Notes on an Alcoholic Known as ‘W’ (2005)

159for Joshua Micah Marshall and George singleton

The leprosy of unreality disfigured every human creature . . .

— Charles Dickens
A Tale of Two Cities
According to the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, alcoholism is a mental illness.
“Alcoholism is getting drunk and falling down a lot.
There are millions, if not billions, of people who have the same problem the Alcoholic has. That problem is acute neurosis. The difference between most of these people and the Alcoholic is that, in the Alcoholic’s case, a drink of alcohol will cure all his neuroses.

Alcoholism consists in this curious physiological and psychological response to alcohol.
Rigid idealism. Perfectionism. Inflexibility. Inability to admit wrong or mistake. Acute feelings of inadequacy and guilt. Extreme self-centeredness, self-consciousness, and selfishness: inability to comprehend the suffering or happiness of other people; inability to communicate one’s own feelings. Grandiosity. Schadenfreude. Resentment. Isolation. Fear. Intense, acute, unending, self-centered fear.
The Drink, for the Alcoholic, makes all of this go away. The first Drink does this by itself. Thus, Edgar Poe wrote, in explanation of his drunkenness: “I am constitutionally sensitive — nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank, God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink rather than the drink to the insanity.”
The first Drink taken, the Alcoholic feels cured.
It is only a feeling.
“Alcoholic drinking is consuming huge quantities of all varieties of alcohol until the drinker passes out and falls down.”
A single drink would intoxicate Edgar Poe. I blacked out, i.e., experienced a temporary amnesia induced by alcohol, on my very first drink, which was a cold 12-ounce beer. Alcoholic drinking is drinking alcohol when one has alcoholism.
The untreated alcoholic, in a state of alcoholic nature, exists in an intense pain caused by his acute neuroses. One drink of alcohol, and this pain disappears. One drink of alcohol, and the alcoholic cannot tell when he will stop drinking.
Under the influence of alcohol, the alcoholic, like many people under the influence, does things he does not approve of. The result is guilt; for the alcoholic, guilt that is magnified and intensified by his neurotic perfectionism. He knows, at a certain level of consciousness, that he violated his conscience because he drank alcohol.
But alcohol is the only relief he has from his own tortured, and tortuous, nature.
Therefore, the only way he can excuse his behavior is by excusing alcohol.
In this way, alcoholism slowly erodes the morality of the alcoholic. Being drunk is the key to his total destruction; it is also the key to the only relief he has ever known. It must be “all right” to drink alcohol. Anything “bad” done under the influence of alcohol was done for some other reason. Ultimately, the things he does under the influence cease to be immoral or unacceptable in any way.
A similar process is undergone with almost any disease. Disease brings out self-centeredness, which is a weakness of character, and gives rise to manipulative behavior that the patient rationalizes as necessary. These responses to disease tend to weaken the patient even more. So long as he persists in these neurotic reactions to his disease, the patient in a cancer ward is “powerless” and his life, “unmanageable.” Ask any nurse.
There is no known recovery from alcoholism without the direct treatment of the symptom, i.e., the elimination of drinking alcohol.
The elimination of alcohol from the life of the alcoholic allows for the treatment of the root “cause” of his drinking, the neurotic personality that inflicts upon itself an endless pain that only alcohol can cure.
This personality can be treated only if the alcoholic is sober. It cannot, at present, be cured. The “cure” experienced by the alcoholic in drink is a velvety illusion.
No matter how much relief the sober alcoholic finds from his own personality, he continues to exist physiologically in an abnormal relation to alcohol: it continues to affect him in a different way than it does ordinary drinkers. To change this effect to the normal one would be, actually, to cure alcoholism. No one knows how to achieve this change today.
Alcoholism is a progressive disease — it gets worse and worse as time goes by. Alcoholism progresses whether or not the alcoholic drinks.
This year, I have been sober for twenty-eight years. Were I to have a drink of alcohol, its effect would be the same as if I had never ceased drinking. Turning the tables on George Jones’s sentimental lyric, alcohol would erase twenty-eight years in a few seconds.
If “W” were to have a drink, it would affect him as if he had continued to drink after his fortieth birthday.
To say that “W” hasn’t had a drink in twenty years is analogous to saying “Frank hasn’t had a schizophrenic episode in two decades.”
Only the rash would claim that “Frank” was “cured,” let alone well enough to function as president of a country.
The typical American’s “ideas” about alcoholism are all sentimental metaphors for moral choice. The Alcoholic “chooses” alcoholism, in much the same the way that the tuberculosis patient’s own nature was once thought to doom him to his disease. The concept here is that of disease (dis-ease) as a function of character. People get sick because something is wrong with their souls, their character.
Extending the metaphor, recovery from alcoholism requires the Alcoholic to “choose” otherwise, or, as the Pollyannas say, “Choose Life.” It is a matter of strength, will, and good intentions. It is not a matter of being sick and getting well, but of being “bad” and becoming “good.”
Good means “like Billy Graham and Pat Robertson.” That is, narrow, fascistic, corporatist, anti-Semitic, rich, greedy, rationalizing, tea-totally “dry,” etc. The alcoholic does not become like Christ. Rather, his neuroses are made tolerable by being viewed as a superior “Christian morality” which he serves, protects, and defends.
All such “good” people are acutely neurotic. True or False?
Alcoholic denial is not just the denial of a problem with alcohol, but also a blanket denial of a general lack of power and effectiveness. “Lack of power,” says the bookAlcoholics Anonymous, “that was our dilemma.” That same program of treatment has as its starting point the admission that “we were powerless over alcohol; that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Powerless. The First Drink cures all the Alcoholic’s neuroses instantly. It also takes away his power of choice: he no longer necessarily has sufficient will to stop drinking. He stops whenever alcoholism lets him stop, usually when he passes out. (There are ways around this —�such as modeling Billy Graham or Pat Robertson —�but these techniques are acutely neurotic and painful. They stop him from having, but they do not free him from wanting.)
An unmanageable life. For instance, I threw away a baccalaureate not only because I was too drunk to study, to show up for class, and to learn anything, but because, being an alcoholic, an acute neurotic, I had no way of responding effectively to the generalized, mediocrity that characterizes much of academe. I could not play the necessary games. Alcoholism — not alcohol alone, but alcoholism, acute neuroses curable by a drink of alcohol — took from me any ability to “cope.” I could not manage. I could not “take my life in hand.”
An unmanageable life. For instance, Iraq. Statements by “W” that we will “stay the course,” that, in the daily carnage we are “witnessing democracy at work,” that we can “defeat” an abstract noun (terror), and above all, “W’s” assertion that since many have died in his lunatic war,more must die in his lunatic war in order to validate the earlier “sacrifice” —�these are all instances of the denial of powerlessness and unmanageability in the face not only of “W’s” ineffectuality in Iraq but the general disarray in his foreign policy and the increasing loss of decision-making control over American economic life.
Likewise, “W” told people that no one anticipated the breaking of the levees surrounding New Orleans, when this breakage had been not only expected but predicted, and predicted to “W” himself. “W” lied, and tried to blame others for his own failure. This is what alcoholics always do, drunk or sober, unless they undergo a change as radical as moving the Moon into orbit about another world.
“W” lied like this when he drank in order to protect his drinking. He lies like this now that he is not drinking in order to protect his ego, that is, his commitment to the rightness of his own perfectionism and inability to admit a mistake, which are only two aspects of his acutely neurotic personality, transformed by a bogus religious experience into “morality.”
“W” is deluded. Not stupid, not confused, not a bumbler,not a “moron” or a “C” student. Not any of that, but deluded, as in, “This patient believes he is Jesus Christ and is plainly deluded“; as in, “Alcoholism is a mental illness, and its victims are sorely deluded.”
We must not say so. As good, codependent patriots, we — privately and publicly — decline to acknowledge the elephant that now resides in our living room.
In “W’s” case it is a white elephant.


Richard Nixon Wandered through the White House drinking scotch and talking to pictures of dead presidents
Gerald Ford Husband of an alcoholic
Jimmy Carter Brother of an alcoholic
Ronald Reagan Son of an alcoholic
George H.W. Bush Father of an alcoholic
Bill Clinton Stepson of an alcoholic
George W. Bush An alcoholic

Remember that we chose these people. Do you think this series of choices was a series of coincidences? If you do, you are the opposite of a conspiracy theorist. You are a coincidence theorist.

The so-called “war on drugs” was initiated by President Richard Nixon (see chart).
If we analyze the purpose of the “war on drugs” not from the stated intentions of its “Christian soldier” proponents, but by examining the effects that they have achieved with their moral combat, then the purpose of this struggle is, first, to improve the quality and raise the cost of illicit drugs illegally imported into the United States, while eliminating from the competition all but the most highly organized, well-financed, and well-armed elements of the criminal community —�the kind of people with whom the police are used to doing business; and second, to make middle-class Americans feel threatened, insecure, endangered, and morally superior to the dopesmokers of the 1960s who would not fight in Vietnam.
These were roughly the same effects achieved by the “great experiment” of Prohibition.
This behavior, its motives and results, is what people mean by the term codependent.
As Gilbert and Sullivan say, “Things are seldom what they seem / Skim milk masquerades as cream.”
The standard joke about alcoholism and honesty:
Q: How can you tell when a drunk is lying?
A: His lips are moving.
“W” has said he was never “clinically” an alcoholic. Who is? I am an alcoholic, yet no medical professional ever formally diagnosed me as one. Is it then true for me to say, “I was never clinically an alcoholic”? What exactly does “W,” who has supposedly “conquered alcoholism” with nothing but the spur of a conversation with Billy Graham, mean by clinically?
As an alcoholic who no longer drinks alcohol, I sometimes find it useful to take a clinical perspective on myself. (In the days before the social “sciences” caught on, people used the term dispassionate to describe the same perspective.)
Once while drunk and in a blackout I fell down and bumped my head. The fall left bruises and scratches on my face and head. I attributed these injuries to a mugging. My enabling friends were shocked that a mugging had occurred in our neighborhood.
My favorite of all of “W’s” stories — better than the “boil” on his face during the 2000 election crisis, or falling off the bicycle, or nicking himself while chain-sawing firewood — far superior to all of these is The Pretzel Gag. “W” passed out and bumped his head while eating a pretzel. I wish I had thought of something this good. My hat is off to A Master, that is, to Alcoholism.
Our stooge media all dutifully repeated this preposterous pretzel gag, and all good, codependent Americans nodded their heads at the “scientific” explanation devised by a well-paid doctor in “W’s” employ and delivered up by the White House Press Office.Such credulity is an essential part of what codependence, and America, are about. So is the corruption that enables it.
In the past, we have had wars on crime, on poverty, on drugs, on cancer. Now, we have war on terror. Abstract nouns, every one. There are, in America today, no crime, no poverty, no drugs, no cancer; and there will soon be no terror. There will only be the endless, happy fulfillment of shopping.
The Real War is on meaning, and precious little is left in our public discourse.
A spellbinding evening at the theatre is sometimes said to be “enthralling.” Just so, alcoholism is enthralling. It holds its victims — the alcoholic and those close to him — in thrall. The fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary defines thrall thusly: “1a. One, such as a slave or serf, who is held in bondage. b. One who is intellectually or morally enslaved. 2. Servitude; bondage.”
Though the dry alcoholic may think he has at last “taken control” of his own destiny, unless he somehow, to some degree, faces his own shortcomings as a man, and the damages to his character wrought by the pattern of alcoholic living, he is only unconsciously engineering his next drink. As Kurt Vonnegut once observed of Caesar, he has no idea what is really going on. And he is not alone in this endeavor. His “family,” which includes his close co-workers and friends, is also, unconsciously, laying the groundwork and otherwise preparing for the next disaster, the next bender, the next drink of alcohol.
For instance, the spouse of the finally dry alcoholic, used to running the household, may believe that the alcoholic is incapable of doing so, or of playing any role in the management of the family. This thinking will be communicated to the alcoholic, who, left alone in self-pity long enough, will rationalize a drink, and so dash everyone’s “hopes.”
That the spouse’s own behavior and attitudes are part and parcel of the -ism —�that alcoholism is a “family disease” — almost always comes as stunning news to all hands.
Neither the dry alcoholic nor anyone else is “in control.” Alcoholism controls everyone’s thinking and behavior, and alcoholic drinking, and the deaths that ensue from it, are the -ism’s only goals.

La belle dame sans merci hath thee in thrall.”

On September 2, 2005, Michael Brown, the director of FEMA, in an interview with a media stooge bearing the hilarious Teutonic name of “Wolf Blitzer,” blamed the poor people of New Orleans for lacking bus fare out of town and thus remaining in harm’s way when Hurricane Katrina blew through town. Obviously, these poor people (mostly Negroes, you know) chose poverty and brought it on themselves.
Brown’s assertion is a lie. It is not “a sort of” lie, nor does it contain “a grain of truth.” It is a flat, all-time lie, along the lines of “I was only following orders.” Liars who lie like Michael Brown —that is, bureaucrats like Adolf Eichmann — will not be forgiven anything.
John Tierney, a New York Times columnist, wrote a column on September [date to be supplied], in which he asserted that the solution to the problem of the citizens of New Orleans was not “federal aid” — by which term he referred to assistance rendered on behalf of and in the name of all Americans everywhere — but flood insurance.
Tierney’s column cannot be addressed here, since no one properly in touch with reality would make such an assertion; and this essay deals with the mental illness of alcoholism, not schizophrenia. Mr Tierney is the Extreme Right’s answer to Marie Antoinette, herself sorely out of contact with anything real until she fell beneath the guillotine, and the volume in which his writings are inevitably collected should be entitled Let Them Eat Brioche.
Scott McClellan, “W’s” “press” secretary, says that the disastrous days of Katrina are “no time for politics.” It follows from this edict that blaming the poor for being poor, or counseling people to buy flood insurance when they cannot afford adequate groceries, are not political statements.
McClellan also is a liar. Like Nixon’s servant Ron Zeigler, he dispenses lies to the stooge media. That is what he is paid to do.
Michael Brown, John Tierney, and Scott McClellan, like most of the executive branch and most of our “media,” are all “W’s” enablers. That is, they are the men and women who rationalize his alcoholism and its effects. That is exactly what is done when a Bush crony blames Katrina’s victims for the literal carelessness of the Bush administration, a Grub Street hack tries to divert the public from the issues, a circus of media stooges cooperates with that hack by repeating his lies as if they were serious, meaningful statements, and a political errand boy tells you that the present is not the time for politics.
The enabler is a mirror image of the alcoholic: the alcoholic must lie to protect his ego and, by extension, his alcoholism; the enabler lies to protect the alcoholic from criticism and blame. Enablers cover up for the elephant in the living room. They do this by shoveling the shit. They are martyrs to a cause, or so they feel.
Whenever one of “W’s” enablers — Rice, Rumsfeld, Bumiller, etc. — issues a statement, he rationalizes “W’s” behavior: he tells rational lies.
The chief motivator of the alcoholic is fear. Not a fear of something in particular, but fear itself. Fear of everything, all things, all places, all tasks, all targets, all goals, all failures, all dogs, all cats, all women, all men, all children. This fear is always with the alcoholic, just under the skin, right on the tip of the tongue, drunk or sober, wet or dry.
Observe the alcoholic when attacked and you will see the fear in operation. Because he is what Bob Jones would call a coward, ever the prey of unending nameless fears, he responds to attack by attempting to create, not peace, but security.
Security is fear — security is fear institutionalized, an elaborate edifice of detailed rules, regulations, and restrictions, a lengthy list of enemies, erstwhile friends, dangerous people, and dangerous places. “It is best to go it alone, and trust no one.” Fear dictates the alcoholic’s inevitable plunge into self-pity: he must persist in his struggle alone, poor guy, because the world is fundamentally a dangerous place, i.e., it is against him. “Nobody is on our side,” said Richard Nixon.
As the penultimate fear of the drinking alcoholic is fear of running out of alcohol, the ultimate fear of the dry alcoholic is fear that the elaborate security system he has constructed all about himself will be breached.
The ultimate fears are similar, for, with the progress of the illness, the alcoholic comes to fear alcohol as much as he wants it, and the dry alcoholic comes to fear the security he has created, and continues to create, because it is a prison — the prison of his own fears.
Scared yet?
“The thing to avoid, I don’t know why, is the spirit of system.”
— Samuel Backett
Molloy/Malone Dies/The Unnameable

“Is it possible that this administration is mad?”
— John Berger
“Ignorance and Abdication that Amounts to Madness,”
The Guardian, 15 September 2005
Dr George Vaillant, director of the only longitudinal study of alcoholism ever done, writes, in The Natural History of Alcoholism Revisited: “Outside of residence in a concentration camp, there are very few sustained human experiences that make one the recipient of as much sadism as does being a close family member of an alcoholic.” What Vaillant overlooks, in his concentration on the drinker’s behavior, is that this is a two-way street: in my experience, the codependent can and often does derive satisfaction from the suffering and humiliation of the alcoholic.
Sadism is not “badness.” It is the experience of sexual gratification at the suffering of others.
Thus, the decision to torture the prisoners captured in the “war on terror” was made before the first prisoners were even caught. The decision was not “forced” upon the alcoholic and his “family” of codependent enablers — they jumped at this chance to rationalize their sadism. They were “into it.”
Alcoholism and codependency are fundamentally about power — the power of alcoholism, of the alcoholic, and of the codependent.
The opposite of power is control.
Control comes from a Latin term for a duplicate register used to verify the transactions occurring on the real register. In computer parlance, such a control device is called a slave. It initiates nothing; it only reacts and follows.
The more the alcoholic tries to control his drinking, the more out-of-control he becomes.
The more that W & Co. try to control “terrorism,” the more terrorists there are.
The life of the drinking alcoholic revolves completely around drinking.
The life of the sober alcoholic revolves completely around sobriety, or not-drinking.
The change from drinking to not-drinking is a radical change. It is like moving the Moon into orbit around a different planet. Such a change is not brought about by a conversation with a spiritual huckster like Billy Graham.
One alcoholic recalls: “When I was new, I remember one night, I was rolling around on the floor and crying because I couldn’t drink. Get that, will you? I couldn’t drink. Where did that come from? Because I’d been drinking for years, in all sorts of situations, and a long time before it ever reached the point of rolling on the floor and crying, I’d get drunk. Now, all of a sudden, I wasn’t. I had a choice. Where did that choice come from?”
I knew an alcoholic whose wife divorced him because he refused to get sober. Like many such drunks, during his divorce he gave sobriety a half-hearted try. He went to some AA meetings, then said to me, in faux confusion: “I just dont understand why these people quit drinking for their health, then go sit in all these meetings full of cigarette smoke!”
My friend went back to his drinking. After all, it worked well for him: he earned $80,000 a year in technical writing and had just bought a new condo.
One night in his new condo, while drunk, he stumbled in his basement and hit his head on the concrete floor. As a result of the fall, innumerable blood clots formed in his brain. A few weeks passed, then a clot broke free, flowed to his heart, and killed him.
I have often wondered what my friend thought about while he waited to die. He did not call me, though, so I will never know.
People jog or diet or exercise or diet “for their health.” Alcoholics stop drinking only to keep from dying. But often, the threat of death comes too late.
Not Dick Cheney or Karl Rove, but Alcoholism.
Rationalizing alcoholic drinking.
What else are we rationalizing, in the process?