“I wanna go back to Tommy’s and get belligerent drunk,” said the guy at the trough-style urinal next to me at the Indy 500 on Sunday. “I don’t even want to go back into the race and watch the rest. I just want to go back to the house and get belligerent. Do you know what I mean?” He was talking to his friend on the other side. He wasn’t talking to me. But I knew. I did know what he meant. When I was in my fearless and invincible 20s, I felt exactly like that, too. All this public social drinking, even at the Indianapolis 500 where mild intoxication was the respectable minimum standard, was not enough. What the stranger to my right longed for was neither mild nor respectable. He wanted to go to some safe place and drink without rules or boundaries. Becoming belligerent wasn’t an insult. It was the euphoric goal.
The encounter filled me with profound sadness. I wasn’t annoyed by the drunk guy like us sober people are supposed to feel when surrounded by loud, intoxicated buffoons. I wasn’t jealous, either, wishing I was back in that blissful place of drinking without known consequences. I was sad for him, because he didn’t know the pain and suffering that was waiting for him in his 30s and 40s. At that moment when his decision was between drinking a lot at the race, and drinking something more than a lot at Tommy’s house, the hell that was coming his way was inconceivable. It was a completely predictable outcome that was unfathomably unknown. It was like standing on the railroad tracks while the train bears down and the whistle screams a frantic warning, and yet, being somehow oblivious to the trouble coming.
During a break in the racing action toward the end of the 500 miles, a guy a few seats to my left and one row behind me grabbed my shoulder and asked me if I was alright. “Yeah, why do you ask?” I replied. “You just look bored,” he slurred. He had been in that same seat for the past several years while we occupied our regular spot. I was not unfamiliar with his loud handsy-ness. I remembered last year that he drank beer at an impressive rate as his behavior deteriorated predictably. Then, about four hours into the event, he inexplicably switched to liquor, and the wheels came off the bus. I shouldn’t really call it inexplicable as I’ve been there so many times before. Why settle for feeling good when you can go to a different place of spectacular numbness?
So when he reached over five people to check on my wellbeing, it was not surprising. “I am bored,” I responded. “It is a red flag (racing had stopped temporarily) during a boring race (no passes for the lead).” “Fair enough,” he said, while he struggled to shift his weight from the hand that pressed against my shoulder and back onto his ass as he wedged back into his spot on the bleachers. He didn’t tell me my answer was fair because he comprehended it. That was his go-to response when he didn’t receive from me what he had hoped for – a bro hug before we slammed a beer together.
Again, this encounter made me sad. I wasn’t annoyed by my slobbery neighbor. I was sad because my fully coherent reaction to an actionless event that resulted in my disappointment and boredom was a sign that something was wrong with me. I was sad for handsy-man because I knew the next day held the promise of regret and severe alcohol-induced depression. Anyone who pours whiskey on a good beer buzz is familiar with the pain I endured as an active alcoholic, and it has nothing to do with dehydration or hangover. That guy was me, just without the sobriety. I didn’t wonder how he felt the next day. I knew. And it made me sad.
And I was sad because it was all around me. In front of us was a guy wearing fanny pack. Tucked into the fanny pack was a flask. The guy drank beer all day, but that wasn’t enough. In addition to the flask, he and his friends passed the bladder from a box of wine around and drank straight from the spout. To our right and behind us a row was a couple so intoxicated that I think the guy was passed-out with his eyes open. He looked comatose as he stared straight forward. The girl that accompanied him was slightly more lucid. She pulled on the flask in her hand while she waited for their levels of consciousness to align. Then there was the big guy five rows in front of us who grabbed the bag of baby carrots his wife dangled in front of him and hurled them twenty rows forward making enough of a scene to grab my attention. “No one wants fucking carrots right now,” he screamed at her. If it wasn’t beer or potato chips, he wasn’t interested. His wife thought his insulting carrot toss was funny, and it was.
I expected pathetic, overindulgent scenes like these to bolster my sobriety and firm-up my commitment to a better life for myself and my family. But that’s not what happened. Don’t misunderstand – the levels of debauchery I witnessed didn’t make me wish I could still drink, either. The overwhelming emotion I felt was sadness. It wasn’t an arrogant, “I’m better than all of you,” sadness. It wasn’t a, “stop annoying me and quiet down,” kind of sadness, either. It was a sadness for the state of our civilization. Does that sound overly dramatic? I sure think so. And yet, I can’t shake this feeling that there has to be a better way. We can’t really gather at events like the Indy 500 and just poison our intellect and social gracefulness and think of it as the best way to spend a long weekend, can we? This isn’t a good idea gone bad? This is actually the plan? Getting belligerent isn’t an unforeseen consequence, it’s the goal?
I worried about my own group of friends, too. There were seven kids under the age of 18 in our group. What do they think when they see the fat man hurl the carrots and curse at his wife? What do my four children think when the father that they are proud of for not drinking anymore looks like such a misfit among the cacophony of debauchery? I worry about the two college-age kids in our group. They sipped beers and kept it under control, but what chance do they have of avoiding my affliction when everything around them normalized the behavior that was my mental undoing? They don’t know what they don’t know, and swimming in the ocean of booze that is our society just makes Uncle Matt look like a lunatic for getting out of the water and drying off.
This is a story without a happy ending. At least there is no happy ending so far, 30 months into my sobriety. I thought once I was over the cravings to drink, events like the Indy 500 would get better. Then I thought once I was over my own shame to be the only one not drinking, my confidence would make a huge drunkfest tolerable. I expected to take on my wife’s attitude of being annoyed at the intoxicated masses, but I’m certainly not there yet. I can’t feel annoyed because these drinkers are my brothers and sisters, and they have fallen into the same trap that ruined ten years of my life.
“We are all suckers,” I said to my wife as we laid in bed the night after the race. “We just can’t seem to see the torment that we put ourselves through because we are in such good company.”
She doesn’t understand why I can’t just live my own life and let others live theirs. Honestly, I don’t know why I can’t ignore the suckers around me. Maybe it’s because I’m one of them.
I offer nothing that resembles a solution for the overwhelming population of sucker nation. I have no hope for saving a society that’s blissfully standing on the tracks as the train bears down. That same train whistle has been screaming at us suckers since the beginning of humanity, and collectively, we just can’t hear it.
But individually, sometimes we can. Sometimes the pain gets to be so great, that it drowns out the expectations of society. That’s what happened to me. I didn’t wake up one day enlightened to the dangers of alcohol. I just couldn’t handle the pain any longer, and I finally figured out where it was coming from. If you are there – if you don’t want to go to Tommy’s house and get belligerent drunk, if you’re alright with being bored when something is boring, and if you are sick of being too busy drinking your lunch to tolerate carrots, maybe you’re ready.
If you are, I’d like to help. I might not have any hope for saving society, but I feel obligated to share the details of what it took for me to stop drinking – to make the pain go away. If you’re ready, I invite you to join us in our SHOUT Sobriety program. Check it out, and if you think it is a fit for you, please enroll and we’ll get started.
I’ll get over my sadness from the Indy 500. I’ll get back to work and be inspired by the strength of the recovery warriors who surround me. Next year, I’ll go back to Indianapolis and witness it all over again. Maybe by next year, I’ll be cold and jaded and learn not to care about the people around me. I’ll keep looking for my answer – my happy ending. One thing’s for sure. Belligerent drunkenness at Tommy’s house isn’t it.