If you spend any significant length of time in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, you’re eventually going to hear words like “mental obsession,” “phenomenon of craving,” and the “insanity of the first drink.” A lot of non-alcoholics who hear these words object to the whole concept of alcoholism as a disease. To them, the alcoholic complaining about this “obsession” is really just saying

I can’t help myself, it’s not my fault, I’m really a victim, and I shouldn’t have to bear the consequences of my conduct because of that.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you. There are plenty of alcoholics out there who think and talk this way. They’re still in the grips of a disease that, like denial, can only be seen clearly once you’re out of it.

But if they’re following any kind of program at all, they won’t be talking like this. The Twelve Steps demand that we look to the part that we play in the conflicts in our lives, and the program’s twin ideals of facing our fears and owning up to the consequences of our actions fly in the face of this “victim mentality.”

But I can take responsibility for my actions as an alcoholic while at the same time admitting that I have no effective mental defense against that first drink. The two are not mutually incompatible. In fact, it is only through this admission of powerlessness that I am able to rise above my disease, and finally take action to right the wrongs I have done.

The problem, of course, is in trying to explain this concept to a non-alcoholic. If you’re not a drunk like I am, chances are the last few paragraphs sounded like some kind of impenetrable Zen koan. That, or complete gibberish.

Because, you see, if you’re not an alcoholic, it’s almost impossible to explain the hold that alcohol can have on the mind. The insane thinking that will lead a recovering alcoholic to think “just one won’t hurt” before plunging into relapse. The uncontrollable craving that turns that one drink into God knows how many more. The “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization” that inevitably follows.

If you’re not an alcoholic, I can’t explain these things to you. If you are, I don’t have to.

But that won’t stop me from trying. And, as is so often the case, the best way I know to explain this idea is with a simple story. A funny one, actually, otherwise known as a joke.

There was this alcoholic walking down the beach one morning. The sun was rising, but he was in a foul mood, because he had no liquor and no money. Looking down as he walked, his heart jumped as he spied a bottle buried in the sand.

Running to the bottle, he twisted the top off and emptied it in one long draught. It was the best and smoothest whiskey he had ever tasted. He looked at the bottle, trying to find the brand. As he rubbed the sand from the label, the bottle began to shake violently, and a genie sprang forth.

“Thank you for releasing me from my prison,” boomed the genie. “In return I will grant you three wishes.”

The taste of the whiskey still on his tongue, the alcoholic replied “I want another bottle of this whiskey, one that never runs out.”

The genie complied, and the bottle filled up instantly. The alcoholic, amazed, took a giant swig, and watched dumbfounded as the bottle filled up again. Once, twice, three times the alcoholic drained the bottle, only to watch it fill itself again and again before his very eyes.

The genie, smiling at his handiwork, gently reminded the alcoholic, “Remember, you have two more wishes.”

The alcoholic stopped for a minute, brows furrowed in concentration. A smile crossed his lips as he looked up at the genie.

I’ll have two more of these.”

One thing I have realised, looking in the mirror:

All of my tattoos to date, with the exception of a heart with the names of my children therein, hold symbols of escape and flight.

All human figures have wings. Flight is a classic dream-sign of wanting to move on, to go forth, to escape a situation. Even the winged death, the spinner of the karmic wheel, that which takes down what is and in so doing gives birth anew, is a symbol of change.

There is a motorcycle engine and a motorcycle piston. Motorcycles are iconic for the open road. Easy Rider's Capt. America tossing away his watch and roaring away on his panhead. An eagle in flight, holding a piston.

My life, recently, has been about acceptance. Integration. Finally coming to terms with a lot of stuff. Fixing. Reconciling. Healing.

Interesting to ponder when considering what to get next.

We decided not to buy the keg of beer until the day of the party, fully realizing that we would be far too hung over to cook if we bought it the night before. We instead bought just enough whiskey to be drunk enough we couldn't drive to go get more, but not drunk enough to ruin the barbeque.

We started on the keg around noon. Fifty pounds of ribs, twenty pounds of pulled pork, and fifteen gallons of beer. We had been anticipating this for a while. As the rest of the house figured out that beer had arrived, things began happening. A few couches migrated their way to the lawn. An archery range was set up next to the bike path. My phone rings.

"Hey babe, are you cooking anything for the vegetarians?"

"Yeah, we're cooking eggplant and corn, and we already have potato salad."

"I don't like any of those things. Do I still have to come?"

She's joking.

"Do whatever you want. If you don't want to come it's okay with me."

I'm not joking.

"Nah, I'm joking. We'll head out soon."

"Okay."

I frown.

We're sitting on one of the couches on our lawn, drinking beer as people shoot arrows over our heads at the targets behind us. Somebody tells us we need to figure out what to do about the automatic sprinkler control, because the couches are going to be soaked around 9. We find the control box for the sprinkers, we don't have the key. We try breaking the box open, but only succeed in making it look real ugly. We end up cutting off the electrical supply, a beer in my hands and a pair of linesman pliars in the other, and I'm cutting off the power, and there is one less problem for us to worry about.

The first people from the city start showing up. The food is almost ready. We have more food than people, and I'm worried that maybe we miscalculated. My roommates reassure me that nobody wants to be on time for a party. They're right, I always do this, and when the ribs are finally cooked and placed on the table, the rest of the cooperative shows up. A new student who just moved here from Italy a week ago asks us if we like beer. I tell him we do. He graciously offers to retrieve beer from his room, but I stop him and lead him to the keg.

"We have beer."

"In there?"

I grab a cup for him, fill it up, and hand it to him?

"That is full of beer?!?" he asks.

I nod. His eyes widen.

I've noticed a lot of our international students have not seen kegs before. The brewery up the street we purchase the kegs from know us on a first name basis now. We've asked about the possibility of a buy nine get the tenth keg free card, kind of like Subway, but unfortunately, this is not possible. We would have earned our free keg already this year.

We gorge ourselves on ribs. We all eat until we can eat no more, and we have maybe a rib or two left. We decide it is time to begin drinking in earnest. There are still not as many people at the party as I would like, but I remind myself, if my girlfriend isn't here yet, it's possible other people haven't even thought about leaving yet.

She arrives, with her friend, and they both come hug me. I talk with them for about a minute, and then excuse myself. The distance between us is written all over my face. Somebody has placed a barbeque between the circle of couches on the lawn and lit a campfire in it. I sit on the couch and resume talking to the guests who are starting to trickle in. I'm much happier, forgetting that she is here. I strike up a conversation about photography with two girls, one of them asks if she can see my equipment. I oblige, and we all walk upstairs to my room, and I catch the first sight of my girlfriend in two hours. She's sitting on the stairs with her friend, talking to some guy. I nod at her and walk past, up to my room. We talk for a while, and head back downstairs, and my girlfriend's friend grabs me, and says she was looking for me, says she went somewhere outside.

I walk outside, and she's seated on the couch next to the fire.

"Malia," I say, "You were looking for me?"

She looks at me for a second.

"No. No I wasn't."

I sit down. A few moments later, she stands up and walks away.

I'm a good actor, but I just can't hide it or bury it when I'm upset. It feels too dishonest.

I realize I should probably go talk to her.

We're in my room now, talking. I tell her why I'm upset, about the Hideaway Saloon and the grabber machine. I tell her it all disgusts me, thinking that it could be her in there.

She looks me in the eye, and tells me, "I'm sorry I don't have the same morals as you. Remember how I thought I ran out of money earlier this month, but then I realized I didn't? I was actually going to call you and ask if it was okay if I did another, so I could make rent."

I blink.

"You had to ask if it was okay?"

"If it were anybody but you, I would have just done it."

I turn, and put my head out the window. I'm about to vomit.

"I just don't see why I should go and work at a minimum wage job or something when I could go make an easy $400..."

"Just...STOP," I tell her, "I'm about to puke."

I turn and look at her.

"How does this make you any different then some crackwhore who sucks dick to buy crack?"

"Well, I don't do crack," she says.

"How are you any different than the nasty skanky whores standing down by 75th and International, really, how?"

"I guess I'm not. I'm sorry it bothers you. I won't do it if it bothers you."

"It's not about doing it, it's the fact that you're the kind of person who would do it. You see no moral problem with it, don't you have any fucking self respect?"

"I do have self respect."

"Then how could you even think about doing something like that. We've both done trashy shit, but there's being trashy and being a whore. A fucking whore. A dictionary definition of prostitute, we can open the fucking Websters right now and I'll read it to you, if you'd like. And you were going to ask if it was okay first?"

"Maybe you should find a better girlfriend, then."

"Yeah, maybe I should. You know, I've been the perfect boyfriend to you too."

She nods in agreement.

"And," I say, continuing, "You've been shitty to me, I mean, not only have you been the most incredibly self centered person I've ever dated, now I find out that I'm dating self centered street trash."

She's crying now.

"I don't want to break up," she says.

"I don't either, but I don't think I can be with you anymore."

She sits up on my bed, turns around and looks at me with those big brown eyes.

"Don't you realize what we have? This is special, this doesn't happen every day. You don't just meet somebody and fall in love, and you're incredibly stupid if you're going to throw this away over something like this. "

I think for a second.

"I know it's special. I'm happier with you than I've ever been, we never fight, this is good, I know. I just think I deserve better. For once in my life, I've actually been a good boyfriend, I think I've finally gotten over being the self-centered asshole I usually am. I can honestly say that I deserve a good girl now, that I can have nice things. Good girls don't sell themselves to make rent. I don't want to do this, but I think I have to. It's tearing me apart, but I have self respect. Maybe you wouldn't understand."

"Don't you remember how I was when you first met me. How I was so cold and dead? I didn't think I was capable of ever feeling anything again, until I met you. I love you, and I feel alive when I'm with you, and I never thought that was possible."

"I wouldn't let myself tell the girls I was dating I loved them, because I realized that I honestly never really did. You're the first girl I've ever told I loved, and that first time I told you I loved you, after you told me you loved me, I thought about it first, because I wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it. I actually love you to the point where I want what's best for you, and not just best for me, and I think you're the first person I've ever really cared about like that. But, this is too much. It's just too much, I need time to think, at least."

She's staring into my eyes, we're lying 12 inches apart and she's staring into my eyes and ripping me apart. I don't know what I want to do, what I should do, what I can do.

I start kissing her, and we're kissing for a bit, and she stops me.

"We can't. I can't have sex with you while you're mad at me, it just doesn't feel right."

I stare at her for a second.

"What if I offered you money? Would that change anything? $400 or so is what your dignity costs, right?"

She starts punching me, screaming she hates me. I sit there and take it, realizing that I probably deserve it.

"You're an asshole," she says, her voice low, and I know I've just said something I can't ever take back.

"I'm sorry," I say, "I should never have said that."

We sit, facing away from each other, for about an hour, hardly talking.

"You need to decide tonight," she tells me.

I decide.

I wake up in the back seat of her Camaro in Berkeley, with an empty cup of beer in my right hand and her curled up next to me. She kisses me on the cheek and whispers in my ear, "I'm so glad I didn't lose you last night. I love you."

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