“HOW DID I GET HERE?
I took my first sip of alcohol at age 13. I pilfered five or six one-ounce airline bottles of hard liquor from a cabinet in my parent’s half-bath and shared them with my neighborhood pals. I can’t say I remember much about that first taste of sin, other than I didn’t like the experience much. I do remember liking the taste of Cutty Sark scotch best. Even then, I had expensive tastes.
My next experience came when a girl I liked invited me over to her place while her mother was away. I plundered the liquor cabinet for another six bottles or so, sure that out of the 200+ on the shelves these wouldn’t be missed. We were maybe 15, foolish and inexperienced, and the alcohol loosened our pubescent inhibitions. But before anything serious could happen, her mother came home quite unexpectedly, and I dove off Tori’s bed and hid underneath it as her mom came in to check on her. She never smelled the alcohol and I spent the next three hours hiding out until she went to bed and I could make my escape.
In high school, alcohol wasn’t an issue. I never drank at parties and had no interest in raiding the booze cupboard again. I was seeing the damning effects of alcoholism on my dad. He’d come home from his demanding, stressful job, pour a water glass full of vodka, drink it all and pass out on the sofa with the TV on. He spent a few nights in the drunk tank due to DUIs. I watched someone I idolized destroy his life, career and family with booze, and swore that would never be me. Of course, my hidden addiction had other plans.
One friend brought a bag of weed to one graduation party, and I remember everyone thinking how cool and exotic that was. What a change from 1971 to today’s world for high-schoolers, where pills, heroin, meth and super-pot are readily available. It was a more innocent time, in so many ways.
I went off to IU in the fall of 1971, where booze, drugs and sex were common. I remember Playboy magazine voting IU the nation’s Number One party school four years running. The subsequent year, the Hurryin’ Hoosiers didn’t even make the Top 10 because, as the magazine editors explained, they refused to rank the professionals with the amateurs. And I started to fit right in with that culture.
I first experienced drugs in early winter 1972 on the night when my birthday was selected as the Number One pick in the 1973 draft. Shocked, scared and only thinking of blotting out the terrible reality of maybe facing service in Viet Nam, I stole a hit of orange barrel acid from my roommate/dealer, Ollie, and spent that night on a bad trip that included having to talk to my parents about my predicament. Needless to say, I remember nothing from that conversation.
Gradually, I progressed to more regular drug use. Pot and I became close personal friends. I made the acquaintance of a few other hallucinogens; other forms of LSD and a variety of native psychedelics including peyote, mushrooms and mescaline. Coke was a rare treat, and once we even smoked opium, but it left me lethargic and bored. Music was my high during this period, and I played often on stage at campus clubs and jam sessions.
Booze was available at mixers and dorm parties, but I could take it or leave it. I do remember my first experience drinking as an alcoholic, when a buddy and I split a full fifth of Cuervo tequila. I spent that night hugging the porcelain throne in the men’s bathroom at Rollins House, Wright Quad, and awoke with my first serious hangover. I never imagined I was on the road to becoming my father.
Out of college, I began working for the Indianapolis News, at that time the state’s second-largest newspaper which published daily afternoon editions. As a reporter and editor, I had to be in the newsroom by 6 every morning, and alcohol wasn’t conducive to early morning alarms. I roomed with two friends from the paper and used pot regularly.
My next step on the low road to alcoholism took place on a ski trip to Boyne Mountain in upper Michigan. At a huge mixer with hundreds of other skiers, I paid a flat fee for an all-you-can-drink wristband. For some reason, I started drinking terrible white wine from 32-ounce plastic glasses, guzzling down one after another. If I hadn’t consumed alcohol like an alcoholic before, I certainly did that night. I started drinking and couldn’t stop.
I wound up sitting on a toilet in the men’s room, passed out, and missed the last bus from the ski resort to the lodge where we were staying. It was below zero, I had no gloves or hat, and it was 3-4 miles to my room. I started walking, barely sober, knowing only where I needed to end up. Fortunately, another late departure from the party drove past and picked me up. I woke the next day with another miserable hangover and the promise not to repeat that stupidity.
Another ski trip led to my next alcoholic binge. I was with a group of journalists on a sponsored trip to Austria, partying in the mountain town of St. Anton, which can be described as a drinking resort with a skiing problem. Organizers held a “Mexican cantina” theme party and rounded up what must have been every bottle of tequila in town. Dancing with a beautiful Austrian doctor under pounding disco lights and music, I drank like there was no tomorrow. Of course, tomorrow came and I awoke so hungover and dehydrated from the booze and altitude, I experienced the worst headache of my life and missed my rendezvous with the seductive blond physician I’d promised to ski with that day.
Still, alcohol played no major role in my 30s. A few beers if I went to a concert or a club, maybe a glass of wine with dinner. In fact, alcohol didn’t taste good to me then. That started changing as I entered my 40s. I discovered that I enjoyed good red wine, and especially appreciated its ability to enhance a nice meal. I found myself coming home from work, opening a bottle of red while I made dinner, plus a glass with the meal. But always, the cork went back in the bottle and I had a half-bottle for the next evening. I thought I was in control.
And that’s how it went. I was raising my kids, enjoying my life and wine was an adjunct to that, not a major part of it. I remembered my hatred of my father’s alcoholism, and saw that feeling amplified as I watched him die of cancer induced by a combination of booze and smoking. Defiant to the end, I remember going to brunch with him after he’d had radiation therapy on his oral cancer. Even as he said he wasn’t drinking any more, he ordered a large glass of vodka and spooned small doses into his ice water so he could ease it past his radiation-burned throat. All I could feel was sad that he was subjected to something he couldn’t control.
But by my 50s, wine was becoming more influential. Many nights, I finished the entire bottle during dinner and after. I still appreciated life, played music and wrote articles at night. But something was changing. If something came up that interfered with my drinking, I started having anxiety attacks. I missed a major magazine assignment because I had to stay sober to do the interview, research and writing and the stress caused me to drink as a relief. Alcoholism had arrived. I was no longer in control.
My job responsibilities added to it. For 5-6 years, I was traveling internationally extensively. Stuck in business class on a 12-15 hour flight, booze became a way to kill the boredom of interminable flights. Alone in strange hotel rooms where there’s nothing in English on the TV, I started emptying minibars. I became an expert at ferreting out the nearest grocery or convenience store in foreign cities where I could buy bottles of red wine and spirit them back to my room. Agonizingly late nights, feeding depression and anxiety, led to sleep deprivation and aggravated my jet lag.
At home, I suddenly NEEDED that first bottle of wine when I got home. I left the office with the back of my throat dry and dusty at the anticipation of that first sip. I made sure I was always stocked up, and often opened the bottle before even taking my jacket off when I walked in the house. My life began to revolve not around family, friends, music and enjoying home, but around always having a bottle ready to open. I started buying box wine because it was cheaper and I didn’t have to open four individual bottles. Of course, that meant drinking four bottles instead of two. Weekends became a drunken blur with the first sip starting as early as 9 a.m. some days, passing up opportunities to be with friends and my son Sean because I needed to stay home and drink.
Saturdays meant always assessing how much wine I had and making sure I could get through Sunday with what I had. On weekend nights at first, then during the week, I was drinking until midnight, passing out, and then trying to go to bed at 3 or 4 to catch a few hours sleep before work. I started calling in sick with migraines to cover my most severe hangovers. At lunch at work, I often would close the door to my office and curl up for a 45-minute nap, hoping no one would knock and open the door to find me flat out on the floor.
I knew serious trouble was at hand. I talked to my doctor, sought the services of a therapist, and tried to quit. I went through 12 sessions of the IOP at Valle Vista, but dropped out when I decided I had learned all I could from them. Arrogant and cocksure, I never went to AA meetings, never found a sponsor. And predictably, I relapsed after six months of sobriety in October 2013.
Fourteen months passed. I drank more, missed more work, skipped nearly every event and activity I has previously enjoyed. I detoxed several times on my own, managing a few periods of sobriety lasting up to 30 days. But I always relapsed.
So the week after Christmas, after laying awake and sweating in bed for hours several nights in a row, I decided I was sick and tired of being sick and tied. I called Fairbanks and came in for an intake assessment, and entered in-patient detox on New Year’s Eve 2014. That experience changed my life, opening my eyes to the impossible task of quitting an addiction on my own. My distaste for AA vanished as I met people in the program and heard stories of how they had benefitted from the support and fellowship AA provides. I emerged determined to do everything I can to build a spiritual life and live without alcohol.
But that’s just the backstory, the sordid little details. I blame no one for my disease. Blame is for God and small children. How I got here is a matter of how I’ve lived my life. I’ve isolated myself from my family, especially my wife. I’ve lived too selfishly, focusing on what I want to do and not sharing myself with those closest to me. My job grew too big and too complex, and I couldn’t face seeing the program I had spent a decade building being dismantled and discarded, turned over to younger employees whom I had hired, trained and mentored. When that world fell in on me, I drank to comfort myself, shelter myself from my own failures and inadequacies, and avoid facing up to the future.
I can stop drinking. I know, I’ve done it many times. But to live a sober life, to really live instead of merely existing, I will need to change fundamental aspects of my persona. I need to open up to the whole world, give back, contribute to the greater good. Only then will I be in a position where staying sober won’t be a goal, an end to a process. It will be the outcome of the growth I’ve made as a father, husband, friend, employee and person. Change is never easy. But if I stay on the path I’m on, I’ll end up where I’m going. And that’s a destination I want to avoid.”