It was urgent that he speak to me - a matter of acute importance. He called eight times in two hours. You see, there was an article on the internet about whether one should or should not drink filtered water, and he needed my opinion right away.
Had I chosen to take any of his calls, the conversation would have been pointless. I’m not a nutritionist. I’m not a physiologist. I’m not a chemist. I have no particular expertise in the field. The conversation also would have been pointless because he doesn’t drink water, filtered or not. He drinks it distilled, in the form of vodka. Lots of it. Every day. “Hydrating” is his full-time job.
The water article was a flimsy pretext for a phone call. I’m guessing he’s a little short of friends right now, and is desperate to talk to someone just to feel connected … to feel like he’s still relevant. Last week he called me for no reason other than to tell me his mom is the third of nine children, just in case I was wondering.
I’ve known “Ivan” for a long time - it would be wrong not to call him a friend. He was well-known around town - a popular emcee at special events, an actor in the community theater, a singer and piano player, an attender, a glad-hander. Galas, benefits, openings - he went to everything. If a good time was being had, Ivan was probably in the middle of it, maybe even responsible for it. When we were both bachelors living in downtown apartments, we’d sometimes end up at the little neighborhood laundromat together, and he’d always bring me a can of beer and enjoy a cocktail himself while the dryers did their thing. More recently, he and I attended a series of classes together, sharing transportation, meals, lodging, and he always had a few drinks “to relax” when we got back to the hotel in the evening. I’ve always known him as an enthusiastic drinker, but the last few years it’s been obvious that there’s nothing casual about his consumption.
He’s not functional anymore. He’s lost his friends, his job, his health, his ability to reason. He’s lost the singing and the piano playing and the winning personality. Alcohol-related injuries have damaged his hearing, his balance, and possibly his cognitive abilities - we don’t know for sure because he hasn’t stayed sober long enough to find out.
One of the last times we were to go to our class, I went to pick him up at his home. We had talked just the night before, “I’ll be packed and ready.” From the back porch I could see the suitcase and the backpack staged in the kitchen but there was no answer to my knock, so I went in. I found him at his computer, head down on the keyboard, passed out - a glass of something that burned my eyes next to him. It was 6:45 in the morning. I’m not sharing all of this to assassinate his character or hurt anyone. I’m just trying to paint a picture of the ongoing tragedy that addiction brings.
“Ivan,” of course, isn’t his real name, but he is a real person, and those who run in my circle of friends will recognize him by this description. Too many others will recognize an Ivan in their lives, as well. If alcoholism is, in fact, a disease, then we can refer to Ivan as “the patient,” “the afflicted,” or, crassly, “the drunk.” But if we’re going to use a term like "the victim," then we also have to include his wife, his mother, his father, his siblings, his friends, and everyone who cares about him and remembers what he used to be like.
I think of his parents who, like all parents, had such high hopes for him. I think of how proud they must have been fifteen years ago when he was recognizable as a leader and one of the guys around town who could get things done. Their frustration must be crushing, and certainly they grieve just as a parent whose child has died.
It’s when I think of his wife that my heart really breaks. She’s been a good friend longer than I’ve known Ivan. We have a history - not romantic, but tight. Hers is one of the great friendships of my life. We had been a pair close enough that many were surprised when we each married someone else within the same year. When that happened, our relationship had to change, of course, but I’ve never stopped holding her in the highest regard as smart, capable, and talented. Her tastes are good, her standards high, and she’s just plain likable. She’s a well-respected professional in her field - a high achiever and she and Ivan made a great couple until he allowed alcohol to take control.
She does her best to honor those “for better or for worse” vows, but every day she must wonder what she’ll come home to: what new injury or breakage from his stumbling? Will he be conscious? Will he be alive?
His alcoholism presents itself and affects every conversation, every activity, every single interaction that other couples simply do as a matter of course. Ivan, who used to be a very public man, is now nearly invisible, sitting at home with his booze, and his wife carries the burden of trying to explain his absence. She must feel betrayed as he’s apparently decided that vodka is more important than she is. Underneath her brave face, she must feel trapped by her loyalty to the man she married, but who has become a very different man today. She must be emotionally exhausted. As much as I hate how Ivan is wasting his own life, I’m incensed at what he’s doing to her.
My friendship with Ivan goes back too far for me to not care how life works out for him, but I can’t say that he’s a likable fellow in his current state, and I’m more likely to avoid him than not. Our paths don’t cross much anymore because it is hard for him to get around, but he calls me every day. Over and over he calls me, and the conversations are always the same. He’ll open with something trivial like the water filter question, but very shortly lapse into the same cyclical reminiscences and obsessions as our last conversation. It’s exactly like talking to someone with Alzheimer's. I’ve tried to be frank with him about his condition, but there’s not much point in talking to a drunk about being drunk when he’s drunk.
The last call in that two-hour span came at 3:22 p.m. After that, it’s likely that he lost interest, and just as likely that he was too drunk to operate the phone. For a long time, I tried to be the good friend - taking his calls and enduring his rambling, alcohol-demented streams of consciousness. “Right now is when he needs a friend,” I told myself. But I realize now that I’ve not been a help to him - I’ve just allowed him to waste my time.
Wasted time is something we can’t get back. If we screw up our finances, we can make more money. If we blow our relationships, it’s tragic and unfair and I don’t mean to imply that people are disposable, but there are seven billion others on the planet - we can make new friends. But time is the one thing that can’t be regained. For guys our age, these should be some of our best years - some of our most productive years. We’re somewhere past the middle of our lifespans, but still young enough to move and think and dream and do. We’re still young enough to have something to look forward to, and what a waste it is when those dreams are dominated by getting the next drink - getting the next drunk.
That’s what addiction does - aside from the biological damage, it reorders one’s priorities - puts the chemical at the top of one’s list and becomes life’s focus, eventually to the exclusion of everything else.
I know it must be immensely hard to be Ivan. In a few of his more lucid moments, he has admitted to me that his drinking is a problem. I know that it’s easy for me to say the words “stop drinking” but the reality for him is that I might as well say “stop breathing.” His body now needs alcohol the same way it needs oxygen, food, and water, filtered or not. He’s tried a few times to quit, but you know they lied to him about the hours of the gym facilities at the rehab center, and that prescription to lessen the cravings eventually ran out, and somehow, I guess, those make sense as excuses to keep drinking. I mean, what else can a guy be expected to do?
Ivan’s not a bad man, but he’s a sick man, and the disease he has doesn’t go away on its own. To conquer it, he’ll have to confess his own role in creating this situation, and submit himself to the control of those who can help. Neither of those things is in his nature.
He probably wonders why I don’t take his calls, but there’s no reason for me to invest any more in our friendship until he invests deeply, sacrificially, in himself. I’m willing and happy to be his cheerleader, but until he resolves to be something other than drunk, there’s nothing to cheer for.
I have enough friends who have done the hard work of wrestling their lives back from the hell of addiction to know that a better life is possible for Ivan, but he has to approach that hard work with a “succeed at all costs” attitude, and, frankly, I don’t see that kind of strength in him. In the meantime, those who love him have their own hard work of coping, hoping, and wondering if things will ever change.