AA has shown me where no two drunks arrive to the doors of their meetings having followed the same path (we use “drunk” endearingly in AA, mind you). Some folks start on the path early in life, some much later, some report knowing they were an alcoholic with that first drink, some take the better part of a lifetime (a-hem) to edge their way there.
I became a pretty classic “high functioning” drunk, a type familiar to most. Composed and respectable by day, I’d devolve after work into a blearier version of myself, never (or rarely) an outright mess, but drained of all qualities that bring life to living—drained of all focus, inspiration, creativity, engagement, and everything else resembling my usually keener self. Come dinner’s end, I was often worth little more than a trip to the living room where I’d dissolve fairly quickly into sleep before the television. Work, drink, sleep, wake, rinse and repeat–I’m afraid this came to characterize my days. I just wasn’t very much there anymore. Along the way, there were of course some painfully bad moments in which I lost the edge and wiped out spectacularly, sometimes publicly. There weren’t so many of these, but they did happen.
I wish I could offer a clear and definitive narrative for the funny thing that happened along the way in my life of drinking that it became alcoholism, but I only almost get there.
I began drinking in high school, like everyone I knew back then, and my crowd wasn’t afraid to rip it now and then. This was the case in college as well (of course), and frankly continued on into the start of my career. But my drinking back then always occurred where and when it should, and rarely encroached into living spaces it didn’t belong. And while I won’t say I didn’t put myself in harm’s way here and there, in truth harm just didn’t ever really happen. I was loose, but not out and out reckless. You’ve heard of “good sea legs”–I had “good drinking legs,” and generally kept my act together even when the good ship Party was a’sail and had oh so many sheets to the wind.
I do think it’s reasonable to say my drinking took its initial turn to the dark side when Maisy’s mom and I split in 2003 and they moved back to Mary Beth’s hometown in Iowa. I pretty much went overnight from being in a 100% family man space to being 100% single and without responsibilities after 5pm or on weekends. The problem with that scenario, however, was that I was carrying around a world of hurt from the loss of my daughter from my day to day life (a pain I described back then as a warping grief), not to mention some serious anger, of that difficult, existential sort, not being targeted at anyone but at life altogether, the thieving, indifferent little fuck. Having taken a new and higher paying job around then, that put me in a particularly perilous space. I was hurting, I was flush, I was pissed and I was free. For a while, I just didn’t care, and I ran wild.
Allow me to adapt that adage about the pupil being ready and the teacher appearing: when the nihilist is ready, the purpose appears. Enter Ann.
Ann showed up in my life bruised up from her own recent marital fiasco, but with a hell of a lot more sense of purpose and direction (Claire was not even 4 just then), and optimism, and grace, than I was feeling or showing at that point. She befriended me, she calmed me, she gave me a reason to think about and attend to the needs of somebody other than my own sorry, indulgent, destructive self. Life reverted to a saner mode for all of that, and our relationship moved forward in a healthy and substantive fashion.
But here’s where the fog shows up in this story, and the narrative path gets a bit lost. While my life improved dramatically with Ann in it, to the point where I was even able to take some time off from working to reflect on my career and my best next steps (and then delivered me the brilliant opportunity to work as a school counselor in my current job), a move for that matter that also allowed me to visit Maisy on a monthly basis, while Ann and I went on to develop a great relationship and got married in ’09, while we pretty much had the world by the tail at this point, something in my drinking became increasingly unhinged, I know not why. Were things going too well for me? Did I not feel I deserved this remarkably great turn of fate, was my drinking an effort to sabotage it all and somehow return justice to things? I thought these things then, but I just can’t say. What I can say is, by around 2012, my drinking was out of my control.
I know because, as a hallmark of alcoholism, I tried most everything to control it. Name the strategy, the adjustment, I tried it, all in vain. I’d only drink on weekends—nope. I’d keep it to one or two drinks a night—fail. I’d peg my drinking to Ann’s and only have a drink when she had a drink (Ann is as firm in her one-drink-a-night lifestyle as she is Catholic, let me tell you). Afraid not. I’d take drinking vacations and altogether abstain, just to show I could. And while I would, every now and then, go 24 hours without a drink, being a drunk this only gave me false confidence and green lighted the next day’s reverting back to my usual six or eight drinks. I also developed the classic drunk’s morning routine: spend a few moments considering how many drinks I’d had the day before (Damn!), then experience the conviction that, by God, tonight will NOT look like that again! Until of course it did. Dammit, but it just always…did.
I really was Jekyll and Hyde at that point. I may have behaved outwardly in the bright light of day like the world’s greatest hail fellow well met, but I was a simmering, self-loathing beast on the inside, carrying around a burden of which absolutely no one was aware. I hate that I was so successful in my cloaking strategies, and distrust to this day whatever that is in me that allowed me to do that.
During this time I always did maintain some vague, general intention to make it all stop somehow. I knew I had a problem. Denial did its usual job of kicking that can down the road. I remember thinking, maybe when I turn 50, maybe at that very noteworthy milestone that’s when I’ll do it, break free and just walk away from the whole sordid affair. Yes, that’s a plan! (We drunks are really good at coming up with future targets for making changes, the establishment of which is perfect reason to celebrate with a drink this day, of course). Here’s how that one played out. I turned 50 on safari in Kenya. Our last night on that trip, I came back from the dinner buffet line and took a fellow traveler’s seat at the table, oblivious to the fact of having done so. When she politely explained my error, I became belligerent.
Across this time, if there’s any “good” news in all of this, I did manage to avoid virtually all of the Big Troubles that drunks get themselves into—no DUIs, no lost jobs, no crashed cars, no arrests, and really only Ann had any real sense of the problematic nature of my drinking (so the Big Trouble of ruining my marriage was definitely in play). The other thing I can say with clear conscience is that I never drank on the job—ever. Which isn’t to say my drinking didn’t effect my work, on the inside, that is. Imagine being a school counselor by day and a drunk by night. To represent healthy living, good decision making, to tell people from a supposed position of authority how to lead their lives, when I was doing a shit job of it myself. Living that contradiction was awful.
A handful of things coalesced to get me, finally, to acknowledge and accept my alcoholism. The first was seeing how my drinking was slowly killing Ann, or more precisely, killing Ann’s respect and regard for me, who eventually began responding to this by quite rightly giving up on me. Ann eventually said, one more episode, I am out of here, and I knew—knew—she meant it. I also knew I stood little chance of avoiding that given the path I was on. So Ann’s ultimatum (thank you, and God bless you, Bug!!) was indeed my rock bottom.
The second thing, as mentioned, was realizing I simply could not fix things myself (this hard truth is so important it is in fact the first of AA’s 12 steps—“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.”). Next, in working with a therapist on this, he pointed out to me the ferocity I was bringing to the task of trying to be a normal drinker, had to bring to come anywhere near it, and the daily battle in my life this had become. He then contrasted this with the peace and calm that would come with giving up this fight altogether, by simply acknowledging I could no longer be a normal drinker (he also cleverly had me walk through a typical day’s drinking, and then asked, “And how much of all of that did you actually enjoy?” which was a brutally effective question with a painfully obvious answer). That Maisy had moved back to the bay area was a fourth element. She was soon to be a high school student at that point. That my drinking stood to take me out of the game of parenting her well during these crucial years, this haunted the hell out of me. And finally, there was that first AA meeting I attended, which—thank you, God—was simply perfect, an absolute parting of the storm clouds that allowed blazing rays of recovery to finally pierce through and reach my utterly depleted soul.
Oh, but not that I stopped drinking that day, dear reader. Remember—I am a drunk! But that brings us to part two of this story, what happened, which I will address next.