Authors: Ken Grimes
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To my old drinking buddies, Leon and Harry, And the place that came along and changed all that, The Kolmac Clinic Washington, D.C.
To my wife and sons. I do it all for you. For all of the friends along the way who have helped me become the person I am, especially Dayton, P.G., Fred P., Rich G., Eric, Cress Darwin, and Peter R. Pass It On.
Double, double toil and trouble
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
act 4, scene 1
Y MOTHER AND
I were sitting in a coffee shop talking, looking at the view of downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. This was ten years ago, and we had both been off alcohol for more than a decade. We were disagreeing about the best way to stay sober when my mother said, “I've been turning this over in my mind: I think we should write a book about alcoholism.”
I sat back. “We?”
“Both of us. Two points of view. I think we should.” It was the summer of 2002, and we were waiting for a real estate agent. My mother loves real estate agents; she's got a real hang-up about houses. She loves looking at them; she even loves buying them.
My wife and I had to take a more pragmatic approach. We were expecting a second child and we were, at last, going to leave New York City. After sixteen scintillating, maddening years, we wanted to trade in our Manhattan apartment for a suburban house. One possibility for relocating my business was Charlottesville, halfway between my wife's childhood home in Roanoke and my mother's place in Washington, D.C.
Sitting across from my mother with the coffee cooling, I was astonished by her suggestion that “we” should write a book. Easy for you to say, I wanted to tell her; no, I probably
tell her. “You've written books. I haven't. Who would want to read it? How would it work with two of us writing it? What would we say that would be of any interest to anyone? Who in hell would
“A lot of people. A mother and son actually writing a book on addiction
? Parents of alcoholics would love it. They could see what I did wrong and what they did right. I mean, can you imagine
mom or dad emptying out a perfectly good fifth of Absolut vodka, then taking the empty bottle from Manhattan to Bucks County? I can see the head-shakers: âI might not have been a perfect parent, but I certainly never did anything as weird as
I snickered. “But how could we write a book together? We don't agree about anything.”
. What child until he's eighty ever agrees with his parents? We'd have two different points of view, two stories coming from entirely different directions. I love it.”
I didn't. Did we really want that kind of public exposure? Did we want to spill our guts and talk about every rotten thing that had happened to us because of alcohol abuse?
She shrugged. “I don't mind.”
She would say that. Well,
Then I thought about it, about the differences between us. How she used an outpatient rehab clinic to get sober, and how I used (and still use) twelve-step meetings. When she was a teenager, she wasn't exposed to the same sorts of things I was. The teenagers she'd known didn't even drink. Hard to believe. She had no knowledge
of drugs, promiscuity, Guns N' Roses, or actual guns walking the halls of her high school.
She'd missed all of that. I was literally marinated in it. I started drinking when I was thirteen, moved on to the harder stuff when I was fifteen, and crashed and burned when I was twenty-five. Twelve years sober and three-thousand-plus twelve-step meetings later, what was there to say?
“The word âalcoholic,'Â ” my mother said, “meant nothing to me. If anyone I knew ever mentioned our drinking, it would be in the context of drinking too much.”
Why did it take ten years to write this book after our first discussion in that coffee shop?
Because we couldn't find another coffee shop?
The main reason is that I didn't think I could do it. Second, I completely underestimated the overwhelming amount of time it takes to raise a family. Third, I had a business to run; I thought such a book would present a certain image of me to my business associates, that I might very well lose clients as a result.
“You don't get it, Ken,” she said. “They'd think you were cool, putting this out there. People respond to confessions with incredible sympathy. Don't you like reading about other people's bumbling weaknesses? I do.”
“Does the world need yet one more recovery book?” I whined, sitting in our booth in the coffee shop.
“Yes,” she said, eating her doughnut. “Ours.”
I avoid reading recovery memoirs because my immersion in twelve-step meetings gives me constant exposure to what recovering alcoholics are working on, battling with, and laughing at right now. Also, I got sober before the recovery-book genre became
popular, and it didn't occur to me to read other people's accounts when I had guys in the program who needed my help.
I still laugh out loud at the stories I hear in meetings. I just couldn't imagine a book having the same immediacy. Then one of my friends in recovery told me that he found books on recovery helpful as he was getting sober. That's my wish: that anyone reading this book will realize if I can do it, he or she certainly can.
I finally managed to make the time and find the confidence to write. Writing a book is a lot like stopping drinking. You do it one day. And wake up and do it the next day.
Easy for you to say, after being sober for twenty years! I can hear the reader protesting. Easy for you!
No, it actually isn't.
F THE WITCHES HAD
wanted to double Macbeth's troubles, their elaborate recipe of eye of newt and toe of frog should have included a pint of Guinness, a quart of vodka, a carton of Marlboro cigarettes, and a pound of marijuana. Or a very, very dry double martini.
I came of age in the “Just Say Yes” generation of the late 1970s and the early 1980s, between the end of the freewheeling 1960sâan era that my friends and I adored but which wasn't oursâand the dawning of Nancy Reagan's “Just Say No” decade of merciless greed and cocaine consumption.
How did I stop? With more than a little help from my friends. By going to meetings in recovery and finding people who are as crazy as I am. I've been sober for two decades and I'm still trying to change the saying “I may not be much, but I'm all I think about.”
The literature of recovery says that letting go of the bondage of self is the only way to achieve that “priceless gift of serenity.” Serenity from the screaming voices in my head telling me that I don't measure up, that I'm inferior, that the other guy is better-looking, that this woman has a better job, that everyone knows more than I do. Serenity is the absence of self, not of constantly thinking about me, and of sometimes actually thinking about others. Stopping drinking was the first step, because drinking is only a symptom of my disease. My fundamental problem is my lack of acceptance of the world as it is, as opposed to the way I demand it to be.
A person I really respect in recovery once said to me, “I don't know where I got this idea of having a pain-free life. My parents didn't tell meânot that I listened to anything they said anywayânor did my friends, teachers, doctor, rabbi, or bosses. Somehow I grew up thinking that I shouldn't have to experience pain. If I felt any pain at all, anything that bothered me, I drank or smoked it away. I mean, that's the smart thing to do, right? The problem was that when I stopped drinking and drugging, I was a fourteen-year-old boy trapped in a twenty-five-year-old man's body because I never matured. I never learned how to deal with the normal disappointments, heartaches, and difficulties of life. The second the going got tough, I got going to the liquor store.”
In the course of this book, you'll see that my mother's approach and my approach to sobriety are a little different. She hit the bottom and went to an outpatient rehabilitation center the day before Christmas 1990 and was a fan of that program for many years. Though she doesn't go to twelve-step meetings, she has come to grips with her alcoholism. We'd agree that
that gets you to stop drinking and using is the right approach: organized religion, twelve-step meetings, living in a cabin in the woods, being
an exercise fanatic. It doesn't matter. The one thing I kept telling myself as I was destroying my life with beer and pot was that they were all I had left. It's the supreme irony of addictions that what is killing you masquerades as the answer.
There is a theory in recovery that you stop maturing after you begin drinking excessively, and that was certainly my case. Getting sober at twenty-five was more than lucky; it was a power greater than I, working in my life.
Think getting sober is easier at twenty-five than forty-five?
As a friend of mine in recovery said, “It's not easy being young in recovery.” Those of us in our twenties were a minority (albeit fast-growing). Plus, I hadn't done anything in my life to help define me, to give me an identity. No wife, no kids, no career. Nothing.
And the lies the disease tells you! I remember as a child watching the TV adaptation of
with a (very young) Sally Field and wondering what it would be like to have a split personality. There's a reason why
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
is popular: because alcoholism is beyond the yin-yang polarity of good and evil in all of us. From a nice teenage boy I turned into a monster, in a fury at the world for not being the way I wanted it to be. I was going to show them all, and if I couldn't show them, I was going to kill myself.
When I was new in recovery, I completely ignored the slogan “One Day at a Time” (which I've come to believe is the single most important message I've learned in my sobriety) because I could simply not imagine not drinking or getting high again.
Here are some of my early questions that proved to me I couldn't stop drinking:
“What about a business meeting when the client has a glass of wine? Won't I appear to be insulting him if I don't have one, too?”
I discovered later that the only people who care if I don't drink are those with drinking problems themselves. No one cares whether you drink as long as they get to drink themselves.
“What about dating? What if the girl I'm dating has a drink? Won't she think I'm a loser if I don't drink?”
Actually, no. If a girl is turned off by your nondrinking, you shouldn't be dating her. Before I got sober, I had to lie about the volume of my alcohol intake. I used my girlfriends as a control mechanism on my addiction, as monitors, and that's not a job anyone wants. After I got sober, I followed a very strict rule about dating. On the first date, after the normal chitchat and getting-to-know-you part, I would tell her at dinner I didn't drink and was sober X number of years. I was being fair to them, but more important, I wouldn't be tempted to keep it hidden and then want to drink that glass of red wine that was so large, you could wash a Buick in it.
“What, can't I have a drink on my wedding day?”
I didn't have a girlfriend. I was convinced the FBI was outside my door, and auditory hallucinations at work were beginning to be a distraction. I wasn't getting married anytime soon.