Alcohol and the Mind


After dinner, S.Q. Lapius bolted his wine, corked the bottle and rushed it off to the cooler.  “We’ll finish it later,” he mumbled.  When he returned he said, “Help me for a moment, Harry, we have to clear the sideboard.  You take the decanters, I’ll remove the liqueurs.”


“What’s going on.  Did they pass the Volstead Act again?  Are you being raided?  Is the WCTU paying a social call?”


“None of those things.  Much worse, Johnny Sipley is coming.  He called earlier.  Wants to talk to me.  Hurry, he’ll be here any minute.”


“What’s with Johnny Sipley that we have to rearrange the whole house.  Is he an interior decorator?”


“As a matter of fact, he is, but he’s also an alcoholic.  Let’s get these bottles out of the way.  He’s been dry for quite a while.  I want neither to tempt nor offend him.  Here take this to the kitchen.”  He handed me a tray filled with scotches, ryes and what not.  Lapius was quite partisan to spirits fermenti, so clearing away the reminders of his imbibational hobbies was time consuming.  Just as the bell chimed he removed a Flemish masterwork portraying a tavern scene, replacing it with a mirror he hurriedly scooped from his bedroom.  Sipley was a tall, blond, pink cheeked, urbane and smiling.  I helped him off with his coat and could detect no hint of alcohol on his breath, nor was it hidden by breath sweetener.


There were the usual expansive amenities with Lapius, who was   an effusive host, so that by the time he finished the hellos Sipley was already apologizing for not having come more frequently.  Lapius turned to me, “Harry, Mr. Sipley wanted to talk privately, will you excuse us?”


“No, Simon, that won’t be necessary.  There’s nothing that Harry can’t hear.  As a matter of fact, it’s a medical problem.  Two doctors are better than one, eh?”  That was supposed to be a joke.  Before he began, Sipley roved about, admiring the décor, then said, “Simon, whatever happened to that lovely Flemish Tavern Scene.  The mirror adds nothing to the room.”


“The museum wanted to borrow it for their retrospective exhibit,” Lapius said blandly.  “What’s on your mind Johnny?”


“Well, to tell you the truth – “


Lapius interrupted him.  “Please don’t introduce that insipid phrase as preamble to any discussion with me.  What’s your alternative to telling me the truth.  You surely didn’t think that I expected you to lie to me, did you?”  Lapius was clearly picayune.  He had, after all, been deprived of his after-dinner Benedictine, and that always made him grumpy.  “Never mind, excuse me, Johnny, go ahead.”


Sipley continued, “Well, to be honest, Simon,” Lapius, resigned, refrained from interrupting again.  “I have a medical problem you might be able to help me with.”


“Have you consulted your physician?”


“Of course I have, several.  And that’s the problem.  I’ve had abdominal pains for about two months now.  They bother the devil out of me and interfere with my concentration.  I have to rest during the day.”


“What did your doctor say?”  Lapius asked.


“That’s just it.  The first one, I won’t mention names, is my regular doctor, and after a few questions wanted me to get some x-rays.”


“Not a bad suggestion.  Did you follow it?”


“No I didn’t.  He insisted that I go to Krauser.  That’s what set me off.”


“Krauser is an excellent radiologist.”


“Maybe, but why does he always send me to Krauser.  Is he getting a kickback.  I asked him to send me to someone else.”


“What did he say?”


“He said sure, pick one.  How the hell can I pick one?  I’m not a doctor.  I don’t know the guys.  He wouldn’t give me another name.  So I went to another doctor, told him my story, and he wanted me to go through a complete physical exam.  What the hell do I need that for.  I just had one 3 months ago.”


“With that doctor?”


“No, with my first doctor.”


“Well the second doctor sounded reasonable.”


“I don’t think so.  I assured him my physical and tests were o.k.  He was just out to bill me for $100 bucks.”


“What do you want me to do for you, Sipley?”


“I want you to send me to a doctor who will help me.  You know all the men in town.”


“Johnnie, I’ll try to help you.  But first, Harry and I were just about to have a drink when you arrived, what will you have.”


“Bourbon straight,” Johnny said, without blinking.


Afterwards I checked the bottle.  Johnny Sipley used about a third of it and had walked a bee-line when I showed him to the door.  It didn’t touch him.


“I don’t understand you, Simon.”  I said when I returned.  “First we spend half hour hiding the drinks, then you offer him one.  That’s no favor to an alcoholic, you know.”


“He was off the wagon.”


“How do you know?”


“Because he had suffered a change of personality.  Normally he’s reasonable.  He never gets drunk, when he’s drinking, he becomes unreasonable, illogical, and slightly paranoid.  Everyone’s out to get him.  Usually he’s a tractable patient.  Some alcoholics are more rational when drunk than sober.  But the main thing, in my experience is the change in personality.”


“Now of course the alcoholic is distinguished from other drinkers by the fact that he’s addicted to it.  But it's the change in personality that strikes me.  After all, you are Harry drunk, and you are Harry sober.  But Johnny Sipley is one person when drunk and another when sober.  One problem of the alcoholic, in my view, is the inability to integrate two personalities.  To develop psychological stability they have to evolve a third personality that is a compromise of the extremes.  But if once they touch liquor again, that will dissolve in favor of the original personalities.”


“So believing all that, why did you offer him a drink?”


“To be sociable.  He would have gotten it somewhere.  Incidentally, now you know why he started each sentence with ‘to tell the truth-.‘”