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Time Is All We Have: FOUR WEEKS AT THE BETTY FORD CENTER by Barnaby Conrad (Arbor House: $17.95; 265 pp.)

January 11, 1987|JULIA CAMERON | Cameron is a Chicago-based journalist and film maker. and

"Iwas lost," Barnaby Conrad begins his autobiographical account of his recovery from alcoholism. He is not speaking metaphorically. Somewhere between drunk and sober, somewhere between Los Angeles and Palm Springs, Conrad--author, matador, painter, sculptor and alcoholic--stopped to ask for directions. He might have asked years before, but alcoholism, the disease of denial, refused to let him know he had a drinking problem.

Years before he sought help, years before he said, "I am lost," Conrad was lost. Finding himself again, through the help of the Betty Ford Center, he has written a book to tell us how. Titled "Time Is All We Have" and subtitled "Four Weeks at The Betty Ford Center," Conrad's book is a lot like the Manhattans he was fond of: sweet, strong, syrupy and lethal.

Published after only a year of recovery--written during that year--Conrad's book has a hurried feel. He has sketched, not drawn, a portrait of himself and the Center so prominently mentioned on the cover. Obituaries often have a hurried feel--"My God! XX is dead! Quick! Let's see, his greatest movies?"

Recovery books, like books about Vietnam, tell war stories. We learn how the shell-shocked survivor came to his senses and scanned the carnage surrounding him. The horrors recounted, like the horrors of war, are numbing in their repetitiveness: Alcohol kills alcoholics and is murderous to those in the vicinity of the drinker. That much is clear, and the fact that these days, at least officially, we view alcoholism as a disease--the AMA says it is, after all--and not a moral weakness. This perspective often blurs.

Reading the current spate of books detailing what it was like, what happened and what it is like now, it is hard to believe that the confessional impulse isn't inspired more by guilt than by medical evangelism. "Papa John" Phillips makes a pretty good case for himself as a monster. Bob Woodward's "Wired" did the same for John Belushi, who did not survive the disease to recover from it. Belushi's widow complained bitterly that Woodward failed to capture her husband's better traits. "Just the facts, ma'am," was Woodward's stance.

The facts of "Wired," like the facts of Conrad's book, do not tell a pretty story. Like the accounts of the My Lai massacre, which talked about peer pressure and scapegoating but left us disliking Rusty Calley anyhow, books about alcoholism still cannot explain accurately to the non-drinker just why the drinker drank if it caused such rotten behavior. To an alcoholic, the why of drinking is obvious--"I had to." To an non-alcoholic, the why remains incomprehensible.

Searching for the right metaphor, the best that comes to mind is hives. Alcoholism is, after all, an allergic reaction to alcohol. Think about having hives and think about not scratching no matter what. Think about the way that first scratch feels so good--until you have scratched yourself bloody. An itch like that--the vicious cycle it entails--can drive a person crazy. Crazy, that person can do crazy things. Those things, placed in black and white and read all over, have far more resonance than the ephemeral spiritual highs of a successful recovery. "I didn't drink today" can seem a pale victory after an entire war has been fought. Atrocities stick in the mind--and in the craw--and that may help explain why alcoholics confess them in print.

By all accounts, alcoholism is a disease of self-deception: "I don't have a drinking problem, I shouldn't have mixed drinks, I should stick to wine, I should eat first, I should. . . ." I should anything but stop drinking. It is part of recovery--perhaps the greatest part--to work at ending self-deception. It is the work of the sober alcoholic to excavate for the true self, the self whose voice was muffled by drinking. This is a lengthy process and a tricky one. Today's truth is tomorrow's discarded misconception.

"Much of what seems clear when you are drinking never seems clear again," Lillian Hellman commented dryly, "because perhaps it never was." Books written by recovering alcoholics--often celebrities--tend to be written early in recovery. As a result, they reflect only the partial truths known at that point.

It is true of all writing, that we write to discover what we know, and in finding that, learn more of what we don't know. Nonetheless, so much of the ground covered in books by newly recovered persons feels swampy that we wonder how solid it really is. Conrad, for example, remarks that a month at Betty Ford is "the equivalent of about two years in AA." It is hard to know what to make of a remark like that. Fact? Wishful thinking? As many recovering alcoholics ruefully acknowledge later in their recovery, sometimes clarity cannot be accelerated. It comes when it does. This is not a fact that publishers readily accept.

"Write about it," celebrity alcoholics are often urged--by well-meaning or venal editors, and the books so rushed into print have a morning-after quality to them. Just as a brutal hangover can make the clarity of morning light into a lethal weapon for self abuse, so too, the clarity of early sobriety tends toward the cutting sharpness of a shattered glass. When a hangover subsides, light resumes its soft and mottled quality. Truth, too, has shadings and shadows that emerge only as the recovering alcoholic's eyes become accustomed to the daylight of the spirit after the dark night of the soul.

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