Your Life Is Waiting for You
Curt S, Connecticut
My name is Curt, and I am an alcoholic. That is saying a great deal right there. It is saying that at one time I was very unhappy, that I was controlled by forces outside of myself, and that I didn't know what to do about it. All my efforts to help myself seemed to fail. In many ways I was committing suicide on the installment plan, and against my will. And I also drank way too much. In many ways our stories are very similar. For me, there is comfort in hearing some of the same things over and over, so I will start at the beginning.
I was very shy and awkward as a child, and right away I started feeling different from the other boys, which had a serious impact on my self-esteem. I started equating different with inferior. I divided the world into a few people like me and everyone else, with everyone else being better. I was also a fearful little kid with a lot of ideas that I didn't tell anyone. For example, in church they talked a lot about forgiveness. I felt that since I couldn't even figure out what I had done wrong to make my parents punish me, I would never be able to figure out what I had done wrong vis-à-vis God. Therefore, I would not be forgiven and I was going to hell when I died. I felt no need to tell my parents about that. They would realize that I was right and be very upset that I was going to hell. I suppose those were normal childish feelings of omnipotence, but they are also classic alcoholic thinking.
I was also afraid of other kids generally and specifically fearful that I would become a target for them. In particular there were a bunch of tough kids further up the street. I wanted desperately to be like them, thinking that that was what boys are supposed to be and that I deserved what they handed out due to my being different. So by age ten, I knew everything, felt different and inferior, and had loads of secrets. I either had a normal personality for a ten-year-old or an alcoholic personality, depending on where my life went.
I have nice memories of my family as a child. They were my refuge from the rest of the world. However when I was about fourteen my father's drinking problem became obvious. I recall that one night he was too drunk to stand up and he asked my brother and me to go get him a knife so that he could "cut his way out." My brother and I decided that since he couldn't stand up he would be safe. All of a sudden I realized that that sort of thing would be happening a lot.
I became friends with a several boys in my neighborhood, including the "tough" kids up the block. One day they were talking about how one of them had gotten very drunk the night before, been sick, and was unable to go to school the next day. It sounded to me like the most fun anyone could possibly ever have, even though I had watched my father do the same thing on a regular basis. Still, I put it on my list of things to do: get drunk. I do not think it was peer pressure because I was very stubborn and many times resisted peer pressure to do things I knew were wrong, such as stealing. But with alcohol I succumbed without a second thought.
I was sixteen the first time I got drunk. I stole some of my father's liquor and shared it with my friends. It was a lot of fun, and I decided that I would try to repeat the experience once a month or so. Around that time I had made another decision about myself. Being a good kid, listening to those in authority, and doing well in school did not seem to be getting me what I wanted in life — fun and friends. I also was tired of being afraid of the other boys. I had grown quite a bit and was relatively big and strong. I made the exciting discovery that if someone bothered me and I hit him a few times then he would leave me alone. Just what I had always wanted! I became a bit of a bully. I would love to say that I stood up to some gang member or beat up the class president but the truth is I picked on people weaker than me, primarily people who reminded me of the shy quiet misfit that I had been not long before. Likewise, the boys who sat in the back of class disrespecting the teacher seemed to be having a lot more fun than the others. So I became a bit of a cut up. Drinking and being a fun guy provided a new self image. Instead of feeling like I didn't fit in, I felt that it was everyone else who didn't fit in.
When I was seventeen I had an argument with my girlfriend one night at the drive-in. I was drunk. By then I really liked being drunk. That night was different. I went into a total rage and really felt possessed by my anger. I did not like that feeling and was afraid of what I might do. It reminded me of how frightening my father was when he would go into a drunken rage. My solution was to promise myself that I would only drink when I was happy. Of course I couldn't predict the future and a few months later, drunk, I became upset again. I had a major pity party and walked down the street throwing rocks through shop windows, cutting the gas lines at the gas station, and similar acts of vandalism. I did not get caught. The next morning I felt both shame and pride; the latter for letting the world know what I thought of it. I knew that I couldn't do things like that and continue to get away with them. It was also becoming clear that I couldn't control myself when I drank. I decided I would stop drinking for the rest of my life right then and there, before I became an alcoholic like my father and, by that time, my mother as well. I was eighteen.
The next few months were incredibly lonely and painful. I hung out with the same friends and told them why I wasn't going to drink. They accepted it. I could not. I considered going to A.A. meetings but thought that although everyone would probably be nice to me they would be "real alcoholics," like my parents. I would not truly belong.
My abstinence lasted a couple months. Then one night I had a drink. Nothing happened. I was fine. The next night I had one beer and was able to stop. Drinking again felt like the most normal thing in the world, like putting on a pair of comfortable old shoes.
I discovered that if I smoked marijuana while I drank, I did not act out or become angry, at least not very often. This was wonderful. I viewed my problem as a behavior problem rather than a drinking problem.
I went away to college and successfully substituted marijuana for alcohol. Instead of drinking at night I would smoke marijuana and maybe have a beer or two. No hangover in the morning and no regrets. Wonderful. I usually did not drink or smoke marijuana in the daytime because I would become nonfunctional and did not enjoy being wasted all day. It was the evenings, whether a night out partying or just a joint and a beer before I went to sleep, that gave my entire existence meaning.
I found that I did not have to drink or use drugs to do things which I later regretted. I had a few stupid fights that I started and was almost very badly hurt. I beat up my girlfriend’s mother. My episodes of vandalism continued without drinking anything at all. I obviously had an immense amount of anger. I was afraid of these things. Through sheer will power and fear I learned to control my temper while sober. When I got to A.A, I heard many people say that they didn't always get into trouble when they drank but whenever they got into trouble they had been drinking. That was not true for me, and for some time I thought that drinking was not my problem.
At the age of twenty-one my girlfriend said to me on a particularly unpleasant morning after, "You are afraid of being an alcoholic like your father. You are not like him but you act weird when you get drunk. You should probably never get drunk again. Stick to one or two drinks." She did not like marijuana so I stopped doing that. The next couple of years were a monumental struggle but mostly drug- and alcohol-free and without regrets for my behavior. That woman was a true friend for a very long time.
Eventually we broke up. For some trivial reason I began to smoke marijuana again with no ill effects. I started going out with friends after work and would have two drinks. It was a terrible struggle. I would sit and wonder if everyone had to control their drinking. If so, why didn't anyone ever say anything about it? If not, what did that say about me? A very frightening thought. I was also searching for friends as much as anything else. Many times I used people the way I used alcohol — to take me away from myself.
At the age of twenty-six I had been controlling my drinking for several years. One day I was walking down the street by my house. It was a nice, sunny day, very pleasant, and I was feeling quite happy. I had not used any substances that day and had to go to work that afternoon. The thought struck me that a little gin would be nice. Without thinking it through I walked to the store on the corner and bought a pint. It was as if a time clock inside me had turned over. My alcoholism had progressed and from that time onwards I would feel urges to drink out of nowhere — and I would act on them.
Urban renewal tore down my house, and I moved in with a man who was to become a very close friend for many years. He liked to drink and used alcohol as a substitute for heroin, which he had mostly stopped using. He taught me how to play pool so that I would have something to do at the bars we frequented. We would pick up women and be generally social. I was thrilled with the social skills I was developing. I began to use other drugs occasionally but mostly stuck to alcohol and marijuana. The things I had heard about other drugs frightened me. However, I liked the revulsion I would see in other peoples’ eyes when my friend would talk about wanting to go cop heroin. I enjoyed watching him intimidate people with stories of drug use and of how he had supported his addiction. I still needed to feel superior and being worse than someone else seemed like a good way to achieve that feeling.
I was hung over most mornings but told myself I was controlling my drinking. There was some truth there because I rarely let myself drink as much as I wanted. There were mornings waking up on the floor wearing nothing but my own vomit to remind me of what happened when I drank the way I wanted. Mostly I drank after work and was able to go to work the next day, which started at 3:30 p.m. I also had taken up running six miles a day. That seemed to help the hangovers. There were also fifty-mile bicycle rides and overnight backpacking trips. Since I could still do those things, I figured I was probably okay and simply using alcohol to be social. I did have fun when I wasn't sick. Every few months I would attempt a week without drinking enough to be hung over in the morning. There were days when I drank nothing at all.
I began attending Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) meetings. They were very helpful in dealing with my parents. I also learned a lot about alcoholism. Most important was that if I became an alcoholic I could go to A.A. and stop drinking. That was a big relief to me since I still had a nagging fear that I was becoming an alcoholic. Someone in ACOA told me that all children of alcoholics have that fear.
One night while drunk I had another minor disappointment and decided to act on it. I will not go into the details except to say that it was particularly bad. I remember thinking, "I am always afraid that I will regret what I do in the morning, but I promise myself that no matter what happens tonight I will not regret it." I felt like a wild animal released from its cage. In the morning I regretted everything. I lay in bed with the shades drawn thinking that the neighbor’s dog was barking because it knew what I had done the night before. I talked with my roommate. He said, "You scare me when you drink. You have to accept the fact that you can't drink any more." Later I was walking up the stairs to my room and it occurred to me that I had always told myself I didn’t have a problem because I hadn’t done the things my father did. But the only difference between him and me was that I had no wife or children. If I had, I knew I would have terrorized them that previous night just like my father had terrorized us. I knew it for a certainty.
Once more I stopped drinking, thinking it would prevent me from becoming a true alcoholic. I changed nothing else in my life and said little about it, nothing at all to my friends at ACOA. It was again an incredibly lonely time in my life.
I went on vacation in Maine a few weeks later. On the way I picked up a hitchhiker. Sitting in a little park he said, "If you buy me a beer I will be able to talk to girls and get us dates." I bought him a beer. Then he said he needed two beers, and I bought him another. When he wanted a third beer I decided I didn't want to spend all my money on his drinking, and instead I bought a bottle of cheap wine. I drank some. It was as natural as breathing. More alcohol and some marijuana appeared along with more people. If two drunken bums sit in a park talking to all the women who walk by, eventually one will want to share. We had a great time. The next morning I woke up in a field feeling sick and very scared. I said my morning prayers and promised myself that the previous night had been the last time I would drink. But I couldn’t even convince myself. That was a very bad feeling.
I stayed in that area a week and had a nice time without drinking. I went to bars every night, danced, and was very sociable. Beautiful women offered to buy me drinks and I declined.
The second week of vacation I went on a six-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. Today I think of that trip as a spiritual experience in the wilderness. It was a very unpleasant spiritual experience. It took many years for it to become a fond memory.
Although I sometimes saw other people along the trail, mostly I was alone. The first few days I had only one thought: If I ever told my friends in ACOA what was going on inside me, they would all say go to A.A. I made myself yet another deal. I would try one A.A. meeting within one week after I returned home. After settling on that course of action I was able to think about other things. It was a beautiful trip through the mountains.
I got home on Wednesday and decided to go to an open meeting the following Tuesday. That would still be within one week. I could keep my promise to myself.
When I am upset I clean. On Tuesday afternoon I started cleaning and kept dropping things until I gave up, left the mess, and went to the A.A meeting. I hated it. Everyone reminded me of my parents. I left bargaining with God — I would never drink again if I didn't have to go to those awful meetings.
I went again the following Tuesday. On Friday I went to a different meeting. They said it was a “closed” meeting, and I thought, well, that’s okay because even though I am not an alcoholic I have a desire not to drink. They have to let me stay. I was entirely ready to argue with them and tell them they could not kick me out. They didn’t try.
I went again on Tuesday and for the first time heard the meeting leader ask newcomers to introduce themselves. I raised my hand and heard myself say, “My name is Curt, and I guess maybe I might be an alcoholic." It sounded true. I thought, well, there’s no reason not to be an alcoholic since I am not going to be drinking anymore."
The following Thursday at ACOA was the moment of truth. I shared that I was now attending A.A. meetings. Everyone seemed very happy. A woman leaned over and kissed me and said, "I am so glad because I have been so worried about you." To my surprise no one tried to talk me out of going to A.A..
That is the story of how I came to A.A. I have been sober for twenty years now. Recovery has been as wild an experience as anything that happened while I drank. In recovery I have met people who were all the things I thought I wanted to be. I have met handsome men and beautiful women. I have met CEOs and athletes and tough guys who anyone in their right mind would be afraid of. I have met people as shy as myself and people who are the life of the party. And, guess what. They were all alcoholics. So all those things I didn't like about myself were not the reason I became an alcoholic. It was something else.
Some years ago I got married and my wife and I decided we wanted children. I was terrified that they would be like me. I talked to my sponsor extensively about it. My children are a lot like me. Although I wish I could spare them some of the pain, it is okay. They have sober parents to help them through stuff.
I am incredibly grateful to the A.A. program, the fellowship, the support I have received both in and out of the meeting rooms, and to the God of my misunderstanding for my life today. Today I pretty much like myself and accept who I am. I am not ashamed of the past although I do regret the hurt I caused other people. But for me that regret is good because it shows that I have a conscience. It is also what the principle of amends in the Twelve Steps is for. I have made most of the amends that I can.
When I meet newcomers I sometimes have the urge to shake them and say just forget all those fears. Your life is waiting for you. There is no need to feel shame over a disease that we have no control over. But, of course, I don't do that. I hope that it is clear in this story that I tried as hard as I could to control my drinking — and that I failed totally. I might as well have climbed into the ring with Muhammad Ali in his prime for all the chance I had against alcoholism. I finally did the sensible thing and got out of the ring before I was killed. There is no shame in doing the right thing.
I hope reading this will be helpful to someone. I am grateful for the chance to tell people who and what I am.