S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Only Passing Through,” Park thinks about blackouts over the years and aging.
“Don’t get up, gentlemen, I’m only passing through.” —Bob Dylan, “Things Have Changed”
I was sitting at this desktop yesterday, finishing a column, when my hands began shaking so badly that I couldn’t control the mouse. This wasn’t entirely new: I first experienced “essential tremor” three years ago (as many older people do), and it was more aggravating than debilitating: the hardest part, in fact, was trying to roll a joint.
But this time the trembling was so intense I thought I was having a seizure. It terrified me, frankly, because I’ve devoted my life to drawing, reading and writing, and with the optic nerve in my left eye failing I was facing a future without any of them.
When the shaking didn’t abate I did what I’ve always done in tight spots, i.e. go for a walk. (After my dog died I thought it’d be difficult to stroll alone again; instead it’s been a seamless transition.) I shoved my hands in my front pockets to quiet them, and after a couple miles of beach and forest they’d returned to normal (only mild tremors) when I drew them out.
This is how it is in old age: you get previews of the future, and they’re rarely pretty.
This is how it is in old age: you get previews of the future, and they’re rarely pretty. It’s a miracle I’m here to experience them at all, of course, but you don’t insult the human brain as often as I have without payback. As a consequence I’ve begun prepping for the inevitable. I normally ignore documentaries on CTE and concussions, for instance, but made myself sit through one last night.
It was difficult: most of the victims were ex-football players, many of whom I rooted for in their time, and now they have trouble with memory, speech, sleep, moods, etc. What’s more they were all considerably younger than I am, even as I’ve experienced more brain trauma.
So it’s hard to believe I’ll evade their fate, particularly when (according to my telomeres) I’ll be around another twenty years or so. I hoped a half century of marijuana ingestion would protect me (and preliminary studies of THC and the brain indicate it might), but the memory lapses and dark moods carry a grim foreboding now.
I ruminated on this as I watched Bret “Blackout” Kavanaugh testifying before the Senate judiciary committee. I was reminded of a morning in 2010, when my old friend Buck Carroll called me.
“High,” he said, his voice trembling, “I don’t remember what I did last night.”
“What else is new?” I said.
“You don’t understand. I’ve never blacked out before.”
I laughed. “Real funny, Buck. You’ve drank like a Russian for years—a fifth of vodka a day at least—and you’re claiming this is your first blackout? That’s preposterous.”
“It’s true! Not only that … this losing whole hours of my life is scary!”
Really? It’s hard to remember when I drank and didn’t black out. I was on my break at a Longview box plant in 1966 when I picked up an Alcoholics Anonymous brochure. I was only killing time until I reached the “You’re An Alcoholic If:” section. First on the list was: “You’ve had three or more blackouts.”
What!? That couldn’t be right. I’d drank five times since high school and blacked out every time. It had to be a typo: they must have meant thirty blackouts, or even three hundred. Otherwise everyone would be a drunk, wouldn’t they?
I tried to laugh it off, but the moment etched itself on my brain. So three months later, when I’d flunked my draft physical and returned to the Bay Area, I knew AA was right the first time I drank. I was hunched over a bush, puking my guts out, and instead of being shamed I thought This is the real me. I AM an alkie and it’s time to get on with it!
Today there’s a nineteen-year-old down the street having a like revelation, but in ’66 confronting your alcoholism at that age was unheard of. Friends said I was crazy, that no one becomes a rummy overnight. What they didn’t know, and I barely sensed at the time, is I was okay with being a drunk. Oh, I was sure there’d be suffering and pitfalls down the road (much less possible death), but in the meanwhile I answered to only two directives: (1) I loved how booze made me feel; and (2) I wanted to write a novel someday.
The rest of life was negotiable, even as it was the perfect time to be young and adrift. In the Spring of ’67 I was sitting in Ned Gumbo’s cottage with six other guys. The psychedelic era was dawning and we wanted in: the stoniest any of us had been was Mexican ragweed or cross tops.
Then Jake Milltown came through the door with a bottle of Romilar cough syrup. It was only available by prescription, so I don’t know where he got it, but he was waving it excitedly over his head.
“Hey!” he said. “This stuff’s got codeine in it!”
Oooooh codeine. That was a narcotic, wasn’t it? That’d fuck us up. Jake (ever the generous guy) handed the large bottle to Dick Hale, who was sitting next to me on the couch, and suggested we all take a swig.
Dick did, then handed the Romilar to me. It was two in the afternoon at the time, and the next thing I knew it was eight the following morning. My face was stuck to Gumbo’s carpet but otherwise I was only feet away from where I’d been the previous day. Had I taken a hit of Romilar, fallen off the couch and passed out for eighteen hours? Jesus. What a useless drug that was. And if so, why did I feel sore and bruised, much less so hungover?
Had I taken a hit of Romilar, fallen off the couch and passed out for eighteen hours? Jesus. What a useless drug that was.
I ate some cereal, washed down a shot of whiskey with a couple beers, then wandered up the street to Hale’s house. He lived in the back of his parents’ home and Milltown was there when I arrived.
“Jesus,” he said, “you’ve some nerve showing your face around here, High.”
“Well, yeah … you almost got us arrested twice last night.”
“What are you talking about? The last thing I remember is reaching for that bottle of Romilar.”
“And drinking all of it,” said Hale. “What a pig.”
“I drank the whole bottle?” I gasped, looking to Jake for confirmation. “That can’t be right. That’d kill you.”
“But it’s what you did, High,” said Milltown. “Straight down the hatch, like a wino sucking Ripple.”
I shook my head. “I don’t remember a second of it. I thought I passed out.”
“No, Wilson, that’s what we wished you’d done,” said Dick. “Your eyes turned purple and you raved like a lunatic for the rest of the day and night. We should have ditched you in the woods or locked you in a bathroom somewhere. Instead you pissed in the punchbowl at the first party we went to, starting a fight that brought the Burlingame cops to the house, then punched holes in the ceiling of the next place because you thought it wasn’t high enough.”
“Oh, yeah. You said it was disrespectful to tall guys.”
“Which led to the San Mateo cops threatening to arrest us,” added Jake.
I was aghast. “Well,” I said sheepishly, “thanks for bringing me home anyway, guys.”
They both laughed. “Fuck that!” said Hale. “We finally did what we should have done earlier and pushed you out of the car. While we were moving, High! If that didn’t finish you we figured the car behind us would.”
“Except you’re a hard guy to kill,” said Jake.
My epitaph. Also my exit line as I headed out the door. I was sure Jake and Hale were kidding, that they at least slowed down before shoving me out, but I shared their disappointment in me. I mean … what kind of asshole guzzles a whole bottle of narcotic syrup, then lives to hear about it? The notion chills me still.
At the time, though, I simply wondered if my need to be fucked up was stronger than I thought.
Would alcoholism be enough?