I mean, I’m sure he’s taken a drink or two a few times in his life, but he was never a drinker either. And he eats right and he’s in the gym. Well, that’s what happens. [Laughs] Don’t do drugs. Don’t drink, eat right, go to the gym and you can rock & roll at 62, too. – Steven Van Zandt on Bruce Springsteen, Rolling Stone, 2012
I never drank to Bruce Springsteen. His early stuff makes me high enough. “Jungleland” transports me to a past I never even had; I can’t breathe when I listen to it. The sax chills every time and I still wonder whatever happened to Rat and the barefoot girl. I feel sexy at sixty-nine years old when I hear “Rosalita.” I cry to “Nebraska.” Three concerts into the 1984 Born in the USA tour I had spent all the money I didn’t have for tickets, and sitting way up in the Toronto bleachers with the lake glinting in the distance I made life-changing decisions I never regretted. I listened to Bruce on cassettes in my studio and got the old drunk feeling I used to get when I was making art loaded on Jack Daniels, or coming off being loaded on Jack Daniels. Or tumbling into bed with someone while loaded on Jack Daniels. Or after I closed my studio to remind me of who I was before I became such an adult. But I never drank to Bruce. Sober now for forty years, I get off on non-chemical intoxicants like a good essay or a new Springsteen album. And I love that Bruce doesn’t drink to Bruce either.
So why am I crying? I do not even like this new album of his, Western Stars. It’s not speaking to me, just an old guy run out of new tunes, repeating “baby baby baby” to repetitive bridges, kind of like me writing memoirs and repeating my same old stories. I got the new Springsteen CD for my trip west from Vermont to the Finger Lakes in New York where I’d meet up with extended family to spend a week together in the haunts of my childhood, adolescence, honeymoon, through my daughter’s childhood. It’s the place I miss most because when I squint just so my grandparents, parents, old lovers, and friends aren’t just ghosts anymore. My daughter is still a baby, my husband and I are still lean and tanned and crazy for each other. My beloved niece isn’t an addict. I don’t have a baggie of cardiac meds in my glove compartment.
There’s an old rock beach a quarter mile south no one supervises, not now and not back then when in high school we would drink and smoke and fall in love in the backseats of Ford Mustangs and Chevy Corvairs. Of course I’m crying.
Hurtling down the Thruway, I keep switching from Bruce’s new album to NPR and back again. I’m trying to be fair; there are some metaphors for sure, beautiful string sections, but few stretches of language reminiscent of the old Bruce.
Then the last cut.
Copyright laws won’t let me quote it, but the words, the melody, the whole damn thing, made me forget how many miles I passed hitting replay to “Moonlight Motel.”
Restlessness and escape, old secrets, sweet abandon. Moonlight motels with their musty sheets and empty bottles full of euphoric recall. In the end the narrator pulls a bottle of Jack out of a paper sack to toast the now-shuttered motel under a sky of falling leaves in the empty parking lot and I lose it. Thirty, forty replays in, I still lose it, especially at the line about the Jack. About how he pours a shot out to the parking lot.
My sobriety is still a mystery to me. Forty years this December.
Every morning between our little cottage on the main road, over to the Lake House where the rest of the family stays, I sneak in one more play of Moonlight Motel and slow down along the little run of road where the rock beach sits and let myself shiver in secret.
After listening another dozen times, I get it. I am grieving.
I didn’t grieve forty years ago. I fought to protect my newfound sobriety with lap swimming, art, and loud music in my studio. Romances good and bad. And then I went back to school, stayed too busy to stop and think. And now it’s decades later. As Bruce writes, “You lose track of time…”
There was one moment in all these forty years where I imagined a relapse. My daughter was doing junior year abroad at Trinity College in Dublin, the scene of much solitary drinking for me in 1979, just before I got sober. The Ireland of those days was poetic, isolated in its greens and grays. Tiny towns, empty kelp strewn beaches, pubs with earnest young men intrigued by drunken American women traveling alone. In 2012 my personal landscape was much different—husband, career, daughter in college. Addictions specialist, a clinician. Homeowner. Monogamous old sober married lady.
My daughter was drinking too much. By this time my husband had flown back home and I was spending some more time in Dublin in the short term apartment we had rented across from Christ Church, just up from the nightlife of Temple Bar and the pubs along Dame Street.
My daughter grudgingly told me I could come along with her to a pub where she was meeting friends, but the pub was nothing like the ones I remembered. It was a loud Saturday-night bar with girls falling off their stilettos and guys who might as well have been varsity bros from back home.
I flattened against a wall, a gray-haired lady in Uggs and a windbreaker, as my daughter took off to find her friends. She returned, Guinness in hand, and told me there wasn’t anywhere for us to sit and what did I want to do? I wanted to be her, I thought. Or me, before the reality of addiction hit. I wanted to feel the warm hug of the alcohol sliding down my throat and I knew exactly at what point I would feel what and I wouldn’t worry about getting old and I wouldn’t worry about my daughter and I wouldn’t worry about having to quit my lousy heartbreaking job when I got back to the States, and maybe for one second I would feel satisfied. The memory of that satisfaction never goes away, although I refuse to think about it, as if forgetting is a talisman in and of itself, like the Hamsa and raven talon I wear around my neck.
She wanted me to leave. So I did.
It occurred to me absolutely no one would know if I stopped into another pub along the way and got hammered. Shit-faced. Ripped-to-the-tits. I thought about all the words we used to talk about drunkenness. And how no one would know. Earlier that day on Grafton Street an older man in a tweed cap flirted with me. It was a turn-on in an ancient way and it also occurred to me no one would know if I did anything at all that night. It had been decades since I felt the thrill and possibility of a secret.
But of course I didn’t do anything but walk up Dame to Christ Church, stopping at a kiosk for some noodles, politely stepping over the bundled woman sitting on the ground in her regular begging spot.
As much as I tell my patients relapse is a part of recovery, I didn’t relapse. As much as I believe alcoholism is an illness, I believe recovery is a mystery. I tell my patients to go to AA, to NA, that 12-step work “enhances their chances.” I got sober by swimming early morning laps, adding one a day until I could glide effortlessly for a mile. Discipline, humility, and luck. Words, music, and promises instead of secrets pulled me along that lonely Dublin street, let me squint beyond the ghosts, Jack under moonlit sheets. Although I believe in the magic that saved and intoxicates me, as an addictions clinician I know the statistics, the cold hard facts. Magic is not enough.
To everyone I may have had a Jack Daniels-infused afternoon tumble with in musty sheets on a back road, a rocky beach, or city street, here’s to us. Here’s to grief and another forty plays of The Boss. Here’s to Bruce. Here’s to the younger me, that wild me I will always love unconditionally, to my daughter who is just one year shy of the age I was when I got sober. And here’s to Jack—may you always be poured out into a parking lot. Let me miss you terribly. Let me cry. It’s okay.
Oh, yeah: And here’s to another forty years.
Rumpus original art by Susan Ito.
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.