It’s late November 2011. My plane touches down at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, and I fast-track through Russian border security using my frequent-entry passport. I rush past a crowd of tourists, my mind anticipating a million things that need to happen on this trip.
My local Russian business partner, Andrei, picks me up at Arrivals, and during the two-hour taxi ride into Moscow city center, I have a heated conversation with him over the sales results, which are not what I like them to be.
“What do you mean our biggest deal is slipping? You know I have committed this order—we cannot back out now!”
I hear myself raising my voice with all the pent-up stress accumulated on the flight over here. I know I should not be angry at Andrei. The Russian government has stopped funding this particular project, and there is absolutely nothing anybody can do about it. But I clearly need to vent, and I take it out on him.
When I’m done yelling, I feel anxious and uncomfortable. The job has been getting to me lately. The travel has me in a constant state of jet lag. My blood pressure is high, and I have been drinking way too much. I make a feeble attempt to make amends. “Andrei, let’s have dinner tomorrow night at that great place on Tverskaya, just off Red Square. Bring your wife. I am buying.”
He nods and drops me off at my hotel on Prospect Mira. I can tell that he is boiling inside, but he knows better than to retaliate now, with me in this worked-up state.
I stand for a moment in the freezing cold, watching Moscow traffic, glad to be out of the overheated Lada cab. I try to inhale the crisp, cold air, but I instantly smell gasoline, so I quickly step inside and queue to check into Russia’s largest hotel, the two-thousand-room Cosmos. I treasure fond memories of this Soviet-era establishment, where I spent a memorable week with my graduate class of 1988 just before the USSR fell apart.
The look and feel of the place has not changed much over the last twenty years. It is ten pm, and still the hotel lobby is crowded like Grand Central Station, with a confusing mix of Russian businessmen and international tourists. Heineken neon signs flash over the many lobby bars, where stunning Ukrainian girls are still offering their enticing brand of seduction at democratic prices. Another fond memory. The check-in clerk is surly and curt, with a face like a boxer’s, affirming my stereotypical memory bias.
While I’m waiting in line, melancholy overwhelms me, and I lose myself in bittersweet retrospection. My mind rewinds back to July 1988. Along with two hundred of my fellow Global Business Majors, I land at Moscow’s old Sheremetyevo airport. The mood of the group is elated.
With four years of college under our belt, we are masters in the dynamics of the capitalist free market, and we are intrigued to meet with its exact opposite, the infamous Soviet planned economy. Especially the renowned Moscow black market fascinates me, and I personally plan to test it to its limits.
Guts and glory.
I am wearing a flight bomber jacket just like the one Tom Cruise is sporting in Top Gun, this year’s hit movie. I have been advised that I can sell this gear for a great many Soviet Rubles on the streets of Moscow.
And so it happens. That first evening, I don’t need to look far for a buyer. People approach me and nervously whisper in subdued voices “I give you Rubles,” while tugging at the sleeves of the jacket. After a hurried negotiation, I settle on a significant amount of currency, leveraging the scarcity of Top Gun bomber jackets in a city starved for Western symbols. A seller’s market if there ever was one.
With a thick wad of one-hundred-Ruble bills, I proceed to rent the hotel Ball Room for the night, and, with my fellow graduates, I throw a legendary party. We buy a hundred bottles of Sovetskoye Shampanskoye, the Soviet brand of sparkling wine. The stuff is not very good, but it does the job. I am totally in love with Claire, my girlfriend at the time, and the future looks endless and full of possibility. A night not easily forgotten.
At the end of our stay, the Cosmos presents me with a bill for the damaged hotel property. It seemed a great idea on the night of the party to fire our Champagne corks straight up and through the ceiling panels of the Ball Room. I paid that bill willingly, money well spent on a new ceiling, I guess. As they say: “Don’t trust a brilliant idea unless it survives the hangover.”
Thinking back about that trip behind the Iron Curtain, I can still taste the adrenaline rush of us roaming around an economic wasteland where the normal rules do not apply. It’s one of the only times in my life when I felt like a maverick. After that, I lost that free spirit and conformed like the rest of us.
The memory stings, though, because I am now in the exact same place, but I no longer have that sense of excitement and endless possibility. Ironic, because you could call me successful on all counts that mattered to me as a student, and yet I feel only pressure.
Guts and glory, without the glory.
My consciousness returns to the here and now when it is finally my turn at the check-in counter. Without a smile, the clerk says: “Добро пожаловать в космос” (Welcome to the Cosmos). This strikes me as very funny, as if I have just entered another galaxy. The reception clerk, however, does not see the humor in it, and for the next fifteen minutes, he proceeds with inspecting and stamping my passport as if to say: “The USSR came and went, but this is still Russia.”
The wear and tear of the journey have me wondering whether it is all worth it, as I wait for the elevator to take me up to the twentieth floor, which houses the Russian version of Executive Suites.
While the elevator is going up, a heavy weight presses me down. As if everything relies on me, while at the same time, I have very little control.
In my room, I am quick to take a Baltika beer from the minibar, and I lay down on the bed with the bottle unopened. I hold the cold glass against my forehead, and I close my eyes.
I want very much to open the bottle, but I hesitate. I already had plenty of wine on the plane over.
I am aware that I am using alcohol to calm my nerves, and this has become a steady pattern. I’ve read it’s an addiction when you want to stop and you cannot. What if you do not want to stop?
Well, I am torn and powerless when it comes to alcohol. Nowadays, it is more and more difficult to hold out even until noon for my first drink. I realize this is bad, and panic grips me.
I open the bottle, and I drink.
I tell myself that it’s only beer and I’m definitely going to drink less, starting tomorrow.
Excerpted from 'Mind on Fire: A Case of Successful Addiction Recovery' by Philip Muls
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