Outing Myself To Stay Sober

Outing Myself To Stay Sober

By Paul Carr 08/11/11
Public drunkenness had helped this writer's career as much as it had hurt his life. If he was going to succeed at quitting, there was only one way to make it stick: by telling as many people as he could.
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Every recovering alcoholic I’ve spoken to since I quit drinking almost two years ago has told me about the moment they hit "rock bottom." The moment they knew they had to get help to quit, because they just weren’t capable of doing it themselves. My "rock bottom" moment didn't come when I was chased up a Spanish mountain by knife-weilding drug dealers; it didn't come when I woke up naked in a hotel corridor and had to go down to the lobby and beg for a spare key; it didn't come when I was ejected from my third Las Vegas casino or when I was arrested for the fourth time or when I narrowly avoided a fifth night in the cells when I drunkenly showed up outside an ex-girlfriend's house to—oh boy—apologize for the drunkenness that had caused her to dump me in the first place. Hell, I didn't even acknowledge I had a serious problem when I was given a book deal to write a second memoir about my drunken misadventures.

No, the moment I knew I had to quit was far more mundane than any of that. It was the moment my two best friends, Sarah and Rob, made it clear that they could no longer watch their friend playing dice with death every night made it clear: I had to choose between the booze, or their friendship. Or, more accurately, it was the moment when, not a week after promising that—this time; THIS TIME—I was serious about quitting, I answered my phone at 1 AM to a phone call from Sarah. I was drunk. She knew it. I knew she knew it. She hung up. She gave up.

One of the reasons I’ve always been so good at getting away with things is that I’ve always obeyed the golden rule of the amateur con-artist: know when it’s time to stop. Recognize when you really have reached your last chance; and don’t push it an inch further.

AA wasn’t going to work for me, I knew that. I’d end up going to the meetings and then going for a beer afterwards, knowing that I’d get away with it. If I was going to quit then I had to acknowledge the two things that were keeping me drinking.

The first was ego: I was still acting like a gonzo wannabe and I still hadn’t shaken the idea that "my readers" expected me to drink. The second was opportunity: by only telling a very small number of people that I was quitting, I could still get away with drinking as long as they didn’t find out. Somewhere deep inside my brain, a synapse fired.

I opened up my email account and began to write an message. In the subject line, I wrote three words: "I’m quitting drinking." I clicked BCC and added everyone from my address book: friends, professional contacts; everyone I might possibly run into in the coming weeks and months. My plan was to write an email telling everyone I knew about my decision to quit, and the reasons behind it. I’d ask for their help: if you see me drinking, I’d say, please stop me.

But then I stopped.

Who was I kidding? All I was doing was expanding the list of people I couldn’t drink around. Even if I sent the email, and even if I recruited all of my friends to watch over me, there was still a whole world of strangers out there; a planetful of bars where I’d never get caught. Thanks to my years of creating a persona of drunkenness, there was always the chance that I’d run into someone—particularly in a town as small as San Francisco where it seems like everyone reads my posts on TechCrunch—who would offer to buy me a drink. In my own little world at least, I was famous for my inability to say no.

And that’s when I had the idea that would end up saving my friendship with Sarah and Rob—and probably my life.

The half-finished email was still glaring out from my laptop screen. I read it back and laughed. Even though it was only a few minutes old, it now seemed ridiculously naıve; full of jokes and half-excuses.

My ego simply wouldn’t let me look pathetic in the eyes of even my friends, let alone people I only knew tangentially. Being honest about my inability to stop drinking went against the whole character I had spent years building; the hard-drinking, doesn’t give a fuck, never apologizes, never explains asshole. The asshole who wrote my column for the Guardian, and the asshole who in two months was supposed to file a book on how to be just like him. Robert called him "Drunk Paul," Sarah thought his problems went far deeper than drinking and I...well, I don’t know what I thought.

Apart from this...

That asshole had to die.

It was him or me.

I got up from my chair and walked laps of the room, thinking through the consequences of what I was about to do. Then I lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling. An hour passed; maybe longer. Finally, I managed to summon up the kind of courage that would normally take me a couple of beers and a shot of rum. I closed the email window and opened a fresh browser window. I typed in the address of my blog and clicked the button to write a new entry. It started with a title...

The Trouble With Drink, The Trouble With Me

And then a quote that seemed apt...

"The chief reason for drinking is the desire to behave in a certain way, and to be able to blame it on alcohol’ – Mignon McLaughlin

Then I wrote…

I mulled for a ridiculous amount of time over whether I should post this.

Not because it’s hopelessly self-indulgent—that’s never stopped me before—or because it’s too personal—ditto—but rather because there’s so much weirdness and angst and back-story that I would really need a whole self-indulgent book to tell it all. Lucky I’m writing one, I guess.

Getting straight to the point: a few days ago I decided to stop drinking. Or, rather, I decided to stop properly. Completely. It was actually back in July—during my month-long London visit—that I realized I needed to take a break from the ridiculously Bukowskian cycle I’d got myself (back) into.

And—with a few dramatic exceptions—I was doing ok. But then, as someone pointed out after my last binge, in recent weeks those dramatic exceptions had started to move closer together—to the point where they were inevitably going to collide. Almost-quitting is just not something I’m capable of. It’s all, or it’s nothing.

One complicating factor (in my head at least) is that I’ve forged a career—and a respectable income—from drinking too much, doing idiotic things and writing about them. My last book floated on a sea of booze, and if you were to ask anyone who knows me to give you three keywords about me, drink would certainly be one of them. Barely a week goes past without a PR person trying to bribe me with a bottle of good rum (really, it’s got weird now—and each thinks they’re the first to think of it); and the look of disappointment on people’s faces when I say I’m not drinking is heart-breaking.

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