Archives for posts with tag: alcoholism

Although I call Johnny back as soon as I discover his message, I don’t reach him for a couple of days. When I do get him on the phone he sounds shut down. He is still watching movies around the clock and using “small amounts of alcohol.” Like the narrator of “Alice’s Restaurant” he becomes “open and honest on the telephone.” He begins to cry about how stressful it is for him to stay on top of his life as an independent musician. He says that when the stress gets to him he is unable to stop the slide into depression, inactivity, withdrawal, increased drinking. I don’t remember how he refers to it this time around, but he has used the words “stress” and “depression” before to me.

“I’m afraid to pick up my life again,” he tells me. “I just can’t deal with the stress.”

I am not surprised that Johnny is stressed: he has been drinking for six weeks at least, not eating. I can’t imagine putting my body through the amount of stress his is under. His coping mechanisms are drinking and watching movies and T.V. with one call to his friend and former therapist a day. I want to tell him that his body needs food and vitamins, but I do not raise the issue. Today I just listen.

Johnny tells me that the plan for me to move in had been a source of stress for him and that he is still worried about my not wanting to share every bit of his music. He told me he had a conversation with a thirty-year-old woman about New Orleans at Les Blank’s memorial. I want to say, “Johnny, you are a charismatic musician. There are always going to be fans and younger women wanting a piece of what you’ve got.” I want him to say to those women, like Paul Newman, that he has “steak at home.” But if he is having doubts about me it is good for him to voice them. Maybe he will work through them. He does tell me it helps him to hear my voice.

At the end of our long conversation Johnny says, “I’ll call you tomorrow. Or you can call me.”

* * *

The next morning Johnny and I talk again. He jumps a level in honesty. He tells me he goes out once a day to replenish his liquor supply. I think this is fucked up — he cannot walk a quarter mile to Walgreen’s to get himself vitamins or simple food; he will not go to a grocery store. But I am not an alcoholic, do not sustain myself on booze.

“How many days do you think it would take you to get to Berkeley?” I ask. “I’ll buy you lunch when you come. I’m worried about your not eating. You are cannibalizing your own organs. Your body steals nutrients from them. Couldn’t you at least get some vitamins?”

“This is not a good direction,” he says.

Just like that I have fallen back into making suggestions.

“I’m sorry, Johnny. I’ll stop. I’m just so worried about you.”
“My problems are emotional, not physical.”
“Physical and emotional states are connected,” I say.
“That’s one way of looking at it,” he says. Then “I’m having a hard time forgiving myself for letting McCord and Edie down.”
“We all fuck up sometimes, Johnny.”
“I feel like a terrible person.”
“You’re not a terrible person. You made a mistake. We all do. A hundred people would say you helped and inspired them. McCord and Edie would say that about you.” (They would while also acknowledging that he had let them down at two important album release gigs).

When I hang up I reflect on how powerless I am to help Johnny. All I can do is listen and say compassion meditation for him. All I can do is try to take care of myself so that I can talk to him without rancor or pleading or insisting that he do something.

* * *

The next day he tells me that he has not showered or shaved or changed his clothes for a month. Yow!
“Maybe that’s something you can do today, Johnny.”
“I’m not ready.”
I don’t ask any more questions or make another suggestion.
“I might turn on my computer or start getting rid of the beer bottles.”

I tell Johnny I am reading a book called Guitar Zero by Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist who studies guitar and studies his own learning process.
“I’m interested in how people learn,” he says.
“Do you know about Gardner? He writes about different learning styles.”
“No.”
“I don’t know his first name. He wrote a whole book about learning.”

July has passed into August and Johnny is still holed up in his house. But on August 2nd he tells me “I want to stop drinking. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. I don’t want to go to A.A.”
“My brother goes to Life Ring. And Eric Maisel, a psychologist who works with artists, has written a book on recovery for artists.”

Johnny makes an interested noise. He tells me he has been drinking two six-packs of beer and a pint of whiskey each day. He says there are seven hundred bottles in his living room and he might call a hauling service to get rid of them.

I tell him he will have to come up with healthier ways of coping with stress if he gives up drinking, that there will certainly be some hard times ahead.

“I want to take better care of myself. I’m worried about not eating. I see food on T.V. and it looks good, but I don’t feel the urge to eat.”
“I’m worried about that, too. Sometimes it’s easier to eat with other people. Start with something plain, maybe some soup or some eggs.”

I remind Johnny that he does not need to punish himself, that it would be enough to put his life back together and face other people again.

Johnny likes to quote a line from the movie, “The Right Stuff”: someone asks a pilot, “Do you wish to declare a state of emergency?”

The pilot always answers “No.”

* * *

I myself have been hollow-eyed, despite my best efforts to take care of myself during Johnny’s extended drinking binge. I need to set firmer boundaries around phone calls, tell Johnny that I need my head to hit the pillow by 9:30 at night because I am getting up at 5:30 each morning. I decide to take a day off the next day, spending much of it in bed, sleeping off accumulated weariness from the summer’s long ordeal. I call Johnny and say “I wish to declare a state of emergency,” telling him I’m staying home for the day.

I had been thinking since I was in France in June that I would wait to have a conversation with Johnny about his drinking until he and I could see each other in a public place, have lunch, have a cup of coffee. One night in late July 2013 Johnny told me he wanted to talk to me “about people.”

When he called me the next afternoon to ask about my day I mentioned renting a room at the Kensington Community Center “where I go to an Al-Anon meeting.”

“You went to a 12-step meeting?”
“I told you in June I was going to Al-Anon.”
“How many meetings a week do you go to?”
“I used to go to five. Now I go to three.”
“Five!”
“Johnny, I don’t love going to meetings. But sometimes someone says something I find helpful.”
“I’ve got to go now.”
“I thought you wanted to talk about people.”
“Now is not the time.”
“Okay. Call me when you want to.”
“I will call you,” he said. “In the morning, if not tonight.”

* * *

When Johnny called the next morning he told me it upset him that I mentioned going to Al-Anon. He said, “I thought I’d get better and that we could see each other and I could have a few drinks if I wanted.”

“Did you think your drinking was not a problem?” I asked. “Johnny, I love you. Whatever you do, I can continue to be your friend. You can call me and I’ll be there for you, but if you continue to drink I can’t be in a relationship with you. Your drinking is hurting you. I think you need help.”

“What would that look like?”

I waded into uncertain waters. In retrospect I wish I had turned the question on him and asked him what he thought he needed, but instead I told him I thought he needed to detox under medical supervision and then to get some kind of ongoing support for sobriety. I told him it didn’t have to be AA if he hated AA.

“I’m not abandoning you, Johnny. You can always reach me by phone. You can take time to think about what I’ve said.”

After a long silence, he said “Thank you for sharing. I’ll be calling you sometime.” Then he hung up on me.

After Johnny hung up I notified his brother and a few friends of our conversation and then I went to an Al-Anon meeting.

When I got back, the phone calls started. In one he said I had “dynamited the trust between us.” He called me “arrogant.” Then he called again to call me “an amateur,” presumably because he knew more about drinking and sobering up than I did. He also said I was “judging him” and “laying trips on him.” In still another call he forbade me to talk to his friends and family.

“Johnny, if people call me and want to talk to me it’s my decision whether to talk to them.”
“Now you’re fucking with me. If you do that, you’re out of my life.”
“Johnny, you’re going to do what you are going to do, but if people call me I get to decide how to respond.”
“If people call you, refer them to me.”

I wanted to laugh. I wanted to say, “Maybe they want to talk to someone who will talk to them.” But I didn’t laugh or say that aloud.

The last thing that Johnny said to me was that talking to me made him feel like him feel like dying and he didn’t want to feel like that so he wasn’t going to talk to me. Then he hung up again.

I understood in the moment that Johnny was hurt and angry, that my decision was threatening his drinking, that he was wounded and lashing out. I initially felt lighter to have had the conversation about his drinking at last. Then I felt relieved briefly when the angry phone calls stopped. By the next day I was crying in meditation and asking to be given a heart of love, to be freed from my own anger. The day after that the internal jukebox tormented me during meditation by playing the line “White Lightnin’s still the biggest thrill of all” from “Okie from Muskogee” over and over. I missed Johnny and I worried about him and I still daydreamed about a future with him, but I didn’t know how things were going to go.

Johnny called me again two days after our conversation, but my phone was off the hook and I missed the call. I got the message the next morning. His voice sounded stronger, more like it used to. He didn’t sound angry and said, “Call me, please. Thanks, Johnny.”


The day after Eric and I go to Johnny’s house to see him, one of my old friends, Bob Chrisman, dies in Kansas City. I learn of his death via email two days later and decide that I will honor him in the Buddhist way, sitting zazen and reciting the Heart Sutra for forty-nine days. To do this I will get up in time to be on my meditation cushion by 5:30 AM, which will allow me to sit, chant, write, have breakfast and get out the door to my busking day job by 7:15 AM.

Because Johnny has asked me to call him occasionally I call to leave him the message that Bob has died and that I will be sitting for him every morning. I understand this as Bob’s gift to me in a dark time because his death assures my daily return to meditation.

The day before I learn of Bob’s death, I note in my morning writing that “my life without Johnny has opened up a hole of time. Al-Anon fills some of it.”

Five days after I see Johnny at his house I miss him terribly. I cry on my zafu, for him and for me, and the whole time I meditate “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which they play at New Orleans funerals, plays in my head. I think about having a big party for Johnny while he can still appreciate it, drafting his friend Mike Goodwin to cook vats of red beans and rice, hiring the Savoy family and a second-line band Johnny has recently discovered. I fantasize about inviting all of his friends and family and combining the party with an intervention, telling him “This is what you are going to lose if you keep drinking.”

One minute later I think that it will never work. Johnny will wonder where the booze is, will send out for it, or nip from a pint flask.

I still go to Al-Anon meetings three times a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I do not like them, but sometimes someone says something useful. In my spare time I read passages from AA’s Big Book and memoirs about addiction. My motivation for this reading is to try to understand alcoholism so that I do not blame Johnny for his choices or his denial: denial is a symptom or feature of alcohol addiction — it comes with the territory. Johnny will be telling himself that he can drink if he wants to, that he can control his drinking, that his drinking is not a problem, whatever he needs to tell himself that allows him to drink whenever he feels the need. Unfortunately for me, the more I read about alcoholism the more hopeless I feel. This reminds me of a nun I knew who liked to say, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” Eight days after Eric and I have gone to see Johnny I feel angry.

I am angry at the intractable disease of alcoholism. I am angry that it is hurting someone I love and I am powerless to do anything about it. I am angry that there are no guarantees, no fool-proof intervention. I am angry that reading about alcoholism, as Al-Anon instructs me to do, fills me not with hope, but with horror, as the hopelessness of my situation and Johnny’s seeps into my pores. I have dreams where things are out of control at Johnny’s house, water pouring from first one, then two, faucets, as I try to turn them off, but can only reduce the flow, twist and turn though I might. Dream Johnny says, “Leave it alone.” Dream Sharyn says, “I am going to slip in the water and fall, I need to clean it up.”

I am angry to realize that I would not want to follow AA’s solution to the problem of alcoholism with it’s “God this” and “God that.” If I would not want to do it, how can I expect Johnny to embrace a 12-step recovery program? I meditate. I go to 12-step meetings. I read spiritual literature and the Big Book and I feel like nothing is getting better. I post an oblique message on Facebook, telling my friends I feel angry and hopeless.

Some of them answer me. A friend in recovery calls me and I feel better hearing her voice. Then I go to see a movie I have run across, a documentary about back-up singers. I buy myself a dollar ice cream cone before paying for my ticket and settling into a cushy seat at the Landmark Shattuck.

Johnny would have loved the movie, would have known every singer and every band, would have followed each frame avidly, would have told me stories about the singers and bands later. He would have lapped up the interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Sting. Even without Johnny’s presence I feel lighter for having taken a break from my troubles.

The next morning the jukebox in my head plays “The First Nowell.” WTF? It follows that with “Puff the Magic Dragon.” There is usually a message for me in the song selections, but I cannot decipher today’s bulletins from the unconscious. I learned both songs way back in childhood, around the piano at Christmas, and from the Magic Drawing Board on “Captain Kangaroo.” I do not understand what they are saying to me now. I am still shaking, crying and thinking about Johnny as I meditate.

I get up from my cushion and go downstairs for breakfast. Just as I am about to leave for my busking shift, at the time when I used to call him each morning, Johnny calls me.