Twenty years ago we dated for nine months or so. From the first, we talked about how neither of us thought we’d be a couple walking hand in hand together into the sunset. But, we said, we had a good time together while until Mr. Right showed up. I was captured by a sunset-walking relationship first, and Mike and I stopped dating. We remained friendly, but not friends.
When we broke off, Mike decided he would resume drinking, even though he called himself an alcoholic and had not had a drink for many years. Mike’s decision to return to his drinking turned him away from me and me away from him.
Now that he’s struggling to regain mental concentration and memory in the ward at Laguna Honda Hospital, we’re seeing each other regularly again. Gay people say that we pick our family. So, I guess twenty years later Mike and I have resumed our family relationship.
After we had stopped dating, we talked on the phone, chatted at church, and exchanged emailed witticisms during the months-long periods he crawled back on to the wagon. But, we did not do things together. We had never been inside each other’s new house. We knew we were not close enough for our relationship to survive the next binging that Mike was certain would come.
His streaks of binging were intense. During those periods, he’d mostly drop from sight and avoid contact: no church, few emails, fewer phone calls. Mike was never a social barroom drinker. He preferred to do his drugs alone in his home. He’d buy Rainier Ale because of the high alcohol content, and he’d cover his floors with empty, but not discarded, cans of that green death. He measured time by trips to the liquor store and the ATM, and the visits of addicts on different drugs.
When we did talk during these periods, Mike would sometimes explain how he wasn’t ready yet to stop. He’d go on about the damage he was causing his body and how he knew he should quit. He’d mention a visit to the doctor who had told Mike that he’d drink himself to death. His liver would give up, and he’d have a certain, sudden toxic end. But, Mike maintained, he just wasn’t able to put the bottle down just now.
I’d listen, and we’d agree that there was nothing that I or anyone else could do until Mike decided he wanted to stop drinking again. During his most recent binge, we’d even arranged for me to drive him to the cure center… once he’d decided he’d stop.
Of course, over the years, he stopped many times, went to sanitariums, enrolled in treatments, and returned to health. He’d start working again. He’d take classes, and he’d sound determined to catch up with life.
After a row of good months, though, Mike always ended his success in an unexpected bottle. His next email or call would confess that some minor event had sent him back to the liquor store. That meant, of course, he was back drinking. He never did one drink or one lost weekend. There was no such thing as a single slip-up. Mike believed in the whole alcoholic catastrophe, and he was determined that there would be no soft landing to his fall.
When binging, instead of notes about playing bridge or learning new software, Mike wrote email about seeing his druggie friends. He complained about how they used him, just wanted his pills, stole from him, and, worst of all, didn’t really care about him. He’d launch tirades, lose himself to alcoholic paranoia, and drink, drink, drink.
This last round started in the Summer of 2004. Lore has it that after many good months of getting back into life, Mike took a trip to Oregon. When he was supposed to come home, his train was delayed (hours, a day?). To console himself about this unfairness, Mike went to a bar or bought a bottle. He was immediately helpless to stop.
In early Fall, Mike told me that he was back boozing, hanging out with the heron addict ex-boyfriend who stole, and was sick and drinking himself to the grave. “I’m feeling bad,” he’d said several times over the next few months. But, it wasn’t time quite yet for him to stop. He’d wait, he said, for a bed in a cheaper facility, a nearer treatment center, or a rehab house that didn’t follow the useless AA philosophy.
When a friend from church and a neighbor in late March together persuaded the police to break in the house and call paramedics to take Mike to General Hospital, Mike couldn’t walk. We think he’d been alone in his house without food for days. There was only chocolate pudding in the refrigerator and nothing in the cabinets. Apparently he’d drunk all the booze and gone through the DT’s by himself, too. The cans of Rainier Ale were all empty (or spilled into the rug), and his prescription Valium bottles were empty.
But, this is reconstructing the scene of the crime. We have no direct evidence of what happened, because Mike does not remember.
For the first few days in San Francisco General, Mike couldn’t track a conversation more than a few seconds. His sister flew in from Texas, and we were all very worried because Mike thought he hospitalized because he was injured in World War II or the Civil War, or else thought he was in a Paris hospital. He thoughtfully complimented the nurses on their English. His physical health was precarious, too. He had IV’s and tests, tests and IV’s. He couldn’t stand, and the doctors weren’t sure what was functioning.
But, with good care, Mike rebounded. He once again escaped the toxic alcoholic end he often predicted for himself. His color returned and skin healed; he looks good.
Damned annoying, this not dying before you’re old.
I was never the danger boy singing along with The Who. I was always hanging back, being The Best Little Boy in the World. But, I had a jealous appreciation for the people who did crazy drugs, crazy cars, and other crazy things. I kicked myself for being too timid to go over the line, either by one toke or one extra bourbon.
While in college, I felt that the truly alive people of my generation we well on their way to dying before they were 30. I wasn’t able to get myself to abandon the safe middle-class respectability. But, I understood the worth in living a hard, fast life. Those who rebelled against what they were supposed to do were helping changing the world. They would burn out, get beaten down by the Man, or crash and burn in some spectacular way. They’d die young, but they die as agents for change if not for revolution.
Even though I’m long past the option of dying before 30, I have guiltily and secretly maintained the romantic ideal of the social rebel, defying norms, and living and dying his own way. The romance of alcoholic artists drinking themselves to death is a variant on this myth that I understand.
The notion of the early rebel death becomes problematical, though, when the victim is way past 30, 40, or even 50. It’s really a problem when there’s disability and not death.
Mike has greatly improved. He’s needs no IV and the physical therapy has almost allowed him to stand and turn around in order to get from his bed to the wheelchair.
Mentally, Mike is is out of the battlefields of France and has his own witty personality back. He’s fun to talk with. But, his concentration is short. He doesn’t remember the first paragraph he just read once he’s into the second. He can remember details of things we did 20 years ago, but thinks his dreams about his long-deceased parents were real talks which occurred just a minute ago. And, he’s a perfect conversation partner for me, because he doesn’t remember a story I told him five minutes ago.
One of my worst moments was when Mike commented about how horrible his drinking had been and how alcohol poisoning could lead to a terrible condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome . I sat on his hospital bed as he correctly detailed the symptoms (permanent damage to motor skills keeping the person from walking, permanent mental confusion, permanent loss of long- and short-term memory, permanent inability to concentrate). No dots were connected.
Mike’s sister, friends, and doctors are all reasonably hopeful that Mike doesn’t have the full-blown syndrome. But, I’m frightened.
I know it’s only been a few weeks since Mike stopped poisoning himself, and he is clearer and more alert. I haven’t really even established a visiting schedule at Laguna Honda (although I do know several times a day when the parking there is well-neigh impossible!). I hope — reasonably, I think — to be able to share this essay with him. It’d be good to hear him rage that I told too much in public or got some facts wrong.
Even if I my hopes for Mike are met, I don’t think I can ever root on The Who’s sentiments again.
The melodramatic drug flame-out is not supposed to lead to a long-term care facility. The sensitive-youth rebel anthem didn’t envision chronic disability. The reckless romantic deaths of my g-g-generation don’t require wheelchairs.
Too many of my friends in their post-30’s and way post-30’s are living as pseudo-rebels in self-awareness-free bourgeois comfort. They push their bodies with too little exercise and sleep while pulling with too many drugs and pounds. They’re fatalistic, and I have had some great conversations about the quality of life being important and not the quantity.
Except, I know where a ward bed in Laguna Honda Hospital fits on my quality-of-life scale.