Like many people, I had my first drinks in high school and first hangovers in college. I would partake of whatever swill was being served at parties and proudly served Bombay Sapphire gin and Skyy vodka (kids!) at my house, but back then I was really a stoner who drank, and my relationship with booze was still embryonic.
Moving to New York after my college years was when I crossed the line into serious drinking. Life in the City That Never Sleeps (or drives) is quite conducive to alcoholism, and I quickly learned to drink all night. I’m in Show Business, and those epic parties felt like my birthright. A couple of years in, I started to get in a little trouble – a talking-to from a concerned friend here, a few hours of blackout there, and then in 2002, when I almost fell into the pit at my grandfather’s funeral, my family drew a line. At her own father’s funeral my mother informed me, “I don’t hang out with drunks.” Although I felt she was missing out on some really fun people, I got her point, and I knew I had a problem.
My dad suggested I try A.A., but I knew that I could quit drinking without it, so why go there? I certainly didn’t want to be around those people always regurgitating catchphrases, touting slogans. They are all so fucking on message. And I didn’t want to hear it.
And sure enough, I did quit drinking. I allowed myself one more blowout for gay Pride – what’s the fun of Pride if I’m not shit-faced and snorting coke off every toilet in the West Village – but then I was abstinent for a year-and-a-half.
Not drinking, I felt great, I looked great, I didn’t miss it. I still hung out with my friends and went to bars and felt no temptation. If anything, I enjoyed feeling at the peak of my mental prowess in environments where most people were anything but. There were a couple of relationships I had to taper off because I simply couldn’t tolerate those pills without booze (or pills), but for the most part, my life remained unchanged. Maybe that was the problem.
In 2003, my friend told me about a Vipassana meditation retreat she had done. While meditation has never been my thing, what appealed to me was a free program where you do not speak and no one speaks to you for 12 days. I craved that calm quiet and knew instantly it could be transformative for me. Unfortunately, I came back from Vipassana feeling so connected and in control of my life and choices that, cockily, I thought I could handle drinking again. Sitting on a terrace in San Francisco sipping my first Stoli soda in 18 months, I thought, “This is just a drink. It has no power over me.” I forgot that it had an army of friends standing by.
The war between me and booze has been a long, slow one, fought under the concerned watch of family and friends who knew me before my alcoholic comeback. For a time, I may have convinced some of them that it was going to be okay. I certainly kept telling myself that. But if I elicited fewer talking-tos, it was because I was learning to compartmentalize my life and automatically shut out anyone who wouldn’t let me be myself, i.e., drink in peace.
As incidents arose where my drinking had an obvious negative effect on my life, I made excuses, defending my booze to the end. I believed that I needed to get drunk to be a fabulous, interesting, talented person and that anyone who didn’t understand that just didn’t get me. When I couldn’t deny a consequence, I justified it. Everything comes with a cost. Nobody’s perfect, not even alcohol. But wasn’t it so worth it??
I don’t know yet whether drinking had a negative effect on my career (maybe I’ll figure that out in rehab), but I know I was crazy to think it helped. Either way, Show Business is tough, and a few years ago I had to get a day job in a law office. Working with heterosexual Republicans was a new experience for me, and while I happened to get along famously with these particular guys, I felt, for the first time since high school, a bit sheepish around the subject of my sexuality. It wasn’t that I pretended to be straight, but I was uncomfortable talking about much of anything personal with these guys. Compartmentalizing. I go to that office to make money.
However, three-and-a-half years in, I have gotten closer to them – we are a part of each other’s lives – and it felt really weird to have never said anything out-loud referencing the major, obvious fact that I’m gay.
Unfortunately, three-and-a-half years in, I have also gotten frustrated and bitter that I’m still working there and have increasingly used drugs and alcohol to escape that aspect of my life. When I get off work and run across town to meet friends in the bars and restaurants of 9th Avenue, I am once again the fabulous, interesting, talented Ben Rimalower, even if it takes more and more drinks to feel like it.
And, by now, it takes a lot to feel like it.
I have known for the last year or so that I’ve gotten to a bad place with my drinking, but I still believed the only life worth living involved alcohol, and if I struggled to find the balance, I was willing to die trying. Last Fall, I quit smoking cigarettes, a major accomplishment for an addictive type like me, but even that fueled my alcoholism – “I just quit smoking. Give me a fucking break. Should I repaint the kitchen, too?”
Then, over the last few months, I realized that, not only had I gotten to a bad place, I was getting worse. A quiet night at home on a Monday or Tuesday required more than a bottle of wine to myself. If people came for dinner, I rarely walked them to the door at the end of the night in favor of passing out on the couch in the final stretch of debauchery.
And then, more recently, over the last few weeks, there was vicious day drinking on the weekends, where I would find myself so shitfaced by mid-afternoon that I couldn’t function at all – resigned to lie around bored and lonely, too stupid with booze to formulate a conversation or even watch a TV show. On weekdays, my problems progressed beyond hangovers. My brain was a total mush. I felt such extreme A.D.D. that I had to talk out loud to myself just to accomplish the simplest tasks. Anxiety and depression mounted. Everything seemed horrible and out-of-control.
Last week, after a few insane nights in a row, I had a relatively relaxed night at home – wine and weed with a friend. I walked him to the door. My brain must have finally had the chance to do a bit of processing. When my eyes opened the next morning, it was like the decision had been made in my sleep. I quit drinking.
I was afraid to go anywhere, but also getting a little cabin fever, pacing around my apartment, talking to myself out loud, telling the story of how the Hell I got here.
My best friend came over to help me cope – she whom I shut out completely when she dared to express her concern. We’d recently reconciled in time for me to pass out in my salad plate at her 35th birthday and for her to watch me fall flat on my face at mine, but she knew she was on the thin ice, and it was with great trepidation that she ventured, “I have something to say, but I don’t think you want to hear it.”
I was terrified she would tell me to go to A.A. I knew I could quit drinking without it. This time, I’ll know not to ever start again, I thought.
I told her to just get it off her chest.
“I think you need to go rehab.”
To paraphrase Amy Winehouse, “YES! YES! YES!”
I had never in a million years imagined myself going to rehab. I guess I thought of rehab as being for people who majored in drugs, or rich people of leisure, not alcoholics with important jobs as receptionists in law firms. No, I deserve this, too. I deserve to get away. I hate my job anyway.
The idea caught fire immediately with me. I could go away somewhere to work full-time with support and supervision (and a team!) on not just my drinking, but the underlying problems – why do I feel the need to anesthetize myself against any and all human experience?
And immediately, I saw myself working the 12 Steps, I saw myself in A.A., and it looked great. I saw myself going to meetings, and I saw myself being okay.
Ironically, the first weekend of my sobriety, I was deep into rehearsal and preparation for Night of A Thousand Judys, a benefit at Joe’s Pub celebrating the greatest alcoholic of all, Judy Garland. I was lucky to have something so important to me consuming my time those first, precarious days — it made it easier to abstain.
The hardest part was that last half hour after the final sound check rehearsal, when the performers have retreated to the dressing rooms, and I am left to twiddle my thumbs as the audience files in. Normally, on a one-nighter like this, I would spend those thirty minutes, pounding vodkas, throwing them back as fast as I could. This time, I had to sit and experience my nerves. Not fun.
Watching the show was better. Some moments made me pull my hair out, others made me proud, but the most remarkable thing was how conscious I was for the finale. I have directed many Joe’s Pub shows over the last few years, but I can’t remember any of the encores until this one.
Going out after the show was challenge. Being at Bowery Bar with 30 friends fills me with all kinds of emotions and thoughts and, with no alcohol to quiet them, I struggled to get by. But I did get by. And I know it will get better. I felt all these compulsions to do or say things for the benefit of the entire group, but they all required a kind of drunk energy I didn’t have. I resigned myself to sitting quietly and listening. I tried to let go of the compulsion to fill the space, to make noise. I told myself I could just be me. It was hard, but I had moments, a few beautiful moments when I wasn’t trying to do anything, when I felt open to the world and myself and other people and I listened and talked and shared and I felt present and real and good.
Imagining myself in the Program, I saw myself making plans to get back into the world and needing a day job and suddenly, my job seemed wonderful – decent money, great people, I already know how to do everything.
I started panicking about asking for the time off. Would they understand? Would they judge me? Would they hold my job for me? With all the hungover late arrivals, I’d basically been on probation for a couple of months as it was. Maybe they would just wash their hands of me.
But my boss was wonderfully supportive and made me feel I had a place there on the other side. And talking to everyone, figuring out who to get to fill in for me, I was suddenly completely open – “gay this,” “straight that.”
Lifting the veil off my alcoholism opened the doors on everything instantaneously. Over the last few days, my day job has not felt like a compartmentalized cell where I subsume my existence for eight hours a day, but an integrated part of my life, where I am 100% myself as much as anywhere.
I leave for rehab in Minnesota for four weeks on Wednesday, and I know it’s going to help me do more of that — be myself.