May all my Christmases be alcohol-free
Note: I have touched this up a couple of times since first posting it in December 2018. Today, December 24, 2020, is the latest.
It’s been 35 years but I still wake up on quiet mornings thankful I’m sober. Especially during the holiday season when thoughts of alcohol-fueled disasters come to mind faster than Norman Rockwell.
The smell of stale beer and cigarette butts on wood floors has stuck with me since a trip to a bar in Iowa City, Iowa, where my father moonlighted while working on his master’s at the Writer’s Workshop in the early 1950s.
The odor of alcohol soaked organs has stuck with me since the sixth grade, when a friend of my mother’s, with me in tow, stopped first thing in the morning at the Palace bar in Santa Fe for a tall, icy glass of grapefruit juice and vodka.
My father and the “swinging” San Francisco newspaper crowd I idolized in the early 1960s treated drinking, at least half seriously, as a measure of character. “Never trust a man who doesn’t drink,” they said, half joking. A funny hungover friend once stood in the lobby of New Mexico’s Legislative Council Service, put his hand over his heart, and said, “I regret that I have but one liver to give to my Legislature,” but I’m glad he quit, too. I went to two help meetings and it seemed everyone’s experiences shared a common core: No control.
I’ve always questioned the John Wayne line from “The Searchers,” “Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.” I’ve never been able to agree with Ethan Edwards.
Fortunately, I have had friends. Walking through the side door of the Santa Fe New Mexican, where we began our newspaper careers in the early 1970s, a friend told me, “You’ve got to quit drinking.” Another old friend of more than 40 years has a quiet habit of saying prayers. The only time I remember him telling me this was during my second cancer treatment, but I believe I have felt them all along.
I had been a bad drinker since high school. I quit after a clear-headed moment in 1985, 11 years into my 40-year newspaper career. I wanted to take control.
I loved the camaraderie of the Green Onion in Santa Fe, but there were no meanings in the labels behind the bar. Darkness was no friend either. The dingiest saloon I was ever in — well, maybe not as dim as Budagher’s on I-25 between Santa Fe and Albuquerque — was the White Horse tavern in the West Village. I visited in homage to Dylan Thomas but couldn’t wait to leave.
And this was the least of it. Not yet to the bad behavior part. This wasn’t me. At least not the me I meant to be. My epiphany was that if I was going to live life, I should take it straight.
I didn’t want to teeter any longer on the brink of drunk, being drunk and hungover. Two years after quitting, I sat up in my sleeping one April morning in a red rock alcove above the Escalante River in Utah, a dusting of snow on the ground. It was the right place to be. I boiled water for coffee while still in my bag, flurries of snow continuing in the silent old canyon. I moved on later in the day in sunshine, walking down the middle of the clear river because I could.
At the help meetings, they talked about a power greater than us. I was used to being alone but also felt I had a new companion. I lost my old senses of sadness and fear at sunset. I learned that my friends were funnier sober than drunk.
I can’t say it was easy. I still spend too much time trying to figure out why I am the way I am. Liking myself seems like a shallow goal but I am glad that I continue to come to terms with the loathing.
The beginning of the end was the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in 1984. As I walked through the airport on my way home to New Mexico, hungover and feeling bad about having led a straightened-out friend back down a drunken path, the front page headline in the Chronicle racks was “Jim Fixx dead.”
I’m a walker, not a runner, but the headline hit me hard. colliding with my hangover. With the health icon’s death at 52, I saw my own frailty, my own vulnerability, my own failures. I struggled with my resolve until the next spring, April 1985, when the epiphany came.
Then I took control the only way I knew how. It was all or nothing.