When I Decided to Stay Sober

By Thomas B. 

 It was the overcast evening of November 3, 1972. I ran screaming out onto 11th Street at the corner of Waverley Place in Greenwich Village from the basement office of Dr. Wolf, my wife’s therapist. I was wild-eyed. Most distraught. Raging. Heartbroken. In a panic.

When hoarse, I stopped screaming. I vaguely remember looking around quite frazzled, thinking, “Stifle it, Tom, you don’t want to get arrested.” I started walking rapidly, practically running, towards 7th Avenue.

My mind was a blur, racing up, down, sideways, all around. I was in full-blown frenzy mode. Operating on gut instinct, I needed to get the fuck as far away as possibly I could from that horrible place — Dr. Wolf’s therapy office.

What a most pretentious space it was — low lighting, walls lined with bookcases stuffed with books and papers, stylishly decorated with obscure Beasley prints, knick-knacks, and tchotchkes, plush sofas with matching pillows scattered about, etc. Forever more, it would be a most verboten place.

This is where Debbie had just told me that despite my not having had a drink for almost a month, she had nonetheless moved out of our  Upper West Side apartment. She had accomplished this feat that very afternoon, as a matter of fact, while I was applying for admission to an outpatient alcoholism treatment program downtown across from Cooper Union. Further, she adamantly refused to tell me where she had moved, what her new address was! The simpering, but stern-faced Dr. Wolf nodded his pointy chin in approval.

Backstory Time 

Debbie was my second wife to whom I was married the previous July in New Rochelle, NY, where she grew up. We both drank heavily at the reception. The best man, a dear friend from college, drove us to the City, where we checked into the honeymoon suite at the Plaza Hotel. We took a horse-drawn carriage ride around Central Park at dusk. For a young man who grew up in Jackson, MS, this was an ultimate fantasy come true about being most grown up and super cool in New York Freakin’ City !!!

Following the carriage ride, we went up to our suite and quickly drank the complimentary bottle of champagne. After making sloppy love, we both passed out — for the entire night! We missed out on all of the perks given us as a honeymoon couple: free drinks at Trader Vic’s, 15% off dinner in the Oak Room, complimentary desserts in the Palm Court. We also overslept the next morning, nearly missing the flight to New Orleans for our honeymoon.

I had met Debbie in late February of 1971. At the time, I was a graduate student, seeking an MFA in Directing from the theatre department of Catholic University. Debbie was a BIC — Bronx Irish Catholic. She was also an ex-nun, whose family had moved to New Rochelle, NY, where she had gone to high school, and where her father became the town drunk. She joined the nunnery to escape the ravages of alcoholism in her home.

At the end of her first year in the nunnery, there was a ceremony where she would take her first vows. Her father very much wanted to attend. However, the nuns sternly told him, being the notorious town drunk, that he would have to be stone-cold sober in order to attend. So he went cold-turkey, and in the middle of the celebratory mass traumatically died of delirium tremens. Debbie left the nunnery and went to Catholic University to pursue a social work degree instead of becoming a nun.

She was dating a friend of mine, Jack, from the theatre department. All three of us got drunk one night in the Rathskeller, a.k.a. “the Rat,” the basement student bar on Catholic University’s campus. Debbie and I flirted — it was lust at first sight.

My first wife, Kathy, whom I had married four years earlier two days before I flew to Vietnam, since she was pregnant with our first daughter, was pregnant again with our second daughter. Since she was away visiting her family in Connecticut, I took Debbie home that night and deflowered her in Kathy’s and my bed. Hey, the booze made us do it, you know?

Debbie and I began a torrid affair, the third I had while married to Kathy, with whom I had little in common. I only married her to avoid dealing with a paternity suit in Vietnam, where, largely due to my alcoholism, I had volunteered to go mostly as a suicide mission in 1967.

I convinced Debbie to move into an apartment with me in Washington, DC and also to be named co-respondent in the divorce suit I initiated shortly thereafter on the grounds of my infidelity. This was the quickest way to end the marriage with Kathy. Yes, my life was most unmanageable!

Debbie finished her social work degree, and I flunked out of my second graduate school program as a result of alcoholism. Soon, however, I got hired as the Editor of English Publications for the now defunct Institute of Modern Languages, then a subsidiary of American Express. IML had government contracts teaching TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) as well as other languages, around the world, including several programs in the New York City metropolitan area to immigrants.

Debbie got a job working for one of these programs in Spanish Harlem. I moved to New York City in May of 1972, before we were married in July, to be the director of another program in New Jersey.

However, in the late summer of 1972, President Nixon impounded the US Department of Labor funds for such programs, and I found myself unemployed. Debbie immediately got a job with the Federal Reserve Bank, but I stayed on unemployment for over a year during the oil embargo crisis. I was able to supplement the unemployment checks by working off the books for the Gene Frankel Theatre and, as well, I had several free-lance jobs as an editor/writer.

In an earlier article, First Meetings, I described my last days of drinking, and why I initially starting going to AA meetings in an attempt to convince Debbie to remain in the marriage about three weeks before the incident in Dr. Wolf’s office that I describe at the beginning of this essay.

Back To This Story Time

The famed Perry Street Workshop in Greenwich Village, where Thomas first went to an AA meeting when he wanted to get sober for himself, not just to get his wife back.”
The famed Perry Street Workshop in Greenwich Village, where Thomas first went to an AA meeting when he wanted to get sober for himself, not just to get his wife back.

So, there I was striding up 7th Avenue, most discombobulated and rather in quite a dither: really, why shouldn’t I just go and get hammered, pissant, royally drunk again? I mean, why the fuck not? After all, the whole reason I had stopped drinking and started going to AA meetings in the first place was to get Debbie back, but she had left anyway — apparently for good.

Nevertheless, a modicum of sanity reasoned that getting drunk surely would do nothing to get Debbie back. Besides, through the fog of the three Thursday night Renewal West AA meetings I’d attended, I’d received a glimmer of an understanding that maybe, if I stayed sober a day at a time, maybe my life would change for the better.

Besides, I also had heard Stanley S. Stancage speak at the Beginner’s Meeting the evening before. A chronic relapser, he was the first person with whom I could identify. His qualification actually gave me a tiny sliver of hope in the darkness of my dry-alcoholic despair about missing Debbie.

Plus, during the break before the open speaker meeting, I had been given a copy of the large meeting list for New York City, listing hundreds of AA meetings in Manhattan and surrounding areas. I was astounded — I honestly believed the Renewal West meeting was the only AA meeting in all of New York City.

So, with a wee bit of hope and the meeting list in my back pocket, I continued walking uptown. When I got to Times Square, I continued uptown on Broadway. Along the way, I made a firm decision — I did not want to drink that night, and I would start attending other AA meetings.

On practically every block there was a bar, a nightclub, a liquor store, or a bodega, selling beer and wine, including a favorite, Boone Farm’s Apple Wine. A wine connoisseur definitely I was not!

Whenever I passed one of these booze-dispensing establishments, I would look at it and firmly say, “Fuck you!!!”  This was all well and good, until uptown along Broadway, somewhere a bit north of Lincoln Center, as I recall, I delivered a “Fuck You” at a liquor store, not noticing a little old lady standing nearby.

“I beg your pardon, young man?” she indignantly accosted me.

“No, oh no ma’am, I wasn’t speaking to you, I — ah, well, oh, never mind.” I mean, how do you explain to someone that you’re telling a liquor establishment to go fuck itself?

When I got back to our empty apartment, I thought about maybe checking out another meeting in my neighborhood. For a while I looked through the meeting list and found several nearby. I saw there were even midnight meetings downtown on East 23rd Street. I also found an interesting sounding meeting down in the Village, the Perry Street Workshop, that next Saturday afternoon.

Tired, however, and emotionally drained from the harrowing scene in Dr. Wolf’s office, as well as physically from walking all the way uptown from Greenwich Village, I instead decided just to stay home.

Nevertheless, I didn’t drink that night, just like I had done a day at a time since October 14th, when I had my last drink, a Ballantine Ale. I had successfully stayed sober one more day. This was rather momentous, because for the first time this is what I wanted to do for myself. Whether Debbie came back or not, I decided I wanted to get and stay sober by going to other AA meetings anyway.

The next day was a lovely Indian Summer day. I took the subway down to Greenwich Village, where I had an omelet at a small, inexpensive storefront French cafe on Greenwich Avenue and walked around the Washington Square Park area, reveling in the hippy-influenced street scene of my baby-booming generation throughout Greenwich Village.

I experienced the natural high of being a young man, sober, in New York City, the cultural and entertainment capital of the world. At 2:00 pm, I walked over to the nearby Perry Street Workshop for the 2:30 meeting.

I sat along the wall near the entrance. There was a speaker’s desk and chair up on a small dais in the middle of the long narrow room. Several rows of chairs were on either side with a dingy bathroom and coffee bar in the rear of the room. Soon all the chairs filled up, and there was a blue haze of cigarette smoke, through which sliced beams of sunlight, shining  through the curtained front windows.

The meeting started, and a well-dressed man a few years older than me qualified. He told a harrowing story of living on the streets drunk and shooting heroin. Clean and sober now, he worked professionally in the burgeoning new field of addiction treatment. I was riveted by his story. Within me was implanted the idea that maybe I too might like to work in the field of addiction treatment.

The seed of this idea manifested itself in 1976, when I was hired as an alcoholism counselor at the treatment program across from Cooper Union, where I had been a client from late 1972 to 1975, the same program I applied to on the afternoon that Debbie moved out of our apartment. It was my first job in what turned out to be a 30-year, most rewarding, career in addiction treatment.

Patricia Elliot as Countess Charlotte Malcolm in A Little Night Music, for which she won the 1973 Tony Reward for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, several months after I encountered her at the Perry Street Workshop meeting.
Patricia Elliot as Countess Charlotte Malcolm in A Little Night Music, for which she won the 1973 Tony Reward for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, several months after I encountered her at the Perry Street Workshop meeting.

There was a woman on the far-side of the podium, who looked somewhat familiar. However, initially I couldn’t place how I knew her. As soon as she spoke, however, I instantly recognized her as Patricia, an actress I had worked with during the summer of 1970 at Olney Theatre in Maryland, which then was operated by Catholic University, where I was a graduate student in theatre.

After the meeting, we hugged and spoke for a while. I asked her what she was doing there. She smiled and said the same thing that I was doing, trying to stay sober a day at a time. We laughed, talked for a while, then said goodbye. I didn’t think to get her phone number. I didn’t even know this was something that we do.

It was a fortuitous, good omen, seeing Patricia at the very first meeting I went to, after having made the decision the night before to start a new life sober a day at a time. I’ve stayed sober ever since, and that was over 43 years ago.

Debbie and I reunited in her new apartment in Gramercy Park several months later, but we separated in 1974. I came home an hour early from my service commitment as Chairperson of the Thursday night meeting of the Midnight Meeting, my first home group, which met upstairs at 156 E. 23rd Street. I found her in bed naked with a lover and our dog, Dylan. I’m unsure, even to this day, about what upset me more, that she was in our bed with a lover, or that they both were in bed with our dog, Dylan!

A couple of weeks earlier, she had accompanied me when I celebrated my first anniversary and got my one year medallion. She never really accepted that I was an alcoholic, since I was nothing like her father. She just wanted me to be able to drink like a gentleman, to be a good-time-Tommy party boy. Instead, I would get all maudlin and morose, sitting in a dark corner by myself, muttering about dead babies in Vietnam and shit like that. We later amicably divorced in early 1975.

The last time I saw Debbie was on Christmas Eve of 1977 or 1978, when we were crossing 50th Street at 5th Avenue, she on the way uptown to mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, me going downtown on 5th Avenue to a meditation class. We chatted briefly, and she gave me her Phillips Morris business card, saying to call her, that we must get together for old time’s sake. I did several months later, but was told that she no longer was employed by Phillip Morris. I have no idea whatever became of her.

Several months ago, I read with sadness, but deep, deep gratitude, the New York Times obituary of Patricia Elliot, who died at age 77 of a rare cancer. I presume, since she had such a long and successful career working as an actress, she must have died sober. This pleases me immensely!


About the Author, Thomas B.

Sober from his primary drug of addiction, Colt .45 — preferably by the case lot — since October 14, 1972, Thomas is grateful for the full life he has experienced in recovery for over 43 years. He’s been active at the group level throughout his recovery and in 1978 was the co-chair of the first New York City Young Peoples Conference. He is a co-founder with his wife, Jill, and past GSR of Portland, Oregon’s Beyond Belief group. They also started a flourishing secular AA meeting in their former hometown of Seaside, OR. Retired from a 30-year career in addiction treatment, he and a fellow Vietnam Veteran colleague, Vince Treanor, were instrumental in establishing the correlation between addiction and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during the 1980s.

He’s written the following articles for AA Beyond Belief:

He’s been an active participant on AA Agnostica since early in 2012, where he published 15 articles. For several months he was on the WAAFT IAAC Board of Directors, but he resigned for personal reasons.

Thomas and Jill live in gainful retirement on disability in her childhood home, which they recently inherited in Wenona, IL, with their dog Kiera, and two cats, Savannah and Elsa. Though they miss being near the Pacific Ocean and the thriving secular AA communities in Oregon, they look forward to participating in Chicago’s extensive Quad-A secular AA  community. As well, within the year, they hope to establish a secular meeting in Bloomington, IL, home of Illinois State University. 

Audio Story

The audio story was recorded and narrated 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 email at lenr.secularsobriety@gmail.com.

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Lance B.
Lance B.

Hi, Thomas; Here again a day lyate.  But there is benefit in that persistent postponement of reading the current article.  I get to read all the interesting comments as well as your writing.  And even though I remembered the horrendous story of your arrival at the Perry Street Workshop.  Don’t know if I ever told you, but I purposely spent two evenings looking for and finally finding that place for an 8 PM meeting largely due to your references to it.  And, yup, there it was on the wall:  AA’s 12 Suggested Steps. I admire much about  the way you… Read more »

Thomas Brinson
Thomas Brinson

Thanks so  much, Lance, for your kind words and encouragement. Yes, I am eternally, until I die I suppose, grateful for Toronto Intergroup being the catalyst for the tremendous growth our secular AA Fellowship has enjoyed largely due to the work of Roger C., Joe C., Larry K. and other members of the Toronto secular AA Fellowship. I too have a strong belief in the serendipity of coincidences, which are not due to some godly entity, but rather to the intentions deep within ourselves, sometimes masked by despair and desperation,  that mysteriously guide us to a better place to be.… Read more »

Jo-Anne K
Jo-Anne K

Thanks Thomas. You have painted a vivid picture of active alcoholism and subsequent recover.

Victoria
Victoria

Thomas, I always love your writing – so evocative. I write from Melbourne, Australia, aged 60 and still (alas) a ‘chronic relapser’ like Stanley. In fact, I know I need to return to rehab to safely detox (that part about Debbie’s father dying of the DTs in the middle of her taking her vows may have been missed by a few readers, but it pierced my heart. I’ve seen my own father with the DTs when I was a child). And, once that can happen: onward goes my journey, yet again. It does in fact get harder and harder as one… Read more »

Toni
Toni

August 27, 1973 I went to an AA meeting and was able to make the commitment to stay.  I had come in July of 1967 and was in and out quite regularly.  I was able to watch the progression of my disease.  I really blamed myself for everything and when my self-esteem went lower than a snakes belly I knew I had to stay. I jumped in with all 10 feet.  I was everywhere- conferences, BBQ’S, birthday lunches, lots of 12 Step work cause tx centers hadn’t been born.  I worked the Steps- wrote them out and didn’t move to… Read more »

life-j
life-j

Thomas,

Thank you. An entertaining read. Sounds like you were just as sick as I was. Glad to know you and hope you’re enjoying your new home.