Back when my idea of a cocktail party involved plastic cups and a keg, I earned my rent working the box office at a small comedy theater conveniently located across the street from a pizza joint with a late -- night happy hour.
Like restaurant workers, fledgling theater types are a tightly knit lot who keep late hours. When a show is up and running, work starts in the late afternoon and ends when your 9 -to-5 friends are brushing their teeth. Unwinding usually involves a tavern or a house party or, when the bottles are aligned, both.
One evening, then-Saturday Night Live cast member Chris Farley came by the theater to join the cast for a special late-night set. Afterward, we all went across the street to celebrate, and Farley, a volatile talent with a growing reputation for bawdy behavior, did not disappoint. His liquor of choice was whiskey, and with every shot his jokes and gestures got more outrageous. By last call Farley was drinking from the bottle. My stomach hurt from laughing.
The next workday, while fumbling with the coffeemaker, I ran into the one actor at the theater who was a bit older, engaged to be married, and seemed to make a point of avoiding staff after hours. As she brewed a pot of tea I regaled her with highlights of Farley's drunken monologue. She listened patiently, smiling politely at the punch lines, and then took a sip of tea.
'I can't be around that anymore,' she said quietly.
Over the next several weeks we got to know each other better. I came to learn that she was a recovering addict and alcoholic, and she told me about the rituals she'd begun to beat back the demons: attending midnight films at a nearby campus cinema; going out for leisurely midweek brunches; cooking late-night dinners with her fiance, who was also attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. She told me how much fun she was having, how alive she felt -- for the first time in memory.
Then she told me a story that I recalled while reading 'Out of the Drink' poet Tess Gallagher's essay about her romance with writer Raymond Carver and the 10 years of sobriety at the end of his life -- years marked by moments of debilitating doubt, a heartbreaking separation from his family, and, ultimately, extended bursts of energy and great joy.
When my actress friend first met her fiance, he was drinking so heavily that his sweat glands constantly secreted the smell of alcohol. It didn't matter then, of course, since her senses had been deadened by cocaine use. A few months after both of them went through treatment, they were lying together quietly, and, for the first time, she caught a whiff of her lover's scent. She never wanted to be without it again. When things got bad, it helped keep her clean.
Some 17 million Americans suffer from alcoholism, so it makes sense that stories chronicling the struggle are a fixture in popular entertainment. What is interesting, and often disappointing, is that much of what's available on the subject, whether it be fiction, nonfiction, or memoir, hews to the same narrative arc.
It seems general audiences don't have much patience for the quiet challenges and small rewards of living sober. Those sorts of mundane details can be disposed of in a book's forward or a film's last reel. No, what the tastemakers have decided we most crave is a vicarious ride to rock bottom. We want to visit the crazy parties, riotous run-ins with the law, and death-defying acts of debauchery. If in the end the protagonist flames out young, as Farley did when he overdosed on cocaine and morphine in 1997, it's all the better for the bottom line. After all, what's a best-selling cautionary tale without a tragic ending?
In both Gallagher's piece and 'Hell and Back,' in which New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose chronicles his struggles with post-Katrina depression, what sticks with the reader is not the mechanics of the crash but the delicate business of picking up the pieces. The drama is in the small victories: Carver writing poetry, Rose having the energy to play with his kids, both of them reconnecting with the sights, sounds, and smells of everyday living.
These aren't 'feel-good' stories; they're stories about how people get lost, how much it costs to get back, and why it's worth the toll.