For the next several days, I'll post parts of the book in order...about a third of the book. As far as I know, this is the only account written by a patient/survivor.
Blackout: A Look Inside Wernickes
(Available from Lulu.com in paperback and hardcover, Amazon Kindle, and Barnes and Noble Nook)
There’s a man in a hospital bed in neural intensive care. He’s thin, dark-haired, and in his late thirties. A short man, he weighs a hundred and thirty-nine pounds. Two IV’s are stuck in his left arm. His left wrist is strapped to the rail in a soft restraint. He appears to be asleep. It’s deeper than sleep, and has been for almost twenty-four hours.
That’s me. That’s where I was in July 2005.
He opens his eyes. Blinks. The environment isn’t new to him, but he doesn’t know that. As far as he’s concerned, his name is Tom Benton and he’s a prisoner of the Protectors Guild of Sexton. He’s a character in a novel he started twenty years before he woke in that bed, and that’s not good.
With a twist of his shoulders and fumbling hands, he frees himself. He sees in his arms. They bother him. He pulls them out one at a time. Looks around the room as if he expects to be attacked. When no one comes, he sits up in the bed and climbs out. His gate is unsteady as he walks out the door.
Don’t worry. He won’t get far before he blacks out again. Next time, they’ll use a different restraint.
That was six years ago. I’m fine now. Sober. I enjoy being sober more than I ever enjoyed drinking, and that’s saying a lot. I was a beer guy. I drank other alcoholic beverages, but my first choice was beer. I tried to turn it into a food group, a staple of my diet. Using drunk’s logic, it seemed to me beer was liquid bread. (It’s okay to smile from time to time as you read this. Humor gets people like you and me through a lot.) I used to make beer, and it was easy for Drunk Dave to imagine it had nutritional value: grains, yeast, water…stuff in bread. Why bother with taking wort pills when you can just drink a beer or two, or twelve? Drunk’s Logic.
I became adept at drunk’s logic, to my detriment. It’s easy to look back and see the drunk’s logic now, but believe me, it seems sound when you’re caught in it. I offer no excuses. I’m also not going to offer a lot of detail about how and when I drank. Part of the reason I’m not going to offer a lot of detail is shame. I feel badly about my drinking. I don’t tell you that in an attempt to find absolution from the guilt. I need to feel guilty about my drinking. It’s part of how I stay sober. The other part of the reason I’m not going to share how much I drank is that I don’t want people to hold my level of drinking up as any sort of measure of their own and think they’re safe. I did that when I visited Alcoholics Anonymous meetings: compared how much I drank to how much whoever was talking said they drank, and from there figured I was okay. It doesn’t work that way.
I drank a lot of beer. Every day I drank something, usually beer, but sometimes mixed drinks, sometimes wine, sometimes all three. People tend to have an image in their mind of alcoholics being continually drunk, but that’s not always the case. I didn’t drink to get drunk. I drank to get a buzz. I drank to relax. I drank for the taste….drank to get sleepy.
Wernickes is a nutritional deficit. Thiamin—Vitamin B1—doesn’t dissolve in alcohol. With a belly full of beer, that stuff is going to sit around for a while, get bored, and go away. Other bad things happen to brain and body with excessive, chronic alcohol abuse. I’m not sure what they all are, but doctors and others can tell you. For the purposes of this story, you really only need to know a couple of things: I was a heavy drinker, I succumbed to Wernicke-encephalopathy, I have Korsakoffs, and I’m sober now.
You might ask yourself, as I’m asking myself while I sit here at eleven PM on a Saturday night sipping a mug of decaf…. If you’re not going to tell us about your drinking, Steele, what are you going to tell us?
I’m going to tell you a story, nothing more and nothing less. Ready? Of course you are. I’m not sure I am, but here we go…
Section One – Prelude to the Storm
Spring day, 1993
I was a hot-to-trot executive with the Boy Scouts. I was good at what I did. I was a good fund-raiser, I could recruit and lead volunteers, and I was passionate about the program. I was ambitious in a good way. We had a new director, a man I like a great deal and who demonstrated a lot of faith in me. That meant I was working a lot. Eighty-hour work weeks were my normal. When I wasn’t working, I drank beer. I was twenty-seven years old and was only a few months away from another promotion. I was recently married. Still married to the same women, and as you’ll see later, I’m lucky to be married to the same woman.
There was a pavilion outside the office. The day was bright and sunny, and it was late enough in the Michigan spring that the first dandelions of the season were blooming a yellow rash in spots around the lawn, which was thick and green and ready for the first cutting of the season.
I walked out of the office in the late morning sun and took a seat on top of one of the picnic tables under the pavilion. With my polished black shoes on the bench and my blue suit-clad tush on top of the table, I put my face in my hands and rubbed my eyes. I was seeing a yellow blur flicker in the corners of my vision. I thought it was there because I was tired. I thought it was an ocular migraine.
It wasn’t my first one. When I got tired, which was most of the time, I felt the skin under my eyes twitch. Sometimes, as then, I saw glittering shapes at the outer edges of my sight. There was no pain. Glittery, spangle shapes, floating in my glance. If I gave them time, they went away. I smoked a cigarette and waited for my vision to clear.
I remember thinking at the time that it might have something to do with the beer I drank. It was easy to shrug away the thought. Too easy. By the time I finished the cigarette, the light was gone from my vision. I went inside, tossing the butt in the can by the door, and went on with my day.
May 29, 1993
It was our first wedding anniversary. We were engaged for two years before we married and had known each other for a little over three years by then. She graduated from college just before we got married, and although she hadn’t landed her first full-time teaching job yet, she was a substitute teacher who worked almost every day, and she had a part-time job as a clerk in a shop in town.
The plan was that we would go out for a nice dinner when she got home from her part-time job. It was a Saturday, a rare Saturday for me because I didn’t have any appointments that day. I got up in the morning and worked on a quilt I was making. Yes, I’m a man and I like to make quilts. The one I was working on was a serious undertaking. It was a pattern I lifted from a counted cross-stitch pattern. A knight riding a pegasus. Instead of little stitches in a hunk of cloth, I cut out squares of fabric and sewed them together by hand.
I drank beer while I did that. Drank beer, stitched one-inch squares of fabric together, and watched television. I had worked three weeks straight without a day off before that day, and I was tired. About two o’clock that afternoon, I decided I needed to sleep for a few hours. That was my sad modus operandi for quite a while: get up, do stuff, drink coffee until about noon, switch to beer, sleep for a while, do some stuff, drink beer, go to bed. It’s not a healthy cycle, by any stroke of the imagination. I make no excuse for it.
It was getting dark when I woke up. My wife was in the bed next to me, sleeping. I woke her up and said it was time to go out for dinner. She wasn’t happy with me. Pretty mad, in fact. She said she tried to wake me up several times, and when she finally got something out of me, all I did was ask her to join me for a nap. She had been home for six hours, which meant I was asleep for eight hours.
I chalked it up to being tired from working for three weeks without a day off. I know now that I was wrong. I was in a deeper sleep than normal.
We went out for dinner. I didn’t eat much. I wasn’t sick, and I didn’t feel drunk although I’m sure I was. I felt funny: kind of out of place. My sight was dim. I thought I might be coming down with something. I think it might have been a small bout of Wernickes, if such a thing is possible. I read somewhere that those who come through the most serious part of the disease might have had it before the ‘big one’, but the researcher didn’t have documentation. Wernickes seems to be as under-reported as it is under-diagnosed. Those are my non-medical opinions based on a lot of reading.
I was promoted, and the promotion involved moving to one of the far suburbs of Chicago. It was a big change, and my wife and I were excited. The move went smoothly. We found a four-bedroom house in a subdivision about twenty miles from my office. Sarah found a job right away, teaching in a school district West of us—which meant she didn’t have to brave Chicago traffic on her way to and from school. I had an administrative assistant, and a staff of five professionals to supervise. The house in Michigan sold for what we paid for it and I my former boss back there closed on it for us with power of attorney.
It seemed like life was good.