Article Hero Image
April 1988

Locked Out

Jim is in his middle forties, bearded, dirty; he holds conversations with nobody that anyone else can see. Often I see him while I'm having brunch at a restaurant in my neighborhood. He walks a beat, sort of, between a flower stand and a fast food joint at the corner of Third Avenue just before it becomes the Bowery, back and forth all day long. His gait is somewhere between a shuffle and a lurch, depending a lot on how much vodka he's taken in. It's hard to believe that any liquor store would sell him booze directly if they cared about keeping their license. Often he sits on the stoop next to the restaurant drinking his vodka, talking to phantoms, moving his hands, shrugging, shaking his head or nodding in affirmation. Sometimes a wino who fancies himself a hustler will stop and chat Jim up; Jim will nod and shake his head and maybe shrug until finally the hustler asks for a taste and Jim will always oblige. Last summer somebody gave Jim a toy stuffed cat; for days Jim walked his beat with that cat under his arm; it seemed he had some real connection with something outside himself. Then one day the cat was gone; stolen, lost--who knows? A woman I know, who has also been watching Jim for several years, confessed to me that when the cat disappeared, she "just cried all day!"

Jim is wet-brained, a rum-dumb; he is a victim of alcoholic senility and/or alcoholic psychosis. In the less enlightened days before the courts opened the doors of the mental institutions and set free the inmates therein, Jim would have been confined for life to the back wards, out of sight, out of mind. The damage Jim's alcoholism has done to his brain is irreversible. If you were to keep Jim away from booze for six months, feed him nourishing food, shave him, cut his hair, dress him up in a jacket and tie, reason with him, love him, hold him--he would still be a wet brain, unreachable, un-teachable, unrecycleable, lost and gone forever.

Almost every time I see Jim he will come up to me and ask for a cigarette. Usually he'll just put two fingers to his mouth, but sometimes when he thinks I don't see him he'll ask in a hoarse voice, "d'ya have a cigarette?" The voice is the voice of a corpse--there is no Jim there anymore. . .

I've known Jim for about fifteen years. Less than three years ago he was a binge drinker, a Bowery drunk, like so many others--like me. Until three years ago I would see Jim at AA meetings when he was between drunks. He would clean himself up, he got part-time jobs, he had a bicycle with a basket on the handlebars. Between binges, he was a great reader, as I was; he always had a paperback--he favored history, adventure, espionage books. He was a loner, as so many drunks are; he was very self-contained: at AA meetings he carefully defined his space; he sat on the aisle, the chair next to him held his cup of coffee, his ashtray, his book (always backside up); he, like me, had spent too much of his life in dormitories, flophouses, and cheap hotels. He was a pretty serious guy and he made few, if any, friends. But he had a spark of humor and could laugh at himself. He didn't have much formal education but he was an intelligent and thoughtful man.

For years Jim and I had run parallel courses. I had come off the Bowery in 1971 and into AA, but for seven years, although things got better, I continued having slips every few months. It was during this time I started seeing Jim at AA meetings all over She Village. We didn't become friends--maybe because we were too much alike--but we did nod to each other and sometimes exchanged a few words. I would see him when he came back from a binge, shaken, dirty, sick--full of remorse; defeated. He would raise his hand to say he didn't know why he couldn't stay sober; something or someone pissed him off and he got so mad he just picked up a drink. Same old story. This time he would try to get closer to the program. For a while he did get closer; he would talk to people at meetings, sometimes go with a group to a coffee shop afterward; get a few phone numbers. But in a couple of weeks or a month, he was very much alone again and then, suddenly, he was gone. We'd see him rampaging down the street, dirty, unshaven, torn-up, his anger unleashed. In a week or two he'd be back at meetings, beaten, willing to try again.

In 1979, by some sweet grace, I was able to throw in the sponge and since that time I have not had a serious desire to pick up a drink or drug. Many in AA have experienced this release and generally attribute it to prayer; my prayer was unspoken but nonetheless heartfelt and real. As I watched Jim continue down the path I had miraculously left, I was able to watch my own other history unfold. By 1982 or '83, Jim's periods of sobriety were shortening: after a binge he'd go into a detox and start drinking soon after his release. We would see him battered and shaking at meetings for a few days, then he was out there again. He'd be gone for maybe a month, and each time he came back there was less of him. Finally, about three years ago, Jim's body came back from a drunk, but his brain did not. At first we thought he would clear up in a few weeks. But time passed and there was no change. Even when we knew he'd not been drinking for several weeks, there was no reaching him; he talked constantly to himself; he walked like a drunk even when he was dry; his only contact with others was to ask for cigarettes.

Most alcoholics have a certain amount of brain damage, but if they get sober and are able to stay sober, new pathways are found, new connections are made and they can function at normal levels. Maybe the memory is not what it once was, but nearly all of us experience the odd memory lapse by the time we reach middle age. Many alcoholics suffer from serious neurological damage, but much of it is reversible if they are able to stop drinking. I knew a woman who got sober after thirty years of drinking, but her hands continued to shake like she had just come off a drunk for a whole year after her last drink. AA abounds with stories of people who could hardly walk, were nearly blind, couldn't talk or read and had the concentration span of a retarded gnat being restored to full functionability, once they stopped drinking.

Three years ago Jim closed a door that had no knob on its backside; he entered the murky world of the wet brain, an echo of that "country from which no traveler returns."

Have Something You Want To Share?

We want to hear your story! Submit your story and it could be published in a future issue of AA Grapevine!

Submit your Story