Night Train to Sobriety

Published July 22, 1996 9:05AM (EDT)

my boy Sam the other day was talking about all the people
who have died so far in the seven years he's been alive, and how
helpful it was to know they were all hanging out together in
heaven. I asked, "What do you think heaven is like?" And he
said, without missing a beat, "All the bad guys become good
guys, and none of the animals ever have disease."

I mention this because I am about to celebrate my 10-year
sobriety birthday. This is nothing short of a miracle: I
couldn't put together ten days clean and sober until July of
l986. I tried to stop drinking the year before, because I was
waking up looking and feeling like some horrible cross
between Courtney Love and Mort Downey, Jr., and then spending the
day waiting for it to be late enough to start drinking again.
Certainly I could see that if you started drinking in the
morning, it indicated you had a real problem on your hands, and
maybe there were tiny little signs that I actually did have a
real problem on my hands. But I was usually able to wait until
the late afternoon to begin having the first of several dozen
nightly social drinks, and to have the first hit of the non-habit-forming marijuana I had been smoking on a daily basis for
20 years.

But one day in l985, when I woke up so hung over that I
felt pinned to the bed with centrifugal force, and was literally
glued to my pillow by drool, I decided to quit drinking on my
own. And I was doing quite well, remarkably well, in fact,
until 5:00 of the first night. Then the panic set in.
Thankfully, I had a moment of clarity in which I understood that
the problem was not that I drank so much, but that I drank too
quickly. The problem was with pacing. So I had a good idea. I
would limit myself to two beers a night. Two beers! What a
great idea.

I went to the market, which was one block away, and got two
beers -- two beers in the loosest meaning of that phrase. What I
got was two l6-ounce Rainier Ales. Now Rainier Ale is fortified --
it's beer with the merest little hint of raw alcohol added. It
is to beer as Night Train is to wine. Winos and people from
Bolinas love it. I learned to appreciate it in Bolinas. It
gets you very drunk very quickly, and it's cheap. What's not to

Okay, maybe the taste -- it's definitely an acquired taste,
unless you just naturally happen to love the taste of rye bread
soaked in goat urine.

Anyway, I took my two Rainier Ales, and I sipped one, and
was a little drunk already, but it was only 5:30. And I
realized I was going to have to make the second l6-ounce Rainier
Ale last until bedtime. So I put on my thinking cap, and
conceded that if I was going to pace myself successfully, I
might need a little...supplement.

Luckily, I had a Nike box full of pills. (Oops -- did I
forget to mention the pills?) I took one blue Valium, so little,
so helpless, smaller than even a TicTac, and washed it down with
part of the l6-ounce Rainier Ale. I definitely began to feel
better, a little calmer. More whole. More like God.

Then I sipped the rest of the Rainier Ale, and discovered
that now it was only 6:30. So I smoked a little of the non-habit-forming marijuana and took another Valium. I washed it
down with some more Rainier Ale, listened to "Layla" five times,
and then had a second moment of clarity: It was wonderful
to want to pace yourself, but please -- two beers a night? I
mean, let's not overreact here. So I went back to the bait shop,
and got a third l6-ounce Rainier Ale and sipped it. I had to take
one more tiny blue Valium, and then, halfway through the beer, a
Halcion, which is a sleeping pill that they have banned in most
civilized countries because of certain unpleasant side effects.
Like it makes you feel like killing your mother. Whereas,
getting nagging phone calls from her doesn't, right?

So I was able to fall asleep at a nice early hour, like
7:30, and I slept like a baby and woke up 12 hours later,
completely refreshed. Wow! I thought. This is fantastic: no
hangover, no being glued to the pillow. I felt like a million
dollars. Whenever people called that morning and asked how I
was, I said I felt great, which was true, and that I was on the
wagon, which I believed I was, in a gentle, non-rigid sense.

So at 5:00 that night, I went back to the little market and
bought three l6-ounce Rainier Ales. I bounced back to my house,
Mary Lou Retton-like, sipped the first ale, took the Valium,
smoked the non-habit-forming pot, drank the second ale, took
another Valium, listened to "Layla" ten times, drank the third
ale, took the Valium and the Halcion, and discovered two unhappy
facts. One was that it was only 7:00. The second was that I was
wide awake.

Ah-ha, I said to my tiny princess self -- here's the
problem: Every so often perhaps, I may need an extra beer.
But I am going to sip that nutty beer. So I walked to the
market, or rather "walked," a little slowly perhaps, rather like
a first-time tightrope walker on a wire suspended over burning
coals. But I made it. I bought one more l6-ounce Rainier Ale, and
tightrope-walked back to the houseboat, where I sipped the ale,
took another Valium, listened to "Layla" a few more times, fell
asleep, and woke up 12 hours later feeling totally great.

To make a long story short: On the fifth day I suddenly
began to resent anyone's attempts to control me; even my own.
And so, as an act of liberation, I bought and drank a fifth of
Bushmill's Irish Whiskey.

It only took me a year to admit that I couldn't control my
drinking any more, and that I couldn't quit on my own and that I
probably wasn't going to be able to stay alive if I kept
drinking. So finally I let a bunch of friends who were sober
alcoholics help me get sober, and stay sober.

I didn't love it at first. I thought maybe there would be
some loopholes in the basic premise of abstinence: Maybe, I
thought, after a few months of sobriety, it would turn out that
you got to smoke the non-habit-forming marijuana again, or that
every anniversary, you got to have one glass of perfectly chilled
California Chardonnay.

It turned out that there were no loopholes. I hate that,
and I was angry for a long time. I didn't know why these people
wanted to help me, or why they seemed to love me even though I
was so angry and defeated, with a thousand resentments and an
industrial strength self-absorption. I finally figured out the
answer, although I could not have articulated it as well as
my brilliant boy did, just the other day, ten years after my last

Sam put it in a nutshell for me. He was watching "King
Kong," the re-make with Jessica Lange, and he said, towards the
end, "She loves him, because she can see that he is lonely."
And that is why those sober alkies all loved me and wanted to
help; because they could see that I was so lonely, like they
had been once.

So here I am, 10 years old! Happy Birthday, Princess! I
thought I had fallen as low as a person could go, ten years ago,
having to give up drinking, and it took me a while to see that I
was actually entering heaven -- a heaven that could sometimes be a
little more irritating than I had imagined; a heaven where
Republicans still exist, which I would not have thought
possible. A heaven where I did not always get the nicest seat in
a lounge chair near the shrimp, but where the bad guys really
did become good guys, or at any rate, the sick started getting
well. And the animals may still have the disease, but the truth
is, almost without exception, that they secretly believe having
it is the best thing that ever happened to them.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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