His money allowed him to deny he's an alcoholic

Having lost his job, my best friend needs to hear the truth.

By Cary Tennis

Published January 7, 2009 11:13AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for over 10 years. An old friend/drinking buddy of mine now lives in another part of the country. Our families have remained close, and I still think of him as a brother, despite the fact that my sobriety has made him a little uneasy at times, and I'm not always comfortable being around his heavy drinking.

One reason he's always been able to get away with his drinking is that he's maintained a life as a successful businessman who has provided a lot of material wealth for his family.

But that changed.

He lost his job several months ago, and via reports from family and friends, I heard his drinking had gotten worse. His family was afraid to confront him, though his "passed-out-in-the-chair" lifestyle was causing great strife for them.

So I wrote him a letter.

I told him I knew what he was going through. And I told him I also knew what he was putting his family through. I told him he had to get help and offered to do all I could to get him into treatment.

His family was very grateful to me.

But he's mad.

Admitting that I might be partially right, he has gone for some therapy, but not for the full-scale treatment program I know an all-day, every-day drinker needs. He feels, though, that my letter was "threatening" and has stayed angry and resentful.

My last line in the letter was "I'd rather have a live ex-friend than a dead best friend." I still feel that way, but I can't help feeling bad that I've lost him and that I can no longer feel free to call on a whim or just to say Merry Christmas.

So, here's my question: Should I write another letter or try calling him? I don't want to apologize or say I was wrong for saying what I did, but I am sorry if he in any way misinterpreted my purpose. I know, too, that alcohol is a persuasive enemy, and that's why he's mad.

I'm glad I did it. I'm sad, too.


Dear Ex-Pal,

Boy, am I glad to hear from you today. It's such a relief to talk to somebody I feel like I understand. Relationships, job situations, complex choices, obscure ailments, perplexing oddities of personality, the long-term effects of early trauma: These subjects I address with bare competence and wild supposition. But 10 years sober I understand. Ten years sober, friend/brother who's still drinking, this I understand like riding a bike.

Most of the time I'm making it up as I go along, onstage looking out over the footlights at the spectral faces of an extraordinary range of characters, registering their attention with the rapt radar of the classically codependent, doing routines I didn't even know I knew, trying to make it look like I do this every night like Scheherazade, staving off a terrible end, betting big on a daily reprieve, doing my own private program of writing which is not strictly speaking keeping me sober and yet harbors creepily analogous parallels in its requirement that I make peace not just with a lifetime of drinking but also with a lifetime of carelessness of thought, mediocrity of dreams, cowardly sheltering in half-truths and victimhood, debasement in martyrdom, passive-aggressive displays, self-hatred disguised as ego-deflation, an overweening and undeniable will to power disguised as selfless aesthetic pursuit, a hunger for celebrity disguised as lyric populism; making peace with a panoply of classic human frailties, grandiosity, pomposity ...

It's nice to be on firm ground here is what I mean, faced with something I understand not just intellectually but anecdotally, like an old sergeant in the neighborhood police station who's heard the same story so many times before and can draw on simple experience, draw you into the human family and say, Yep, been there, done that, bought the program, even went backstage, kissed the diva and met her manager who told me if I'm ever in Cincinnati to look up his brother-in-law.

A classic tale: The executive's continuing competence in bringing home the bacon allowed him to stave off a few years longer the stark, withering truth, that he can't stop drinking on his own once he starts, and now this bulwark has fallen and he finds himself defenseless yet still defiant and proud and angry. What can you do? Oldest story in the book. You reach out, you stay in touch, you steer clear of expectation, you watch out for your own fantasies of rescue and heroism, you remember you're not curing anybody, not today or tomorrow or ever, you visualize where you were at only a few years ago and keep your hat on, don't try to manage things, just say what you've got to say, keep your own program strong and your own side of the street clean, keep others informed, go to more meetings and always look for the patterns.

Especially look for the patterns. Because, as they say so accurately but with an annoying ring of piety, more will be revealed as you pursue this. Take, for example, yours truly, who finds now after umpteen years of self-castigation on the subject of broken and half-developed and withered-away male friendships, egotistical isolation, clinging to hearth like a scorned and frightened child, having secretly harbored his scattered dreams of New York hipsterdom with an apartment filled with beat memorabilia, knowing where the best readings and jam sessions are every night, this strangely misshapen self cobbled together of salvage parts, in places hastily stitched, this self that I have lugged from coast to coast seeking the secret brotherhood, expecting to utter the secret word to unlock the eternal after-hours party door, my Bob Dylan-inspired hitchhiker dreams of apotheosis and transcendence and instant communal reckoning with all the demons and devils and angels of the American dream, my flamboyant hippie dancing and lust for leather fringe, my lowbrow/highbrow rock 'n' roll deviance, my belief in the endless night of driving and talking and drinking through a desert fed with color by the sun, all these trinkets and gewgaws of so-called character and personality: For me to realize, at this late stage of the game, that 99 percent of all I'm questing for is simply lost brotherhood, that 99 percent of it all is just this teenage kid who once left alone realizes the terror of existence and wonders where his brother's gone and seeks for the next 40 years or so to find in every friendship, co-worker relationship, boss relationship and even, truth be known, in his relationships to authors of fiction and rock musicians and composers he has never met, in all these things to see that all it is at rock bottom is some simple kid missing his brother and wishing he were home and wishing things were like they were before everything changed: This truth, at this late date, arrived with the freshness of a strange spring breeze and has intoxicated me and flattened me and left me wondering what fresh hell is next around the corner or knocking at my door, what layer is next to be peeled away, who am I going to be next: Who am I, really? Am I even a static being, or in continuous flux and revelation? Is there ever an end to this parade of avatars? I seem to wake up every day in clothes I can't remember. What madness lies ahead, and is this madness or wisdom?

It just keeps going on, this ever-unpeeling of the onion.

What I'm saying is, again: More will be revealed.

And even in saying this, in dramatizing it as I have, in scaring up the rumbling old rhythms of rant and incantation, I'm aware, I'm doing that dance again: I'm out onstage, drawing you in, trying to make you look this way.

It's what I do.

So you're not alone. We all do this. We have good intentions and we see clearly and yet we are also whirling dervishes, seeking our ecstasy in the dizzying circles we spin, seeking to get high by talk alone, by talk and breath and brotherhood.

You know the situation. You have no control over this guy. All you can do is be there for him.

Although, truth be told: You could go there, too, you know. You could. You could drop in and visit. You could come to his house like in the old days. Forget about what he says and what he thinks. He's drunk. His objections are like the objections of a child in a tantrum. He's in the throes of it. Think back. You know what I'm talking about. So yes, do stay in touch. Keep at it. What could it hurt? You could go there, humbly and quietly, without expectation. You could tell him your story, the whole sordid, harrowing mess, the whole agonized, humbling, ego-deflating family miniseries of wreckage and deception. You could lay the whole thing out for him and see if anything cracks. Nothing wrong with that. Just don't be attached to the results. We are, if anything, powerless in that regard.

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Cary Tennis

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