Wednesday, October 29, 2014

High All the Time

I went crazy in the spring of 1999. I got a letter that spring from my mother and in it she included a recent picture of herself holding her granddaughter in front of an iron bar fence. My niece was slipping forward towards the camera. The breeze blew my mother’s hair across her face as she tried to hold on to her granddaughter. That picture affected me in ways that I can’t fully explain. It placed me in the heartbreaks of my childhood. It evoked feelings and experiences that I shared with my brother as children that I can’t bring myself to ever really address openly. What happened to us was not unique. We weren’t the first or last Salvadoran children left behind to navigate poverty and neglect by parents who moved to the U.S. in order to make some money. But the sociological dimension of what happened to us does not erase the effects of that experience. The picture prodded at something half forgotten but easily inflamed in me. And so I got drunk. For a couple of months.

I drank and drank and drank. I started drinking in the morning. I would take a good friend of mine from our 9 a.m. language class to have bagels and beer. I would drink at home in between classes and at the bars after classes and into the evening. Most nights, I would leave my girlfriend and go to a bar where I kept running into the same girl, a classmate from a course on literary theory. I wanted to destroy something in myself and so I started walking that girl home. I wound up in her bed. My girlfriend once found us drinking together on campus and I acted as if nothing was wrong. When she left, I kept drinking with the other girl. I once bumped into this other girl, another classmate from another literary theory class, in the library and invited her to have drinks with me later at the bar. I passed out before we ever met her and forgot all about the invitation until a couple of months later when that same girl yelled at me for asking her to another drink as if nothing had happened. I fell off bikes drunk. I fell over walking. I got into trouble with the police. I made scenes and embarrassed myself over and over. I broke my girlfriend’s heart but she somehow forgave me. I didn’t want to be sober. Eventually and for equally mysterious reasons, I stopped wanting to be drunk and so the craziness dissipated.

In The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz says that Anglos drink to forget and that Mexicans drink to remember. As with any of these broad comparisons, things are probably more occluded by it than they are clarified. But it is true that many people in this country consider the self-destruction of intoxication to be an act of forgetting. Tov Lo’s “Habits” speaks to this idea. “You’re gone and I gotta stay/High all the time/To keep you off my mind,” she wails in a voice with such high emotion that it makes my throat catch every time I hear it. But intoxication isn’t just about forgetting or getting distracted. I’m not sure it’s just about remembering either, though I know that drinking and remembering go hand in hand for many of us at times. Maybe when I went crazy I drank to fill the present with a different set of memories, memories that could compete with the old wounds. It wasn’t drinking to negate the past or to bring it back to life in a mania. Rather, I was perhaps trying to invent a new past--equally fucked up but for different reasons--that would balance the existing bruises. Bukowski says that “some people never go crazy./what truly horrible lives/they must lead.” I know that’s a romantic sentiment that ignores some clear social and psychological realities. But beneath the illusions or maybe because of them, there is something in those words that speaks to me.

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