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Del's Demons

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Del Close was an alcoholic who hated booze. Booze had been wrecking his career. In 1982 he asked me to interview him because he wanted to talk publicly about checking into a hospital in Fort Worth to stop drinking. The interview was for Chicago Theatre Monthly, a magazine I put out then, but it folded before we could run the story. The American Medical Association had made a recent statement on alcohol as a public health menace. About time, Close said--and what nobody seems to know is, there's a cure. --Ted A. Donner

I mean, they keep going around saying, "Oh, oh woe, oh me, what am I going to do?"--you know? Go to Alcoholics Anonymous? I mean what if I'm not a Christian, what if I'm very uncomfortable with the notion of surrendering to a higher power? What if I'm bored to tears with all those self-pitying assholes who stand up and tell their stories over and over and over? They want you to totally change your lifestyle.

So since I knew I was going to be spending the rest of my life working in cabaret theaters, and they were selling booze, it was important to get it fixed, to do something practical so that you stop drinking. You can do a lot of jobs drunk, but you can't do the show drunk. You can't turn up for rehearsals loaded. And to make a long story short, I had just about drunk myself out of professional competence about five years ago. Severn Darden told me about a treatment for alcoholism that he took that's called aversion therapy, which for him was completely successful. And I thought, well, I've followed Severn's advice before.

The whole treatment was paid for by my Actors' Equity major medical insurance. I had to pay for transportation--it cost me about $400 or $500. In most hospitals everybody's dying, but in this hospital you walk in and there's an odd sense of optimism. Everybody in the joint is being reborn, everybody's getting better. There's this 84-year-old lady saying, "You'll make it, sonny, I did." They do as much as possible to relieve the guilt of being an alcoholic. They say, "Hey, you're an economic victim, you know, you're like a war veteran. You're a veteran of the economic war that pushes booze on everybody." There's no danger to the way you think--they don't care how you think. Anything goes, and being like a Holy Roller or, you know, an Antichrist, they don't give a fuck. They're not going to change any of your beliefs, except your belief that this is an incurable disease that I'm stuck with the rest of my life so I'd better develop a kind of ironic attitude as I drink myself and my friends to death. They say, you can't tell what kind of a person you are when you're drunk, but when you sober up you'll see. And then you can be a good person or a bad person, but at least you're a sober person. At least you're human. Drunks aren't human.

The real problem in treating alcoholics is to get them to stop drinking, not to understand why they drink. And so they've invented this system that can get you to stop. This is the Clockwork Orange treatment. They don't know what the cause is--they just get you to associate the taste, the smell, the look, the advertising, the sound, and the effects of alcohol with extragalactic nausea. Nobody in this galaxy ever felt this sick. They shoot you up with some chemicals that create a very unusual kind of nausea. Instead of feeling warm and kind of glowing in the booze, you get cold and clammy, and it also produces a tremendous nausea. They shoot you up with this stuff, and then they make you drink enormous quantities of whatever it is you've been drinking. And in my case they practically had to cover the entire bar--in fact they even had to go out and get a special bottle of green Chartreuse. So you drink large quantities of lightly salted and extremely diluted whatever-it-is-you've-been-drinking, like maybe a half a shot of green Chartreuse and a pint of water with some salt in it, warm. So you drink it down and you throw it up. And then OK--You like rum? Have a little rum? So ten minutes of rum drinking. How about some scotch? Blah, blah, blah. Then it all comes up.

And then you go to bed. And I responded very, very strongly to this. I would not only have the nausea, but convulsions. But that's not a normal reaction, I'm highly susceptible. So you've gone through your aversion part, and the reward is they shoot you up with a truth serum, or sodium pentathol, and get you whacked outta your gourd, and then they ask you questions about how the treatment's going. You know, you're not going to lie. And then they give you posthypnotic suggestions to enforce the notion of not drinking, and then they just let you alone. Next day, back in the torture chamber.

And so five days of each, plus extremely fascinating lectures on what alcohol does to metabolism in the body. You find out a lot about the ways alcohol's a peculiar drug. Like it's a fat solvent. Cocaine or heroin--most of the drugs detoxify through the liver. Not this one. This goes right into the cells of the body, so you become addicted on a cellular level. And when you withdraw the alcohol, it's not just one organ that's crying out, it's every cell in the whole body. So it's a terribly, terribly dangerous and also kind of stupid drug.

It's five and a half years now. It would take me all the willpower that I have to take a drink. I mean it's about as attractive as drinking a glass of lye. I'd made efforts involving willpower to stop drinking. I'd gone to AA meetings, and I'd spent a lot of money on psychotherapy. Never occurred to me that most of my problems were 'cause of my being a fucking drunk. So when the booze stopped, that's when I got back onstage. I could act again. I could handle jobs like going to Saturday Night Live and doing what we could to save it, namely saving it. A lot of people still regard me as an asshole, but I'm a sober asshole. I used to black out after three or four shots. Jim Belushi says, "You don't remember that time you kneed me in the balls, do you?" No, I don't remember.

The brain doesn't really regenerate. When you've done liver damage the liver regenerates, but you kill the brain cells. Fortunately, we've got a lot of brain cells. But you've caused yourself some brain damage. But during that first two years when I was off, I just progressively got more capable. You [still] go crazy, and you do weird, self-destructive stuff. But you do it on a more interesting level."

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