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Ben (Nicolas Cage) in the Leaving Las Vegas film
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In May of 2001, I was 21, I’d dropped out of college a couple months earlier, and I was spending all my time and money on whiskey.  I was a fuckin’ mess: I’d broken up with a wonderful girlfriend; tried and failed to get her back; was still wrapped up with another ex who served as the enabler from hell; was powerfully infatuated with yet another woman; and because of my self-involved, self-centered, and self-propagated misery, I was swiftly alienating everyone I knew.  My roommates and friends didn’t want to be around me, and the one person who did, Scott, had a real reason for his own nascent alcoholism; one thrust upon him, not created by his own ravenous desire for misery and attention.


cover art

Leaving Las Vegas

John O'Brien

(Watermark Press; US: Jun 1991)

I drank to deaden whatever pain it was I thought I felt, too young or inexperienced to know yet that alcohol is really a mood accelerant, that all it really does is make a good mood better or a bad mood worse.  I drank to make a spectacle of myself and to make everyone around me acutely aware of how miserable I was, how deserving of their pity I was—how my loneliness drove me to ingest superhuman amounts of Bushmills.  I was so insecure about my own drunkenness that I envied and even begrudged Scott the purity of his wretchedness.  I made my own bed, but I couldn’t lay in it without trying to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that I was doing so. 


Soon I was drinking because it was just what I did: wake up, drink, go to work, drink, go home, drink, wake up, drink, go to the club, drink, go somewhere else, drink, et cetera.  It stopped being about blotting out the pain I created and became the pain itself.  I started to push those limits I felt I still had and drank in order to make a scene, to cause trouble.  It wasn’t fun, it was punishment for breaking up with the girl, then for trying to get her back and making an ass of myself, then for dropping out of school, then for eroding all my friendships, then just for being awake.


I took a train to New Orleans to visit the enabler, a bipolar alcoholic bartender—a match made in heaven.  We drank just about every moment we were conscious in a city that breeds and cultivates such behavior.  We took every pill we could find, and along the way, fell back into a sort of love.  After a few days, we went back to Tallahassee for another solid week of similar behavior.  When she finally went home, I thought I’d seen the bottom, but she’d only shown me a glimpse. 


After that, I slept in a gutter, had severe alcohol poisoning, passed green shit, and waited at the Shell station down the road for the clock to hit the right time to buy more, which I then drank out of a paper bag while shambling down the street to my grand infatuation’s apartment, where, in a moment of clarity, I didn’t wake her up at 6:30 in the morning. Instead, I sat on the hood of her car and called my dad. Not all of this in one day, mind, but in relatively rapid succession.


Why?  Was it as clichéd as wanting to “feel something?”  I felt a lot, just none of it was any good.  I’d gone beyond seeking attention and past the point of anyone giving a shit.  No, after 21 years of trying to be someone, anyone, I realized I was no one and now I had driven away anyone within a few hundred miles who might have been inclined to help me, leaving me with relatively nothing.  No one and nothing—if that wouldn’t drive one to drink, I don’t know what would.  I wasn’t all the things I tried to make believe I was: a writer, an actor, a musician, a friend, a son, a student, a human fucking being.


I read Leaving Las Vegas during that period.  I’d seen the movie prior to ever drinking a drop, so of course it had no real effect on me, but I picked up the book after finding out the author, John O’Brien, was an unrepentant drunk who killed himself a couple weeks after selling the film rights. His father called the book his son’s suicide note.  I read it how I often read books in those days: in one sitting.  Having seen the movie, I knew the story, but I read it for the reason I usually read a book after seeing its adaptation: to get further into the characters’ minds, to understand why they were. 


I found in Ben (Nicolas Cage in the movie) someone much worse than me.  He couldn’t eat anymore due to what he’d done to himself, and could not physically function without alcohol in his blood.  The book described in thorough detail the difficulty he had performing even the most perfunctory tasks: tying his shoes, walking, but most of all living.  He was literally drinking himself to death, yet after a certain point, it would kill him if he stopped drinking. 


Is that where I was headed?  I didn’t think so, but I didn’t see an end in sight, either.  I had no reason to stop, I didn’t want to stop, but now I was drinking alone.  I was drinking as a matter of fact, because, as I said earlier, it’s just what I did.  I knew that was Ben’s life, too, the only difference being that he would drink as much as possible, day in, day out, and it was all his body could ingest anymore.  I thought not only “Is that where I’m headed?” but also “Is that where I want to be?”  For all its pages speaking on the harrowing nature of profound, irreversable alcoholism (which wasn’t my future, no sir), none of it really touched me (certainly not me) save for a three-paragraph block of text. 


Leaving Las Vegas refers to it as “the tundra of two to six” and warns “never let two o’clock happen unless there is more liquor in the house than you could possibly drink in four hours.”  You see, most college kids do their drinking on the weekends, at night, after class, after work.  I woke up at five or six in the afternoon every day and drank all night and into the next morning.  In Florida (and most places, I think), you can’t buy or sell alcohol between two and six in the morning. It’s tough when that’s when you do most of your drinking—in the hours when most everyone has gone off to their beddy-bye, and you sit alone with whatever it is you have, chugging through whether it was a good night or a bad one.


And God forbid you run out at four AM on a bad night.


That was me.  That’s exactly where I was.  That was me sitting outside the Shell station, waiting for six AM so I could keep drinking, not even knowing why anymore, just knowing that if I didn’t, the panic would set in. What am I doing, why am I here, will I always be alone, and—worst of all—who am I?  I was only at what I thought was peace when I was drunk, so drunk was how I stayed.


This terrible knowledge didn’t stop me, though.  Soon enough, I backslid into attention seeking and causing emotional mischief, thinking it was better than what I was doing.  It would be another two or three years until I stopped drinking almost entirely, following a bad relationship, a move to Orlando, and a failed engagement.  When the dust settled from my now-ex-fiancé moving out, I finally realized I was an alcoholic trying to feed Goldschlager to his cat (who turned up his nose when I poured it into his water dish).


After re-reading Leaving Las Vegas for the first time since college, I became more or less terrified of drinking, and almost got in fights with drunk friends who would insist I drank, as drunk people often do.  I remembered the “tundra” and who I was—that feeling of hopelessness that I felt even more overwhelmingly by that point.  I “knew” if I started drinking again that that was it—I wouldn’t come back, and the bleak thoughts that found me with my gun’s cold metal rubbing against my forehead would put it back in my mouth where it belonged.


When the time came to move back to Tallahassee and finally finish my degree and maybe do something with my life, I was more than a little scared.  After all, Tallahassee is a town that fosters and encourages the type of drinking that can quickly become my (or Ben’s) particular shade.  I knew I was headed into a situation where I would be living alone, with only one real friend that I wouldn’t see very often, and that the person I’d become in the years that I’d been gone didn’t make new friends easily, if at all.


I’ve been here for almost two years now, as alone as when I came back, with a bottle of vodka in the freezer I eyeball very carefully, lest it sneak up on me.  I know I shouldn’t have it at all, but sometimes I need a drink, just one drink, and I have it, and that’s that.  It’s to the point now where I don’t like drinking, being drunk, or being around drunk people, so I get high instead (which, of course, has its own easily-rationalized attendant down side).  Sometimes, though, when the night is very quiet and closes around me, and all I have is the old loneliness, I want to get drunk—rampagingly drunk, like I used to, and stir up some shit.  I don’t, though—I can’t. I’m too scared of what might happen, so I have my one drink and call it a night.


On the other hand, probably because I get high it’s almost easy not to drink.  Most of the time, I don’t even think about it, it isn’t even an issue. It’s almost a non-issue.  It’s so easy, in fact, that I feel like a fraud.  Was I really an alcoholic?  Ever?  Or was it always just a cry of loneliness, and a calculated one, at that?  They say you never stop being an alcoholic, even if you never have another drink, but was that me?  Is that me?  Or is it just emotional ostentation to claim to be so?  Using Ben as a gauge to measure myself against, my life wasn’t anywhere close to as bad as it could be, but I’m also well aware that people who thought they had better control of their drinking than me still fuck their lives right up, so….


Considering the question of the most important, life-altering book in my life, you’d think that as a “writer” I’d be able to offer something up at a moment’s notice, but it took me a few minutes.  The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t instantly respond to the question, but rather that when I could, I wasn’t confident in the answer. In pointing out specific behaviors, mechanically, Leaving Las Vegas did influence, change, and in the end might have saved my life, so why does it feel like an empty answer to an honest question?


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