The very name brings to mind drama and danger, tragedy and determination. That strange and forbidden part of town you always wanted to explore but don’t because society and common sense tell you you might not come back, and if you do come back you might not be the same person. One hangover in a row is enough for some people, but if you do decide to make that trip across the tracks, Dr. Twilite tells you how to do it right.
It seems that in these allegedly more enlightened days, the bender is all but forgotten as a legitimate form of self-exploration and abuse. Now when people talk of destroying themselves through consumption of alcohol, they generally mean overdoing it one night, getting sick later that same evening or early the next morning, then repenting for the remainder of the weekend. This cycle of loathsome behavior is okay if you simply wish to embarrass yourself in front of your friends, but what if you have a deeper, darker wish? What if you long to escape, to disappear from sight and drink unrepentantly and alone for a long period of time, to vanish off the face of the earth for a long “lost” weekend? What then? Then you are aiming to go on a bender.
Defined in the lexicon of drinking slang, a bender is a period of at least three days of continued drunkenness. Why three? Because the weekend is two days long. It’s that third day (quite possibly a workday) that all bets are off, when eyebrows start to raise, when tongues start to cluck, when the amused laughter turns into whispers of concern.
Times past, the bender was saluted as a period when good men went bad, usually for excellent reasons. Maybe the love of their life betrayed them, maybe a loved one passed away, maybe they were laid off, maybe there wasn’t a good reason at all except that natural human desire to see how far you can take something without killing yourself, then walk away relatively unscathed. Being able to say, with all honesty, “Yeah, I went on a real bender after that happened,” is akin to casually mentioning you parachuted behind enemy lines.
The typical recipe for a bender is as follows: 1) Begin drinking within five minutes of waking up, 2) continue drinking, 3) pass out, 4) wake and repeat. Continue this process until a) you’re hospitalized, b) dead or c) you come to your senses and realize you must stop.
The root of a bender is simply one drink, perhaps at a Friday happy hour. It then multiplies and finally ceases to be mere recreational drinking when one wakes up the next morning and, as a hangover cure or simply for breakfast, starts the day fresh off with another drink. As morning drinks lead to brunch drinks and lunch drinks eliminate the need for lunch, one’s grip on reality is relaxed to the point that it slips completely away and with the aid of a television, a VCR, drawn curtains, and lots of privacy, the petty world of normality and all its tedium . . . evaporates. And the bender is underway.
Sound good? Here’s what you’ll need to do:
1.) Score a handful of good movies (see end of article for suggestions) because cable is too uncontrollable. You want something nice and familiar. Howard Hughes used to watch his favorite movie “Ice Station Zebra” over and over again, for years on end. Wouldn’t you like to be that deranged? You will be when you’re on a legitimate bender. So rent, own or borrow a collection of favorite movies. Ideally ones with lots of inspiring drinking scenes.
2.) Invest heavily in the alcohol of your choice. Variety is a good idea, as your moods and tastes may shift mid-bender. You should always have more than you need. Stock up. It won’t go bad, it’ll get better.
3.) Turn your phone off and the volume down on your answering machine. In between moments of clarity, you may think you have the ability to talk coherently on the phone. This can lead to trouble as you have to explain your words later and can’t remember them. And never mention you’re actually on a bender. Make the mistake of cavalierly mentioning the fact to the wrong person and you’ll have a teary-eyed bunch of interventionists at your door. The bender is a very personal journey, keep it that way.
4) Close the curtains and lock the door. Think of yourself as a vampire, sunlight and visitors are the bender’s natural enemies.
You’re all set. Start drinking! I like to start with red wine, then shift to vodka cocktails, back off to cheap American lager, then charge ahead with Jack Daniels on the rocks. Rhythm and pace are essential. Start guzzling hard liquor right off the bat and the binge is over before it started. On the other hand, you want to paddle fast enough to get past the breakwater and into the wide sea that is the bender.
After awhile you may realize you’ve been passed out on the couch for some time. The tape in the VCR will have rewound and the ice in your drink will have melted. Perhaps you will even realize it is 3 in the morning. That’s quite okay. Just slowly get up, make yourself another drink and press play on the VCR remote. You are in bender-land and there’s no time frame to dictate your actions, no place to be, and video knows no schedule. You can simply let the miasma of day/night duality drift away. There’s no worries about social activities, current events, food, sleeping schedule maintenance, etc. All you need is another drink to make everything smooth like a slow passing cloud on a hot summer’s day.
Turn inward. Unlike a single night of hard boozing, you will fluctuate between moments of complete madness and perfect clarity. Why? During a typical night of pounding booze your psyche tends to go into hiding, it will hold its breath and try not to inhale the madness you would expose it to. But during a bender it will realize it has to come up for air, leaving you in a unique condition to examine the brightest and darkest memories of your life. Enjoy the fresh if somewhat grimmer perspective, you will come away with an understanding of concepts you never even caught glimpse of.
Examine the bottle in your hand. Read the label. Did you know Jack Daniels was invented by a 16-year-old minister? Commute with your demons, it is your co-conspirator of the moment. Soon it will be your brother.
Wander the room. See things you never noticed before, the way a lamp hangs, the way it throws noir light on an ashtray left by a long forgotten girlfriend. You realize you’ve gotten to know the surface you so well you’ve neglected the inner you. Bring light to all those dark corners you forgot about, remember what you used to be, what you still are. Pull books from shelves you haven’t read in years, remember what they did to you. You’re also in the perfect state to browse old photographs, to get back in touch with old emotions. Also revel in the nihilistic notion that all these fine feelings will most likely be forgotten until the next bender.
Have a seat. Refresh your drink, have a cigarette. Outside your room you can feel forces moving against you, do not check your messages, do not answer the door. This is your world now, you are sovereign and have no need of counsel. At this moment comes the realization that no one owns your time but you. As long as the booze holds out.
Sooner or later, however, things can begin to crumble. You may find yourself in bed wondering how you got there, and if you will be able to get a glass of water to your lips without vomiting. You may hyperventilate, suffer heart palpitations, sweat, shake, hallucinate and lose circulation in your face and limbs, but mainly you will vomit – vomit – vomit! Just remember to rehydrate, force some bland food down and drink some more alcohol as quickly as possible. You may keep throwing it up, but damn you, force it down.
You will find at this juncture that it takes more alcohol just to lose your shakes than it used to take to get you wasted. Now you are truly “Leaving Las Vegas”.
Days will melt into nights and back into days and you may lose track of time. Don’t turn on the news, it’s hoarse shouting will depress you. Now you may start wondering how long you should keep it going. Some people, famous and otherwise, have kept benders going for years, especially British theatre actors and American writers. Stephen King claims he wrote his best novels while on one long bender, drinking a case of 16-ounce tallboys a night while cranking out bestsellers he barely remembers writing. Now he’s in AA and writes pap he does remember.
Of course, long term benders do not always work out for the best, poet Dylan Thomas’ exit being one of the more famous examples. Dylan culminated a decade-long bender on a New York sidewalk where, on his knees, he told a young woman: “I have just drunk 18 straight whiskeys. I think that’s the record. I love you.” He promptly died of what the autopsy called “insult to the brain” (and a compliment to the lady).
I know nothing about dying, unfortunately, but I can explain how to stop if that’s the option you choose. 1) Utilize every hangover cure you know. 2) Keep moving; clean your messes, do the dishes, shower, exercise, take a long walk, etc. 3) Drink beer. As Albert Finney says in Under the Volcano, “Theresh nething bedder t’sober wunnup, thin beeah.” Open the shades, listen to your answering machine messages and vow never to drink again. Around 5 or 6 pm you may need some form of sedative—preferably a Valium but Advil will do in a pinch. Wait until most of the booze is out of your system before taking anything heavy, as it could easily cause death, or worse, more vomiting.
If all goes well, you will be a shattered mess by the next morning. Force yourself out of bed, take a long, cold shower, and start drinking Gatorade. Maybe you will have to stay home from work. If you’re lucky, maybe you don’t even have to work, maybe you’ve already been fired. Regardless, by late afternoon, you will feel good enough to eat some lunch.
So what, you may ask, are the benefits to such self-destructive behavior? Well, none really. Or . . . are there? Think back to the height of your bender. Everything was numbed, timeless bliss. You let yourself go, utterly. You became swept into the sea. You practically drowned and you miraculously returned. You could have kept going, but you turned back. On the slow raft ride to eternity, you sailed long enough to relax, but not long enough that you couldn’t get home. You caught a glimpse of heaven and a glimpse of hell. You drank of what lies beyond pleasure, pain and petty mortal striving.
Too bad most people you know won’t understand or respect it, but hey, they all laughed at Christopher Columbus, too.
Bonus Section: Best Bender Movies
The Lost Weekend
Billy Wilder, 1945
This groundbreaking and gritty view of the bender captured the Best Picture Oscar for good reason. Though essentially an anti-drinking piece, it also contains some choice pro-drinking dialogue.
Best Scene: Ray Milland as Don Birnam has a tete-a-tete with bartender Nat about the pros and cons of the hard stuff: “It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what does it do to my mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m competent, supremely competent. I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I’m van Gogh, painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I’m John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat. I’m Jesse James and his two brothers–all three of ’em. I’m W. Shakespeare. And out there it’s not Third Avenue any longer— it’s the Nile, Nat, the Nile—and down it moves the barge of Cleopatra.”
Hallelujah, my brother.
Under the Volcano
John Huston, 1984
A brilliant illumination of the genius alcohol can inspire. Based on a book by superb drunk Malcolm Lowry (who, incidentally, stayed on a bender most of his adult life), central character Geoffrey Firmin is an incorrigible drunk living a maddening wish fulfillment about booze as a blessing and cure instead of a curse. Lowry attempts to persuade that, in alcohol, a writer can achieve a mind-blowing success, that in the bottle a person can fight off loneliness and lovelessness.
Best Scene: The internal dialogue of Albert Finney as Geoffrey Firmin: “I’m not going to drink. Or am I? Not mescal anyway. Of course not, the bottle’s just there, behind that bush. Pick it up. I can’t. That’s right, just take one drink, just the necessary, the therapeutic drink. Perhaps two drinks. God. Ah. Good. God. Christ. Then you can say it doesn’t count. It doesn’t. It isn’t mescal. Of course not, it’s tequila. You might have another. Thanks, I will. Bliss. Jesus. Sanctuary . . . Horror.”
Pretty much says it all, don’t you think?
Leaving Las Vegas, Mike Figgis, 1995
A bender with a bad conclusion, the suicidal lead Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage, who won an Oscar for his performance) decides to commit suicide with his favorite pastime: booze. If you’re looking for inspiration for your own bender, make sure you turn off this one fifteen minutes early.
Best Scene: Ben tries to explain his art/death sentence to prostitute/drinking companion Sera:
Ben: Why am I a drunk? Is that really what you want to ask me?
Sera: I just want to know why you’re killing yourself.
Ben: Interesting choice of words. I don’t remember. I just know that I want to.
Sera: Are you saying that your drinking is a way of killing yourself?
Ben: Or killing myself is a way to drink.
Also be sure to check out Shakes the Clown, The Days Of Wine And Roses, Withnail and I and Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?