Forget the Bootstraps, Part IV

By Margo Pierce

The American myth of individualism tells people who are struggling with addiction, abuse, mental illness or poverty to simply pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. In reality, specially designed services and other kinds of support are essential to the process of transformation. This column is the fourth in an occasional series that will explore what it takes to Forget the Bootstraps in order to live a better life; it focuses on alcoholism and the struggle to overcome addiction.

The first time I remember taking a drink was when I was about 12 or 13 and I got a little glass of Morgan David wine at Thanksgiving to have a toast. And it was the most magical moment I’d ever had in my life. When I took that drink, it hit the back of my throat, it went down and it was like a bomb exploding inside me and it was just this warm rush feeling. What I remember from that—and it seems like it was just yesterday—for the first time in my life I felt OK. I just felt OK. I don’t know another word to describe it. Everything just went whhhhheeeeww.

For the next 11 years I chased that high. That’s all I ever wanted. I always wanted to feel like that, and when I wasn’t doing it I was thinking about it, planning on how I was gonna get it. I don’t know how fast it progressed or anything else, it’s kind of hard to remember.

Michael (not his real name) looks off into the distance as he talks about being a “sober drunk” for 32 years. His voice is even, calm but not devoid of emotion. With smiles and laughter, he describes his childhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, as “typical middle class.”

Alcohol—at least for people like me that I know—sets up this craving… I don’t know how to describe it unless you’ve experienced it. People talk about it as being a lack of willpower. The line about willpower: The line about willpower is, “The next time you have a bad case of diarrhea, just use a little willpower on it and see how far it gets ya.” You’ll end up with a runny leg. It’s just not that simple.

I think it’s critical for anyone dealing with alcoholism that they are entitled to—if I can use that word—be told what their problem is. And I don’t just mean somebody yellin’ and screamin’ at ’em and sayin’ “You’re a drunk and you better sober up.” I’m talking about professional people telling them, “You have alcoholism. This is what it’s doing to you. This is the only solution and this is what we think you ought to do.” And help you starting some kind of plan to get sober.

He says what it takes to get sober is different for each person. He describes the intervention he participated in with his mother. Michael was 10-years sober at the time.

We had mom in the room.  It was me and my brother and two sisters and this professional lady. I knew Mom was in trouble because my little sister had called me and told me what was going on. We were hitting Mom with everything we had and she was like superman—she was deflecting everything.

Finally my little sister said, “Mom, I know you’re drinking a lot of vodka.”

She got real indignant and she looked at her and said, “How can you possibly know that?”

And Tammy (not her real name) said, “Because I see you walk into the bathroom with an empty glass, and then you come out with a full glass but I haven’t heard the faucet run.”

There was dead silence and Mom said, “OK.” And that’s all there was. That’s what got to her. Her finally realizing that, yeah, people know …  if this little 8-year-old kid knows I’m doing it.

Sometimes what helps a drunk is the power of a memory.

There’s different things in my life that kind of stick out. I went into a bar in downtown and I’d been working downtown at the time, went there every day and the barmaid knew us. So she started getting me something to drink … I always drank it in a glass. And I told her, “No, just give it to me in the can.” The reason I wanted it in a can was because I knew I was shaking so bad that it was going to be really, really hard to get that glass to my lips without spillin’.

At this time I had just turned 23. When I was drinking that can I had a flashback, just a moment in time when I was 18 and sitting in this bar. A guy walked in … this guy was probably in his sixties. He just looked disheveled and tired and old. He got this double-double with the beer chaser and he had to put his head all the way down to the bar to get his lips on the drink so he could put it back because he was shaking so bad that if he didn’t he was going to spill it.

Then he did the same thing with the beer chaser and he ordered another one. …And after the second one he just kind of went sssssshhhhheeewwwww and he was OK then, he got a fix.

Sometimes what helps a drunk is the power of stories.

I heard a guy say one time—he lived in a cardboard box in the Bowery of New York, that’s where he ended up. That was his home. And after he sobered up, he lived there for another two years.

I knew him when he was 36 or 37 years sober and he died over 50 years sober. And he said, “A lot of yi’z never made it down in the gutter with me and livin’ in a box. A lot of yi’z picked the gutter up and took it home and put it in your living room for your wives and kids to live in. I din’ hurt nobody livin’ in that box.”

Everybody has moments when we see ourselves for the way we really are—and when he said that I knew exactly what I was. And what it triggered was the thought, “Instead of being so damn full of self-pity and anger about where you’re at, you ought to be a little grateful for where you didn’t end up.”

What every drunk needs is his pain, according to Michael.

What brings people to their knees, for lack of a better term, to a point where they’re able to get some help—if help’s available to them—is they have to reach a point of pain so bad that they want to get out. They have to.  So every time we rescue people—there’s a difference between rescuing and helping—every time we rescue someone from their pain, we’re denying them their pain, we’re denying them the chance to get sober.

And the support of people willing to teach and learn is imperative.

What happened when I called this treatment center—the reason I stayed—was because I found people who knew what my problem was. Not only that they knew what my problem was, they also knew what the solution was. Before I was gonna be able to get better, number one, I had to get detoxed, I had to get off of it and I knew I couldn’t do it on my own. I had been physically addicted for a long time.

I had a guy tell me one time, “If you want to learn how to be sober, you ought to hang around sober people. If you’re trying to learn how to drink, I guess you hang around drinking people.” So that’s what I did. Out of this treatment center was a huge social organization out of all the people who were graduates of this treatment center. We did a lot of stuff together. We learned how to be sober together.

I was basically socially stonewalled from the time I was about 14. I had absolutely no social skills whatsoever. For somebody who thinks alcohol is the best friend they’ve ever had in their life, then all of a sudden it gets stripped away from him, I had nothing to lean on. It was very scary, very scary.

What’s totally useless is ordering alcoholics to “quit drinking so much,” because they simply don’t know how to do that.

I absolutely think you can pull up on all your bootstraps all you want, but until you have a solution to your problem, you’re going to keep doing the same thing you’ve been doing because you don’t know of any other way to do it.

Everything you’re telling him he already knows. He already knows his drinking is a problem—he’s not stupid. He knows that there’s a problem. The problem is that he doesn’t know what the solution is.

Don’t forget a sense of humor….

Want to hear a good drunk joke? A guy walks into work one morning and he’s got his arm all bandaged up and in a sling and his face is all scratched up. His buddy said, “Jesus! What happened to you?” And he said, “Man, I started drinking yesterday and decided to go horseback riding. So I get on this horse and I’m so drunk I can’t sit on him. I fall off, my foot gets caught in the stirrup and he just keeps on going.” And the guys said, “Man, you’re really lucky. How’d you finally get off?” and he said, “My wife came out of K-Mart and unplugged him.”

You gotta be able to laugh, you really do. •