Narcissus in Jail

By  |  April 17, 2019

 

I

got into politics by accident. I was about to be a college junior in the summer of 2003 and I’m fairly certain that I could not have named the Vice President of the United States. Two years into adulthood I cared only for things of eternal consequence: poetry, girls, music, how my hair looked. But a random lucky encounter with an acquaintance netted me a job on a day I needed one, and so there I was, in politics. Within days on that first campaign—a big, messy, high dollar mayoral race in my hometown of Houston—I was hooked. The candidate I stumbled into working for was a wealthy energy executive and lawyer named Bill White, a low profile but well-connected Democrat who’d served in the Clinton administration. He was the underdog in a three-man brawl to succeed the term-limited mayor, and was on the verge of hiring an army when I came onboard, and so I fastened on to the nucleus of a young, aggressive field staff just before the campaign exploded to hundreds of paid workers and a vast infantry of volunteers, a no-days-off coordinated storm of activity.

Each morning after staff meetings and turf-cutting I drove a minivan crammed with canvassers to yet another of the infinite and far-flung neighborhoods of Houston, supervising their work as they knocked on doors in four-hour shifts in the hazardous Gulf Coast heat, knocking on a few myself, then, when the last shift was done, uploading all that data back at the office alongside the other field captains, smack in the middle of the sort of joyous bedlam you get when a bunch of sweaty twenty-somethings are thrown together for hard work under minimal supervision. These were twelve, fourteen, sixteen hour days that ended at the bars at closing time and started over again a few hours later, the sun still rising.

If you’ve never been a young person on a big campaign, it’s hard to convey how thrilling the atmosphere is—part cult, part war, with stolen intervals of shore-leave. It went on for six months, through a January run-off, and it was a euphoric experience. When I got my first salaried paycheck for over $2000, I was stunned. I had never seen that much money in my life. What to do with such bounty? I wasn’t yet twenty-one, but I’d been a regular at a few sub-reputable bars and liquor stores for several years already, and now I had cash to spend and a ready gang of compatriots with whom to roll into the pub at 12:30 A.M. and cause commotion. I was an appetite on two legs. The idea of myself as a poet, as a literary person who would live a life surrounded by books, went dormant like the grass in October. I had no inkling and never would have believed that it would stay that way, not for a season, but for years.

 

We won. Bill White took office and went about enacting his technocratic agenda. People seemed to approve of us. Some of my new friends took jobs at City Hall, others went back to college, others to different campaigns. In the way that youthful transformations happen without requiring our full awareness or cooperation, I had morphed into a liberal Democrat with partisan fire in my belly and wrath for the opposition. Studied up, I could recite the sins and heresies of the GOP and its leader, George W. Bush. A few months into my next campaign, a hotly contested Texas House race, Barack Obama gave his legendary keynote address at the 2004 DNC, and when he spoke of destiny, I knew he was talking to me.

I was hired onto the staff of the mayor’s top political consultant, a rising star in party circles and the principal in a boutique public affairs firm. Very boutique: for that first year, there was no one else on staff but me. Mustafa was a smooth-talking Queens-bred operative in his late thirties who’d come to Texas politics from the world of Madison Avenue. He was dapper and handsome with silver hair and a boyish grin, a warm voice, and even warmer eyes that could, on rare occasion, cloud with suppressed anger. Since we repped the powerful mayor in a city flush with wealth, our little firm grew quickly. Before long, I was joined by a rotating cast of other wayward twenty-year-olds. We sat at computers around the wall of the main bullpen, our backs to one another, clattering away at our minor tasks while Mustafa was out at meetings or in the next room on the phone doing the actual business of any real consultancy, which is talking persuasively to people with power.

We ran congressional races, stacked the city council with the mayor’s allies, scared away any serious challengers, passed bond packages, and got Bill White reelected with ninety percent of the vote. I learned how to be in rooms with powerful people and seem important without actually doing anything important. It was easy, and there was the occasional splash of glamor, but it was not, for me, lucrative. Every week, Mustafa would tally up my hours, multiply that number by ten, and write me a check from the company account. After a while, I re-enrolled at college, skipping a high percentage of my classes to be close to whatever action there was to be had around the firm. I missed the cocaine high of campaigns, but I liked being in the office when the mayor strode in with his bodyguards, even if I’m pretty sure he never learned my name.

I drove Mustafa, I ate lunch with him, I kept him abreast of a range of daily goings-on, I wrote research papers and campaign ads and comms strategy memos, but mostly what I did was manage his email. It was voluminous and rich and I got to read it all and help fashion his responses—me at the keys, him hovering somewhere behind. We especially liked it when the email chains were between his more intimate colleagues and there was some degree of permissible humor and my poorly calibrated instinct for snark and absurdity was briefly an asset instead of the reason I was encouraged not to answer the office phones. Little by little, it was becoming clear that there was something wrong with me.

Our downtown office was a penthouse in the Rice Hotel, a grand old gem in the heart of the revitalized Main Street district that JFK had used as his final pit stop on that fateful trip to Dallas. Off the downstairs lobby, beneath frescoed vaults and stained glass was a backdoor behind which waited an oak-paneled Irish pub with brass banisters and leather wingback chairs. In the beginning, I could hang on until quitting time and then head down, my thirst for whiskey and Camels built up to insatiable levels from ten hours of white-knuckled abstention. Some nights I never made it home. I decided I was grown enough to start having boozy lunches with lawyer and journalist friends who worked downtown, and when no one stopped me, I quit having lunch altogether and just went down to the pub.

One day, after I’d unthinkingly snapped at him from the keyboard, Mustafa asked me if I’d had a beer during lunch. (Lunch had been three pints of Guinness.) I admitted that maybe I did on account of it being Bastille Day or some such nonsense. “You shouldn’t do that,” he said, curiosity in his eyes, his voice gentle with concern. “It makes you grumpy. You have that beer or whatever and then you get tired and you’re grumpy when you’re tired.” It breaks my heart to remember it. For all his political cunning and wit, he was also a picture of personal rectitude to me, somewhere between older brother and father figure, and of course I was hiding far less from him than I thought I was.

In four years of working for the man who got the mayor elected three times, it never occurred to me to ask for a job at City Hall. To participate in, you know, governing. Mustafa had senior staff meetings there nearly every day but I never once stepped foot in the building. Nor did I ever think to inquire whether I might go up to DC and work on the staff of one of our congressional clients, help write some laws or at least learn how they get written. It’s not that I was unambitious. This was the same period of time when I was imbibing the gauzy romance of the West Wing, and the notion that one day I’d magically find myself in the role of White House Communications Director seemed self-evident. Never mind that I was a middle-class product of public schools with mediocre grades and a limited set of actual skills. When you drink the way I drank, it’s possible to spend every night carousing at the bar while believing, without a shred of embarrassment or irony, that one day there would come a wake-up call from the president. “Why don’t you come to Washington, Chris? Walk the halls and do some banter with us.” Even my fantasies failed to take themselves seriously. Somehow, I had come all this way without ever understanding what politics was for.

Here’s an example. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the city of Houston opened its broad arms. In the aftermath of the storm, every morning at 6 A.M., Mayor White sat at the head of a war room table at the convention center with his senior staff, FEMA, the heads of other government agencies, and of course Mustafa, as they coordinated the transportation, shelter, medical aid, and care for over 200,000 evacuees from New Orleans and eastern Louisiana. It was the most dire humanitarian and logistical crisis the city had ever faced, and the mayor and his team did a truly incredible job. At the end of each day, Mustafa would return exhausted and overwhelmed. He never once tapped me to go with him. I spent those days alone in the office. Doing what? I can’t remember. Invoicing our clients. Riding the elevator down to smoke on the sidewalk and talk to the street philosopher who played his trumpet at the corner of Travis and Texas Avenue. Slipping down to the pub for lunch and never making it back up.

I used to drive Mustafa to Friday prayers at the mosque a few blocks from our office. I’d let him out on Franklin Street and circle the block a few times and then he’d hop back in, refreshed, visibly more in tune with himself than when he’d left me. One Friday afternoon, he said in his crisp light-hearted way, “You should come in.” Until that moment, I hadn’t realized I was allowed. So, this time we parked and I walked inside behind him, tossing my shoes on the giant pile and falling in line with the men and teenage boys as the adhān rang out from some unseen place in plaintive tenor. I did what everyone around me did, although a beat or two behind: I bowed, I knelt, I touched my forehead to the floor, I raised my palms, I lowered my palms. I remember the silence between verses. A holy spirit catching its breath. I had not witnessed that kind of serenity ever in my life, and when it was over I knew just how far astray I had gone, and I knew also that there would be no going back.

 

Mustafa had fake-fired me twice over the years before he finally fired me for real. In the past, he’d always let me slide back in after a few weeks or months of drifting, and he’d get used to me being around again and seem to forget whatever my last fuck-up had been. He’d been talking about big plans lately—an expansion of the firm, a suggestion that I might become the creative director over an entire team of copywriters and media specialists. It was July and we’d been working long hours organizing a conference between the religious leaders of Houston’s Muslim community and officials from the Department of Homeland Security. In the midst of their war in Iraq and the horrific revelations from Abu Ghraib, the Bush Administration wanted to improve relations, build bridges of trust. Mustafa took this very seriously. My more jaded coworkers and I did not.

The events were being held at the Baker Institute at Rice University and I’d been over there on campus in the sweltering summer heat running some sort of errand. I caught a few glimpses of the imams in their regal dress and white beards presiding at the roundtable with the gray-suited bureaucrats from Washington. Back at the office, I laid down on the cherry leather couch beside Mustafa’s desk to relax and cool down. I may have dozed off. A few minutes later, he came in hurriedly and saw me sprawled on his couch, no doubt redolent of beer sweat, and firmly ordered me to follow him downstairs. In the grand lobby of the Rice Hotel he fired me and I shouted at him and then we were shouting at each other and when he walked me to the parking garage I slammed the heavy metal door in his face.

I took a hiatus from political work and finished my degree, albeit with a middling GPA and nothing else to show for it. Meanwhile, as my drinking continued to spiral out of control, I decided to take it on the road. The primaries had begun, and some of my friends and former roommates were riding on the campaign jet with Obama while I was laid out drunk on a beach in Uruguay, or staggering around Buenos Aires with an open bottle of wine and five pesos to my name. They went on to win the Iowa caucuses. I got sun poisoning, rudimentary Spanish, and a few more nickel-sized holes in my permanent memory. Fortunately, in my six-month skid through Latin America, I also wrote a dozen or so poems that somehow got me accepted into a graduate creative writing program. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

I had another six months to kill before heading up to Syracuse, but I spent them in Austin, Texas, which nearly killed me. Cue up all the familiar horrors and humiliations of full-blown alcoholism, plus some unique ones I invented myself, such as the time I set out alone to canvas all the bars of Corpus Christi and almost drove into the Gulf of Mexico—not over a bridge, not swerving around a hairpin turn, but directly out into the ocean, straight over the beach in a head-on collision with the waves. When I came to in the darkness my steering wheel was pointed at Cancun and the only light was moon glow on the breakers mere feet away, and the only thing that had stopped me from scooting on out to sea had been a gentle rise in the sand that had proved too much for my bald tires. And that’s where I spent the night, me and a couple friendly meth addicts whose pickup truck was similarly marooned, poised on the lip of the ocean of ruin. “Shit,” they said, surveying the situation. “Fuck,” I agreed.

At dawn, one of their fathers backed in his Dodge Ram and pulled us all out. On the long drive back through desolate South Texas, I nodded off behind the wheel in 100-plus degree heat and eventually found myself parked before the alabaster dome of a Catholic church. I curled up in the doorway’s shade like a cat and went to sleep.

The first time I spent a night in jail my friends picked me up the next afternoon with a liter of black coffee, a pack of Camel Filters, and a bottle of whiskey. The very next morning, in the midst of hare-brained panic over how I was going to pay a lawyer to get me out of legal jeopardy, I was hired as the campaign manager on a Travis County commissioner’s race. I could still talk a good game, and all the friendships and professional connections I’d made way back on that first big campaign meant I still had some runway left before I was deemed un-hireable. The candidate and I spent the next six weeks pretending we didn’t viscerally loathe each other, and then, one Monday bright and early she showed up at my apartment unannounced. I greeted her hungover, shirt unbuttoned, an open can of Budweiser already sweating on the coffee table. We went for a walk in the parking lot so she could fire me. It was a relief, except for all the money I still owed my lawyer.

I called up my friends again, and two days later I had a job as field director for the frontrunner in the Democratic primary for Travis County’s DA. She was a brawling prosecutor and one liked to imagine her spitting tobacco expertly into a tin bucket, or spinning the wheel of a revolver while saying, “Come on and git it.” She vowed to smack Governor Rick Perry with so many subpoenas he’d be seeing stars instead of dancing with them. The race was a cake walk. All the political excitement of that cycle was a few levels up: two of the other candidates on the primary ballot were Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I only recall two things about that race: the night I finally saw my political hero in person on a platform beneath the dome of the Capitol, silhouetted by the klieg lights his advance team had placed at eye level. As tens of thousands of Texans chanted Barack Obama’s name, I was vomiting furiously behind a Porta-Potty, my hands clutching the iron fence that sealed off the Capitol lawn. This was no ecstasy. This was liver damage.

The other clear memory I have is the morning of primary election day, as I drove around the city putting up yard signs at polling locations. What I remember is the spiritless quiet of the streets, the loneliness. Way back on the eve of the general election in my first campaign, we had gone out in teams at 4 A.M. to put our signs up all over Houston—the captains communicating by cell as we checked off the hundreds of poll sites one by one, spreading rumors about the other side stealing our signs at such and such location. It was giddy, clandestine work that pushed into daylight—I hadn’t even had time to crack a beer until the polls closed the next evening and the revelry began. But in bright blue Austin that primary morning, it was like I was the only person left alive in the city. I went up and down MoPac leisurely putting signs out, then went to a cantina and sat on an empty patio with a vodka-grapefruit, dissolute, empty of feeling, knowing we were going to win, finding it impossible to care, to desire anything at all besides a better cocktail.

 

As a poet at the Syracuse MFA, I was the kid who had “come to them from politics,” and my professors liked to pepper me with questions about it, and I was happy to dine out on tales of lecherous congressmen or wax insightful on the depravity of the conservative soul. I sobbed into my scotch when Obama won the presidency, but as is clearer now than ever, it was far from morning in America. The DA I’d helped elect back in Austin had to resign after her own DWI tape leaked to the press—her piss and vinegar didn’t look so appealing in a criminal context. At every conceivable level of American politics, the Democratic Party got crushed to near oblivion, and I drank myself there every night. Not, I should clarify, out of sorrow for the travails of my party or the people they were supposed to be helping, but because that’s simply what I did. Drunks drink—look for a reason in vain.

It’s virtually impossible to flunk out of an elite MFA program, but I came close to unlocking that achievement. All they really ask is that you show up, but I’d go AWOL for weeks on end, too deep in benders to catch a bus back up from New York City, or else trapped in the low-life labyrinth of Syracuse’s dives and the weird apartments of the people who frequent them. Once, I lost my car and the keys to my house, so I spent a few days consuming nothing but mushrooms and bourbon and sleeping on people’s couches. About midweek, when at last I was of sound enough mind to break into my own apartment and get dressed for school, I looked out the window I had just jimmied open and saw a car screeching up at dangerous speeds. My car. Ultimately, it became clear that I had given it to a guy three nights before and he—a drunk, a lout, and in this instance an honest criminal—was returning it. Shortly after that, I started to have the occasional seizure, and was often too wracked with paranoia and dread to show up for George Saunders’s 10 A.M. class on Russian literature. The distance between who I wanted to be and who I was had become so gruesomely vast that I no longer had the nerve to wake up, get dressed, and walk up the hill in all that snow.

In more or less the nick of time, with the help of poet and professor Mary Karr and some of her friends, I got sober in the spring of my second year. If you know anything about Mary Karr, or the town and university of Syracuse, then you know that this was akin to discovering a desperate need to learn karate while residing in a building in which Mr. Miyagi happened to be the groundskeeper. From my apartment I could look across the street and see the house where Raymond Carver lived after writing Where I’m Calling From. Even closer to me, three doors down, was the hovel where David Foster Wallace had written Infinite Jest. For that entire first year of recovery, I carried IJ around with me double-book-marked, losing myself in its thickets of prose whenever the dread set in or the cravings got too intense, feeling as if sentences like this one, with their dead-eye accuracy for what I was going through, were literally saving my life: “[A] little-mentioned paradox of Substance addiction is: that once you are sufficiently enslaved by a Substance to need to quit the Substance in order to save your life, the enslaving Substance has become so deeply important to you that you will all but lose your mind when it is taken away from you.” Each day that I lived without a drink, the true compass and cost of my addiction was made plain to me, and with something like mystical wonder I watched as a path to freedom opened up. It was writers, living and dead, who showed me the way.

Meanwhile, Obama was getting buried by the Republican majorities in Washington and back in Texas, Ted Cruz and the Tea Party were ascendant. I didn’t worry much over politics those first few years as I focused on staying sober, repairing my relationships, and settling down at last to learn how to write. But as the years passed and sobriety became second-nature and recovery became more an integral feature of my life than the central fact of it, a funny thing started to happen. I found myself investing in politics in a way I never had when I worked in it professionally. I began organizing and volunteering—something I’d only ever done at the behest of a robed magistrate. I went to protests and signed up with grassroots groups and social justice movements as a way to channel my political passion, which had come back stronger than ever.

Recovery made profound demands on me to become a different person. Alcoholics go through life drowning their emotions, hiding from the monsters that lurk in the mirror, starving the soul of life until all that matters can fit inside a shot glass. To learn to live a radically different way—no denial, no anesthetic, no bullshit—starts simply enough by listening to how other recovered alcoholics have done exactly that. They would tell me what they went through, which was remarkably, improbably similar to what I went through. Once more, from Infinite Jest:

[A]ll the speakers’ stories of decline and fall and surrender are basically alike, and like your own: fun with Substance, then very gradually less fun, then significantly less fun because of like blackouts you suddenly come out of on the highway going 145 kph with companions you do not know, nights you awake from in unfamiliar bedding next to somebody who doesn’t even resemble any known sort of mammal, three-day blackouts you come out of and have to buy a newspaper to even know what town you’re in; yes gradually less and less actual fun but with some physical need for the Substance now, instead of the former voluntary fun; then at some point suddenly just very little fun at all, combined with terrible daily hand-trembling need, then dread, anxiety, irrational phobias, dim siren-like memories of fun, trouble with assorted authorities, knee-buckling headaches, mild seizures, and the litany [of…] Losses.

That is, to the motherfucking letter, what it was like. But the stories of people in recovery don’t end at that crossroads. Because next, they tell you how they came to be here sitting before you, sane, healthy, non-suicidal, and free. The secret mysteries are imparted, free of charge, and they are the simplest mysteries in the world: To survive this, keep listening. When it’s your turn to talk, tell the truth.

If your very life depends on learning to listen to others, to listen in a way you never have before, you will rather quickly come to see their stories as equally worthy of attention, honor, and care as your own, even if you never once saw it that way in your past life as a drunk, or, for that matter, as a professional. This outlook can scale. When I worked in electoral politics, I would witness injustice as an abstraction. Sometimes, it even registered as a perverse kind of delight: Look what these fuckers did now; I can’t wait to write a press release. Although recovery is an explicitly apolitical community, it was recovery that taught me what politics is for. It was only in those rooms that I learned to open my ears and let my heart be vulnerable to the stories of ordinary people who are going through horrible shit. And then ask what, if anything, I can do.

As if learning to live every day without constantly ingesting intoxicants wasn’t enough of an ordeal, recovering from substance addiction also entails recovering from a peculiar strain of narcissism. It’s not much of a leap to see how, for me in particular, leaving electoral politics behind was an aspect of that recovery, too. None of this is perfect or universally true, of course. You are sure to find a few narcissists at any activist meeting you go to. Any concerned group of citizens, whether they’re working to impeach the president or get the bulbs in the streetlights changed, has at least a couple of egomaniacs. And that’s why I resist the urge to push my way into the center of those groups. Even at nine years sober and clean, I don’t trust myself enough to be at the center and not forget why I showed up in the first place. Instead, I try to make myself useful. Politics, like recovery, is best practiced when the ego is of secondary concern. Or, as Seamus Heaney said of writing poetry, with a certain amount of self-forgetfulness. The eternal traded for just today. Chop wood, carry water, help spread the word. I’ve found that it is serious work.


“Serious Work” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By

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Christopher Brunt’s work appears or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Fugue, Poets.org, Meridian, the Cincinnati Review, and other magazines. His fiction has been selected as a Distinguished Story by Best American Short Stories and will soon be featured in the MTA Subway Library in New York City. His poetry has recently been named a finalist for the Marsh Hawk Poetry Prize. He is an Assistant Professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, where he teaches ancient and modern literature and creative writing. His MFA is from Syracuse University and he received a PhD in English from the University of Southern Mississippi.