I AM NOT THE DRAGON
A boy arrives in the world with a punch-drunk eye, a congenital defect called myelinated retina that impacts his depth perception, his balance, and his sense of spatial placement. His parents, fearing he is ill-equipped to maneuver life’s landscapes, keep him close to the bosom, forbidding him to participate in the same activities as the others. He does not do sports because the ball hits him in the face before he can catch it. He breaks things without meaning to because he cannot judge how close they are. He is at times berated for being physically awkward, and that awkwardness carries over into his social interactions.
Then one day, at 17, he takes a drink of beer. Suddenly, he is strong, sexy, and bulletproof.
A friend in AA once said, “I drank to feel the way a man looks.” Pause to consider that image. A young boy with one good eye, unable to perform at the same level as his peers, surrounded with iconic images of what a real man “looks” like. Real men look strong like John Wayne, look cool like Humphrey Bogart, look self-assured like Errol Flynn, and look tough as nails like Clint Eastwood.
The boy is none of these things. But when he drinks, he feels that he is.
Even today, 21 years sober, that boys meets people who are afraid to drink around him. “You okay, Matt? This doesn’t bother you, does it? It’s not going to trigger something, is it?” As if the boy is a shell-shocked war veteran waiting to explode like Rambo.
I am that boy, and I am none of those things. I have a disease called alcoholism. There is no AZT injection to keep it at bay, only a spiritual program and a series of practices that curb the desire to drink on a daily basis.
But drinking is not the issue. Many non-alcoholics–“normies,” we call them–assume that I quit drinking because I couldn’t handle it. Not true. I could take you to the bar, match you shot for shot, and still drive you home. What’s more, you’d give me the keys. Something about true alcoholics. Most of us are high-functioning in the short-term.
No, the issue goes much deeper than the drink. The people in AA like to say that drinking is just a symptom. The real issue is that we alkies are cursed with a skewed worldview, one driven by an exaggerated sense of self. Even that is oversimplifying. It’s something you have to live with to understand.
I have horrible thoughts sometimes. They are not borne of childhood trauma or neglect–my parents surrounded me with love. They are borne of faulty wiring in my brain. I can share them in a room full of recovering alcoholics, and they will laugh and nod with understanding. But if I share them with you, you would run screaming. Even though you may, at times, have similar thoughts yourself.
How best to describe this? One of my first writing inspirations, Stephen King, is a recovering alcoholic. He has written about his recovery extensively so I am not breaking his anonymity by saying this. I seem to recall an interview of his, well before he got sober, where he said something about his own horrible thoughts. To paraphrase, I would never, ever nail my baby to a wall, but there are days when I’ve wanted to.
When I finally met Stephen King in 1994, I was six months sober, but he had a few years of sobriety under his belt. He had not yet come out as being in recovery, but when we chatted briefly, I found that we spoke the same language. Not that of two writers, but that of two recovering alcoholics. Alkies have a way of relating, you see, catchphrases from the Big Book of AA that sneak into our vocabulary. At one point, I brought up Harlan Ellison, a favorite writer of mine and someone Stephen knows quite well. When the subject of Harlan’s caustic personality came about, I took a risk and said:
“You know, Harlan has all the earmarks of an alcoholic personality, and yet he’s never taken a drink of alcohol in his life. It kind of makes you realize that alcoholism isn’t really about the booze.”
King looked at me, and a light went off in his eyes, and for a moment we had each found kindred spirits. “You may be right,” he said. “You may be right.”
To this day, the stigma of alcoholism hovers over my life like one of Tolkien’s malignant Nazgûl. I doubt this essay will do much to change your perception of it. Those uninitiated to the alcoholic’s recovery assume that the disease itself defines us, that we are the sum of our most appalling acts while under alcohol’s spell.
Actually, the opposite is true. I have come to view AA and its remarkable 12 Steps as tools designed to reveal our essential natures.
We are not terrible people. Some of the best people I know are recovering alcoholics, people living lives of gratitude and service in deference to the miracle of sobriety. Their innate goodness is the essence of who they are, not the demons they became under alcohol’s spell. The greatest compliment I can receive is when some normie I’ve just met hears stories of my violent past and says, “That was you? Oh, no, that couldn’t be you!”
Rilke once wrote, “”Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”
That is me. I don’t have to drink to feel the way a man looks. I learn to act like a man … and the feeling magically follows.
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With Matthew being one of the top five baby names for over 20 years, and Krause being the German equivalent of Smith, it is hard to tell one Matthew Krause from another. This Matthew Krause is an award-winning author/screenwriter, independent filmmaker, mentor, aspiring shaman and geek philosopher. Although he writes in multiple genres, the common theme in all of his work is the eternal struggle to find those pockets of nobility in a sea of human frailty. A world traveler, he has visited over 30 countries, but when at home spends his free time pushing words around the page, listening to Miles Davis with his five cats, and on good days communing with the ghost of Pasolini.
Matthew can be found:
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This is fantastic. So well put. I’m 20 years clean and sober, going on 21, and also have no depth perception and enjoy Stephen King. Pretty sure you and I could and would argue the finer points of innate goodness and the nature of evil (booze never hurt anybody just sitting there on a shelf), but I still love your perspective, and enjoy learning from you.
Your honesty slays me. I love how you describe the mindset — it’s not something I can relate to as I’m not an alcoholic, but you made it so clear. And beyond that, the pressures men are under to be MEN. Thank you, dear friend, for being you.
What a great read! 24 years sober and all the better for it!