I owe my life to a process of recovery that was difficult but simple, and required only that I be honest and willing. I started the process 22 years ago, and when I was two or three years into it, I looked around with a bit of clarity and wondered how I'd come to be the person I'd been, that waxwork horror.
Looking around in America now, I find myself wondering in much the same way how we came to this place, with these people, and what we've all had to do with it.
America is changing in ways that make me edgy in the night. In the morning I open my eyes and the odd, empty sadness is there again -- the sense that something is being lost for good that doesn't have to be lost -- the feeling that maybe it's too late to stop now and that an unholy combine of technology, power, PR and emotional ignorance is going to run us over and stack our bodies for fertilizer, or chicken feed.
It's a deep sadness because I remember America the way I remember my parents -- how they were -- loving, informed by a notion of human decency, unlikely to look down on anyone. They were decent people. They informed themselves. They cared about politics because they knew what politics could do.
I remember a shared country -- a generalized feeling that if things weren't always right, and they weren't, paying attention and voting would change them without fail and that human decency and concern for the helpless could only increase, and be more effective.
I remember a time when shamelessness wasn't possible, and a politician couldn't blatantly lie without paying the price. I remember when a key aide to President Eisenhower, Sherman Adams, had to leave his office because his wife had accepted a fur coat from a businessman -- a fur coat, not even mink. It was a scandal, really.
I remember when Joe McCarthy came tumbling down.
I remember when America was recognizable as a flawed giant moving in the right direction, laboriously. If we were using troops and fear to impose our will on savagely poor populations, well, there was still a sense that things changed slowly for the better, for all of us, maybe even the Guatemalans, and the Nicaraguans, and the Congolese.
I don't see it that way anymore. I don't feel it. And I find myself thinking it's all over for us, much as I thought my life was over in '81 when it was clearly only a matter of weeks before I'd be gone, leaving behind a ravaged wife who'd loved me, a wounded, emotionally compromised 16-year-old son, and a history of 23 years of drunkenness, lost opportunity and fear in the night.
I was wrong, though, and I survived. I survived because I gave up the fight to defend my ridiculous false pride and my addiction to alcohol.
Now, when I wake up and the sheer trashiness of this government drains every bit of hope out of me, I remember what it was like in 1981, and how I stumbled through life a broken thing, with a headful of rat-like fear. What I remember most is that underneath my fake personality, my soul was still ticking.
And that there's always hope. And that if drunks recover, there are ways for countries to recover. And that a country's recovery is going to involve the love of strangers for each other, rigorous honesty, and an absolute willingness to give up the fake cure that says "it doesn't matter if I'm doing the same thing again, this time it will work."
I heard a drunk in the old days say "I wanted to save my ass but I found out it was attached to my soul."
Change is possible, even now, and every moment I spend in fear and vagueness and apprehension is attached to the old lie I left behind 23 years ago -- that my situation is unique, and that somehow I'm entitled to stay where I am as everything around me sinks into chaos and fear.
So I want to write about what recovery is, how it feels and how it works. Because in the recovery of one human being from an addiction in hell one finds the outlines of a possible recovery from our public hell of lies, misuse of power, and the once and future misery of children.
I'd like, above all, to begin by saying it doesn't have to be this way, and that we're better than we think. We've been scared and rendered harmless by professionals. But now it's time to stop and take back the hope we had -- the common decency.
Larry Kearney is a Brooklyn native, now living in Larkspur, Calif., whose four 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. He also has written a children's book and 13 books of poetry. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. This is the first in a series.