PART I: GRADUATION
Let’s say I started drinking when I was 17. That’s different from when I had my first drink. Or when I first got drunk. Or any number of other alcohol-related firsts. It’s when I became a drinker…someone who drinks…someone whose personality both internally and externally began to be inextricably linked to alcohol.
Whatever other factors may have contributed to being relatively abstinent, from everything mind you, during my junior high and high school years I would say the main factor was that I was essentially a “good kid” and a bit of an introverted, socially anxious nerd. For all intents and purposes I still am one. Sure, I had a few beers. I got so sick splitting a bottle (a fifth? a pint? I can’t remember.) of some knock-off Jack Daniels analog with a friend that I swore I’d never drink again. I’d been party to the stealthy replacement of vodka with water in a friend’s parent’s bottle of vodka (“They never drink it.”), and I’d smoked the odd cigarette. I’d even had more than a few tokes on joints here and there over the course of those six years. But I wasn’t a drinker, per se.
It was literally the day I graduated…well, okay, not literally. It was the night I graduated that my drinking, and drugging for that matter, career began in earnest. I had graduated as Salutatorian. I had been accepted to a “West Coast Ivy,” I was… what? Free? A Man? I don’t know. I do know I felt like I had somehow fulfilled whatever obligations I felt I had to myself and my parents, another story for another time, and was free to do what I wanted to do instead. That evening at the graduation party I know that I drank copious amounts of keg beer and partook eagerly of the marijuana available. It was on! I would not stop to do any meaningful reflection on my drinking, or myself in general for that matter, for the next thirteen years.
PART II: FRESHMAN
I went to college. Left to my own devices, however, I did not go to school. That is, I basically stopped going to class sometime around… whenever. This was the year that provided the catalyst, the spark, for the infernal combustion engine that was my alcoholism.
Within my first week at school I had, in no particular order: Somehow acquired four cases of beer with my roommate which we proceeded to sell out of our little dorm room fridge, become falling down drunk at least twice, and smoked more weed than I had up until that point.
Within my first month I’d done cocaine for the first…and second…and fifth time.
By the first break I’m pretty sure I’d done the following: drunkenly punched something (a plate glass window, a wall, the steel underside of the bunk above), cutting my knuckles so deeply that they required stitches…this would happen at least twice during my first year at university…and held a bong building contest, instituted the “red light in the window” to let people know that there was a party to be had in our room, usually beer, weed, and coke in some combination.
By the end of the year, fueled one late night by alcohol, mescaline if memory serves me, and likely cocaine some of us decided it would be a good idea to use a bottle of lighter fluid we had to “draw” lines of fire across the street in front of the odd car passing by, around the sidewalks of the dorm courtyard, and, finally and most egregiously, zig-zag flames up and down the dorm’s back concrete steps over which decades-old bamboo formed an arch. I think the bamboo’s gone. Off-campus police, the Dean, and, it was rumored the FBI for a bit before anyone had fingered the perps, all got involved in hustling most of us off the illustrious school’s stage in one way or another. I had been party to what the Dean called, privately in his office to a few of us miscreants, “The worst act of vandalism ever perpetrated on campus.”
Over the next eight years or so I attended four more well-regarded institutions of higher learning. In that time I did not accrue enough credits for one complete year.
There always come a point when sharing my story that I’m overcome with the sense that I seem to be glamorizing the behaviors I’m recounting. Or worse, that I’m telling my tale a bit too wistfully. While I hold few, if any regrets, I neither celebrate nor condemn, nor do I long for or disavow these periods of my life. I embrace them as a part of me. But, make no mistake, my alcoholism and drug use led me down some very shady paths doing very stupid things. I’m not the type to wish I could do anything over again but given the chance to be an observer of an alternate sober history, I think I might.
PART III: SOPHOMORIC
Between 1984 and 1997 I’d attended all the aforementioned five schools, I’d been a Jack-of-Few-Trades-Master-of-Fewer and I’d bounced around a just a bit: from Palo Alto to Olympia to Palo Alto to Olympia to, very briefly, Europe to St. Louis to Seattle to St. Louis to Olympia to St. Louis to Paris to St. Louis to Chicago to Houston to St. Louis. I think that if you wanted to call it running, hiding, or both I’d be hard pressed to disagree with you. Of course, my alcoholism and drug use came with me and they easily evolved and adapted to my varied circumstances and fortunes over the years. But this telling isn’t so much about the middle as the beginning and the end.
A (Possibly Incomplete) Chronology of The Pharmacology, 1984-1996
Alcohol, ‘84-‘97; Marijuana, ‘84-‘85, ‘95; Cocaine, ‘85, ‘88-‘97; Hash, ‘85; Mushrooms, ‘85; Mescaline ‘85; Acid ‘88-‘92; Ecstasy, ‘88-‘97; Freebase, ‘90-‘91.
PART III: CONT.
Late in the summer of 1996 I had returned to St. Louis from three years in Houston making a half-hearted, fully-intoxicated attempt at being a partner in a very small graphic design company. I’d returned with my girlfriend of 4 years, still entangled in a woefully unhealthy, tragically codependent relationship. (We’d met in Chicago during what I consider the “beginning of the end” of my rapidly escalating alcoholism.) I, we, had moved into my father’s rather nice, unoccupied, and soon to be on the market St. Louis home. He was on a long-term out of the country professional appointment that was coming to an end, along with his St. Louis residency, when he returned to the States. Ergo: He was selling the house. And then the pillars really started coming down.
My drinking skyrocketed and my tolerance, which had until only recently been extremely high, couldn’t keep pace. My behavior became more mentally abusive and aberrant. Soon my housemate, that’s what we’d become, having waited long past the time when it would have been sane, left. Shortly thereafter I lost my job. Well, “lost” isn’t exactly correct. After a weekend bender of drinking alone in the now empty house I woke up hung over that Monday morning and decided not only not to go in to the design job I had at a small firm, but not to call. I promptly began drinking and never went back.
Now I had time and space; too much of both. I thought it might be a good idea to get away. To recoup, recover, rethink. It should be noted that almost every move I made was always preceded by this sort of thinking. I went to visit someone a few years younger, who was living in Florida at the time. I’d never been and thought, what better place to go to revive? We made plans of lazing on the beach, relaxing and enjoying each other’s company. I was blissfully unaware that my hostess was just dropping in to her own deep, dark, nose dive to the bottom.
I returned to St. Louis two weeks later a shaken, exhausted mess. I had only ended up supplementing my drinking with copious amounts of cocaine. After a couple of days back in St. Louis and “detoxed” from my lost holiday in Florida, I vowed to “clean up” and “get my stuff together.” But, it was not yet to be. Within days of my return, while out at a club, I bumped into an old friend who in a surprise turn of events happened to be, at that very moment, a small-time coke dealer.
PART IV: AN EDUCATION
The remainder of that spring, and the remainder of my active alcoholism and drug abuse for that matter, I spent with “CD.” Our friendship, such as it was at that point, was a symbiotic relationship of sorts where I provided a car and a large empty house and he provided the cocaine and a driver’s license. I’ve neglected to mention that while I did own a car I did not have a license. Days quickly turned into weeks of drinking, snorting cocaine, doing ecstasy, and repeat. As I was rapidly sliding down the final stretch of the spiral I found myself increasingly overcome with a sense of disgust at myself. I was a sloppy, gross, drunk, drugged embarrassment to myself and, I was sure, everyone that encountered me.
One night, around 10:30, after having spent the day, afternoon and evening lounging on the patio at the house smoking and drinking we did a bit of blow and set out for “the club.” We were headed downtown roughly fifteen to twenty minutes from the house. We were drinking our “go cocktails” and at some point early in the ride we did a hit of ecstasy. We arrived and the moment we pulled into the parking spot, from within the fog of alcohol, cocaine and oncoming ecstasy, I had the faintest glimmer of clarity. I knew I wasn’t going in. I couldn’t bear to debase myself in a room full of strangers again. CD’s response was, “Well, I’m not going to drive you home. What are you going to do sit out here all night?” I knew he’d be in the club for hours. I asked him to leave me the keys and he went in, sure he’d see me soon. I hadn’t driven my own car all spring. I started it and headed for home. I just hoped to get close before the ecstasy kicked in.
I was drunk and coked up when about half-way there I really started coming on to the hit of ecstasy. My vision was terrible, my reactions were terrible, I didn’t know if I was speeding, crawling, in my own lane, or drifting. Right then I made a deal: “If I make it home without killing myself or anyone else I will stop doing drugs.” In retrospect I see just how repugnant that deal was.
I made it home. I kept my deal.
PART V: STUDY
A few weeks later my Dad came into town for business. CD and I had mutually put some distance between us. In relative terms I was doing better. I was drinking a “normal” amount of too much as opposed to a staggering amount of too much. So it was likely with a post-brunch, “respectable”, mimosa buzz that I found myself with my Dad in our favorite indie bookstore. I was checking out the staff recommendations shelf and was seized by a title, Drinking: A Love Story. I had a thought very like, “Cool! Someone who loves drinking as much as I do,” and bought the book. To this day, I’m still amazed at how tenaciously my denial had hung on. Despite my recent quasi-revelation vis-à-vis my drug use I still hadn’t put it all together.
If memory serves, my denial began to crumble quickly once I began reading the late Caroline Knapp’s riveting account of her alcoholism and recovery. I had never been exposed to the sort of things she was saying about herself, things that were almost entirely recognizable as being about me. By the end of the book I had no doubt I was an alcoholic. And I desperately needed to get sober.
PART VI: RECOVERY
Because it feels like so much of my recovery journey, beginning with reading Caroline Knapp’s book, was chance. This is where I start saying, “Circumstances have conspired to allow me a successful and sustained recovery.” Get used to it. It is in spite of my ignorance and naïveté regarding almost all things “recovery” that I’ve managed these seventeen years.
Exact chronology will continue to elude me. But…
I was still in St. Louis, still jobless and still drinking with only a couple of months at most until my Dad’s house would be sold, and I would need to find somewhere to go. I was fairly certain that I needed to get sober. To do that I knew I needed a plan.
So first I found therapy. And, by chance, I found a therapist whose specialization was alcoholism. Yay, serendipity! She very gently didn’t buy the lies of the lingering remnants of my denial. After recounting a few tales, I said with some trepidation, “So…I think I may be an alcoholic?” To which she replied, “Me too.” Her understanding, patience and, of course, knowledge were paramount to guiding me those first few weeks of planning.
What I decided was this: I would spend the remainder of the summer, by then late July and August, making my final rounds and saying my final goodbyes, not so much to people as to the drinking I had associated with my relationship to them. Then I would end up at my Mom and Step-Dad’s house where I would proceed to “get sober” at a detox and rehab of my own ill-advised devising. I won’t bore you with the details of that circuit, but suffice it to say that for all of the “memory-making” I thought I was doing, it is by far the least memorable element of my recovery story. It should be noted that my therapist essentially thought this was a hair-brained scheme and kept gently suggesting I start right then but…well…addicts. Am I right?
After my far less than epic swan song final tour, I ended up in Olympia, Washington, on the shore of Lake St. Claire in mid-August with only a few dozen beers, a couple of bottles of wine, maybe some port, some champagne, and now that I’m thinking about it a final hit of ecstasy between me and myself.
Sometime in the final week I found myself standing on the deck in front of my Mom and Step-Dad, reclined in lounge chairs. It was after dinner and we’d all been drinking. I, for one, was drunk. I remember swaying slightly. I don’t know what I’d been telling them before but I distinctly remember fighting back sobs as I told them that I felt like I was killing my best friend.
August 31st. The date I had been avoiding all my adult life, and then suddenly had been planning for the last few months, had arrived. I think I remember going to bed. I know I remember waking up in the middle of the night. I woke up to a sharp, piercing, stabbing, unplaceable, unfamiliar, pain coming from somewhere in my torso. I knew enough to know it wasn’t my kidneys, lungs, heart, and didn’t think it was my liver. I just knew it was painful enough to wake me and keep me awake. I may have found some Tylenol or something then lay back down to toss and turn until morning.
I think I suffered through it as it waxed and waned in intensity for almost a week before making a Doctor’s appointment with the family’s long-time GP. A couple days later I was in to see him. At some point in that visit he asked, “Are you a drinker?” To which I replied, “I was. Until a few days ago.” He then told me to remain sober. I had suffered an acute attack of pancreatitis that fortunately hadn’t “blown it out” and it would recover. The problem, I learned, with losing one’s pancreas, an organ I still know next to nothing about, is that when you do you immediately become diabetic. The doctor surmised that I was 2 or 3 drinks away from doing exactly that. Yay.
So, “circumstances conspire.” Again. If nothing else, that diagnosis kept me sober during those very early days—some of the most challenging days as many of you know. Faced with a very real, immediate and severe consequence of continuing to drink made it easier psychologically for me to abstain at that point.
That’s not to say that in those early days denial wasn’t still hanging on for its life as I tried to dislodge its claws. I recently found my journals from that period and it is very clear that it was still looming over my shoulder. For evidence I offer you this entry after only two weeks of sobriety:
“I do entertain the idea that I’m not an ‘alcoholic’ per se, but a chronic binger; that if I moderate in the future I’ll be okay?”— September 15, 1997
Well, I wouldn’t be. Okay, that is. And the last vestiges of that thinking are long since gone. That’s not to say life stops being life and I’ve got bluebirds on my shoulder every morning but I’m here seventeen years later and on far more days than not I’m healthier, happier, and more full of compassion, empathy, purpose, joy, love.
Now I only have recovery stories. Thanks for letting me tell this one.
Chris is the founder of KLĒN + SŌBR / Since Right Now Pod (http://www.sincerightnow.com).