I did not say much to my children about alcohol as they were growing up.
Looking back on it, that choice was no mystery.
Maybe if I had – and if I had done it right – Seamus, my oldest son, would never have felt the need to write this book.
But I was good, highly skilled, at running away from who I was. My daughter and two sons would sometimes see me sloppy, but rarely in the state that my friends and I liked to call “wasted.” Typically, the kids were already in bed on the nights when I’d start drinking and then wouldn’t stop, the nights when I’d think I was the funniest and sharpest guy in the bar and would suddenly be slurring family secrets to total strangers, the nights when I’d turn into a grotesque caricature of myself and wake up in the morning, sick with nausea and diarrhea, the sweat in my hands stinking of alcohol, humiliated at what I remembered ….
If I remembered.
I was a binge drinker, a blackout drinker. I could go weeks without drinking, feeling no need for a drink, which helped me to keep telling myself the big lie: I was not an alcoholic. At worst, I was a “problem drinker,” which to me always meant I was free to keep on drinking. An alcoholic, I told myself, needed to drink, and I didn’t need to drink …. even if it was only while I was drinking that I would feel good about myself, even briefly, even if drinking was the thing that helped me set aside the sense of shame and self-loathing and inadequacy I’d carried since childhood.
My mother had always been terrified by drinking. It blew apart her immigrant family when she was a child. Her father, an alcoholic, abandoned his children when my mom was small. One of her brothers, a combat veteran of World War II who suffered from post-traumatic shock, killed himself when he was drunk. I was the youngest, and fear of my mother’s temper and random violence – she would be waiting, trembling with anger, when you came home late at night – caused me to stay away from alcohol until it seemed as if all my high school friends were getting hammered (they weren’t), and the ones who drank the most had the prettiest girlfriends (not always), and I was a guy with thick glasses and rampant acne who wanted to be a star athlete (this was true) as my older brothers and sister had been, and I wasn’t even close ….
So I became a star drinker. At a party at 16, maybe the second time I ever touched alcohol, I drank until I was crawling around the floor, drank until my friends carried me home and I became unconscious, drank until my parents took me to the hospital and I woke up sick and ashamed, vomiting over the side of a hospital bed ….
And before long, resumed drinking.
No, my kids did not see much of my actual drinking as they grew up. But they grew up with a drinker, and the sickness that went with it. They grew up with a guy who’d sometimes watch them from the couch while leveled by the headaches and sweats and run-to-the-bathroom sickness of hangovers. They grew up with a guy who believed that any good thing in life demanded a reward – rather than the good thing being a reward unto itself – and that the reward was usually getting wasted. They grew up with a drunk, a guy who sometimes went out at night and did things and said things so embarrassing, so humiliating, so dangerous, it is difficult for me to sit and write these words, because I’m forced to remember and accept what I was.
My drinking was symptomatic. It was tied to a screwball childhood, and a brilliant but wounded and abusive mother, and an utter lack of self-esteem, and – absolutely – to depression, to a struggle with anxiety and mental illness. All the things that drove me to be a writer also led to self-hatred, to an inability to find myself amid the whole, forces that all remain in play to this day. They are part of the journey to wherever this all leads, except for one thing:
I stopped drinking.
I stopped drinking in 2005. I remember the night. I had just won a journalism award that meant something to me, and we went out to celebrate, because I needed the reward; once drunk, I could tell myself how cool and great I was. I was in a downtown bar crowded with cops and prosecutors, on a day when they had just won a high-profile conviction. Many were people I liked, people I’d known for years, but up and down the bar were car keys, stacked like little cairns, monuments to hypocrisy as men and women of the law prepared to join men and women of the press in driving home, utterly wasted. Everyone was getting hammered, sloppy, some not so far from blind drunk, an ancient tradition of both professions. I was just getting started. I stood at the bar with a beer in my hand and I thought about the kids waiting for me at home. I thought about the messages we implant, how we say not to drive drunk and then we do, and how people die because of it – either at once, or bit by bit. I thought about friends I knew in childhood, brilliant friends who could have done amazing things but instead died terrible deaths when they were drunk, friends who were exactly like me.
Or my children.
Just like that, like a wall washed down by a flood, it was over.
I was tired of it all. My hangovers had been getting worse. I got drunk, embarrassingly drunk, more quickly than ever. Two fast beers and my speech would start to slur, and my angry wife would need to ask me to leave a party. Standing in that bar, a cascade of revulsion and fatigue swept me up, and I set down the half-finished beer and left. That was it. No more. I turned to friends in the recovery community, and they strengthened the decision while it was fresh, allowing the mold to harden, and I stopped. I was ready. My drinking came to an end.
Just as my son’s was really gaining speed.
I wish now. I wish now. I wish now. I wish now I could do 10,000 things again. I had stopped drinking, but my journey was only beginning. The word ‘recovery’ is cliché, but it is true. You are never truly beyond drinking. You are always recovering, because drinking never truly leaves the alcoholic DNA. I feel it now, like a presence at the table. The only difference is I’m comfortable to make it sit there, starving. It comes from and draws upon our wounds and flaws, and to be without wounds and flaws is to be divine, which none of us are. Which I will never be. I am always in recovery, exposed to what I am, where my greatest risk must also be a strength.
Seamus was struggling. Our connection had always been both unbearably intense and somehow distant, wary circling, understanding each other all too well and thus piling on lies. In the way of so many wide-open, bright and sensitive little kids, Seamus compensated as he began to learn the world by becoming a wiseass, a very good and astute one, and also by becoming far more guarded, qualities that led him to essentially shut us out once he reached the storm years of adolescence. If there is one memory I would call upon for comfort at that time, it was from 1991 or so, when we were living in a battered flat in Syracuse in a student neighborhood. Seamus would wake up at 3 or 4 a.m. He was maybe 11-months-old, and I would put him in one of those little plastic strollers and walk up and down Fellows Avenue in the middle of the night, both of us wide awake, neither of us speaking, the trees whispering around us, my little boy looking from side to side, observing the quiet city ….
Just utterly content.
Years later, the night I realized it had gone over the brink was the night one of his friend’s mothers called the house, trying to cover for him, saying Seamus was a “little drunk” and wanting to know if he could “sleep over.” Here is one lesson for any of you who are parents: If we had agreed, Seamus might be dead. Something told us we needed to go to that house, where the woman and her daughter dragged Seamus to the stoop, where this kid of 15 fell unconscious on the cement and rolled down the steps. Unconscious drunks are a joke in our culture, until it is your son, alabaster skin, lifeless, everything limp, his head slamming each step as he rolls toward the ground.
He spent the night in the hospital, his blood alcohol level – hours after he stopped drinking – right around .30, and the arc that would become this book began. My initial reaction to my son’s excess was to try and be my parents, or more exactly my mother, to punish and shame it out of him, to grind it out of him, to lecture and hector it out of him, to do everything but look at the burning core I should have known and felt, to realize beneath all his noise and anger he was suffering. Suffering relentlessly. It took me awhile, a long time, to get to that place. I was late. By the time I found my way to where he was, everything was at high and terrifying risk.
Thinking back on it, I know my wife and I were half-prepared for the worst kind of call in the middle of the night. Nora, too, had grown up in a family torn apart by alcoholism; for her, there was nothing but scar tissue in reliving all those patterns. We did not know if Seamus could ever come back from his addictions. We had seen people lost, people we loved who never found their way. You are about to read his own brave and painfully honest account of those years, but I can tell you that the day when Seamus, too, grew weary and had enough – the day when he stopped drinking – was not the greatest moment in our lives, because there were many days that he stopped, and it didn’t last.
The greatest day is right now, as it goes on.
– Sean Kirst, January 2017, Syracuse, N.Y.
This is Sean Kirst’s foreword for Seamus Kirst’s memoir, “Shitfaced: Musings of a Former Drunk.” You can purchase ‘Shitfaced: Musings of a Former Drunk’ here. The featured image for this post was taken by Mike Greenlar. See more of his work here.