January 11, 2000



13 Years


Thirteen years ago today I spent the afternoon in an El Torito restaurant bar on Tampa Blvd in Northridge watching the Denver Broncos beat the Cleveland Browns 23-20 in overtime. I was with my buddy Mike and we were drinking off our hangovers from the night before as we watched, but I wasn't really paying much attention to the game. I was thinking about where I was headed with my life.

On that day 13 years ago I wasn't headed anywhere good. My girlfriend pretty much wasn't anymore, I didn't have a car and was relying on friends and buses to get to and from the job I was on the verge of losing, the car I didn't have anymore was a crumpled heap in a police impound yard, I had a court date looming ahead of me, the ink stains on my fingers were almost entirely faded from the fingerprinting of my DUI arrest a few weeks before, and I was still coming to grips with the horrible, miraculously victim-free accident I'd had while driving drunk that had sparked all of the above. Obviously, I had a lot to think about. But I wasn't thinking about any of that.

Instead, I was thinking about what had happened at work two days earlier, when I had, in a drunken stupor, stashed a couple of beers inside my jacket to take home for later. I had "stolen" the beers from the company fridge, even though they were free for the taking and I had taken them mid-party. The feeling of confident, thick-headed stealth I'd felt then was still with me, and I was ashamed of it, embarrassed for myself.

I was drinking Coronas while I thought about this and watched the game, and when the game was over and we got up to go, I surprised myself by not killing the beer. Instead, I left it sitting there on the table, half-empty. Or, more importantly, half-full.

In that instant of deciding to leave the bar and standing up from the table, all the events of the past month, of the past couple of years, all the guilt and pain and self-disgust all came washing over me at once, and I made a split-second decision that had been coming for at least three years: I decided not to finish that beer. Ever. At that moment, I quit drinking.

Things got worse before they got better. The girlfriend broke it off with me, the judge fined me more money than I'd ever seen in one place before, I spent 15 days in the Burbank City Jail, I spent the next year being very confused and very much in pain.

Things got worse ... but they did get better. I went to an AA meeting that night, decided that gang of losers wasn't for me, and didn't go back for another 90 days. But I stayed sober, and after that 90 days I went back just to get my 90-Day chip because dammit I earned it, and ended up staying for the whole AA ride. I went from no meetings to 3 or 5 meetings a week for more than a year, and slowly -- oh, how slowly -- sobriety got to be a habit. And life got better.

I've come a long, long way in the 13 years since that day at El Torito. Back then, I didn't really care about much of anything. I drank to get drunk because the oblivion was comfortable, I hated life and looked for the negative in everything, I did stupid things and took crazy chances and was self-destructive and just didn't give a damn. My friends didn't think I'd live to see 30 and I didn't mind.

I'm a totally different person now, so different that the Chuck from then is largely a stranger to me. He's a total stranger to the people in my life today. Beth, Zoe, my circle of friends -- none of them have ever seen me drunk. God willing, they never will.

Happy Birthday to me.