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A recovery at the end of the world

A one-time drinker at sea, but no longer three sheets to the wind

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You don’t have to go looking for booze, it will find you wherever you are, even at the end of the world. Or make that, “The End of the World,” part of the official slogan of Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city on Earth. 

The Royal Canadian Geographical Society had invited me to travel aboard its polar, ice-class cruise ship for two weeks as it traveled the coast of Chile, getting up close and personal with glaciers. Of course I’d been reluctant: Glaciers? Big walls of ice? Lectures by scientists? For two weeks? Won’t that get old? 

But the trip was free, and I figured: Go, see what it’s about. 

So a flight to South America, a few days in Buenos Aires. Then a 1,900-mile hop south to the tip of the continent, where the RCGS Resolute was moored, waiting.

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I had just been shown to my stateroom and was exploring, pulling open drawers and peering behind cabinet doors. Behind one was a well-stocked minibar: rocks glasses, little bottles of Jack Daniels lined up, soldiers ready for duty. 

“Oh,” I thought, quickly closing the door. “I’ll have to ask the purser to take that out.” 

I’m a recovering alcoholic. And yes, I had considered, before agreeing to the trip, the risks of taking a cruise for a fortnight. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson’s pithy description — “Being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned” — being on a cruise is like being locked in a bar with the chance of relapse. But I decided to risk it. “I’ll not drink there the same way I don’t drink here,” I assured my wife. 

When reformed drinkers tell their stories, they usually begin at rock bottom, after maybe a parting glimpse of the debased routine of an addict, just to set the scene. Then bam, the crisis, some disaster, an accident, a crime, a shipwreck of confusion and shame, then the slow swim toward the light, lungs bursting, time running out. The meetings, confessions, coffee. 

But everyone tells that part. I’ve told that story myself, many times — of how I was arrested on a domestic battery charge for striking my wife after a bout of heavy drinking and placed on leave from my job at the Chicago Sun-Times. I remember sitting, squirming at a luncheon at Rotary/One in Chicago as I was introduced to talk about Drunkard, the recovery memoir I had written. The Rotarian’s words made me sound like Satan. Head bowed, I slowly strolled to the podium, frantically trying to think of a way to crawl out of the hole he had dug for me. 

When that book was published, a politico pal raised an eyebrow and summed it up this way, half puzzled, half amused: “You’re telling on yourself.” 

You betcha. Candor is key in recovery because addiction depends upon continual lying, to yourself and everyone else. You can’t fix a problem you won’t even acknowledge. By telling the worst, you also show that you are willing to be honest. 

But deceit is a persistent pest; it can be hard to keep out. Even when spilling the beans about your life-changing screwups, there is deception of a different sort. The lie of misdirection. Recovery begins in drama, typically, but drama is not the essence of long-term recovery. Routine is. 

The long haul involves struggling to change your perceptions, change your ideas of behavior, of what life is about. Going into recovery is trading one thing — your adored substance — for everything else, except that addiction has so skewed your judgment, you’re not sure that’s a good deal. 

You have to reset your mind, recalibrate your values. That takes time, practice. I remember sitting in rehab, half asking, half demanding, “How will I ever go to France?” Sincerely wondering, baffled. What would be the point? Without red wine? Cognac? Champagne? Aperitifs in little cafés? You might as well stay home. 

You have to drink. Drinking is the joy of life. Particularly when you travel. Particularly in France. Good luck finding a tourism advertisement that doesn’t show the happy gray-haired couple clinking glasses. I saw a cruise ad that showed a tiny ship crossing the gelid surface of a martini, as if drink were the journey, the destination, the ocean itself. For many, it is. 

Then our oldest son spent a semester studying economics at the Sorbonne. (“In French!” I would tell my friends, putting an extra Ohio twang into the pronunciation. “In Frehnnnnnnch!”) We had to go see him. How often do you get the chance? 

We stayed near the Pantheon and busied ourselves plunging down into the catacombs, through the Louvre, up the Eiffel Tower. Near it, a lovely restaurant my son had found, Astrance. A single sigh for my sparkling water instead of cabernet. But the meal was fantastic, the service so crisp and professional. 

On the downside, no wine. On the upside, maybe the boy wouldn’t have excelled the way he had in a broken household with a drunk dad. My wife certainly wouldn’t be there. At one point our son took a photo. We were positively glowing. We looked young, happy. 

So I wasn’t balancing a meal with mineral water versus a meal with wine, but a meal with mineral water versus not being in the country at all, or with the family I love, never mind being at the restaurant. And just being there amazed and delighted me. 

“I’m in France!” I practically shouted at one point, stamping my foot, assuming the “Not drinking and yet having fun” part was implied. “Don’t you understand? We’re in France!!!” My wife, not being an alcoholic, didn’t understand, not really, but smiled indulgently anyway. 

Some very smart guys never figure out that you can travel and not drink. 

“All ways led to the saloon,” adventure writer Jack London wrote, shrugging off the thought of seeing Venice and the capitals of Europe while sober. “I should not care to revisit all these fair places of the world except in the fashion I visited them before. Glass in hand!” 

London died at 40. Drinkers overlook that part about their romantic heroes. As a young man, I wanted to be F. Scott Fitzgerald, never considering that he died at 44. Now at 62, I consider the past 18 years a far greater personal benefit than having merely written The Great Gatsby.

When I look back over that trip to France, or a swing through Italy, or London, the visits sober, the cause of so much concern ahead of time, always far exceeded the drunken journeys that went before. Any given moment, whether spent touring museums, sipping espresso in cafés, wandering Rue Mouffetard with my wife, eating fresh bread out of a paper bag. They were all better. 

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Think about it. Nobody ever looks at any period in his or her life — an evening, a day, a week, a year — and wishes they had drunk more. Nobody ever says, “That was fun, but I should have been drunk.” The challenge of recovery is navigating the here and now. Addiction is at heart a mental disorder, an obsession. You either are using the substance or thinking about using it. 

Eventually, over time, a third possibility arises. You can either be using or thinking about it. Or you can move on, into that great realm of life that isn’t drinking. You can save it for meetings or, if you are of a certain slant, not even do that. You can be free. 

Back on the ship, I closed the cabinet door, made the mental note to ask that the bar be removed, then was drawn into the whirl of our adventure. Aboard black rubber Zodiac boats skimming across ice-clogged channels toward enormous expanses of blue ice, one of which collapsed across a suddenly-too-narrow bay, sending us scrambling to higher ground. “Up! Up!” we cried as a wall of water rolled toward us. 

But that too was momentary drama. The rest was friendly dinner conversation. Reading in my cabin. Talking on shore with an elderly Indigenous woman, the last person able to speak her tribe’s ancestral language. Conversing with a Chilean cheesemaker in his shop, sharing delightful fresh cheese with my shipmates. Visiting the gorgeous wooden church in Nercón. Gazing at condors, cormorants, hawks, eagles, and, one breathless moment in a bog, the rare South American snipe. 

Nobody ever looks at any period in his or her life — an evening, a day, a week, a year — and wishes they had drunk more.

All too soon, it was time to go home. The ship was docked at Valparaiso. I was checking all the drawers and cabinets in that thorough, anxious way of mine that booze used to soothe and now I just smile at. I pulled open one door and there was that minibar, the rocks glasses, the waiting bottles of Jack Daniels. I had forgotten them. Completely forgotten the bar was there. Slept 3 feet away for two weeks and never gave that Jack — my beloved, my tipple of choice — a single, passing, fleeting thought. Not one. I considered that both a personal triumph and a valuable message to share. Recovery is possible. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. I shut the door, grabbed my bag, and headed out to enjoy the rest of my life. 

Neil Steinberg is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. His ninth book, Every Goddamn Day: A Highly Selective, Definitely Opinionated, and Alternatingly Humorous and Heartbreaking Historical Tour of Chicago, will be published in October.

This story originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.