Drinking can send a drunk into a wormhole, where a single cocktail can lead to the loss of an entire evening. Getting sober means gaining a new appreciation of the ticking of the clock.
When I was drinking I was always late. Time was my enemy. I would look at the clock at seven pm and order another glass of wine. I had to be home by eight: no problem. I would look at the clock again ten minutes later to find it was two in the morning. How the hell did that happen? Time seemed to fly. In sobriety, I am obnoxiously punctual—in fact I am often early. These days, time sometimes stops cold. Is that clock broken?
Henry James pointed out that time goes slowest in Italy, and he vowed to spend all the time he could there, in order to lead a longer life. Sobriety is my Italy. We talk about time as if was linear, but in fact it is complex and multi-dimensional. “Time judgments can distort, recalibrate, reverse and have a range of resolutions depending on the stimulus and the state of the viewer,” according to an article on time and the brain by David Eagleman, Peter U. Tse, et al, in The Journal of Neuroscience.
According to the same article, during an accident time slows to a vivid, second by second, crawl. “Brief dangerous events…pass in slow motion as if time slowed down,” Eagleman writes. At a good party, time stops. It can also seem to stop when you are reading a great book, or lost in the darkness of a movie theater. Yet the time it takes to eat an ice cream cone can truncate into a millisecond. Time when you are with someone you love can also be agonizingly fast. In a famous passage in my father's journals, he wrote about the way time crawls excruciatingly along for a man who has just written a bad check to pay for a much needed bottle of gin at a liquor store.
How long can the liquor store clerk take to put the bottle of gin in a bag? How long can a dealer take to return a phone call? When you are using, time is defined by what you have to go through to get high.
“Will they call the bank before he gets out the door? Will bells and whistles sound, will somebody shout “Stop That Man!”? He enjoys some relief when he gets out the door but his troubles are not over. He enjoys a further degree of relief when he gets in the car, but his troubles are not over. The car floods, the car won’t start. (“I’m calling to check on the bank balance of Mr. Lemuel Estes.”) The battery, as he grinds the starter, begins to show signs of weakness. Then the motor catches, he backs out into the street, makes a right turn, and, when he feels safe at last, stops the car, screws the top off the bottle, and takes two or three long pulls. Oh, sweet elixir, killer of pain. Gently, gently the worlds reforms itself into interesting, intense, and natural arrangements. Thomas Paine drank too much. General Grant. Winston Churchill. He is in the company of the truly great.”
Managing time was one of the reasons I drank—drinking seemed to give me some control over the passage of time, and it also gave me rituals which calmed and centered me. I inherited the religiously observed drinking rituals and tools—ice bucket, tongs, special glasses—which ordered our lives in the house where I grew up. There was coffee at breakfast (black), and sometimes an eye opener (coffee spiked with a shot of Calvados). At noon a bottle of wine would be opened to accompany the preparation of lunch. This was called the preprandial libation. Then there was wine with lunch, another libation before dinner—Scotch or Martinis—and then a postprandial libation—brandy, which sometimes stretched into a nightcap, usually Scotch and water. Other rituals punctuated the seasons; I knew I was a grown-up when I met my commuting husband at the railroad station with a thermos of martinis and two chilled glasses.
“Using gives you structure, and that structure creates a sense of time, it sequences it,” says Dr. Marc Lewis, the distinguished neuroscientist and the author of Memoirs of an Addicted Brain. Lewis points out that the addictive cycle begins with an attachment and then proceeds to craving, striving, with the substance as a goal, and finally getting. During the striving part of the cycle time can be heartbreakingly slow. How long can the liquor store salesperson take to put that check in the cash register drawer and get the bottle of gin in a bag? How long can a dealer take to return a phone call? When you are using, time is defined by what you have to go through to get high. Finally, when the substance is acquired and used, time just disappears. “You are no longer in a state of craving, so all those steps of striving just disintegrate” Lewis explains, “Now it doesn’t matter.”
How does our connection to time change when we stop drinking and using and enter recovery? In Alcoholics Anonymous there is a lot of talk about time. Newcomers are told to “give time time,” to “take it a day at a time” and to “live in the moment”. Time in recovery is carefully added up, and temporal milestones—90 days, a year, ten years, are all greeted with celebratory applause. People in recovery learn to use regular meetings, routine readings and calls to other alcoholics to structure time the same way they may have used screwdrivers to indicate breakfast and brandy to indicate that dinner was over.
One of the keys to recovery is learning to be friends with time—the entity that we drank to eliminate. Most recovering addicts develop ways of manipulating time in sobriety—for me reading, playing word games, and playing squash are a few of the ways I can make time disappear in the same way that a bottle of Famous Grouse once made time disappear. “Time when you are sober is more transformative,” Lewis speculates. “It’s more variable, the course ahead is flexible and it keeps changing and your whole life opens up and anything becomes possible."
Fix columnist Susan Cheever wrote about the curse of the Kennedy clan on August 1, 2012.