Off Switch

I don’t drink.

I mean, I don’t really.

I used to. Really.

I have many tales to tell about my blind blotto face-in-the-toilet days, but most are best left not told, as I’m not proud of them, and I’ve always questioned how people could wake up from these things, sick from dehydration, head pounding and teeth aching, and proclaim they had the Best Time Ever Last Night.

The last time I got drunk – and I mean, really really passed out drunk, so drunk that I was insensible on the bathroom floor – was when my husband was fired from one of his radio gigs. It was Winnipeg and I was much younger, and not used to dealing with the insecurities inherent in the broadcasting world.

So I bought a bottle of Amaretto and drank half of it, took off all of my clothes and fell down on the bathroom floor. We had a friend over who was commiserating with us – being a friend – and when it came time for her to use the toilet, my husband thoughtfully draped a towel over me, the friend stepped over me, did her business, and then went back out into the living room to continue her visit with my husband.

I remember it because I was only half-passed out, drifting in and out of awareness – as one does.

What amazes me is that my husband and our friend just carried on as if it was the most natural thing in the world for me to be incapably drunk, and naked, on the bathroom floor.

I recall a few years before that, being at university, and turning my last two years there into a primer on How to Drink Myself Stupid.

I wasn’t happy. That was a given. I was bored. I was dealing with grief (see my earlier blog about fire and my best friend). And I was at that dangerous age where you do things, and you don’t know why. You just Do.

This fine Alcohol Spree also occurred at about the same time that I decided to Dare Death. If Death could take my best friend, he might also be interested in me. And so I embarked on a run of near suicidal activities. Which included standing on the main east west track belonging to the Canadian Pacific Railway, waiting for a train to come, and staring at it as it approached me.

I waited until the locomotive was about five seconds away, and then I would calmly step off the track and walk away.

I must have given the engineers heart failure. It’s impossible to stop a train composed of three diesel engines and a mile of boxcars, on a dime. They would have known that had I not stepped off the track, they would have hit me.

I read now about the trauma that train engineers go through when they collide with cars that are stuck on crossings, or when they run over people who either deliberately or accidentally, didn’t get out of the way.

And I’m so, so sorry for causing such pain to those good men of the CPR.

I wasn’t drunk when I stood on the tracks, and it’s a good thing too, or I probably wouldn’t be here now, writing this.

My other Death Dare was to drink myself blotto (cheap student wine being the poison of choice – Baby Duck, it was called) and then drive myself home.

Let me point out here that I lived in a small prairie city that was laid out on a grid. All of the avenues went East-West, and all of the streets ran North-South. There was only one hill, and I lived at the bottom of it. If you missed your corner, you could drive on to the next, and be reasonably certain that if you kept turning left, or right, you would eventually get home.

Let me also point out here that these binges invariably happened in the winter, when there was a lot of snow on the ground and the roads were mostly tracts of ice with wheel ruts worn into them. The city scruffed the ice up a bit with sand – it was too cold to use salt – so there was traction, but as a result, all winter long the ice and snow covered streets were the colour of chocolate milk.

And the third thing I want to point out is that my car was a 1962 Volkswagen Beetle, running on three cylinders, with nonexistent heat, a leak in the exhaust which required driving with the window open or dying of carbon monoxide poisoning, and no snow tires.

Let me explain. On the prairies, in winter, snow tires are mandatory. They have deep treads, and sometimes they’re embedded with studs, and they grip the snow and the ice and they give you traction. They allow you to stop. And go.

I had four bald summer tires on my VW and on side streets, which weren’t as ploughed out as the main roads, my usual method of stopping was to throw the thing into Neutral and slide nose first into a snowbank.

Now add one incoherent, close-to-blacking-out driver into this mix, and you’ll have my Death Dare.

As I said, I’m not proud of this. I shudder to think what could have happened if I’d skidded, lost control, lost consciousness… never mind what I would have done to myself – what could I have inflicted on other, innocent, people?

Anyway, I did drive myself home, on many occasions, and on some of them, I have no memory of the route I took. I remember getting into the car, starting the engine, rolling down the window, and slithering off into the night. The next memory I have is of being four or five blocks from home, ten or fifteen minutes had passed, and I was eyeing my favourite snowbank ahead of a Stop sign I knew was coming up.

Sometimes I just drove straight through it, my addled logic being that it was two o’clock in the morning and I was the only person on the road, so to Hell With It.

The last thing I want to mention about those years is that I was one party animal. Not from any sense of joy or fun. I drank because it was more or less expected, and I had nothing better to do. So I’d show up with my Baby Duck, plant myself on a couch, listen to music I hated, and talk to people about nothing. Having drained the bottle, I would then lock myself in what was usually the only bathroom, throw up into the toilet, and then lose consciousness.

Incessant knocking on the door would usually bring me round, and I’d stagger out to the living room past a lineup of desperate party-goers, and promptly pass out there too. Until it was time to go home. And then I’d go… still drunk, still unhappy, still wondering why everyone claimed they were having The Best Time Ever.

I made a decision to stop drinking so much after I’d woken up in the middle of an afternoon one too many times, and realized that I’d wasted what could have been precious writing hours, and that I was going to have to spend another half day recovering, and I could never get that time back.

I have, as my good friends who are in AA sometimes enviously tell me, a Functioning Off Switch.

Which is, apparently, what helps to define me as Not an Alcoholic. I wasn’t born with the gene. I was able to make the decision, it was easy, and once I’d Switched Off, I didn’t miss the booze. I could take it or leave it.

So I left it. And found other ways to deal with my unhappiness.

There is alcoholism in my family – my mother’s brother drank himself to death before cancer of the esophagus could claim him – so I may have dodged a bullet.

The novel I’m currently writing has two main characters. Both are alcoholics. One drinks. The other doesn’t. I’m at the point where I need to draw on my memories – distorted and drenched as they are – as well as the experiences and nightmares of my friends whose Off Switches are broken – to help me define what makes these two tick.

I’m not sure why I’m just a tiny bit reluctant.

Perhaps, after all these years, I still need to forgive myself.

Perhaps, after all these years, that forgiveness will come, finally, in the form of fiction.



Filed under Things About Me

2 responses to “Off Switch

  1. Julie

    Fascinating stuff, really…not your usual blog post. But then, what else would I expect from you? đŸ™‚

  2. “If Death could take my best friend.” Ahha. there you go, that’s what you were doing, looking for that door. Even if just to be near it.

    How do you stay with things so difficult — because that’s what it takes to write a book about alcoholics. I’m such a coward. I go after what intrigues, what fascinates me. Still, the shiny things.

    The dark dark door. That takes courage. Maybe I’ve been too close, and not of my own choosing. And Hades: he’s a shiny thing to me. Maybe it’s best.

    Best to you, who always gave so much to others.

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