Featured Prose Writer
A Poet Reflects on the Drinking Life
by Timothy Murphy
It would be easy to say I slipped into alcoholism because whiskey amplified pleasant emotions and numbed unpleasant ones, because booze was a socially acceptable drug among farmers and businessmen, because I was gay, because I was too Catholic, or not Catholic enough, because I was Irish. After a few decades under the influence, I had become chronically depressed, yet I kept prescribing mankind's oldest depressant as a remedy. I still drank to celebrate my minor triumphs, but mostly I was trying to console the inconsolable.
The first person to note the problem was my freshman house monitor at Yale. One Sunday morning, about 6:00 AM, he saw me bearing a load of laundry to the machines in the basement. A double Jack Daniels on the rocks was perched atop my underwear. Four years my senior, he immediately saw what was wrong with this situation, took me to his room, and introduced me to marijauna.
The second person who noticed the problem was my partner Alan. I had attended a company Christmas party in the late 1970's. As I fumbled for the keys to our apartment, Alan opened the door on which I was leaning, and I fell into the room.
The third person was a Fargo police officer who handcuffed me and escorted me into Dakota Hospital after my Ford Bronco rear-ended a little Datsun in 1983. My blood alcohol count was .21. I was the kind of drinker who can knock over a bottle, then drive forty miles through a blizzard, as I had done that evening. Alas, I was tailgating when the light turned red. I called Alan, who said a night in jail might bring me to my senses. Furious, I called John Rowell, my fellow Eagle Scout. An attorney by training, John came downtown and bailed me out. By some miracle that was my first and only DUI.
Of course I was immediately plunged into the coercive world of treatment. For the first time a professional diagnostician told me I was an alcoholic. I sought the counsel of businessmen much my senior who were also heavy drinkers. Bill Wallwork, the richest and most resilient alcoholic I knew, simply laughed. At Bill's funeral six years later, another prodigious drinker, Casey Jones, observed “The lungs failed. The heart failed. But the liver kept on working.” Hank Peterson, who founded the first chapter of AA in the valley, told me “Bill Wallwork spills more than you drink.” My father and my physician were similarly dismissive of the diagnosis, the big red “A” which had been pinned to my heart. All these allies were wrong.
The Ant Lion
Over the years my behavior got worse. There was the morning I drank with the visiting Irish band The Boys of the Loch until 2AM, then suffered Alan to drag me from bed at five so we could catch the first of four flights from Fargo to Martinique. There was the VSOP I shared with my dog, whom I called “very smooth old pooch.” There was the seizure I could not pass off as buyer's remorse, when I arrived in Palm Beach, Florida to take delivery on our catamaran, Catullus. After the ambulance carted me off, my young friend Matt had to fetch Alan. I had fainted for want of drink while parked in front of a liquor store.
Waking up with an I.V. in my arm at Good Samaritan Hospital, I finally realized I would have to seek non-coercive aid. A friends' wife suggested the Health Recovery Center in Minneapolis. Its founder is a nutritionist, Dr. Joan Matthews Larson, whose young son committed suicide after treatment at a famous chemical dependency center. Joan has helped thousands of addicts attain lasting remissions. Unfortunately she and her loving staff treated me three times in seven years, so I am no poster boy for HRC. She once told me, “You probably have the most highly addictive personality of anyone whoever sought our help.” I’m what’s called a THIQ alcoholic—my liver produces inordinate amounts of tetrahydra isoquinolines, which enable my body to process alcohol swiftly.***********************
My favorite painter of the American West is Nineteenth Century artist C.M. Russell. He lacked the polish of Remington, Beirstadt, or O'Keefe, but he was a real-life cowboy who saw the last of the free-ranging buffalo, the last of the High Plains grizzlies. If you are ever in Great Falls, Montana, go to the Russell Museum. There among Charlie's letters is a miniature portrait of the artist astride his horse and hoisting a bottle of whiskey. His nose is the same hue as the prairie sunset in the background.
The Cook Fire
In the Scouts, I took an oath to be “Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.” It fascinates me that every professed virtue of the Scout Law returns to memory. There is a daunting, ill-graded gravel road leading into Camp Wilderness. Every few hundred yards are beveled signs that begin “A Scout is.” They proceed to list the twelve points of the Scout Law. The only point where I feel I have failed the author of that law is “trustworthy,” and only in respect of my drinking. I fell into the habit of lying when the State coerced me into the treatment industry after the DUI arrest. Over the years, concealment became a compulsion. This poem takes its title and last line from Richard Wilbur's “Hamlen Brook.”
'How Shall I Drink?'
Thanks to the good people at Health Recovery Center, I enjoyed a fragmentary year of sobriety between 1997 and 2004. The poems kept coming in this time of mounting business troubles and repeated relapses, but they grew blacker and blacker. Sometimes I assembled them from fragments written before I got entirely blotto. Often I needed my editor to figure out the best sequence, or to supply missing thoughts. He wrote the third stanza for this poem, binding its disparate images.
In March, 1994, in an absolutely suicidal depression, I was driving through the village of Sabin, Minnesota, near which my dog is kenneled. I saw cars outside St. Cecilia’s and stepped into the back of the church. It was the first time I had been inside a church for anything but a funeral or a wedding in 34 years. I was moved to see the consecration of the Host, which of course, I was unfit to receive.
In February 2005, lightning struck. I was knocked off my horse, figuratively bit the dirt, and heard a deep voice asking “My son, my son, why have you forsaken me?” I made my confession to a young priest at the nearest church who granted me conditional absolution, and my penance was 30 consecutive days of attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous.
The first thing I needed was a sponsor for AA, and my cousin John, who'd delivered the eulogy for my father’s funeral and with whom I'd become quite close, took on the task and spent an hour with me every day. In fact my intense conversations with John were my AA meetings, although I am close to other recovering alcoholics and I spent time with them and elder poet friends too. People have noticed a change in my personality. I am not the aloof and arrogant bastard I had become, not the hardened alcoholic. For the first time in my struggle with this disease, I have a higher power, and though I continue to relapse, I hope my disease will end happily.
Prayer for Sobriety
“'How Shall I Drink'” appeared originally in The Formalist, “Booker's End” in Light Quarterly, and “Mortal Stakes” in Poetry. Other poems appear in The Deed of Gift, Story Line Press, 1998 and Very Far North, Waywiser Press, 2002.