Katie MacBride | Longreads | April 2018 | 11 minutes (2,641 words)
They found me outside my cubicle, flat on the ground, wearing my winter coat, with my purse slung over my shoulder. I had worked there less than two months. I took the position because, six months after graduating college, I still didn’t have a “real” job, no matter how much I tried to convince myself that sporadic babysitting gigs amounted to what was listed on my resume as “professional nanny.”
The job was in Chicago; before I took it, I was living with my parents in my childhood home in California. I was sleeping in my childhood bedroom, working essentially the same job as I had in high school. My entire existence felt like glaring proof of my failure to become an adult, as if I were trapped in a kind of pre-adulthood purgatory — one I would have done anything to escape. So I took a job I didn’t want, in a city that was cold and unfamiliar and where I knew exactly one person, my sister. With lofty and wildly inaccurate ideas about how fun having me around might be, my sister invited me to live with her until I found a place of my own.
Two months into my time in Chicago, when they found me passed out in front of my cubicle, it wasn’t hard for them to figure out who to call on the way to the hospital. There was still only one number with a Chicago area code in my phone.
I don’t remember any of that, of course. I only remember waking up on a gurney in an emergency room that looked like every other one I’d ever found myself in. There had been a lot of them. Two years earlier, I had spent nearly a month in the hospital, after doctors performed two emergency surgeries on my colon. It was a congenital defect, a sleeper cell in my body since birth, waiting to explode.
Was it happening again? I had been having stomach problems;more specifically, I had been shitting blood. I looked around the fluorescent chaos of the ER for a doctor to whom I could tell my medical woes. What I would not tell a doctor — what wouldn’t even occur to me to mention — is that I’d been drinking a fifth of vodka every day for the past six months.
My mind was filled with gaps — hours, even days that went by without my being able to say where I’d been or what I‘d done. I awoke from blackouts grasping for clues. Two or three concrete pieces of information might emerge to give me a glimpse of my life — a brief movie trailer of my doings — but I didn’t grasp a concrete plot.
I remember being in a parking lot when some men claimed they could fix the bumper of my car — a sagging, defeated thing, abused by a driver who should never have been behind the wheel. They wrapped a chain around the bumper, attached it to their car and drove, pulling my bumper forward behind their car. I remember watching and laughing hysterically in the summer evening air, the bumper groaning and lurching. Then, I remember nothing.
I only remember waking up on a gurney in an emergency room that looked like every other one I’d ever found myself in. There had been a lot of them.
When there were no clues, I had no story — none of my own anyhow. My life belonged to witnesses, unwilling participants who might know the things that I did not. This is the scariest part of being a blackout drinker: not the inability to remember, the fear that someone else does. The worst thing you can do to a blackout drinker is tell them the truth.
A police officer sat in a chair at the end of the gurney.
“What the hell!” I slurred.
My sister appeared next to the officer. I didn’t know who’d called her or how long she’d been there. That wasn’t unusual. After a while, you stop being surprised by the unexpected.
“You need to chill out,” my sister said. The weary look on her face barely masked the rage within. I couldn’t blame her. I wasn’t a huge fan of myself, either.
The officer barely raised his head.
She told me I had been so drunk I’d been trying to yank the IVs out of my arms and had needed to be sedated.
“What?!” I cried, as though the allegation of my intoxication was outrageous.
The righteous indignation was automatic. It was a reflex — someone suggests you’re drunk, you lie with the passionate abandon of a politician trying to save his career. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but if you stick to the story, no one can prove you’re lying.
“They did a blood test.”
Unless that happens. Then they can prove you’re lying.
A doctor appeared, looking at a clipboard.
“Not many people survive a .4 BAC,” he told me dispassionately. “You’re lucky.”
The results of a blood alcohol test. A box cutter stolen from work. A suicide note I vaguely remembered writing on a Post-it just in case I ever needed it. These things told a story far more convincing than even my best lies.
Everyone who spoke to me in the hospital was either certain I had been trying to kill myself or certain I was making a desperate, pathetic cry for attention. I could not tell them which of these things was accurate because I did not myself know. Now, over 10 years later, I still don’t.
“You can go into the psych ward voluntarily or involuntarily,” my sister said. “But if you go voluntarily, it’s easier to get out.”
In the psych ward, the nurses ignored my protestations because nurses are very good at their jobs. Few occupations demand a more refined bullshit detector.
“There’s been a mistake!” I told the first nurse I encountered. “I don’t belong here.”
She looked away. Officer Bob handed her my paperwork.
I didn’t end up in the psych ward by mistake.
“Any strings, laces, sharp objects?” the nurse asked. I shook my head. She pointed to the waist of my sweatpants. I undid the knot and pulled the string out, rolling the top of the pants over so they wouldn’t fall down. I handed it to her. “Janet* here will show you where to go.” The intake nurse gave the orderly a look.
“Janet,” I said, like we were old friends. “Here’s the thing.” I struggled to keep up as Janet moved quickly down the hall. The laceless sweatpants slipped perilously around my hips so I held onto the waistband as I shuffled after her. “I get that I messed up,” I said. “I just don’t think I need to be here.” She made no indication she’d heard me, striding briskly ahead.
This is the scariest part of being a blackout drinker: not the inability to remember, the fear that someone else does.
My roommate, Linda, was more willing to chat. She was a few years older than I was and looked like a classic midwestern girl, brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, bright friendly smile, athletic build.
“Sometimes I drink too much,” I said, in an attempt at the sort of concession I would need to establish credibility here. “I should probably just go to AA or something.”
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I left out the part where I had already been going to AA meetings — a promise I made to various family members as the threads holding my life together began to unravel. Before the meetings started, I hid in the bathroom and drank. I don’t know why people bitch about going to AA meetings, I had thought, stashing my empty pint of vodka under brown paper towels in the trash can, these meetings are fun. And they were. People told funny drinking stories, and if you left early everyone just assumed you were going outside to smoke. Easy. Just don’t talk, and never go to the same meeting twice.
“Totally,” said Linda. “I was in the Program for years.”
The previous week was supposed to be the best week of my life. I had been visiting my boyfriend, Joe, at his home in Montana. We were making plans for him to move in with me, to move to the new, uncomfortable city in which I was living, the city I blamed for giving me a life I despised. I was 23, and I believed that loving Joe could fix me, could force me to be the kind of person who didn’t end up in the hospital, shitting vodka and blood and feigning ignorance about why.
Joe and I had met the summer after I turned 18. We worked at a summer camp in Yosemite and spent our days off swimming in pools at the base of waterfalls, smoking pot, and driving around listening to Graceland in his powder-blue Honda.
It would have stayed a sweet summer romance had he not shown up in my home city of San Francisco five years later. When he did, it felt like fate. Everything was the same, except this time my hands shook and my face was perpetually puffy. These were explained away using the same lies I told myself — I was on a new medication for my stomach issues; these were just the side effects — lies I invented out of thin air before convincing myself of their truth.
When Joe fell back into my life, and I fell back in love, I had already accepted the job in Chicago. We were both leaving San Francisco in a few weeks, him for Montana, me for Chicago. The unlikeliness of a relationship working with such geographic challenges seemed like nothing compared to the odds of finding each other in San Francisco and falling in love again. It felt like movie love. Movie love convinces you anything is possible — that any challenges are merely a cross to bear for getting so lucky. Movie love tells you it’s the only thing you need. We began making plans for him to move to Chicago and in with me.
I drank. I lied. I lied and I drank and when my lies began to fall apart I doubled down, trying to convince Joe he was wrong for seeing through my bullshit.
Great literature often reminds us that we don’t get to choose who or what we fall in love with, and I loved Joe and booze in the opposite order. I wanted Joe but he was not necessary to live. Alcohol was.
Joe wasn’t much of a drinker. I told him I wasn’t much of one, either. This is the kind of lie only a long distance relationship can maintain. A few weeks before I was set to visit Joe, I began an effort to turn myself into the occasional drinker I’d made myself out to be. I tried not to drink so much in the morning and afternoon, waiting until evening to really get started. I began working with a personal trainer — something my fancy new job encouraged — ignoring the trainer’s comments about how I smelled like booze, even thought it was a Tuesday morning. “Big night last night?” he’d ask with a wink, probably picturing me out late with coworkers, friends, guys. I shrugged. What could I say? No, I was drinking alone in my sister’s guest room. I drank until I passed out and when I woke up, I started drinking again. I am afraid if I stop drinking, the pain will kill me. I am drinking to stay alive.
The night before I left for Montana, I labored over the decision about whether or not I should pack a bottle of vodka in my suitcase. What if he finds it, what if he doesn’t have enough alcohol, what if he finds it, what if he doesn’t have enough alcohol, what if he doesn’t have enough alcohol, what if he doesn’t have enough alcohol …
I didn’t bring any booze with me to Montana. I told myself I wouldn’t need to drink when I was there. Everything would be perfect; there would be no need. The only thing that wasn’t perfect was how badly I needed to drink.
I don’t remember everything that happened that week, but there is one moment that’s firmly etched in my memory. We had just arrived at Joe’s house from the airport. His bedroom was on the lower level of the house. I walked down the stairs first, with Joe dragging my suitcase behind me. At the bottom of the stairs was a hallway and at the end of the hallway, there was a bar, and on the bar was a bottle of Jim Beam. It was almost full. Only the neck was gone. Relief coursed through my body as though I had just unscrewed the cap and swallowed the liquid down. It’s going to be okay, I thought. I’m going to be fine.
It wasn’t okay, and I wasn’t fine.
The story of how I ruined the week — and the relationship — is spectacularly ordinary. I drank. I lied. I lied and I drank and when my lies began to fall apart I doubled down, trying to convince Joe he was wrong for seeing through my bullshit.
It’s impossible to say what the bigger betrayal was — the lies I told about drinking or the drinking itself. At some point, they become one and the same. Each dependent on the other for survival.
To drink, you must lie. If you are lying, it’s either about drinking or because you were drinking. Horse and carriage.
The day after my arrival in the psych ward, Tim checked in, after having mixed alcohol and ecstasy and ending up on the same borderline suicidal bus I rode in on. He and I became fast friends, spending hours convincing each other of our sanity. I sat next to him in art therapy, where I asked him to use his art skills to draw walnuts on the small, wooden box I was painting.
“A nut box made in the nut box,” I said, and we laughed.
Later, we were sitting together in the common area when we heard one of the long-term patients ranting. She was sitting on a nearby chair, wearing the hospital gown she never took off, with both hands clapped over her ears.
“SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP!”
I looked at Tim, annoyed. “If we’re bothering her so much, why doesn’t she just sit somewhere else?” I whispered.
“I don’t think it’s our voices that are the problem,” he whispered back.
Forty-eight hours after my arrival in the psych ward, my sister visited with an offer: my father had found an inpatient addiction treatment center in California willing to take me. If I agreed to go, I could leave the hospital the following day.
I pursed my lips and nodded. I couldn’t bring myself to say, “Yes. I want this. I want to be sober.” It’s easy to lie when it allows you to keep drinking — it’s much harder the other way around.
Here is the truth: I did not agree to go to inpatient treatment to stop drinking. I did it because I had blown up my life and I wanted to run. I did it because I loved Joe and he wouldn’t even consider being with me unless I did. I did it because I believed he would forgive me for my lies and betrayal and I would magically unlearn my alcoholism so I wouldn’t have to relinquish my alcohol. The things I believed were more impossible than any lie I told after a blackout, but I repeated them to myself again and again until I had convinced myself of their truth.
Before I left the locked doors of the psych ward, the intake nurse handed me a bag with my personal items. I could feel the thick string of my sweatpants protruding against the plastic bag. Someone had decided I could be trusted with these items, that I was no longer a threat to myself.
“Our voices are not the problem,” Tim had said.
It was the last time I could convince myself that was true.
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Editor: Sari Botton