Voices on Addiction: Duet


In New Orleans, many years ago, I drunkenly pulled home a drifter from the Maple Street Bar when it closed. He was stringy-haired, his blue jeans stiff with dirt, and he didn’t have much to say. When we got to my place in the French Quarter, the leaves of cigar trees around my door were dripping with humidity in the hot summer night. Once inside, I changed my mind about having sex with him. He stared at me with his mouth open, put his bottle of Southern Comfort on the floor, stepped over, and began to strangle me. I remember his thumbs on my windpipe. Next—and it wasn’t because he looked me in the eyes; I don’t know why it was—he sighed like someone who’s never gotten a thing he ever wanted in the world; then he picked up his bottle and walked out the door, past the cigar trees, and was gone. I sat down on the floor, stunned. Back in those days, I often sat on the floor and whispered to myself, in perfect schizophrenic logic, “I don’t exist.” This night I reflected, in alcoholic logic, “Now I know what life in a big city’s like.”


My mother always said that my problems were inherited, and from Father’s side of the family to boot. My Grandfather Payne, she liked to point out, ended up in jail for public drunkenness many a time; he once came home to his wife so drunk that she was prompted to stand in the middle of her kitchen and throw plates and saucers at him. I don’t know how the dishes were ever replaced, because the Paynes were poor, so poor that Grandmother had to bake and sell pies to make ends meet. My mother went on to say that three of Grandfather Payne’s brothers actually died of alcoholism. One of them drank himself to death in a boarding house up in Chicago. The Paynes were so poor that the brother had to be buried in Chicago’s Potter’s Field, where the city buried its indigent.

Mother saved the worst for last: the fourth brother died in an insane asylum, where he’d spent most of his life. (My oldest cousin recalls hearing tales of the family packing a picnic lunch once a year and going to spend the day with him.)

Clearly, my mother concluded, my problem was genes—my father’s.

I myself don’t have the slightest idea where my cerebral archenemies came from.


I do know one thing that’s more important. That great-uncle of mine who died in the boarding house in Chicago died the same year, 1938, that Alcoholics Anonymous was introduced in that city. I would cry for that great uncle of mine if I even knew his name—if anyone knew his name anymore. I still want to cry for him, and for the insane great-uncle, whose name I don’t know either.

Another thing I’m pretty sure about: I wouldn’t have drunk as hard as I did if I hadn’t been soothing my own insanities. Maybe as long, but not as hard.

Clinical paranoia—unlike the fear-resembling phenomenon most people describe as “paranoia”—clings like slime. When I’m paranoid, my skin crawls with a mixture that’s equal parts fear and anger. My thinking is uncontrollable, and it sabotages me. I see plots against me, figurative knives drawn at me, even figurative wine laced with rat poison.

One summer, a couple of years after the bar-guy incident, I was having engine work done on my Ford Falcon. The man at the Ford shop examined my car and wrote up a work order. Then he put his arm around me and squeezed me, saying, “We’re going to fix your car up just right, little girl!”

When I got home, I pulled out wine as fast as I could. I was so worked up that I stupidly selected a piece of stationary from the school where I taught; I then wrote a letter of complaint to the owner of the Ford shop. I drank hard.

Fury turned to fear, when two mornings later, the hugger’s wife called me. She addressed me as “kiddo,” along with “whore.” They would see me in court, she said, hanging up.

I believed her. I shook from head to foot, and the shaking didn’t stop.

Then the Dean of Liberal Arts called me to his office over using the school’s letterhead. He was stern. He warned.

It was summer, so I was able to pull off a two-week drunk.

I was afraid to go out on the street, lest I run into the wife—even though I lived in the opposite part of town from the Ford shop. I watched from the window, leaving my car hidden in the garage, going out after dark if possible. I didn’t answer my phone. I talked to no one about it. Loss of job. Fear of prison. I shook.

I called the chairman of my department at school—drunk as I was—and he sympathetically suggested I leave town for a while. I went to the mountains, in Colorado, and stayed in a cabin for a month. I developed a deep, red rash over both my legs. It hurt to walk. My doctor gave me an injection of cortisone and said the rash was an emotional reaction. He asked me, but I didn’t tell what had happened.

I didn’t know, all those years ago, that I’d been totally right to object to that man in the Ford shop. I didn’t realize that part of my reaction was paranoia. That I’d used gallons of wine as medicine.

A year after the business with the Ford guy, I moved to Colorado permanently. By then, I was a sponge, absorbing events according to my mind’s version of the cosmos. My brain produced schizophrenic delusions of alien beings in infinitely huge silver spaceships, universal rules pointing me toward their goal of my suicide, and silent commands from the universe to wander alleys in the hours after midnight in order that I might be killed. Ridiculous. It hurts me when people use that word to describe schizophrenic behavior. But in a way, they’re right.


My alcoholism kept up with the march. Eventually I was broke, and my liver hurt. I was having blackouts, and alcoholic hallucinations of giant spiders crawling down the walls during the delirium tremens of my alcohol withdrawal.

Everyone knows how you get over drinking. You ask for help. I did. Most of the time, it was freely given. That in turn gave me—little by little—a sense that the world might not be as hostile as I’d concluded. I started to thrive.

In just the same way I learned to live without alcohol, I was to learn how to live with schizophrenia.

It was trickier.

With its many, disparate symptoms, it was a challenge to achieve an overview of all the sly ways schizophrenia is part of my life. Anosognosia—believing I didn’t really have a disease—is a symptom that caused me great difficulty. (Yes, seeking treatment for alcoholism is often hindered by denial. But the one who drinks often knows what he is preoccupied with.) I convinced myself that I was making up the alien beings, making up my need to touch coffee tables to see if they were real, making up the notion that some student of mine hated me—making it all up because I was evil. And paranoia made me conclude I needed to keep my mouth shut about it.

Nonetheless, other people were seeing the wear of something on me. There were comments and questions, most from well-meaning people. My doctor told me I needed help, as did a man I had a date with, and my parents. Eventually, I stopped my secretiveness and asked for that help. Endlessness of the ordeal made me do it. Paranoia is exhausting. Delusions are confusing. Voices are distressingly weird.

The psychiatrist I went to immediately put me on antipsychotic medication. The bad symptoms were dulled, and I was grateful indeed for that. However, it was the early 1980s and such medicines were fairly primitive, causing me dry mouth, shaking, constipation, restless legs, stiffness, dizziness, a difficult gait, weight gain, thick-headedness, fatigue, and at its worst, the feeling of being poisoned. Three times I collapsed in public, unconscious, because my prescribed dosage was slightly too high. I don’t know what caused the panic attacks. All that lasted a decade, which I call my Mud Years, because I felt immersed in mud to the top of my head.

I never once had the desire to drink.

And other good fortunes awaited.

First, tolerable drugs emerged, every few years a better one. I felt like I was climbing out of a well, climbing juts of rock and stone, slowly, holding on above. My head’s looking out now; soon I’ll hoist myself over the edge. Running fast and free, someday now.

The other good fortune was, actually, breast cancer. That was fifteen years ago. The unforeseen, even ironic goodness of it appeared immediately. After I was told the diagnosis, I went home, sat in silence on my sofa, and looked around myself, not at the art on my walls, collected through all the years of this story, but at the walls themselves, the floor, the ceiling, the motes in the summer air.

I’m going to miss it all so much, I thought.

This acute awareness of existence was the opposite of needing to touch walls to make sure they were real, of concluding logically that I didn’t exist. Those feelings had been felt in not just another lifetime, but in another life.

That year, drinking alcohol never occurred to me; my mind was relatively free of paranoia.

I can still capture that awe at the world, at times as intensely as the year I had cancer.


Alcoholism has a quiet place in me now that I have thirty-seven years of sobriety.

Despite all these gifts, at times I still have to work with schizophrenia. I have signs on my bathroom mirror, on the note boards above my computer, on my refrigerator, reminding me of symptoms of paranoia (“When in doubt, assume it’s paranoia.” “If you’re afraid of something, it might be paranoia.” “Check this out with somebody.”). I try not to have secrets. Secrets and paranoia are best friends. This year, I’ve decided to tell people I care about that I sometimes hear voices. It’s kind of a “closet” story. I’m trusting that the people who care about me will not be taken aback at such strangeness, will care for me as before. I trust that my heart will be lighter for doing this.

I trust, nowadays.

I have to keep at it.


Original artwork provided by author.


Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.

Roberta Payne was educated at Stanford, UCLA, and Harvard. She taught Latin at the University of Denver. She's published personal essays in the Gettysburg Review (two), Narrative, Calyx (fall, 2018), Aeon, Shenandoah, Folia, and others. She's also done translations from the Italian with McGill-Queens Univ. Press and Columbia University. Several of her essays on psychology have been published in anthologies by Boston and Oxford University Presses. Her book-length memoir is titled "Speaking to My Madness: How I Searched for Myself in Schizophrenia." She does "outsider art," the art of the marginalized. She is currently working on two novels. More from this author →