“Old pirates, yes, they rob I; Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I, From the bottomless pit…”
Two years ago today, I went on my last bender.
After 30 years of regular drinking and drugging, it had to come to an end. I was a shell of the man I was, a frightened child in an adult body; lost in the wilderness of self and self-doubt. I was drinking almost non-stop around the clock, caught in that vicious cycle that I swore would never happen to me: do not pass Go, do not get coffee, go directly to booze. Get coffee, go back to booze; maybe even eat something for lunch. Go back to booze; pass out. Wake up, drink some more and pass out again…repeat procedure. A moebius loop of insanity that had to be broken.
It took me a while to get to this point in my life, but the previous 5 years had been the period in which I wanted to do nothing but hide the pain and sorrow that was in my heart. I wanted nothing more than to forget about this world, my family…everything…because I felt that I could no longer go on in a world as I then understood it to be. It was a hopeless place with no love for me save for The Bottle; an emptiness that cannot possibly be described into words or put on paper. It is the abyss that, as Nietzsche so adequately described, stares back at you; a darkness in which no light can penetrate nor escape, a virtual event horizon of being. This was a hell of my own design and my own choosing, no matter how much I tried to tell myself that it was not; that it was outside events that forced me into this situation.
It had been surviving September 11th that began the descent into the madness; the guilt of being alive while I watched as 3,000 human beings were atomized in a flash of cascading concrete and steel. The guilt I felt every time I saw my neighbor, and felt an incredible sense of horror because I survived on that day, and her brother did not. Moreover, did she feel in some way a resentment toward me? Every time I went outside my office building for a cigarette, all I could do was stare at the empty hole two blocks away from where I was, reliving every moment of that day as I stood there, still trying to understand that day and make some sense of it all.
Then there were the constant Terror Alerts on the news, ghastly reminders of a new world in which I had no desire to be baptized, but unfortunately had no choice in the matter. The lies and the build up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the nightly death toll on the news…a not so friendly reminder of my youth when Huntley and Brinkley and Uncle Walter would remind us how many were dead in Vietnam. National Guard and NYPD Officers patrolling the street of New York City wearing body armor and carrying AK 47s; loud noises in the street that would send not only I, but many others running for cover…even if it was something as simple as a car backfiring.
I used to be a Vice President of a major financial institution, and was in charge of a $28 million budget for semi-annual incentives for almost 1,000 people. In the days following the attack, I carried on with my job working from home, and ensured that not one payment was missed or incorrectly calculated for those thousand people. Not one executive said as much as a “thank you” to me…not one. In one moment of heated discussion with my former boss, I reminded him of those everts, and I was told simply, “That’s your job”.
Simple things began to drive me insane. The audacity of a Senior Vice President complaining about the size and type of font I used in a presentation…didn’t he care that 3,000 people died two blocks away? People driving well over the 25 mph speed limit on my street caused me, in a drunken rage one night, to stand in the middle of the night on the road in front of an oncoming car are practically daring it to stop…which it thankfully did. All I could remember was the expression on the driver’s face, as I approached her window and proceeded to read her the riot act, as my wife came out of the house dragging me away from the insanity.
The only way to deal with everything, I felt, was to drink myself into oblivion. It started out slowly at first: drinking every night to try and stop the nightmares from coming; then drinking at lunch time on the job. Oh yeah, I was quite the functional alcoholic at work; in fact, management turned a blind eye toward me (and a few others) who did the same thing…as long as the job got done, no problems. Eventually, the House of Cards that I had built began to tumble down upon me.
In September 2002, I began to seek psychiatric help for what was becoming obvious to everyone else but me: I was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. So I was put on a little pink cloud by a little pink pill called Paxil. (Of course, being the good alcoholic I was, I neglected to tell my shrink at the time that I was indulging just a tad too much.) It was supposed to help me deal with my PTSD, but unfortunately, when you drink…it kind of negates the effect of an anti-depressant because alcohol IS a depressant. So, I was supposed to now blissfully deal with my situation and start whistling “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” 24 hours a day.
Oh boy, were the experts ever wrong. The drinking, the prescription drugging, and the illegal drugging continued at a break neck pace for the next two years…all the while the rods in the nuclear reactor are slowly being withdrawn, and critical mass is inevitably being achieved one drink and one pill at a time.
One day, I went critical: I pretty much threatened to throw my boss out a plate glass window. That’s when I knew things were going VERY wrong; and I was now facing the Cosmic Announcer:
“Thank you for playing our game…we have some lovely parting gifts for you…tell him what he’s won, Johnny!”
“A Nervous Breakdown! Yes, that’s right…this nervous breakdown is all yours, complete with loss of job due to a merger and downsizing! You’ll also receive one year of severance for all of your hard work complete with benefits…and it’s all yours, as a thank you for playing Corporate Insanity!”
As an added bonus, I was found to be bi-polar. Bi-polar works wonders for the speakers in your stereo system, but not your brain. Add this to PTSD and a runaway case of alcoholism, plus one year ON SALARY to drink myself into the ground…and I think you get the picture.
The official meltdown occurred on March 25th 2006, when I was unceremoniously offered a choice to get my act together, get to a rehab, or lose my wife and kids. Ironically, this did not come from my wife, but my NYPD Detective Brother In Law who was threatening to take away my kids from both me and my wife…me for obvious reasons, and my wife because she was the classic enabler. Of course, I was in a great fog while all this was happening, and my brother had to come over the house and explain all of this AGAIN, and how he was going to take me to a place to detox for a few days.
So on March 26th, after downing two Valium with a very large glass of red wine, my brother, brother-in-law and I drove to Norther New Jersey to the Carrier Clinic. (NOTE: I rehabbed once before in 1985 because of cocaine, and went to the rehab sober. I was NOT going to make that same mistake again…I was going to enjoy at least one final hurrah). With that, the control rods were placed back into their proper positions, and the reactor was shut down.
“But my hand was made strong
By the ‘and of the Almighty.
We forward in this generation
March 27th 2006 was the first day of sobriety for me since 1985. The only drugs I had in my system now were my prescribed medications, drugs to help me though alcohol withdrawal, and drugs to help get me off other drugs. After two days, I was a complete and total mess. I was falling asleep in meetings, my blood pressure was all over the place, and like the Jefferson Airplane had said many years ago, my mind had left my body. It was during one of these episodes, that two Orderlies had to escort me back to my room for rest and monitoring.
So, as they’re holding me up, my legs trying to walk (but mostly dragging behind me)…I realized that I had come full circle. Years ago in college, I was dragged across an Interstate Highway on the way back to my dorm room by two friends after I put away the majority of a bottle of schnapps. Now, here I was…legs dragging behind me once again. I was feeling absolutely no pain, higher than I ever was before, and then it hit me…in that one single moment, as clear as crystal, it revealed itself to me:
I never wanted to feel this way again.
“… Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds…”
After seven days, I was returned to the land of the living, two things stayed with me; the first one being Step One of Alcoholics Anonymous: “We admitted to ourselves that we were powerless over alcohol, and our lives had become unmanageable”. Well, I pretty much had answered every part of that question in the affirmative. The other was something that was said by the head counselor of Carrier to me one morning.
She was English, looked and sounded like the host of The Weakest Link, and had been sober a number of years. So I had asked her on this particular morning how long she had been sober, and her reply was very simply, “Since five-thirty this morning”. There is not a day that goes by that I do not think about that phrase, and many times it has helped me to get through the day without a drink.
I mentioned earlier that all of this was a hell of my own choosing, despite all that happened to me. It was my choice to try and destroy myself; it was my choice not to pull myself back from the edge. Alcoholism runs in my family, and I am a firm believer that it is a disease and is passed on genetically, so I think I would have found myself in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous a few years later than I came in…eventually. It may not have happened in this fashion, in fact, it could have even been worse.
All I know is that I am dealing with my life in a very different manner than I ever was before. I am a much better father, and I should be, because I’m the stay at home parent. I am a much better husband. I am also becoming something else, something I never gave myself a chance to do for years…a chance to be a decent human being, and learn to be happy with who I am.
I am no saint, by any stretch of the imagination; nor am I a great sinner.
I am simply a man who is alive because of grace and redemption, by who and for what reason, I have yet to figure out. I have realized though, that when you do not understand; that is when you begin to understand.
“…Won’t you help to sing
‘Dese songs of freedom? –
‘Cause all I ever had: Redemption songs –
All I ever had: Redemption songs:
These songs of freedom,
Songs of freedom.”
-Bob Marley, “Redemption Song”