My Name is Roger, and I’m an alcoholic
By Roger Ebert on August 25, 2009 7:37 AM
In August 1979, I took my last drink. It was about four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, the hot sun streaming through the windows of my little carriage house on Dickens. I put a glass of scotch and soda down on the living room table, went to bed, and pulled the blankets over my head. I couldn’t take it any more.
On Monday I went to visit wise old Dr. Jakob Schlichter. I had been seeing him for a year, telling him I thought I might be drinking too much. He agreed, and advised me to go to “A.A.A,” which is what he called it. Sounded like a place where they taught you to drink and drive. I said I didn’t need to go to any meetings. I would stop drinking on my own. He told me to go ahead and try, and check back with him every month.
The problem with using will power, for me, was that it lasted only until my will persuaded me I could take another drink. At about this time I was reading The Art of Eating, by M. F. K. Fisher, who wrote: “One martini is just right. Two martinis are too many. Three martinis are never enough.” The problem with making resolutions is that you’re sober when you make the first one, have had a drink when you make the second one, and so on. I’ve also heard, You take the first drink. The second drink takes itself.That was my problem. I found it difficult, once I started, to stop after one or two. If I could, I would continue until I decided I was finished, which was usually some hours later. The next day I paid the price in hangovers.
I’ve known two heavy drinkers who claimed they never had hangovers. I didn’t believe them. Without hangovers, it is possible that I would still be drinking. Unemployed, unmarried, but still drinking–or, more likely, dead. Most alcoholics continue to drink as long as they can. For many, that means death. Unlike drugs in most cases, alcohol allows you to continue your addiction for what’s left of your life, barring an accident. The lucky ones find their bottom, and surrender.
An A.A. meeting usually begins with a recovering alcoholic telling his “drunkalog,” the story of his drinking days and how he eventually hit bottom. This blog entry will not be my drunkalog. What’s said in the room, stays in the room. You may be wondering, in fact, why I’m violating the A.A. policy of anonymity and outing myself. A.A. is anonymous not because of shame but because of prudence; people who go public with their newly-found sobriety have an alarming tendency to relapse. Case studies: those pathetic celebrities who check into rehab and hold a press conference.
In my case, I haven’t taken a drink for 30 years, and this is God’s truth: Since the first A.A. meeting I attended, I have never wanted to. Since surgery in July of 2006 I have literally not been able to drink at all. Unless I go insane and start pouring booze into my g-tube, I believe I’m reasonably safe. So consider this blog entry what A.A. calls a “12th step,” which means sharing the program with others. There’s a chance somebody will read this and take the steps toward sobriety.
Yes, I believe A.A. works. It is free and everywhere and has no hierarchy, and no one in charge. It consists of the people gathered in that room at that time, many perhaps unknown to one another. The rooms are arranged by volunteers. I have attended meetings in church basements, school rooms, a court room, a hospital, a jail, banks, beaches, living rooms, the back rooms of restaurants, and on board the Queen Elizabeth II. There’s usually coffee. Sometimes someone brings cookies. We sit around, we hear the speaker, and then those who want to comment do. Nobody has to speak. Rules are, you don’t interrupt anyone, and you don’t look for arguments. As we say, “don’t take someone else’s inventory.”
I know from the comments on an earlier blog that there are some who have problems with Alcoholics Anonymous. They don’t like the spiritual side, or they think it’s a “cult,” or they’ll do fine on their own, thank you very much. The last thing I want to do is start an argument about A.A… Don’t go if you don’t want to. It’s there if you need it. In most cities, there’s a meeting starting in an hour fairly close to you. It works for me. That’s all I know. I don’t want to argue with you about it.
What a good doctor, and a good man, Jakob Schlichter was. He was in one of those classic office buildings in the Loop, filled with dentists and jewelers. He was a gifted general practitioner. An appointment lasted an hour. The first half hour was devoted to conversation. He had a thick Physician’s Drug Reference on his desk, and liked to pat it. “There are 12 drugs in there,” he said, “that we know work for sure. The best one is aspirin.”
One day, after a month of sobriety, I went to see him because I feared I had grown too elated, even giddy, with the realization that I need not drink again. “Maybe I’m manic-depressive,” I told him. “Maybe I need lithium.”
“Alcohol is a depressant,” he told me. “When you hold the balloon under the water and suddenly release it, it is eager to pop up quickly.” I nodded. “Yes,” I said, “but I’m too excited. I wake up too early. I’m in constant motion. I’d give anything just to feel a little bored.”
“Lois, will you be so kind as to come in here?” he called to his wife. She appeared, an elegant Jewish mother. “Lois, I want you to open a little can of grapefruit segments for Roger. I know you have a bowl and a spoon.” His wife came back with the grapefruit. I ate the segments. He watched me closely. “You still have your appetite,” he said. “When you feel restless, take a good walk in the park. Call me if it doesn’t work.” It worked. I knew walking was a treatment for depression, but I didn’t know it also worked for the ups.
I don’t always agree with Ebert’s film reviews, and I have no opinion myself really regarding A.A., but this was an excellently written essay. Anyway, I know the topic isn’t “popular media” itself, but I felt it okay to post here because it was written by a popular film critic. Moderator, feel free to move it if it’s more appropriate elsewhere.