RECOVERY/Larry Kearney

Let the Beast Sleep

It's funny about drunks -- when they get sober, sometimes their families don't seem happy about it. But new sobriety is hard. You lose your drinking friends and the others are suspicious. It's hardest when the suspicious ones are inside your family, but you have to get used to that. The reasons are complex but simple, as is everything to do with addiction.

I remember when I'd play the middleman at meetings between residential clients and their families. It was never how I thought it might be because there's nothing predictable about a minefield except for the one thing -- you may blow up.

The clients were nervous, occasionally seriously frightened, sometimes pain-in-the-ass arrogant and self-pitying, but the families could be astonishing. Family eyes were on the lam, turning and jumping as if they'd been spotted by a cop. They'd flare at bits of the past -- the edges of emotional graves, tended plots of submission and acquiescence -- real things, long-ago lost hopes, memories of opportunities missed and love thwarted like a kid in one of those halter things you still see around, a leash for the soft, wayward heart.

Families can form military units to stand off the invasion. You can feel the anger and the fear of each word, each meeting of eyes across the very old space. I've watched a child, a 28-year-old alcoholic child, sit open-mouthed as his parents told me all about what they'd done over the years and how good life had been.

I've seen parents come along with wife or husband, the grandchildren with them a little shy but okay, only slightly aware of their roles as hostages and human shields. I've watched a middle-aged woman bounce off the stony front of her husband and parents -- "Well, we all certainly hope she means it this time, don't we, Ed?"

It's tough on everyone, because lying at the feet of the little group, right in the middle, is a shaggy, indeterminate beast, asleep, and God, dear God, everyone hopes he stays that way.

It's like a panel discussion on the tube -- there are acceptable tones of voice and ways of proceeding, and no matter what the topic may be, ways of letting it sleep, letting the watchers sleep, keeping the beast from the throat of the discourse.

These days the beast is kept away with pointless, endless, meaningless noise and cheap viciousness, but the soothing voices used to work quite well and accomplish the same thing.

The patterns are complex, the personalities are complex, the pasts are secret and loud at the same time and the facts are in question. But always, underneath, is the basic, fearful perception that someone may suddenly say one of the things that isn't allowed to be said.

The alcoholic pariah is feared because while his madness set him apart and aside, it also left him free to observe and, worst of all, to not buy into the structure -- what can and can't be said, what did and didn't happen, and where the bodies are buried.

The lucky ones have families who are scared but willing. The unlucky have to hit the wall, and hit it again, and hit it again until the message and the blood seep through and someone thinks, "Oh God, it would be so much easier to just admit this stuff and love each other.'

It all comes down to the one simple proposition -- that you don't have to be afraid of being human, and that misery and fear come with the territory and need not be secret.

We're being beaten into the ground, and our children into hell. It's got to stop.

I saw Sally Quinn on C-SPAN, on a panel, and she just had to say that because of Bill Clinton's sexual involvement with an intern, he now lacked the moral authority to bomb Iraq (they were at it that far back, you know? Itching to get at Iraq).

And I thought about a kid hearing that clearly, sitting at home by himself maybe, stopping at this channel, that channel, and suddenly hearing this nicely-coiffed monster of vanity proposing that setting fire to children requires sexual purity.

And I thought of all the meetings I've been in, men and women trying as hard as they can to find what love there is and pass it on, and I got sick and angry much the way I did in that room with parents telling me as one how wonderful their lives were and had been, as their aging son sat open-mouthed and stricken, remembering the pain.

It's got to stop. If a man or woman is willing to tell the truth and wake the thing on the floor, who's to say it won't look around sleepily and rest its head on someone's leg?

What's to lose but vanity and vile, offhand savagery?

Larry Kearney is a writer in Larkspur, Calif., whose works of non-fiction include Whiskey's Children [Kensington], a prose narrative of an alcoholic life, and its sequel, A Bar on Every Corner [Hazelden], which won the Independent Publisher's Award for best memoir of 2002. Email This is the seventh in a series.

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