Welcome to this month’s sober author interview, featuring the amazing Alexis Paige, author of Not a Place on Any Map.
When, what, and where was your last drink?
It was thirteen years ago—Professor Plum in the Billiards Room with a candlestick. I like to play this game of drunkalogue in the form of…a Jeopardy Question, a fortune cookie, a Clue case verdict. (Someday I’ll arrange them all in a hilarious list for McSweeney’s or publish them as a miniature gift book.) Anyway, my last drink: Saturday, February 5th, 2006; Houston, Texas; Jägermeister (almost certain, but it might have been Rumple Minze. More on these abominations later).
I was the solo bartender working the upstairs bar at Ernie’s On Banks, which was a Regal Beagle of sorts for the eclectic Montrose neighborhood, and importantly, only a ten-minute bike ride* from my apartment in South Central Houston. I wish I could say my last drink was something cool—a single malt neat, a rosé Champagne, something a James Bond villainess might sip at a cocktail mixer just before heisting a fortune in jewels. But even a James Bond villainess could not remain cool or sexy as she ducked low and swigged from a bottle of Jäger or schnapps stashed behind a box of powdered Cascade under a sink in a storage room. At the time my reasons for drinking such junk seemed impressively canny and practical: both liquors, digestives, had a high percentage of alcohol by volume (35% and 50%, respectively), and both would not make me smell boozy. Jägermeister, I reasoned, smelled herbal, medicinal; and the peppermint schnapps smelled, well, minty.
I should have been way past minty at this point. I was already way past cool drinking or sexy drinking or even ironic ingestion of booze so uncool it was cool. I was way past everything then—in freefall—29, under felony indictment for drunk driving*, unable to go 24 hours without drinking, unable to control anything after the first sip, having frequent blackouts—with all their accompanying terrors and shame. I had been to jail, once vomited out a truck window in broad daylight on I-10, had had my stomach pumped three or four times, was underemployed and in default on every account in my name, had lost friends, cities, family. I was nearly dead, suicidal, in constant emotional pain, and at utter war with myself. And yet, I couldn’t seem to get myself anywhere but to the next drink, and life seemed to have been like that for so long that I barely remembered any existence other than one in which I was deep under and awash in booze. Adrift.
After last call, the downstairs bartender found me, nearly-unconscious after an apparent face-plant into the bushes out the side door of the bar where I kept my bicycle chained. I have no memory of taking this last drink, no memory of bartending those last few hours before last call, no memory of going down the stairs and out the side door, no idea why I left behind a full cash drawer, no memory of my plans or intentions. I have no memory of being taken home by one of the bar’s regulars who delivered me to my sleepy boyfriend. I found out only later that by then I had become a frenzy of consciousness—kicking and screaming and trying to flee my apartment naked. When I woke up the next morning, I felt the kind of defeat from which you can only put up your hands and surrender yourself. The next morning over the phone from work, my boyfriend said, “You need help.” I think I was relieved someone had finally said it, actually, which somehow made what came next feel, if not easy, then inexorable, settled. I agreed, told him I needed help, professional help, and then I called my brother who lived on the same block. For clarity, my brother did not constitute professional help, but moral support. For professional help, I went to an Intensive Outpatient Treatment program at a hospital for 30 days. My brother came over and held me and cried with me, and helped me pour out the mouthwash that in recent months, I had been drinking round-the-clock. That was it. Ugly, epic, over.
If your sobriety was a mythical beast, what would it look like?
The head of Medusa, the body and plight of Sisyphus.
What is your recovery super power?
Rigorously Ridiculous Honesty? Extreme Empathy? Slightly more pronounced hypochondria? Sleeping, I think, is my recovery super power. I am a champ now, can sleep almost anywhere, and I often sleep through the night.
Describe your crankiest moment in recovery. Please include the word “rabbit” in your answer.
I’m going to side-step this rabbit hole, and instead of giving the specific answer that hypothetically involves a courthouse and someone else’s mother, I’ll give you my everyday answer. My crankiest moments are when the car breaks down or I’m running late, again, or I worry way-too-long over a thing or I take too long to get out of the house and the post office is closed by then. My crankiest moments are when I’m resisting my own tendency to resist. “Life on life’s terms” is a thing we’re supposed to be resigned to, or even celebrate, in recovery, but life on life’s terms is so much sucky bullshit. Why would I bother reading then, or watching movies, or booking trips, or eating too much ice cream, or getting in my car and blasting Dr. Dre’s Chronic 2001 album? I don’t think that mostly-accepting the disease concept of addiction means I that I must now be dour and penitent and cowering. There’s a wonderful Guy Clark song, “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” with a wonderful hero. The reason I love this tune, and movies like Cool Hand Luke, is that there is a hero. The hero must find her own way, must save (or not save) herself, but she decides—on her terms. At the end of the song and just before the hero dies, he says, “Come on, Jack, that son of a bitch is coming,” meaning death. Like him, like Luke, I just don’t want to give that part up, the part of me with some fight. I drank to get in touch with that part of me; I drank sometimes, I think, for permission to be human. So if my alcoholism gave me access to that wildness, then I’d like to think that if I can’t keep the booze, I can at least keep the wildness that I earned and paid for. My crankiest moments are dealing with “life on life’s terms” minutiae—copiers, cars, phone chargers, appointments, paper work. If this makes me sound a little precocious for bona-fide recovery, then viva la diva! Fuck life on life’s terms.
Yes, one more thing.
I think those of us under the broad, misshapen carnival tent of recovery need to give ourselves and each other a break. Some years ago, I read a book about addiction by Dr. Carl Hart, a Columbia neuroscientist who studies addiction in an actual lab. In it, he says that experience with addiction doesn’t give you any special expertise, and that struck me because at that point (with probably around five years sober), I believed I was an expert, my illness my credentials. AA can feed this tendency–whether because of a design flaw or because people running anything bigger than a lemonade stand will fuck it up—can sometimes feel like a narrow echo chamber of rules and pseudoscience and proselytizing. I don’t want to mount an attack on AA; it saved my life. I just think recovering folks would do well to remember that it doesn’t save everybody, nor fix everything. None of us knows what we’re doing. There’s no one right path to or in recovery, and I fear that believing there is makes people not only prescriptive and annoying, but it also makes them remote and not-fully human. I believe in whatever works—whether that’s meditation or exercise or talk therapy or 12-Step groups or medication or harm reduction or complete abstinence or some other thing or many combinations of still other things. The things that keep me on the side of the living; those are the things I want to keep doing. And if they stop working, I want to try other things without guilt or shame. I hope to stay in recovery for a long time, but like life, it’s not a static place. Recovery needs to grow with me as much as I need to grow with it.
Alexis Paige is the author of NOT A PLACE ON ANY MAP, a short-form memoir about trauma and recovery, and winner of the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award. Her work has received Notable mention in Best American Essays, won the New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Paige has an MA in Poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine. She writes, edits, and lives life—on her own dysfunctional terms—in rural Vermont (which is a redundancy), where she lives with her husband and three dogs.