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John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”

As an alcoholic with five years of sobriety, I identify with the protagonist, Neddy Merrill, in John Cheever’s short story, The Swimmer. The story is about an upper-class suburbanite named Neddy Merrill, who, along with his wife, Lucinda, is hanging out with their friends, Donald and Helen Westerhazy, by the Westerhazy’s swimming pool. Merrill is off by himself, drinking gin, while his wife and friends complain about their hangovers from drinking too much wine the night before.

Merrill decides to go home by stopping at every one of his neighbors’ houses and swimming across their swimming pools.  Each time he gets to a new place, he asks the homeowner for a drink. And then he jumps into their collection.

Finally, Merrill ends up at a residence, which is several houses away from his home. There, he sees his old mistress, who lives there. He thinks that she would be happy to see him, but she is confused and irritated at his presence. He tells her that he is swimming across the county to get home, and she says, “Will you ever grow up?”

He begs her for a drink, she refuses, and he jumps into her pool, swims across, and leaves the house. Then, he heads over to the next place, jumps into the pool, swims across, makes it to the next home, but when he jumps into that pool, the water is frozen.

Finally, this poor creature ends up in front of his house. He is completely exhausted, but he is in for a rude awakening.

He tried the garage doors to see what cars were in, but the doors were locked, and rust came off the handles onto his hands.

Merrill, who has been in some altered reality due to his drinking, finally snaps out of it.

He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that place was empty.

He realizes that he has lost everything, including his riches and his family.

This allegorical short story is about alcoholism. The water in the swimming pool and Merrill “swimming” across different banks to get home symbolize the story of a raging alcoholic who drinks and drinks while the years pass him by.

By the end of the story, Merrill has dementia, a symptom of an alcoholic wet brain (Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome). This disease affects alcoholics in the later stages of drinking, and unless they get help, death is around the corner.

Incidentally, the author was an alcoholic who suffered from a major depressive disorder. Cheever became sober at the age of 65 in 1975 and stayed sober until his cancer death in 1982.

Another theme prevalent in The Swimmer is isolation.

At the beginning of the story, Merrill sits by himself, nursing a glass of gin. He is lonely and unhappy. By the end of the story, he is more isolated.

Many addicts turn to alcohol and drugs because they are desolate. Even if family or loved ones surround them, they still feel alone because their minds experience a distorted reality perception. Their cognitive functioning is clouded because alcohol and drugs affect the performance of their brains.

Sometimes friends and family abandon them, or they will become reclusive. By that point, the only thing that probably matters to them is their drug of choice. The liaison between alcohol and the alcoholic is as toxic as the relationship between a batterer and an abused partner. It’s also symbiotic because there are no boundaries.

In The Swimmer, Merrill loses all his riches by making horrible financial choices due to his alcoholism. And to top it off, he sees a former mistress who wants nothing to do with him. By the time he realizes that his life has gone to hell, his wife and daughters have left him.

Merrill is obsessed with his “swimming.” While he might delude himself into believing that he has some control over his life, the truth is that he has lost all control.

As the Big Book states, “We know that no real alcoholic ever recovers control. All of us felt at times that we were regaining control. However, such intervals—usually brief—were inevitably followed by still less control, which led in time to pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization. We are convinced to a man that alcoholics of our type are in the grip of a progressive illness. Over any considerable period, we get worse, never better.”

The end of the story does not tell us what happens next. Will Merrill get help? Will he die from dementia or alcohol poisoning?

I had a friend who died of alcohol poisoning a year ago.

Her sponsor told her that all she had to do was go to 12-step meetings, Church, work the steps, pray, stop being in self-pity, and be of service.

This confused her because after she got sober, she experienced an onset of depression and panic attacks, making it hard for her to function, let alone read a Big Book.

I suggested that she participate in a clinical, evidence-based treatment program at a residential treatment center. While in treatment, she could work on a 12-step program with licensed therapists and addiction counselors who could help her process the 12 steps to understand the healing message behind the old-fashioned language of the Big Book.

When she received a 30-day chip, she hugged me. Shortly after that, we met for coffee at Starbucks.

She gave me a beautiful God box to write my hopes and dreams on pieces of paper, fold them up, and place them inside. Sometimes after I wrote down my hopes, I made origami cicadas from the works of paper because when I lived in the Hollywood Hills, the singing of cicadas in the middle of the night gave me much comfort. And then I dropped the cicadas into the little God Box.

In return, I gave her a book, Stephanie S. Covington’s A Woman’s Guide to the Twelve Steps.

A few days later, at a meeting, I smelt the alcohol on her breath. After I moved to the Mojave, we lost touch.

Last year, her mother found her dead inside a cheap motel room. She had been missing for days. When her mom saw her, she was sprawled like a broken doll on the floor’s dirty carpet, with empty bottles of vodka by her side.

The motel had a swimming pool, but it was in the middle of winter, and the water was probably frozen.

During her last night on earth, I wonder if she heard cicadas. But if she did, I suspect that they were not singing. They were probably crying.

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