With my hand on the wheel and my brain in neutral . . .

Posts tagged ‘drinking’

My Tolerance for Drunks

I’ve been around drunks my whole life, so I’ve always accepted alcohol abuse as just part of human reality.

When I was a child, my Uncle Pete would take me for evening rides in his fast little red motorboat, and just the way he’d talk and play with all of his nephews and nieces made him the favorite uncle.  Like most everyone else in the family he had always been a social drinker, but somewhere around age 30 it took over his life.  He became as close to being a gutter drunk as you can without actually living in the gutter.  Despite my one aunt’s offers for him to live with her, he spent the second half of his life living in a small room that smelled of stale piss above a shitty little bar.  He looked like hell, not much more than skin and skeleton.  It was amazing that any human body could continue to function for so many years under such mistreatment.

Out of high school I did a hitch in the Navy, and no, we did not “drink like sailors”: we drank like 18, 19, 20, 21-year-olds a couple of thousand miles from home.  It wasn’t due to military service itself: compared to the rest of the ship our Division had an inordinately high percentage of young men going through NASAP, the Navy’s Alcohol and Safety Awareness Program.  The memory that comes to mind as I write this is the Halloween night we were drinking mojo (a grain alcohol punch) and somehow “Arturo” wound up on the top of a palm tree throwing coconuts down at the Shore Patrol guys.  Clearly my Navy years were my introduction to first-hand experience with alcohol abuse.  You know how some people laugh and joke about how it’s a wonder that they survived their young adulthood?  Ya, I can relate.  We did some really stupid things, like foot-racing at night rooftop to rooftop.

Since then, from college through what feels like both a blink of the eye and several lifetimes, I’ve had many friends, a lover, workmates, and neighbors who were some kind of alcoholic.  Once you become aware of the patterns, once you see the common denominator, it abruptly gets old and rather distasteful.  And I mean really see it, not just with your eyes or with your head but with your heart.

Also, I have or have had relatives, friends, workmates, and neighbors who have been involved in what has for some time now been so euphemistically called “substance abuse.”  I rankle at that term.  “Substance”?  What are we talking about here, mistreating Formica countertops?  Wasn’t “dope” just as all-inclusive, more accurate and truthful?  Where did the term “substance abuse” come from anyway, Hollywood celebrities’ PR agents, or the Politically Correct police?  (Side note: remember the old line about the difference between a fiddler and a violinist being just the amount of money each was paid?  Isn’t the difference between a substance abuser and an addict / druggie / dopehead just the amount of money he can pay for rehab and lawyers?)

Once, while mediating a “domestic disturbance,” (another term that’s been way too sanitized) I watched a woman stand up, in no hurry walk to the other side of the room, then swing a ceramic picture frame to whack her boyfriend in the head.  He was sitting down, and he turned in time raise his forearm to protect his head, but the ceramic picture frame shattered and exploded all over the place.  To his credit he just remained seated, and he looked at her not with the rising steam of vengeance but more of a look that he was thinking something like, “What?  Are you trying to tell me that maybe our romance is over, that you no longer have tender feelings toward me?”  (Dumbass.)  She yelled, “See what you made me do!”  (She was referring to the shattered picture frame, not her attempt to break his skull.)

Even though I had witnessed the whole event including the many angry words that led up to it, I did not even come close to sharing her opinion about the cause and effect.  Denial is not that river in Egypt, but it is just as strong, just as powerful, and just as sneaky.  The invisible currents will grab you and take you downriver without you knowing it until you suddenly realize that no, uh-oh, you are not heading toward your intended destination, not by a long shot.

Invisible currents?  As you read the preceding few paragraphs your reaction fell toward either end of the spectrum.  You might have thought, “Of course!  A blind man could see the dysfunction there!  What an idiot!”  Or, you might have thought, “That’s nothing!  Let me tell you a story . . .”  I want to address the first perspective.

Once, years ago, while brown-bagging lunch around the conference table with about ten of my office mates, we were chatting about the previous night’s episode of a popular TV crime drama.  It had centered around domestic violence.  One young woman at the table said something like, “Ya, it was a good story, but it’s not like stuff happens that way in real life.”  Half the people at the table dropped their jaws and yanked their heads around to stare at her, but no one said anything.  We traded telling glances, surely all of us thinking some version of the same thing: what a naïve, sheltered, comfortable, easy life she must have.  Maybe she also thought that all homeless people should, could just go get a job.

My point is just because we live in the same part of town, or went to the same college, or even grew up in the same family, doesn’t mean we live in the same reality.  So what is blaringly obvious dysfunction to you and me may not even be noticeable to someone else, especially – no, certainly not – if he’s in the middle of it.  People tell me they can hear my Western Pennsylvania accent, but I can’t.  Long, long ago I intentionally ridded my speech of Pittsburgh-ese words like “youns”, and even though I haven’t lived there for 30 years, some people still peg me as a Western Pennsylvanian from my accent.  I’ve asked them to explain, to describe to me what they hear, and we’ve repeated single words back and forth to each other, but I can’t hear the difference.  Starting points have a lot to do with determining perspective and vision.

What if someone’s starting point is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the naïve woman at the lunch table?  What if that person grew up in an alcoholic but otherwise functioning family?  I am not the first to proclaim that the damage done by alcoholics to their kids carries in to adulthood, years, decades, lifetimes after the children have last laid eyes on their mother or father.  You might read about it in books, you might see something about it on TV, and you might even feel a little morally outraged about it, but damn, when you witness it up close and personal, when it’s in your face, it will make you nauseated.

Alcoholic parents put a permanent stain on their children’s lives.  Sometimes that stain is worn like a tattoo.  The same way I can usually identify former Marines (be careful with that: they’re quick to tell you there’s no such thing as an ex-Marine), I can do the same with adult children of alcoholics.  Sometimes I can spot it pretty early in their acquaintance; sometimes it comes later when a story of theirs comes out, and then, just like when I finally place a semi-familiar face, I hear myself thinking, “I knew that!”

As the poem Heroes and Heroines remind us, we all deserve respect for the struggle of being human.  Solutions to other peoples’ lives seem obvious and correcting changes easy to make, until you take in to account that they are dealing with demons that hide just outside of their consciousness.  Maybe you can point to the demons, but they just can’t see them, they just can’t hear the accent in their own speech.  So how are they supposed to get a hold on them?  I do not admire drunks, but I do give them basic human respect.

This whole big, broad concept of mental health, only a part of which is alcohol abuse and other addictions, does not have an absolute scale.  Well, it does – for medical and legal purposes.  But for social purposes?  It doesn’t take a genius to realize that some people have traveled a long, long road, uphill, just to get to a normie’s starting point (mental health-wise speaking).  And some of them are carrying some mighty heavy baggage.  They might have already put more effort into staying sane than most of us ever will in our entire lives.  They might be surviving (emotionally) on only crumbs of positive response; they might have lived their whole lives on only crumbs of nurturing love.  You don’t know because you can’t know.  So no, I don’t feel morally superior or overly proud of my strong character (or what passes for it.)

These days (these decades, actually) I like my vodka tonics, and I like my gin and juice, and I like my sippin’ whiskey, and I love, love, lo-o-ve my red, red wine (it is truly one of the very few cosmic gifts bottled and available through retail distribution.)  And no doubt about it, after a long day of some kind of muscle work in the heat, a cold beer in the shade is a wonderful thing.  However, I can not remember the last time I drank enough to deserve a hangover.  I have casual drinks all the time, but only every couple of years do I put on more than a buzz.  Even then, it’s more of a surprise (whoops!), and if I’m moving slow the next morning, I’m mad at myself for not living with any more skill and style than I did many, many years ago.

I’ll go a little further with that, too.  If my friends get accidentally drunk more than maybe once a year or so, I don’t want to be around them.  I might as well witness them kicking a puppy dog.

I write all of this as a preface, to make it plain and clear that it is not with ignorance, not without tolerance, but with more than a little heartache and fatigue and maybe even just a little bit of well-earned and healthy fear that I say that these days, I have little to no tolerance for drunks.  Little to none.  The purpose of my life (and remember, a life is made up of a few minutes and then hours and then days and nights strung together) is not to indulge someone else’s blatant self-destruction.  I do not need those waves of negativity rippling into my life.

Easily, I’d rather be surrounded by recovering alcoholics, have no human contact at all except for with recovering alcoholics, than to have to deal with one more drunk inserted into my life.  I’m sorry; I’ve been through this movie before.  I’ve held middle-aged men as they sobbed and snotted up my shirt; I’ve helped my friend to bed the night he thought he was pissing in the snow but was actually just pissing in his pants; I’ve attempted to mediate way, way, way more than my share of unnecessary domestic disturbances.  By the way, y’know, of course non-drinkers occasionally get sick, but when they throw up they don’t get vodka spaghetti strands coming out of their noses.  Alcohol abuse is not pretty.  And all of this is one thing when you’re 25 and a whole ‘nother thing when you’re 50.  I’ve had enough.  Drunks: been there, done that, more than once, more than one way.

So, my new neighbor who has cocktails for breakfast and is mumbling by noon and soon after swaying as he stands . . . I have nothing against you, and I wish you well.  Just don’t talk to me.  Don’t.  Really.  Just don’t.


2014, Mik Hetu, author of Napism.Info (for people who take their naps “religiously”)

Saturday Night

(This one comes from a daydream scratched out on bar napkins while waiting to rendezvous with a friend . . . )

He was different. He? It; you never know out here.

I had just turned away from the bar to put away a call bottle, and when I turned back, he was there. Now lots of guys can slip up to a bar unnoticed, but this one seemed too comfortable too soon. I thought there might be a name for the feeling I had, something like déjà vu.. Strange.

I wiped up in front of him. “Whatchya drinkin’?”

He turned his head deliberately, and he looked at my face before he looked at my eyes. I thought maybe he didn’t understand, ‘cause we get all kinds in here. I motioned tipping a glass into my mouth. “Whatchya drinking’?”

“Everything. Start me with something tall and cold and smooth.”

Everything. Right. A third class jerk amateur? Maybe, but maybe not: he’d delivered the words way too easily to have thought about them much. I poured him something tall and cold and smooth.

The crowd continually lost some and gained others, some going to rest and others coming in post flight. He stayed, and he sat, and he drank. He wasn’t big, and he didn’t look especially athletic, but somehow he still seemed powerful. His face was hard, but his eyes were alert and light over the crowd. I suspected that he was quick. He spoke only to order a drink, and he quit that when I started automatically filling his glass with whatever bottle was next on the rail.

This guy could drink like nothing I’ve ever seen. I got Maggie and Jakk to keep an eye on him too, and it wasn’t often that we’d catch him getting up to walk around the bar for relief. And when he did, his steps were always casual but firm and with steady aim. No sway, no shuffle, no slide. And like I said, he was mixing his poison, too. He was still there after my second break, and he was still counting out his coin precisely. Phenomenal.

I thought about calling attention to him to start some kind of a contest, you know, for business. I didn’t though, and not because he was too quiet: although he just sat there and looked around, he was way too intense.

The customers noticed it also, and most gave him plenty of room, but some slid up next to him to see what he was about. For half of these he’d buy them a drink and then turn away, and for the other half he’d just turn away. Always they would leave him alone. I’ve seen fights and deaths in this joint for absolutely no apparent reason, and this guy was getting away with quietly insulting some of the nastiest looking customers on this side of the galaxy. How? I don’t know.

Just before my shift was finally over, he did fight. Well, sort of. A young and drunken Sarkian came over, and when my customer turned away, the hulking Sarkian gave him a spinning blow to the back of the head. I’ve seen smacks like that knock customers completely over the bar. Not just into the well, but over the whole bar, both sides! My guy just flinched, bent his head way down as if he wanted to look at his own neck, and then pushed his almost empty glass toward my side of the bar. Every set of eyes that saw him take the hit was watching him, and the slimy Sarkian just stood there in disbelief. My guy didn’t even look to aim his backhand. Hardly turning or getting out of his seat, he lashed into his attacker. Sarkian blood speckled the crowd and my new white shirt. With his bony face shattered, the Sarkian balanced himself for a moment before he fell backwards across a table and then slid to the floor. No weapon, one hit, and my guy was done. What planet did he come from?

I poured him a shooter. “On the house. Try not to do that too often, OK? It’s bad for business.”

No real response. He looked at me blankly, as calm as he was before his first drink.

I couldn’t resist. “Hey, Buddy, where you from? What’s your story, what’s your game?” I hoped I was smiling the right kind of smile.

He looked at my face again, and then into my eyes. “You ever heard stories about Death? Maybe you know him as The Grim Reaper?”

I haven’t been scared in a long time, but this guy was more than just a bit spooky. Was I having a bad dream? “Ya, I heard stories.”

Just before he tossed back the shooter, he said, “Well, I’m not him.” He actually smiled, even grinned.

I realized that I had been holding my breath, so I let it go in a chuckle. He chuckled, too, as he pushed the shot glass toward me. I swept it up in my hand and turned to put it in the sink. When I turned back he was gone, leaving behind only a big tip and that same funny feeling I had when he’d first come in.

Ya, he was different.

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