The Dry Drunk
Being a drunk was bad, but quitting on my own was even worse. I lasted two years as a dry drunk before finding AA, not a moment too soon.
A dry drunk can last a long time. I had quit drinking two years before I found the rooms of AA. By the time I had stopped drinking, I was a daily drinker working at a high-end restaurant. They suggested we try the wine, to be more informed for our customers. I doubt their intention was for me to drink many shots of vodka every night, entire bottles of wine, pricey scotch, beer, then do coke in the basement, along with a few glasses of whiskey, before stealing bottles of wine to take home. I think they just wanted us to smell, swirl and sip the wine to get the essence of it. I drank from the moment I woke up to when I passed out. I never had just one glass, shot or pint. It was always to the point of not remembering. I drank to get drunk, always.
I was convinced the world was against me. I suspected everyone. I couldn’t trust anyone.
I've been an actor my whole life. A friend of mine recommended a teacher who had changed her life and he sounded fantastic. I knew that alcohol was getting in the way of experiencing my emotions—the only feelings I was familiar with were anger and depression. I was flat, blank, a walking shell. So to really delve into this class, I quit drinking. The few-and-far-between acting roles I was being offered were those of either a serial killer or a sociopath. And that was all I was capable of performing—the blank, dead, unfeeling character. The other parts of me just felt like they didn’t exist. And I thought, maybe if I quit drinking, I’d instantly be able to access that stuff and, of course, become a superstar—or at least a Broadway sensation.
So I quit drinking and signed up for this mysterious class, held in the basement of a small theater in the East Village. It was based on Strasberg's approach to acting, whatever that meant. Within a day of attending I felt like I was in trouble. Not only was I detoxing on my own, but I still wasn’t able to get to any of the emotions that most everyone in the class seemed to access at the drop of a hat. Those emotions—fear, sadness, longing, tenderness—just didn't exist for me.
My girlfriend and I had been living together for eight years by this point. When I stopped drinking cold turkey, she asked me, "Now what are we gonna do?" She was my drinking buddy, even though every night she was in bed while I was drinking in the living room, alone. At first, we managed. But slowly things started to turn. I'd had episodes of mostly mild paranoia in the past. But eventually, after I quit drinking, I became convinced that she was cheating on me. I would wait for her to go to sleep, then look through her purse for used condoms or phone numbers scrawled on a bar napkin. I would look through her cell phone to see if she had called anyone I didn’t know. I would search through all the trashcans for evidence of her treachery. Much like my drinking, I felt disgusted with myself, but unable to stop. Finding nothing, and thinking she was just being sneaky, I would scroll through hours of porn online.
I was becoming unhinged. I yelled at her for the smallest thing. She'd hung the bathroom towel on the “wrong” hook one time and I went into a tirade. I was miserable, and, technically sober, I was making her miserable for the first time.
I went from not smoking—I had quit for three years—to smoking two packs a day. I was convinced the world was against me. I suspected everyone. “They” were conspiring against me and I was resigned to my lot. I settled on my life of misery. I thought people who were happy were liars. They were putting on the facade of pleasantness, but I knew that we were all rotting inside and that I was the only one who saw the truth.
Then, one day, she told me she was leaving. We had been together for 10 years. I kicked the wall, and broke my foot. She told me that after all this time together, she was scared of me. And that was when I hit bottom, physically sober.
I called a friend of mine from the class and told him I couldn’t be alone, that I had been dumped. He turned out to also be sober, but he went to these "meetings" I had never heard of. Apparently a lot of these actors with ready access to their emotions were in these meetings as well. It also turned out that half of my colleagues at the restaurant where I had been drunk, and then soberly miserable, were sober.
The actor met me for coffee. I whined about my girl for five minutes; he listened intently, then said he had to go to this meeting around the corner and could I keep him company. Hopeless, and thinking he was talking about some acting-related meet, I joined him. There were indeed actors I had worked with over the years in the room—and a couple I'd always hoped to work with.
There's an old joke in the rooms of AA: A man drinks himself to death; at the wake, a man approaches the mother and asks if the dead man had ever tried to stop drinking. "Oh, he was never that bad of a drunk," she says.
I'd felt the same way. Whereas before I'd rather die than ask for help, I was suddenly in a room full of people who claimed to have drunk the way I drank, and who had stopped, just as I had done—but had happy lives. Just like the class, I decided to give it a shot. The man sitting next to me said hello, gave me his phone number, and said he'd be my sponsor. I had no idea what he was talking about, so I said sure. He said we should start working the Steps. The meeting hadn't even started yet, and already I was on a path of recovery. As that first meeting progressed, he nudged me and suggested I say it was day one in AA, because before I had been dry, and today was the first day I would sober.
When I said my name out loud, and said that I was an alcoholic, I cried. I heard people sharing about their deepest, darkest secrets with a lightness I couldn't imagine possessing. And they were all laughing. I kept thinking, "But I have two and a half years sober and all these people with three months seem so much better than me." I decided then and there to get all the help I could get. Fuck my pride; I wanted a life.
As I attended meetings and worked the Steps, and became a part of the fellowship, I started to get more acting jobs. It was as if, by my moving in a positive direction, the world was offering me a bigger life. I started to get parts in plays and TV shows for characters who were not axe murderers or run-of-the-mill psychos. I played men who were happy, full of life and even capable of the same tears I shed at that first meeting.
On my one-year anniversary in AA, I was shocked at the amount of goodwill towards me at my home group—the lasting applause, the hugs, the fact that friends and strangers just seemed thrilled for me. After the meeting, I went to a party at a bowling alley. I went to pick up my shoes, and literally, as I said, "Size 11 please," my phone rang. The director of a TV show was calling. I had just auditioned for him. He offered me the principal role. After years of walking through New York auditions like a zombie, resigned to the endless repetition of rejection punctuated by the occasional small role, I had finally gotten what I had moved to the city for. It felt great. But it still didn't feel as great as that swelling of goodwill at my home group. It felt like gravy.
I don't bring this up to brag, or to suggest that working a program of recovery will bring material success. I mention this because it is my experience, and without the program I am lost. I've really tried to live as an island, and it brought me despair. Through my own willpower I was able to manage the physical aspect of my disease, but the spiritual and mental aspects spiraled out of control.
I'm certain that if that friend hadn't brought me to that meeting, I would have had to drink again, or else killed myself. Instead, I have this life. I may not deserve it, but I'm certainly enjoying it. And the best part is that I can carry that message to the next guy.
John Dee is a pseudonym for an actor in New York. He last wrote about making amends to his dead father.