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The Unofficial Roger Ebert Reader on Addiction

When Roger Ebert died in 2013, America was deprived of one of its finest film critics. But reviewing his body of work shows we also lost one of our best writers on addiction.

Ted Victoria, Bottoms Up, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Schroeder Romero, New York.

I was not surprised when Roger Ebert revealed in 2009 that he was a recovering alcoholic.

Long before he went public with his own struggles, Ebert’s thoughts about alcoholism and addiction frequently turned up in his film criticism. Although he regularly used his reviews as springboards for larger topics, his interest and perceptiveness regarding addiction seemed more intimate. He possessed clarity, grace, and pain on the subject that couldn’t be explained merely by his sizeable skill as a writer.

Although Ebert wrote a lengthy blog entry about his struggles and recovery, much of his best work on the subject can be found piecemeal in thousands of reviews throughout the years. What follows is a tapestry of Ebert’s musings on alcoholism and addiction, culled from several blog entries, as well as over 30 of his reviews.

Ebert’s estate did not respond to queries regarding permission for this story, but all the material quoted below can be found in full at rogerebert.com.

Aside from headers and a few comments, each and every one of the words below is Roger’s. I have merely taken his vast writings on the topic, spread across his work, and edited a portion of them together. Some paragraphs consist of snippets from as many as three or four of his writings. At the end of each excerpt, you’ll find a footnote to the corresponding review or blog entry.

If you only remember Roger Ebert as the fellow who bickered over movies on television, I hope these observations change your perception of him. You may even find that they articulate or clarify some dark or frightening aspect of your own life.

 

An Addict’s Logic

“It’s as if life is a preventable disease, and booze is the medication. Sex places a very slow second.1

In my drinking days, some of us would gather around noon on Saturdays at Oxford’s Pub for what we called Drunch. We would commence with shots of creme de menthe and pint glasses of real Coke, in the hope that a combination of alcohol, sugar and caffeine would restore us. Then we would laugh until the tears ran down our faces about the hilarity of the dreadful things that had happened the night before. In doing this, I would often quote “We laugh, that we may not cry,” although just now I have discovered that no one originally said that. I always thought it was Shakespeare. It was me.2

You have to stand outside the chaos to see its humor, which is why people remembering the funny things they did when they were drunk are always funnier than drunks doing them.3

For many years I was an alcoholic, and I never felt lonely then. I could feel sick, I could feel despair, but I could never feel lonely. A drink would lift me up. I was never a morose drunk. Alcohol makes you feel better and then makes you feel worse and then remorselessly very bad indeed, but then alcohol will make you feel better again. It is the cure for the dog that bit you, and how easily you forget it is also the dog.4

It is true, that for someone with a dependency on drugs or alcohol, there will be situations that literally cannot be gotten through without drugs or alcohol. But the other half of the truth is: The situations that cannot be gotten through without drugs or alcohol are invariably situations caused by drugs or alcohol. Booze fixes a hangover. Then booze causes a hangover. If a non-drinker woke up with a normal hangover, he would go to an emergency room. A surprising number of drug and alcohol abusers walk around every day for years with symptoms that a healthy person would equate with “walking pneumonia,” or worse.5

He is unloved, he detests life, he is hung over, he wants a drink, he is startled by sudden movements and loud noises, he has no patience for fools, everyone is a fool, and middle-class morality is a conspiracy against the man who wants to find surcease in alcoholic bliss.

It isn’t the high that makes people into addicts; it’s the withdrawal.6

I’ve known two heavy drinkers who claimed they never had hangovers. I didn’t believe them. Without hangovers, it is possible that I would still be drinking. Unemployed, unmarried, but still drinking—or, more likely, dead.7

The problem with using will power, for me, was that it lasted only until my will persuaded me I could take another drink. At about this time I was reading The Art of Eating, by M. F. K. Fisher, who wrote: “One martini is just right. Two martinis are too many. Three martinis are never enough.” The problem with making resolutions is that you’re sober when you make the first one, have had a drink when you make the second one, and so on. I’ve also heard, You take the first drink. The second drink takes itself. That was my problem. I found it difficult, once I started, to stop after one or two. If I could, I would continue until I decided I was finished, which was usually some hours later.8

It is a logic that many drug abusers would understand. It goes like this: I feel bad, and drugs make me feel good, although they are also why I feel bad. But since they make me feel good now, and bad later, I will worry about later when the time comes.9 Alcoholics can always tell you about the problems they’re drinking over, but they can never quite see how the boozing and the problems might be related.10

Sometimes he drinks way too much. Sometimes he drinks too much. Sometimes he drinks almost too much. Sometimes he doesn’t drink enough. Those are the only four sometimes for an alcoholic.11

His focus is on communication. He wants, he desperately desires, to penetrate the alcoholic fog and speak clearly from his heart to those around him. His words come out with a peculiar intensity of focus, as if every one had to be pulled out of the small hidden core of sobriety deep inside his confusion.12 He has a few friends and a few acquaintances, and his long days are spent in a drunk’s neverending occupation, monitoring his own condition.13

He has been drinking for so many years that he has arrived at that peculiar stage in alcoholism where he no longer drinks to get high or to get drunk. He drinks simply to hold himself together and continue to function. He has a muddled theory that he can even “drink himself sober,” by which he means that he can sometimes find a lucid window through the fog of his life.14

He is unloved, he detests life, he is hung over, he wants a drink, he is startled by sudden movements and loud noises, he has no patience for fools, everyone is a fool, and middle-class morality is a conspiracy against the man who wants to find surcease in alcoholic bliss.15

Why do alcoholics begin down the same hazardous road day after day?16 Any alcoholic knows that life is not all bad, that there comes a moment between the morning’s hangover and the night’s oblivion when things are balanced very nicely, and the sun slants in through the bar windows, and there’s a good song on the jukebox, and the customers might even start dancing.17 Each day is a window that opens briefly after the hangover and before the blackout, and you can never tell what you’ll see through that window.18 The alcoholic’s day consists of trying to keep that window open.19

Alcoholism doesn’t require the kind of flamboyant craziness we see in movies like The Hangover, but it does seem to require an introverted monitoring of whether you feel as good (or well) as you think you should.20 It is more about waking up at the wrong time of day, working through a hangover, having times when your good essential nature shines through, and hating it that the woman who loves you now loves someone else, because she must.21 In most cases, it is simply a habitual inability to avoid getting wasted.22

Many a puzzling dawn has the practicing alcoholic experienced.”23

A Prisoner of Your Own Free Will

“Alcoholics or drug addicts feel wrong when they don’t feel right. Eventually they feel very wrong, and must feel right, and at that point their lives spiral down into some sort of final chapter—recovery if they’re lucky, hopelessness and death if they’re not.24 Drunks always think that if they could fix all the things that are wrong, then they could stop drinking. It never occurs to them to stop drinking first.25

The practicing alcoholic is familiar with a gnawing feeling in the pit of the stomach—the guilt at letting other people down, the remorse at letting himself down. Criticism in any form is likely to be met with anger, because nothing you can tell him will make him feel worse than the things he tells himself.26

Every drunk considers himself a special case, unique, an exception to the rules. Odd, since for the practicing alcoholic, daily life is mostly unchanging, an attempt to negotiate daily responsibilities while drinking enough but not too much. When this attempt fails, as it often does, it results in events that the drunk thinks make him colorful. True variety comes only with sobriety.27

The story of every drunk or addict is different in the details but similar in the outlines: Their days revolve around finding and using a sufficient supply of their substance of choice to avoid acute mental and physical discomfort. Eventually it gets to the point where everything else—job, family, self-image—is secondary.28 They all feel the need for something…the natural sources of pleasure have been replaced with higher-octane substitutes, which have burnt out the ability to feel joy. Going through the motions of what once gave them escape, they feel curiously trapped.”29

The Mind of a Junkie

“An addict in need can be capable of about anything. He will betray family, loved ones, duty, himself. He’s driven. Because addiction is an illness (although there is debate), we mustn’t be too quick to judge. Drugs and alcohol are both terrible, but drugs can drive a victim more urgently to ruin.30 If you are going to use drugs and don’t have infinite money, you are going to have to make some compromises.31

I wonder if anybody starts out to use drugs with the thought that they will eventually lose control over their lives. Probably not. The extraordinary delusion persists that drugs can be used “recreationally,” or that somebody with “will power” can stop or cut back at will; this in spite of the testimony of countless drug users that addiction is a two-step process: First you use drugs, then they use you.32 When they use, a window opens briefly into a world where everything is right. Then it slides shut, and life reduces itself to a search for the money and drugs to open it again. Nothing else is remotely as interesting.33

Drug use is not linear but circular. You never get anywhere unless you keep returning to the starting point. But you make fierce friends along the way.

This bulletin just in: If you use cocaine or heroin, you are very likely to become addicted, and if you become addicted, there are usually two choices: (1) get clean, or (2) die.34 Cocaine is the good time that takes itself away.35

The math is clear, and has been proven in countless biopics about addicted musicians. The presumption in many of the pictures is that artists somehow need drugs, because they are so talented they just can’t stand it, or because of the “pressure” they’re under, or because they need to be high all the time and not just on the stage, or because people won’t leave them alone, or because they feel insecure or unworthy36…it buys into the whole false notion that artists are somehow too brilliant to be sober—that drugs and booze are almost necessary to tame their creativity, dull their pain, and allow them to tolerate life with the clods around them. Thus the “cure” is not so much to stop using as to stop dreaming; one must become boring to become clean and sober.37

All lies. They are addicted because they are addicted. They got addicted by starting to take the stuff in the first place. It’s chemistry. At some point, they don’t use it to get high, but to stop feeling sick. It is a sad, degrading existence, interrupted by flashes of feeling “OK.” George Carlin once asked, “How does cocaine make you feel?” And he answered: “It makes you feel like having some more cocaine.”38

The problem is, you cannot rescue someone who is addicted to drugs. You can lecture them, to no point, and plead with them, to no avail, but essentially an outsider is powerless over someone else’s addiction.39 No doubt about it, drugs do make him feel good. It’s just that they make him feel bad all the rest of the time.”40

Partners in Crime

“The legends they rehearse about each other are all based on screwing up, causing pain, and taking outrageous steps to find or avoid drugs.41

Drug use is not linear but circular. You never get anywhere unless you keep returning to the starting point. But you make fierce friends along the way. Too bad if they die.42

Those who have ventured into the darker corners of addiction know that one of its few consolations, once the fun has worn off, is the camaraderie with fellow practitioners. Substance abuse sets the user apart from the daily lives of ordinary people. No matter how well the addict may seem to be functioning, there is always the secret agenda, the knowledge that the drug of choice is more important than the mundane business at hand, such as friends, family, jobs, play and sex.43

Former alcoholics and drug abusers often report that they don’t miss the substances nearly as much as the conditions under which they were used—the camaraderie of the true drinkers’ bar, for example, where the standing joke is that the straight world just doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand that the disease is life and the treatment is another drink.44 They share something an addict craves: sympathy and understanding. They stand together against the horrors.45 When two alcoholics are married, they value each other’s company because they know they can expect forgiveness and understanding, while a civilian might not choose to share their typical days.”46

Addiction Cinema

“It is harder to play a drunk than a sober person, I imagine, because you have fewer aspects of the personality to draw upon. A drunk is always more or less in the same condition—sometimes more, sometimes less—and drunkenness is the filter through which all other emotions must pass. He can be a happy drunk, a sad drunk, a brave drunk, a confused drunk, but these are all different notes in the same chord.47

You might be tempted to think that Arthur would be a bore, because it is about a drunk who is always trying to tell you stories. You would be right if Arthur were a party and you were attending it. But Arthur is a movie. And so its drunk, unlike real drunks, is more entertaining, more witty, more human, and more poignant than you are. He embodies, in fact, all the wonderful human qualities that drunks fondly, mistakenly believe the booze brings out in them.48

He has gone away, into that place between himself and the next drink. That’s where he lives. Everywhere else, he’s only visiting.

The movies have a way of presenting alcoholism and drug addiction as titanic struggles.49 Some may complain The Big Lebowski rushes in all directions and never ends up anywhere. That isn’t the film’s flaw, but its style. The Dude, who smokes a lot of pot and guzzles White Russians made with half-and-half, starts every day filled with resolve, but his plans gradually dissolve into a haze of missed opportunities and missed intentions. Most people lead lives with a third act. The Dude lives days without evenings.50

Duane Hopwood is the portrait of a man who loves his wife, loves his children, knows how to be a good father, and is losing everything because of alcoholism.51

The movie has so many things right. It understands that alcoholics reach a point where their friends are mostly other people on the same drinking schedule. They date out of bars, because that is where they meet people. On Thanksgiving they cannot go home because they no longer have one, but are invited to dinner at the homes of friends, where they feel even more spectacularly alone.

It knows this, too: That alcoholics don’t think they’re alcoholics. “I’m not a drunk,” they say. Sure they get drunk, but that’s what they do, not what they are. What’s a drunk, anyway? Some bum under a bridge with a pint in a brown paper bag?52

Its hero is a man who grieves for the loss of his happiness, and does not know he should grieve for the loss of himself. Nobody has left him. He has gone away, into that place between himself and the next drink. That’s where he lives. Everywhere else, he’s only visiting. But he doesn’t have a problem.”53

Recovery

Ebert had a relentless skill for unearthing the dismal truths known to alcoholics—the shame, the perverse logic, the self-destructive impulse. But if he hadn’t of sobered up for the last three decades of his life, this clarity might’ve been lost forever. Here Ebert writes about recovery with a lucidity and candor that matches his insights into the life of an addict.

“In August 1979, I took my last drink. It was about four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, the hot sun streaming through the windows of my little carriage house on Dickens. I put a glass of scotch and soda down on the living room table, went to bed, and pulled the blankets over my head. I couldn’t take it any more.54

What I hadn’t expected was that A.A. was virtually theater. As we went around the room with our comments, I was able to see into lives I had never glimpsed before.55

Maybe 30 people were seated around a table. I knew one of them. We used to drink together. I sat and listened. The guy next to me got applause when he said he’d been sober for a month. Another guy said five years. I believed the guy next to me.56

I heard many, many stories from “functioning alcoholics.” I guess I was one myself. I worked every day while I was drinking, and my reviews weren’t half bad. I’ve improved since then.57

Alcohol is an addiction. Most people can drink moderately. Some cannot.58 They say the most dangerous words a drunk can hear are, “A little drink won’t hurt you.”59 They don’t choose to get drunk, but they learn again and again (to quote) that they are powerless over alcohol. To help them, AA uses not drugs, not psychiatry, not expert theories, but group meetings.60

Half the people in Hollywood seem to have gone through recovery from drugs and alcohol by now. And yet no one seems able to make a movie that’s really about the subject. Do they think it wouldn’t be interesting? Any movie that cares deeply about itself—even a comedy—is interesting. It’s the movies that lack the courage of their convictions, the ones that keep asking themselves what the audience wants, that go astray.61 No good movie is depressing, I like to say. All bad movies are depressing. I once ordered ballpoints bearing that motto, and gave them away to idiots.62

So many movies about the disease simplify it into a three-step process: Gradual onset, spectacular bottom, eventual recovery. It isn’t that simple; most alcoholics never even give themselves a chance to recover.63 The Verdict has a lot of truth in it, right down to a great final scene in which Newman, still drinking, finds that if you wash it down with booze, victory tastes just like defeat.”64

A.A.

“Yes, I believe A.A. works. It is free and everywhere and has no hierarchy, and no one in charge. It consists of the people gathered in that room at that time, many perhaps unknown to one another. The rooms are arranged by volunteers. I have attended meetings in church basements, school rooms, a court room, a hospital, a jail, banks, beaches, living rooms, the back rooms of restaurants, and on board the Queen Elizabeth II. There’s usually coffee. Sometimes someone brings cookies.65

There are no dues. You throw in a buck or two if you can spare it, to pay for the rent and the coffee. On the wall there may be posters with the famous 12 Steps and the Promises, of which one has a particular ring for me: “In sobriety, we found we know how to instinctively handle situations that used to baffle us.” There were mornings when I was baffled by how I was going to get out of bed and face the day.66

I know from the comments on an earlier blog that there are some who have problems with Alcoholics Anonymous. They don’t like the spiritual side, or they think it’s a “cult,” or they’ll do fine on their own, thank you very much.67 The second step of their program calls for alcoholics to call on “a Higher Power as we understand him,” but the power is never identified, and the idea seems to have been realizing the power was not their own willpower. Some complain that AA requires members to believe in God, but it doesn’t, and that objection is sometimes joked about as “choosing to stay drunk for theological reasons.”68

The last thing I want to do is start an argument about A.A. Don’t go if you don’t want to. It’s there if you need it. In most cities, there’s a meeting starting in an hour fairly close to you. It works for me. That’s all I know. I don’t want to argue with you about it.”69

Transcendence

“I received a letter the other day from a documentary filmmaker who is working on a TV program about mystical experiences. “Alcoholism and drug addiction in the 20th century,” he writes, “may be related to the human desire for transcendence.” Yes, and in other centuries, too, but in a reverse sort of way: If you’re a drunk or an addict, you’ve got to transcend that before you can move along to other kinds of transcendence.70

Thank God I found sobriety.71

Within every drunk is a man with self-respect trying to get free.”72

 

Although alcoholism was not Roger Ebert’s most famous battle—thyroid and salivary cancers robbed him of his lower jaw, the ability to speak or eat, and eventually his life—his writings is greatly shaped by that first struggle. Like any great artist, Ebert used his medium to explore not just the subject at hand, but broader issues of humanity. For a guy who watched a lot of movies, he seemed to do a lot of living. Thank God he found sobriety.