By Gil T.
I am an alcoholic.
Not a fifth-a-day, drink alone, hide it in a drawer or under the car seat maintenance drinker sometimes not even obviously drunk but always a little, but instead, a once in a while, what the hell happened, went to the bar/nightclub/lounge/restaurant/wedding/holiday dinner intending to enjoy the company and loosen up with a drink or two, had one more than I intended and now it’s Tuesday and I have no idea how I got wherever I am or what I did between having that third and gulping down the fourth drink last night or the night before or the night before and now.
Some drunks get happy, sad, sloppy, stupid, stumbling, and falling down drunk before passing out. I just faded to black, all the while (this is the frightening part) walking, talking, dancing, driving, picking up women and otherwise (if third party reports are to be believed), appearing only sort of tipsy or even unimpaired until, later in my 35 years of “social” drinking, I started doing stupid, self-destructive and even suicidal things in my blackouts. Hundreds and hundreds of blackouts.
The only reason I can see that I was never arrested or otherwise entangled with the law is because there are so many of us that the odds just never caught up with me. Or, absolutely deluded and speaking from pure hubris, perhaps I really did drive as well in my blackouts as the rest of the sober folk out there. I can’t say because I don’t remember.
My early childhood was spent on a farm in middle Georgia, and I was a boy who read and had imagination. Woods and streams and a couple of ponds. I could be Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, General Patton, Robert E. Lee, Francis Marion, Davy Crockett, Natty Bumppo, Gray Beaver, Mowgli, Christopher Robin, and on and on. Fantastic place to be a boy!
Not perfect, however. My dad had Type 1 Diabetes, insulin-dependent, diagnosed as a child when insulin was still a brand new thing extracted from pigs. He wasn’t expected to live into his teens, much less to adulthood, marriage, and family. My mother got a lot of strokes for her brave “unselfish” marriage for love to a dying man (who didn’t die, by the way).
So, I grew up with the specter of chronic disease. A diabetic going into insulin shock looks so much like a drunk passing out that many have been mistakenly arrested for being drunk. A diabetic going into an insulin reaction may fly into a frustrated rage as he feels control of his body slipping away – sweats, nervousness, and a red haze of fear-fueled adrenalin. Paradoxically, the adrenalin may keep him going long enough for something like sugar-laced orange juice or, more recently, glucose shots to bring him out of it.
So, ambulances came to the farm from time to time, or my mother would hustle me and my younger siblings out of the way while dad cursed and broke furniture and punched doors or walls or farm equipment. And we never, ever talked about it.
When the farm went under at the end of the 1950s my mother took me, my little sister, and baby brother to Connecticut where we lived with her mother for a time while my dad looked for work. The relationship with my father’s parents felt a bit strained – I learned later because my mother was angry with them. They had held the mortgage on the farm and they were the ones that pulled the plug. It was during that time that my father’s mother felt it necessary to confide in me that my dad might die at any time and I would have to be “the man of the family.” I was ten.
I was a bright kid and for a while I tried to be perfect. By the time I got to college, however, I was in rebellion. I blamed it on the messed-up world that had me huddling under my desk in grammar school during atomic bomb drills, that killed my heroes, Kennedy and King and then Bobby Kennedy, that was sending my classmates to a stupid war that killed some of them and changed all of them. So I got wasted, stoned, and drunk. A lot. It was a really good school, the kind you have to work hard to flunk out of because they’d have never let you in if you weren’t exceptional. I did just enough to get by and found reasons to not go home for holidays or summers. I had to study, or work, or whatever. On weekends I partied, and discovered that blackouts weren’t a bad thing. They were more like adventures because I never knew where I’d come to or what I’d be doing.
Of course, none of this had anything to do with running from the potential responsibility my grandmother laid on me at age ten. My mantra was, “This world is so f—ed up you have to get f—ed up just to live in it!”
I also had my first disappointment with my church. I was one of several that asked the General Assembly of the Southern Presbyterian Church for a statement acknowledging conscientious objection as a legitimate position concerning the war. They refused. I dropped out. Couldn’t wrap my head around predestination anyway.
My hair got long, my grades were lousy, my attitude sucked, I sounded like a hippie commie peacenik, and my relationship with my parents suffered. And no one seemed to expect me to come home to be the man of the family if my dad died.
I actually graduated and, somehow, got a good Washington, DC job that had me flying around the country and acting important. In my self-absorbed view, I was important. I only blacked out on weekends. When I drank during the week it was usually in a bar with a contractor or colleague doing a deal of some sort and since I could drink more than most without losing my faculties when I paced myself, I did pretty good deals. And I was so busy and so important I didn’t have time to go back to Georgia.
Then there came a point where the drinking, toking, snorting part began to overwhelm the professional competence part. So I quit. Spent a while living with a teenaged girl who couldn’t stand her parents, getting smashed together and dealing a little dope. Then that business got scary and dangerous and the relationship, never healthy in the first place, blew up and I just got alone and miserable. So miserable I started trying out churches and other spiritual paths. Also mental health professionals. I learned a lot.
A year or two later I had a blacked-out weekend I called my psychotic break. Really, really self-destructive. Evidence after the fact showed that I tried to hurt myself and others. I had bruises, cuts, and abrasions. I bit my girlfriend’s daughter. I so thoroughly trashed my apartment it looked like there’d been a no-knock DEA raid.
That sent me to an AA meeting where I decided I wasn’t alcoholic but instead one of those hard drinkers that can stop or moderate if circumstances require it. I swore off hard liquor and didn’t go back.
I tried to get back to god, but every road I took ended with some required dogma or tenet I couldn’t swallow, the big one being that there is something intelligent behind all of this. I finally came to amazement at the sheer power of random selection, coupled with evolution and survival, in an infinite universe of possibilities.
The mental health folks pointed me to ACOA and CODA and, still staying away from hard liquor, I began to get better. Yes, those fellowships do talk about god but not often and they didn’t push it. They seemed to be about the process and working together to get better.
I even fell in love. Even had a Scotch once in a while. Rarely because hard booze still scared me, but it seemed that life was finally working. Besides, the woman I loved needed me to help her get better, too.
There should be klaxon horns going off here.
We got married, stopped going to meetings because we were each all the other needed, and moved to another state.
And we drank.
Three states and a couple of jobs later. Her father died. My father finally died. Parental ties for both of us were so frayed that we weren’t around for either of them. Our relationship, co-dependent such as it became, began to come apart. I had blackouts again, never intentionally. It seemed that one drink just led to another and I’d forget to stop and then it went down like water for a thirsty man.
We couldn’t live with each other, so that ended. I was miserable, more miserable than I’d ever been. I managed to not drink, but the misery didn’t go away. I couldn’t change, and believe me, I tried. Being dead seemed like a good idea. I needed help and I knew no one in the place we had ended up.
In desperation I found an AA meeting. I dropped the idea that I was different because it was finally obvious that when life got really bad I was not the sort who could stop or moderate successfully. I was welcomed, even though I could not and still cannot wrap my head around any concept of a creator/director god. I participated and I found no requirement that I force myself to act like I believe anything but what I know.
I know I cannot safely drink. I know I’m not responsible for anyone but me. I know I have hurt people and that I can change and not do that anymore. I know that my fellows in the community of addicts understand misery and despair in ways the rest of the world may only glimpse. I have, while sober and a member of AA, seen my divorce become final; been at my brother’s side through surgery and remission and then five years later his death from cancer; had financial reversals and gone bankrupt; watched my mother slide into dementia; had walls of resentment and mistrust between my sister, her family, and myself dissolve and be replaced with bonds of trust, love, and communication; and at every turn, found fellows in AA, often strangers until I attended a meeting in their city or town, who understand my fears, share my tragedies, celebrate my victories, and, generally, are just there when I need them.
I have a process that works for change. It involves letting go of the idea that I have to do everything myself. And letting go of the idea I can force anyone else to change or that I am some kind of martyr if someone resents and rejects my “help.” It involves rigorous inventory and admission of my mistakes along with a commitment not to repeat them. It involves tapping into the strength that comes of sharing my own weakness, fear, and strength by participating in a fellowship that is greater than myself, a fellowship where the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
End note: I’m speaking of the fellowship. My tribe. It is not a hotbed of mental health. Nor is it a convocation of saints. There are racists, bigots, sexists, criminals and assholes of every stripe. Liars, thieves, bullies, weaklings, predators, and more. Just like the rest of humanity. Most, however, are actually trying to get better.
About the Author, Gil T.
Gil T. hasn’t had a drink since 2003, the year he started coming to AA meetings and got a sponsor. With his background including theological studies, Atheism came easily and long before sobriety. He’s held service positions from coffee maker to DCM and has even had God believing book thumping old timers refer newcomers struggling with the “God thing” to him for help with steps like two and three.
The audio story was narrated and recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his area. If you would like to join him, please send an email to email@example.com.