Monday, March 27, 2006

Another post about alcoholics

When I was a senior in high school, I had to squeeze health class into my schedule. For most people, this meant giving up a semester elective, but I needed my art classes to stay sane, so I skipped AP European History and took a semester of anthropology opposite the semester of health. Fortunately, my friend Becca had likewise procrastinated, so I wasn't alone among the sophomores and juniors.

Now everything was easy, breezy, common sense type shite for me until we got to alcohol and drug use/abuse. I remember having to read a worksheet describing a bunch of different behaviors in regard to drinking and drugs, being required to decide which were "safe" or just "experimental" and which were signs of deeper problems or addiction. I failed on every count. I had no idea what was normal behavior and what wasn't. I wasn't used to not being able to figure out the answers in school. I remember being deeply puzzled by this failure, though I think this confusion about "normal" attitudes towards alcohol and drugs is fairly common among the children of alcoholics.

Our teacher had a recovering alcoholic come to class to talk about his experiences. Listening to him made me want to cry, so instead I squirmed through his talk, trying not to giggle. I'm a big fan of laughing as a substitute for tears, but I felt like a jerk, like he might have thought I was laughing at him. 12 years later, this still bugs me.

I think one of the smartest choices I accidentally made was to avoid contact with drinking and drugs until I did understand the difference between use and abuse. Other than an occasional glass of wine at a family dinner, I didn't touch alcohol until my sophomore year of college. Still under the legal drinking age here in the US, but not by much. Had a minor bout of overdrinking during my junior winter, but blacking out and puking in bushes got pretty old pretty fast. Was back to the mostly sober life during my last year of college.

But even then, after I had gotten my own issues under control, I still had to work out the relationship-with-alcoholics problems. Jay and I were watching Walk the Line the other night. Good movie, really enjoyed it, loved Reese Witherspoon's role. But there's a scene in the movie where Johnny Cash is all fucked up, in withdrawal, moaning about what an awful person he is. And I think this was maybe intended to evoke sympathy, but my reaction was: "Oh shut it. Yeah, you suck. I've seen this before, I know how it ends." But of course, this time, the ending was different... happy, instead of the same old thing all over again.

And the instant anger of my reaction surprised me. Watching the portrayal of a very talented individual fuck up his life with drugs and self-loathing just seemed a little too familiar. In 1996 - not coincidently just before I started smoking and drinking heavily - I met Dave. We worked together, we flirted, we hung out with some of the same people. Because of the "D" plan - the flexible "trimester" system at Dartmouth that allows for multiple terms abroad, internships, ski training, etc. we hadn't really been on campus at the same time before. When we met, I was dating someone else, and he was dating several someone elses. But something just clicked and by the end of the term, we were a couple. (I think that something was the unstoppable force called "charming alcoholic meets child-of-alcoholic with unresolved issues". Or "self-loathing male meets would-be-martyr female". Take your pick.)

We both loved to read, to go to movies, to travel - especially to travel... we always had things to talk about. But more and more often I was finding him at parties drunk off his ass, either groping some other chick or else quietly crying in the corner about how he should just walk off naked into the wilderness and let himself die. (Yeah, so maybe he read too much Literature.) And usually I would gather him up, escort him back to his place or mine, and take care of his sorry ass. We would break up, get back together, break up again. We decided to see other people. I didn't understand that meant "see other people naked", though I caught on pretty quickly. This led up to the Infamous Sugar Packet Conversation one night in West Lebanon, NH. Good god, I wish I could go back in time and smack myself. Hard. Repeatedly.

And it just gets worse. One night I had gone to a party at one of the frats to meet up with him - because he asked me to - and he showed up with SkankyHo (I can't remember her real name). He was drunk off his ass. As was she. Probably a bit high as well. He stopped to give me a kiss, almost knocked me over he was so out of it. Told me that he really wanted to stop seeing SkankyHo, but he couldn't do that to her tonight because it was her birthday, so he'd probably have to fuck her, too.

Oh yeah. I couldn't make this shite up.

God, I'm still pissed off about that. And why? Not because of what he did, but because I still talked to him after that. And because I still did more than just talk to him after that.

We went on to torment each other for another four years, off and on, but distance helped keep the idiocy to a minimum. He moved to Italy for a while, I visited briefly. He was in Massachusetts while I was finishing at Dartmouth. There was talk of engagement. I said no. He moved to Oregon. I visited on a road trip. I TA'd in Lyon. We met up in Paris for a week. I dated a few other people; he fucked a lot of other people. I moved to Arizona. He visited me at the Grand Canyon. Then nothing. I moved to Salt Lake and he vanished. I needed a friend to talk to, and he never returned my calls or my emails. I threw away the stuff he left behind. When he did get in touch, I told him I had thrown away his stuff. Never heard from him again. Hallelujah, praise god.

I still sometimes wonder what happened to him. But somewhere down the line, I realized that it doesn't matter. I'm pretty sure he's still alive. I think he's back on the east coast. Maybe he's gotten over the self-loathing routine. Maybe not. The important thing is that I've gotten over the self-loathing thing.

I look back on that relationship now and just shake my head. Because like that long ago health class worksheet, it was another classic example of my not understanding the differences between "normal" and abusive behavior. I wonder if alcoholics have any understanding of the far-reaching effects their drinking has on their children. I wonder if most children of alcoholics do. Somehow I doubt it.

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