A few months before my wedding and 3 years before I got sober, my in-laws took my future husband and me on what should have been a fabulous trip to Thailand. I had always dreamt of going to Thailand, but once I got there I was teeth-grindingly irritated almost the entire time. Why? Because by that point in my drinking career I really liked to tie one on at the end of the day...every day...alone. To just check out. I had become a master at being drunk but acting reasonably coherent around my friends and soon-to-be husband but I was terrified of testing out my sharply honed acting-sober skills on my in-laws. I didn't know them very well and besides, who wants a drunk future daughter-in-law? Not them, I can assure you of that. I realized I was going to have to monitor myself. I’d still be able to drink every day, which was a relief, but not to the degree that I needed to. I could bring myself to the point of near drunk but not actual drunk - which is a terrible place to be if you are an alcoholic. It feels like an increasingly severe sub-dermal itch that you just can't reach to scratch and it is brutal. My beloved father who passed away 3 years ago with 45 years of sobriety under his belt used the experience of monitored drinking as his working definition of hell itself. My father was old school about his alcoholism. If you are an alcoholic you drink full-out until you have lost everything and have to drink in the morning to stop the shakes (which he did) or you don't drink at all. Full stop. Mention controlled drinking to him and he would exclaim "What the hell is the point of that?" I heartily agree. Drink like a real alcoholic, whatever and whenever you want to - consequences be damned - or not at all. Case closed.
I was okay for the first few days. I had read up on Thailand and their drinking culture before we left. Alcoholics are like Boy Scouts when it comes to booze, we like to be prepared. This was way before the internet so doing my research about alcohol in Thailand was no easy task. I went to bookstores, read magazines and finally asked a travel agent. I was that nervous about not having access to my “anxiety medicine" at all times. Thailand is 92 percent Buddhist and devout Buddhists don’t consume alcohol, so liquor stores were not a big thing at the time. In fact they were extremely rare. Restaurants, bars, and nightclubs charged exorbitant prices. Also, the Thai government relies heavily on tourism and they don't want tourists to see a bunch of crazy-eyed locals, drunk and belligerent, staggering down the streets. So they had started a "de-alcoholization" program for all Thai citizens. I was fucked. But being the good alcoholic Boy Scout that I was, I had filled a large shampoo bottle with vodka which I put in my luggage. I had also stolen at least 10 little airplane bottles of vodka from the stewardess cart on the several planes we took to get there. I was set for the week, or so I thought.
I guess I was stressed but for whatever reason that vodka was all gone in 4 days. I couldn't use the minibar as my soon to be in-laws would see the charges and regardless, there wasn’t nearly enough in there to satisfy my thirst. We had 4 days left and I was panicked. This was a highly structured trip. Every minute was accounted for so there was no empty hour to sneak out and get hammered. While visiting temples and forests and the countryside I could only think of one thing...what am I going to drink tonight? Over and over and over, like a mantra. On the actual day I ran out of booze we visited 2 Buddhist monasteries and sat on buses for almost 8 hours. We got back to the hotel hot and sticky, exhausted, and very dirty. My fiancé wanted to take a shower and a nap but I begged him to go for a walk. Of course I couldn't tell him but I needed to find a liquor store ASAP. After I found a place I planned to leave him at the hotel and go back, saying I wanted to take some Bangkok street-life photographs. We went for a walk and I saw something about 1/2 a mile from the hotel that looked like it might be my salvation. Something sparkling in the window that maybe, hopefully, could have been a bottle of booze. It didn’t matter what - I would drink anything - the stronger the better.
But when we got back to the hotel my in-laws were waiting for us in the lobby. We had mistaken the dinner reservation time and dinner was in 15 minutes. There was nothing to do. We ran upstairs and as my intended showered I asked him innocently enough if I could take a beer from the mini-bar as his parents were generously paying for our room. He said "Why? We’re about to go to dinner.” I said "I don't know. I'm hot. I just sort of feel like a beer." "Yeah, fine" he said from the shower. Thank God. I knelt down, grabbed 2 beers and chugged them. Each can in one go. On my knees, in front of the mini-bar. Before I threw away the cans I remembered to put a little bit of the beer in a glass to make it look like I was drinking the beer from it. You know, like the lady I am. I threw one can into the garbage and the other can I crushed and left in front of someone else's door on a room service tray waiting to be picked up. By this point in my drinking career I knew I had turned the corner into alcoholism and the fear of getting "found out" was constant. I knew I was a drunk but if other people also knew they might want me to stop, and that was totally unacceptable.
I had those 2 quick beers and then 4 glasses of wine with dinner but it didn't work. I was in a complete state of anxiety. My in-laws and husband went upstairs and I went with them. I changed into shorts, a t-shirt and sneakers and told my husband I was going outside to look at the "moonlight on the Chao Phraya river". How romantic. He asked me why I had changed and I told him I wanted to be more comfortable. But of course that was a lie. I was going back to that store I had seen on our walk and I was getting my alcohol, no matter what. I was on a mission. As I was leaving the hotel the armed guard at the gate tried to reason with me as to why I should absolutely not be walking around Bangkok, by myself, at close to midnight, in shorts. He was very persuasive and I was pretty shaken by his warnings, but we want what we want when we want it. And I wanted - nay, I needed - some alcohol. I left the gates, the guard still screeching warnings at me as I half skipped down the street. I walked faster and faster trying to retrace my steps, almost running through the steamy Bangkok night only to be crushed when I arrived at my destination and it was closed. The metal gates that close all stores at night in Bangkok were down and padlocked. The indignity! The outrage! To make matters worse when I pushed my face against the cool metal barrier I could see that that gorgeous glittering bottle was not alcohol at all but some exotic and quite glamorous looking cleaning product. I think I cried. Or at least I teared up. My mission had failed. I felt so lost. And then, on my way back to the hotel, through the dark and mysterious warren-like streets of Bangkok I got physically lost, making my frustration and despair complete.
This was Bangkok in the 1990s. Pre-cellphones. Pre-GPS. Pre anything that could have given a young blond woman in shorts walking alone through the thick shadows of this otherworldly crime-ridden city a sense of safety. Everything about those streets was scary. The oppressive darkness, the foreign acrid smells. Even the sounds were fear-inducing. Hoots and screeches and growls both human and animal exploded through the night. Mangy, rabid-looking street dogs slunk along behind me in the shadows snapping and barking at me and at each other. I was terrified. In the distance I saw a light that I prayed was an open shop. I ran to it and almost laughed with relief when I got there. It was open, and in the window next to one of those comedic rubber chickens, some dusty plastic flowers and a plate of loose cigarettes was a grimy pint bottle. The bottle had definitely seen better days. At some point I'm sure there had been a label on it - but that was clearly many moons ago. In its place was a handmade sign that had been stuck onto the front with 2 pieces of tape, top and bottom. The label showed a flame and three Xs and I knew that I was home at last. The exaltation I felt right then was like doing a huge line of the best cocaine. I could not have been higher. I straightened my "outfit' and casually sauntered in and what I saw there was like a scene from the 1978 film classic The Deer Hunter. It was unclear what the store was. There were bits of things scattered about. A bicycle inner tube on one shelf. Some dented old cans of pigs feet on another shelf. A few eggs, more plates of loose cigarettes and keys. Everything was covered in grime and dust, including the four, mostly toothless men who sat in the back, in boxer shorts and filthy wife beater tops. Smoking, drinking and playing cards around a small, sad, crooked table.
The men didn't move. Nor did I. They just sat there, staring at me through the blue haze of the cigarette smoke and the sad greenish light cast by a single dim lightbulb that hung limply from the ceiling. We just stayed there, staring. Then suddenly they started speaking to each other. Rapid and loud and aggressive. It was quite alarming. It sounded as if I had woken up an entire chicken coop and all the chickens were coming at me - angry, startled and clucking. I grabbed the bottle from window and thrust it at them. "Buy?" I said. "Me buy?" "Me buy, yes?" The men got up and started to approach, surrounding me and laughing gleefully like little children. The only thing I could make out was the word no. NO no no no no no they kept repeating between giggles and bursts of rapid fire Thai. Increasingly frustrated and realizing that they did not want to sell me the bottle out of concern for my own health or because they didn't want a drunk or possibly dead tourist on their hands - God knows what was in that bottle - I reached into my pocket and grabbed a $10 bill. Suddenly they went quiet. They conferred amongst themselves while I prayed they would just let me have it. "Please dear God" I prayed "just let them allow me this one small bottle." It was a long, tense standoff. Finally the leader of the group grabbed the $10 and made a brusque motion to shoo me out of the store. I already had the bottle in my hand so I ran. Just ran, in what I thought was the direction of the river. Eventually I found the river and by the grace of God and nothing else I made my way back to the hotel. Still scared but unmolested.
Before I entered the hotel gates I took off the unsealed top and took an enormous swig. I gagged and then shuddered head to toe, and spat most of it out. I tried again and gagged again. On the third try I got a few ounces down and the foul taste and scalding heat of whatever was in that bottle felt like a welcome kiss from my god at the time, Bacchus. I took another gulp and sauntered by the very same guard who had warned me not to leave. But I had returned, victorious, a full hour and a half after I had left. Once inside the cool bright lobby I congratulated myself on my bold and courageous nighttime adventure. I rose 32 feet in a glass elevator above the velvety darkness of the Bangkok night and went to my room.
It was now 2 o’clock in the morning so I took one more swig and gagged silently. I hid what was left in the bottle in my handbag and crawled into bed. Really quite proud of myself. I awoke 3 hours later at 5 a.m. and was violently ill. I was sick in a way I had not ever been sick in my entire life. It was as if every ounce of water was being expelled from every orifice of my body at lighting speed. I was also having this bizarre auditory hallucination which sounded like an airplane taking off mixed with wind chimes, but deafening. My husband woke up and heard my distress. Of course I couldn't tell him about my nocturnal adventures so through the locked bathroom door I blamed the whole episode on the previous evening's shrimp pad Thai.
We had to leave the hotel at 8 a.m. to get on a boat. I was really too sick to move but God forbid my in-laws should see me like this, pale and shaking, clammy and dehydrated. My husband explained to his parents that I had food poisoning but felt fine enough for a leisurely boat ride. I didn’t want to go but I was terrified to stay alone as the auditory hallucinations were getting louder and louder. Was I losing my mind? Had I been drinking lighter fuel or some equally toxic chemical? I didn't know but I did know that no way was I staying alone that day. I was too scared. We got to the boat and I immediately went to the bathroom to vomit. While trying to find a piece of gum afterwards I came across the bottle in my bag. I was shaking badly but managed to get it out of my bag, dump the remainder of the liquid in the filthy postage stamp sized sink, wrap the evidence in paper towels and throw it away. I continued to be sick throughout the morning but after drinking water and holding down a bowl of plain rice I began to feel better. The noise was still going on in my head but it was not as loud and buzzy as before. It became more like a constant and alarming hum, which I could live with.
I lay in the shade on a bench of the boat and slept (when not vomiting) while my future husband and in-laws discussed the truly amazing sights they were seeing on the shore. At around 2 p.m. we were called for lunch. I was still incredibly sick and wondering what it was that was in that bottle. I'm pretty sure it was some sort of home made hooch, bathtub gin, pure grain alcohol mixed half and half with something that tasted like pure gasoline. I guess the boys thought their moonshine needed a kick. I sat at the table and ordered a bowl of white rice and a beer. My fiancé glared at me furiously. I glared right back, daring him with my look to tell me I shouldn't have a beer during my bout with "food poisoning". He backed down and I got my beer. I managed to drink some of it which made me feel much better and had a few mouthfuls of rice before I had to get up and go to the bathroom. Oh no, you may think. Another episode of cookie tossing. But no...I didn't have to vomit. Not at all. I went to the bathroom and went straight to the garbage pail. Thankfully no one else had been in there so my paper towel wrapped bottle was right on top. And you know what I did? With trembling hands I took that bottle, unscrewed the cap, and I turned it upside down into my mouth, praying, beseeching all the gods of every religion everywhere that I had left even one or two drops of that foul unknown liquid in the bottle. Something, anything, to soothe me and my jangling nerves and my aching buzzing head. But sadly, disastrously, I had not. And why would I do that? Go back to the poison in that bottle? Because as an alcoholic I was doing what we do. We go back again and again and again seeking comfort in alcohol. Magical alcohol which used to comfort us so completely, but now, over the years, has morphed horribly into just another a source of pain. I went back to the table and finished my beer and got through the next 3 days with a few beers a day and some wine with dinner. Desperate to get the hell out of Asia and back home to New York City. A civilized city. A normal city. A city where you can find a liquor store on almost any block.
I tell this story because it sums up what it was like for me at the end of my alcoholic life. That level of insanity. That level of deception and secrets and lies. Imagine, I didn't stop drinking for another three years. All that potential danger, all that crazed and panicked juggling, all that extreme bullshit and daily sneakiness went on for three more years. Just to keep my addiction happy. In his book A Drinking Life the writer Pete Hamill talks about his life getting smaller and smaller and smaller while an active alcoholic. And looking back at it now I see how right he was. There I was, in Thailand, a place I had always dreamed of visiting and guess what I left with? The feeling that Thailand sucked. The entire damn country and everyone in it just sucked. And you know why? Because it was too hard for me to feed my addiction while there. I did it anyway but it was a pain in the ass and wouldn’t I have been happier sitting alone at home drinking by myself? Instead of traipsing halfway around the world and struggling daily just to get my "fix"? Yes, at that point I would have been.
So my world got smaller and smaller and smaller and my perception got darker and duller and my intuition disappeared entirely. That is what it was like for the next three years. Until I finally dragged myself to an A.A. meeting and started to recover. Looking back on those "adventures" I sometimes think "That was pretty exciting. Even exhilarating. I miss it." I can always look back at my drinking with rose colored glasses. But putting it down in writing I see how spectacularly selfish addiction is. It takes over your body and your mind and you are forced to do its bidding, always. Your family and your job be damned. Your connection to others be damned. And your health and sanity be damned too.
I hope some day to return to Thailand. Maybe to even find that tiny storefront with those men still sitting around that crappy table in the dim underwater melancholy light. And I know that if I do make it back I will enjoy it. Because I will be present for it all. Awake for it all. Open to all the wonders that Thailand has to offer. And I'll be sure not to wander the streets alone at night this time. I won't need to.