by Pam Walters —
When you start to fizzle, and you need to wet your whistle,
Drink carbonated Gatorade.
When you start to sink, there’s only one soft drink,
Carbonated Gatorade …
Another perfectly good jingle for a product that never went anywhere. It’s the story of my life.
Why am I recalling this jingle at 6 a.m.? Probably because of all the cocaine I did last night. I must have slept with my mouth open.
I stir slowly and sense my surroundings. Thank God I’m alone. I sit up in bed. My neck is stiff. I try not to move my head as I untangle myself from the sheets and get up. I walk slowly into the bathroom. Since the light is already on, I walk smack into myself in the mirror. I’m shocked. I look every minute of 40. And my hair apparently got up before I did. I try to smooth it down, at least tame my bangs. They shoot straight up from my head at a 90 degree angle. I must have slept with my arm slung across my forehead and pushed my Revlon Champagne #411 bangs up and back. Even in my sleep, I’m forlorn.
I have bags under my eyes. And under the bags and at the outer edges of my eyes, wrinkles scallop around in layers. All those crow’s feet look like a rococo frame around my large, pale, red and blue eyes. People have always said my eyes are my best feature. Not this morning.
Amidst the explosion of hair, light, multi-colored eyes, and wan complexion, the only color on my face is the broken capillaries around my nose. Forty isn’t so old, I think to myself. I didn’t look this bad last year. In fact I looked good for a time. Oh, that’s right, I had gone into a rehab and wasn’t drinking or doing coke. How long had it lasted—three, four months maybe? And then I picked up again. That’s how they say it in AA: he or she ‘went back out’ or they ‘picked up’.
I can still remember the peace, clarity, and loopy optimism I felt when I said, “I’m Pam and I’m an alcoholic.” I knew what it meant and I knew how it felt not to drink or take drugs. I was sober—clean and sober. I thought I’d never use again. Not ever. It felt too good to be sober. I discovered an inner serenity that I’d never experienced before. The only other way I even got near the state of calm I enjoyed when I was sober was taking that first drink of the day or snorting that first line, or making that initial connection with a hot guy. But quickly after that first drink, first line or man du jour, everything went to hell—emotionally, spiritually, and now physically.
When I first started drinking—in my late teens—I realized I was doing it alcoholically. Drinking mattered more to me than it did to my school friends. I knew it and I knew they knew I already had a problem with alcohol by the looks they gave each other when I’d continue drinking long after they’d stopped.
Being an alcoholic wasn’t a surprise to me. My mother was an alcoholic. Her mother was an alcoholic and a drug addict. And on it went, back many generations.
One time in my early 20’s, as my mother prepared dinner for the two of us, she said, “Pam, you’re drunk. And it’s only six o’clock.”
Dad was working late at the car dealership as usual. I had come over after work for our weekly meal together. Without looking at me, she took a healthy slurp of her gin martini and continued slicing tomatoes. She enjoyed her martinis straight up in a tall, traditional martini glass with one gigantic ice cube.
“I haven’t been drinking,” I lied. My eyes bugged out in earnestness the way liars do. She set down the knife and just glared at me with that “Oh, really …” look. In AA and NA they have a joke: How do you know when an addict is lying? Their lips are moving.
I paused for a moment and thought, “Of course she knows. Everyone knows.”
“Mother, I think I’m an alcoholic,” I said slowly, solemnly.
“Of course you are,” she said without hesitation. “It runs in the family. You just have to learn to pace yourself,” she continued. “Otherwise, honey, you’re never gonna last.” She drained the rest of her drink.
Back then, in my 20s, I was already a daily drinker and addicted to speed. Before cocaine became popular and so available, everyone took bennies. I loved feeling like I was going 125 miles an hour, heart pounding. But as I look at myself in the mirror this morning, twenty years later, I can see how the abuse to my once beautiful face and body has taken its toll. Seriously, I had been very pretty. When I was growing up, people said I looked like Hayley Mills, the young actress who played twins inThe Parent Trap. That innocent waspy look is long gone. I’m starting to resemble Willie Nelson.
Can I stop again the way I did last year when I was in rehab? Maybe … if I try really hard. I don’t have the pressure of having to be at work every day. I quit my last job about a month ago. Even my ex-fiancée, Superman (aka David), who was an far worse alcoholic than I, managed to quit. So now my biggest enabler has finally given up on me and moved out. Even when he was drinking, Superman was probably my most healthy relationship.
Prior to Superman, there was a long list of married men, girlfriends’ boyfriends or husbands, bosses, wanna-be bosses. “Don’t forget,” I murmured. “You promised me I’d get that new Velveeta assignment.” This was my idea of pillow talk.
There were the men I at least knew, and then there were the ones I didn’t know. My periodic episodes of serial one-night stands were similar to binge drinking. Sometimes I’d crank up my drinking, drugging and sexual activity into high gear for a week or so. I’d eventually bottom out and go back to maintenance drinking and celibacy.
When I was in my late teens, I met a nutty woman in a bar. We huddled together and whispered into each other’s ear the way drunk women at bars do. We became best friends for the evening. “I haven’t had sex in over five years,” she said. “If you don’t have sex, your hymen seals up and you’re a virgin again.” Not being of right mind, I wondered if that was possible. I think I still speculate about it when I go through long bouts without sex.
This morning, I awake with the usual resolve not to drink before six o’clock. These thoughts are soon replaced by a frantic despair … and then hopelessness. I imagine my state of mind looking like a bad aura emanating from my head. Like a garish, Rastafarian-colored rainbow. I can’t think straight.
I shuffle my way to the kitchen, and I start to come to. And suddenly, yes, the resolve not to drink or take anything mind-bending is there again. It always is—in and out—first thing in the morning. And then something happens. A shift, a mental twist, and I’m right back in the thick of it. And the idea of not having a drink or a pill or a line or a toke or calling some guy to make it all better is absolutely out of the question. It isn’t even an absurd notion. I don’t feel or think anything. I operate by rote.
Mechanically I take a can of Snappy Tom out of the refrigerator. I open the cupboard and pull down my big glass tumbler and take out the bottle of vodka I hide behind a stack of dinner plates. Even though I live alone now, I hide my vodka. Then I get out the big, old-fashioned ice cube tray from the freezer. It belonged to my mother. It’s the ancient metal kind, where you pull back on the lever to loosen the cubes. Shards of ice burst from the tray.
“It’s not so bad,” I say to myself—smiling at my humor in the face of today’s first failure. “There are less calories in tomato juice than in orange juice.”
Glass to lips, big swig now, and instantly I feel better. As the liquor enters my mouth and flows down my gullet, all the nonsense about quitting drinking, or second thoughts about having quit my job, or remorse over the breakup with Superman get pushed out and away from my mind. “But I’ll only have one,” I chide myself. And now I need to shower and try to repair the damage done yesterday. Even though I haven’t left the house in days, this morning feels particularly like the old days when I’d be out partying all night. Now that I’m not working, everyday is the same. But some days are rougher than others.
Three hours, a couple of lines, and several drinks later, I find myself standing out in the cold late November wind on Michigan Avenue. I debate whether to go into Bloomingdale’s or down the street to I. Magnin. Bloomies feels too hip for what I need. I want to be surrounded by classic, old-world elegance. I don’t want to be bombarded by spritzers spraying me with the latest perfume. I need timelessness and age-old solutions for my problems.
Even though I’m 20 pounds overweight and I haven’t hit the gym in over six months, I’ve decided to start with my face.
“Is this the best stuff you’ve got?” I ask the woman seated behind the counter.
“That’s right, dear,” she says looking up at me over her gold wire-rimmed reading glasses. When Geraldine stands up, she’s got to be over six feet tall. She’s wearing a black smock with the La Prairie logo on her breast pocket. She has a mop of Merlot-colored hair. I stare at her hair trying to figure out the style. There are swoops and dips and waves circling her head. It looks like a troubled Red Sea. For someone working in skincare, she’s wearing a ghoulish amount of make-up. When she comes around from behind the counter, she looms over me. She seems to sway, and I can’t tell if it’s her or me. I’m having an out of body experience. My neck seems to have drifted away from my chest. I sit down on the sleek chrome and leather stool in submission.
“I need help,” I say. “My skin’s all dreary looking.”
“You do look a bit … pasty.”
“Easy, okay?” I set my purse down on the floor and slip out of my mink coat. I settle in and hook my ankles around the base of the stool. I know I’m going to be there for a while.
“Let’s see,” she says. And we both peer at my face through the 10X magnifying mirror. What a horrible invention. “Your pores are still pretty good, but your skin is extremely dry. You’re completely dehydrated.”
“I do feel a bit parched,” I say, trying to wet my lips. I have my usual case of dry mouth … the effects of cocaine winning out over the liquids I’ve consumed.
Geraldine walks back behind the counter and surveys her neat rows of pristine, blue and white boxes. She reminds me of a bartender. A beauty bartender. “I have just what you need. It’s our premium line,” she says with assurance.
“Naturally,” I murmur. She turns back around and looks at me suspiciously. And somehow even though I’m seated and she’s standing up in the stratosphere, she’s again able to look at me over the top of her reading glasses. I give up my attempts at sarcasm and smile sheepishly.
She goes back to her rows of product. She taps certain boxes then drags her long, artificial fingernails across the row like a pianist skimming across the white keys. She makes her selections mentally and then walks back to where she started—like the judge at a dog show. After a moment’s pause, she pulls down several different sized boxes and organizes them into three piles on the counter in front of me. I feel like the schnook in a game of three-card monte. Quickly and efficiently, she unboxes jars, tubes and bottles, and outlines my new skincare regimen: morning cleanser, refresher and moisturizer through pre-make up primer to my afternoon revitalizer to my new evening ritual of masques and serums. I’m not able to comprehend much of what she’s saying. All this data is way too confusing, and I’m getting far too much information about the chemical compositions of each remedy. I reckon I’ll sort it out later. In fact, the thought that I’ll need to reread all the instructions later feels invigorating. Now I have something to do when I get back home.
“I’ll take it,” I say trying to cut short her closing sales pitch. At first she looks surprised, then attributes the good news to her superior salesmanship. She gives herself a self-assured head nod. I notice though that the whole time she’s been talking, she never smiled. Not through her greeting, her evaluation of my needs or now through the wrap-up. I give her my credit card without looking at the tally. She slides a sideways glance at me as she swipes my card, “I happen to know the morning revitalizer is great for hangovers.” And with that she finally flashes me a big yellow, toothy smile and hands me my shopping bag and sales receipt. It comes to almost fifteen hundred dollars. I’ve come a long way from Oil of Olay. I lumber out of the store holding my purse in one hand and my big shopping bag in the other. The bag bangs unevenly against my leg in the wind.
It’s 1 o’clock. The streets on Michigan Avenue are filled with people hustling back and forth on their lunch hour. Even though I’m glad I quit this latest job, I envy the people walking in two’s and three’s coming from or going to lunch. The camaraderie, the animated conversations—I see happy, healthy folks who have a place to go back to after lunch. Then there are the romantic, holiday couples snuggling together against the cold. How I wish I had a man in my life. If I had a man, then maybe I’d have a life. And it wouldn’t be this one.
Many of the people are holding Christmas shopping bags. The streets have been decorated for weeks. There are twinkly lights everywhere with big green wreaths and red bows on every light post and on every door. Suddenly, it dawns on me that this is Black Friday. How appropriate for my present mood and my outlook for the future. At least I have a shopping bag to show for myself. I’m not invisible. I’m a citizen of the United States of America. I pay my taxes like a law abiding person.
I love and loathe the thought of the upcoming holidays. There’s an initial lift as I picture the perfect Christmas scene: a tree, beautifully wrapped presents, me surrounded by friends, loved ones and the man of my dreams. The thought is swiftly steamrolled by the realization that I’m completely alone now. No man. No siblings. No parents—Mother and Dad died the year before, hence the extra cash that allowed me to quit my job. No, this isn’t going to be some storybook Christmas. There actually never had been, not for as long as I can remember. No, I’ll be alone for Christmas just as I was for Thanksgiving.
New Year’s! Maybe I can turn things around by then.
Across the street is one of my favorite kind of haunts. It’s dark enough so you don’t feel conspicuous eating alone, but not so dark that you can’t occupy your aloneness with a book. And they pour the most generous drinks.
I’m seated at a small table for two. I order a vodka rocks. I get out a paperback I abandoned months ago and then pretend to look for something in my purse. She brings me my drink. Relax … I don’t have to drink it down right away. I glance around the restaurant trying to look nonchalant. Finally, I place my fingers around the glass and idly tap the outsides. I remove my hand from the glass and go back to arranging myself at the table. I open my book and decide on a page, and then as if it’s an afterthought I lift the glass to my lips and take a small sip. I set the glass back down but I can’t let it go. I absently take another sip.
When the waitress returns to take my order—although I’m only half finished with my first drink—I request another vodka and a salad. As she turns, I think she gives me a knowing smirk. Possibly it’s my imagination. By the time I leave, I’ve downed three vodka rocks, part of a salad and made a mess of the breadbasket. I give my snarky waitress a generous tip, lest I be called a bad female tipper. And I wonder if the big tip changes or confirms her opinion of me. Again, who cares? Do I care? Yes, apparently I care very much.
I cab it home. I feel good because I have a project. Looking down into my bag of beautiful, tissue wrapped treasures makes me happy. But I can’t recollect one word Geraldine said regarding what goes on first, second, or last. Yes, I’ll have to reread all the information and directions with a big tumbler of vodka. I inherited my mother’s glass tumbler. The one she used for her after-dinner daiquiris on the rocks. It’s thick and heavy and it has dents in it for your thumb and fingers. Speaking of thumbs, I noticed in the last few weeks that my thumbs have taken on a life of their own. Naturally, my hands shake in the morning, but my thumbs are out of control. They’re like fluttering birds, trying to lift my hands up into the air.
When I get home, I change from my outside clothes into sweats. I remember the Seinfeld episode when Jerry remarks to George “Wearing sweats is like saying, I give up. I’d rather be comfortable.” After I’ve fortified myself with a fresh drink, and invigorated myself with a line of coke, I sit down in my big, comfy white chair that’s situated in front of a large picture window that overlooks icy Lake Michigan. I reach into my bag of goodies and carefully begin unwrapping all of the boxes. And then—as I’m reading how to apply moisturizer as if I’d never done it before—it hits me that I’m way too drunk for only two-thirty in the afternoon. It doesn’t happen often, but I didn’t pace myself properly. I peaked too early in the day. Now what do I do for the rest of the afternoon and evening? I can’t stop drinking, and, at this rate, I’ll pass out within an hour. I’ve been a heavy drinker for many years now, and I hate passing out during the day. I know the difference between taking a nap and being unconscious. And if I do pass out during the day, I’m miserable and already suffering from a hangover when I awake several hours later. And that might be only five or six pm. Then I’m far too awake to be able to power it down for the evening and sleep that night. And no amount of alcohol can lull me back to sleep. Unless, of course, I drink enough that I’m able to pass out for a second time. My mind is swirling. Every tactic I come up with is a dead end. I’m screwed.
If I could just take back those last two vodkas, then I could even it out and float into the evening hours with fresh cocktails and perhaps another salad. A spinach salad sounds perfect. It will go with my new evening skincare routine. But when I picture myself applying the mud masque, waiting twenty minutes then washing it off with a special cleanser and then applying the nightly serum … well, it’s all too exhausting to think about. No, none of that is going to happen.
That’s when it really strikes me. I can’t stop drinking, not even for an hour. I can’t even slow down. This is all quite shocking to me. Even though I know I’m an alcoholic, there was a tiny part of my brain that insisted I could stop if I truly wanted to. I kidded myself that I only drank when I wanted to, which turned out to be all the time. Nonetheless … now I realize that I have to drink even when I don’t want to.
And then something happens. I see my life pass in front of me. As a younger woman, I had been on an incredible ride. I seemed to stumble into exciting situations by accident or coincidence. Being an airline hostess—albeit briefly. Then going to work for Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion. Now, that was wild. Riding around in Hef’s limo inviting pretty girls to the Mansion for parties. The only problem is that sometimes I’d forget that it wasn’t my limousine. When Hefner moved from Chicago to LA, I got into advertising and quickly found myself as a highly paid, respected copywriter. There were production shoots in exotic locations. I got to fly first class for many years. I was on a roll. Wasn’t I supposed to land in a better spot than this? But here I am completely alone and unemployed—and probably unemployable.
And then there were the men. I’d never had a problem attracting lots of them, yet I always managed to pick the wildest and craziest one out of the lot. He’d be buzzing with insanity. He would be the damaged one, usually with an alcohol or drug problem. It felt easier, more comfortable to be with a like-minded guy.
“Marry me,” a couple of them said after a night of wild drinking and even wilder sex.
“Honey, I’m not that drunk,” I’d say.
I realize I screwed myself up by quitting that last job. I wasn’t going to get another easily. “Pam, don’t do it,” urged one of my last girlfriends. “You’re forty. You’ve priced yourself out of the market. Hang onto this gig. It’ll probably be your last one.”
And isn’t it the truth that I didn’t really quit? I was just one step ahead of being fired. Wasn’t that the way it had been job after job for the last ten years? Even back when I was living in New York, wasn’t the string of resignations all due to my drinking and drugging and my bosses being ready to throw in the towel on my lack of performance?
I was at my worst when I lived in New York. The booze, pills and coke were constant. I told myself that everyone in advertising drank like that. But they didn’t. Not like me. I carried on long after everyone else left. And what about the night I got in the car with those two guys.
“We’re going downtown to the new club to dance and party,” said the one. “We’ll be able to score some more coke there.”
I knew I was in big trouble when they started heading in the wrong direction. Nyack, New York was the last sign I saw. How did I even get away from them? Why am I not dead? No, they shouldn’t have done what they did, but hadn’t I put myself in a position to be harmed? And how many other nights had I gone out drinking in the middle of the night and wandered off with someone I didn’t know? Always living on the edge.
I think about Superman. Why did I pick an alcoholic bartender? Oh, I remember why. But that wouldn’t have been my ticket to an easier life. I want and expect a rich, luxurious, stay-at-home lifestyle. Where did I get that idea for myself? From the ads I created about living the good life? Did I learn that fairytale at my mother’s knee?
“It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man,” she said between sips, “as it is to fall for a poor one.”
I need to be taken care of by a man all right. It’s obvious to me that I’m having difficulty taking care of myself properly. But instead of having someone support me, it’s usually been the other way around. I look past the healthy, kind, safe ones, and I pick men who are as sick as I am, and I take care of them. I know not to compete with other women for a good prospect. I’ll lose. That’s why I went for married men. There was little if any competition to get a married man. I figured that no decent, available man would have me. I guess Superman is a decent, good man, but he has no money, and he has the ambition of a housefly. We lasted a fair amount of time. Three years. But then he went and got sober. How the hell did he manage that?
I need to have my magic wand work one more time so I can have some dynamic, successful man see all of my more endearing qualities. He’ll view my few negative traits as cute idiosyncrasies. He’ll fall madly in love with me. We’ll have a fabulous condo in the city—Chicago or New York—and have a second home somewhere in the country. Not like tacky, little Edgewater, Illinois, where I spent summers with my grandparents when I was growing up. No, not that kind of country home. Maybe Aspen. Aspen sounds good. I can learn to ski. How refreshing.
And we’ll have Olympic-style, earth-shattering sex. That’s the area where I’ve learned to shine. That’s where I’ve gotten most of my attention throughout my life—it’s always been about my body and sex. I never get anything out of the act. I always pretend to come. But I can put on a show to rival the most inventive hooker. One time, I whipped out a jar of spicy corn-relish. Ouch. Yes, I’ll provide such great sex that he’ll be okay with me drinking all the time. My big, strong, handsome husband will love me like crazy no matter what. That’s the kind of love I want—crazy, wild, obsessed to the point of not knowing what’s good or right for oneself kind of love. That’s how my dad loved my demented, alcoholic, anorexic mother. I want it to be my turn. My, what a funny way to say that. Am I chasing after my father’s love? No, I just want my own man who will be willing to sacrifice his life for me. Yes, nothing short of that will do. And now I need another drink. Will it be my last? Will it do me in?
Slowly I come out of my squirrel cage thinking and delusional daydreams. My imagination has always gotten me through my most morbid moods. But this time it’s different. I won’t be able to escape through fantasy. It dawns on me that nothing wonderful is ever going to happen again. I won’t be able to start someplace new in advertising. I’m finished. I’m not going to meet some respectable man who will have me—take care of me. No, meeting a man who has the means to rescue me didn’t happen when I was younger, thinner, less puffy, less depressed, less of a drunk. Even before my drinking took this last heavy toll, I was a loser. I was alone.
What about just having a girlfriend to confide in? My shrink, Estelle, doesn’t count. I don’t want to admit to things that I can’t take back. I’m so lonely. Then I remember that people no longer want to be around me. Not anyone. I have to pay Estelle to spend time with me. Other than that, there’s no one in my life to talk to.
Not even the junior copywriters and art directors who reported to me at work and sucked up to me by pretending to listen to my ramblings are around. They all sensed there was something off about me. If someone made the mistake of saying hello to me in the hall or out on the street, I’d launch into some bizarre story about something funny or interesting or tragic that just happened to me. The recipient of my bullshit would shift uncomfortably. But nothing interesting was happening to me. I’d just make up fantastic stuff to keep them in front of me. Like having a brain-dead baby.
“No one knows about this, but I have a brain dead daughter,” I’d sniff dramatically into a tissue. “Melanie. She’s in a sanitarium on the West Coast.”
Preferably, we’d go to a bar and they’d sit and drink with me as I wallowed through the imaginary drama. To engage in conversation with me was like stepping onto a runaway train. Sometimes we traveled up, and sometimes we careened downward.
Depending upon my mood—sky-high mania or severe depression—most folks look at me with confusion, suspicion, even fear. Others who have caught onto my charade give me undisguised looks of disdain. I don’t blame them for the looks. And that’s what stands out the most as I drill back through my life: the looks I got as I raged through other people’s lives.
So, sitting here with my vodka, surrounded by powder blue tissue paper and empty boxes, I get a full look at my life. I see how screwed up I really am. I see—from other people’s perspectives—the trouble and heartache I caused them: my parents, Superman, and all the men before him, my meager list of girlfriends over the years. That’s not to mention the frustration and concern shown to me by well-meaning employers, landlords, and neighbors.
My life is a mess, and I’m going to die in this apartment if I don’t get help. So I ask for help from … whomever. I don’t think I’m praying to God. I just let down my guard a little. I give up that small bit of control I think I have left. And my vision becomes blurred. My living room is in soft focus—a pearly grey. There are no hard outlines of couches, tables or lamps. I feel weightless. I’m as light as a feather. Time is suspended for maybe thirty seconds. That’s as long as the transformation lasts, and then the phone rings.
“Are you okay?” Superman asks. “I had this tremendous feeling that something was wrong, like when your mom and dad died.”
“No, I’m not fine at all,” I answer. “It’s only two-thirty and I’m already way too drunk. I don’t know what to do.”
We talk for a bit and Superman suggests that perhaps another rehab is in order. This is an absolute thunderbolt to me. Apparently the ism in “alcoholism” stands for “incredibly short memory”. I told the truth to the people at that first rehab about a year ago. I only stayed for ten days. I left because I thought I knew more than they did. They didn’t understand me. I was too unique. But I do remember that I once knew what it feels like to be clean, although it’s impossible to conjure up the feelings right now. As lame as the first rehab was, I remember having truly sober moments when I realized what was actually wrong with me—the thing that has to be addressed before anything else gets discussed or analyzed in my life.
“Rehab? What a wonderful idea!”