Inside the Mind of an Alcoholic
Inside the Mind of an Alcoholic
Ann Leary and I met 25 years ago in Boston, before we thought ourselves capable of writing a coherent grocery list, let alone an entire book. We were just getting sober. We each went on to write books—several, in fact—as I move to Los Angeles and "got religion" and Ann got a husband, actor and comic Denis Leary (before he was famous!). Now they have two children and live in rural Connecticut. Happily, Ann and I have remained close friends who can always make each other laugh. We sat down recently to talk about her new novel, The Good House, out today from St. Martin’s Press. It’s set in a small New England town and is told from the point of view of a woman named Hildy Good, who just might have a problem with alcohol.
Heather King: Ann, you and I got sober together in Boston and the North Shore. A small town on the North Shore is the setting for your new novel, which captures the feel of the place, the zeitgeist of old money, flinty and eccentric New Englanders, lobster fishermen—and the repressed emotion, alcoholism, driving the back roads wasted.
Ann Leary: I love New Englanders. I moved to Marblehead from Wisconsin when I was 14 and I have been fascinated by the New England personality ever since. I felt like such an outsider when we moved there. Many of my classmates had lived in Marblehead all their lives. Some were descendants of Marblehead’s earliest settlers. My classmates had a shared history that I envied. I also was very aware of the way this town had its own personality. The neighboring towns had slightly different personalities, each formed by the collective quirkiness of the characters who had founded them and whose descendants still inhabited them.
I want to get to the book, but first, let’s reminisce! Remember when we were getting sober back in ’87 and we’d go down to the old Coast Guard station by the waterfront to meet with the other alkies: three-day-old donuts, sludge coffee, the toilets stopped up, the air blue with smoke—much of it ours.
Leary: The good old “Hair of the Dog” group. That’s where we met, counted days together, got sober. We were instant “besties”! I think we were actually “young people” then. Didn’t we go to some “young people” meetings?
Possibly, though we would have considered them, as we did everything, hideously lame. Then we’d go back to your place, make fun of everyone we’d just seen, defiantly scarf down Haagen Dazs rum raisin, smoke some more, and discuss Denis—he’d be off in Canada or somewhere doing stand-up—and Denis’s many character flaws.
Leary: Meanwhile he’d have paid for the gas that took us around town in my old beat-up Subaru. Do you remember how I had to drive in a permanent slouch so I could see beneath the cracks in the broken windshield? We went to speaking “commitments” all the time. That was such a big part of sobriety in Boston.
Hildy is busy explaining to the reader how normal and successful she is, and how outrageously unjust her daughters’ accusations regarding her alcoholism are.
Then you and Denis went to London with Denis and your water broke on the sidewalk—and you had your son, Jack.
Leary: We went to London for what was supposed to be two days and stayed six months because Jack came early. That was the subject of my memoir An Innocent, A Broad, which I wrote 10 years later and wouldn’t have been able to write at all if not for the fact that you had saved the letters I sent you from the hospital in London. We actually wrote letters then. No cell phones, computers.
It’s a beautiful tribute to sobriety that we both found our way to writing.
Leary: Honestly, nobody who knew us in those Boston days thought we were employable in any way, let alone capable of stringing words together in coherent sentences.
Enough dirt about us. Tell us about Hildy Good, the protagonist in The Good House.
Leary: Hildy’s a townie, a lifelong resident of—surprise!—a fictitious town on Boston’s North Shore. By day, she’s a very successful real-estate broker, good neighbor, mother and grandmother. At night, she drinks alone with her dogs, because her meddlesome daughters had staged an intervention and sent her off to rehab the year before. I hoped that through Hildy’s perspective the reader might gain some understanding of what it’s like to be an alcoholic in denial.
As we both know, there’s a huge disparity between the way we alcoholics saw ourselves when we were drinking and the way we were seen by everybody else. Throughout the book, Hildy is busy explaining to the reader how perfectly normal and even successful she is, and how outrageously unjust her daughters’ accusations regarding her alcoholism are. But my challenge as a writer was to show that while Hildy always judges herself by her intentions—which are usually good—others judge her by her actions, which are sometimes bizarre, because of her drinking. This skewed perspective combined with her frequent blackouts creates quite a lot of confusion for Hildy, and I wanted the reader to experience how terrifying that confusion can be for the alcoholic.
I so admire that you also gave us a middle-aged romance. An honest-to-God emotional and sexual relationship between two fallible, flawed but somehow noble human beings…in their 60s!
Leary: I loved writing about Hildy and Frank’s romance, because in addition to being “seniors,” they’re both classic New England Yankees, so they appear quite cold on the outside, but they are sexy and passionate by nature—especially, of course, when they drink. They have a history together: Frank was Hildy’s first lover when they were teens, so when they reunite, the passion is already there, if dormant. Many people have romantic ideas about their first loves and I wanted to play that out.Hildy resents her daughters and fires her assistant after they stage the intervention. What’s your take on interventions?
Leary: It seems to me that interventions work only if they happen to coincide with an alcoholic’s own waning denial. Otherwise, the alcoholic is often shocked and enraged at what they see as an attack on their character by those they love most.
Somebody once explained it to me like this: Drinking and the accompanying denial are, for the alcoholic, like a warm blanket. Imagine that the alcoholic is on a busy street in the winter, wearing no clothes, but covered by this blanket. If you come along and whip the blanket off, before they are able to find some dignified way to remove it, you leave them terribly exposed, naked and ashamed. The one thing that offered them warmth and protection is gone. I don’t think many people understand how traumatizing an intervention can be for the drinker.
During Hildy’s intervention, she felt like one of the witches tried in Salem. She knew that her accusers were wrong, but there was no way to prove them wrong, as anything she offered as proof was called “denial.” The experience was not enlightening for her, but offered her only shame and a sense of being horribly misunderstood and betrayed.
I love when Hildy wonders, Is it a blackout if nobody sees you? If a tree falls in the woods…It’s also interesting that she ends up spending a lot of time hiding out in the cellar. Very emblematic of the subconscious conflict of the alcoholic and the subterranean life we end up leading.
I took a little hiatus from my recovery a few years back, and of course, the drunkenness and blackouts returned, but so did the denial.
Leary: Hildy drinks alone at home. She keeps her booze in the cellar and, eventually, it’s just easier to move her little “party of one” down there. I wanted to show her descending, literally, into this warm, dark place that drinking brings us where we alcoholics enjoy allowing ourselves to become just drenched in all the primal urges, longings and feelings that we usually suppress. Hildy feels that she is in her most natural state when she’s in her cellar, nestled between the boiler and the hot water heater, the “vital organs” of her house. She feels at one with the house, just as she used to feel a unity with whomever she drank with. It’s a struggle for her, when she’s above ground, sober, to feel that she really belongs.
As you know, I took a little hiatus from my recovery a few years back. I became convinced that I had jumped the gun when I quit drinking all those years ago and that I probably wasn’t a “real” alcoholic. I told myself that if I ever got drunk or had blackouts, I’d just stop again. So I started drinking, and of course, the drunkenness and blackouts returned, almost immediately, but so did the denial.
I was a mother, living in a small community. Denis was traveling much of the time. So I was very secretive about my drinking. I’d have a couple of glasses of wine if I was out with friends and then, home alone, when my kids were in bed, I’d drink an entire bottle by myself. Sometimes, the better part of another. I’d often wake up without remembering going to bed, but because nobody saw how drunk I was, I would tell myself that I wasn’t really drunk at all. Returning to drinking, was, for me, like climbing down Hildy’s cellar steps. It’s quite blissful going down into that warm place again, but it sucks pulling yourself back up those stairs.
That first year of sobriety, when we were inseparable, was one of the best years of my life. And you and Denis have always been incredibly hospitable and generous to me. So thank you, Ann.
Leary: I recall those days as one of my happiest times as well. Everything was so wonderfully new and strange. Who knew you could have so much fun trying not to drink? Now, when are you going to move back to New England where you belong?
Ann Leary is the author of An Innocent, A Broad (Morrow 2004) and the novel Outtakes From a Marriage (Areheart 2008). Her new novel, The Good House, arrives in bookstores today. Leary blogs at annleary.com.
Heather King is the author of three memoirs: Parched (chosen by The Fix as one of its 10 best addiction memoirs), Redeemed, and Shirt of Flame. She lives in Los Angeles and blogs at shirtofflame.blogspot.com