None For The Road
An important milestone was passed for me earlier this month. I wasn't going to mention it because I'm fairly private about this situation, I don't run around shouting it from the rooftops or wearing it on my sleeve. It's a big deal, but it's between me and mine and I don't like to make a big deal out of it. But the thought that maybe I should acknowledge it, write about it, keeps cropping up. So okay, fine, I'll write about it.
January 11th marked 12 years of sobriety for me.
12 years ago on January 11th I was coping with the aftermath of my third drunk driving arrest. Not coping well, but rather coping in my accepted manner in those days: drinking more. I had a crippling hangover from the night before and I was drinking Coronas in a Mexican restaurant with my friend Mike while we watched the Broncos play somebody in a playoff game. We'd had a few already and there were fresh ones on the table when Mike suddenly said we had to get going -- he had to go meet his girlfriend or something. We stood up to go and I looked down at my half full Corona.
Up until this moment no beer had ever escaped me alive. I never walked away until the bottle was bone dry. This time I looked at the bottle and decided to let it live. There was no real forethought to it, I just did it. And as I walked away I somehow knew that would be my last drink. And so it was.
The next night I went to an AA meeting and decided those people were losers, but I didn't drink. 90 days later I still wasn't drinking but my life was falling apart, so I went back to AA and became a regular for the next three years or so. Now I hardly ever go to meetings -- my last one was something like three years ago -- but I still don't drink. I just don't. There's more to the story than that, of course, those are just the broad strokes. More detail is required, but as I type these words I don't know how much more I'm going to give. I guess we'll both find out, won't we?
I said I decided to let that Corona live with no forethought. That's true, but there was a lot of fore-experience that led up to that impulsive, life changing decision. They say -- and it's true -- that you don't quit until you hit bottom. Everybody's bottom is different. Some people have to lose the house, the wife, the kids, the job, the car, everything before they're in enough pain to quit. Others reel back in horror at the first sign of trouble. (We call those folks "high-bottom" people.) I don't know where my bottom fits in the larger scale, all I know is that it was bottom for me on mine.
The inciting incident, as we screenwriters like to call such moments, took place early the morning of December 16, 1986, about 20 minutes before my third DUI arrest. I'd spent the evening at a sushi bar drinking 7 & 7's and watching a friend's band play. I was supposed to spend the night at Mike's house, but when we got there I wanted to go to mine. Mike tried to stop me but couldn't.
On the freeway on the way home, I think I dozed off. When I opened my eyes I was tooling along at about 75 and there was something in the lane in front of me. I don't know what it was, and I'm not sure there was really anything there at all, but I swerved right to miss it, right into the car next to me. I bounced off him into the retaining wall on the left and then spun my way back across the freeway into the wall on the right. When everything stopped moving and I got out, my car looked like a tin can crushed in God's fist. I didn't have a scratch on me.
The other driver was okay, fortunately. He came running up and asked if I was okay and I could see the anger and contempt on his face when I slurred "I'm sorry, man. I'm really sorry." The Highway Patrol rolled up and I could see the contempt on their faces too as they cuffed me and carted me off to the Burbank Police station. The booking sergeant was brusque and professional as he set me up with a mattress and blanket and locked me up, and I could see the contempt on his face, too.
Are you noticing a theme here? Contempt. There was a lot of it, and there should have been. But it didn't phase me. Yet.
In the weeks following I kept drinking with no letup, perhaps even worse than before. I was living at home and my Mom and I would have some knock-down drag-out fights about it, but I kept going. I was relying on friends for transportation but I was still managing to go out and get hammered almost every night. Everyone in my life was telling me I had a problem -- had been telling me since long before the accident -- but I blew them all off. But...in the back of my mind I admitted to myself that I did have a problem. Maybe.
I decided not to drink at my office's Christmas party. I was drunk before it was over. I borrowed a coworkers car to take my girlfriend out and swore to myself I wouldn't drink, and that if I did I wouldn't drive. I was driving with a beer between my legs by midnight. I promised my Mom that okay, fine, I won't drink in your damned house, okay? So I drank on the steps outside and brought the beer in after she went to bed.
I watched myself do all this and felt self contempt. But I still hadn't hit bottom.
I finally hit bottom at work one night. The office had a weekly event -- now discontinued, they tell me -- they called a Social. They'd open up the conference room and set up beer and wine and everyone was free to hang out and talk and play games and socialize for a few hours after work. I was Johnny-on-the-spot at these socials, first in and last out and can I get anyone else a beer while I'm up? I went into my last Social with a head start.
My girlfriend and I were having problems. Again. Always, again. This time I was really wound up about it, completely spun out. I couldn't concentrate on my work, I couldn't think of anything but her and the pain I was feeling. I was obsessed with it, worrying it over in my mind like a dog with a rancid bone. I was sitting at my desk staring at the wall, just staring for 10, 15 minutes at a stretch, when my friend, coworker, future roommate and soon-to-be-revealed addict and alcoholic Greg came over. He'd noticed I seemed a little upset and had a little something to help take the edge off: Xanax. I took it and felt just fine. Problems? What problems?
Come Social Hour I was happy as a clam and numb to the world, and that was before I started drinking. I've since learned that Xanax and alcohol don't mix well together, but they mixed just fine for me that night. As usual, I was first in and last out and I was drunker than I'd ever been at a Social when Greg, who was my ride home and at least as drunk as I, said it was time to go. I killed my beer, loaded up my gear, and got ready to go. But on the way out I made a little detour through the kitchen area first.
Finally: bottom. Drunk as a skunk, banned from drinking at home on pain of eviction, carless and in horrible trouble for drinking already, I stopped off at the fridge to grab a few beers for later. I looked over my shoulder and made sure I was alone, then slipped them into the inside pockets of my leather jacket. Walked gingerly out of the office and down to the car and spent the ride home sitting stiffly, afraid someone would hear the clinking of the bottles and know I was so low that I was stealing beer from work. Once I got home I hid the beers in the back of the fridge and drank them on the couch after my mom went to bed, then snuck them into the garbage outside when I was done.
The next day when I'd sobered up I was consumed with self loathing. Not because I took the beer or because I drank it when I'd promised I wouldn't, but because I'd been sneaky about it. There was no reason for me to hide what I was doing -- I could have walked out of work with the beer balanced atop my head and gotten nothing but laughs, I could have drunk it openly at home with no real consequence but the nightly fight. There was no earthly reason for me to be so covert about it. But I was, and the fact that I had been and the memory of the feeling of dull-witted stealth, these things filled me with loathing. This, finally, was my bottom.
It didn't kick in for a few days, though. I went on two or three more benders before I met the Corona I let live. But that feeling, that slimy, clotted memory of thickheaded stealth was always in the back of my mind, making me ashamed and making me think that maybe it was time to stop. It kept eating away at me until I looked down at that Corona and decided to walk away. Something finally gave and I realized I didn't want it anymore.
It's been twelve years since that day and I can still feel the shame, I can still remember how stupidly clever I felt as I slipped those beers into my coat. It was powerful then and it's powerful now. It's what I think of when I think that maybe I could have just one drink.
Happy birthday to me.