Saturday, December 17, 2011


How do you know when it's appropriate to stop being appropriate? When is it time to say, "Enough"? Like the frog that stays in hot water until it boils, or the slowly-cooking lobster, how do you know? When did normal slip into a condition so abnormal that twenty-five years later I feel so estranged from the person I was when these things happened?

I wasn't around when he began to drink; I only met him in what should have been his prime. How does one recognize the point at which "normal" begins to crumble? Could I have trusted myself to find the moment - the right time - to risk inserting into our lives what would have seemed to be the absurd suggestion that he was in desperate need of help? What was the sign that would have said, "What we are doing is no longer okay." How could I have done that without seeming to be ridiculous? Where was . . . yes, I now know what is meant by the line in the sand. I had no idea in the beginning how long the stretching of our fabric could feel acceptable.

The guy was gentle. The guy was beyond smart. The guy was artistic. The guy was well-read. The guy was thoughtful. The guy introduced me to pre-Classical music, which I adore to this day. He introduced me to authors. He introduced me to thoughts. He introduced me to homeopathy and herbs. He introduced me to a Native American medicine man. He did the most amazing thing with a deck of cards, and I still don't know if he was a wizard, a hypnotist, or just knew an incredible card trick that could be done without his ever touching the cards. Everyone loved him almost to reverence. I could not have predicted where he was going.

He never hit me or shouted at me; he never threatened me. These things I might have been prepared to recognize as indications that his behavior had gone too far. But I did not know how to recognize the signs of this progressive form of another's self-destruction. It seems incredible now.

We all made excuses. We thought he had post-traumatic stress disorder from combat, but his story about being in Vietnam turned out to be a lie. We thought he had lost a wife and child in a horrible, fiery auto accident in the Bay Area. That also turned out to be a lie.

When did normal slip quietly into something else?

Was it when he was sober before we left the house and then inexplicably became drunk by the time we reached our destination?

Was it when we'd been shopping together and I realized he'd put things into my backpack that neither of us had paid for?

Was it when I noticed that I hadn't questioned buying a quart of Vodka for him because he was home zoned out in a stupor and couldn't get it for himself?

Was it when I began to worry about having anyone see my apartment because of all the cigarette burns . . . and I didn't even smoke?

Was it when I looked at the smashed beer cans piled up so high that the only way to get them out of the apartment was in an extra large garbage bag?

Was it when I found that he slept with a knife under his pillow?

Was it when I had nowhere to go because he was drunk in the apartment that I had rented on *my* good references and I could not get him out?

Was it when the Santa Barbara SWAT Team was on our roof?

Was it when I was being questioned by the FBI because he made some stupid threat he never intended to carry out, but he made that threat to the local cops?

For me, I hit bottom somewhere between the cigarette burns and the FBI. I had tried to leave, sleeping uncomfortably in a friend's storage room and then driving miles out of town to stay in a tiny trailer with no phone. When I came back to get my things and called ahead to see if he was okay - and maybe sober - the police intercepted my call and I had to talk them out of hurting him when their armed men were on our roof.

For him, the time never came. He was found dead of alcohol toxin in a cheap hotel long after I'd seen the last of him. I only knew of his death because the police had my contact information on file connected with his name. There had been an incident after we parted ways where he had awakened in the night, probably hallucinating, and asked the police to make sure I was safe. Without him, my life had returned to sanity, but he gave my address and they came to confirm that I was alright. Later, when he died, it seems I was the only contact they had. He had drunk himself away from his family, away from the health care professionals who had tried to help, and away from any of the friends who would have done what they could.

So when do you know? There has to be a point that can be recognized before normalcy unravels. Maybe just before or maybe just after, but certainly before normal becomes unrecognizable.

I believe that one should try to help sick people, and many people did try. But there has to be a line, a place where you can recognize that a good person is doing too many of the wrong things. Do you start to pull the warning cord when the signs are inconclusive? When it bothers you to see someone you care about moderately affected by alcohol when it's not even a special occasion and there's no social excuse? Do you worry that you're out of line to say something when it's only 7:00 PM and once again your friend has a beer in his hand and his face is red? Or do you wait until the apartment is filled with cigarette burns and the SWAT Team is on the roof?

I have no answer, but because of where I've been I have a certain complement of wisdom. A lesson learned. I've become sensitized to seeing self-destructive actions in their infancy. I've seen a darker side of drinking than my upbringing would have suggested I should know. I never thought in a million years I would be running interference between my loved one and half a dozen specially-trained officers with guns. I never thought I would see someone close to me taken away to Federal prison until the incumbent President, against whose life my friend had made the threat, was out of office.

But then, neither did I imagine a life where I would have to concern myself with whether someone was taking even one or several drinks too many. I did not grow up with alcohol. I was not groomed for this. I was not prepared. I traveled from absence to excess. Living the extremes, perhaps, creates an awareness. 

How do you recognize the beginning? How do you say something about a problem when it's still so small and - how shall I say it - so ACCEPTABLE that to bring it to anyone's attention makes you a target for uninformed ridicule? I have no answer, at least not one I will be admired for. 

This blog is sponsored by Tapir and Friends Animal Store.