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Mystery novelist Martha Grimes co-writes alcoholism memoir

AuthorsFictionLiteratureRonald ReaganFrostburg State UniversityMeasles

For acclaimed mystery novelist Martha Grimes, the witches' caldron that nearly proved her undoing didn't contain the usual eye of newt and toe of frog.

Instead, it held 10 parts gin or sometimes vodka, a splash of vermouth, lemon peel, olive and onion.

Grimes was an alcoholic so high-functioning that the people who knew her best never suspected that dry martinis were her intoxicant of choice.

Since 1981, the writer, now 82, has published at least one book each year, including 22 of the best-selling Richard Jury mysteries. Last year, she won the 2012 Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America.

When Grimes wasn't writing, she was teaching — at the University of Iowa, Frostburg State University and Montgomery College. When she wasn't writing or teaching, she was a single parent raising a son who unfortunately shared her predilection for addictive substances.

Grimes, a Bethesda resident, has been sober now for 22 years. In "Double Double: A Dual Memoir of Alcoholism" that she co-wrote with her son, she records the cravings that continue to bedevil her. Her description of a chilled martini borders on the rapturous.

"What I notice most in my mind's eye," she writes, "is the mist clinging to the glass like a rained-on window in which you might trace a heart."

She and her son, a Washington-area public relations executive who writes under the pseudonym Ken Grimes, will discuss their slide into alcoholism, recovery and relapse Tuesday at the Ivy Bookshop.

I can't help thinking that the experience of drinking is qualitatively different for problem drinkers than for nonalcoholics. I personally have never experienced even a mild version of the nirvana you describe. That makes me think your brain and mine are wired to respond differently to the same stimulus.

There's a book by Robert B. Parker in which a character says drinking "smooths out the rough edges of the day." That's a nearly universal feeling for people who like to drink.

In the memoir, I tell this story to illustrate the difference between alcoholics and non-alcoholics:

Dean Martin, Ronald Reagan and Bill Powell walk into a bar. After the first drink, Bill Powell suggests that they have another. Reagan says, "Why? We just had one."

An alcoholic would never ask that question.

You scoff at the notion that alcohol is a disease like cancer. Is that because you see it as being entirely behavioral? A few years ago, Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David Linden came out with a fascinating book called "The Compass of Pleasure" that shows how addictions permanently alter the structures of people's brains.

There's something in an alcoholic's brain chemistry that kicks in when he drinks that doesn't kick in for nonalcoholics. There's no question about it. And I don't like the argument that if some people try to stop and fail, they're totally lacking in willpower.

But it's very difficult for me to think of alcoholism as a real disease like a stroke or measles. The disease concept takes away the onus of having to accept responsibility.

It doesn't really matter whether alcoholism is or is not a disease. You have to take the same steps to quit.

You're not a big believer in analyzing the psychological motivations that lead to alcoholism. You write that the way to stop drinking is to stop drinking.

Rationality has nothing to do with drinking. Understanding has nothing to do with it. An alcoholic never needs a reason to drink — and that's what's so scary. There doesn't have to be this huge build-up of pressure or desire.

I realized that after I stopped drinking. I was walking down Connecticut Avenue one day, and I passed a bar that I'd never been inside. I thought, "It would be so easy to walk into this bar right now and have a drink."

A lot of people think an alcoholic needs a blow-out reason to start again. They think you have to prepare yourself to handle difficult situations. That's absolutely not true. You should, if anything, prepare yourself to handle random, undifficult situations.

In the book, you and your son argue the merits of going to a clinic to get sober, as you did, versus joining a 12-step program, which has been tremendously helpful to him.

There's no one right way to quit. I have nothing against Alcoholics Anonymous. It's probably the most effective organization at getting people to stop drinking that has ever existed.

It's just that when I went to AA meetings, I never felt as though I fit in. I'm not comfortable in big bunches of people I don't know. What I enjoy are small, carefully chosen groups.

I liked that the clinic where I went was very structured. The boundaries were exceptionally clear. There were a definite number of hours, days and weeks you had to attend.

I thought I'd be more successful in a program like that instead of in AA, where you never feel "I have to go to the meetings or they'll throw me out."

In the book, you ask whether sobriety is worth it. You write, "Am I glad I stopped? Yes. I only wish the rewards were more obvious."

Since drinking never interfered with my life, people have asked me why I stopped. Drinking didn't affect my teaching, and it didn't affect my writing. I never had blackouts. Other people couldn't even tell when I was drunk.

I stopped when I realized that I couldn't stop. I stopped because drinking was no longer a choice. I thought it was absolutely terrible to have something else in control of me.

I never really get to the point now where I am actually tempted to drink. I just got the feeling that I'd like to have a drink. But it's not temptation in the sense that I have to tie myself down or lock all the doors to keep myself from going out to a pub.

You've abstained for more than two decades. What advice would you give to a recovering alcoholic who's tempted to drink?

I'd tell them to imagine the full succession of drinks instead of stopping after they imagine the first one. What pops into my mind when I'm tempted to drink is the way the martini looks in the glass, the first taste. I force myself to imagine past it, to the second martini, the third, and the fourth.

If I go straight down to the inevitable end, I see a huge waste of time. I see depression and the dreadful feeling I can't stop. I see having to go back to the clinic and tell people that I've started again. I see the crash.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

About the book

"Double Double: A Dual Memoir of Alcoholism" was released June 4 by Scribner. $25, 240 pages.

If you go

The authors will read from their memoir and discuss their struggles with alcoholism at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. Free. Call 410-377-2966 or go to theivybookshop.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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AuthorsFictionLiteratureRonald ReaganFrostburg State UniversityMeasles
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