A Part of ...
Brett K, Mahoning Valley, Northeast Ohio
In an attempt to dispel any notions that alcoholism can be defined by any one causal event, I’ll start from the beginning, prior to my first drink.
My family history is riddled with wanton destruction by alcoholism — and with amazing stories of recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous. Great-grandfathers on both sides of the family were alcoholics who, after abandoning their families, died drunk. One grandfather was definitely an alcoholic. While serving time in prison for crimes committed while in blackouts, the A.A. message was carried to him in the 1940s. He went on to become one of the pioneer members of A.A. in my home town; many of our old-timers recall him fondly. I never had the chance to meet him as he passed away young and well before my birth.
I was born and raised in a mid-sized city in the heartland of America. My family was working middle-class. My mother was a stay-at-home mom for a time and a working mom at other times. My father was and still is a partner in a small family-owned business with his brothers and was always around for my brother and me. I grew up attending church, regularly, and surrounded by a loving extended family. So, it appears my family is off the “blame hook.”
Sometime, very early on, I became aware that I was different from others. As far back as I can remember I never felt as if I belonged with any group. Moreover, I never felt any group was interested in having me involved. Similarly, as early as grade school, I was given to periods of depression and loneliness. I desperately wanted to be one of the crowd yet anonymous in the same breath. This combination resulted in a kid who was quiet, overly sensitive, and a chronic day-dreamer. My desire to be “anywhere but here” is a common theme throughout my life.
I can’t recall my first drink. There were countless sips of beer for the amusement of my dad and his brothers at family outings or on a hot Midwest afternoon. I can, however, vividly recall my first drunk as if it were this past weekend. Here’s the thing: I can recall absolutely hating the taste of alcohol and the determination I had to try it until I liked it.
I was smoking pot well before I ever got drunk. I always was able to take or leave drugs, and they have little to do with my alcoholism except for one thing. The first time I ever tried them, I was busted. It was at a church youth group retreat. I got into terrible trouble and it made me a folk hero amongst my peers. I enjoyed the attention and I craved that more than any chemical high up to that point. Drugs are a part of many stories in A.A.; however, alcoholism is what brought me here.
When I was a sophomore in high school, after our school’s first football game of the season, I rode around town with a carload of “cool kids,” swilling beer like a pro. I was clever, witty, and hilarious, I’m pretty sure. Most of all, for a moment, I was one of “them.” I was having the time of my life. Though the evening ended with my father walking into the living room to find me face down in my vomit while mom scrubbed the rest of my stomach contents off of the arm of her sofa, an illustrious, colorful drinking career was underway. I couldn’t wait for the next beer.
Throughout high school, there was the way most high school kids drank and there was the way I drank. When I was drunk, I felt a little less estranged from society. I was one of the crowd, and I loved it. With a passion I set about learning to hold my booze and was not without considerable success. If my studies or music (my only other outside interest was singing and playing music) had received half the passion my drinking did, I probably would have had my choice of schools to attend on a musical scholarship.
I attended my first A.A. meeting in 1983 after my cousin, recently out of a treatment center, paid a visit on a Saturday morning. He found me sleeping off another terrible hangover. His visit turned into a Twelfth-Step call. Those “goofs” in the meeting had nothing I needed; but, through attendance at meetings and little else, I actually stayed sober for two months. Then prom season and other senior-class activities came around so I left the goofs to their silly meetings.
Absolute lack of effort in school and fear of the future caused me to pre-enlist in the Army during my senior year. That’s when my drinking became the stuff of nightmares. I found methods, even in basic training, to get the alcohol I needed so that I wouldn’t feel like such a stranger in a strange land. Once I was in advanced training and on to permanent assignment with fewer restrictions, my drinking took on proportions I never dreamed possible.
My Army career was riddled with violent encounters, black-outs, and seemingly endless disciplinary actions against me. By this time, paranoia was entrenched and I was convinced I was a terminal victim. “No one understood me.” Once, facing serious trouble for an absent-without-leave incident, in desperation I informed my commanding officer that I believed I was an alcoholic and needed treatment. I knew the system and that my admission would buy me some time and take the heat off.
I attended counseling sessions and began to attend A.A. meetings again. An officer in the meetings knew me and took an interest in my recovery. He gave me a copy of the Big Book — Alcoholics Anonymous — along with tremendous support and encouragement. He drove me to meetings, picked up the tab at the coffee shop afterwards, and tried to get me started on the Twelve Steps, the A.A. program of recovery. I didn’t need the Steps by this time. The heat was off and I was dying for a drink. I knew I could handle it this time. I was in control, and I let that nice officer know. He simply shrugged and said, “Okay. If you’re sure you’re up to it. Just keep my phone number handy. Just in case.” We never spoke again.
By this time I was married to my high school sweetheart. While she enjoyed the occasional drinking binge, she was by no means in my league and soon gave up drinking and drugging at my pace. We went on an overseas assignment. As the tour was about to end she returned to the States ahead of me. My last hurrah with my buddies resulted in my arrest by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division on drug charges. I was facing a general court martial. The drugs were merely incidental. It was my drinking that got me into the circumstances of being arrested while carrying dope.
The Army chose to waive the charges as a result of intervention by our U.S. Senator at my family’s request. I was given a General Discharge and sent on my way. I arrived home after a two-day bus ride at six in the morning, high on dope and cocaine and drunk on homemade wine. I had purchased the dope and coke with cashed out U.S. Savings Bonds the Army had provided at my discharge. It was all the money I had in the world. The wine came from a fellow veteran who felt sorry for me due to Uncle Sam’s giving me the shaft! I had never felt such shame and remorse as I did that morning when my family greeted me at the bus station. My drinking would continue five more years. So much for shame and remorse doing the trick.
Over those last five years jobs came and went. A daughter was born, and a marriage was being destroyed by my deceit, deception, and utter selfishness. Money was always tight, but my booze budget never suffered. Beer was becoming passé and took too long to work. It merely washed down the tequila and bourbon that had become my “poisons” at the bar.
In the early 1990s I was in a mental state that I can barely describe other than to say I was completely morally bankrupt. Three days prior to my daughter’s second birthday I found an excuse to break my latest promise to my wife not to drink — after a horrific night just two days earlier that had left me contemplating suicide. After writing a series of bogus checks for cash around town, I ended up in another blackout. I came to in the apartment of a woman I didn’t know in a city nine hours and two states away from mine. Having been the driver, I don’t know how I got there alive. That was the first in a series of miracles that stretch from that day to this.
I called my wife to let her know I was still alive and to tell her not to worry. She thanked me for the information but said she was busy and couldn’t talk. My entire family was at the house celebrating my daughter’s second birthday. In my car, which was barely in shape to drive up the street, I headed home. The terror, remorse, and self-loathing were unbearable. I cried out, begging God to just “do something!” I asked Him to either intervene and help me or just take my life, then and there. I meant it. I wanted to die.
It was then that my moment of clarity came. Everything I’d done and everyone I’d hurt ran through my head. I sobbed. Then, as suddenly as the sobbing started, it left me and was replaced by such complete calm and peace that I knew the hand of God was on my shoulder and the love only God is capable of was filling my heart. I will swear to my dying day, He made a direct intervention in my life and saved me.
I arrived home on a Sunday night. My wife, mother, and step-father were waiting in my living room. An intervention was about to take place. (My mother had been working in the local drug and alcohol treatment center for some time.) I told them they needn’t bother, I was completely defeated, and I would consent, without a court order, to treatment. However, I asked if I could try A.A. one more time for thirty days. I promised that if I drank, even a sip, I’d go to treatment. My mother made some calls and found a meeting I could attend the next night. On the evening of July 9, 1990, I walked into the Monday Night Unity Group meeting and haven’t taken a drink from that day to this.
With my heart, mind, and ears open and my mouth shut, I listened to the experience, strength, and hope the others shared that night. I was surrounded by a group of strangers who knew me better than I knew myself. I was handed a meeting card full of phone numbers, a white poker chip (to symbolize my first meeting, a clean slate), and thirty-five cents to make a phone call before I took a drink. I knew I was home.
One of the men asked me if I had a Big Book. I thought for a moment. I had been out of the Army for five years. I had given away or lost all of my uniforms, lost most of the paperwork, and given any remaining mementos to my family. I’d moved three times in those five years. But my answer was yes, I had a Big Book. I went home that night and found it in the first place I looked. It was the Big Book that officer had given me during my second foray into A.A. It was in mint condition! I count that amongst God’s blessings as well.
I quickly found a sponsor who had several years of sobriety and a spiritual peace about him that I craved. We immediately started on the Twelve Steps. I worked them with passion. My sponsor taught me how to act in society. He taught me that we must do what we say we’ll do when we say we’ll do it. He taught me to handle people I didn’t care for with impeccable manners. He taught me how to be accountable and to utilize spiritual principles in decision making. He taught me what it means to be a real man.
My home group was the outlet for my service work. Service ranged from greeting at the doors, to making coffee, to being the group secretary and even being asked to be a lead speaker on a couple of different occasions. All the while, I tried to maintain the spirit of anonymity expressed in the Twelfth Tradition. If my ego got to me, which it often would, my group and sponsor were quick to point it out, with love. I’ve been blessed with the greatest miracle and gift any alcoholic could dream of, a life with friendship, sanity, and sobriety.
I wish I could close by saying that everything has been perfect from that day forward. A.A. offers a course of action that brings us to God, then God provides the blessing of sobriety. There is no promise of perfection, though. Another daughter was born during my first year of sobriety, which was another blessing. However, my marriage did not withstand the damage I had inflicted. It ended a bit before my first anniversary in A.A.
I made a very dear friend in the fellowship shortly after joining. I’ll call her Sarah. We worked for the same company. Our stories were similar. I persuaded her to join my home group, and she became very involved. This was the first female friendship I ever conducted that was borne of love and respect with no sexual overtones. We were both living free of that bondage.
I lost my job and began withdrawing from A.A. My A.A. commitments did not allow enough time to feel sorry for myself. Self-will took over, and those old feelings of being “apart-from” crept in. I lost touch with my home group, sponsor, and Sarah. One day, a friend of mine from the group called. I was more than happy to regale him with tales of how unfair life was, but he interrupted. Sarah’s physical health had been poor since I’d met her. She was older and had drank many more years than me. He had called to tell me that she had been admitted for surgery a couple of days ago and had died on the operating table earlier that day. I hadn’t spoken to Sarah in several months and didn’t even know her health was failing.
I had gotten another job and had worked for the company less than a week. I was not allowed time off for a funeral since she was not immediate family. As painful as that was, this is where the miracle of A.A. came into play. Previously I would have grandstanded and most likely quit that job in a self-righteous rage. Instead, after considerable prayer and meditation, I knew that I had to provide for my daughters and had a responsibility to the company. I missed Sarah’s funeral but was named an honorary pallbearer by her family.
I did allow that regret to haunt me and I allowed the guilt and resentment to cut me off from the fellowship that saved my life. While I remained alcohol- and drug-free, I went into what is referred to as a dry-drunk. My contact with A.A. digressed to casual contact with A.A. friends and the occasional meeting, reading, or speaker tape. I sought a new sponsor who had long-term sobriety but was not the type given to specific direction.
I started and ended a second marriage that was the epitome of “self will run riot.” I focused on outside things to provide my happiness. I decided that money and prestige were what I was missing. Don’t ever stumble on Step Two where it speaks of “restoring us to sanity.” How sane could I be if I was counting on financial success to fix me? I worked myself into a management level position in a major company within four years, which was quite an accomplishment in that company.
That job brought me to a new locale, which distanced me further from the fellowship that had saved my life and more importantly had brought my God-consciousness alive. God never fails us, however. He promised us, if we seek Him, He will “never leave us or forsake us.” God kept me away from that first drink. That allowed me enough sanity to meet the love of my life. I am a newlywed once again, with God’s blessing this time around. I again began asking God to take charge of my life. I am an alcoholic. The surest path to God for me is the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. So, at twelve and a half years sober, I sought a new sponsor and a new home group. I started again at Step One. I have new inventories to write, new amends to make, and plenty of new drunks to help!
And what of the amazing recovery stories in my family’s history? My A.A. pioneer grandfather, who had died prior to my birth, died sober with a family who loved him and misses him still. My father’s sobriety date is nine months prior to mine. His brother, my uncle, has been sober for well over twenty years. The cousin that Twelfth Stepped me lived many years sober, though he struggles yet again. My prayers include the hope that he will find his way back to the A.A. meeting rooms. Alcohol is indeed cunning, baffling, and powerful, as is this disease in general.
Life, with its twists and turns, goes on whether I’m drunk or sober. The miracle is that I can participate today. I know that I have a place in God’s plan and, if I serve Him through serving others, He’ll keep me alive and healthy on my “Road of Happy Destiny.” I love my God; and I love life, my wife, and this fellowship. The miracles just keep rolling in. Take it from me! God has allowed me to live a life “a part of” as opposed to “apart from.”