I was in that ugly little uncomfortable too-bright airport bar right next to security in LaGuardia, on my way back to school in Kansas City, texting my boss so that he wouldn’t call me on the phone and hear the beer in my voice. I had a noon flight, and officially I was not drinking, not because I had to teach that afternoon, which I did, but because I was not drinking at this time, I had in fact been sober for a couple of years. I suppose I was drinking as far as anyone else was concerned, but as far as I was concerned I was two years and a few months sober, and I had to have a few beers before the flight. I ordered another Stella. It was one of those big airport Stellas and I was working on my third. The problem was that, the night before, after the woman I was with was drunk and wouldn’t notice, I had snuck into her kitchen and finished off the bottle of whiskey that she kept in a cabinet above the fridge. I was worried about that bottle of whiskey. I’d planned to replace it, but in the morning I’d walked to the liquor store about a quarter of a mile away and they were still closed, and then I had to get to the airport.
“I’m catching a noon flight. I’ll make our 4pm class. Don’t worry,” I texted.
“I’m just saying, if you’re still in New York, I’ve got it covered,” he wrote back. “Just a second and I’ll call you.”
“No no, I’m about to board,” I lied. I knew my voice was thick, syrupy with beer. “I’ll be there.”
On the plane the flight attendant wouldn’t serve me.
“I’m sorry sir, you appear to be inebriated.”
“It’s my valium,” I explained. “It slows my speech. But really I’m fine.” The woman sitting next to me was rigid with fear and disapproval. She stared into her phone. I felt like saying to her, “What, you’ve never been drunk before?” But I am an old pro at being drunk in public, and I was on my B.B.
When the flight attendant refused to serve me again, I was very polite. I waited until she was moving the cart back into her station, and then hurried to the bathroom. As I passed her I stole two red wines off the cart. I went into the bathroom.
“Sir? Sir?” She was knocking on the bathroom door. I had the wines in my jacket pocket but there was nowhere to hide them.
“Just a moment!” I said. “Almost done!”
“Sir, I must insist you come out of the bathroom immediately.”
I opened both bottles, drank them as quickly as I could, and dropped them into the garbage. I hoped she wouldn’t check the bag.
She was still knocking and demanding I come out. I rinsed my mouth in the sink and looked at myself. I’d spilled red wine on my shirt. It was a dark blue shirt and wasn’t too obvious, I thought. I splashed water onto the shirt and my face. I’d just look wet.
When I came out of the bathroom they had the air marshal waiting for me. He sat me down in back and explained that if I left my seat again they were going to arrest me on landing. I didn’t say a word: this was not my first run in with an air marshal.
I never made it to school to teach that class. I woke up the next day in the hospital, with metal staples in my head. I had very little memory of anything after a taxi ride from the airport. I had a dark, spotty, dream-like recollection of a discussion in an office with airport security in Kansas City, and them helping me into a taxi—and then a Chuy’s in Kansas City, where I was buying people margaritas and there were high spirits and happy shouting. I learned later that I had tried to go in my apartment by struggling with the lock on my neighbors’ door, and when they explained my mistake I was outraged and stormed onto the porch of our building, where I fell down seven or eight stone steps (thus, the staples) and passed out or was knocked unconscious. My neighbors, who had complained to my landlord about my drunken activities around the apartment building before, did not retrieve me from the stairs and pour me into my apartment. They called the cops—they were happy to tell me—who presumably sent the fire department, who presumably took me to the hospital.
I looked around, removed an IV, put on my shoes, found my wallet and phone, and snuck out of the hospital. St. Luke’s Hospital is on the edge of Westport, the bar district in midtown Kansas City, and I walked over there to find a bar that was open. My hangover was crippling, I had a concussion, and I needed some help. Unfortunately, a few hours later, and very thoroughly medicated, I ran into some students who were in the class I’d missed the day before, and though they did help me home they also decided to post the story on Facebook, which had its own series of unfortunate consequences.
I had been sober for two and a half years, and I was telling myself I was still mostly sober. This was September 2011. 2011 was not a good year, relapse-wise.
But my first experience with relapse wasn’t a relapse of my own. This was in Scottsdale, Arizona. I was eleven, and my older brother was eighteen, and I was visiting for my brother’s birthday. Our dad, who was a recovering alcoholic, told my brother that because he was eighteen it was time to get drunk. At this time my brother was already a very successful drug dealer — he smuggled his pot and cocaine up from California, buying from friends he’d made at Shattuck Military Academy in Northfield, Minnesota, and selling to a high school buddy of his who managed a Waterbed Warehouse in Calgary, Alberta — and was known for the parties he threw. He didn’t need our father to introduce him to anything, but our dad was big on traditions, especially male rites of passage, so off we went. At first I was told I’d have to wait in the car but it was a hot September weekend in Arizona and they had pinball machines inside so they let me in. My dad and my brother sat at the bar and my brother drank tequila sunrises and my dad drank iced coffee. But apparently after a bit, the romance of the occasion captured my father and he started drinking with my brother, and about two hours later my brother and I carried our dad to the car. He fell and cut open his chin on the gravel parking lot when we tried to get him into the back of his Audi. He was short but muscular and heavy. I remember the blood coming through his thick brown beard. My brother drove him home.
He sat us down and talked about it at breakfast the next day, and explained that because he was an alcoholic we were probably alcoholics, too. (Actually, my older brother has never had a problem with drinking, but he is a cocaine and crystal fiend.) Our dad explained to us that “there’s a lesson for you in this, boys: no matter how long you’ve been sober, you can still relapse. It’s nothing to be ashamed of: relapse is part of recovery.”
“Relapse is part of recovery”: it’s one of the many standard AA expressions, which when you’re first sober, if you’re like me, you don’t understand at all. I had an addict friend who told me that he’d been relapsing for ten years before he finally got sober. Of course my kneejerk reaction, like everyone else’s, was to think — I didn’t say it — “Hey, you weren’t sober any of that time, you were just drinking in a different way.” Relapse has to be part of recovery, for me, because I have relapsed, and yet remain committed to my recovery. But more importantly, relapse is a part of recovery for me because relapsing has let some of the air out of my addiction. Relapsing allowed me to see how long the process of recovery is, that it’s not an on/off switch, and that it makes sense to say “I am getting better” even if — or even because — I am not yet well, and may never be.
But if we accept the idea that relapse is part of recovery, then we have to admit that what we mean by sober isn’t very clearly defined, there is no oracle of sobriety, there is no one, really, who can tell an addict whether or not she or he is sober. And for those of us who know that our families, our livelihoods, our lives depend on staying sober, whatever that means, not knowing whether or not you’re sober is a terrifying thought. For me, this observation shed new light on the meaning of another well-worn AA chestnut: “One day at a time.” I’m not sober for nine years, or four years, or since my last relapse: I’m only ever sober today. What does it mean to be sober today? That seems to change from day to day, too. Some days being sober for me means just not drinking. Other days it means going a whole day and not wanting a drink, even though I’ve driven past bars and seen people drinking at lunch and watched a movie that night with glamorous people knocking back even more glamorous looking cocktails and wine. Other days it means realizing it’s been days or even weeks since I’ve thought about taking a drink. And then there comes another sober day when all day long I want just one (or maybe two? At most three?) cold golden beers in a dark gentle room lit by signs with good music playing and a kind quiet person behind the bar who doesn’t want to talk but smiles politely and works without hurry.
The second time I learned a little bit about relapse was also not a relapse of mine. There was a kid, I’ll call him Billy, about twenty years younger than me, who got sober the same day I first did, on January 1, 2009. Billy was in rehab when I was in rehab, though we weren’t in rehab together, and then we wound up in the same meeting, and talking a bit after meetings. At this time I was still getting up and leaving meetings every ten minutes or so, often five or six times during a meeting, to “go to the bathroom” and chew up another Ativan. My first thirty days sober — or “sober,” as many would have it — I was on a lot of drugs. In fact I wasn’t totally off “drugs” — by which I mean chemicals prescribed to me by a psychiatrist, as opposed to fish oil, coffee, tea, diet coke and multivitamins — until about nineteen months ago, and I’ll still take 5mg of valium (it was three years of hard, determined work to wean myself off taking the drug every day) if I’m on a bumpy plane flight or a long car or bus drive while someone else is driving. (I spend time in India, and these long, nauseating car drives are common there). But Billy and I became friends; maybe he looked up to me, because I am older, a philosophy professor and drive a nice car and to innocent eyes seemed (more or less, from the outside only) to have my shit together, despite the fact that, truthfully, I was in much worse shape than he was, since he was getting sober in his twenties and I had waited until middle age. Billy and I had the same sponsor, and Billy was working his program much harder than I was.
A year went by, and I was going to a meeting to celebrate my first year of sobriety. I was still taking bucketsful of medication, seeing a psychiatrist every week, and having trouble looking into the future more than a week or so. But I was finally emerging from that sunless, skyless, airless claustrophobia of early sobriety, and I could walk from campus, where I worked, back to my apartment without thinking, today I hang myself. Some days I was not unhappy. I felt like, “Yes, I am sober.” I went to the meeting, got my round of applause, and was walking out of the church when someone called my name. It was Billy.
“Hey, Clancy,” he said. I introduced him to my wife. He was sweeping the church floor, in the main room where we rarely met. I’d been to one or two speaker meetings there.
“Doing some service work? Good for you,” I said. I could see that he was having a bad day. “Everything cool?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” he said. “Well, no, not so much. I got drunk last night. On my one-year anniversary. Can you believe that? Some buddies were going to Tomfooleries” — this was a bar directly opposite the church where we met — “for a friend’s birthday, and they invited me along, and I thought, what the hell, I can have a couple of beers. And I got really drunk. I mean, nothing bad happened” — I remember he looked at my wife, worrying I suppose what she was thinking — “but yeah so here I am, back to square one. But relapse is part of recovery, right? I’m going to another meeting at eight. I think I’ll be thirty meetings in like ten days or less. I’d like to be ninety meetings in thirty days.”
“Can you believe that?” I said to my wife, after we left the church and were walking through the parking garage to our car. “He just threw away a year. He seemed totally okay. I mean, a whole year, down the toilet.”
“Well it’s not like that year is gone,” she said. “He’s already back at a meeting. I mean, he had one night. He got drunk. But he’s getting right back on the wagon.”
“I guess,” I said. I remember feeling disappointed, a bit queasy, self-righteous and judgmental. I didn’t think: if it could happen to him, it can happen to me. I sincerely thought it would never happen to me. I thought: I know that thinking it will never happen to me is almost a way of making sure that it will happen to me, but it just won’t happen to me, this year has been too hard, too pricey, too violent ever to repeat. Maybe part of me thought: it’s not that I’m stronger than he is, it’s that I’m weaker than he is. I couldn’t bear for it to happen to me. It can’t happen to me. But if I’m going to be as honest as possible, I thought that I was better than Billy.
In February of 2011, a little over a year later, I was coming towards the end of my second marriage. I didn’t know that yet. On a work trip to Boston, I had met a woman and, stone-cold sober, telling her “I’m happily married,” I went to bed with her in my hotel room. She came to visit me in Kansas City. We had been taking on the phone all day every day, which, predictably, is how my wife-at-the-time, Rebecca, first found out, and we were sitting at the basement bar in her hotel. She asked me to drink with her. She had asked me to drink with her in the hotel in Boston, and I had asked her never to offer me a drink. Again, I explained my situation, and then we went to a jazz club in Kansas City that opens at midnight and closes when the musicians are done playing, often around sunrise. The whole city was frozen and the streets were covered in ice and the snow was high and the winter sky was black. In the jazz club she suggested “just one” and I said, “You’re right, just one doesn’t hurt.” I ordered a bourbon and soda. I looked at it for a long time as one is supposed to do, and took the first sip expecting an explosion of magic, which wasn’t there at all. Nothing, really. So I downed it quickly and ordered a second, and my date — who would come to hate and fear my drinking, in the grisly suicidal year of relapses ahead — gave me a nervous look. I had three in the next hour, and I decided that was enough. Then around four in the morning we walked through the snow back to my car, and we had another drink in her hotel room, and I got home to Rebecca and our two tiny trusting children around five thirty in the morning. And that was the end of that family and the beginning of my real education about relapsing.
Sitting there in my folding chair with its off-balance leg, I was telling myself (1) I wasn’t going to drink if I could get through the meeting and (2) if I could get through the meeting I could have a drink. It was my turn to speak. With the relief that you will find almost nowhere other than in the company of fellow addicts, I told the truth:
“I got drunk last night. I’m still drunk now.” I wasn’t telling the whole truth just yet. This wasn’t my regular meeting and these people didn’t know my history. “I mean, I first got sober a few years ago, and for the last few months I’ve been relapsing almost every week. This is like my fifth time this month getting a one-day chip. And we’re not even halfway through the month.”
I smiled wanly. A couple of people laughed. Relapse stories are always the most awkward stories in a meeting, just like stories of losing your children are the saddest, and stories of mild physical injury or gross embarrassment get a laugh, and stories of losing your job or going to jail get a grim “been there, done that” series of nods.
“The thing is, I can’t see my kids except with my ex-wife there, because she doesn’t trust me not to drink. So I have to stay sober so that I can see my kids. But I can’t bear to be around her without having a drink. And then if I do see them sober, when I leave, the first thing I want to do is go have a beer. And if I don’t do it, I tell myself, ‘that’s one beer you owe yourself. Tomorrow at five you can have that beer.’ But by five-o-clock today I’ll already know where I’m going to have the beer. And there’s no point waiting, since I know I’ll just have it tomorrow if I don’t have it today.”
Now I was feeling guilty, because I felt like my own logic might be infecting the meeting. But of course I wasn’t telling them anything they hadn’t told themselves many times before they heard it from me.
After the meeting a woman with a cane stopped me and said, “You know I used to relapse a lot. You know what I did? I just started from scratch. Didn’t worry about how long I’d been sober. Now I don’t count my days. I don’t know how long I’ve been sober.”
“Did you relapse after you started from scratch?” I asked her. She was probably seventy years old, and she could have told me she’d been sober for forty years and I wouldn’t have been surprised.
“Sure I did,” she said. “I’m more like, glad about all the sober days. Like every day is a new day. I think sobriety is kind of like a marriage. Just don’t give up on it.”
When my wife Amie was studying in Iowa City in 2012 and 2013, the night before I drove back to Kansas City I’d start telling myself that I wasn’t going to have a drink when I left. For me, that’s the surest sign of treacherous terrain. When I start telling myself I’m not going to have a drink, another part of my brain almost always starts saying, but if I did, this is how and where I might do it. So by the time five-o-clock came around and it was time for me to get on the road, I’d already know which frat bar — where none of her friends would ever drink — I’d stop by on the way out of town, and the two beers I was going to have. I was on to the next lie, of telling myself that I wasn’t going to buy a six-pack for the road when I stopped to fill up the car, and then in the QT telling myself that if I just bought two tall boys instead of a six-pack then I could stretch those until I got home. When she was living in Iowa City and I was back in Kansas City, and commuting back and forth, I rarely stayed sober for more than about a week, but felt like I was heading in the right direction, maybe even almost back on my feet. And I do think it was important to my long term recovery that I didn’t let go of the idea that I was still kind of sober. In my mind I never became a drinker again, and that self-deception was useful, I think.
But whatever had happened the day before on the drive home, the next day, before I taught class, I might go walking to deal with my pre-class nerves, and I might decide to walk by Mike’s, my old bar on Troost. One time I remember very clearly thinking, as I saw the welcoming door stood open on one brisk, pretty October day, “Well, I’m really nervous this afternoon, I don’t know why, I’ll just have one. Or two. I can have two and teach class basically sober, and I’m just so jangly today and I really miss Amie, and then I’ll have to go right back on the wagon anyway because I’m driving to Iowa City Thursday and it takes twenty-four hours to clean out the smell.”
And I did have two and then went to teach class but yes, you guessed it, I went back to Mike’s afterward and got drunk and woke up late the next morning on top of my bed with my shoes on, covered in ketchup and mustard, which is something that happens to me when I black out. I eat at McDonald’s. But I was still determined not to drink, and ready to take it one-day-at-a-time. Then some days the relapse really kicked in, because I started applying the one-at-a-timer relapse logic, the I won’t but I could thinking, that goes from “a drink tomorrow” to “I won’t drink at six” to walking toward Westport, the bar district near my old apartment, thinking “I’m not going to have a drink, but if I change my mind I’ll just sit in the back of Kelly’s where no one will see me, it’s too early for friends of my ex-wife’s” — this mattered because custody of my children was contingent on sobriety — to “I know I’m going to have a pint of Guinness at Kelly’s but I can still change my mind, I still will change my mind” to that pint.
But then it happened less and less. Why? Of course, the usual reasons: most practically, wanting to get the stink of drink off me; naturally, the general desire to be sober, to be honest and trustworthy; self-preservation, happiness, health, inner cleanliness, these sorts of things; sometimes, a meeting, a friend, my sponsor. But truthfully, I can no more say why I sometimes chose to not drink then I can specify how I relapsed, or why I got sober in the first place: I’ve had so many rock-bottoms that selecting one is more or less arbitrary, and, like all of us who have been this shit for a long time, I’ve heard so many varieties of stories from people about how, when and why they stopped “drinking and drugging” — and then, very often, started again, and stopped again, rinse and repeat — that “rock bottom” is another one of those suspect concepts, for me. It’s a good concept as long as it’s helpful. But I can’t yet get to the bottom of the well of why I start or stop drinking.
Many people reading this article will by now have concluded: this guy isn’t sober at all, he’s just on an eight- or nine-year dry drunk. Also possible, of course. I don’t know. For the past three or four years, I no longer think: I’m not going to have a drink. My brain seems to have found other things to obsess over. It’s like I’ve lost the habit of the desire. The sense of being me isn’t so odious, so exhausting, so boring. But as soon as I say that, I knock on wood, and am well aware that it could come back any day, for many different reasons, some of which I may yet discover, and some of which with luck I never will know.
And this brings a point I want to make about why, speaking for me, “relapse is part of recovery”: for me, relapsing has been how I have learned to live with the insecurity of my not-drinking. It used to be that one of the things I could count on was a bar. No matter how much my day sucked, forget whatever kind of filthy surprises had come from my love life or my bank account or my job, sick or well, elated or bitterly depressed, come six-o-clock or five-o-clock or three-o-clock, I had what I came to call my medicine, and it worked. Even after it stopped working it was still there, it was known, it was mine. And at first, when I stopped drinking, I substituted things I could count on, like so many of us do: for me it was McDonald’s ice cream cones, and the peanut butter custard at Foo’s in Brookside. Also, of course, my children, work, exercise, psychiatric drugs, meetings, all these things. But the real lesson wasn’t finding a new kind of security. What relapse taught me was not just that it’s okay to be insecure — please forgive my pontificating — but that insecurity is what my not-drinking depends on.
I don’t know how many relapses I had during the period between my first “real sobriety” — for lack of a better expression — and the sobriety I have now. It depends how you count, of course. For some people, it would make sense to say that I was something approximating sober for a year—that is, I didn’t drink—and then I relapsed for about two and a half years, and then I was sober again, a better more stable sobriety. That is certainly one way to think about it, but the problem with thinking that way, for me, is that it obscures the fact that during those roughly 30 months I was drinking less and less frequently, less and less poisonously when I did drink, and with increasing ease both of admitting that I’d been drinking and stopping drinking. Most importantly for me is the fact that, during those two and a half relapse years, I wanted to drink less and less. I thought about drinking less and less. I went from minutes when I wasn’t really thinking about drinking to hours, then to days and then even longer stretches. And then I would relapse? Yes. And then, suddenly, I wasn’t relapsing.
My last relapse? I suppose I hope I’ve had my last relapse, though it’s a tentative hope, maybe even more of a request than a hope. I am much less afraid of relapsing than I used to be, which, unsurprisingly, makes taking a drink seem less attractive. My four children and Amie, among others, are all counting on me not to drink, and I still practice all of the little tricks that any person wanting to stay away from his drug of choice ought to practice: avoiding triggers, eating well, praying, exercising, writing, trying to be scrupulous about my speech, keeping sparkling water close to hand. That’s not to say I won’t take another drink: as much as I expect I won’t, I also understand I may. I even still sometimes think: well, age sixty-five, maybe age seventy, assuming all goes well, could be I’ll start having the occasional glass of red wine. Or do I think that seriously? It’s hard to say. Buddhists have a concept called “upaya,” usually translated as “skillful means,” and the basic idea is that there are truths which are useful for as long as you need them, and then at a certain point you don’t need those truths anymore, and you move on to other truths which may or may not cohere with the truths you needed before. For me, getting sober was about discovering one set of truths about myself, relapsing was about encountering some new ones, and I don’t know, really, what the truths of me and my addiction are now.
Sometimes I think, you know, one feeling I don’t miss is the feeling of having a drink, and I can’t see why I’d ever go back. Which reminds me of a friend of mine, a jazz critic who came over to my house one New Year’s Eve, back when I was still drinking. I liked this man a lot — he was in his fifties, then, and I was in my late thirties, and I very much admired him — and like any drunk it frustrated me that he would never drink with us, and I nagged him about it. I don’t exactly how long he had been sober, but I remember it was more than twenty-five years, because I remembered when my father hit that milestone and how much it meant to him, and I was impressed to meet someone else who had accomplished the same improbable feat. It was midnight, and we were standing in the kitchen, and I was cajoling him to have a drink. He said, “You know what? Why not,” and he picked up the bottle of wine on the counter. It was a ten-dollar Spanish red with a gaudy label. He looked at it for a few moments, and then he said, “You know what, Clancy? If I’m going to give up all those years not drinking, I’m going to do it for a wine that’s a lot better than this.” Well, I couldn’t argue with that, and we went back to the party.