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Distress Tolerance

The body broken by alcohol

Kaveh Akbar
Apr 10, 2018 · 9 min read

eading The Iliad and The Odyssey, it’s easy to get the idea that Homer might have been a bit of a lush, based on how adoringly he writes about booze. Throughout both texts, he repeatedly describes the sea as being “wine-dark.” To a random swineherd, Odysseus says, “It is the wine that leads me on, the wild wine that sets the wisest man to sing at the top of his lungs, laugh like a fool.” Wine is poured onto the pyres of the war dead; it saves Odysseus from the Cyclops. Its presence is pervasive across the epics, the language around it romantic, idealized: “A man can fight all day if he is full fed with meat and wine; his heart beats high, and his strength will stay ’til he has routed all his foes.”

In the summer of 2011, I was day-drinking alone in the swimming pool of a random apartment complex, lazing in the sun with a bag of Franzia Chillable Red floating next to me in the warm pool water. The filters were blubbing, clogged with stray leaves and drowning moths. I didn’t know anyone who lived in the complex, but the wooden pool gate was always unlocked and the area was never monitored. It was hot and humid, and from one of the balconies above the pool, someone was blasting a mix of the kind of ’90s hip-hop white undergraduates in the Midwest sing along to on slow summer days.

By early evening, having polished off my bag of wine throughout the afternoon, I climbed out of the pool, hopped onto my bicycle, and rode to the campus liquor store to re-up. I remember getting there with my shorts still dripping with pool water. I remember using the employees-only bathroom in the back of the store, a privilege reserved for beloved regulars. I took a lot of pride in that. I remember having a cigarette in front of the store with one of the employees. I remember walking out with a half-gallon of Old Crow bourbon, the cheapest variety they carried, sold in shatterproof plastic jugs.

As I biked back to the pool, the sun was setting. The night was thick with humidity and barbecue smoke, and there were fireflies everywhere. Fireflies are the most efficient lights in the world — because of a complex chemical reaction in special cells called photocytes, they can directly convert pure energy into pure light almost entirely without loss. For comparison, an incandescent lightbulb converts only about 10 percent of its energy into light, losing the other 90 percent as heat. As a boy, the first time I caught a firefly in my hands, I was shocked at how cold it felt, even as it lit up.

I biked through the fireflies, holding the Old Crow with my right hand, steering with my left. I was listening to something on my iPod, but I can’t remember what. I planned to head back to the pool and welcome the nighttime revelers who usually showed up around eight or nine to play beer pong on the pool picnic bench and smoke bad weed and throw each other into the water. A block away from the pool, I was behind a blue car that suddenly, without signal, turned left. I hit my brakes quickly, but with my right hand still holding the bourbon, my front brakes slammed a second before my back brakes. I flew over my handlebars and bounced a couple times on the road. The whiskey, secure in its plastic bottle, bounced and settled right next to my head as the blue car continued its turn and drove off into the night.

An excerpt from John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”:

O for a beaker full of the warm South,

Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,

With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,

And purple-stained mouth;

That I might drink, and leave the world unseen

As Christopher Ricks points out in his Keats and Embarrassment, the word “blushful” evokes both the color of wine and its effect on the drinker when consumed in excess. The more you drink, the more you become defined by the drink, the more you look like a drink and smell like a drink and behave like a drink. In a blackout, this effect reaches its apex — you leave your body completely, and the drink is finally left to move unaccompanied through the world.

I didn’t black out. I didn’t think to look for the blue car’s license plate, nor do I think it would have done much good if I had. The car didn’t hit me, and I was drunk-biking. I braked wrong. My bike was in a heap behind me. I reached my arm out to make sure the Old Crow was okay. It was, though the plastic bottle was scuffed up and the watery brown bourbon was frothy at the top. I tried to stand up and immediately collapsed. I tried a second time and couldn’t even get my feet under me. Something was wrong, but I had no way of knowing what.

In my memory, there wasn’t a great deal of pain, though of course alcohol dulled the sting in the moment, and time has dulled even that. The anesthetic effect of time is a powerful evolutionary adaptation. Mothers tend to rate their labor pain as having been far less severe five years after giving birth, compared with their responses after two months. The ability to recall intense physical pain with consistency or acuity would arrest us as a species — if we could summon exactly the memory of our leg crushed by a mammoth, or bitten by a saber-toothed tiger, we’d never leave our caves. Our lingering emotional memories, what we now call trauma, evolved to caution us against dangerous behaviors while protecting us from the reexperience of physical suffering.

I army-crawled over to the side of the road, dragging first my whiskey, then my bike, to the sidewalk. A couple cars drove around me as I did this, probably assuming I was drunk and goofing around, which was half-correct. Once on the sidewalk, I called a friend who lived nearby. “I got into an accident on my bike,” I told him. “Can you come pick me up? I have whiskey.” I was bleeding but not terribly. There were fireflies everywhere, blinking on and off in a code I couldn’t understand. My friend showed up quickly in his taupe Chevy Cavalier. He gently folded my bike, my whiskey, and me into his backseat.

My friend drove me to my apartment, which we fondly called the Trash Castle. I lived on the third floor of the building and still couldn’t stand upright, which presented a problem. Somehow, I managed to hook onto my friend’s neck, and he carried me koala-style up three flights of stairs, finally laying me down in my bed. “You good?” he asked. “Yeah,” I replied. “I should be fine. But I still have all this booze.”

It was more invitation than statement, and we both knew it. We got on our phones, and within an hour, there were 10 people drinking in my bedroom, passing around bottles and drugs. My inability to get out of the bed became the running joke of the night. Classic Kaveh. I can’t believe he saved the booze. People laughed as they took turns carrying me to the bathroom, and I laughed with them.

When I woke up in the morning, my apartment was empty. The sunlight coming in the one window was blue somehow, and I thought that odd. I rolled to the edge of the bed, kicked around the pile of bottles and clothes on the floor, then collapsed into a heap. Whatever was wrong with me hadn’t improved with sleep. I took a pull from a nearly empty pint of vodka someone had left the night before and called a taxi to take me to the hospital.

The taxi driver had to come up the stairs and help me get from my bedroom to the back of her cab. She told me she was the mother of two children with brittle-bone disease. She told me I’d broken my hip, and she knew exactly how to hold me to help me down the stairs. I have been the beneficiary of many minor miracles in my days, but the arrival of this particular cab driver on this particular morning looms large among them.

In psychology, “distress tolerance” refers to an individual’s “capacity to withstand negative emotional and/or other aversive states (e.g. physical discomfort).” Alcoholics and addicts, whose lives are often spent lurching from one painful crisis to another, tend to display distress tolerances that are significantly higher than those of their sober peers.

When I got to the hospital, the nurses performed a series of X-rays on me. While I waited for the results, I restlessly rolled around the exam room in my hospital wheelchair. I posted a stupid selfie on social media. When the doctor finally came in, he told me I’d shattered my pelvis and cracked a vertebra. He showed me an X-ray and pointed out all the cracks, which were wide enough for me to see without backlight. He said, “You didn’t tell us about your broken back.” I asked him what he meant. He’d left the exam room door open, and I watched the nurses walk by and peek in, looking concerned. He said, “You also have a two-month-old fracture in another vertebra. You didn’t tell us about that.” I had no idea how or when it happened. I still don’t. Out of embarrassment, I made up a lie about tripping down my stairs.

I wish I could say that was the end, that I fell to the doctor’s feet, told him I was powerless over alcohol and begged for his help. I wish I could say I was even aware then that there was a problem. What actually happened: I spent a lonely, miserable bedridden month drinking box wine, eating painkillers, and binge-watching The Sopranos before moving onto crutches and returning to my daily trips to the pool. It took another couple years, another couple of bottoms before the intensity of my addiction sounded through the dense fog of my unknowing. Eventually, living alone in a freezing empty house, getting burgled regularly, with fewer and fewer people answering my calls, I managed to crawl myself toward help.

Now, sober for nearly a half-decade, I still notice every liquor store, every booze aisle, every cocktail at every party, though most days the pangs of desire to drink are easier to bear than they used to be. It’s still a profound strangeness to have to withhold alcohol from myself. I’ve moved back to the same city where the bicycle accident happened, and the ghosts of my past selves are everywhere. I ride my bike (a new one) down the same roads, past the same bars and apartment complexes that used to stand in for my life.

A couple months ago, I visited the old pool again. There were two muscley undergrad guys sunbathing poolside, cans of Keystone Light sweating on their towels. There were no fireflies this time, no music, and the air smelled only of suntan lotion and chlorine. I kicked my foot into the pool water and found it to be dirtier than I remembered, full of insects and leaves and mud. Wine-dark, Homer might’ve called it.

Illustration by Michelle Mildenberg. Creative art direction by Anagraph.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Kaveh Akbar

Written by

Kaveh Akbar is the author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf. He was born in Tehran, Iran, and teaches at Purdue University.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Kaveh Akbar

Written by

Kaveh Akbar is the author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf. He was born in Tehran, Iran, and teaches at Purdue University.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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