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Staying Clean in the Facebook Age

Alex Porter laments on a past that today’s Facebook-obsessed world won’t allow him to forget.

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By Alex Porter

05/14/11

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The past can be a little like an arcade game, Whac-A-Mole; try as I might to bludgeon it into submission, it keeps popping up and taunting me. For instance, a friend recently jogged my memory of the time I came over to his place and drank so much that I passed out and pissed my pants. Because he was house-sitting—that is, homeless—he had no clean clothes to offer me the next morning except a pair Levi's Movin' On jeans he'd borrowed from his mom. I'm 5'4" and weighed about 100 lbs. at the time, whereas his mom was built like a Dutch milkmaid. But my jeans were saturated with vodka-infused urine, so I was in no position to be fussy about style. It was Thanksgiving and I had to get home for family dinner, and I hitchhiked, suspending the giant pants one hand, sticking out my thumb with the other.

A car pulled over and I climbed in. Behind the wheel was the recreational therapist from the psychiatric hospital where I'd been treated for depression with electroconvulsive therapy. She was a perky young woman who organized bingo games and took groups of heavily medicated patients on outings to shuffle around the mall. She looked me over, pretended to smile and asked. "How's it going?" I answered in the only way a guy bumming a ride wearing oversized women's pants and smelling like a urinal could: "Great!"

This happened 28 years ago, and the friend that reminded me about that night (and other, choice and sordid morsels) I'd long taken for dead or locked up. He'd found me on Facebook.

Typically, Facebook past blasts amount to mild irritants of the "I sat next to you in the Acorn Band woodwinds section in junior high—Remember?" variety. But I'm a recovering alcoholic and addict, so these visits can induce a queasy mix of shame and regret. Everyone's had their youthful transgressions, but not everyone takes self-destruction and self-loathing to the depths that drunks do. The discomfort of hearing from these pals of yesteryear is akin, I imagine, to what a murderer experiences when a victim, long ago weighted with cinder blocks and tossed in a murky pond, suddenly bobs to the surface. Almost any person or event associated with certain periods of my life trigger the thought, "Oh, man. Those times were a nightmare."

Good thing the handy tools of Facebook weren’t available during the height of my abuse or I’d have surely left a trail of unfortunate clips, pics and comments. Generally, I'm uncomfortable with—even downright contemptuous of—the oversharing culture of social media. It’s threatening to someone from a long line of WASPs for whom undersharing is a virtue. We don’t like to, as I heard my mom once say, “take our own pulse," and Facebook is like a live EKG feed. But I tended to be a total blabbermouth when loaded.

In the digital age, memories don’t fade away, their psychic weight diminishing, like they used to. Even without my contributions, there's still enough detritus of the past drifting around the web to get under my skin. It can be tough for a recovering drunk to make his amends, forgive himself and move on. A week after the first guy found me, another old acquaintance dropped a line via Facebook and reminded me of the time I spit in his face. I didn't remember that one at all, but the message dislodged other memories from around that period, such as my recreational huffing of a refrigerant called Genetron 22. Back then, if it got me high, I could care less about adverse effects. But these days, I like to know what goes—or went—into my body, so I Googled it to discover that the stuff not only depletes the ozone, but inhalation can cause “death, confusion, lung irritation, tremors and perhaps coma" (presumably not in that order). I’d like to have sealed that bit of the past way forever, but now I have to have feelings about it; feelings I’d much rather suppress and deny, thanks.

Of course, I don't have to use Facebook. Plus, there are settings to block visitors. And sure, the digital footprint is permanent, but it isn’t exactly deep; records live on, but they’re essentially smothered by wave after wave of new and dirty distraction. Nobody cares that much. And that’s really the crux of it. The impact of my debauched or otherwise unseemly escapades landed mostly on me. If anyone carried around searing resentment against me this long, they surely wouldn’t be reaching out to say hi on Facebook but posting horrible things about me somewhere. Not that I wish for that, mind you, but I suppose I secretly like to believe my reprehensible behavior left a hideous scar on humanity. Enough guilt and self-pity, after all, can fuel an epic bender—or at least justify lying around fetal in the dark for days in my underwear.

Ultimately, these little reminders of my personal havoc are useful. They give me a shot at acknowledging the old, crummy behavior and getting on with what has been for many years now, a clean, mostly sane, life. But back then, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I told myself over and over again that I could drink and take all sorts of drugs without consequence. When I get the odd urge to check out chemically, that insanity is something I don’t want to forget. 

Alex Porter lives in Brooklyn and passes for well-adjusted most of the time.

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