This essay appears in my book Welcome to Hell World: Dispatches from the American Dystopia available here. It was originally published on the small bow which is site dedicated to writing about addiction and sobriety and all manner of things I imagine a lot of you will be interested in.
If you appreciate this essay pay for it.
My sister who doesn’t drink anymore wrote a story a few years back about our grandmother all of which was true. Shirley Madden had grown up vacationing in a little lobster town called Round Pond, ME, and she and my grandfather bought a cottage there after they were married. My grandfather died relatively young like most everyone who came before me so I don’t have too many memories of him but when I try to think about him I remember a day when I was sick as a boy. He’d gotten me a can of ginger ale to settle my stomach and I fell asleep on the couch in their old sprawling farmhouse near the fireplace where the crows flew in. I woke to take a sip and the can was filled with ants. It took me a minute to realize what was happening and I spit out as many as I could but it was too late for some of them they were inside me now.
I think my grandfather was the second man she ever loved. She would tell us about the first guy that she didn’t marry sometimes until she was like 80 and she died on a hospital bed in our house near where she’d spent the past decade drinking gin. I think she wondered her whole life how things might have been different. I don’t have a picture of my grandfather on me but I have one of my grandmother and her old boyfriend right here in a little frame she sent me which feels like a sort of betrayal so sorry about that. They’re both holding ukuleles and she’s got a flower in her hair. I don’t think she ever got the chance to travel much but I think she went to California one time and maybe this was it. That was how far she made it.
On the back of the frame there’s a piece of paper attached that she must have cut from Reader’s Digest or something and it reads “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, totally worn out and proclaiming: Wow, what a ride!”
She always sent me horse shit like that, positive affirmation magical thinking type stuff and I never paid attention to it because I never appreciate anyone in my life until they’re gone.
Sometimes I talk to people who’ve lived to a ripe old age the same way you would when someone has just finished a marathon or climbed a mountain. Oh wow that sounds like a lot of work. And then they tell you how hard but rewarding it is and you say how you think you’re going to handle it the same way some day but you know probably you won’t but you say it anyway.
We’d visit Maine in the summers when we were young and I’d go there throughout most of the rest of my life. I haven’t been in years though and my mother and aunt tell me every time I see them how my wife and I simply must go it’s so different now and I say we will but we don’t and I don’t have a particularly good reason for that.
One year they filmed a movie there called “Message In a Bottle” starring Kevin Costner which was very exciting for them you can imagine because they had no stoplights in town and now they had a guy who knew Julia Roberts. My grandmother would encourage my sister for years after that to try writing a message in a bottle with her own kids like they did in the movie but she never did because no one listens to their grandparents until they’re gone.
I remember the first time I was ever scared in my life and it would have been around the time I was drinking the ants. I was at my other grandmother’s house and my cousins and I decided to watch the movie Poltergeist and I remember the sense of dread of everything inside the house coming alive and trying to drag you down into the graveyard below being the most horrifying thing I could imagine. Also the doll. The fucking doll.
I ran outside in a panic afterwards and the door slammed somehow on my foot and gashed it open and left a scar that may or may not be there right now I haven’t even thought to look at it in years it’s so much a part of my body now. That grandmother died relatively young from smoking I think and her husband was dead before I knew any better but apparently he was a real piece of shit so not my problem. Well, it is but you know what I mean. Three of her children including my father all died around age 60 from drinking and drugs and the various shit that accumulates after a life like that. One of her children the successful one we were all proud of died in his pool though so it’s not inevitable this shit will get you there’s also the possibility you could die in a tragic swimming accident. On my stepfather’s side of the family everyone tends to live into their 90s but a lot of them seem to get leukemia so sort of a mixed bag in terms of options were I offered the chance to choose my genes.
Sometimes I talk to my friends and family who’ve had cancer the same way you would when someone has just gotten back from someplace terrible and you don’t ask them too much about it because you’re not sure you want to know. Oh wow what was Hell like?
I have gotten to travel to a handful of countries around the world for writing jobs and the appeal of it in theory is that it breaks you out of your routine. You get to see beautiful new places and experience different cultures and visit museums and geological marvels and all the other things the travel sites advertise and that is true to an extent, but mostly in my experience it’s been a series of chances to drink things I might not normally drink in slightly more exciting settings than I would have otherwise. Maybe that’s because I spent so many years writing about booze and trying to explain to readers what it tastes like and how it makes you feel but you already know. Everywhere is the same place when you’re drinking it’s the place where the drinking is.
Another thing I’d do whenever I’d travel is find a way to keep exercising compulsively no matter what I was missing out on. If I’m not careful I’m going to end up permanently hurting myself I said and then not too long after that I did ruining my back and abdominals to the point where I can’t really do anything but swim now. One thing that’s great for pain is drinking I can tell you that. You feel the ache in your body and you pour a pint of whiskey on it and it goes away until tomorrow.
When my grandmother died we went to Round Pond to spread her ashes out into the water that she loved along the craggy coast. My sister and her kids finally wrote the letter she was waiting for and tossed it into the ocean. Five years later on the anniversary of her death the bottle washed up about 200 miles away in Scituate, MA, where she had lived the rest of her life. Some dude found it and called my sister and we were all like what the fuck and things like that. A few years later on November 9 the same day they found the bottle we discovered an older sister we never knew we had that my grandmother had made my mother give away 40 years earlier because she was too young to have a child. She likes to drink just like me and our parents it turns out. It finds you.
I used to think that drinking and doing drugs was taking me somewhere else. Not in the tripping sense I never did like those sorts of drugs but in the way that it summoned some part of me that lived inside and sent it out into the world to handle the logistics for me. A sort of publicist or travel agent that brought me places I wouldn’t have typically gone and handled the schmoozing. But that doesn’t last for long eventually it does the exact opposite, it sits you in your place. I drink on my back porch at night now alone mostly and my wife sits inside and sometimes she drinks there on the couch and my mother sits in her room watching TV and drinking and my step father sits in the other room drinking and none of us go anywhere.
People love to talk about the plans they have to try something new. My comedian friends often talk about how many people tell them they’ve been thinking about trying standup some time. Music fans are fascinated about life on the road and want to know what it’s like playing shows. People have long told me that they’re going to start going to the gym or they’ve been thinking about getting a tattoo when they see one of mine. Do it I say. Stop thinking about it and do it. In a nicer way than that but still. But people don’t do it. They’re afraid of what they might find out about themselves if they travel from the exact same place where they’re standing right now.
What’s it like over there literally anywhere but here I want to know from anyone who’s ever done anything and maybe I’ll like it or maybe I won’t but as someone who’s written about travelling so many times I know that hearing about it from someone else doesn’t do it justice it’s not real until you’ve gone yourself.
Sometimes I talk to my friends who are sober the same way you would when someone has just gotten back from a vacation to somewhere cool you’ve always wanted to go. Oh wow what was Japan like? And they tell you how great it is and you say you definitely are going to go someday but you know you probably won’t but you say it anyway.