Drunk @ The New Republic | Exclusive from “Unwasted: My Lush Sobriety”
In UNWASTED: My Lush Sobriety (Citadel, 2011), Sacha Z. Scoblic, an editor at The New Republic, shows us not what it’s like to let an addiction keep you down but what it’s like to rise up in spite of it. In this exclusive excerpt, she candidly takes us behind the scenes at TNR in the early 2000s.
Before I quit drinking, I liked to think of myself as Dorothy Parker or Hunter S. Thompson. I romanticized myself as a hard-drinking, savvy writer. And, for a while, that seemed to work. Drinking, after all, gave me an alter ego par excellence. I was the rock star at every party, nightclub, and living room I wafted into, happily singing or dancing like life was meant only for such pursuits. I was ready to see any evening through until dawn, to wear sequins and glitter if necessary, and to laugh until black eyeliner ran down my face. My favorite word was “subversive,” and my favorite humor was cruel. Every day was rough, but every night was Saturday.
And, somehow, I was also managing to work in journalism enough to feel like a real writer. I was operating under a work-hard/play-hard philosophy I developed that involved hurtling through life at breakneck speed and saying yes to everything. Would I like to write articles for cookies instead of money for a new start-up website? Yes! Would I like to try the hallucinatory mushrooms my roommate’s sister’s boyfriend grew from scratch? Yes! The tension within me was explosive. I loved being the rock star throughout my twenties, but it became more and more difficult to pair that with the writer I was attempting to become. And, even as I drank to oblivion most nights, some potent little glowing force inside me paid enough attention to normal life that in the new millennium I would end up working at a magazine where the contradictions in my world revealed themselves more nakedly.
At the time, I assumed either cosmic intervention or a gas leak in the building had led to me getting hired at The New Republic magazine. Still, I was completely ready to emulate Hunter S. Thompson: I’d drink all night and write colorful scene-scapes about American zeitgeist by day. I’d churn out material people would still be reading 30 years from now, my own fear and loathing on the campaign trail. I had elevated “high-functioning alcoholic” to an art form. Unfortunately, at The New Republic, even the interns, some of whom were Rhodes Scholars, scared the shit out of me:
Intern: Did you see the House vote on C-SPAN last night?
Me: Um… (No way, loser, I was too busy playing the board game Mystery Date and drinking Vodka-Diet Pepsis).
And that was just the interns. At editorial meetings, I’d sit frozen and terrified while one editor quoted Maimonides and another broke down the finer points of privatizing Social Security.
My first month into the job at The New Republic, the staff went out for a happy hour. I threw back drinks and encouraged my new colleagues to join me for shots. When that request was a bust, I called a night-owl friend from outside the bathroom. “They’re all so shiny and normal,” I whispered. “I think some of them may never have smoked pot!” Exactly half of me wanted to thrill and shock The New Republic crowd with stories of my exploits as a much cooler and darker person than my façade let on; and exactly half of me was certain I would be found out for what I really was: not up to snuff, proud of the wrong things, and terrified all the time. I was divided against myself.
One night, a New Republic happy hour turned particularly loose and it seemed everyone was drinking at my pace. Somehow I became engaged in a conversation with a sharp political writer named Eddie as to which one of us was wilder. It was the dumb kind of thing one can only discuss when totally blitzed because it would be too inane a topic for anyone with a shred of self-awareness to even broach. I respected Eddie and, worse, liked him; but, at a magazine where I felt like a loser a lot of the time, I smelled a solid win. One more shot of bourbon gave my competitiveness an edge over my discretion and I heard myself say, “Well, let’s just lay it on the table. How many drugs have you done?” I had been challenged and I was ready to go story-for-story with Eddie. For every rich-kid, coke-fueled, penthouse-apartment romp I cruelly imagined Eddie tossing at me, I’d parry with a crystal-meth binge in the back of a gay club while a purple Telly Tubby walked by. Because “wild” was my wheelhouse, bitch, and this rock star was ready to play. In retrospect, I can see that perhaps Eddie and I had different definitions of “wild” or that perhaps Eddie was every bit as twisted as myself (after all, why should I be the only night-crawling vampire at The New Republic?). Luckily for all present and especially me, Eddie wisely walked away from the conversation. Ha! Gotcha!, I thought triumphantly. And yet, even as I basked in my self-perceived victory, I sensed something broken deep inside of me.
It’s a moment that has haunted me for years. That moment I realized I was growing uncomfortable with the role of Wild Chick, that being “most wild” was not a title I truly wanted, that I was playing a game without winners. If the only superlative I could claim in this crowd was “wildest,” I was sure to end up deeply unhappy. Because, if the staff at The New Republic seemed somehow innocent, they were also incredibly successful in all the best ways: Toiling in a world of ideas, writing contemporary America into being, marrying clever, witty people, and sparring in a kind of verbal speed symphony that made my college debate team sound like fishmongers. They were razor sharp and wry, and while they weren’t necessarily edgy, they were still a lot of fun to be around; in fact, I could have as much fun around the lunch table at The New Republic as I could in an evening out getting hammered with my “cooler, edgier” friends. For reasons I couldn’t fathom, I felt right at home.
I worked at The New Republic for years under the work-hard/play-hard philosophy. And before I left to take a job at Reader’s Digest, I was reminded of that terrible competitive moment with Eddie. While toasting me goodbye, my The New Republic editor asked aloud, “Where did we find Sacha anyway?” A voice in the crowd was quick with the answer: “At a bar!” We all laughed and everyone looked at me lovingly, their wacky Sacha. But, inside, I winced. I knew the sentiment was a direct hit even if I would not yet admit to it out loud. You don’t make fun of the drinking habits of actual addicts; so my colleagues didn’t yet know how close to the truth they were. But I must have, because I winced. I knew that, behind the black shrouds of denial I wrapped myself in, I was nothing more than a drunk who charmed these clever intellectuals into letting her hang out for a while. I had been jester in their court for years. Indeed, the last time I’d attended a going-away party for a colleague, I’d ended the evening by throwing up outside the historic and expertly groomed Hay-Adams Hotel in the shadow of the White House. More and more, my good-time lifestyle conflicted with the professional and personal life I was trying to create.
And then one Sunday afternoon in June, I went to a bar to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I told my boyfriend that I would be home for “60 Minutes”—and at the time, I meant it. I wasn’t home for “60 Minutes.” I walked out of a different bar at 7:30 the next morning. Monday morning. Just in time to shower and go to work at Reader’s Digest, America’s family magazine. Somehow, afternoon drinks on the patio led to evening drinks at a bar, which led to nighttime drinks and dancing at a club, which led to after-hours drinks at another bar, which led to more drinks and a marathon billiards match. Which led to the sun—the fucking sun—blinding me (and not for the first time) as I wandered into the street with no memory of even entering the bar I had just walked out of.
As the sun hit me that morning in June, my logic unraveled. I thought about all the times I had told friends that I would control my drinking. The bad decision wasn’t going to the wrong bar at the wrong time. The bad decision was picking up that first drink of the day. Because what was sadly clear to me now was that seven or eight times out of every ten nights of drinking, I lost control. I might have a drink one night with friends and be fine; or I might walk out of a bar at 7:30 a.m. And, despite consistently noble intentions, I had absolutely no idea when I took my first sip which kind of night it would be. I was and am an alcoholic. Why this occurred to me one morning in June as the sun bleached my vision and not the dozens of times I had found myself in similar or downright dangerous situations (I once ran from a crack house uncertain as to how the night had spun so far out of control) is simple: Until that moment in June, I had not yet grown tired enough of an unmanageable and unpredictable life. Until that moment, I had not yet realized that you can’t emulate Hunter Thompson and then go skipping through the lilies with nary a consequence. I finally in that moment hit bottom because I stopped digging. Bottom isn’t Skid Row; bottom is just where you happen to be when you stop tunneling and start climbing. For me, it was at 7:30 a.m. on Columbia Road in Washington, D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood on a beautiful and piercing June morning in 2005.
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