Month: November 2018


Harsh reality

It’s fair to say that being an alcoholic makes most things more difficult.

Work, relationships, climbing short flights of stairs… all these things become meaningful harder when you’re either paralytically drunk or so vomit-sweatingly hungover your heart feels like its about to give up beating.

Still, during the decade or so I spent as an alcoholic, there was one thing that being a drunk actually made easier: Knowing who the asshole was in any given situation.   

In any given situation, the asshole was me.

Every obliterated relationship: My fault.

Every firing, or breached contract, or missed deadline: Also my fault.

Every vicious argument, every betrayal of trust: 100% me.

Every time I woke up in a police cell, or in a stranger’s bathtub: Nobody to blame but myself.

For over a decade I’d internalized this simple worldview: I’m entirely bad, therefore everyone else around me is entirely good*. Ergo, if I were to ever stop drinking, my world would be free of conflict, free of negativity, free of drama. Kumbaya.

So you can imagine how I felt, back in 2009, when I finally got sober and realized the hideous truth: I wasn’t the only asshole in the world.

Not ever sober person is nice, or kind or honest. Some lie. Some cheat. Others steal. A few even – gasp – use your drinking to deflect blame for bad things they did. A ridiculous number of people in the world are just plain mean.

I’ll give you the clearest example I can of how this realization caught me unawares. A year or so after I got sober, I had a meeting with Byliner – an exciting new publishing company that specialized in publishing essays and short stories as Kindle singles. Their author roster was already ridiculous -Margaret Atwood first published The Heart Goes Last under their imprint. And now they wanted me to write a book about getting sober without using AA.

Damn right I would!

I worked hard on the manuscript, snatching hours in between meetings to raise money for NSFWCORP. Working late into the night in my Vegas apartment, I poured my heart and liver into offering sincere and helpful advice to folks like me who wanted to get sober but couldn’t entirely get on board with AA’s “admit you’re powerless to change, trust God and everything will be fine” mantra. Still, I took pains not to dismiss AA out of hand.  If their 12 step program works for you, that’s great!

Whenever I write about Silicon Valley or tech awfulness I expect a backlash. Similarly, when I used to write memoirs about my own drunken awfulness, I knew there would be loud critics (alcoholic internal monologue: I deserve this criticism, I am a terrible person and everyone else is right to hate me). But I’m not joking when I say I expected Sober Is My New Drunk to be the first thing I’d ever written that every single reader would love.

I mean, come on: It was a story of a guy who used to be terrible, and now wasn’t. It was a guide book for addicts to get sober in a way that worked for them, even if that way wasn’t AA. But it also was a book that acknowledged the benefits AA has to many millions of people. What’s. Not. To. Love?

And then, right before the book was officially published, the Wall Street Journal published a short extract as their ‘Saturday Essay.”

Five minutes later…. Well, I’ll just quote from just the first page of comments…

“I bet a dollar he drinks within the year. This is an example of a “dry” alcoholic, running on self-will and self-obsession.”

“I will take THAT bet all day long and twice on Sunday”

“I bet he falls off the wagon.”

“I wouldn’t take that bet, it’s a sure thing”

“CONGRATULATIONS!!! Let us hear how YOUR steps are working for you in 20 years.”

“Or 2!”

“I have one word to describe Mr. Carr: Nacissist….I would label you nothing but a dry drunk.”

“This story was self-indulgent, narcissistic schlock with false humility tossed at the end. Paul Carr: Let us know how you are doing in a few years- maybe 5. I’ll be curious to see whether you’ve made any personal growth.”

After that I stopped reading. But the hate mail kept pouring in, by email, by Tweet, by fucking carrier pigeon. More vitriol than I’ve ever received in response to a piece of writing, before or since. Hundreds and hundreds of messages from total strangers predicting that I was surely on the verge of relapse, or was just flat lying about having quit in the first place. There were even death threats. Death threats!

The truly jarring part was how much of the abuse came from current or former addicts. How is it possible that even they hated me? Weren’t we all ont he same team?

I remember turning to Sarah and asking, genuinely baffled, why is everyone being so cruel?

Her response: This is why you don’t read the comments. (She also wrote this great response on Pando)

Another friend put it more succinctly, with a shrug. People are assholes.

Seven years have passed since that Wall Street Journal piece was published (“Paul Carr: Let us know how you are doing in a few years- maybe 5”) and I now have enough data to offer a slight edit to my friend’s judgement.

Most people are not assholes. But a really surprising number are.

You only need to look at the news to see them. Our president is one. Every Republican in Congress is one. Millions of Twitter and Facebook trolls are. Every pro-Brexit person you know is. Everyone who has ever started a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…” or “We’re going to use the Blockchain to…” Every dude who has the hashtag “#feminist” in his bio.

Assholes, assholes everywhere.

It seems like such an obvious truth now. But I wish someone had warned me when I announced I was quitting drinking. Putting down the bottle won’t make everything better. In fact, it will make precisely one thing better: You will no longer be a drunk.

Your liver will thank you. You might live a little longer. But that’s it.

Even when sober, you will still have unsuccessful relationships. You will still get into drag-out fights with people you love. You will still forget to set your alarm and miss important meetings. People will lie to you. People will steal from you. You will do well-meaning things that result in you getting punched in the face (maybe even by thousands of Wall Street Journal readers.)

The big difference is, now you’re sober, you’ll have figure out how to deal with it all like an actual adult, without access to your previous solutions of either a) assuming it’s all entirely your fault and apologizing profusely or b) drinking an entire bottle of Captain Morgan and ending up in a jail cell, or c) both.

That part – figuring out how to interact with the harsh reality of the world, unmediated by booze – will take weeks or even months. It will feel like the hardest thing about sobriety. Sometimes even harder than the actual process of quitting.

And that’s when the next kicker comes. The realization that really knocks you off your feet: If the world really is full of assholes, there’s a pretty huge chance that you’re one of them. Even without the booze.

Or, put differently: Congratulations! You’re no longer a drunk asshole. But statistically you’re probably still an asshole. Maybe that’s the reason you became a drunk in the first place.

And that’s when the real recovery begins.

* That moral clarity is why those “intervention” type TV shows are so satisfying. All of Johnny Addict’s well-meaning, well-adjusted friends and family members, gathered together in a hotel ballroom to help Johnny understand precisely how much of an asshole he – and he alone – is.  

At no point does Johnny get to turn to his best pal or his parish priest and say “hold on a minute, Steve, before we go back to listing all the horrible things I’ve done, can we take a moment to talk about your racist Facebook posts, or the money Dad embezzled from work? Or “come on, Father Joe, we’ve all heard the rumors.” Now *that* would be great television.


Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving from Palm Springs.

Sarah and the kids are splashing around in the pool while I sit watching from the balcony, tapping away at my keyboard. The kids devoured banana pancakes and whipped cream for breakfast, but I stuck to fruit and coffee. According to my Fitbit tracker I consumed roughly a month’s worth of calories during yesterday’s Thanksgiving Feast.

A trip to Palm Springs has become our family’s Thanksgiving tradition. We love it: The warm water and the waning summer sun and especially our annual ritual of seeing a new-release kids movie before heading to a fancy restaurant for turkey and a thousand side dishes.

This year we saw Ralph Breaks The Internet (four stars) then decamped to Mr Lyons, an old-school Palm Springs steakhouse which, like everywhere in this town, claims Sinatra as a former regular.

Then, as we always do, we paused between courses to share the list of things we’re thankful for.

Evie (above) and Eli went first — Eli painstakingly namechecking every member of his immediate and extended family and Evie proving once and for all that she’s running for office (aged 5) by announcing she was thankful for “God and my family.”

Her stump speech concluded, Evie turned to me and, using the voice of her stuffed toy Turkey, asked  “What are you thankful for, Apple Paul?”

Well.

Ten years ago.

“Get up!”

The first sign of trouble was the shouting. Loud enough to penetrate my alcoholic coma and bring me bolt upright. Then came the flashlights in my face and the two huge hands grabbing my shoulders and hauling me out of bed. “You need to wake the fuck up!” Hard not to wake the fuck up with 2000 lumens assaulting your eyelids and a body armored giant screaming into your ear.

Someone must have found the switch because suddenly the whole room exploded into light. Once my eyes adjusted, I saw two giant policemen standing over me, both wearing blue latex gloves. A third uniform hovered in the doorway, clutching a bright red battering ram.

That’s when I realized: I was stark naked and covered in blood in a room I’ve never seen before in my life.

Over the next few hours, huddled in a whitebrick cell with only a wooden shelf to sleep on, I had time to slowly piece together some of the events of the previous 24 hours. I’d arrived in London from Spain, where my friend Scott and I had narrowly avoided being stabbed to death by a couple of teenage drug dealers after a misunderstanding with some cocaine we had no intention of buying. We’d effected our escape by jumping (falling, really) from a moving car, halfway up a mountain. The still-fresh gash on my leg accounted for all the blood.

I’d maxed out my last credit card on the flight from Malaga to Gatwick, so I’d generously offered to housesit for my friends Anna and Drew. I’d picked up the keys but hadn’t even bothered checking out the house before heading into the city looking for booze. London, how I’d missed her!

Ten hours after my arrest. 2pm. I’m slumped over a table in an interview room – exactly like you see in crime dramas – and I’m being good-cop/bad-copped by a couple of amused constables. “So you don’t remember where you were drinking?”

“I do not.”

“Or how you ended up in a cab?”

“I do not.”

“Or asking the driver to wait outside while you went to find some cash?”

“I… Ah… No I don’t.”

An hour and a half. That’s how long the poor, furious cab driver had apparently waited outside the house before concluding – based on the bloody state of me – I must have died on my way upstairs. An hour and a half before he finally called the police to smash Anna and Drew’s front door to matchwood so they could “save my life.” At least that’s what he’d told them. More likely he just wanted his money.

After just twenty minutes of grilling, both good and bad cop reached a consensus — they would recommend a formal police caution. Not a conviction – which would be a whole other world of trouble – but still serious enough to appear on my already growing criminal record. Oh, and certainly enough to scupper my reason for coming back to London in the first place: To visit the US embassy and apply for a visa to work in America.

In just one blacked-out evening, I’d trashed yet another friendship, earned yet another entry on the police national computer, sabotaged yet another career step and possibly gotten myself banned for life from the land of the free.

To a lesser drunk, this could have been rock bottom. The moment when I finally decided to turn my life around; to get sober and begin making grovelling amends to friends and family. God knows, I was running out of time. I was 28 years old, but with the liver of a 60 year old Glaswegian. I weighed a hair over 200lbs, suffered near constant heart palpitations and could barely climb a flight of stairs without a coughing fit. The one time I stumbled into a doctor’s surgery, I stumbled back out with a warning that I might very well be dead by the time I was 40. My blood pressure alone was reason enough to start picking out headstones.

Not that I could afford a headstone: I was barely able to cover my nightly bar tabs by begging and borrowing from friends while I waited for the first advance check for the book I was writing about being an incurable drunk.

And yet. This wasn’t my rock bottom. It was just another Wednesday.

2008 seems like a lifetime ago. America was eight years into the Bush administration and, in the UK, Tony Blair had just handed over power to his pal Gordon Brown after dragging the country into a long illegal war. These were the dog days of Gawker and Tucker Max and “fratire.” Disgusting, cynical times which, to a nihilistic 28 year old, kept everything in proper perspective. I may have been an asshole, but at least I wasn’t a war criminal.

It’s amazing to realize now that much of my writing from that time appeared in the Guardian. That back in 2008 even the left-wing press was yet to confront its glaring problem with (and enabling of) white male privilege. It would be even longer before Generation Z took to Twitter to demand that drunken dickheads like me no longer be rewarded handsomely for our drunken dickheadedness.

Oh yes, 2008 was a fucking golden age for mildly talented, white, male, cirrhotic, asshole writers. And I was happy to fill my boots right up until the moment they buried me in them.

So naturally, right after I walked out of Southwark police station on that freezing afternoon, I called yet another friend, borrowed yet more cash I had no way of repaying and headed for the nearest off-license (liquor store, to my American friends) to buy two bottles of Champagne, one for myself and one as an apology to Anna and Drew. Then I drank them both.

Surely Anna and Drew would forgive me. And if they didn’t? Well, that was their problem not mine. Because behaving like a drunken asshole and writing about it was my life. It was how I paid my bills. I couldn’t change even if I wanted to.*

And I really, really didn’t want to.

Palm Springs, 2018

Turkey voice: “What are you thankful for, Apple Paul?”

Eli and Evie call me “Apple Paul.” Seven years ago, when Sarah was pregnant with Eli (back when we were still just friends and business partners — I’ll save that story for a future post) she jokingly introduced me to her baby bump as “Uncle Paul.” I objected on the grounds that, if I was going to have an unearned ceremonial title, I deserved something much better than Uncle. I wanted to be… uh… Admiral Paul.  And, so, after Eli was born and learned to speak, I became Apple Paul. Babies, it turns out, aren’t great with syllables.

The question — “what are you thankful for, Apple?” — kills me every year, even when ventriloquised through a stuffed toy.

How can I possibly answer it honestly to a five year old and a seven year old who have only known me sober?

I can run through some of the highlights of the past year. I’m thankful, of course, for my incredible family and friends. Thankful that Sarah and I have been able to start a company together; one that we hope might make the world a tiny bit better for millions of people. Thankful I’m no longer a journalist and so don’t have to pay attention to each new Silicon Valley awfulness or the daily shattering of political or social norms. Grateful I finally got my Green Card. Grateful for good health and happiness and a few days vacation away from the smoke.

Evie and Eli nod sagely, then turn to the important business of potatoes. But I know I’ve short-changed them. I think about that day in London ten years ago and a thousand days like it. Then I think about the day, hopefully at least twenty years in the future, when they stumble across one of my old books and read about the person I used to be.

How will they possibly reconcile those stories with the person they know today? Will they be able to comprehend that someone could possibly change so much in less than a decade? Will they reassure themselves I must have been exaggerating or perhaps writing pure fiction.

Obviously, part of me hopes they never read any of it. That I never have to explain the decade-long journey that took me from there to here, and the hundreds of lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Deep down, though, I think I’m looking forward to having to explain it all to them.

To tell them the truth, and have them understand the thing I’m really most thankful for. The chance to be Apple Paul.

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