When I attended professional acting school back in 1986 (the MFA program at UC Irvine, I proudly remark), I had a teacher ask me once, “Charles, are you able to feel any authentic emotion other than anger?” I paused for a bit and considered the question, before answering, truthfully, “No. I don’t suppose I can.” At the time, I was two or three years away from realizing I was an alcoholic, and it would be well over a decade before I found my way to a talented psychotherapist who gently, over several years, introduced me to such mysterious alternatives as forgiveness, love, ambivalence, and longing. In the midst of that therapy, I confided to my closest friend at the time, “I never cry.” He responded, “Are you kidding? I cry at least once every day, sometimes for joy and sometimes for sadness. Doesn’t everybody?” I was drawn to people that seemed to have rich and varied emotional lives. Mine was all need and anger.
It is not easy to live with unremitting anger. Where did it come from? In my case, it was a combination of family drama (I was the middle child and designated patient in my family’s dysfunction), paternal rejection, and, later, being caught up in the paroxysm of social change that was the early 1970s. I found release from rage through running away, through alcohol, through politics, through suspect spiritual “teachers,” through promiscuous sex, through fantasy, through dependency—pretty much damn near anything except sobriety, forgiveness, and acceptance.
I didn’t drink to escape the world; I drank to find it! It was only under the influence of alcohol that my fists unclenched, the shit-colored glasses fell from my eyes, the chorus of resentments stopped shouting their poison inside my brain, and I could, as I once wrote in a performance poem, referencing Ginsberg, find in the booze “my connection to the starry dynamo of the machinery of night.” I called it a magic elixir. I called it wonderful and grand.
It is a strange thing to be sober twenty-five years, after one has been defined by drinking. The booze is always there, like an ex-spouse, and you, yourself, are the child of that marriage. Just as you must always remain in relationship to the other parent of your child, a sober alcoholic is always in relationship to booze. My identity today is the child of the marriage between alcohol and me.
I’ve been sober since October 20th, 1991, with nary a taste of liquor or a puff of weed. This recovery acronym sums it up: “Son Of a Bitch! Everything’s Real.”
So how did I wind up writing a column about alcoholism today? At first it seemed I just stumbled on it at random. But now that I consider the question, I recall that earlier today I learned of the passing of one of my old friends in recovery. When I got sober back in the early 90s, he had been around the recovery group for years. Even back then, he was a goofy old guy, and everybody remarked on his resemblance to the balcony critics from The Muppets. He was a model of serenity, nothing made him angry, not even when he lost his life savings investing in what he thought would be the perfect retirement business: an espresso cart. He was ahead of his time. If he’d waited for the preteens to grow up to be hipsters, he could’ve made a fortune. Al (fake name, of course) was a virulently right wing, homophobic conservative. The sort that spent hours every day listening to the likes of Rush Limbaugh and called gay people “sickening.” This didn’t keep him from loving and respecting me. One day, after I had gotten angry over somebody about a homophobic remark, Al took me aside.
“Isn’t it remarkable,” he said, “that you can have such crazy opinions about politics, and choose to live a lifestyle that I find bizarre and even sickening, but we can agree absolutely on two things: that we both want each other to stay sober and will do anything we can to help, and we love recovery.” Then he bought me a cup of coffee. Another time, when I was going through a period of unemployment, he quietly slipped a hundred dollar bill into my palm while shaking hands, and told me to pass it on when I could. And one night, when I brought home a young man for what I thought would be a pleasing sexual encounter who turned out to be a violent threat, it was Al who stuck around the next day in case the guy came back looking for trouble. He was, as I said, a goofy old bird, with strange opinions, and few resources, but, as my friends and I remark on the death of a friend in recovery: he was a success—a drunk who died sober.
And so, to return to my reflections on anger: I could never be angry with good old Al (and many friends like him) in spite of his anti-progressive politics, unreflective racism (which didn’t keep him from embracing friends of all ethnicities who loved him), open homophobia, and blunt opinions that seemed so wrong to me. Because I loved him. Does this mean I didn’t disagree? Does this mean I didn’t argue or try to persuade? Does this mean I wasn’t hurt by his casual homophobia? Does this mean I wouldn’t fight him over such matters, if necessary, politically or otherwise, if it ever came to that? No it does not. But, still, I can refrain from anger. This is what I learned when I learned that there are other emotions, and they are strong, and they are good, and they are empowering.
And this has been a roundabout way to get to these important thoughts: With politics today at such a boiling point that serious people speak of civil war, many of my progressive friends are steeping themselves in anger. People tell me that anger is necessary to keep up their energy. They tell me that to deny anger is to compromise their vision, and allow themselves to be gaslighted. I have heard analyses of the phenomena of microaggressions and understand the argument that they should not be ignored or tolerated.
But I also know that another way is possible. Maybe, sometimes, even in the midst of the most outrageous wrongs and hurtful expressions, we can feel love and acceptance and thrust the anger aside. It’s possible. I know. I learned it from Al, who from now on will always be my very special memory of a true and holy April Fool.
Rumpus original logo and artwork by James Lorenzato, aka Argyle C. Klopnick (ACK!).
“The Storming Bohemian Punks the Muse” was originally developed as a column under the editorship of Evan Karp at Litseen. An earlier incarnation of this work can be found there, along with many other interesting things.