The Drinking Life

When your soul feels as cold as a frozen burrito in January

I'm fully aware that blaming winter for the daze in which I spent so many wholly unproductive years is something of a cop-out. Alcoholics famously prop up their misery with excuses and justifications of every imaginable kind, and Lord knows I had plenty of them myself. Like a lot of other alcoholics I was slavishly devoted to dysfunction and despair, and I was lonely and self-conscious. I was also--of course, I suppose--drunk and full of shit. Yet, all of these traits were indeed aggravated during the winter months, when the simplest routines of daily life taxed my already depleted stores of ambition. I embraced poverty, purely out of laziness. I seldom had a car, or if I did it wouldn't start. All shopping--never truer than in the careful consideration of liquor options--was reduced to the sad, basic formula of the biggest bang for the buck; a ratio that was unscientific purely out of ignorance, but which in the case of alcohol purchases could be boiled down to a simple enough equation whose only variables were volume, price, and proof. Biggest, cheapest, strongest: the basic math of the desperate and impoverished alcoholic.

It was too much work and bother to schlep my clothes to the laundry, a laziness that went hand in hand with my increasing indifference to hygiene. That's sort of a chicken-and-egg scenario, I suppose. Eating, even, was too much work, and whatever food I did rustle up generally came from a convenience store and involved nothing in the way of preparation beyond opening a bag or a can and possibly, if I was feeling particularly ambitious, shoving something in the microwave oven.

I ate a lot of microwave burritos in those days. They were 59 cents, I remember, and were doubtless loaded with nutrition.

James Dankert

At this point a reasonable person might wonder: Didn't I work? Yes, I suppose I did, although I don't remember much about that, to be honest with you. I did some little something, the littlest possible of somethings. Parking lots, mall retail, a warehouse job. I always did just barely enough, and was always just barely able. If I had a credo, or anything resembling a self-image in those days, it could be boiled down to those words: barely enough and barely able.

And all of it, every single cold day muddled through, was just barely bearable. Mostly now I remember how the wobbling planet that was my brain would spin into six months of permanent darkness, and I'd flood it with a depressive ocean of liquor until it floated at the top of my skull like a black bobber. Nothing really happened. When I moved I was barely moving, inching my way through thick fog, feeling my way by blind memory through a dark house. I'd sit up listening to the hum of the furnace and the wind in the walls. The long nights crept along in a confused, vacuum silence, and the winters passed in a sort of empirical whiteout. I drank myself further and further into a tunnel that went straight down. I drank until my head was gurgling like an old percolator, and in the middle of the night I would feel like I was trapped in a doomed submarine that was slowly taking on water.

You get the idea. I drank and I drank and I drank, as we used to joke in treatment. It's a gloriously romantic life, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.

I used to know a pathetic alcoholic who would stagger around and repeatedly bellow, "Coal miner!" every time he got drunk. It was always amusing theater, and passed for some version of charming tradition in the life I was then leading. As I was generally almost as drunk as this guy was, I wasn't in any condition to recognize that even in his stupor his bogged brain was still somehow, amazingly, capable of stumbling across a perfect metaphor for the shared disaster that was then our lives.

And now, with winter coming on, I have nothing but sympathy for all the sad characters who are girding themselves for the long, drunken belly crawl through the darkness.

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