Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think.
Jean de La Bruyere. 1645-1696
The other night I went to see the comedian John Mulaney in his "Straight Outta Rehab 2021" tour. I don't think that is the actual name of the tour but it may as well be. If you have not seen him perform I would suggest watching any of his live shows on YouTube or Netflix. My favorites are The Comeback Kid from 2017 and Kid Gorgeous from 2018. I guess cocaine is good for some things, like being a prolific writer and performer. But alas, a life fueled by cocaine and pill binges is not sustainable. So now, after being remanded to his second rehab stint by some friends that didn't want him dead in his 30s, he's back. Sober. And thank God as funny as ever. Even funnier in a way, and much more human. He has been humbled by addiction. He talked about the intervention his family and friends "threw" for him. While it felt like a tragedy to them it was also pure comedy in the retelling. And if I ever doubted he was an addict I have zero doubts now. He's one of us. He thinks like us. He acts like us. Case in point, John Mulaney kept a fake diary for years as a child hoping that someone would find it and commend him on all his good (albeit made-up) deeds! We are addicts LONG before the drugs and alcohol show up. Us addicts like to start young with our shenanigans. The later drug and alcohol abuse is merely a symptom of the cunning disease lying patiently in wait for us below the surface.
So John's friends, famous, funny and fabulous, all got together to let him know that they were done with him. He was dying, and because they all love him, they wanted him to seek treatment...again. One of his first thoughts upon seeing the assembled "guests" was "Fuck them! Who are they to tell me how to run my life? I am better dressed, thinner and more successful than any of these losers". That is a classic addict train of thought. Upon agreeing to rehab so that "they would all shut the fuck up already" he was absolutely devastated. Not because he was in rehab...oh no…not that. He was upset because absolutely no one in his in-patient drug rehab program knew who he was. NO ONE. So he found a New York Post article chronicling his drug-fueled descent into the inevitable intervention, along with the news that he was in rehab with a picture of him alongside the article. He took to leaving it open on the tables of the rehab, in the dining room, the gym, the smoking areas, so that someone, anyone, would recognize him. No one did. That was the worst part of his stay. Not detoxing off of cocaine, Percocet, Adderall and Klonipin. No, of course that was brutal, but expected. That just goes with being an addict. But not being recognized as the master of the comedy universe that he is? That was the worst. I loved hearing that and I laughed out loud. That's how I think. How a lot of my addict friends think. Never mind the hurt and worried friends and family, the early tragic demise he was racing toward, the committed doctors and nurses just trying to help him recover. Did he care about them? NO! of course not. He cared about how he looked. How he appeared to others, “drug addict svelte, well-dressed and with a fresh haircut", and that other people realized who he was and how important he is. They did not. To them he was just another addict trying to get clean. Another addict whose life could possibly be saved.
For whatever reason I, like John Mulaney, have a self-destruct button. A check-out plan in place. A part of my brain that astonishingly, traitorously, wants me dead. It really does. It plots and schemes and has me do things against my will all in the hopes that I will self-destruct. For me that is the hardest part of being an addict.
Thankfully (at least now) I am aware of that part of my brain, the part that wants me dead. Most normies I know don't have this natural self-destruct button. But I do. John Mulaney does. John Belushi, Chris Farley, Robin Williams did. Also, I like trouble, excitement, danger. I like the thrill of lying and getting away with it. Of pulling the wool over the eyes of the normies. Of being fucked up and performing at a "high" level...and nobody knowing it. That was a thrill and a game in itself. But, like in John Mulaney’s case, the normies almost always eventually find out and then they want to help us. Quite annoying, but true. That's where the "I'm fine" comes in. And we know we are not "fine" but still, we want it to be our choice when we quit. It's just like deciding when to have a baby. If I had waited until I was "ready" to quit abusing drugs and alcohol...I never would have. And that is what John Mulaney’s new show is about. About pretending that we are on top of the world while knowing we are dying inside. About having to have your loved ones step in to save your life, against your will. About having a part of ourselves that wants to take us down. He talks about listening to that voice, to following that voice, and finally surrendering to the fact that if we addicts keep listening to that perverted, twisted, but often quite persuasive voice in our head that wants us to keep using and abusing, we will surely die before our time.
I love that La Bruyere quote: "Life is a comedy to those that think and a tragedy to those that feel”. And that's what comedians do. They observe and point out the hilarious and somewhat absurd nature of this human existence. I mean...really what is this all about anyway? There is a punk song by the Godfathers called Birth, School, Work, Death. The chorus is just the lead singer screaming those 4 words into the microphone over and over again at volume 11. That's pretty much it...right? Amusing, yes - but also fairly tragic. And that's the beauty - every life has all of it. Birth, school, work, death, taxes, family, joy, adventure, boredom, tragedy, comedy. The works. And John Mulaney took the absolute worst year in his life and made it funny. Made the tragic, self-destructive path he was on funny. Even made his drug addiction and divorce and final (we pray) bottom funny.
I laughed along with John Mulaney. But I feel like I was one of the few in the audience who will continue to worry about him. Most people leaving the theatre were saying things like "well, he's sober now, he'll be fine" But I know the truth. He will always have that self-destruct button. It's part of who he is. Part of who I am. Remember, this was his second time at the rehab rodeo. I’ve been sober for a while now but the disease is still in there...lurking, waiting, doing pushups. Hoping that I'll listen to its voice. The one that tells me a glass of wine can't hurt me, that weed is legal now, I wonder what that new flavored vodka tastes like?, that I should keep this Percocet (that I just happened to find in a medicine cabinet that was not my own) in case I need it "later"....all the reasons why I should consider "relaxing" with drugs and alcohol once again.
So I continue to do the daily, sometimes hourly work of staying sober. Of keeping my itchy fingers away from the self-destruct button. Of watching my thoughts and learning which of them are there for my benefit and which are there for the benefit of the part of my brain that thinks it's just such fun to walk the razor's edge between life and death. I'm still learning, still watching, still vigilant. That is what it takes. Constant vigilance. But even that can become funny. So when that voice in my head starts in with all its little games and tricky deceptions and "I'm just trying to HELP you" nonsense, I can laugh at it and know that I'm not alone. Because if I'm alone with that voice it may well kill me. But if I, like John Mulaney, can share that voice and get it out into the open there is a chance of freedom from it.
There are some gurus who will tell you that our only purpose here, in this human incarnation, is to leave the world a better place than we found it. If that is the case, then Mr. John Mulaney has certainly fufilled his purpose, and then some.