Down and Out in Antarctica
On MLK Day, a sober alcoholic reflects on two very different experiences of doing service—one at the bottom of the world, and another in a church basement.
Eight years ago this month, I was mind-bendingly hungover and miserable, pushing a push broom across a dirty blue-linoleum floor in Antarctica.
I was working as a “dining attendant”—aka a dishwasher—at McMurdo Station, a US scientific research facility on Antarctica’s Ross Island, site of the launch of many heroic expeditions, including Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated trek to the South Pole, and home to the world’s southernmost active volcano, Mt. Erebus.
The island’s other mountain? That would be Mt. Terror, which is precisely the emotion I felt as I pushed my push broom, at the start of yet another 10-hour shift of drudgery. I was on the cusp of getting fired, as a result of coming in late to work five or six times too many, after waking in a panic across “town,” having yet again slept through my alarm because I’d been out too late and gotten too wasted the night before.
I had gone down to “the Ice” the previous August, pretty much just as an excuse to visit the seventh continent, a place I’d always been fascinated with, having read all the greatest hits of polar exploration. My favorite was Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, whose title referred to a stunningly ill-advised midwinter trip across Ross Island, in order to collect penguin eggs.
I proceeded to pull the biggest geographic in the history of geographics. I went down at the beginning of Antarctica’s “spring” season, when the sun rises a little after noon and sets a quarter-hour shy of 2 pm.
At the time, signing my contract with Raytheon Polar Services Company, I’d had no idea how apt the title of Cherry-Garrard’s book would become for me.
Being a writer myself, I’d had dreams—before flying way, way south from Christchurch, New Zealand, to McMurdo—of Spending a Lot of Time Alone, and Getting a Lot of Writing Done. But I was also a heavy drinker, and hadn’t figured on the ways in which my as-yet-unidentified addiction would rear up on me while on the Ice.
In New York my drinking and drug use had begun, shadowishly, to worry me, and I foolishly hoped that this dramatic change of scenery, from smoky, cocaine-fueled all-night bars to pristinely cold, bright-white nights (Antarctica enjoys or endures, depending on your point of view, 24 hours of daylight during its summer season), might help me clear my head.
So I proceeded to pull the biggest geographic in the history of geographics.
I went down at the beginning of Antarctica’s “spring” season, when the sun rises a little after noon and sets a quarter-hour shy of 2 pm. The light, such as there was, was purplish and otherworldly. And the temperature, the day I landed in a ski-equipped C-130 on the snow runway at Pegasus Field, a half-hour out from McMurdo by “Ivan the Terra Bus,” was negative 35 degrees Fahrenheit, with a negative 75-degree wind chill.
At first I was thrilled. There were relatively few people on station, this being the transition time between the winterover skeleton crew and the big summer science season. I made friends, I signed up for a shift at the library and I looked out the porthole windows of a lounge room in Building 155 (the station’s nerve center) onto the craggy, snow-smothered Royal Society Range, beyond the frozen-over McMurdo Sound, and thought to myself, delightedly, “Where in the hell am I?”
But as with all geographics, even one as dramatic as NYC to Antarctica, sooner or later you catch up with yourself, as “they” say. I found my chosen bar on the Ice, a smoke-choked watering hole called Southern Exposure (one of two bars, the other being the non-smoking and far tamer Gallagher’s), and proceeded nightly to drink my weight in cans of Speight’s, a New Zealand beer, and Johnnie Walker Black.
The summer crew arrived, my roommate and I moved to the first-year “party dorm” across town, “Hotel California,” and, when the winterovers departed, I was given the proverbial keys to the weekly Monday-night “Tiki Bar” at Hotel Cal—held on that night because it was the one day of the week that the two town bars weren’t open.
The job also turned on me. What at first seemed fun and surreally novel to this travel-guide editor—washing thousands of dishes and massive pots and pans daily, sweeping and mopping floors for 10 hours a day, six days a week—quickly metamorphosed into crushing drudgery. I chafed under what I felt was unfair and too-corporate management. I had a tremendously bad attitude.
By Thanksgiving I had effectively bottomed out. Back home in New York, my relationship with my girlfriend was in tatters. I began showing up late for work, waking up crashed into my closet, wearing all of my clothes, contorted. I dropped Alka-Seltzer into Nalgene bottles-full of energy drink, took showers on break, chain-smoked in the smoking lounges, trying desperately to get my mind right—but then going right back out at the end of my shift and getting shit-faced yet again. I’d sit at my desk in my room with a bottle of Johnnie Walker and listen to Cat Power and write bleak, lovesick poems. I eyed warily the announcement about the weekly AA meeting on the community-events whiteboard at the entrance to Building 155, and didn’t go.
In January I was fired. I’d known it was coming, but not when. I was pushing my broom one morning when my nemesis, the executive chef, strolled briskly up to me and said, “Come on. They’ve decided to fire you.” We went to the HR office (yes, sadly, Antarctica has an HR office) and they went through the formalities. It was 9 am. They told me to pack my things, because I was scheduled for an 11 am flight back to New Zealand.
Fast forward a year. I was back in New York, and my drinking and drug use had gotten worse. My girlfriend, with whom I had reconciled after returning to the city, had thrown me out. I was sleeping on a blow-up mattress in the living room of my pre-Antarctica apartment, having been taken back in by my kind-hearted bartender roommates. In the morning, reanimating myself for my office job, I would mentally pat myself on the back if all I’d done the night before was drink to the point of passing out, watching Chappelle’s Show on DVD on repeat.
For maybe the first time in my life, I was accepting life on life’s terms, and not kicking back violently at “conditions,” as I had while on the Ice.
I tried to quit on my own and couldn’t. The most I could ever get was two and a half weeks clean and sober, at which point I would find some “special-occasion” excuse to drink and, invariably, use. The special occasions on my calendar began to proliferate. I went to my first AA meeting in December, at which someone bought me a "Big Book" and a “12 & 12,” both of which I would read when I was hungover. One passage in particular in the "12 & 12" struck me, as regards my experience on the Ice:
“We thought ‘conditions’ drove us to drink, and when we tried to correct these conditions and found that we couldn't do so to our entire satisfaction, our drinking went out of hand and we became alcoholics. It never occurred to us that we needed to change ourselves to meet conditions, whatever they were.”
Eventually, after a string of embarrassing, bad-decision nights, I gave up and “came in,” on April 20, 2006. I started going religiously to a couple of AA meetings, one in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan’s West Village, beyond a church yard that had a statue of Mary whose fingers old-timers would rub superstitiously on their way into the meeting, and above which a cherry tree flowered in a riot of pink.
On Mondays this particular group had a beginner’s meeting, a three-speaker panel that talked about topics relevant to early sobriety. They said, “service keeps you sober,” and suggested that newcomers get a service position. So, gamely, I signed up for a coffee commitment, and also pitched in in other ways at the meeting—which was where, a few months into sobriety, I found myself one Monday evening pushing a push broom across a dirty beige-linoleum floor.
The push broom was the same type of wooden, bristled broom I’d glumly wielded in Antarctica. But, unlike how I felt then, broken and miserable at the bottom of the world, here I was in a drab school basement, deliriously happy, sweeping the floors—the humblest of jobs, really—at a meeting I’d grown desperately to love. For maybe the first time in my life, I was accepting life on life’s terms, and not kicking back violently at “conditions,” as I had while on the Ice.
In the nearly seven years since, service in AA has—maybe more than any single other pursuit; more than the 12 Steps, even—truly kept me sober. I think it’s because doing service makes me forget about myself; and when I am in a state of having forgotten about myself, about my little plans and schemes, then I can be relaxed and open and engaged with other human beings—not resentful and bitter because someone has something I don’t, or I feel I’ve been slighted or disrespected in some way.
Service keeps me not only sober, but happy. Some of the best times I’ve had in sobriety have been listening to the whistling of the brewing coffee pot in a cold church basement in Brooklyn, and hanging out with the two other guys on the setup team; calling on what seemed like endless newcomers to share their day counts, as part of a secretary stint at a big meeting; and putting away the brooms and rinsing out the mops, turning off the lights and locking up, before going out into the brisk Manhattan night air alongside other sober men and women, past the worn statue of Mary and the blossoming cherry tree.
Hunter R. Slaton is The Fix's Rehab Review editor. He hopes one day to make it back to the Ice.