By the 4th day in Vegas, I thought about drinking.
This is not good news for an alcoholic.
The movie "Flight" stars the sensational Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic pilot under scrutiny after steering his crashing plane to a semi-safe landing. Only 6 souls on the flight perish, but Whitaker is dogged by the media and sued by the victims' families after his blood work reveals he was high and drunk while miraculously landing the plane. He cannot stop drinking, even as the trial, indeed, especially as the trial approaches, and his life, as a direct result of acute alcoholism, begins to crash faster than the aircraft he piloted. Clean off heroin, his new GF leaves him, his ex-wife has had it up to Here and his son rejects him once and for all. Whitaker is hidden away for 10 days, along with any access to alcohol, in the safe harbor of a friend until his trial begins. The night before his trial, he is literally kept under lock and key in a hotel room, the mini bar cleared out, a security guard posted outside his door— an intensive effort to keep him sober until the morning's deposition.
It is late. An eerie wind of foreboding blows through his hotel suite. An ominous, repetitive knocking begins. It is the door to the neighboring hotel room bang, bang, banging against his. As he investigates the noise, he realizes the door is unlocked, and we realize he now has access to a room and mini-bar that has not been emptied. We can smell what will transpire well before our beleaguered captain even sets foot in the room. Whitaker takes his time approaching the mini bar to investigate, hesitant, hopeful, wondering if it will be full of alcohol when he swings the door wide. The vacuum-sealed fridge opens with a sigh. From the inside, amongst the glittering miniaturized bottles of gin, vodka, and Jack, we peer out at his face. It is a poker face hiding a tornado of obsessive thoughts raging to touch down." I can have just one. I'll just have a Jack and go right to bed. I have a full stomach—it won't hit me that hard." We are holding our breaths, even as he steps away, leaving the fridge door open wide. The bottles wait, wet and willing. Patient. We feel the frigid air escaping, the icy-cold drinks turning room temperature, 1, 2, 5 seconds pass. 10 seconds pass. Then, WHAM. A flash of fingers. His hand hurls around a vodka bottle with the fury of self-will run riot. We feel somehow, he never had a choice.
Whitaker drinks, and drinks, and drinks and is awoken bloodied, passed out on the floor of his bathroom in his underwear by frantic colleagues desperately trying to thwack him back into ship-shape for the deposition. I swear I could hear the audience's thought bubbles bursting with disbelief, disgust, confusion, judgement up and down the movie theatre aisles. "Jesus. Why couldn't he stop? Why couldn't he have just one? Why couldn't he wait until after the trial, for Pete's sake?"
Because he is an alcoholic.
I had a minibar in my room.
I had a moment where a sequence of events transpired in my head not unlike a movie montage.
I noticed "The Rio" did not provide a regular coffee maker for my morning Joe, rather the new-fangled Keurig machine (like-the-one-we-no-longer-use-at-home-because-goddamn-the-way-I-chug-coffee-now-makes-those-single-cup-servings-add-up!). I began searching around my hotel room for those coffee pods. I squatted in front of the mini-bar and glanced at the tag hanging off the knob that warned me NOT TO LIFT ANYTHING I DID NOT WANT OR I WOULD BE CHARGED. Jeez. Chill. Distracted by the stern warning, I turned the key still dangling from the lock and swung the door wide. There they were. My shiny, little friends so beautifully categorized. Organized alcohol! OCD and booze! Was it getting warm in here? Gin, vodka, and Jack—just like in the movies! They glittered glorious rich colors of amber and gold against the immaculate white of the fridge. The bottles gleamed like prizes I should be entitled to claim. Syrupy, golden liquid that I knew would coat my throat with comfort and joy; first the burn, then the hot rush that would hit my now pristine veins like an injection of fire. And the relief that would follow; the fuzzy, friendly feeling that all was right in the world.
I didn't want it any of it.
I slammed the door and thought,
I thought about asking the hotel staff to come up to my room and clear out the fridge, but here's the truth. My comfort now comes from within. My internal peace is something I no longer manufacture from the external—my looks, my career, my surroundings. We do not have alcohol in the house. Am I more comfortable living in a sober home? Yes, I am only 13 months sober. Do I like hanging out with people who are drinking—soaking up their sauced state of mind and soul? Not so much. But did I ever have my Whip Whitaker moment and think about raiding that minibar in the middle of the night? No. Because I am a fucking pro at hiding, lying, manipulating, and now that The Big Man's in the picture, I just can't hide anything from him. I may be able to hide my actions from you, but I can no longer hide it from myself. Eventually, it bubbles up to the surface and manifests, deadly like Ebola, oozing out of me a bloodied puss of resentment, remorse and regret.
And eventually, I will die.
A spiritual death is so much more painful than any physical one. I know. At one time, I was dying from both.
In Vegas, you can drink anywhere. Short of behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, it is expected, encouraged, and most people heartily embrace this unwritten law by carrying a drink around with them wherever they go. They nurse it all day, everyday, like a starving newborn to a willing teat; sporting the drink proudly like an extra appendage they can't believe they've lived without this long. I used to do this. And in fact there was a moment, a flicker of misguided, manipulated nostalgia when I stood up from my convention table and stretched, hungry and tired, and thought, "OH. How great would a glass of white wine feel?" But, it was just a flicker, a fleeting image of chugging a cold glass of Chardonnay that pirouetted through my brain and out the back door before I felt the slightest bit dizzy.
It is not an option anymore. Nor do I want it to be.
As I left the Star Trek Convention Saturday night to go up to my room, I had to cut through the casino. It was 7:30 pm, the moment in a Vegas evening when the energy shifts from Neutral into Drive. The clinking jangle of the slot machines seemed louder, more frenzied, like screaming mechanical children demanding my attention. "WHEEL! OF! FORTUNE!" As I wove through the aisles of technicolor turbulence, the go-go dancers gyrated atop roulette tables to a vibrating beat so deep and thick, the plastic chips hopped in their teetering stacks of hope. She was grinding us all into welcomed submission; driving our hands deeper into our pockets, opening our wallets, even as our minds closed to everything but inhaling the stench of sin in the air.
My sin wafted off a moving tray of frothy, fruity drinks, artificially colored, genuinely delicious. But, no. That wasn't my gig. I spotted a clear drink with ice and a slice of lime. My heart twitched with a quick thud of recognition. That one would have been mine. My Vegas was all vodka, all the time. And I thought, what would happen if I just reached over and swiped the drink from the tray, startling the sexy waitress barely clad in tassels and mesh? What would happen if I grabbed and gulped? What kind of Henriette would emerge after nearly 3 years without a drink? I would have flirted and fibbed and fought my way back to Los Angeles—struggling not to crash land the way Whitaker fought to land that plane of innocents—immediately light years away from myself.
It's a trip I didn't want to take that night.
I looked around the convention hall the next day and noticed that very few Trekkies drank. Perhaps it was coincidental. Or perhaps in all their nerdy wackiness; their reverence for a world that only exists in the fourth dimension of film and television, they had discovered something I had been running from down here on Earth.
There is something else Out There. Something bigger than just Us. And that knowledge fills them with hope and peace.
It is when Whitaker finally surrenders, announcing in a desperate, split-second gasp of acceptance, "I am an alcoholic." that relief rushes out of him. What quivers through Washington's body is not just a textured, layered performance. It is tactile. We feel the acceptance of Whitaker's powerlessness and rejoice he is on the road to being free.
"Flight" or Fight? Neither.
It's when I surrender that my daily battle is won.