Roger Ebert died today, and as a Chicagoan of 25 years’ standing, that affects me a great deal. I watched his television show with Gene Siskel for many years, but it wasn’t until after Siskel had passed away, and the show went on with someone else, that I realized what made that show work. Ebert and Siskel were two passionate, knowledgeable people with their own views and their own opinions. Sometimes they agreed, and sometimes they didn’t, and neither was afraid to tell the other why he was wrong about a movie. In the end, neither man succeeded in changing the other’s opinion, either. There wasn’t a “Ebert wins” or a “Siskel wins” determination made. If you wanted to break that tie, you had to go see the movie and decide for yourself, which is the way that it should be.
But I owe something to Roger Ebert, and it has nothing to do with his film criticism. I still remember how it felt to read a blog post he wrote called “My Name is Roger, and I’m an alcoholic.” When it appeared, back in 2009, I had been a devout drinker of 25 years. I never once considered myself an alcoholic, but after reading Ebert’s piece, I came to realize that I probably was one. The idea of only having a single drink was my problem. And Ebert wrote about this, too. When you take the first drink, he said, the second drink takes itself. And he hit the nail right on the head.
I can’t say that I stopped drinking immediately after I read this piece. It actually took about a year before I finally went all in with the idea. The behaviors that had begun on weekend nights in high school–and had persisted in a thousand ways ever since–weren’t going to just disappear right away. But an important seed had been planted, all the same. And just like a seed that needs time and sunlight and water in order to germinate, Ebert’s suggestion that life without alcohol was not only possible, but even preferable to life with it, needed some time to take root. But take root it did.
I first gave up drinking altogether in November of 2010. I didn’t go to AA, and I didn’t seek any medical or spiritual help. I just decided that life without drinking was how I was going to live. And I made it through the holidays that year, and past the Super Bowl, and all the way up until the NCAA tournament in March. It was only a few months, but I was very proud of myself, just the same.
I went to a sports bar with some friends one night to watch the tournament, and didn’t have the strength to resist having a margarita with them. I had one, and part of a second, and left the bar with a sense of disappointment that I had failed. I drank again in June of that year, having several mojitos and other drinks at a friend’s 40th birthday party. I bought him a 40 ounce malt liquor as a birthday gift, and it seemed hypocritical to do that if I wasn’t also going to drink that night. So I did. And I felt even worse about this than I did about the margaritas in the sports bar.
In between the sports bar margaritas, and the birthday mojitos, I had started this blog that I’m writing on now. I had always liked writing, but never pursued it seriously in all of the years that I was drinking. Now that drinking was being edged out of my life, I wanted to replace it with something that I enjoyed even more. So writing became my new drug of choice, I suppose. And after 900 and some-odd posts, and nearly 400,000 words written, I’m still at it. It simply would not have happened if I was still drinking, though. I can guarantee that.
There was one final coup de grace that had to come before I could be forever turned away from drinking. It happened on Canal Street in New York in the summer of 2011, and a night of drunken revelry with an old and dear friend from grammar school left me convinced that terrible things had happened. It’s a long story, and I’m so grateful that it turned out the way that it did, but at the end of it, I knew that alcohol and I could not coexist together ever again. And nearly two years later, I’ve held to that.
And now I’m writing, and happy, and very grateful that I was able to read Roger Ebert’s essay before my liver decided to give out on me, and before I got behind the wheel of a car when I shouldn’t have, and before I let anger and booze combine to get the better of me and make something happen that I couldn’t take back.
I feel as if I’ll live, for the rest of my time on this earth, without the things that alcohol brought to me from 1984 in Springfield, Illinois until 2011 on Canal Street in New York City. And I will be forever grateful to Rogert Ebert for planting that seed in the first place. By writing as I do–and trying to bring some joy into the world, as he suggested we must–I am doing my best to repay my debt to him.
Thanks very much, Roger.