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Authors: John Berryman

Recovery

BOOK: Recovery
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To the Suffering Healers
I don't write as a member of the American and international society, Alcoholics Anonymous (founded 1935), but as an author merely who has experienced certain things, witnessed things, heard things, imagined some. The materials of the book, however, especially where hallucinatory, are historical; all facts are real; ladies and gentlemen, it's true.
J.B.
Oh! I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer
MIRANDA, IN SHAKESPEARE'S
SECOND REDEMPTIVE WORK, I.ii.5
 
‘My doctrine is not mine'
JOHN 7
16
FIRST DAY
Sufficient Unto the day is the evil thereof.
MATTHEW 6
34
 
 
A
LAN SEVERANCE, M.D., LITT. D., formerly Professor of Immunology and Molecular Biology, now the University Professor, Pulitzer Prize winner, etc.—twice-invited guest on the Dick Cavett Show (stoned once, and a riot)—found his right arm up under the pillow as usual—not his pillow though, bone-hard—and opened both eyes. He was back in hospital. How he had got there he didn't know. The last thing he remembered was Ruth's hard eyes and the voice of her final declaration. Time shifted. This room was larger, squarer, than last Spring's: he knew the treatment center had been moved from the Main Building, where he had continued in out-patient treatment and AA for the last four was it months, to Ward W, and the number of beds enlarged. The dull cream walls looked newer, the ceiling lower. One wall-length window, or three with the venetian half-closed. Ambiguous in light, 6:45 by his Gruen. His plan of yesterday harked back, and he shuddered. At least he was still alive, safe back in hospital. No gun, anyway. His forehead hurt. Otherwise he didn't feel bad at all. What he felt, as he got his elbow under him and reached for a cigarette, finding one, was determined. This was It. Third time—not lucky, sweat and blood, wasting no minute. His mind was clear as mountain air. Moreover he knew exactly what to
do
this
time: There must have been something wrong with his First Step. Gus Larson, the savage, had bought it, but he was wrong. He had taken him in, God knows without meaning to but ‘sincerity' was nothing in this game. Okay. Start over. It felt he would not be fighting withdrawal this time, either. He'd find out what the
hell
was wrong and fix it. Submit was the ticket. He was prepared with all his power for anything. He finished combing his hair, grinned his half-ugly/charming (‘Mad Charm Severance' his place-card had read at a party in Cambridge thirty years ago) stern face at himself with malice, and went out into the corridor to find the new lounge and coffee. No lights yet.
A verse from Joel drifted through his mind as he walked and decided, by glow, the nurses' station was to the left. ‘Awake, ye drunkards, and weep … for it is cut off from your mouth.' Even so; ‘Sanctify ye and fast.' Light was pouring from a doorway with a black sign ‘SNACK ROOM' dim on the white wall beside it. A tiny kitchen was all, with four bodies in it. He went confidently in. Greetings, smiles all round—a hairy-chested man in a blue striped wrapper leaning against the freezer-cabinet biting an Eskimo Pie—except from the plump-faced fair girl on the near side of the little table. She glanced up toward him, morose, that was all. Chin propped on the heel of her hand, her lacy fingers. A medium short man, maybe forty, with a short beard, looked familiar. ‘Jasper?' ‘Jasper Stone.' Well, well.
The coffee was as bad as ever, Santa Maria. Discussion of this fact. Data traded. And where was the lounge? This was the lounge, frankly: there were three real ones, at the end of each corridor, but nobody used them. Severance mentioned nostalgia for the great single central lounge and fine kitchen next to it in the old Ward D, alas, murmurs of sympathy with universal (reciprocal) deterioration. He felt comfortable at once with a wiry perky short Irishman
older than himself seated across from the silent girl. He had been a pro hockey player. Raised eyebrows, an innocent tough look, crinkled. Mild Charley, a goddamn saint (it was to turn out) with an Adam's apple. They swapped yarns, reading the others gently out of the Book of Life, growing excited together. Severance was never much of an athlete, despite the broad-shouldered thin build—too nerved up—but he had won numerals in track and crew, wrestled with seriousness (pinned a 180-pounder in Freshman gym in two minutes, he boasted—at 140 himself), and he had known that year a formidable quarter-miler, classmate named Johnson, nineteen, black as starless country night he came from, two national records already, a streak of light, and softly intelligent. He told Charley the high thing that happened after practice one afternoon when, Severance standing by, some metropolitan reporter asked if he had any formula for the 440, notoriously the worst distance of all. ‘Sure,' said Johnson agreeably. ‘I run the first 220 as fast as possible to get in front. Then I run the second 220 even faster, to stay out in front.' Everybody laughed—Severance elbowed his coffee over in self-appreciation—even Jeree smiled—but old Charley Boyle looked intensely surprised and gratified too, not just ‘dulcedinis almae,' blue eyes sharp among wrinkles. They pointed out to each other the broad relevance of this attack on life's problems but its peculiar application to the present task of Severance, who had been through treatment twice before and ought to be desperate but wasn't, but was. He quoted Lautrec's remark, ‘I paint with my penis,' and explained in one fancy sentence (bypassing a Matisse anecdote) who Lautrec was.
Here Severance had a coughing attack. One of these accompanied his first cigarette almost every morning and they recurred with grisly frequence all day and all evening until he dropped his final butt down the toilet, flushed it away, and reeled or crept into bed. They did not for some
reason occur in lecture or seminar, but everywhere else they convulsed without mercy, horrible to all within hearing. Hundreds had clapped him on the back, men as well as women had run for water, and to the near-prostration of the seizures themselves—he often half-expected to
die
at the third or fourth next hack—was superadded the exasperating need to reassure his stricken company: ‘Just cigarettes (hack!)—three packs (hack!) a day for (hack!) thirty-five years. My internist says I have a (hack hack hack) chronic mild bronchitis. Die of cancer of the trachea, caught too late to (hack! hack!) operate.' So they'd all laugh together (hack!). Theatres were worst, sometimes he gave up and slunk out. Not a problem, really, except social; and the agony of the throat. He had tried everything, cutting down (many devices), pipes, cigars, even cold turkey. He had quit once in Rome, for seven hours after breakfast, during the last two of which his (first) wife was begging him to take it up again.
Jeree murmured something about Wisconsin. Severance, a little hard of hearing, bent forward. ‘I'm sorry?' ‘I was in treatment before too.' This endeared her to him, the pretty, sullen smooth-haired young lady with veteran troubles; he felt less isolated, and determined to help her. Feeble himself, he was a St Bernard or Crusader castle to twenty other people, hundreds of other people annually. She couldn't be in his trouble but she didn't look good.
‘They drink brandy in Wisconsin,' said hairy George, roundheaded, goodnatured, early thirties, some sort of businessman. ‘A bartender in that thirsty but fastidious State once told me they consume more brandy than all the rest of the States put together. It isn't so. I happened on figures the other day: two and a half million gallons of brandy. Quite a bit, buddies. But only a quarter of U.S. brandy sales.'
Severance, though interested to hear this (he bought facts, like all Americans except Emerson, and found real
ones hard to come by), had decided that he did not like George, all knowing smiles, shallow, glib, too cheerful altogether considering their circumstances, not really passionate about his future sobriety. Severance felt sorry for him. Severance also felt sorry for Jeree, who did not look in any shape to do much for herself, and even for Jasper Stone, the extremely bitter bearded poet, who did not seem to care about anything whatever. Other patients had crowded yawning into the nine-by-eleven cubicle now, and he felt sorry for everybody—except Charley and himself, who meant to do a job on this problem.
So he felt depressed when he learned after breakfast that he had been assigned to Louise's Group. Staring moodily down on a half-empty parking lot, he said to himself: ‘I am at the point of death—physical mental spiritual. Highly promising. I have nothing to lose. There exists the lock, my only concern is the key. Is
Louise
likely to help me locate it?' Never watched Louise in Group, a goodlooking pale tall blackhaired girl (thirty-eight?), rather stiff and pleasant, but could she confront? His spirits lifted a little, though, when, looking around the fated room at ten o'clock, he found Julitta down in the corner off right of him—supercilious stare, upswept peroxide, trim ankles, pug nose. She sure could.
When all the chairs were full (nine, eleven, too many, what attention could he hope for in such a large Group?
one
confrontation a fortnight, maybe only one in the whole three weeks, moreover he had been saddened by the lecture, enjoyed it—he admired Father Krueger—but picked up nothing new, after all he'd heard it twice before—if he couldn't depend on lectures, what was there but Group and of course First Step Prep). Louise rose, saying, ‘Let's all stand and pray the Serenity Prayer.' They joined moist hands and unisoned: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change' (he relaxed some as he said this—more trust, he needed more trust),
‘the courage to change the things I can' (after all, if nothing happened by the weekend he could talk to the Chief Counsellor about a possible transfer, it had been done), ‘and the wisdom to know the difference.' His rich, practised, lecturer's voice had dominated the chorus, giving him no pleasure as they sat down, returning each into his own world.
He found Louise looking at him. ‘Alan,' she said quietly with an appearance of real interest, ‘would you like to tell us something about yourself? I know you were in treatment here last Spring, but that's about all.'
Dr Severance did not find himself as eager to talk as he had expected. He was pretty sure he was not going to be confronted—confrontation was unheard of during the first week, patients being fogged-in for at least that long (though he did not notice any fog in himself)—but he felt uneasy. Business had begun. He braced himself and his eyes sent her eyes eight feet away a rueful message.
‘That's right,' he said, ‘and before that at Howarden last Fall. With genuine pain it occurs to me that I am an alcoholic, and it was the opinion of Dr Rome, delivered one evening last July in Encounter-Group, that I might be untreatable. We'll see. I've been an alcoholic, so far as I can judge, for twenty-three years. I hallucinated one morning on the way home from an all-night party outside town—heard voices. No trouble with liquor before that. What was I—thirty-two. My first adulterous love affair. I'd been faithful to my wife—despite heavy provocation which I'll spare you—for five years. My mistress drank heavily and I drank along with her, and afterward I just kept on. Not all the time, of course, long periods of social drinking, in fact once I was sober for four months—and happy too, so my present wife tells me, I don't remember anything about it. First wife left me, after eleven years, because she couldn't stand my drinking. Second wife left me, very shortly indeed, same reason. Married nine years now
to Ruth, she said Treatment or else. Half a dozen hospitals, spent a night in jail, some reporter picked up the news and the most powerful newspaper in that State put it on the front page, just six lines but it was also on radio, and I had to resign—job I hated anyway but never mind that. The usual horror story.' His sense was odd: at once he felt nothing and he was shaken. He heard his voice unconvincingly reeling off the bloody old wives' tale, abrupted it with relief, glancing back at Louise—he had been staring at the empty middle of the floor, not much enjoying the circle of faces felt, not disliking them—let's face it,
bored.
‘Why do you think you're back in treatment?'
He was not keen on this question; but he might as well give her the word. ‘One, I'm damned if I know, Louise. Two, I must have conned Gus Larson with my First Step: I don't see how. Gus is fond of glaring at some shivering alcoholic who has just recited his sins, leaning forward with his hands on his thighs and elbows out—a brutal type, coarse with suspicion—and booming at him, “You're a drunken
lying
halfassed bum!”
Or
he leans back, with a tender expression, and says gently: “In my opinion, you're not an alcoholic. I don't know what you're doing here. If I could drink the way you do—or say you do —friend, I
would.
” So I don't see how I got away with whatever I got away with. My two treatments—believe it or not—were not exactly rest-cures. The first few days at Howarden—I spent a whole week in Intensive Care, I was in such bad physical shape, before they assigned me to a Unit and began treatment: my first four days and nights—I slept either not at all, or one hour, two hours—so I had twenty hours a day to go over every goddamned evil and awful thing I've done in the last twenty-odd years. The word is “fearless and searching” self-scrutiny, and believe me I held nothing back from myself. Well, that's the Fourth Step; and I haven't suffered
greatly from the past since that week. I do still feel very bloody sometimes, but that's simply a menace, there's no use in it, I apply the damned Serenity Prayer to it, no offence, Louise. Then my Fifth Step was one of the most marvellous experiences of my extensive life. I took it with a young priest from New England. It's different at Howarden, I had not only written out the Step but he had studied the account. It was long. Well, we spent the first three hours on my vices and shortcomings, broke for lunch, and then two hours on my up-to-scratch's if any, and I went home and was sober for months until I suddenly got plunged into a brand new, very demanding and inflammatory job of work, finished it (I
thought
) in less than six weeks, at which point I was back up to a quart a day—I drink nothing but bourbon nowadays, only brandy abroad—and half-dead both body and nerves. My wife and our psychiatrist (a joker who knows nothing whatever about alcoholism) pushed me in here.' He stopped, tired, his heart slowed down slowly.
BOOK: Recovery
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