Story Archive: Happy Birthday--You're an Alcoholic
From the Story Archive: September 1996
What it was like
I had my first drink at age eleven, but even before then I can remember feeling that I just didn't fit in. Before my fifth birthday, I'd figured out that death was inevitable. I remember crying, afraid that "God" was coming to get me. My older brother and his friends were teasing me, sitting on top of a fence which was too high for me to get to them. Fear. Anger. Resentment. I'd walk to school dreaming about being a TV character. I wanted to be anybody but me.
In third grade, I went up to the new high school that was being built and smashed shelves full of glass jars with nails in them, and cut open all the cement bags and dragged them across the floor, struggling against the weight. Why? I had thought it was fun, exhilarating, but today I know that I was a sick, angry kid.
My first drink was brandy and warm lemonade. I can still remember the taste, like warm bile, but I drank it anyway. The music on the tape player which I had previously hated began to sound good. I felt adult. More drinks. When I awoke, I vomited, and prayed to God that I'd never drink again.
Less than a year later, my cousin was holding my legs as I reached through the window of the drive-through liquor store to grab a bottle of whiskey. We returned at noon and pulled a case of beer out of the back of the store. The manager came after us, and my cousin got caught but feigned extreme regret and a phony name and got off.
Ninth grade. I was working as a lifeguard at the pool across the street. I'd been drinking all night, and I woke up excited about the fact that my parents were out of town. I decided -- for the first time -- to only have one, then go to work and come back later to finish the other five cans. I came in drunk, having consumed it all, and was pulled out of the lifeguard chair by the head guard. I was now on probation and a man came to see me. His name was Rick, and in the small North Dakota town where I lived, he was something of a mystery, having been a much-gossiped-about drunk who, according to rumor, hadn't had a drink for two years. He asked if I thought I had a problem with alcohol. I said no.
In fact, the older kids at school called me the "Little Alcoholic." I loved the attention, and thought that if the way I felt when I drank is what an alcoholic was, I couldn't be more happy to be one.
I had my dad's music class first period every morning. The other kids in the percussion section said things about me, but my father pretended not to hear. I was the black sheep of the family, causing disappointment upon disappointment for my parents. My brother and two sisters were A students, popular. I played bass guitar after school and turned it up loud enough so the jocks playing basketball could hear it. I discovered I had a knack for it. I'll be a rock star, I thought, rolling back into town someday in a black limo. Then they'll be sorry. I began to practice daily.
When I was eighteen, we moved to Oregon, my parents thinking they should get me away from my environment. Our first night in our new home I got drunk and got lost. Subsequently, I was drunk in front of the TV almost nightly. My father hid his bottles from me by putting them in the garage, and I had many nightly episodes of looking for them, finding them, and carefully checking the marks he'd placed on the bottle. I always ended up watering them down too much.
A year later, I broke into my parents' bedroom, sobbing, "Mom, Dad, I'm an alcoholic, and I need you to help me!" I was drunk of course. They told me that I was not an alcoholic and to sleep it off. There were no drunks in our family!
I went to college at their insistence. There I met Dave. On the first night, we overturned all the tables in the cafeteria. We were soul mates. We laughed, took lots of drugs, and joked that we were "happy alcoholics." We had a crowd of fair-weather friends. I joined a band. One by one, our friends got expelled but I managed to hang in, drinking my quarts of beer every night in my room, and putting in as little effort as possible.
Then I lost my driver's license because of drinking and spent two days in a real jail. I hated it and swore I would never, never, never go to jail again. I remember my mother's crushed look, my dad's glaring look, as they took me home. Something had to change. I decided to stop driving.
That worked for a while. Then I dropped out of college and went on the road. The first night in some biker bar, the bikers were throwing drugs around. This was great -- women, booze, drugs. I was the center of attention. I had arrived!
When I was home again I played the time game: got a quart and drank it, tortured myself over getting another, made the walk down to the 7-11, went home and drank. By now it was after one in the morning. I finally made the dash to the store, fearing that the clerk would think I was an alcoholic. I got a bottle, tucked it under my coat lest someone see me, and went home to drink to oblivion. I found I had to drink to get to sleep, otherwise nameless fears plagued me. I made late night phone calls to AA. I got understanding people on the other end. They stayed up late talking to me while I was drunk, but as I began to sober up I decided I was probably not that bad and I tried to forget the desperation I had felt.
I met a woman in a bar. She had a daughter. Soon she had a fifth waiting for me every night. What a gal! I moved in. My mother told me I had to get married -- it was unfair to the little girl. Once, the child put the cap on my bottle of booze. I thought it was cute but was secretly disturbed. She and her mother tried to wake me for the Fourth of July fireworks, but I was out cold. When I awoke, I felt terribly guilty. Another drink fixed that.
I was playing a gig on my twenty-fourth birthday, having my drinks brought up to the stage. But I couldn't cut it anymore. Later I told my fiancee, "I think I'm alcoholic." She said, "I know. I had a dream last week where I was bringing you a cake and I said, 'Happy Birthday--you're an alcoholic.' "
I decided to stop drinking and go to AA. I walked to the meeting, my chest killing me. I remember nothing. I got home. My chest was worse so I went to a doctor. It was a collapsed lung. They blew it out and put me on pain killers. I was no longer drinking but now I became an addict. No AA for me. I knew how to stop -- it was called narcotics. I made my wedding sober and out of pills, so I ate a bottle of over-the-counter cold medicine, as was my wont when all else fails.
I was increasingly violent, smashing furniture, driving like an idiot when angry. I went to a class for violent men; I went to a psychiatrist. I had vague religious leanings, thinking I would go up into the mountains and get the answer. I began to go on periodic binges, always intending to just have one but ending up the night still drinking, feeling ashamed when others said I was crazy for wanting more. I had many doctors supplying me with pills. One day my wife called them and had me cut off. She tried to drag me to treatment several times, but I reacted like the Antichrist getting pulled into church. It terrified me.
My wife went to treatment. I tried to dissuade her. "You're not the one with the problem, I am."
But Al-Anon had told her to do something about her problem. She came home and kicked me out. I lived with my sister and took my bike up to the market to get my booze, filling up my socks and coat, and riding down to an empty ball field where I drank beneath the bleachers. I saved the last one and popped it just as I walked into the house so when they smelled the booze on me they'd think it was because I'd just opened one.
I awoke one day in a room filled with bottles. I'd tried to commit suicide and failed. I remember looking into a mirror and having this thought with perfect clarity: "If the eyes are the mirror of the soul, then mine is dead." I weighed 120 pounds, was bleeding nasally and anally, and heard strange music in my ears. I went to AA, said funny things, and continued to drink. I did things at home like sticking a shotgun in my mouth and fantasizing.
After promising once again I wouldn't drink, I went to a gig with every intention of not drinking and came home drunk, as I had a thousand times before, to the sobs of my wife upstairs. "OK," I told her. "I'll go to treatment."
It took months, however, since no "respectable" place had an opening. I truly became desperate and came to believe I wasn't going to recover. I took my daughter's pennies to a bar and poured them on a bar counter. I had a friend tell me that he pulled a whiskey bottle out of my hand one morning and I awoke to have an animated, pleasant conversation with him before he left for work. I remembered nothing. One day I had one beer during practice and stumbled into the wall. I was drunk after one little beer.
I ended up going to a recovery house since the centers were all full. I was only twenty-six, but I knew the only hope for me was to lock myself away someplace. I walked in and saw men who looked down and out. This couldn't be for me--this scruffy claptrap of a dive. I told the counselor I'd stay two weeks, tops. He said sixty days. My wife was next to me. I said yes.
I remember sitting in my room, alone. I was afraid. I desperately wanted to stop hurting my family. I had spent so many years wishing I were dead, and now it seemed I was. I sat in an AA meeting that night, hiding at the top of the stairs and silently praying for help. What I heard that I clung to was "You don't have to live like that anymore."
I was ordered to go to four AA meetings a week. I made seven. One of the men at the house told me I'd never make it. I couldn't sleep at night and was filled with sick thoughts and nameless fears. If my problem was alcohol, I could get sober and life would be better, right? I saw men in detox shaking apart like leaves. I began to wonder if I was too young; maybe I wasn't a "real" alcoholic.
I saw new people come in, most much older than I was. They all said the same thing: "I'm not really an alcoholic." "My case is different because I. . ."
After two weeks I had a secret plan to get out and play a "breakthrough gig" at a concert, for some has-been big names. I told my drummer, a dealer, that I'd be there. My wife told me not to bother coming home if I left the recovery house. So did my "keepers." The guys at the house all said to "follow my dreams." I listened to the concert advertised on the radio every night. I was forced to make a decision. I decided to stay. I went to sleep, defeated.
That was the turning point in my life. I decided to turn my will and my life over to the care and direction of God. I remember waking up, looking out my window and seeing a big oak tree. I had this thought: "If a tree can grow to be so big, healthy, and beautiful without booze or drugs, so can I." There was a total, clean feeling inside me for the first time in my life. I felt a joy inside, a promise of hope. I made all vegetation my higher power and was able little by little to let go of the old, fearful ideas. God must have wanted me sober.
I returned home, afraid I would fail. I went to many meetings and found a sponsor. He told me that I never had to drink again. This was my hope. Bob made me take my inventory, and I was afraid of what he would think of me when he heard it. I said, "I'm not going to go through with these Steps unless you can assure me that I won't have to drink again." He told me I'd drink if I didn't. My wife found my Fourth Step and read it. I was furious. She was hurt and angry. I told her, "If this is AA, to hell with it!" Leaving in a huff, I returned only to make reluctant amends, but make them I did. I was becoming willing.
I did my Fifth Step. My sponsor shared some of his life with me, and I found out I wasn't as unique as I thought. I got willing and went to a football field and got on my knees in the moonlight. I asked God to remove my defects of character. I went home to tell my wife. She didn't understand. I told her that God had now removed all my defects of character! We fought, I left. I came back and made amends. I had to be willing to go to any length. And my sponsor had drilled into me that no matter what happened, Don't Pick Up That First Drink.
I listed those whom I had harmed. I made amends. I got a job and held it for the first time in my life. I was self-supporting. No more glamour; I was employed taking care of handicapped adults. I took a nightly inventory. I was in service and had placed my recovery in AA above all else. I had to or all else was lost anyway.
I have almost seven years now without a drink or any mind-altering chemical of any sort. I have a home, a wife who trusts me, three children (two adopted in addition to my wife's daughter). I belong to a group that is enthusiastic and studies the Big Book and the Traditions. I have structure in my life. I've learned the value of discipline in my life. I've seen the power of God in my life and the lives of others. Before, I was totally self-centered, a child who couldn't see beyond his own needs and wants. My own pain kept me in a self-imposed prison. Today, I'm part of a whole, and in this have found completeness.
I know that unless I resurrender to this program of action, I too will become a statistic. I believe I take those first three Steps every time I go into a meeting.
I used to pray that my parents would come to embrace my alcoholism, for it hurt that they didn't understand. That kind of thinking got me nowhere. Today I pray to understand them and find peace. I guess running away is what I was trying to do for all those years, to stay in a painless place--like Peter Pan, never having to grow up. AA has made me grow up and face life, to move forward, to have the courage to grow and change. I have not arrived, but I've learned to enjoy the journey. When my thinking is out of sorts, I find someone who's hurting and make the effort to help. Like magic, my perceptions are restored.
I still make music, writing and recording songs. Recently I started putting people's poetry to music. It makes others happy and refines my skill. I don't allow myself to fantasize with grandiose dreams; I try to live in the now, for that's where God resides. I let my music-making go for over four years because the old ideas were too strong. Then an old-timer told me it was time to share my talents. I'm joining a softball team this summer with my sponsee, who has had some of the same experiences that I have. We are willing to move past our old ideas and enjoy life today. Self-seeking does indeed slip away.
—Mike S., Port Angeles, Wash.
Get a dose of Higher Power here
December 2013: Where the ducks swim
They've experienced it all ... sober
December 2013: You won’t find rainbows in the bottom of a glass
New to AA? Find sober support
December 2013: Blowing in the wind
Giving it away to keep it
December 2013: Flight from Omaha
- Personal Stories
AA's tales of recovery
December 2013: Christmas in a bar
- Twelve Steps
AA's blueprint for sobriety
December 2013: Late night at the drive-thru