2 – Tongues of Fire

After a fine weekend in the country sipping sheepishly, I bid Trudi and Claire, our three-year-old daughter, adieu at the Poughkeepsie station and boarded the evening train to Manhattan. In the snack bar car, I ordered a Miller Lite. It was warm, lukewarm. I lit a cigarette and jounced along as tongues of fire caromed off the Hudson River and set the train ablaze. That was Sunday. When I showed up at Smithers on Tuesday, I hadn’t had a drink since that lukewarm beer, a first for me. Beerlessness was something I never did, certainly not deliberately, not if I could help it.

I recall these circumstances as vivid and momentous, yet somehow weightless – a semi-distracted recollection. There I was, just me and my own devices, getting up every morning, going to work, coming home, watching TV, all the while not drinking. With no one around to interact with, no one to marvel or scoff, nothing happened. If I felt transformed or did any deep reflecting or had a revelation of some kind, it’s long forgotten. If a man gets sober in an empty apartment, does it make a noise?

Smithers was a semi-legendary alcoholism treatment center in New York City, part of boozy folklore, a last resort, like Chit Chat Farms in Pennsylvania. It had been established by a wealthy New Yorker, grateful for his sobriety and eager to return the favor. For years, its residential facility had been located in Billy Rose’s mansion on the Upper East Side. I’m told it was very grand, marble everything, but by the time I found myself backing into sobriety the chateau had been sold and the facility moved to a terribly ordinary building near Roosevelt Hospital on the West Side.

My fellow Smithers outpatients represented a motley cross section of alcoholics. The people I remember were the middle-aged, white professionals – a lawyer, a nurse, a bond trader – people like me with middle-class lives in place, for whom sobriety was new and uncomfortable, not exactly what they had planned. Trudi and Rhoda Schroeder were off my back. I was doing something indisputably right that got righter every day. The omnipresent crappy feeling, like my head was an ash pit filled with eels, dissipated. My body stopped resisting. It felt good not to drink.

Coaxing us into early sobriety must not have been easy. We were all willfully clueless, without the wherewithal to cast the net of self-awareness further than eighteen inches. Our primary concerns were superficial and our paranoia boundless. In group, it was easiest to talk about perceived threats to one’s job, because that’s where the last shreds of self-esteem lay. One confounding dilemma, for example: how does one contain the horrible alcoholic truth at the Human Resources level? The boss must never know, not the real circumstances behind your sabbatical.

The nurse was middle management, a supervisor, and so skittish at the prospect of being outted as an alcoholic that her conspiracy theories often held the group hostage. What if one of her colleagues found out and went to her director with the information? What if someone she knew saw her at a meeting or within a hundred feet of a church basement? What if some ‘sober’ person identified themselves as such at the hospital switchboard? On top of these persecution fantasies, she complained bitterly about the fascist overlords of AA, particularly at the special meeting for medical professionals, where the confidentiality of recovering alcoholics was strictly enforced. She would not countenance the idea that everyone at meetings applied the Golden Rule to the issue of personal privacy. The lengths she went to complicate the situation spooked everyone. Encouraging her to lighten up, to consider going to other meetings, any other meetings, became part of our routine. Go. Just go.

Did I go? No. I was still smoking reefer. The nonsense about alcohol being a drug and sobriety being incumbent on abstinence from the entire universe of intoxicants did not apply to me.

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