Batman wasn’t Batman until he said “I am Batman” to a criminal. Up until that defining moment, he was just a guy in a leotard with a cape. Announcing, out loud, who you are is a profound feat of self-actualization. But announcing it to another person is equally important. You are who you say you are, so long as you say it to someone who is listening.
The first person I told I was a writer was my fifth grade teacher who thought that was a splendid idea for a hobby. The first person I told I was a man in love, a man in love with her, informed me that her boyfriend wouldn’t like that very much.
The first person I told I was an alcoholic was the man who served me street meat at three in the morning near my apartment in Queens, New York. He thought it was a good idea.
This perpetually fatigued, fast food-slinging man with a mortician’s charm would serve Styrofoam containers full of inexpensive Halal chicken and rice smothered in creamy and spicy sauces to drunks all night long with stoic efficiency out of a metal cart.
I once stood behind a guy who punctuated his order by calling the man in the cart “Al Qaeda,” as in “Gimme extra peppers, Al Qaeda. More hot sauce, Al Qaeda.” The man in the cart was unflappable, positively emotionless, like a Vulcan. He dutifully served the loathsome baboon without responding.
My nights out would usually end with me standing in front of that cart, marinated in liquor. This man had probably seen me in more states of emotional crisis than my therapist. I frequently showed up to his business strung, wrung and whacked out. Once I vomited in the gutter right by his miniature kitchen. Another time, I ordered a heap of steaming poultry and took a moment to lean back against the nice tree that wasn’t behind me.
Then early one morning, a week into my epic breakup with booze, I walked to the cart to tell him the bloody truth about who I was--man to a man who probably didn’t really care. I had told no one that I had spent nearly 10 years punting on my responsibilities as a grown-ass adult. I was ashamed. I was scared. I really, really, really loved bourbon.
There was no inciting incident, no real flash of clarity for me. I have been tempted to tell people I sobered up because I realized one night that 10,000 feet in the air is no time to be drunk and not know how to pilot a stolen helicopter. But the truth is more… ordinary. A stripper once looked me in the eyes and said, “I met you ten minutes ago and you drink too much.” I’ve been so drunk that hobos have laughed at me. There was also that time I got laid off and stayed drunk for a hilariously hellish six months.
No. I stopped drinking after a particularly obnoxious fight with my girlfriend where I behaved like a cross between Joan Crawford and Hulk Hogan. The fight was about what drunks fight about--Middle Eastern geopolitics, the superiority of the 11th Dr. Who over the 10th, that thing she does with her eyes that’s just so annoying and probably means the fifth drink is a bad idea but chill out, it’s actually the best idea ever. Yet this histrionic episode was special. Apparently, I had elevated raging self-pity to the level of performance art. Who knew? I didn’t, since I had blacked out.
The next day she broke up with me, but did me the favor of writing me a 1,000-word e-mail. Buried between the 496th word and the 500th was the phrase “You are an alcoholic.” And jeepers, she had a point. A good point. I love her for that. But between hearing it and believing it, I had to say it to another pair of ears.
You are who you say you are, and if you don’t say who you are, other people will do you the favor--usually whispering it behind your back. I was John the Mighty Guzzler of Firewater. John, Notorious Roué and Buyer Of Drinks If You Doth Amuse Him. Mostly, I was John, stinky old lush.
Ultimately, I have given up the sauce because I was weak and vulnerable and her desperate candor inspired in me a rare and inexplicable moment of self-awareness. My defenses were down and her brutal words punched me in the guts. Sobriety, like comedy, is all in the timing, I guess.
But I wasn’t an alcoholic until I said it to someone I trusted--before I could tell my mother, or my close friends, or other people wrestling with their own pet demon monkeys.
So I stood before his rickety box full of the sounds of sizzling and chopping. I hadn’t slept in almost 24 hours. He peered out of his window, and said “Chicken and rice?”
“Yes,” I responded.
“White sauce, hot sauce?”
“I’m an alcoholic,” I whispered.
He grunted and thought for a moment and nodded and said, “Drinking makes you stupid.” He emphasized “you.”
I’ve been committed to sobriety since then and, unfortunately, have never summoned the courage to return to his stand. Also, it's not often that I crave chicken at five a.m. these days. . But that night I shoveled the sandwich into my mouth, and gulped it down--mouthfuls of unhappiness, confusion and fear. By then the man had turned to his next customer.
John DeVore is a blogger who lives in Queens, New York. Follow him at twitter.com/johndevore.