I'm Sober So Where's My Prize?

I'm Sober So Where's My Prize?

By Bill Manville 04/14/15

Fixing the insides.

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“After being AA sober for almost three years, I got fired from a job I loved and had to take a crappy one making 40% less,” reads an email I got from someone I’ll call Ted.“The only pleasure I have left is a drink or two when I leave work. Please don't give me the old AA lecture about speeding up. After three years of sobriety, I've learned control. Maybe you can’t have that first drink and stop. Bill, I can. We‘re not all the same, as AA seems to think. Right now, I need a lift. When I'm making a decent salary again, I’ll skip the bar and go straight home.”

Yes? 

I once heard a 33-year-old industrial chemist describe her daydream about the perfect new car: “A two-door white Chrysler LeBaron convertible, red leather seats, and me, wearing just the right white mini-skirt maybe riding just a little high, a sunny day, Julio Iglesias on the CD…But when I bought it? I hadn't driven ten miles before disappointment set in. The new Chrysler wasn't as big a kick as I had imagined. Next time, I'll get a Lexus!"

You're deluding yourself if you think your drinking will stop when you have more money.

She went on, "It was my sponsor who pointed out this was addiction; when we’re dissatisfied and angry, we don't look inside ourselves for the cause and possible cure. We think what went wrong is 'I didn't get enough of that stuff out there, I need more!"'

My guess, Ted, is that if after three years of AA you think you've "learned control," well—you’re not sober yet. One of AA’s hard-earned bits of wisdom is that resentment will get you drunk. But while your note is filled with resentment of me, of AA, and life in general, you don’t sense it yourself, do you? Is that what your one or two nightly drinks do—blunt that resentment? 

Think of the bet you’re making. On the one side, the mild pleasure of “one or two drinks,” vs. the other side—a fierce and hopeless hell if your alcoholism comes back aroar. You may need a better job, yes—but what you need even more is an awakening of the spirit.

I recently read, Fatal Interview, Nancy Milford's wonderful biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the best-known American poet of her generation. One of the stories is of a bedroom trio Millay conducted with the famous critic, Edmund Wilson and the poet, John Peale Bishop, the two males dividing their attentions to her at the waist. 

The story was recently told again by another biographer, Mark Epstein, who suggests the incident may well have inspired Millay’s famous line, "My candle burns at both ends."  

My friend, Polly S. about whom I wrote a New Years piece for The Fix, liked to say that in her drinking years, she was an Edna St. Vincent Millay figure herself, “only without the talent. I not only burned the candle at both ends, I broke it in half and set fire to all four.” 

Drinking allowed her to act out her sexual fantasies, “but the next morning, guilt and shame would start me drinking again—a not-so-merry-go-round from which AA saved me.”  

Poets notoriously die poor, but at the top of her career, Edna Millay's books sold an amazing 50,000 copies. Adding to that, she also won the Pulitzer Prize. One might well think that with fame, romance, good looks ("supernaturally beautiful" said Edmund Wilson) and all the money she could handle, life for Millay would be rosy and complete…no artificial intoxicants needed  

Instead, Nancy Milford writes that Millay's last poems are "…marked by a sense of overwhelming loss." A longtime devotee to gin, Egyptian cigarettes and "3/8 gr. M.S. (morphine) hypodermically delivered," Edna St. Vincent Millay was found dead at 58, "fallen to the bottom of a flight of stairs at home," her neck broken.

"What addiction teaches us," Polly used to say, "is if you try to fill the hole in your stomach with the wrong stuff—booze, dope, money, fame, fast cars or even getting laid, you can never get enough."    

None of this is to deny the importance of money. If I'm hungry and can't pay the rent, I'm not interested in some Las Vegas crooner singing that the best things in life are free. Money can also take you to Paris for a romantic weekend or fix the toilet by paying for a plumber, but any morning of the week will bring you another Yahoo! bulletin about someone rich and famous checking into their third rehab. 

In San Francisco recently, I saw a Washington Mutual outdoor sign.          

THE ONLY THING BETTER THAN MONEY,

it said, 

Is More Money!

True, if you have the values of an insurance actuary to whom my life and your daughter's death are merely profit and loss. Want to see how close greed is to addiction? Just substitute your favorite chemical pleasure for the word "money" in the billboard slogan above.

Freud's famous formula for a fulfilling life was "love and work." I've been too deluded in love to try to write about it yet—my phrase for myself is "operatically stupid about beautiful women”—but for the rest, I see a distinction between what Freud meant by work and what the world means by labor.  

Labor is a grudging bargain. You rent or lease out your hands and brain by the hour, week or year; the bargain is how much of your life must you sell for how much money. Labor pays the rent, buys gas for the car…but then it's TGIF, and before you know it: Oh, no, not Monday again...

You’d rather be doing something else.

On the other hand, Freud defines work as self-chosen: something so spiritually satisfying that you add your heart and soul to your hands and brain and make yourself whole. The psychiatrist Dr. Gordon Livingston said it more simply: find something to do with your life that makes you forget the clock. 

There are days when I begin working at my computer and the next thing I know, Bev is saying, "Bill, why don't you turn on the light?" Such escape from the narrow thrust of the childish ego into a timeless loss of self is the fulfillment we vainly looked for in booze and dope. The problem for us now in sobriety, Ted, is to find something we care about as passionately. 

"For evil is very likely to begin in the inner world,” writes Martha Nussbaum, “with the struggle of love against infantile egoism and ambivalence, the laborious effort to form patterns of thought and action that defeat narcissism and acknowledge the reality of other people." 

I believe a life of sobriety is the one Ms. Nussbaum so eloquently describes, whereas addiction means the struggle has been lost. This evening, Ted, when you leave your crappy job and head for the bar, remember that the wisdom of millions of drunks accumulated by AA over the years says you're deluding yourself if you think your drinking will stop when you have more money.

Money can do a lot of things. It never kept anyone sober.

Bill Manville is a regular contributor to The Fix, and a novelist and former contributing editor to Cosmopolitan. He last wrote about being a bar-fly and a sober New Years.

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