I took that responsibility seriously. But I could also feel the great, inky blackness that was filling up between my wife and me. Every time she found a bottle I’d “mistakenly put in the wrong spot” or every time she forgave me for flirting with one of her friends or every time she found a drunken Facebook exchange with someone that I’d swore I’d deleted, that darkness swelled. It grew, swelled, evolved.
And it eventually consumed everything.
Paul Fuhr is an addiction recovery writer whose work has appeared at The Fix and AfterParty, as well as in The Literary Review, The Live Oak Review, The Sobriety Collective and InRecovery Magazine, among others. His new alcoholism memoir Bottleneck is now available through East Shoreway Recovery.