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From the Rodeo to the Rooms of AA

A former cowboy turned to alcohol to treat his physical pain and found himself with more problems than he started with

"I lived out of a battered suitcase, and grew up in the dusty arenas and the well-manicured coliseums of the rodeo circuit."

I spent my younger years on the road. I left home at age 16 to compete in professional rodeos and dabble at writing. I lived out of a battered suitcase, and grew up in the dusty arenas and the well-manicured coliseums of the rodeo circuit. In 1959, I sold my first magazine article for $300. It was the perfect opportunity to become an alcoholic. I did not. In fact, I drank very little even though writers are supposed to be great drinkers.

At age 21, I went back to high school and graduated in a year and half. Hard to figure but I took both 11th and 12th grade classes at the same time. During that time, I continued to compete in rodeos, write articles and short stories and had a good five piece band playing the bars and clubs in the Midwest. Perfect setting to become a drunk. I did not. I drank very little and did not even smoke.

In 1966, after failing the army physical, I enrolled at the University of Wyoming on scholarship. I competed in rodeos and played music and continued with my writing. I felt I was getting good at it since the checks came in and the occasional award with them. It was the hippy era, perfect for drinking and drugging. I did neither. I even had short hair.

In my junior year, I got married. My wife was a great woman but we were just too young and I had too much of the road in my blood. We divorced just before graduation in 1972. That summer, I moved to Nashville and went to work as the promotion director for the world's largest indoor rodeo company. We produced rodeos from Texarkana to Madison Square Garden. The company was owned by a legendary country music artist. I lived on the road and stayed in the finest motels. I had an expense account. It might have been the perfect atmosphere for drinking, however, I drank very little.

In 1976, the injuries and my age began to catch up with me and I embarked on my career as a fulltime writer. I also got married again to a great woman. I was writing for 19 magazines and had a newspaper column that is still running today. My wife and I are still married and we have two wonderful and successful kids and two grandkids.

So how did I become a drunk? What sent me to the bottle?


In 2006, out of the clear blue, a virus invaded my spinal column between the C-2 and C-4 vertebrae in my neck. It abscessed and became septic. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, 2006, I remember saying to my wife, "Jeanne, I'm in trouble. I think you better get me to the hospital." That is the last I remember for 11 days. I awoke in the ICU of Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville with no idea who I was, where I was or what was going on.

A week later I was discharged and began the battle that continues today. Part of that battle was and is pain, pain of the type few can imagine. I felt like a constant, white hot molten lava was running through my veins. The doctors fought it by putting me on massive, daily does of morphine. I quickly became addicted. Once I realized I was addicted, I flushed about $3,000 worth of morphine down the toilet.

I switched to vodka. I started by buying a half pint a day, then a pint, then a fifth. Then I did the math and started buying half-gallons by the case. I drank a half gallon every two days for two years. My wife had no idea I was drinking that much even though I made no attempt to hide it.

During this period, I continued to write and was still winning awards. The checks came in regularly. Slowly, the doctors repaired my body and the pain began to ease a little. However, the drinking didn't. I was an alcoholic as bad as any that ever came down the pike. The 73 broken bones and 13 surgeries I had had over the years were nothing compared to the battle with the bottle. I drank. I drank all day every day. The only time I didn't drink was when I was passed out. I drank at home. All day and all night. I drank until I could sleep. When I awoke, I wrote. Then I would drink until I could sleep again. If I was awake, I drank. My marriage did not suffer. That good woman fought every battle with me and still does to this day because the fight continues. The pain still comes and goes and I know the doctors and MRI techs in two states by their first names.

In early June 2010, I fell while standing in my office for no reason at all. An hour or so later, walking through the kitchen, I fell and hit the counter, breaking two ribs. That night, as my wife looked on, I fell again. This time I hit a large cedar chest and broke an arm and gashed my head. Time for the hospital. To this day, they don't know what is causing it. They think it might be related to one or more of my four broken necks. Rodeo is a dangerous sport.

On June 10, back from the hospital, I stood at the kitchen sink about to pour a large amount of vodka into a glass of ice. I had not had a drink in three days. I cannot explain it. Instead, as though it was someone else pouring, that vodka—all that was in the bottle went down the drain. It was followed by all that was in the case—I think four more half gallons. I have not touched a drop since that day.

Was it an epiphany? An act of God? I guess it was because I can't explain it any other way. I just did not want a drink. All the way home from the hospital, I had anticipated that drink. And there I stood at the kitchen sink, pouring that beautiful silver liquid down the drain. I had no regrets and fully understood the consequences and those were not long coming.

Of course, the pain returned. It was still there but I decided to fight it. I spent hours at night walking in my backyard, pounding my one good hand on the ground, tears streaming down my face. I fought that pain as hard as any bucking horse or bull I ever rode. I started going to pain management specialists and we tried different things. After a period, we started finding some that worked to some degree. We tried some weird stuff but what did we have to lose? If we couldn't get a hold on the pain I was going to kill myself, so why not go for it? I weighed 135 pounds. My normal weight is 175. I had a long, hard row to hoe but I knew I could do it. I refused to be beaten. I forced myself to eat and to go to physical therapy and to stay away from alcohol. I knew it would kill me and I wasn't quite ready to quit.

I had gone a little over four weeks without a drink when I went to an AA meeting. I knew most of the people there. I live in a small town but the support I got at the meetings just about blew me away. I attend from four to six meetings a week and try to contribute when and where I can. I am not a religious person but I have a higher power, always have had. I read and understand the Twelve Steps and work them to some degree however I will admit I may tweak them just a tad to suit my personality.

The doctors still study me and poke needles in me and scratch their heads. But I have no desire to drink. None. I know with all certainty that one drink will lead to a quick death because I cannot have just one drink. So I pour a glass of half lemonade and half ice tea. It is my drink of preference.

I still have trouble sleeping and eating, but I weigh 161 pounds now. I write something every day and then go to a meeting and sometimes I share with the others. I take far more away from those meetings than I contribute. I'm sure of that and I don't speak every day. There are those who need to speak far more than I and I don't want to infringe on their time. I speak when I have something to say and I study those old warriors with 30-plus years of sobriety and listen closely to what they have to say about how they did it.

I will always be an alcoholic but I do not have to drink. Each day, don't take a drink and go to a meeting. I go to meetings, not because I have a paper I must get signed, but because I want to. I have no doubt that they help me stay sober.

—John S., Lebanon Tenn.

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