Men, as a rule, do not suffer well.
We cannot cope with the sadness that threatens always to overtake us. We are always afraid, and cannot put a name to being so. We are chronically confused, but are incapable or unwilling to acknowledge this reality.
Mostly, I think, we do not like the admission that we are sad, and confused, and afraid. That’s what all the fuckin’ and fightin’ is about. And how sports have come to consume us. We are persistently sad, and deeply confused, and badly afraid. So rather than attempting to grapple with these, we lash out with our fists and our dicks. Or guns, which is really just a dick-fist.
And all this inciting of chaos, obviously, fails to provide us any relief. So we continue to grow worse.Till we collapse. Or change. Adapt or die. Which is actually not an easy choice. Because the misery you know is infinitely preferable to the change that remains opaque.
For me, the avoidance of suffering takes the form of ingesting alcohol. In quantities that are dangerous and swinish. But then I stopped. A while ago, now. This April, I reached twenty-one years of refraining from drink. Which is not an achievement. It’s just the ongoing reestablishment of common sense.
My last drink was a shot of Irish whiskey at the Waveland Bowl on Western Avenue in the early hours of April 26th, 1994.
You know that shudder you get when you toss back a slug of booze – that last one of the night that you know is a shitty idea? That jigger of poison that causes your gut to constrict and roil behind your belt and the entire front of your head to pucker so hard it threatens to collapse in on itself.
For most us, that last hateful dose of battery acid we pour down our gullets causes us to wise up and go easier next time. For some of us, though, that last hateful dose is not the last at all. It is only the dose we’re able to choke down before we pass out or run out of money. Or die. Then we get up the next hateful day to begin the sorry cycle again. I was one of these. But at about 3AM on April 26th, 1994, I knew I had to set the whiskey down for good, or I would die stupidly.
So I did. And so far, since then, I have wished to live more than I wish to die. Which, as I say, is actually not an easy choice.
But, before I stopped pouring poison down my gullet, I did shitty things. I was selfish and beastly. My then girlfriend – the woman who would one day become my wife – bore much of the brunt of my self-loathing and rages, my disappearances and indifference.
A few months before I took that last hateful dose at the Waveland Bowl, I deluded myself that I had fallen out of love with her. That it was over. Because I was, I claimed, smitten with a woman from my work. And while it is indisputably true that I was attracted to this woman from my work – that I lusted after her pretty desperately – it was nothing like love.
My then girlfriend-now-wife and I had been together since college. And at that point, we’d been with each other for like seven years. Had lived together for five; had been in love from the start. So when I gave my weak break-up speech, I did not merely break her heart, I pulverized it. I shredded it. I roasted it and ate the pieces.
And my best self, my truest self, wished to remain with her forever. Which is what I wish, still, tonight as I read this.
But I am a man. And am no good at suffering.
So. Instead of confronting the great sadnesses that befell me, I drank liquor. In swinish and dangerous fashion. And raged. And despaired. And mistook my own turmoil and heartsickness for a waning between myself and the woman I loved. Or, more precisely, the woman I should have recognized that I loved, but failed to.
There was this new, other woman. At my job. And she was blisteringly attractive. And she made known that she found me compelling. She thought me artistic and clever. And she was so, so hot. Like ridiculous.
Because, listen – I didn’t always look like this.
And there was such suffering in me. But I am a man. So could not suffer, not directly. And so the miasma of my squalid pain and her heart-stopping physical beauty conspired to convince me that I was in love with her.
Which I might have been. If I was a different kind of man. But I am not. I am… this.
Because – as is the way with physically beautiful people – this woman was, through no fault of her own, just as boring as she could be. Physically beautiful people, they live in an untroubled state, a blithe and unconcerned condition, secure in their magnetism and expansive prospects.
So because I am a man, inept at suffering, I jilted the woman who would one day become my wife in a brutish and cruel way. And I took up with the new woman. I will not name her. She was not at fault. Her intentions were good. She deserved better than me.
This new woman was decent to me. And kind. And the sex was phenomenal. Like spine-cracking. Like the fillings might shiver right out of your teeth. Which is a price you’d happily pay for sex such as this – awakening on a pillow scattered with your fillings dotted with blood.
On the face of it, I should have been happy – I was having mind-blasting sex with a crazily beautiful and uncomplicated woman. For somebody who claims to be an American dude, I was living the dream. Yet still I remained sad, and confused, and afraid.Because when you are in the pit of addiction, a pit you have clawed your way all the deeper into because you lack the courage to suffer, happiness is impossibly remote, and your every dream curdles into night sweats and menace.
Somebody once said: The only way out of Hell is through.
I have found this to be true. Whenever I have attempted to snuff out my suffering, whenever I have tried to defer or diminish it, it remains coiled in a corner, ready to overtake me. There are no end runs around Hell, there is no bargaining with anything that has the patience of the infinite.
She – this new woman – had only one rule. Which was that I not show up at her apartment drunk. She didn’t attempt to forbid my drunkenness, she just didn’t want it at her place.
So one night I’m hunkered at the bar where I worked, pounding whisky.
The woman arrives, gives me a once-over, and calmly requests her keys. In the distillery behind my eyes, I took her to mean that we were through. So I dug her keys out my pocket with thick-fingered hands, avoided her gaze, and handed them over. I spun on my stool with the intention of draining every bottle behind that bar.
And that night is when I began finally to sicken myself and to curse my cowardice enough, to develop suspicions, at least, that I might wish to climb up out of this pit. And begin properly to suffer.Because in all the Pandora’s box of the human heart – is there any feeling more putrid than self-pity? I don’t believe there is.
I drank for a while after that. But it was that last-gasp chase of the addict, the idiotic scrambling of the ghost that doesn’t know it’s dead.
That woman deserved better than me. I deserved better than me.
And, the only way that I could win back the woman I then loved, and love still – the only woman, if I am honest, that I have ever loved – was to become something other than I was. I had to adapt. And to adapt – to really adapt – is to suffer.
If ever you have betrayed someone, then you know it’s a long way back to them. You have dug by your meanness of spirit and your selfishness a gulch between you. And there is no grappling gun. You must braid the strands of a rope bridge – hour upon hour and day upon day, you must continue twisting like a spider the strands that will connect you once more, like Charlotte, weaving her web – unconcerned with self, uncertain that you are deserving, unsure if you can ever make it back across.
And across that gulch, sometimes, when you are really very fortunate, you may gaze while you weave upon a person with the grace to forgive you. A person whom you loved all along, and who will have you back if you will only accept the need sometimes to suffer.
Ian Belknap is founder of WRITE CLUB, world’s greatest competitive reading series, which donates a portion of show proceeds to charity and has chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Atlanta with more on the way. More info, about the live show, our book, and our podcast atwriteclubnation.com. Ian is co-editor with Lindsay Muscato of Bare-Knuckled Lit: The Best of WRITE CLUB; he has written and performed the solo shows Wide Open Beaver Shot of My Heart: A Comedy With a Body Count, Bring Me the Head of James Franco, That I May Prepare a Savory Goulash In the Narrow and Misshapen Pot of His Skull, and others. His next show is entitledIan Belknap’s Bucket of Shut Up and will take place in June of 2016 in Chicago. He’s performed in live lit and storytelling shows at scores of taverns and saloons all over the country, as well as fancy places like the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Chicago Humanities Festival, the Poetry Foundation, and the Smart Museum of Art. He teaches creative writing at a high school for the arts and workshops at a variety of places. He is a recurring cast member/writer on the narrative podcast Pleasuretown, and is on the masthead at The Paper Machete. He’s delivered talks and presentations for Arts Alliance Illinois, Chicago Writers Conference, TEDx Greenville and elsewhere.