By Brent P.
W.C. Fields, the great comic actor of the 1920s and 30s, was both an unapologetic alcoholic and atheist. Near the end of his life in 1946, when he was confined to bed, a close friend came to visit at his Hollywood home. He was received, then led to Fields’ sickbed, where, to his surprise, he discovered him reading the Bible. He remarked, “Bill, I’ve never known you to read the Good Book,” to which Fields replied, with impeccable comic timing in that unmistakable voice of his, “Just lookin’ for loopholes, lookin’ for loopholes.”
If true, this anecdote reveals that Fields, facing death, still had his sense of humor and the courage to laugh in the face of the hellfire and eternal damnation reserved for unrepentant sinners and non believers.
I always liked that story because, like Fields, I too was an unrepentant drinker and drug user; however, the similarities stopped abruptly there. He was an atheist. And though I hadn’t set foot in a church since I was fourteen, save for weddings and funerals, I was not an atheist. I just didn’t have the guts to boldly deny God in the off chance that he did exist. Hellfire and damnation scared the willies out of me. What worked for me was to avoid anything to do with God and pray that I might get lost in the shuffle when judgment day finally arrived.
That worked well for me until my late twenties when some folks who were pretty important to me – my family - insisted I go to AA. I thought they were overreacting but if I wished to stay in their good books and continue to have my bohemian lifestyle (I was a musician) funded on those occasions when it wasn’t showing the financial returns I thought it ought to, I had to go.
There were two things that came as real surprises to me upon arriving at AA. The first was the abstinence thing, no drinking, at all, forever. It lacked any kind of creativity. Sure, if you took no alcohol whatsoever all those problems attributed to drinking would pretty much disappear, but how in the hell were you supposed to have any fun? I started devising alternative plans that allowed for a few drinks with nobody being the wiser.
The second was the God business. I could tolerate the Serenity Prayer, in fact I saw great wisdom in it, but that was it. I didn’t believe God got anybody sober and, if he did, his priorities were way out of whack. I mean in a world where babies were being born with AIDS, or addicted to drugs, in countries where rebel factions used machetes to lop limbs off innocent people who were just trying to keep themselves and their families alive, God’s intervention would have been welcomed.
But no, there were alcoholics setting their beds on fire that needed a hand.
Needless to say I didn’t stay sober for too long. Not because I couldn’t (yeah, right!) but because AA, I’d concluded, was a loony bin for deranged drinkers who’d traded their critical faculties for faith in a deity who had a weakness for drunks. Besides I was ready to try some of those alternative strategies that would allow me to drink without getting in trouble.
I can elaborate here but what’s the point? Anybody who has thought they could outsmart alcoholism or addiction of any kind knows where this is going. My alcoholism progressed in ways I couldn’t have imagined so I kept returning to AA vowing to take it more seriously. I even went to rehab on four different occasions but I couldn’t seem to stay sober longer than about a year and my relapses were stretching into years.
Now if I thought AA was crazy, it was becoming more and more evident that I was even crazier. The combination of drugs and alcohol meant my brain was operating like one of those old cars that you started by turning a crank, it would cough and backfire long before there was ignition, if there was any ignition at all. But that didn’t stop me from desperately seeking a solution. I reflected on my times in AA trying to pinpoint where I’d gotten off track. And the only answer I could really come up with was my inability to reconcile God. I wasn’t a believer, that was for certain, but I couldn’t claim to be a non believer either, because, like I said before, I was afraid the Baptists (Catholics, Episcopalians, whatever) might be right.
Whether it was a prayer that was answered or I’d simply gotten lucky, an answer that I could easily live with came to me one afternoon courtesy of my favorite singer/songwriter, Tom Waits. The CD was Heart Attack & Vine and I was listening to the title track when I heard the line that explained everything. It went, “… there ain’t no devil, just God when he’s drunk.”
This was just about four years ago and I really had to toast Tom, several times in a row, because for the first time in almost three decades I was presented a version of God that made 100% perfect sense to me, a God who, from time to time, just like me, absolved himself of all responsibility to go on a tear. Think about it. If God has been around as long as most religions suggest, and that we’re made in his image, then he, like us, gets tired, frustrated, intolerant and impatient. He looks down at his handiwork, sees us running wild with the seven deadly sins, building monuments to ourselves, feeding our egos, going to war, getting it on with somebody else’s wife or husband and, well, he throws his hands up and basically says fu#k it, then pours himself a stiff one. He’s probably got a pad just for those occasions. Something that resembles Hef’s, only better. He invites a few of his favorite angels over for a BBQ and pool party, closes the gates and cuts loose. I mean this was the guy who had it in him to turn water into wine. His affinity for drink is no secret.
Sure would explain a lot of the black marks on our history, the world wars, the plagues, the killer droughts, all the bad stuff we’re often at a loss to explain. God was on a drunk.
I spent days thinking about this and the more I did the more convinced I was that Tom Waits was a holy prophet with a serious message for me. Build a new religion from these nine sacred words I sing to you, “there ain’t no devil just God when he’s drunk”, and call it The Church of the Divine Dipsomaniac (I actually came up with that name myself but I think it has a certain ring to it). I tried the idea out on a few friends who, like me were what you’d call uncertain. Neither atheist nor agnostic, afraid to commit. And of course they too struggled to get and stay sober.
For a time it went over pretty well. Among the alcoholics I knew it was a slam dunk, God was a lush.
It’s important to note, I’d been on about a ten day binge when all this happened and I was lapsing in and out of consciousness. I didn’t know if I was having dreams or visions but one night, amidst a shimmering white light, Tom Waits appeared to me looking more like a wino than a prophet, but who was I to judge? Besides he had a message for me.
“Dude, you been drinking for well over a week now and your mind’s all bent out of shape. You’ve completely misinterpreted my lyrics and if you try this Church of the Divine Dipsomaniac thing you’re going to be tossed into a rubber room, for what could be a long, long time. You got a problem, a serious one and it’s time you get honest with yourself. There aren’t any loopholes. If you believe in God that’s okay. If you don’t that’s okay too. And if you just don’t know, that’s fair too. But you got to plant your flag someplace or you’re doomed. You hear me?”
I nodded, overwhelmed by the conviction of his words. He continued, “Okay, now I gotta see a man about a dog, but just one more thing.”
“You mention my name or in any way insinuate me in this genuinely insane idea and I will sic my lawyers on your ass like the pitbulls they are.”
He then dissolved into the ether and I threw up… not because of him, I’d been drinking for ten days.
I’m three and a half years sober now and not once have I struggled with cravings. I’m agnostic and I got there honestly. And when I think about it, that’s all that had ever been asked of me, to be willing to at least consider God then draw my own conclusions. And the Tom Waits thing? Well I don’t know if that really happened or I was just watching one of those infomercials, but every new CD he puts out, one copy seems to magically appear in my mailbox.
That, and one of those slicer dicer things.