Addiction is easy to fall into and hard to escape. It destroys the lives of individuals, and it has a devastating cost to society. The National Institute of Health estimates that seventeen million adults in the United States are alcoholics or have a serious problem with alcohol.This scourge affects not only those who drink or use drugs but also their families and friends. Both the afflicted and those who love them are often baffled by what is happening, never mind what to do about it.
With Out of the Wreck I Rise, Neil Steinberg and Sara Bader have created a resource like no other—one that harnesses the power of literature, poetry, and creativity to illuminate what alcoholism and addiction are all about, thereby deepening understanding and even saving lives.
About Neil Steinberg
Today we're speaking with one of the authors, Neil Steinberg. Neil is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. He's also written for publications such as Esquire, the Washington Post, the New York Times Sunday Magazine and Rolling Stone, as well as websites including Salon and Forbes.com.
He is the author of eight books, and in this interview, we're talking with Neil about his newest book, Out of the Wreck I Rise, A Literary Companion to Recovery.
The full video interview and transcript are available below. We hope you enjoy it.
Caroline: Neil, hello and welcome.
Neil Steinberg: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Caroline: Thank you so much for taking the time. Your new book, Out of the Wreck I Rise, which I'm holding right here, includes advice and commentary along with a lot of great quotations about recovery.
To start, can you tell us the story of how you got the idea for this book?
Neil Steinberg: It happened very organically. I'm an avid reader, and I enjoy literature. I happened to be reading Boswell's Life of Johnson about Samuel Johnson, who was the great English dictionary writer and a terrible alcoholic. He was constantly trying to avoid wine and having these discussions with Joshua Reynolds and Adam Smith and these various people about why he isn't drinking.
I would mark the book with a Post-It note because his arguments were very good and he's known as a wit, so these very sharp retorts, and I found they helped me, because the biggest challenge for me, for rehab, is you have to keep doing it for the rest of your life.
When you're an alcoholic, drinking is the most important thing in the world, and you have to find other things that are important, or you go back. I enjoyed seeing my struggles reflected in people I really admired, and so I started to collect these, and it was completely accidental.
When you're an alcoholic, drinking is the most important thing in the world, and you have to find other things that are important, or you go back.
I had met Sara Bader, who's an editor at Phaidon, and she has a website called Quotenik, which are verified quotes on the web, because you can't check a quote on the web, because if you want to see did Hemingway say, "The world's a fine place and worth fighting for," or, "The world's a fine place and worth the fighting for," there's a hundred thousand versions of each one.
Caroline: Right, right.
Neil Steinberg: I was starting to post these things onto Quotenik so I could find them, because after the third or fourth time I ended up with my wife saying, "Hey, listen to this," you know, she gets tired of it. Sara and I were talking, and she said, "I see you're posting … "
I was posting Seneca, the great Roman philosopher, and she said, "I see you're posting a lot of quotes about recovery." I said, "Yeah, I'm an alcoholic. I don't drink. I find the quotes very powerful. I always thought that you could sort of guide people through recovery using these quotes, but it seems like it's a lot of work and I wouldn't do it myself."
I didn't say that trying to lure her into it. I'd never met her. Wrote the book, never having met. It was kind of an amazing story. We wrote it in Google Doc.
Caroline McGraw: Wow.
Neil Steinberg: She said, "I'll do it with you," and so, we set out together, and I loved having a co-author. I'd never had a co-author before, and she brought many pow- I mean, she's like a quote researcher, and she brought many powerful quotes into it, and it just, it was a great working relationship, and I learned a lot about recovery.
I mean, to me, the central thing is people don't understand what addiction is. They think it's a stupid decision that stupid people keep making because they're stupid, and that's not it at all. I mean, addiction is an obsession and it's a kind of mental illness that you have to manage. That's why, you know, there's a chapter in the book about time.
People don't understand what addiction is... Addiction is an obsession and it's a kind of mental illness that you have to manage.
I'm very proud, I've never seen recovery materials address time, but time's really important.
You have to do the right thing now and tomorrow and the next day and next week and next year.
There's a chapter on relapse, which I'm very proud to talk about, and I just, it came together sort of organically. It took us four and a half years to write. Some were things that I knew I wanted, I knew it's from Eugene O'Neill, it's from this, it's from that, and some things I sort of came up with.
I'd always heard that Infinite Jest was a book about AA, which it is, and so I read the 1,100 pages of it, and I pulled out the really best quotes about it so you don't have to. I mean, I recommend the book. It's a masterpiece, but if you don't want to read the 1,100 pages, I did it for you.
Caroline: Sure. Sure, and I love that you zeroed in on that myth about addiction, that people think it's about willpower and it's, "Why can't you just stop? Why can't you just control yourself?" For you, it goes much deeper than that.
Neil Steinberg: Well, for me, it's about not thinking about drinking all the time. I mean, that's one reason why AA didn't really click with me that much. I'm thinking, "If I'm going to meet with a bunch of guys every day for an hour and talk about drinking, I might as well be in a bar."
I wanted something, and also, I wanted, I view this as an epic struggle.
I view addiction as a monster, as something I have in the basement in a cell, and every once in a while, I can hear it sort of push against the barred door and hear it howling down there. I don't want to think that I'm spending my whole life not doing the thing I love to do.
It's about not thinking about drinking all the time. I view this as an epic struggle.
I want to think that I've set out, and if addiction can be romantic, if Keith Richards, who's in the book several times, can kind of create this mythos of a heroin addiction, then why can't we create a mythos of recovery?
Neil Steinberg: To me, recovery is an adventure.
This is an adventure for me. This is hard. I mean, anything that's difficult, anything where you're giving up something that you love, sometimes for other people, some hopefully for yourself…
There are a lot of quotes about mazes, about heroism, about journeys, because to me, I don't want to live a dull life. I may not, you know, the thing about being an alcoholic is drinking is what makes things important. It gives them significance. If you're at an event and there's no bar, it might as well not happen.
To me, this, the poetry of these… and they're not all poetry, we have a Tweet by Ricky Gervais. Spider Man 2 is in this, so he's very proud of that, because people hear that, they hear literature, and they, so they go, "Ooh, no, no, no, no, I don't want that."
I'm a big believer that this stuff is medicinal. I think that's one thing that also, I'm a big Walt Whitman fan, and if you read Walt Whitman, he was a nurse in the Civil War. People don't know that. You read Leaves of Grass and he's basically tending to you.
To me, recovery is an adventure. I don't want to live a dull life.
The one quote we have is he says, "O despairer, here is my neck. By God, you will not go down. Hang your full weight upon me. I buoy you up. I dilate you with tremendous breath." I would read that, like, if I was down.
I mean, the thing about giving up drinking is it makes your life better, but it doesn't end all your problems, and so you have all these problems still and you're trying to cope with them. And every once in a while, a hand in the back goes, "You know you could drink. You know you just elected this guy President and now it's time to drink," and you have to kind of say, "No, no, it's still a bad idea."
Literature kind of... there's a quote in there by, again, it's Sarah McLachlan. She's the Lilith Fair singer, and she's wonderful. To me, it's an anthem of recovery. I have no idea what it's really about, but it's called Fallen. There's a line in there where she says, "Better I should know." That, to me, is like my talisman that I, when I think like, "Why do I have to deal with this? I know guys who are these terrible drunks, they never try to fix their problems, they're happy as a clam, their kids love them because they're never there, and why do I have to be aware of this?"
I think, "Well, better I should know. It's better I know about this and I can face it."
To me, these are like your charms on a bracelet. These are things that I, you know, so I was very worried that I was writing a book for myself. I just found out today, the book went into the fifth printing, and so, it's, they're having a terrible time keeping it in Amazon, because Amazon, no matter what the University of Chicago Press sends, they sell them all.
Then I'm getting these sort of grief-stricken … and it's not a panacea. I don't want to say, "Read my book and you'll find sobriety," because it's hard.
That's why we originally called it A Guide to Recovery, and we changed it to Companion. It's supposed to …
I mean, it's a lonely thing, recovery. I find it, that's why people go to meetings. Okay, you're trying to get other people, because you're in, you've got this terrible slavery you're trying to throw off, and it just, it just feels like you're by yourself, and you're not by yourself. This is something that Plato wrote about. The only reason I know is I took Plato in college and I still have my copy and it was still marked up, and he's still having this conversation going, now, let's see.
The thing about giving up drinking is it makes your life better, but it doesn't end all your problems, and so you have all these problems still and you're trying to cope with them.
Sometimes people drink and sometimes people don't, and they go through it, and it's really sort of a beautiful synopsis of the idea, they call it meta-thinking in rehab. I'm sure you're familiar. You really want to do something, and you step back, and you go, "Oh, I really want to do this. I'm not going to do it, because it'll pass in an hour, but if I," you know, I mean, when you look at your own, when you try to distance yourself from your own passions.
Neil Steinberg: The fact that Plato was talking about it thousands of years ago, I think sort of makes you real… I mean, none of these people are dumb people.
Some of them express things in ways that I, that the moment I read it, I went, "Yes." There's Petrarch, I'm a big Dante fan, and he's, he came just after Dante, and he has an essay called Climbing Mont Ventoux. It's actually about the first mountain climbing story where in the 1350's him and his brother climbed this Mount Ventoux, and he's thinking about sin.
I repurposed some of these quotes.
He's saying, actually, I don't know what he's talking about, but what he says, to me, it's booze, he says, "The thing I love, I no longer love. No, I'm lying. The thing I love, I love, but more covertly."
He goes through all these different levels of what he's feeling towards this thing was that he used to love, and how now this rebellious spirit has opened up in him, and he's trying to push the love away, and I went, "That's it. That's, that's," and once I had found that, I kind of felt like I had to, because most people aren't reading Petrarch's Climbing Mont Ventoux, right?
Caroline: Right, right.
Neil Steinberg: … I'm amazed at the stuff I get into the Chicago Sun-Times sometimes, because I do columns about poetry, I do columns about Samuel Johnson, and I do, because I think that it's our job to make things interesting. This stuff is interesting. There is a one line in there from Virgil, "Yield not to evils," which I memorized the Latin, "Tu ne cede malis." That, to me, is like the fire ax behind the glass.
Yield not to evils, but go forth all the more boldly to face them.
If you're going to the New Year's Eve party and there's a bar and the booze is there, you kind of go, oh, "Oh God, they've got Knob Creek, I love Knob Creek," and you go, "Yield not to evils, but go forth all the more boldly to face them."
That's a plan. That's something you should have in your pocket. At least, I do. I have it on the wall in my office, "Tu ne cede malis," yield not to evils.
Caroline: Well, I loved reading it! And actually, funny story, so, talking about this idea that, worrying that this book would be too esoteric, that, oh, people won't see themselves in it, I was at a coffee shop, and I was writing up the questions for the interview, and one of the guys who worked there came over to my table, and he said, "Where did you get that book?" I said, "Oh, actually, it's like a review copy, because I'm interviewing the author."
He said, "I've been trying to order that book on Amazon and I can't get my hands on it," and I started laughing, and I said, "Well, I know our local library has a copy, so maybe go down there," but yes… to me, it's very telling that, like you said, people can see themselves in these lines, and that it's an old struggle. It's not a brand new thing, recovery.
Neil Steinberg: This is a thing people invented.
The chapter on relapse, I'm very proud of, because relapse is a thorny problem in recovery, because you kind of, it's part of it, but if you tell people it's too much a part of it, they go, "Oh, I'm supposed to start drinking. That's expected of me, thank God."
The way I structured it was, and again, this was, you know, as a writer, you sometimes have, it's almost like a scientific theory, where you think, "I think I could use this." All I knew about Samuel Pepys was that he wrote this very frank diary in the 1660's, and that he had wrote part of it in code because he was having sex with maids and things like that.
Sara and I wrote this book hoping to use the power of literature and poetry to help people with addiction. We're kind of hoping that we use addiction to help introduce people to poetry.
I thought, "I bet he's drinking a lot, too." Not only was he drinking, but he's constantly drinking and then swearing it off, and they're all dated, so you see him on September whatever, 1663, putting his hand to God, vowing he's going to give up wine, and there he is two weeks later with an alderman and a sea captain and they're drinking away, and he's commenting in this very frank, and so you, it becomes, it's so funny, because when we were first done with it, it was almo- it becomes tedious, relapse is so, it's, "Oh my God, you're on your tenth rehab," and seriously, we should tip the hat that we know that it's tedious.
Each chapter has a little introduction that I wrote, and then you get to the quotes, and so I said, it's this hand on a board, repetition where you get yourself together, you start to feel good, which is the most dangerous part, and you then go back to it, because you're feeling so good, and you figure, "Oh my God, I'm normal again, and now I can complete my world. Everything is great. My family trusts me, and now let's go back to this." Pepys turned out to be this wonderful sort of person that I could purpose for this.
There was no word 'alcoholism' when he ... and so, I think that, I mean, it's so funny, because we did the launch of the Poetry Foundation here in Chicago, which puts out Poetry Magazine. It's a big deal. It was a lot of fun, and I said, as much as I wrote this, or Sara and I wrote this book hoping to use the power of literature and poetry to help people with addiction, now that it's done, we're kind of hoping that we use addiction to help introduce people to poetry, and as I hope there are certain people that you're going to, I mean, I fell in love with some of these people.
Louise Gluck has eight or nine poems in it, and she's like this angry septuagenarian, and if I did a little behind the scenes with you, I don't know how interested you are, but we spent two years getting the legal permissions for this.
Neil Steinberg: You can't just take Mary Oliver's poems and print them in your book.
Neil Steinberg: … And one of things we do is, we don't want to use the whole poem all the time, we just want the certain thoughts, the part that's relevant, and so you go on the Farrar, Straus, and Giroux website to try to use Louise Gluck's poems, and it says, "Don't break our … don't ask to cut our poems. We're not going to let you. If you use the whole poem plus the title, thank you."
I'm a journalist. I tracked her down in Stanford, and I said, you know, "Mrs. Gluck, I want to fax you this book thing, and obviously, if you say no, we can't do it, but if you say yes, I will pay you whatever you want," and that worked.
I have no idea if it's about addiction, but to me, it is, she said, "I was brave. I resisted. I set myself on fire." That's what you do. You take your old self, your old person, you burn it up, and you become this new person.
Her poems, there's one at the end where she's going over the things in her bedroom. She basically, I mean, and to me, it's so pure because sometimes, when you're used to, I mean, being an addict, you're partying every day. Every day's a party. It's Mardi Gras and it's Christmas and it's New Years, and it's Mardi Gras and Christmas and New Years, and then you're back in ordinary life, and you've got this bed, you've got a night table, you've got this, and you've got the stars up, and she starts to list them in almost a complaining way, and she says, and I have no idea if it's about addiction, but to me, it is, she said, "I was brave. I resisted. I set myself on fire."
I just love that, because, to me, that's what you do. You take your old self, your old person, you burn it up, and you become this new person. It's scary. That's like the Tweet from Ricky Gervais.
He says, "Your friends don't like it when you change, even if it's for the better. A part of them dies," and that's true.
A part of people they want, they want familiarity, they might like the fact you're a drunk. You have to not care about them. You have to care about yourself. To me, this book, I mean, it's so funny. We talked about having... I at first wanted the cover to be rubberized like a marine emergency manual.
For emergencies at sea! And so, to me, this is something that you read, but you also should keep around. I refer to it back constantly. I've read it 25 times, if not 50, and I wrote it. You know?
Caroline: Yeah, yeah.
Neil Steinberg: These are things that, I mean, I picked them, or at least, Sara and I picked them.
I mean, it's funny, working together, where the way it worked was we gathered in Google Doc all these quotes, and some of them, at first, I didn't realize what good they'd be. Sara found, we quote from Roger Rosenblatt's Kayak Morning, which is a book about kayaking in the loss and grief.
He says, basically, that when you flip your kayak over, you have to do a certain thing with the paddle, only by heading in the direction you least trust can you be saved. When I read that, I went, "That's rehab. That's the place you least want to go."
Nobody, very few people, want to go to rehab, right?
It's the direction... So, one of the early chapters is called The Direction You Least Trust.
I happen to have flipped a kayak once, so it made, in the intro, I put in how frightening it is to find yourself upside down laced into this thing holding a paddle underwater and thinking, "Well, I've got to do something or I'm going to die," which is certainly the feeling of rehab.
Only by heading in the direction you least trust can you be saved.
Caroline: Yes, which reminds me, I meant to ask earlier... could you tell us a little bit about your personal experience with addiction? I know you have a whole other memoir, Drunkard, which is about this.
Neil Steinberg: Right. Drunkard was written as it was happening. It was one of those few recovery memoirs that I was in rehab taking notes on it. I'm a Dante fan, and Dante teaches, you go to hell, you take notes.
Caroline: I love that.
Neil Steinberg: What happened to me was I always liked to drink, from when I was a junior counselor, 16 years old, at Camp Wise.
I was a bowl cut haircut, chubby guy, kid from Ohio, intellectual, didn't fit in anywhere, and I was anxious, and drinking just made everything okay. It was what I wanted to do, and it's funny, I knew I was an alcoholic, it just, at one point, it just seizes in. There's a great poem from Rilke where you grab for it and it grabs you back and won't let go, which is exactly what this is
I knew I was an alcoholic. I was drinking a half a fifth a day, and in 2005, was sort of the year this all came to a head.
I went to New Orleans with my family, and we'd stick the family in Hotel Monteleone and I go for a walk, which is across the street to the closest bar, which happened to be one of those like 'Girls, Girls, Girls' in neon, you know, club joint bars.
I order my Jack Daniels on the rocks and I'm drinking it and a woman in a teddy comes over and starts to introduce herself, and I remember going, "Save your breath, honey, I'm an alcoholic. I'm just here for the booze."
I knew I was, because I'm smart and I was drinking, but there was no choice. It wasn't like I was going to stop.
You grab for it and it grabs you back and won't let go, which is exactly what alcoholism is. I knew I was an alcoholic.
That was crazy, because the addiction has you so strongly that the idea of giving it up, that's just insane.
What happened was, is that I had an argument with my wife. She felt threatened, she grabbed the phone to call the police, I knocked the phone away, the police came and took me to jail, and the judge said, "Well, you can go through rehab in Cook County Jail, or you can go out and go to the Chapman Center at Highland Park Hospital.
I said, "I'll go to the Chapman Center, thank you," and I hated it.
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I was really, you know, filled with ego, and, but… being a journalist saved me, because I thought, "I'm here. I've got to experience," I mean, a lot of people were like, "I'm not going to get anything from this.
The court's ordered me this, and I'm not going to do anything. In part, when I started Drunkard, the working title was Booze Triumphant, and I assumed it was going to be the first recovery memoir where I went back to drinking at the end, and I was going to end with me with a glass of Jack Daniels, flipping off the reader, and that's how it was going to end.
Only halfway through the book, if you read it, my wife goes to California for a week, and I figured, great, a week of drinking, and so, and then five days into it, I figure, okay, now here's where I stop because she's coming back, and I couldn't stop.
That, to me, was sort of my moment of terror where I'm supposed to stop, can't stop. I realized that this was a real problem. This wasn't something my wife was doing to me. This was something that I couldn't just have, I mean, you have one drink, it's not like you can't not, but then, you have the, it rises up in your mind and it's all you can think about.
I remember opening my eyes in the morning, thinking, "I must be some sort of alcoholic if I can't, if my eyes slide open and I'm thinking about drinking."
That's the part I hate. I think one thing about my book says, you know, people reading Drunkard, it said, it made them all drink. I love it. It's a wonderful thing. Okay? What I hate, the part I'm, the reason I don't drink, I don't want to think about it all the time. I don't want it to be the central, the story of my life. If one of my, I have two boys, 19 and 21.
What I hate, the reason I don't drink, I don't want to think about it all the time. I don't want it to be the story of my life.
If one said to me, "Dad, drinking's the most important thing in the world, and it's really the one thing I find significant," I wouldn't go, "I'm proud of you, son, because I'm the same way."
I don't want to do that, and so, all of this, I mean, has been part of my struggle to try to stay sober. Part of it is professionalism. I remember when Drunkard first came out in 2008... God, is it that long ago? Wow. 2008, I think I probably would have gone back to drinking, but I had a recovery memoir coming out.
Caroline: You couldn't.
Neil Steinberg: You know, recovery memoir!
To me, and that's one thing about me is.. my motto is sobriety, do what works.
You do what works for you.
Everyone's different. I mean, we're all the same in that we're alcoholics, and I, the longest chapter in the book is on AA. I was very conscious of that, because I didn't want to do AA. To me, it's like church. If you go to church every day, you take Mass, you believe that God looks over you and judges you and everything, I'm not going to show up and say you're wrong.
Neil Steinberg: Life is a long time, and you need to sort of find the reasons to do the right thing, and that's the important thing, is you do the right thing. Whether you're doing it because God tells you to do it, or because you know in your heart to do it, what does it matter, really? It's better than doing the wrong thing for the right reason. That's, you know, that's sort of how it came about.
Caroline: Yeah. That's awesome. Several points on that, just the idea, too, that AA has helped so many people, and yet, for others, it's like, this is a stepping stone to a decision that I need to make for myself. I think that's really important. Do what works for you, and it might not be the same as what works for the next person.
I love, there's this other great quote in your book. "The anxiety comes and goes, but alcoholism is obsessional", and that, kind of what you were talking about, this idea of like, I may have started the drinking because I was anxious and I wanted something to help with that, but then the alcohol takes over to such an extent that I can't think about anything else, and this is almost worse than the anxiety that I started with, because this is taking over my whole life.
Everyone's different. I mean, we're all the same in that we're alcoholics, but do what works. You do what works for you.
Neil Steinberg: There's no question about it.
There's a neighbor in the book, in Drunkard… he and I went to AA meetings together 11 years ago, and for some reason, maybe here's where God comes in, it stuck with me and it didn't stick with him.
I saw his whole life destroyed. He read this book. He read both my books, so again, it's not a panacea. I think what has to happen is, and this, and it's the best thing that AA has is the rigorous honesty part, because you know, really, people can lie to themselves, and they can go, they blame people and they don't take responsibility for what they're doing, and they don't see it clearly.
Neil Steinberg: That's where these great writers come in.
We have a lot of John Cheever's journals in there. You see John Cheever talking about trying to distract himself, doing chores around his farm, excuse me, while all the while thinking of that bottle of mash and waiting for the noon gong to ring so he can run and pour himself a scoop. It's very, I mean, part of it, I try to show the horror of this. I quote from John Phillips, who's before your time, probably. He was the leader of the Mamas and the Papas, and he talks about drug addiction.
I do talk about drug addiction in here, because it's a similar kind of thing, really. It's just another substance. He talks about this blinding compulsion, he calls it, of heroin use, where he couldn't go out of the house, because he had to shoot up every 15 minutes. I mean, it becomes this gross sort of thing. It's like, it's, there's nothing romantic about it at all, in the end.
Neil Steinberg: You have to really fool yourself. We have a lot of quotes in there that touch on that.
Caroline McGraw: Yes, getting out of denial and actually admitting that. Then, at the same time, I also loved what you said, there's a line in the book, "Sometimes rehab is like attending the autopsy of someone you love.” And the sadness of the setting yourself on fire, like, I have to make this huge change because I'm realizing addiction is not actually romantic and great, but it's still really sad, because I have to let go of everything that's familiar."
You have to focus on what you have, and not what you've lost.
Neil Steinberg: You know, people have a hard time with loss.
My boys were home over the holidays, they're having beers, they're having, you know, the 21 year olds having a cocktail at dinner, and I'm like, I should be joining him.
A part of me is thinking, "This is, I'm missing this." I thought, "You know what? If I went blind, as people do, he would go to the movies and I wouldn't see it. If I'd died from drinking 10 years ago, which could have happened, I wouldn't be here for anything."
Neil Steinberg: I think that you have to, I mean, again, that's where the quotes come in.
You have to focus on what you have, and not what you've lost. Okay? I love to read, I went to the gym today, and I worked out. I'm 40 pounds less than I was when I was drinking.
Neil Steinberg: I don't have to die.
It's funny, I lost 30 pounds in 2010 because I had sleep apnea. This is probably off point a bit, and the doctor, I hated the mask, I hated all that, and the doctor finally said, "You know, if you lost 30 pounds, you probably would, it would go away," which it did.
Neil Steinberg: I wrote a column about, at the end of the year, that began, "Unlike you, I kept my New Year's Resolution." I talk about what I did, and I called it the Alcoholism Guide,
because alcoholism, you don't have just one drink or a little drink, you don't have any drinks in recovery, because you don't want one, you want a bunch.
Neil Steinberg: I said in the column, I said, "The beauty of being an alcoholic," and I put in parentheses, "(Now there's two concepts you just don't hear much)"...
Caroline: No, you don't.
Neil Steinberg: But there really is a beauty to it.
I think that it makes you, it makes you less focused on trivialities. You certainly don't go to events just because you can go to the bar. I don't go to things if I'm not interested in them.
Caroline: Yeah, yeah.
Neil Steinberg: …I'm a newspaper columnist, I'm always being invited to dinners and things. In the past, I would go. It's free booze. Who cares? I've got to drink somewhere. Now, I don't go if I don't want to go. If I do go, I talk to people, I pay attention. You get a lot.
Caroline: Yeah, yeah.
Neil Steinberg: You learn a lot... it's so funny, because when I went to rehab, I didn't understand it, okay? Like, they didn't make to sense to me. Like, what do you mean, you're going to not drink? What are you going to do? My sponsor, who's another writer, said, "You just rediscover things. You become the person," again, it's a, I think it's a Pink line, it's not in the book, but you're trying to find the you that you once had.
you're trying to find the you that you once had.
Neil Steinberg: You know, you weren't always an alcoholic. What did you do the first 15 years of your life?
Neil Steinberg: What did you love when you were a child?…
And giving up your substance, you almost get to be a child again. I can stay out til midnight and my wife isn't worried about where I am, because she knows whatever I'm doing, it's work or it's something, it's not, I'm not getting in trouble.
Caroline: Yeah, exactly. You have that great quote, "Part of recovery is recovering the person you once were, the child within who was dulled by addiction."
Neil Steinberg: Yeah, and that's actually me.
It's funny, I didn't use any of my quotes in the quote part, but I enjoyed writing the intros, because I did use the knowledge. I mean, the book starts in second person. It's the hardest thing you'll ever do, so I wanted something where I, and again, it's like Walt Whitman. I'm talking to you,
I'm putting my arm around your shoulder, saying, "Look, let's do this." I wasn't, I've got to give Sara credit, because she dialed back a lot of, I can be a grandiose writer, and things get ornate, and she kept saying, "You're competing with the poetry."
Neil Steinberg: I liked that a lot.
I really, you know, this book, I said, this was almost, I don't want to say a miracle, but it was an accident. I never would have done it. It's my eighth book, and I had done my recovery book, which I didn't want to do, either. To me, recovery books or memoirs, they're, it's a genre. It's like a romance novel. I didn't even read them.
Giving up your substance, you almost get to be a child again.
Neil Steinberg: Again, it's, again, like drinking, writing is sort of my sign of significance.
By writing a book in rehab, I wasn't a miserable drunk who couldn't go to work because I was waiting for my court case to come up. I was a writer working on a book.
Caroline: Yeah. It helps you to get into that meta-self a little bit. I'm not just experiencing the rehab, I'm also the person who's thinking, how would I describe this later? How would I write about this?
Neil Steinberg: It's, and again, and writing, which anyone can be a writer, it's a form of honesty.
You have to look at things clearly. It's all you have. Okay? If you have an agenda, if you're trying to slyly or dishonestly deceive the reader, they see it.
Neil Steinberg: The opening quote is in both books, actually. It's from Robert Lowell, the poet. It's, "Yet why not say what happened?" Okay, which is such a beautiful line.
Caroline: It is.
Neil Steinberg: You know, and when people, it's so funny, because I, people ask me, "Well, aren't you ashamed?" I talk to people, I'm on television, and they, "Aren't you ashamed to admit to this?" Some people, they can't even say it in a closed room. I have a good line I came up with. It's not in the book, but I say, "You know, I wasn't ashamed to be a notorious sponge reeling around town soaking up every drop of booze I could get my hands on. Why would I be ashamed that I got better?"
I wasn't ashamed to be a notorious sponge reeling around town soaking up every drop of booze I could get my hands on. Why would I be ashamed that I got better?
Caroline: That's great.
Neil Steinberg: In a sense, I mean, I was, it's funny, it got cut out of the first book because they thought it was too funny.
For some reason, you can't be funny in rehab. I don't know why. When I'm checking into Highland Park Hospital, the nurse is filling out the forms, and she says, "Of course, your being here is completely confidential." I said, "No, my being here is in the New York Post this morning."
Caroline: Right, right.
Neil Steinberg: The whole confidentiality thing, it's blown to hell. It's gone.
Caroline: Right. They already know.
Neil Steinberg: It's, look, hello! And I don't think... you don't have to embrace God.
You don't have to have a spiritual epiphany. It's nice. I was always willing for him to come and help me, but he lingered. I think it's hard enough to stop drinking without also having to go through some sort of spiritual renaissance. I think it's a lot easier to say, "Okay. This stuff is a snare, and I better not fall into it, or I can't get out."
The idea, you know, it's so funny, I gave a speech, the first speech I gave in this book, the Advocate Addiction Centers asked me to talk for their fundraiser, so I went out, and I normally never have my wife in the audience, because she throws me off, but I said, "You mind if you come and sit there."
I came out and I started to say, you know, people are familiar with Dante's Inferno, when he meets Virgil and he goes down nine rings of Hell, and it's this and that, and I look over at my wife, and she's going... Like I was giving long speeches.
The beginning is so hellish that you don't realize it's just the beginning, and you have to spend the rest of your life in recovery. You're always recovering.
I wound it up, I got to the part when he finally makes it out, he sees the lowest ring, he sees Satan chewing Judas Iscariot, and he gets out, and… he sees the stars, and it's such a satisfying end that people don't realize it's not the end.
You're only a third of the way through the Divine Comedy. There's this enormous climb up Purgatory's mountain, and then you have to get to Paradise, and that's recovery. The beginning is so hellish that you don't realize it's just the beginning, and you have to spend the rest of your life in recovery. You're always recovering.
You're never recovered, because it never goes away, at least it hasn't for me. I'm open to the fact that it can go away, that I'll wake up one day and it'll just be gone. I'll be happy. The cell will be empty. It's been 11 years. I'm not expecting that.
Neil Steinberg: Okay? I know it's there, even though I don't drink, because I can feel it sometimes. I can feel it a lot sometimes, but the great joy, and you know, it's different being in recovery for a year, two years, four years, eight years, 10 years, it changes, and it changes for the better, at least for me.
Again, I'm not the poster boy for alcoholism. I'm only, I can only speak to my own experience.
Neil Steinberg: Maybe other people, you know... but there's a great quote from David Foster Wallace in there.
He says that, from Infinite Jest, where he says, and I'll just summarize, "No one who ever became so enslaved by a substance that he had to give it up, and who then, for whatever reason, went back to that substance, ever in the history of the world, was glad that he went back to it."
You're never going to hear from someone going, "You know, I was an alcoholic, and then I gave it up for 10 years, and now I'm drinking again."
This is in, and this had nothing to do with the new book. It got cut out of Drunkard, again I think it was too funny, where I ran into my aunt Carol.…
She's drinking a big glass of vodka, and she goes, "I hear you're not drinking." And I said, "Yeah, I had to give it up." She goes, "You know, I had a drinking problem, too ..."
Caroline: Oh, fancy that.
Neil Steinberg: "But I got better." I said, "Gee, aunt Carol, what'd you do?" She went, "Willpower." Just like that.
Caroline: That's awesome.
Neil Steinberg: You know, look, you... Anyways, that's, I'm pleased with it, I'm proud of it.
I think that if people read it, that, you know, I haven't heard anything bad about it. I think that it'll help, sort of help you understand what this is that's happening to you.
We don't see the family destroyed, and that's something I thought was important for people to recognize, because certain people, they fall into a groove and we're not related to them, and we're not them, and we don't see what their life is.
Caroline: Yes. The thing that I thought of when I was reading it was that. So, in our Program, we have Participants do dialogues and talk to the aspect of themselves that's addicted and interact with it, because, sort of as you said, for most people, that's just always going to be a part of who you are. It's not going anywhere. It's a part of your nature.
When I was reading this, I thought, this is such an amazing... it's like a conversation with all these different people throughout history, and all of their addict aspects, and all of their experiences.
It just makes you feel like, this is part of the human experience, this doesn't mean that I'm a failure or I, you know, I'm all alone in this. It's just, you're part of this whole community stretching from Seneca to now.
Neil Steinberg: It's something that had, I mean, and it's also a matter of perspective.
It was very important to me, I think that Sara wasn't sure why it was there, there's a quote from Gonzo, two quotes from Hunter S. Thompson, the book about Hunter S. Thompson.
If you ask people, he's this fabulous guy, and a wonderful writer, and lalala, and that's all true. I mean, you know, vastly beyond anything I would ever achieve, but in, the quote I use is,
Jann Wenner, the editor of Rolling Stone, who I knew and I wrote for, said he was an alcoholic. It destroyed his talent.
Neil Steinberg: Then there's a quote from his girlfriend about trying to get him into rehab.
We don't see that side. We don't see the family destroyed, and that's something I thought was important for people to recognize, because certain people, they fall into a groove and we're not related to them, and we're not them, and we don't see what their life is.
In Chicago … the great journalist, the great columnist here was Mike Royko, and he went all over the country and everything, - he used to write for the Sun Times as well. Readers will write to me, and they'll go, "You're no Mike Royko."
I'll surprise them, I'll write them back, I'll say, "Well, thank you, because I knew Mike Royko, and he was a mean drunk, and his son ended up robbing banks, and so, given that, I would actually rather be me."
Caroline: Right. You'd rather ...
Neil Steinberg: I think that's part of giving up booze, because acceptance goes to everything. My dad has Alzheimers. Okay, he's 84, and so my mother, they've been together for 60 years, she has a very hard time getting her head around the fact that he's changed. She's always going, "Well, he doesn't remember anything, Mom, or he doesn't remember anything, Neil." I'm like, "Yes, Mom. I got that."
Caroline McGraw: Right.
Neil Steinberg: If you can accept your biggest problem, you can accept everything else.
People have problems, okay? They get cancer, they're like terrible things happen, and you know, you could say til the end of time, "But I didn't have this before. I did not have the cancer a year ago."
Well, yeah, but you've got it now.
If you can accept your biggest problem, you can accept everything else.
Caroline: Got it now. Right.
Neil Steinberg: Yeah. Look, I meet people and they're grateful, you know, according to Eric Clapton, he's glad to have the illness.
If that's true, power to him. I myself, I could never say I'm glad to have it. I was, I loved drinking. I had 25 years of it, but you know what? It wasn't enough. When you look back on it, it didn't satisfy you.
That's what alcoholism is. It doesn't satisfy you. That's why I have a non-alcoholic beer, and people are like, "Oh my God, that's a lapse."
I'm like, "No it's not, and I'll explain why. I don't think about it. I can have one. I stop, and I don't want another one. If I could have a real beer like that, I'd have the beer or two and declare myself cured, but I can't."
Again, that goes back to managing your own sobriety. You do what you know works for you. If that's going to AA twice a day, I would get, you know, I might go back sometime myself, just because there are people there, and sometimes I get lonely and I think, you know, "I want to go to where I can talk to people."
Caroline: Sure. Sure.
Neil Steinberg: It's not, I'm not some dead set against it person.
It's just that, the metaphor I have is like the hospital. Okay? If you were burned in a car accident, they take you to the Loyola Medical Center, you wouldn't prop yourself up on one charred elbow and then start to complain about the Pope because it's a Catholic hospital. You would just go.
That's what alcoholism is. It doesn't satisfy you.
Neil Steinberg: You'd get your help, but you wouldn't live there, either.
Eventually, you'd come out again, and that's how I view it. It's a fascinating group of people, and I'm glad that the people who are reviewing it on Amazon, they kind of say it's pro-AA, which I didn't want to do, because I wanted people who AA isn't reaching to go to read this book.
Neil Steinberg: I was really trying to be neutral AA, but the reader has to decide that.
Caroline: I agree. Yeah. I think you did a good job emphasizing that message of you need to do what works for you, and you need to know yourself, and you know, accept your biggest problem, like you're talking about, and find the help where you find it. For some people, that's AA, and for some people it's not, but it's got to be that honesty and looking in your own mirror.
Neil Steinberg: That's why I've never, I never say I'm not going to drink again.
I would never say I'm never having a drink for the rest of my life. That would be a lie. Not that I'm planning to relapse, but that just doesn't sound right, nor does … I mean, I meet people who've 30 years sobriety, I'm like, "God, poor person." I've got 10, or almost 10, and I never would have thought that was possible. Again, that's another one of the many great things AA has, is the one day at a time.
I wanted people who AA isn't reaching to go to read this book.
Neil Steinberg: I remember when I first became sober, I was thinking, "Well, what happens when I go to France?"
Neil Steinberg: Don't worry about drinks you're not having on trips you may not take.
Actually, this is... I've got to tell you this story, and maybe it'll help your viewers, because this was the moment where I thought I could do it. I stopped, Drunkard happened in the fall of 2009. I kind of was back and forth and, or, excuse me, 2005, and in 2006, I was kind of getting sober, and so it was a couple years into it, 2009, Louis Susman, the American ambassador to England, invited me to come to London and give a speech about the literary renaissance in Chicago.
Neil Steinberg: Being an alcoholic, my first thought was, "I can't go. I can't get on a plane and fly to London by myself and be in business class and lalala," and so I made myself a deal.
I make myself deals a lot, in sobriety.
I said, "Okay. Go to London. You can do whatever you want but drink. If it's, you have a bad time, you can come back and start to drink and divorce your wife and say that you just have to drink because life is horrible without it, but just try." I had gone for like a James Bond junket in 2003, and drunk hand over fist for a week in London.
"You can do whatever you want but drink. If it's, you have a bad time, you can come back and start to drink and divorce your wife and say that you just have to drink because life is horrible without it, but just try."
I have a picture of myself in a bar kind of drinking these shots of Jack Daniels, going, "It must be these metric pours. This is doing nothing for me," right, because your tolerance goes up.
I went to London and I had this fabulous time. I'm giving speeches in Hyde Park and on the radio and this and that, and I'm at Louis Susman's house.
He's in Barbara Hutton's old mansion in Hyde Park, and of course, they have a cocktail party for the writer, right? He come, the waiter comes out with this big tray with all these drinks on it, and I say, "Do you have water?" He gestures with his chin to the big goblet with lemon in it, and I take the goblet, and it's a gin and tonic.
Caroline: Oh, no.
Neil Steinberg: I felt gin crack within my head after a couple years, and my first thought, being an alcoholic, was, "This is God," who I didn't believe in. Suddenly, God shows up. "This is God telling me to have a good time in London."
Neil Steinberg: I thought, "But I wasn't going to do that. That's my one rule."
Caroline: Right, right.
Neil Steinberg: Okay? I actually stood there frozen until the waiter came back. I said, "Oh, wrong drink," and he, of course, the Brits, the water was like a shot glass next to the big goblet, and I didn't count that as a lapse because I didn't mean to.
Caroline: No, no.
I was the only guy not drinking at midnight. Everyone else is having their thing, and I had, again, I had fun without it.
Neil Steinberg: I had a great time. I was having dinner with Granta, which is a literary magazine I write for there.
I was the only guy not drinking at midnight. Okay? Everyone else is having their thing, and I had, again, I had fun without it. I went to Hyde Park.
I stood on a milk crate and I gave a speech at the speaker's corner. I went to these great museums. I did all this great, I wasn't hungover at all, because I wasn't drinking.
Neil Steinberg: Yeah. You don't look at that. You know, when you're drinking, you don't go, "You know, I wake up, I feel like crap half the," you don't count the costs.
Neil Steinberg: I know guys who killed themselves rather than give up drinking. Good friends, smart guys, writers. Yeah, that was a bad choice, all right? It's better to live and not drink than to die and drink, it really is.
I was stupid as a young man, and then I was in my 40s thinking, "I'm an alcoholic. I'll drink and drink and I'm going to die. That's my lot."
It wasn't my lot. There was a door. There was a door that I could go through, and so ... [phone rings] Oh. Sorry about that.
It's better to live and not drink than to die and drink, it really is.
Caroline: It's God calling.
Neil Steinberg: Nah, it's ...
Neil Steinberg: Barack Obama's coming here tomorrow, and so, I'm in the press pool, so I've got to ...
Caroline: Oh, cool.
Neil Steinberg: That, I was working on it all morning to make sure I'm in the right spot when he shows up. Anyhow, anything else that we haven't covered?
Caroline: I mean, I think that's the perfect place to end. Better to live and not drink, because there … who knows what could happen? I mean, that's kind of a theme that I see kind of running through the book and running through this conversation, it's like, it's almost this humility of, you think you know that life will be miserable if you don't drink, but you have no idea what could happen. You have no idea.
Neil Steinberg: There's a quote in there. It's something like, you know, you don't, in the time chapter, you know, "The next day, it could be the thing you always waited for."
Neil Steinberg: Raymond Carver, we should have talked about that ...
He was allowed to live to see himself heralded as the genius he had always thought himself to be, because he didn't die.
Caroline: Oh, yes.
Neil Steinberg: Where, Gravy, where he gave up drinking at 40 and he was allowed to live to see himself heralded as the genius he had always thought himself to be, because he didn't die.
Neil Steinberg: That, to me, is, you know, it's a beautiful story, and Gravy's a beautiful poem about how his life is gravy.
I do, you know, I look at myself, and I look at my routine, and it's still difficult, I've got to show up at Soldier Field tomorrow when the helicopter shows up. I've got to listen to the speech, I've got to get a column in the paper, then I've got to head downstate to Wayne County, which voted 83% for Trump, and talk to the Rotary, because I'm doing, you know, when they found out I was coming, the Rotary invited me to speak, so I've got to make sure they don't hang me while I'm there.
On the other hand, that's a good problem to have. I don't have to like, I'm not, you know, hiding a beer in the morning.
Neil Steinberg: It's a better problem to have.
Caroline McGraw: That is perfect. Thank you so much.
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