An excerpt from the acclaimed alcoholism memoir BOTTLENECK (East Shoreway Recovery)
The idea of suicide didn’t just arrive in my head out of the blue. It didn’t announce itself one day like the Kool-Aid Man suddenly crashing through a wall, going “Oh yeahhhhhh.” The idea visited me like a storm migrating across the plains, building and growing until the thunderhead just couldn’t hold any more weight. I knew it was coming. With laser precision, I knew all the precipitation it was going to bring. But you sort of assume it’ll evaporate before it actually comes. Maybe it’ll just dissipate. Slow-rolling convection from other storm fronts colliding. A dying of molecules. Dry walls and occluded fronts.
Storms do that. They fizzle out without warning. But suicide started coming to me more and more as an idea. When it wasn’t blustering through my brain, it was throbbing in the background. Unemployment started to eat away at more than just our bank account — it was eating away at my self- worth. Other people were getting up and going to work. Our neighbors on one side were teachers; on the other side, there was corporate-office-park folk. I heard their cars leave in the morning, followed by the eerie quiet after. All I could hear was the deafening silence of feeling worthless. I was miles past pitying myself. I wasn’t doing anyone any good. The longer I was around, the more I was holding everyone down, like a sci-fi gravity well pulling starships out of orbit. Everyone needed to move on.
The kids were young enough that I’d be that person they’d recognize only in photographs and Facebook posts years later. I couldn’t do any more damage if I was gone. The details of my life would be limited to my kids’ mumbled, shared memories — never quite getting it right. Their new father would be put-together. A doctor, maybe. Someone sure of himself, comfortable in his skin, unafraid of the world.
The kids were winding down their last week of daycare (which we couldn’t afford, either) and I was sitting at the kitchen table, knowing we wouldn’t have enough to pay the mortgage. But I still had money for booze. Always. I didn’t know how, but I did.
That morning, I imagined how it’d actually be. It was tomb-quiet in the house as I wandered it, taking charged hits off my plastic pint of vodka. I’d seen suicide in enough movies to know it could be quick and painless. My buddy Shawn was a Marine and, one time, matter-of-factly told me how to put the gun right under your chin, angling back a little bit. He told me this in passing. Guaranteed success. The subject wasn’t even suicide. But my brain sopped it up. I kept that fact in a steel box for safekeeping. Now, it was useful information.
Things would be better for everyone if I simply wasn’t here anymore.
But I couldn’t use a weapon. Hell, I didn’t even know where to find one. Maybe I could steal someone’s hunting .22. Then I considered that I didn’t want to leave a gruesome body for someone else to find. I had to figure out the best thing for everyone. You know: a win-win suicide. My brain spun through possibilities. I didn’t want to shoot myself outside — I figured that the bugs and animals and humidity would have their way with me before someone would stumble across my body. I considered running a bath and slitting my wrists, but I’d have to do this when I wasn’t looking. I’d have to get good and drunk, then seconds after taking a bracing belt of whiskey, maybe I’d drag a utility knife across my wrists. I honestly Googled “Warm or freezing water for bathtub suicide?” I also considered that running headlong into a semitruck ran the risk of hurting other people.
The idea came to me while I was drifting to sleep, thanks to the Ambien my doctor was prescribing me.
It’s going to be pills.
That’s where my story would end, I decided.
Ironically, I didn’t know where to find drugs or booze in high school, either. It wasn’t until much later that I realized debauchery was everywhere.
One weekend, not long after the school incident, Carrie decided to visit her family. She left on a Friday and said she wouldn’t be back until late Sunday. Fine, I shrugged. Black depression was knotted around my every thought, and I was feeling pretty sorry for myself on the couch. She knew that it was probably best to leave me alone for a weekend. My brain was still repairing itself. That’s what everyone in recovery told me, at least. I had months, if not years of rewiring to go through yet.
It wasn’t unusual for her to visit her family alone. After all, I was the ghost-husband. Sort of there, sort of not. Carrie was used to showing up to events and gatherings and school meetings alone. People stopped asking where I was, or if I’d be coming later. I was a bonus if and when I showed up. An ancillary character in the script.
No one knew how miserable it was being me, I lamented. I was convinced I was the only human on the face of the planet to ever feel this horrible and this darkly unique. It was only a few days after I’d forgotten to get Elliott at school, and I was still mortified with myself. I couldn’t imagine showing my face to anyone. I even seriously considered how I could avoid ever seeing my next-door neighbor Sherry again. I just needed to hide.
“You sure you’re going to be okay?” Carrie asked wearily, for real, in the doorway.
I nodded, staring at my boys for the last time. I wouldn’t hug them long. If I did, that’d give away my plan. She might start to get worried and stick around. I didn’t need that. So I hugged them each, breathing their smells in deeply, kissing their hair.
“Yep. I’ll be fine,” I lied.
She hesitated for a second, but left. We didn’t kiss or hug goodbye anymore, anyway. We weren’t that married couple. “Drive safe,” I said. “Text me when you get there.”
I wouldn’t be alive to get that text message.
When they were twenty minutes outside Columbus, I started plotting it all out. Kroger had started selling these tiny little wine bottles — the kind you’d get on an airplane or at a hotel minibar — and they had them in these oversized bins right in the beer aisle. Tiny little reds and yellows. They looked kind of cute to me, like those old novelty wax root beers from my childhood. I’d grab three or four of them at a time and jam them between my knuckles, tossing them into my shopping cart like party favors.
They were screw-top twist-offs, too. The best.
I twisted one off in the parking lot and chugged it down. That’s when I discovered I sort of loved the gym-sock smell of warm chardonnay. I could feel it rising in my blood — the instant promise and false hope of maybe finding a job, the urge to listen to Radiohead, the absolute need to text friends, the dull electricity of fake confidence. I’d twist the cap off another one while no one was around and chug it. For some reason, I decided these things were like little, bottled shots.
I pulled up to the intersection, sick. I’d gagged down the chardonnay wrong and got so queasy that I couldn’t hold it anymore. I tried catching the vomit with my hands, but it simply exploded between my fingers. I aimed my head for the cup holders and got most of it there.
I brought the rest of the bottles home and lined them up on the dining room table. Seven little soldiers. I absently scrolled through Indeed.com for the billionth time and cursed the fact that my parents encouraged me to be a writer. (Seriously, there is nothing more humbling than searching for “editor” and “writer” as a job keyword.) It was a bleak landscape online. I needed to be sure I was right: that nothing was waiting for me, job-wise. I took some searing shots of vodka. I was getting some bedrock in my belly for what was coming later. I blindly sent my resume into dozens of black holes, took their soulless questionnaires, and registered myself on countless websites. I didn’t do it to get a job; I did it to remind myself that I’d been applying for jobs for a year now and it was time to shut down my life.
I felt like less than zero.
I started writing farewell letters to everyone I knew. Reams and reams of pages aimed at all the people I’d wronged over the years, starting with my parents. They hadn’t raised a bad kid — they’d just raised a son who hadn’t developed a second skin. Someone who let everything in. I couldn’t interact with the world unless it was with a pen. I just couldn’t seem to get anything right, ever. After all, disappointments are worse than flat-out failures — and that’s what I was: one giant disappointment. I wrote one to my uncle (and the best man at my wedding), apologizing for coming up short in life and letting life cause a quiet rift between us. I owed him money, a fact that absolutely ate me alive, so I would make sure whatever trust was left would pay the balance. I put my wife and kids off to last. There was just too much to say. So I zeroed in on the middle. I wrote to Crow; I wrote to Big Neal; I wrote to Mark; I wrote to Leslie; I wrote to Matt. Even Cole got a letter. Then, I eventually discovered I had too many people to write letters to. I figured that when I died, they’d just have to infer their own meaning as to why I killed myself — and how I was sorry. I was a writer who was simply out of words.
I had eight peach tabs of Ambien left, plus two random Percocet pills. I lined them up on the dining room counter next to the wine bottles. I started getting anxiety that it wouldn’t be enough, but 80 milligrams of Ambien sounded heavy-duty. It should do the trick. I just wanted it to be fast, dreamy, like when I’m pulled under by the black drape of Ambien at night. I also started lining up my reasons:
I didn’t belong anywhere.
I was unemployable.
I couldn’t face a sad, colorless life without booze.
I was an absentee parent and husband.
I had a wife who was done with me.
I had in-laws who couldn’t look me in the eyes.
I had parents who didn’t know where their son had gone.
No one loved me like they did when I was younger. That sort of love wears off the older, and drunker, you get. These weren’t problems with other people. They were problems with me. I was the common denominator. I looked at the pills and the wine. Cause and effect. Problem and solution. So, I lined up the apology letters I’d actually made it through, stuffing them neatly into envelopes. There were six in all. Then I considered that I was hurrying to the main event too quickly. Maybe I should try a second round of amends notes. Maybe I should write to people who’d died, long gone. My grandfather, maybe — who I wanted to thank for letting me stay in his house and teaching me about manhood, even though I could never ever rise to that occasion; my grandmother, who probably had such a horrifically cold Catholic upbringing that all her cold, barbed interactions with me had less to do with me than her childhood; my friend Matt Heid, who died in a horrible car crash (a crash his dad survived) right after high school graduation. I was crying by this point, realizing that it was no use. None of it mattered. There were too many people to address in the universe, and I didn’t have the attention span.
I shut my phone off, and I stared at its black screen for a while.
That’s the last time I’ll see this iPhone, I thought.
Just think of all the photos and videos inside that device, I considered. An entire life lived.
I kept it shut off, turned around and thumbed through my record collection. This is the last time I’ll see any of these records, I thought. I flipped on a Bruce Hornsby album from the late 1980s: Scenes from the Southside. Of all the fucking albums: a second-rate Hornsby. When people find me dead, I thought, I should have been listening to something meaningful. But I wasn’t going to leave an elaborate code for my friends to untangle. I was hurting too much to put one together. I played the record and about two songs in, I decided I couldn’t die that way. No one should die listening to Bruce Hornsby and the Range.
I put on a Bond movie playlist. Four of five of them, all lined up in a row. Fitting. I twisted off all the wine bottle caps, one by one. The bright smell of cheap chardonnay filled the dining room as I watched an impossibly young Roger Moore wander around Harlem. Morning light came through the dining room, slanting across the table where I’d laid everything out.
I palmed the pills, rattled them around a bit in my fist. I walked around the living room, feeling my heart in my throat.
I’m really going to do this.
I toured the house, looking at every detail of it as if it was the last time I’d see it. I soaked up every contour, every seam, every nail. I walked up and down the stairs. I went into the basement where Cole and I used to blast shoegaze music at one-thirty in the morning. I wandered into the kids’ room where our boys had slept in their cribs, where Elliott had learned the alphabet, where Carrie had rocked them to sleep as infants. I sat in my office, scrolling through all the hiding places I’d created there: under the spare bed, in my filing cabinet, in the closet. They were clean.
I went back downstairs, drew in a breath, and knew this was it. If I think about anything too long, I won’t do it. I had butterflies like I was about to jump onstage.
So I crammed the pills into my mouth and swallowed them with not one, but two tiny bottles of warm wine. I choked down the pills and took a breath. I could feel that neon-glow of the wine rise inside me again, but at a much higher level. I was surprised, as if I should have suddenly felt the effect of my body immediately shutting down, one system at a time. Nothing. I scooped the remaining Percocets off the table and grabbed another bottle of wine.
I shuffled into the living room and watched Bond shoot his way through a giant submarine-swallowing ship. I unscrewed the wine and swallowed down the other pills. I stood there, watching the movie and starting to feel the first twinges of something. I could feel a few of the mooring ropes in my brain loosening up — I was coming free.
I drew in even breaths.
It’s not time to panic, I thought. This is it. Let it come. Just let it happen.
It honestly felt good: the hazy glow of the wine and chemicals alight in my body, drawing down the curtain on my mind. I couldn’t keep my eyes open, but I could hear the soundtrack. I’d seen the movie enough to know all the beats. I could recite it. I drifted, sort of feeling as if I was tumbling backward. But I was still standing there. I wasn’t there, yet I was.
Bond was now getting chastised by M.
This is it. Let it come.
I sort of knelt down on the hardwood floor, which gave way under my knee like a hammock. Nothing had any solidity. I crawled up into the couch, which was gummy and warm. My eyes were closed the whole time. I felt the black veil of Ambien wrapping itself around me, binding me, preparing to take me to the other side.
Just let it happen. Goodbye. I’m sorry I wasn’t better.
I remembered hearing voices. Dreamlike. They came to me from a great distance. Casino Royale was on. It was one of the those scenes I’d overlooked — the one where they’re sitting in a restaurant after Vesper’s rescued Bond from a heart attack, and they’re having dinner and naming martinis.
My eyes opened and struggled to draw focus. It was like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I realized I was lying on the floor of the living room, sprawled out. The seams of the hardwood floor looked like vast roadways that close up. I studied them, pretending I was traveling their lengths, getting lost in the vast canyons of the grain.
Every single muscle was sore, tight. It felt like someone had punched me square at the base of my skull. When I moved, my head seemed to follow three seconds later, delayed. Underwater. I was queasy and struggled to upright myself. When I finally did, many minutes later, I saw a clear slick of vomit and pills, half-dissolved, just to my left on the floor. I stared at it, trying to understand what I was seeing.
I’d wanted to die but, apparently, my body didn’t agree with that plan. Not long after, Bond was hunched over Vesper’s body — his blue eyes filled with tears and rage and grief, not sure what was coming next.
I knew exactly how he felt.