New Orleans–I walked along the Mississippi last night, having had barbeque followed by a beignet and coffee at Café Du Monde. (Cliché, I know, but there are reasons clichés become clichés.) This is my fourth visit to New Orleans, twice as an active alcoholic, and now twice as a sober man. A few notes:
My first visit was in the early ‘90’s with the Northern New England Social Change Theater, an improv theater group I acted with. Our focus was adult literacy, and we performed all over the country, oftentimes for library organizations—they do, after all, have a vested interest in getting more people to read. Here, we performed for, I believe, the American Library Association’s national convention. Much of my time was spent in the French Quarter drinking, but I do remember running into an old girlfriend in an elevator. Shannon, I’ll call her, had been a sprite when we’d dated 10 years before, and now she’d become a librarian. When she got on the elevator, she told me how much she’d enjoyed our performance, and called me by name. I didn’t recognize her until I looked down at her name tag—she’d gone from a waif-like girlhood to about 250 pounds. If I squinted just right, I could see her inside all that flesh, and I remember wondering what had happened.
If I could have looked honestly inside myself, I might have asked the same question. After all, I’d transformed myself from a moderately heavy drinker into an alcoholic, guided by a need to guarantee access to alcohol. At that point, 15 years before I got sober, I just needed to maintain my supply but, little by slowly, the need to drink would overcome me. I don’t have any great insights here (nor do I there or there or Way Over There), but I am struck how gluttony is not a secret vice, but alcohol abuse can be hidden for a long, long time. Of course, once it flowers, everyone can smell it.
My second trip was in the spring of 1995, with my wife. Without going into great detail, I’d done a lot of damage to our marriage, and this trip away from our, at that time, two small kids, was a chance to save our marriage. (Briefly—because the reader will start to make assumptions—I’d been an absolutely selfish horse’s ass, having developed feelings for another woman. Although I didn’t act on them—at least not fully—I took an A-hole’s route and confessed my feelings to my wife, devastating her. Worse, I then climbed on a high horse of righteousness by telling her I’d been “honest” after all, so she was overreacting. The trip worked for another five years, but I know I planted the seeds of our eventual divorce that spring.)
My third trip was with a friend a couple summers ago. She was coming to town for a convention, and asked me to come along. Her story is not mine to tell, but our trip ended with her sneaking out of our room and spending the night drinking in a bar, celebrating her birthday and coming back at 6 am. I’d always thought of her as a normal drinker, but that kind of stretches the definition of “normal” beyond all recognition.
This trip, I’m visiting Roots of Renewal, a nonprofit that works with formerly incarcerated folks. So far, alcohol hasn’t entered the story, and this morning I gathered with 30 other alcoholics for an hour or so. Think of that meeting as my way of pruning back my alcoholism, so it doesn’t stink up my life again.