Picture of Sobriety

By Neville Elder 04/25/16

When I sobered up, I tried to make amends for my mistakes. But an old photo from when I was drinking still haunts me to this day. 

Image: 
NEVNNEV.jpg
via Author

Sometimes, when I search for something with the first part of my name "nev" in the file name, I come across an old thumbnail.

It is called: "nev_longisland_12.jpg." I could be looking for tax documents or invoices, chat transcripts or head shots for my LinkedIn profile, and it never fails to stop me in my tracks. Of course I know what it is. It's a photo of me taken by my ex-wife on January 2, 2005, 24 hours before I stopped drinking for good.

I got sober before Facebook arrived and started making our mistakes permanent. Of course I’ve seen other photos from my drinking days, but they don’t seem to have the power of that photo.

Something about the end of my drinking still brings me great shame, and a photo of my old self—not yet completely surrendered—makes me feel incredibly sad. If I looked at the picture of the man I once was, wreaking havoc in the lives of the people around me, I thought, I would be cursed. So I don't open it.

I was chatting with Amanda, a newly sober 29-year-old woman at a party recently. She abused alcohol and drugs repeatedly from the age of 14. She's been sober six months. I was telling her about the photo that haunted my laptop.

"You should look at it!" She says, "Photos are really important for alcoholics."

As a newly sober woman, her photos on social media have become an important reference point. She told me she was scrolling through her Facebook feed recently when she was ambushed by the annoying Facebook feature that republishes a photo from five years ago. In the photo, a "selfie" shot on an iPhone, she stands in a full-length mirror in her bedroom tipping her head back, sneering at the camera. Hand on hip, she shows off her outfit and a bad attitude. She's wearing a red blouse, a black skirt and heels. It's 7:30 a.m. in the morning and she's preparing to go to work. She’s shitfaced.

"This is my work outfit? With these giant heels?!" She laughs.

"At the time I took it, I remember looking at the picture and being proud of it, posting it on Facebook because I thought I was cool. That was my attitude, going into work dressed like this—not because I cared about how I presented myself in my job, but this ‘cool’ was part of a euphoric tip I got from pills and booze. I was trying to maintain a façade that everything was okay. My only interest was drinking and getting fucked up."

Amanda started drinking and using drugs when she was 14. Before that, she said she was a good kid, nice to people and not self-obsessed. But she desperately wanted to fit in with her alcoholic drug-dealer father who treated her as if she were a nuisance. The moment she started using with him, they became closer, and soon he was taking her to nightclubs in New York where he sold drugs.

“It was bad from the start,” she says. “It loosened me up but I blacked out almost immediately and every night for the next 10 to 15 years. I constantly needed friends to look out for me.”

She got away with a lot of her behavior because her father was a well-known fuck-up. Friends would say, "Oh well, she’s her father’s daughter." But she felt ashamed because she was going home every night disappointing people. She became defensive very quickly and tried to defend her bad behavior.

“The photo’s caption is, 'lost touch with reality chic.' I’m amazed I had the presence of mind to write that! It was so true! Somewhere deep down I knew I was done. I’d been up on pills and alcohol all night and I was about to go into work. I got fired that day! I was outraged!”

She laughs at the irony. Yet it still took a while before she quit.

“That picture reminds me of a series of false starts I had after I knew my alcoholism was a serious problem. I lived in the dark. I bottomed out lots of times. I was in the pits of misery.”

It would take her another two years before she stopped drinking. She doesn’t post much on Facebook anymore. In the last year she’s become more private. She says she doesn’t need everyone to see what she’s going through.

“I was coming from a more ego-driven place back then, just showing off. Now I feel the spirit I had when I was 14 coming back. I’m reflective and cautious, thoughtful.”

I got sober before Facebook arrived and started making our mistakes permanent. Of course I’ve seen other photos from my drinking days, but they don’t seem to have the power of that photo. I can’t be certain I’ve never lost a job because of my drinking like Amanda. I was a freelance photographer for many years and I can only assume that if I screwed up a job, I never knew about it. For an overworked photo editor, It would have been easier just to tear my name out of the Rolodex. When Amanda looks at her photo, she makes an instant connection with her shameful termination; perhaps the fear of my portrait is connected to a similar experience that occurred a few days before the end of my drinking.

A few days before the end of 2004, I was assigned to photograph an extremely well-known feminist writer, whose work I happen to admire enormously. I showed up very late to her apartment with a hangover to shoot a photo of her for an article for an English newspaper. I reeked of alcohol and I dithered with my camera, and when she complained about the shoot taking too long, I said something along the lines of…

“Listen, love, I don’t particularly want to be spending my Sunday morning doing this either.”

She shot me an icy look.

“Don’t call me ‘love,’” she said.

I was certain she called my boss, because I never worked for that paper again. For years after our meeting, I would flush with shame and resentment if I saw her byline in a magazine.

The embarrassment was strong enough that it took me nine years to make amends. One day I woke at dawn, rolling in the heat of the memory, choked by my own sheets, and I realized that an apology was the only way I might shake this ghost. I quickly found her email address and I slowly drafted an apology.

“Many years ago,” I began, “I visited your home to take a photograph of you for the xxxx newspaper in London. I arrived hungover and belligerent and I was rude and patronizing. It has weighed on me for many years. I hope you will accept my apology. Best wishes, Neville.”

I pulled the trigger and the email whistled way. I felt my heart leap in my chest. Would she respond? If she didn’t, would it be enough for me that I had tried to apologize? Could I let it go now? With my head swirling with what ifs, I gave my cat an early breakfast and I went back to bed. I was drifting off when my computer pinged, announcing a new message in my inbox. I jumped out of bed. It was her reply.

“Dear Neville,” it said, in an understated 12pt Georgia font. “Thank you for your note. I have absolutely no recollection of our meeting. But please feel free to accept my absolution and have a lovely day. Best xxxxx”

I was elated. I had carried around this surrogate wound for nine years for absolutely no reason. The hurt I had caused was entirely of my own making! This woman probably noted me at the time as nothing more than an annoyance—another brash arrogant man with no respect for her or other people’s time. Such is the ego of the alcoholic.

Shortly after this exchange, I opened the picture nev_longisland_12.jpg. I didn’t like what I saw. It wasn’t horrible or shocking, it was just sad. Myself, overweight and hungover, slumped against the breakfast bar in my ex-wife’s family home, a vague complaint on my face. My hair falls down across my face and my puffy eyes are no more than slits. I looked like I’d been beaten up, though there were no bruises.

I quit the next day. I'd had many more drunks, fiercer and more shameful than that last run over New Year's, but that was it for me. Unlike Amanda’s power pose, the look on my face says only one thing: I'm done.

Neville Elder is a regular contributor to The Fix. He's also a photographer and writer. Originally from the UK, he's lived in the unfashionable end of Brooklyn for 13 years.

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