Barry C, Oahu, Hawaii
My name is Barry C., and I’m an alcoholic.
“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. …”
“… God could and would if he were sought.”
In between those two now famous lines from chapter 5 of the Big Book … I have found a way to live.
I needed that desperately when I got to the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.
I arrived, pretty much like everyone else here: lost, broken, and alone.
Without a plan or direction and really no one in my life who could help me make sense of my life. I’d reached the age of twenty-seven years, more a boy than a man … a two-bit bartender, ten-time loser, a fall-down drunk. Along with that life came all the other stuff: drugs, stealing, lying, cheating, fighting, and the insanity of promising to clean it all up—maybe get sober for a couple of days and tow the line—only to take a drink and begin the craziness again.
By the end, I was experiencing regular visits from what our Big Book refers to as the Four Horsemen: Terror, Bewilderment, Frustration, and Despair.
That was thirteen years ago now—and the difference between here and there is nothing short of amazing. I forget that. And so it’s good for me to tell my story—over and over again. I’m 100 percent human and all alcoholic and I tend to let the pessimism and the cynicism and the negativity rule my thinking if I’m not careful. Perhaps worse, I can also forget how bad it all got.
But then I come to the rooms and tell my story or I hear someone else tell their story and I’m suddenly filled with hope and gratitude and I’m reminded of the changes that occurred in my life and of the magic in the world—and that’s a good thing for this alcoholic.
And for the world, for that matter.
‘Cause when I’m filled with all that good stuff, I don’t want to drink. And maybe … I even want to go spread a little of that good in the world.
I started drinking at the age of thirteen, in a tiny little New England town, Simsbury, Connecticut.
It was a mostly affluent town. I ran with kids on both sides of the tracks. Our family fit somewhere in the middle. There was one thing we kids all had in common: lots of time on our hands, and parents who were too busy to notice what was going on or who had problems of their own that kept them from being available. With nobody watching and a state drinking age that was eighteen years of age, we could always get our hands on alcohol.
At first it was just fun and kid games, but it was always alcoholic. We’d stand outside package stores waiting for buyers, and rarely went home empty-handed. By the time I was fourteen I was donning a Schlitz belt buckle, and had a dog named Boozer --supposedly named after the Jets’ running back Emerson Boozer. I had begun living in the shadows.
When we couldn’t buy the booze, we’d steal it. From my house we could count on hard stuff; from my best friend’s house, we’d steal his father’s Schaeffer Beer by the caseload. We loved that brew, mostly for the fact it was free, but we liked the sales jingle too: “Schaeffer Beer—the one beer to have when you’re having more than one!”
All in all, I had what I thought was a pretty good childhood. Real Tom Sawyer-like. I had a dog and bike and a paper route, plenty of farmlands and countryside to roam, many places to fish and trees to climb, nothing but blue sky, and enough athletic ability to run the football and the bases. There was never a shortage of pals, and girls to kiss (though I didn’t much understand them and was terrified of them; I was drawn to their difference and mystery like a moth to flame).
But it obviously wasn’t enough.
Pretty soon we stopped just stealing pies and tipping cows—and we turned mean. We became petty thieves, drug-store cowboys, wanna-be bad boys. In school I was always in trouble, and my list of crimes and misdemeanors grew rapidly. If we came upon other kids weaker than ourselves, we preyed upon them. Or we’d fight among ourselves: It was Lord of the Flies all over again.
We smoked Marlboro and Winston cigarettes—or anything else we could get: cigars, pipe tobacco. I think we even tried corn silk once. I practiced my Clint Eastwood look in the mirror, the fag dangling from lips, off to the side of my mouth. The grimace. A constant wince. James Dean had nothing on me and my buddies—rebels without a cause.
And the older I got, the bigger the hole grew.
Not sure what happened, really. Sometimes I think I just got bored. I’d been a reader as a kid, always reading books—though I hid that fact from most of my buddies. I loved adventure stories the most: science-fiction, westerns, south-sea travels, pirate stories, and tales of exploration. Running from the cops, and doin’ wrong brought a sense of excitement and adventure to a very selfish and misguided kid. In the stories I read, maybe even escaped to, I rooted for the hero—the lone figure standing up for what was right; yet, in real-life, I followed the pack of wrong-doers. Though my father had taught me right from wrong at an early age and to root for the underdog, the booze, and the drugs, and the whole lifestyle that came with them kept me from being the type of person I really wanted to be or knew I should be.
It wouldn’t be long before I stopped listening to my conscience. Maybe it was then that the hole in my soul began—a feeling that something was missing inside me. And in time, I jumped off the path of righteousness and right into the gutter. Well, hell, it just looked to be a whole lot more fun down there.
It wasn’t always like that. We’d been the golden boys of the block. But the older we got, the meaner we got. Just upped and decided to be contrary.
One example of this is quite telling of my fall from grace. I’d always loved animals as a child, all animals. But when my pal got a wrist-rocket slingshot, I did too. We’d stalk the streets and fields and forests around our houses looking for birds—neighbors never said anything for fear of retaliation.
Cats used to follow us.
I only hit one bird. It was a sparrow. It was a winter day in a snow-covered pine forest, and it disappeared in a puff of feathers. We never did find its little body. I felt so bad. I never hit another bird after that. Though I pretended to shoot at them, I always missed on purpose.
I’d always known there was a God—I was raised Catholic after all. My father used to bring my brothers and I to church every Sunday and stuff us in the pews and then go stand at the back of the church all important-like and direct people where to sit and after about an hour of Father Hurley yelling at us we’d leave and go home and that’s right where we’d leave God. We just didn’t have any kind of a higher power in our daily lives. Dad didn’t; he was an alcoholic after all—even for all his church activity. And my mother would stay at home for some “free time alone” while we men all went off to mass. There just wasn’t any spirituality that I could see then, or can see looking back now. Instead, there was a lot of raw emotions and angst in the house. What was happening at the churches I was going to, and what I was seeing in my own parents’ lives just wasn’t any way to live happily or serenely or in tune with the universe. But, still, I felt there was a God.
We left that town of Simsbury when I was sixteen and moved to California. I believed at the time I was escaping, and it really turned out to be true. Many of the kids I was hanging with went on get into real trouble with the law. Some of them died young. In fact, the year after we moved from Simsbury, we received a newspaper clipping from a family friend about how that little suburb of Hartford had started a national teen alcohol-awareness program. I like to say, tongue in cheek, how I was partly responsible for the birth of that noble and worthy cause. But the truth of the matter is… I really was. I remember my parents’ kind of sighing with relief when we all read it together that Sunday afternoon. They knew the trouble I was headed for back east. But they still didn’t know what to do about the booze and the drugs, and I guess they just felt I’d grow out of it or the problem would go away in a new environment and with new friends.
But, of course, California had alcohol and trouble … and I soon found them both.
The kids I hung out with were a lot nicer though. Still, having a good heart doesn’t save you from this disease. The summer after we graduated from high school, there were two car accidents that took four of my buddies’ lives and put another in a wheel chair where he still sits today. These were my very best friends, people I hung out with every day. More than just classmates, these were guys I went camping and fishing with, played sports with, double-dated and cruised the boulevards with. Did that make me stop and wise up? Nope. Nor any of those scrapes I had throughout my teens: minor in possession of alcohol (twice) and getting stopped by the cops twice (and let go!) while racing around drinking beer on the weekends. And there was lots more young-and-reckless stuff like that.
I thought I was fine—just an American kid working hard at various teen jobs (pumping gas mostly, then working in a liquor store), and playing hard (driving around in fast cars, drinking beer, chasing girls, and listening to rock n’ roll).
I got out of high school, barely, with a C-minus average, and enrolled in a community college where something snapped inside me and I decided to apply myself: I got good enough grades to apply to the University of California, Berkeley.
That summer, while waiting to get accepted, I embarked on my first drunken adventure by hitchhiking cross-country from California to Connecticut. Along the way, I was trying to live the life of a would-be novelist. By this time, I had read lots more books, some of ‘em good ones too, and had aspirations of being the next Jack Kerouac or John Steinbeck. Or maybe even Hunter S. Thompson!
My mother gave me a ride to the freeway entrance, glad to see me go, she’d later tell me. My Dad had died the year I turned seventeen. I was twenty then, tan, and full of myself. I thought that if I lived the life of an adventurer, the stories would write themselves.
I was afraid.
And drank my entire “fear and loathing” way across country.
Strange and mysterious things happened during that inebriated excursion. At one point, I’d gotten a ride from some Wyoming cowboys who picked me up just outside the gate at Yellowstone. They told me they’d just be going to the top of the mountain and then coming back down the same way after a few hours skiing. I didn’t care. I’d been sitting without a ride for so long, hung over and strung out from partying with a couple of bikers the night before. Discouraged, I took what ride I could, even if it meant getting let out at the top of the Rockies. I realized after a couple of hours up there alone, with the sun going down and the temperature dropping quickly, that I’d made a big mistake. It was unbelievably beautiful up there, desolate, raw, the hand of God. I heard the engine of a large truck coming up the hill and when it finally rounded the bend, I could see it was a highway maintenance vehicle painting a white dividing line down the middle of the road—but it was going the other way. Even then I was struck by the symbolism and the irony of the situation. Finally, a pick-up truck came chugging along, and I literally jumped out into the middle of the highway and made the guy stop and give me a ride—throwing my backpack into the back before he knew what hit him.
I’ve often wondered who that good stranger was. He was on his way to a summer camp for severely disabled kids, kids with major birth defects, and I remember thinking to myself I should be doing something like that—but knew I just didn’t have it in me to actually do it. That old blue Ford had the warmest car heater and the guy a quiet way about him, and soon I was thawing out. Those couple of hours we spent together winding our way down, down, down are still quite vivid. We talked but not much: What would I have to share with someone like him?
The Good Samaritan had something special about him I knew I didn’t have. Now I know it was a spiritual way—love and service of others. He let me off in Red Lodge, Montana, at the bottom of the mountain pass, and I hung out there for a couple of days drinking beer and whiskey, playing pool and eating buffalo burgers. I’d immediately forgotten the experience at the mountaintop because I was already in the bars where no one had much to say on the subject of God or The Way.
On the third night, I got into a fight after drinking way too much. I lost my key in the melee and had to crawl into the second story window of the youth hostel I was staying at. When I tried to sneak out at about two in the afternoon, long after check out, the owner caught me, and said she wanted to pray for me. I was so hung over, and shaky, I let her… especially since she agreed to give me a ride to the next big town where I could get a bus and finish out the rest of my drunken trip. That and I needed to get the hell out of Dodge! She actually “laid hands” on me, a type of fundamentalist Christian praying, and boy it was strange and made me uncomfortable, but I really didn’t have much choice. If I wanted a ride, I had to go along with it. She kept talking about how her Father owned everything: the hotel, the car she drove, her clothes, and, heck, He owned the whole town. I was thinking he must be some kind of rich guy beyond my imagination but then finally realized later on she was talking about God the Father.
Soon after the “ceremony” we were on the road and into the next big city where I could catch a long-haul bus—thankfully far away from the trouble I’d caused the night before. Before stopping at the depot, the old lady said she wanted to pick up some Bibles at the Christian bookstore. She asked me to come in with her to help her carry the boxes (for her Father) and once inside she started talking with some people—the owners and another customer. They decided to hold a Bible study that night and wanted me to attend. I’m sure I balked, but the other customer turned out to be a train conductor and said I could ride his train through two or three states that night. I jumped at the opportunity! To lead the life of an adventurer and a tough guy and ride the rails! Wouldn’t people—my family and the kids back home and especially the girls—think I was hip, slick, and cool! Here was something worth reading about!
So I went to the Bible study and I was polite and after it was over the conductor and I drove to the train where he let me out and told me to hop into a freight car and pull the large sliding door closed behind me. It was dusk by this time; at dark, he said, the train would pull out.
Before its departure, he instructed me, a brakeman would come and check out the train. He told me to watch for the lantern swinging down the tracks, and to make sure the guy didn’t see me, “‘Cause if he and the bulls catch you they’ll surely enjoy throwin’ you in jail.” Quiet as a mouse, I waited in the dark of the boxcar. Finally the light came and when it passed I knew it was safe to come out. I ran back to the end of the train to ride with the conductor wherever the engine would pull us. In an old-style caboose, I think it was even red, I listened to the conductor tell me tales of the rails and the roads of his own life.
The conductor and I sat up in two elevated window seats, each of us on either side of the high car. I remember looking out the window at the mysterious moonlit landscape, feeling shaky still from the night before, the whole while listening to his friendly voice telling me about his own youth, his own twenties and how he used to be a fall-down drunk who would pass out in the snow, fight in the bars and the streets and the alleyways, come home late every night, his wife and kids wondering what was to become of them with a husband and a father like the one they had.
That entire night he never tried to push God down my throat, not once the whole time we rode up there in the windows of the caboose looking out at the ghostly world, but he knew I was listening. Some of it was sinking in, he must have known, ‘cause I was just so quiet … pummeled into submission once again by the booze. One time he did ask, “Are you listenin’?” But I didn’t answer him out loud, just nodded my head in the dark.
You know, I realize now, that was the first guy to plant the seeds of sobriety in me. I don’t know if he was in AA, but I gotta’ believe so today. He was the first sober alcoholic to tell me there was another way for me, a much better way. It would be years later though before those seeds would come to fruition
I finally made it across country. I don’t know how many more days it took me. I do know there was lots more drinking, and lots more inappropriate behavior, much of the time around some really nice people: Americans who just happened to be standing in the way when I roared through … just like that tornado of destruction an alcoholic usually is, the same the Big Book describes so well. There were country girls who thought I was a nice boy, only to find out I was a mean drunk. And there were people in the bars—partying with me one second, running the next. At one point, a kind family even took me in, a farming family in Indiana who let me stay with them. During the day, they went off to work but I found some idle and wayward neighbors and we drank and then some. But I got along with the large, hard-working but happy family real well—because I wasn’t without charm (translated: manipulation skills). Alcoholics usually have something that helps them get by. I could rely on all-American looks back then and humor and even some manners when they served me, and it all worked for a while. The oldest son, Joe, a little bit older than me, even let me stay with him and his kids. The plan was for me to enjoy some Indiana hospitality for several days, and after that finish my coast-to-coast trek by driving east with them where the family would be joining Joe’s wife.
The night before Joe was going to bring me to Connecticut, I drank all night and slept with a neighbor girl, her baby beside us in a crib. I practically poured myself into his car with his two kids in the back the next morning, pretty much passed out the whole way. I think we stopped for hamburgers once. I remember thinking not to worry about him; he was just some Howdy Doody kind of guy, wearing a sky blue leisure-suit when I first met him, when he’d first picked me up hitchhiking and then said I could stay with him and his family until they left for their trip. I scoffed, or wanted to, at his matching sky blue diesel Volkswagen Rabbit when they drove away and I could see him looking at me with that look of disdainful wonderment in his rear view mirror. I tried to brush him off, and his kind family back in Indiana, too. Only I knew inside he was a good man, and I had shamefully treated yet one more person who had treated me kindly. He literally dropped me off at the dirt road to the farm that was my final destination, a place I’d worked summers as a kid. Why he did that I’ll never know (But I know now, after writing this all down … more has been revealed; and I need to track that family down and make some further amends. I still remember their last name—after twenty years.)
In Connecticut, I stayed and drank and saw old mates but we’d all grown up … or those who had survived did. Like I said, a few didn’t make it. No, it wasn’t the same and I finally went home to California where I had applied to university and had a high school sweetheart waiting for me (why she waited, I’ll never know). She sent me money for a plane ticket and I flew home, reading Siddhartha on the long trip back.
Lo and behold, I did get accepted into Berkeley and then proceeded to drink and drug my way out. Big surprise.
It wasn’t long into the second year there that left for a big geographic escape. I’d been living in a bit of an Animal House fraternity, and when I decided to hit the road no one came out to say goodbye. I’d spent most of my one and a half years in the basement of the giant, old house playing pool, snorting cocaine and drinking beer. I’d dropped out of school, and the brothers said if I wasn’t in school I’d have to go. So go I did. I remember packing up my truck and gathering up a stray dog I named Max that had been hanging around the house to take with me. Just as I was about to pull out of the driveway, one of the guys came out to empty the garbage and as I was driving away he didn’t really wave, just said, “Take it easy,” then grinned and kind of laughed.
In Berkeley, I’d been working at a pizza parlor on the north side, where I’d learned from another guy that he’d dropped out of Berkeley a few years back to attend Humboldt State up north and in the redwoods. He was just back to work and hang out for the summer. That sounded like a good plan and the place for me: forests and rivers and the ocean and getting back to nature and out of the city.
I made my way north and landed in Arcata, a college town, and enrolled in the school. Over the course of a few years, and after working in a couple of pizza parlors, I started bartending, first at a nice hotel and by the end at a place called Marino’s Club. Arcata had lots of cantinas surrounding the plaza, and I was quite happy running from bar to bar. By this time, I’d dropped out of school again.
Marino’s Club had been a house of ill repute in the old logging days, so it was said, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It was a rowdy place and I was like a kid in a candy store. They gave me the keys to the joint and every night I walked the plank and served two for one drinks at happy hour during the week as well as on Fridays and Saturdays when it was the craziest. The juke box was loud and there were drunks and college kids streaming in and out, and bouncers and fights and dealers running drugs and girls, lots of girls, and at two in the morning we’d lock the doors and party. It was all going quite fine for a long time, though I was getting more and more empty inside. For years now, I’d known something was wrong and that it was probably the booze and the drugs and all the other stuff that comes along with that life that was sapping my spirit. But, hey, I was an American kid doing what American kids do … and so just kept on. By the end I’d gone from being someone who people were genuinely happy to see to someone who they’d nearly shun, asking me, “What do you want?” when they saw me coming.
I often talk about what it was that first got me into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and I think more than anything it was the look in other people’s eyes—like the one Joe gave me when he left me standing at Hall’s farm. I’d become just such a loser—and everyone who came into contact with me now knew it.
There was one guy I remember in particular, and the way he looked at me a few times has stayed with me. He seems like such a minor character now in my life, but at the time… somehow was one of the final mirrors I needed to look at myself for who I really was.
A girl had shown up in the bar one day, and the next thing I knew she was pregnant and we were shacking up and I knew I was running from my life. She had money from an accident she’d been in, and some insurance cash out and a house from it all, and I was bartending and carrying on. She was no saint, having gone to Humboldt County to grow pot with her boyfriend, and at one point even got me a job in an Arcata head shop. She knew lots of people selling and doing lots of cocaine. But when she got pregnant she cleaned up … while I just kept on.
We went to birth classes together, and she was always yelling at me, saying how worried she was that I wouldn’t be there for the birth. But I was. Luckily. It was a Thursday and my night off. I was home for some reason and all through the night she was in labor and into the next day when the doctor and his nurse-wife came to our house to deliver the baby. I’d been up all night, though I’d not been drinking. I remember being just so tired and having nothing to give by the time the baby came at 12:10 p.m. The nurse had to come get me off the couch, saying “C’mon… This is your baby!” I’d reached, once and for all, that place where an alcoholic has nothing to give. Finally, the baby popped out. I cut the chord, and then went out to smoke a cigarette. I’ll never forget opening up the front door and looking up and seeing a huge, perfect rainbow.
And not feeling anything inside.
Staring up at the miracle in the sky, I knew I should be feeling some magic, some of that happily-ever-after I knew so well from reading books as a kid … and watching the Walton’s with my mother (okay, keep that one to yourself!). But I felt nothing and knew I was finally in a lot of trouble. The hole had consumed me. God sent me a banner telling me so.
But I continued on and played house, tried to be a father, tried to pretend to be human. Sometimes after my shifts at the bar, my girlfriend would call and tell me to go pick up some formula for the baby. I went to this Safeway, where I’d met a guy on the night shift several months earlier. His name was Fred, and I can’t remember how we started getting to know each other. I remember him giving me friendly advice like a big brother would about how to get ready for the birth, how to be a dad and all. All that in just a few minutes each time I’d go in. I must have been going in to get beer, or who knows what? But I remember going in there after the baby was born and buying formula but being all screwed up on booze and coke and having this guy Fred, this very nice-guy-nobody named Fred, look at me as if I was scum. Didn’t say anything. Sold me the beer along with the formula, and I left. After doing that a few times, always getting the same look, I made sure I never had to go back again. I just didn’t want to have to feel guilty like that ever again. I never, ever again wanted to look at myself in the mirrors that were Fred’s eyes.
Now this is toward the end of the drinking. With the baby arrived, and all the years of drinking and drugs, I was wounded and cornered. The fun was long gone. There’s a great saying that goes around the meeting rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous describing the career of an alcoholic: “First it’s fun. Then it’s fun and problems. And at the end it’s just problems.” That’s one I can relate to.
So, my girlfriend would go off to work in the morning and I’d have been home for just a few hours after sneaking in from the bars and she’d turn over the baby to me and I’d say, “I got her!” But I didn’t. Just too hung over or drugged out or just feeling empty inside. I put our little girl in a walker and hit the couch, and how that little kid didn’t end up dead around me I’ll never know. God’s grace I guess. And the guy who loved kids, just could not love his own.
One day I’d woken up there in the living room, on the couch, and Lindsey had gotten into the fireplace. There she was, in the cold ashes, soot all over her face, blinking her white eyes out at me. A funny picture now maybe, but at the time. … I jumped up in fear and panic, and the hole in my stomach was intense and painful right then and it was now, at this time in my life, where I was getting to know those Four Horsemen too well.
By the time Lindsey was two I was out of the bars. Or at least, I wasn’t bartending anymore.
I’d gotten in a fight one night though, outside Marino’s Club. The San Francisco 49ers had just beaten the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl and I’d run into a disgruntled Cincinnati fan. We fought until the cops came and by the time they showed I was bloody and the other guy was bloody and our clothes were ripped and torn and they took us away in separate cars and in handcuffs—though I assured the police officers none of it was my fault. They grinned and laughed at me, too.
For a while it was kind of fun there in the drunk tank. A bunch of other idiots like me had been picked up, and we were cutting up and it was all a big joke and at one point we got some floozy across the way in another holding cell to lift her shirt. It was all a bunch of laughs until some giant guard with a crew cut came for me and told me to get my shoes (because they take your shoes from you when you act like an idiot) and when I lipped off to him he was having none of it and jacked my arm up behind my back so fast I didn’t know what hit me. The party was over.
They let me out at about 1 a.m. I’d pounded on the walls and then cried myself a puddle, crazy drunk on gin, at one point thinking I was some kind of political prisoner.
By the time I got out to the fresh air, I’d had the moment of clarity and a dose of what was in store for me the rest of my life. On the streets of Eureka, in the quiet and the dark, I looked up and made a wish on a bright star … and was in an AA meeting the next night. I’d finally asked God to help me—must have meant it—said it loud enough that I was heard.
It took me a couple of times coming in and out of AA before it stuck. At first I didn’t get a sponsor and I didn’t do the Twelve Steps, so I might as well have come and stood outside the rooms and looked through the window because there was no way I was going to get sober that way.
It’s true and you’d better believe it: half-measures availed us nothing.
I finally asked the guy whom I’d wanted to be my sponsor in the beginning but was too afraid to approach. I’d had five months sober at one point—and was talking to Mike, and another old-timer, Keith G., up at a meeting in a tiny little fishing village, Trinidad. We were in the kitchen of the town grange drinking coffee, and I was telling them both I was going back to bartending but that I wasn’t going to drink. I’d gotten a great job offer at a nice place and I just couldn’t pass it up.
Keith G. said, “Fine! Fine! If that’s what you think you need to do. You go right on ahead.” I’m pretty sure he was grinning too.
Mike looked at me seriously and said, “You don’t go into a whorehouse for a kiss.”
Well, I went back to bartending and drank near beers for a while but finally, after work one day with some of the heat of the previous scrapes off my back and some money in my pocket and bank account, I drank a tall, cold beer. Man, it tasted good! And I was off and running again.
By the time I crawled back into the rooms of AA, I was ready to ask Mike to be my sponsor. I knew I needed someone in my life who’d tell it like it is. I was ready to do the Steps.
We met for the first time at a classic AA coffee shop, Stanton’s in Eureka. There we sat in a corner booth and I told him what was going on with me. I knew right then and there I was gettin’ got like I’d never gotten got before.
It was true. Parents, girlfriends, wives, priests, the cops, teachers, friends—no one close to me or who cared about me—could understand or help me do anything about my drinking. I knew that after that first night of talking with Mike. It was just as the magic happened when Bill first met Bob, and one alcoholic helped another, and the fellowship was born.
Well, later on I found out from Mike that he didn’t think I’d stay sober. And that’s why he’d given me the controversial first task of not drinking and going to meetings and doing so on my own. Mike gave me my first assignment—keep a gratitude list for thirty days and then he’d work with me. He knew me for the selfish and spoiled brat that I was, even after our first meeting. If I could stay sober for thirty days and follow instructions, then and only then would Mike commit to working the Steps with me.
But by that time, I was willing to do anything.
So that’s what we did. After thirty shaky days of sobriety and my keeping that gratitude list and reading the first 164 pages of the Big Book on my own, we went to meetings together and met often at his house and talked about it all. I was lucky to have found this man. Later on he’d tell me he felt lucky to meet me, but it took me a long, long time to get that one.
Mike was a longshoreman and had lots of spare time and this really neat old Victorian House with lots of land. He had a librarian wife and a big old shaggy dog and a picnic table in the back by the barn, and we’d sit out there and I’d smoke cigarettes and tell Mike about my life and struggles of working at Round Table Pizza (decided at this point it was better to get out of the bartending trade). I’d complain and whine, fret over what would come of me … a two year old in my life and this crappy job where I was wearin’ a whole lot of polyester and so what if I was the assistant manager and got to wear the blue hat and made a quarter more than everyone else? My life sucked! But I wasn’t going to drink … and knew it … and had no idea what was in store for my future. I just wanted to go out sober come what may. At night, every night, I read the Big Book and the Promises until I could fall asleep. And I went to meetings whenever possible.
And Mike would listen to my tales of woe, and the road truly was windy and bumpy but he’d always get me back in line and on the funky straight and narrow, this when I was just about to crash simply from being alive on planet Earth without a way to take the edge off. Mike would point out that this way was better than the other life I’d been leading. Mike, through his own trudging, taught me about turning it over and above all about gratitude, and how to try to always stay grateful. That way, I could stay happy—come what may—and never want to drink again. As for the future, we’d leave that up to God.
Mike made me laugh. Often and hard we’d crack up over stuff going on in our lives, some of it even a bit sad, in the rooms and out: The tragic-comedies that are the lives of alcoholics.
And that’s why I’d chosen my sponsor Mike in the first place. He had some good sober time together and obviously a lot of love for AA and wore a black leather jacket and drove a Porsche and made people laugh and I wanted what he had. I still desperately wanted to be cool, and to laugh and to make people laugh.
It was a long, slow process for me, getting sober, and recovering. Getting some sanity in my life. And the trudge was long and hard. But along the way beautiful and magical things were happening and are still happening today.
So in that first wonderful, terrible, confusing, glorious, eye-opening, terrifying, loving, sing-the-blues, pink cloud, emotional roller coaster of a first year, I worked my lousy job and tried to keep a lousy car on the road. (Did so only through the help of my AA brother, Chris, a mechanic and pal I made in the rooms and desperately needed to help pull me through, and still need after all these years.) Through it all, tried to be a good father … and went to AA. My girlfriend and I broke up, and though she was determined to prove me a loser, I just wasn’t anymore. I didn’t know that at the time and my self-esteem was still at rock bottom, but at least I’d left the pit of futility and was on the road to success and some respectability. I was playing by the rules and finally becoming a part of society again.
I went to lots of meetings, and got involved in service and stuck with the winners. Previously, I’d get to the meeting late and leave early—too afraid to talk to anyone. I began to hang around before and after the meetings. At the Sobriety Society, I would wash ashtrays and coffee cups in the big kitchen at the big sink and actually look forward to the chore. People would come by and place their dirty dishes in the sink and pat me on the back and I wouldn’t raise my head or say anything, I was just too afraid. But I’ll never forget how good that felt—those pats on the back. I’d lost touch with humanity, and any feelings of good about myself. That was the beginning of regaining some self-esteem. I heard someone say the other day at a meeting: “If you want self-esteem, do esteemable things.” How true that was for me.
So I made coffee, cleaned up, and was a secretary of the Sobriety Society. I laughed to myself that where once I held the keys to a bar, now I was the key master of a church! Ha! And I was staying sober and working my lousy job and hanging with Mike and trying to hang onto the planet just to keep from flying off. I had a long way to go still, a long way to go to get out of that deep, dark hole I’d dug for my life. But I didn’t feel so much like a loser any more—and the hole in my soul was getting smaller.
Slowly, I got it together enough to realize I wanted to finish school. But in the meantime, I had eloped. I had met a girl at the pizza parlor, and she and I had a crazy, classically dysfunctional, wonderful alkie/addict relationship. I was clean and sober, but still stark-raving mad, and she was young and still running and gunning. When I say I eloped, I need to clarify by saying that I called everyone to tell them that Rhonda and I were on the way to Reno to get married. We’d gone to the river that day in the Mustang and just kept driving. We called all our friends and family, called everyone but Mike, my sponsor, because I knew he would have said, “Turn the car around. Are you listening to the sound of my voice? Turn the car around and come home quick. There’s still time!”
But Mike never got that chance, and in the ensuing two years I put him, and his wife Kenzie (who has a lot of Al-Anon recovery and experience, strength, and hope) through a lot of turmoil. But they stuck by me.
By the time I was three years sober I was back in college and lo and behold was pulling straight A's. I’d gotten a job at a bank, had quit smoking and was running 10K races, was going to lots of meetings, doing everything I could to be a success and feel alive. At one point I began sculpting, actually creating rather than destroying. No matter what I did though, I couldn’t keep that blonde-haired, blue-eyed little beauty I married settled down, and she nearly took me down. I loved her and hated her at the same time. Mike kept telling me, “That’s not the kind of love you want in your life. …” But I wouldn’t or couldn’t listen.
Through all the craziness, I managed to stay sober, or, at least, I wasn’t drinking. I worked hard and went to meetings, and finally she and I separated for good.
At one point, just after I’d gotten my own place, life got really hard. But I saw that it was a challenge; the obstacles before me were mountains I could climb. I was sharing a studio with another guy who was working in the same twenty-four hour Shell gas station in Walnut Creek. He had the graveyard shift and while I worked the swing shift; we’d take turns using the one-room studio to sleep and eat. While manning the gas station and making rent and enough money for food and gas for my car, I could study for my teaching credential program right up the road.
This was the third year of my sobriety, and I’ll never forget it. Strange that I should look back on it as the most important time of my sobriety, even view it now with some fondness and pride, not regretting whatsoever that the year went down the way it did.
Walnut Creek happens to be just one town over from the town in which I’d gone to high school. I was pretty miserable, my heart battered then shattered. At times I was literally dropped to my knees by the events in my life—and on a few occasions found myself in the fetal position due to the pain I was experiencing over my pending divorce. I came to find out that I’d probably replaced the booze and drugs with a crazy relationship, and now I was finally left with just myself. It turned out I still didn’t like me much at all. What little self-confidence, or self-esteem, I’d built up was annihilated.
My first week at the gas station I thought about blowing the whole place up and going out with a bang! And then one of those cool AA miracles happened. One day, a tiny little beat up pick-up truck pulled in with a lawn mower in the back and a bumper sticker that read “Expect A Miracle,” and there was the triangle right next to it. A little Mexican guy about my age jumped out of the cab. Francisco was his name. He was also fairly new in AA, and it turned out he was the gardener of the place and would be coming by three times a week. Here, suddenly and out of nowhere, the way miracles usually appear, was some source of hope and inspiration. Francisco would become my friend and was just a little something I could look forward to, a signpost from God to just keep going—to stay in school and keep working that lousy job. To keep on trudging. And trudging it was. I was wearing a polyester tie, and working in a gas station—the thirty-year-old man in the glass booth. Guys that I’d gone to high school with pulled in to the station a few times in their Mercedes and BMWs and were surprised to see me. They said, “Cov? Cov! How’s it going?” A question they already knew the answer to. After that, I was always sure to have my schoolbooks around to show people what I was trying to do. Really, though, it didn’t matter what anybody thought. Finally, I was getting that “to thine own self be true” thing. I was determined to survive, to finish school and to get my teaching credential. I would have lived in a cave if that’s what I had to do to reach my goal.
On the days Francisco would show up, he and I would talk about going to Mexico and opening up a little store together some day. Nothing big, just a little something we could call our own, something to make enough money to raise a little family, with a house in the back. And he and I were just two more down and out AA guys staying sober, definitely trudging, kind of like the characters from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Just like Lenny and George, a couple of down-on-their-luck, hired hands, a couple of nobodies dreaming of having a place of their own some day and a better lot in life. Lenny, the hapless wit would say, “Tell about the bunny rabbits, George … tell about the rabbits!” And George would tell Lenny about all the wonderful things they were going to have on their beautiful farm—especially the rabbits.
I don’t know whatever happened to Francisco. As for me, I did finish the credential program and divorced that girl … finally dropped the rock … and next volunteered to work for a Catholic order of priests called the Salesians. They’re kind of like the Jesuits or the Franciscans, though they concentrate on working with the world’s poorest youth. I would go to Mexico after all. And I would help little kids: The Forgotten, they called themselves.
For six months I lived with other volunteers on the border of the United States and Mexico, in the city across from El Paso—Ciudad Juarez—and worked with the street kids and orphans—The Forgotten. It was a pretty strict religious situation, and while I was supposed to live and work there a year, I lasted half that time. I thanked and said goodbye to the priests, jumped on a bus, and headed for the south of Mexico and the Guatemalan border state of Chiapas where, I’d been reading in the newspapers, there was a quasi-revolution happening. I had two hundred dollars in my pocket. But I was feeling happy, joyous, and free, and I was finally doing the things I told people I was going to do someday, when I was sitting there on that bar stool and going nowhere fast.
I got a job teaching English for about sixteen pesos an hour, or about two dollars. My oldest brother sent me fifty dollars a month. I was able to live comfortably in a small hotel or posada. I found another gringo at the meetings, a retired curator of the Latin American Studies Library at Stanford, and he, another American from Indiana, and I started a little meeting of our own. I’ll never forget hearing How It Works read out loud in English at that little meeting, after hearing it in Spanish, or not at all, for the previous six months. Jim B. was my friend when I needed one and just one more of the good and kind and strong men that were put in my path when I needed them throughout my sobriety. He taught me about the history of Mexico and Central America and we talked baseball together and ate great food and listened to music and danced with señoritas and did AA together. Finally, I was in fact living the life of an adventurer. (I realized it had started the day I quit drinking.) Finally, I was the hero of my own story!
I returned to the States after a year in Mexico, speaking Spanish, and ready to go work as a public school teacher in California.
I landed a job in Monterey, where I taught high school and middle school English and bilingual Spanish. My home group was the Sunrise group which met at 6:45 a.m. every day of the week, and what I’d learn in that classroom I’d take with me into my classroom. This thing we do spreads like the ever-widening circles from that proverbial pebble. All we need to do is toss it in the pond. After just seven years as an educator, I was actually training new teachers for the state. It was a great run where I got to teach books like To Kill A Mockingbird, The Diary of Ann Frank, The Hobbit, The Great Gatsby, and more. My eighth grade class and I even used Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech every year to create our own poems using his text and words. Oh, and I always read and referred to Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, a personal favorite of mine ever since I finally tried and loved Alcoholics Anonymous as it is suggested—as a program of recovery defined by the 12 Steps—and as it is outlined in the first 164 pages of the Big Book.
It was while attending the Sunrise Group one morning that I raised my hand to volunteer to be the group’s General Service Representative. That was five years ago, and because of the experience I like to now say, “Had I not gotten to AA I would have missed my life; had I not gotten to General Service, I would have missed AA.” The things I have learned about the history of AA and Bill and Bob and the rest of the Good Old-timers, and the studying of the Traditions and Concepts and service structure has given me a new-found love for our fellowship—and a passion to carry the message like never before.
I’ll end by saying that I’ve just returned from living in China for the last two years. It happened one day that a woman wandered in to our Sunrise meeting and my life would never be the same after that. She was there in Monterey to study Chinese for the U.S. Navy. We began to date regularly soon after I’d asked her to a cup of tea. In six months we were married. Shortly after that, after a big wedding with all our family and AA friends, we embarked on the adventure of lifetime.
Before we left for the other side of the world, at our wedding, we released Monarch butterflies. I’d found some local guy who sells then ships them throughout the country for people to celebrate special events.
Butterflies. Talk about symbolism!
Now we’ve bought a house and we’re living in Hawaii. This summer, I’ll begin a Masters program at the University of Hawaii. I’ve bought a bird book and am now able to identify some ten different species and counting. Bird watching and habitat conservation have become a new hobby of mine. (Remember! What you hear here let it stay here! <g>) Soon, I begin sailing lessons—with hopes of being able to sail from island to island! I have an antiques business that I’d started in China with a crew of three workers and an assistant. We toured the countryside and found the antiques and fixed them up, and now sell them in the States. We’ll have a new and improved web page soon to continue and expand our business: 23 Dragons Antiques. From Beijing and beyond, we’ve brought to our house, family, and friends—as well as to market—beautiful treasures of the Orient.
It was while in China that some friends of mine from Monterey and I started a very cool online AA group—The e-AA Group. What a blessing! These were my good General Service pals who I met with every Friday for lunch at Chong’s Café—Chinese/American food—and lots of laughs and informal discussion about the district and area. To be able to attend meetings and share the language of the heart online with these friends, and others we have met along the way, really saved me, as we didn’t have too much AA going on in Qingdao. My wife and I did start a group there, with a Canadian guy named Leon. Leon was my good friend, and is proof positive that no matter where I go in the world—if I’m open to it—I’m going to find people, really cool people, to do this recovery thing with. The name of our group was the Vision for You group. I think it’s still listed in the international directories. Our group joined other ex-pat groups to form an intergroup in Beijing. Our goal was to be responsible, to get organized so to better carry the message to foreign alcoholics living in or visiting China. And we watched with amazement, while some of us participated, in the coming of age of AA in that secret foreign land.
Though I’ve only been here on Oahu two months, I’ve found an “awesome” home group—the Pioneer Group—and volunteered to be the General Service Representative. Because of that group and others I’ve been to, I’ve got a large list of phone numbers and AA friends already.
And best of all, last night, at a beach meeting complete with tiki torches and warm tropical breezes, underneath palm trees and shining stars, a young alcoholic named Chris with eight days clean and sober and the same sobriety date as mine, April 23, asked me to be his sponsor after hearing me tell my story. Said he was looking for a better way.
Keep on trudgin’ everyone… keep on trudgin’!
"We shall be with you in the Fellowship of the Spirit, and you will surely meet some of us as you trudge the Road of happy Destiny." (p. 164 The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous)