One Is Too Many
My Experiences With Drug & Alcohol Abuse And Recovery
The first experience I had with drugs and alcohol was when I was in 8th grade. That would put me at 13 years old. Through my next-door neighbor I started hanging out with a more bad-boy group of guys. One of them, more or less the ring leader, was a year older. One day they had a bag of weed and were rolling joints. I watched them take tokes. It looked like they were inhaling more air than smoke. I figured they were just faking it. So when they handed me the joint, I totally faked it. One night we all slept out in a tent in my neighbor's back yard and one of them had some beer. I remember having drunk some of it, but I don't remember having caught a buzz. The next day my father found the beer bottle caps in the tent. I was busted. I didn't like being in trouble. I stopped hanging out with that group and my experimentation with drugs and alcohol was over. At least for the time being.
Fast-forward to the Summer before my senior year in High School. I was 17. The drinking age at the time was 18. My buddies Greg and Vince and I decided it was time to start experimenting with alcohol. And I mean experimenting in the literal sense. We got a little bottle of something. I don't even remember what it was. I think it was schnapps or something similarly mellow. We took drinks in a very controlled and deliberate manner, waiting for the effects to kick in so that we could monitor and observe what happened. I waited patiently, until all of a sudden, in a single moment, I could detect the sensation of alcohol intoxication. It was all new. It was completely different from the un-altered state of pure sober reality I had been sensing my entire life until that moment. My world changed forever.
That night was pretty mellow. We got a little tipsy and enjoyed ourselves, and that was pretty much it. The following experiment took place a week or two later. I think it was just Greg and me that time. We were mixing vodka with lemonade. Again, I got an enjoyable buzz and it was a nice experience, and that was pretty much it.
The next occasion was a Friday night just after school had started up after Summer vacation. A small group of us got a bottle of Southern Comfort whiskey. We snuck off to an athletic field behind the High School and started taking swigs. This was before drinking actually became an integral part of our social activity. At this stage, the drinking took place covertly before the social activity commenced.
So we were all hitting this bottle of Southern Comfort. Most people were taking sips, as was I at first, but when my throat acclimated to the burning of the alcohol, and I could tolerate it better, I began to take bigger gulps. By the time we were wrapping up I was practically drinking it like it was wine.
When we figured we'd had enough we put the bottle away and went off to our friend Kathy's house to hang out. Her parents weren't home, so we could just relax and be ourselves. The alcohol buzz started to kick in, and it just kept getting more and more intense. Pretty quickly I realized that the quantity I had consumed had gotten me very, very drunk. I was a mess. The only specific memory I have during that part of the evening was trying to undo a safety pin behind my back. I forget why I was trying to do this, but I remember that I lacked the coordination to do it.
Eventually the spins set in. I was sitting on the couch, and it was like it was on an amusement park ride. But this ride never ended. I just kept whirling around and around endlessly. I was totally immobilized on that couch. I couldn't get up. I couldn't walk. I couldn't move.
Then came the moment I realized I was going to be sick. I had that unmistakable feeling in the back of my throat, and my saliva glands started working overtime. But I was stuck on that couch. I knew that if I tried to get up I'd fall flat on my face before I'd even taken the first step. I very calmly asked Greg for assistance. "I'm pretty sure I'm going to be sick," I said. "I'll need a little help to get outside." Even as trashed as I was I managed to muster up a sense of composure. Greg successfully escorted me outside, where I planted my face in the bushes for probably an hour or more as I puked my guts out. I emptied my stomach pretty quickly. The rest of the time I was convulsing in dry heaves. I had never felt so physically ill in all my life. After quite some time of this, the heaving subsided and I went back inside, but the rest of the night wasn't a lot of fun. The next day wasn't too pretty either.
While I hadn't considered that third occasion to be an experiment, that was exactly what it was. I learned that night how much was too much, and what it would do to me. Throughout the remainder of my Senior year, I engaged in pretty typical High School binge drinking behavior. I didn't drink very frequently, but when I did, I drank to get drunk. I got sick again one or two more times, but I was better at knowing how to safely intake alcohol and set my limits.
We were all still under-aged at this time, so drinking remained a clandestine activity. It was always a gamble if the liquor store owner would sell to us or not. Usually they did. They weren't as strict back in those days. The drinking age was still 18, and carding wasn't the law of the land the way it is today.
It was also during this time that we had our first experiences with DWI. I was initially reluctant to write about that here because the activity is patently illegal and recklessly irresponsible. But I decided to include it for two reasons. First, this essay is intended to be fearlessly honest, exploring the depths of my drug and alcohol abuse without omission. But secondly, we did take a very responsible approach to this very irresponsible act.
It was Greg and I who first drove drunk. More specifically, Greg drove and I was his co-pilot. When we first started drinking, we took a very scientific approach. We did the same when we first drove drunk. We knew full well that our reaction time would be diminished and our judgment impaired. So we accounted for that. The goal was to drive "granny style," where we obeyed every speed limit precisely, and every road rule to the letter. This was also the best way to not get caught. As with the lax attitude towards underaged drinking, DWI at this time wasn't enforced as strictly as it is today. But it was still enforced. And we certainly didn't want to get arrested.
Our practice was to continuously verbalize everything we were doing behind the wheel. We would say thing like, "Check speed. Speed okay. Stop sign approaching. Begin reducing speed. Look for cars at the intersection. All clear. Bringing the car to a stop on the white line. All still clear. Commence forward motion. Watch speed. Stop acceleration at the speed limit. Maintain speed. Oncoming car. Ensure they're in their lane. Ensure we're in our lane. All clear. Car has passed safely." I'm not exaggerating. This was how we talked when we were driving under the influence. And I have to say it worked. We never got in an accident. We never got caught. And in those early days, we actually drove in a more deliberate and safe manner when we were drinking than when we were sober.
Then came the first time we tried going to an actual bar. There was a small group of us, some guys and some girls. We parked the car and walked up to the entrance. When I saw the bouncer at the door I got a little nervous about things, so I let my friends go ahead and I fell to the back of the line. They all just walked casually past the bouncer, but he must have smelled my fear. When I got to him he singled me out and asked for my ID. When I said I didn't have it he wouldn't let me in. That left me at the entrance to the place with all my friends inside. I had gotten a ride with someone else, and the bar was not within walking distance of my house, so I had no choice but to just stand there at the entrance and wonder what was going to happen next. Finally, after maybe 15 minutes of me standing there alone, the bouncer took pity on me and let me in on the condition that I would not drink. When I got to the table all my friends tried to get me to take drinks, but I didn't. I was good to my word.
Towards the end of the school year, marijuana entered the scene again. I smoked it on a couple of occasions when I happened to be present when a joint was being passed. I never caught a buzz, though. I later learned that this is how it tends to work when people first start smoking weed. It takes a while to build up threshold levels of THC before the psychoactive effects are experienced. But I never got to that point. I would just smoke it and nothing would happen. After a while I figured it was a waste of time and I just stopped participating. That made my friends curious, but they didn't pressure me or anything. We didn't have our hands on any pot very often anyway.
The Summer before I went off to college I finally turned 18. The events on my 18th birthday was pretty extreme. Most of my friends turned 18 over the course of the school year, so they could all accompany me as I went bar hopping. The night started with vodka martinis. I paced myself, switching to water at certain intervals, but I got ¨n;ber trashed that night. I wound up back at my house sitting in the driveway before I went inside. My friends had dropped me off, but I wasn't ready for the party to end. I didn't dare drive anywhere. I could barely stand. But I wanted to hit one more bar before closing time. I walked from my house to the nearest bar I knew, which had to be at least a mile away. When I got there I was about 10 minutes past last call. I tried to get the bar maid to serve me anyway because it was my birthday, but she had none of it. I staggered all the way back home and passed out.
My mother had scheduled a dentist appointment for me at 8AM the following morning. I think that may have been her way of getting me to moderate my behavior, as if knowing I had a dentist appointment early the next morning would make me take it easy on my 18th birthday. She clearly didn't understand the alcoholic mind. I actually made it there on time, and I sat back in that chair with the dentist's hands in my mouth, painfully hung over an sleep deprived. I almost felt like I was going to be sick right there in the chair. But I made it through.
That day I went to work. I was a lifeguard at the time at a municipal swimming pool. It wasn't a physically demanding job, but I had to sit out in the sun all day long. The more time went by the more ill I felt. Finally I knew I was going to be sick. But I was on duty when the nausea hit me. Still, there was nothing I could do. I either had to projectile vomit into the pool, or leave my post. I had no choice but to do the latter. I climbed down from my chair, walked inside the building, and emptied my stomach. I went right back up into my chair with no harm done, but it marked the first time that my drinking had a clear, detrimental effect on my work. It was highly irresponsible and grossly negligent to leave my section of the pool unattended. If some poor kid had drown while I was in the bathroom puking my guts out, it would have totally been my fault, and it would have been due to my excessive drinking. And I knew that full well at the time. It bothered me a lot.
After a rather glorious Summer as a high school graduate binge drinker, I went off to college in the fall. One of the first nights I was on campus I attended a campus mixer. It was an official college social function and was being held in a campus facility. To my utter astonishment, they were just pouring the beer and handing it out for free! I had never seen anything like that before. Never. Alcohol had always been a commodity. It was difficult to procure, not inexpensive, and rarely shared openly or freely. That I could just drink as much as I wanted to without having to fork over more dough simply blew my mind.
As my freshman year progressed I attended many other college events like this, and many other parties where alcohol was given away for free. The frequency of my drinking picked up, and I had established a proclivity for getting pretty loopy, but I still managed to respect my own limits and minimize the nights I'd seriously over-do it. I was getting my school work done, and my grades didn't suck, so it was a lifestyle I was able to sustain.
I advanced to the next stage one night when a kid on my floor hosted a pot party in his room. He scored a bag, and invited everyone on the floor to get smoked up. I figured that since I'd never been high before that I could just join the party and smoke all I wanted to, because nothing was going to happen to me anyway. There was a bong going one way, a joint going the other way, and I would take a hit whenever something came to me.
Then it happened -- I started getting high.
This was another first for me. I was a seasoned drinker by that time, but I had never before experienced the effects of marijuana, and I was largely unprepared to deal with it. I was in a room full of guys, dense with smoke, and paraphernalia being passed in every direction. I really wanted to get the Hell out of there, but this first marijuana high took me directly to the classic paranoia state. I found myself afraid to get up and leave for fear that it would make me look like a selfish lout who had only been there for the drugs. So I stayed put. And I didn't want to look like a lightweight, so I kept on taking hits whenever something came my way. I was already wicked stoned, and I just kept getting higher and higher.
Eventually I stopped smoking and just sat there. Literally. I was way too stoned to carry on a conversation, so I just sat there, not talking to anyone, and quietly passing the weed whenever it came to me. This went on for some time, but I was just too fucked up to remain in that environment. Finally I got up and walked out no matter what it made me look like.
I went into my room and lay down on my bed, but my mind was going a mile a minute, and after about 30 seconds of that I had to get back up again. I didn't know where to go or what to do. The last thing I wanted to do was to get sucked back into the pot party, so I left the dorm and went for a walk around campus. As I walked around, I really began to experience marijuana paranoia. I assumed that everyone I passed was thinking to himself, "Look at that guy! Look at how stoned he is!"
I kept walking around and around and around until the buzz finally began to ebb. Eventually I felt good enough to go back to the dorm. I walked into the TV lounge. "Apocalypse Now" had *just* started. So I sat there and watched the whole thing. I had seen it before, but still it was a striking thing to watch while high for the first time, and massively high at that. By the time it ended I had come down enough that I could go to bed.
What this night did was transition me from being a drinker to being a druggie. Despite this rather traumatic introduction to the world of marijuana, I had a desire to try it again. The problem was that I didn't know where to get any, and couldn't really afford it anyway. I would eagerly smoke whenever it was handed to me, and I grew to really enjoy the effects, but at that point it was far from a habit.
But one habit I was picking up was cigarette smoking. I'm not really sure why I started. It was curiosity, I guess. I don't really recall having been particularly drawn to the effects of nicotine, or ever having a craving for a cigarette. It didn't give me the kind of satisfaction that alcohol and marijuana did. But I would occasionally bum a smoke at parties, or swipe one from an unattended pack if I happened to find one, or otherwise just light up when the opportunity presented itself. I certainly never went out and bought a pack of cigarettes. That was a line I wasn't willing to cross. At least not yet. But as time went on I found that I was having a cig more and more frequently. It wasn't becoming a hard habit just yet, but the progression had begun.
Back home I was getting a reputation as a heavy drinker when I was in town on breaks. My tolerance had grown pretty significantly. I could get pretty fucking trashed without getting sick. I would be hung over, but I was still young and I could bounce back quickly. The very next night I'd be out getting trashed all over again.
It was also at this time that my drinking began to affect my relationship with my family. For the most part they knew I was a rambunctious college kid, and that a lot of drinking came along with that. Of course they didn't know the extent and the extremity of my drinking, but ever since I went off to college they saw fit to keep me on a long leash while I was home.
There were those occasions when the two worlds collided, however. One particular instance comes to mind. One Saturday we were to go and visit my paternal Grandmother who lived a couple hours away. Somehow my brothers were excused from this trip, although our German exchange student was coming along. Well Friday night my buddies and I got into the vodka, and we hit it pretty hard. The next morning I knew things wouldn't be pretty. The symptomatology that had developed for me when I overdid it was that I would not get sick that night, but that I would be quite ill and throwing up over the course of the next day. I knew that this was what lay ahead of me that day, and yet I was to make this 4 hour round trip with my parents and spend the day with an elderly lady. I knew it just wasn't going to happen.
When my mother came in to tell me it was time to get up and get ready, I told her that I couldn't go. I was honest with her. I told her that I'd had too much to drink the night before, and that I was going to be sick all day. She was understanding, and she gave me a pass. Unfortunately shortly thereafter she came back in saying that my father vetoed the plan. She said that maybe if I had some breakfast that I would "snap out of it." I knew there was no snapping out of these situations. I was going to be sick the whole day, and nothing would stop that. But I also knew that nothing was going to get me out of this trip. I think that at least in part this was their way of punishing me. I would have to endure.
The drive down was intolerable. I was curled up in the back seat the whole way, shaking and sweating, and just praying for it to be over. Every minute I was trying to keep myself from being sick. On at least one occasion I told my father he had to pull over so I could throw up. It was the longest 2 hours of my life up to that point. When we arrived I just sat quietly in the corner while my parents had the kind of inane, superficial conversation one has with an elderly grandparent. We took her out to do some shopping. While they were in the store I curled up in the back of the car and tried to get some sleep. The drive home wasn't quite as bad as the drive down. I think I made it home without getting sick again. But it was still a miserable time, and one of the toughest days of my life to date.
Back at school I continued on partying having pretty much only myself to contend with the consequences of my behavior. But there was an event of some significance late in my Sophomore year. I ate some mushrooms, which officially marked my introduction to "hard drugs." I didn't even really know what they were or what they did to you. I just knew it was a drug, and I was curious to try something new, so I ate some. The rest of the night was quite interesting. I didn't know that was I was experiencing was a "trip," so I wasn't at all concerned or afraid. I just went with it. It took me to a whole new place. There is no way to describe the experience of tripping, so I won't even attempt it here, but suffice it to say, my horizons were broadened that night. I wandered around campus, bouncing from party to party, experiencing a wide gamut of emotions.
I advanced to an entirely new level of drug and alcohol abuse in my Junior year of college. That was when I pledged a fraternity. I was already a pretty hard drinker by that time, so i fit in quite well with the hard drinking crowd, but being in the fraternity environment was like going from amateur to pro. Hard drinking was the culture. Excessive consumption and crazy antics were behaviors that were not only tolerated, but actually encouraged and celebrated. Conventional social interaction was sublimated with the act of drinking and the whole culture that surrounded it. I didn't really realize this at the time. I just knew that I had finally found a group of guys whose affinity for the extreme matched or even exceeded my own. I felt validated. I felt like I belonged.
Other things started to change in this new environment. I was buying my own packs of cigarettes now, although one pack would still last me several days. It was still very rare that I would buy my own pot, but I was getting high a lot more frequently. And I started trying out new drugs. On one particular Friday night I was hanging out at the chapter house, and one of the older members, a guy named C-Hahn, put a tiny little square of paper in my hand.
"Take this," he said.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Just take it," he said.
I swallowed it. "What was that, anyway?" I asked again.
"It was a hit of acid," he said casually.
"Oh," I said. "I've never done that before."
The guy played it cool, but I think that freaked him out a little. For some reason he had assumed that I was a long-term, hard-core partier. He hadn't planned on baby sitting a first-timer. When I tried the mushrooms the year before, I didn't know I was tripping, and I had nothing to be afraid of. But on this occasion I knew full well that I was headed for an acid trip. All the drug education I had received from parents, teachers, and counsellors, all the stories of the "brown acid" at Woodstock and of Art Linkletter's tripping son who thought he could fly but fell to his death, and all the urban legends of the tripping babysitter who put the turkey in the crib and the baby in the oven, told me that this was something to fear. It was something that could go horribly wrong. A "bad trip" was a psychotic pitfall from which one might never escape.
But in that moment, when I learned that I had taken a hit of acid and there was no turning back, my initial reaction was one of curiosity, not alarm. I took a moment to observe this in myself, and recognized that I was not afraid. So I felt pretty good about just going with it. I was pretty calm during that intervening period after you drop and before you start tripping, and assumed that everything would be all right.
It wound up being a weird night. We sat in C-Hahn's room for hours as he told us stories about his father's mental illness and how his mother would play head games on him. It was an odd tale, made all the stranger by the effects of the LSD. The difference between mushrooms and LSD is in the intensity and duration of the trip. Both are considerably greater with LSD. I was totally immersed in C-Hahn's stories, and in the environment of the fraternity house and the particularly eclectic trappings of C-Hahn's room.
The LSD trip also caused me to lose the ability to speak. Or, I should say, to form sentences. I would try to contribute to the conversation, or make observations or give feedback, but I just couldn't seem to put two words together. I would try to say something, but only fractured, disjointed jibberish would come out.
We stayed up very late into the night, a sequestered group of tripping college students, gathered in our private drug den enclave as the trip wore on hour after hour after hour. In the wee hours of the morning the group broke up and people went off to bed. My room was on campus, and I didn't feel motivated, or for that matter even capable of making my way back there. So I found a nearby couch and tried to sleep, but continued to lie awake for a few more hours as psychedelic imagery rambled endlessly and pervasively through my mind.
Overall I would say it was a positive experience. I had been formally exposed to the world of "tripping" and had learned what it was all about, and I had survived with no drama or ill effects beyond the fact that it took me a couple of days to feel like I had really recovered. But it was pretty damn intense, and I wasn't exactly eager to repeat it any time soon.
The following semester I took up residence in the chapter house. The biggest change this brought was that I started smoking pot even more frequently, because it was around all the time. One week I actually got high each and every day. That marked the first time in my life that I was a "daily" drug user. It was around that time that I felt the edge of my cognitive acumen begin to dull. My mind had always been extremely clear and sharp. My mind's eye was very keenly focused. My recall was very quick. I could process thoughts at high speed, and quickly and precisely synthesize complex concepts, holding a lot in my mind all at one time. But when I started to smoke pot every day, I found I was in a bit of a fog every day. I could still function, but the speed and capacity of my mind was markedly reduced. The clarity of thought was gone. The focus was blurred. The cause/effect relationship was quite clear. I wondered if this was what it felt like to be a "burnout." But I couldn't or wouldn't stop getting high. As long as I could continue to function I would continue to use.
By the end of the following semester I was smoking pretty much every day, day in and day out. I had also become a habitual cigarette smoker. I still didn't smoke a lot, comparatively speaking, but I did smoke consistently. I had been buying my own packs of cigarettes for a while, but it had been an occasional treat. I now felt compelled to go out and get another pack when my current one ran out.
Over the next few years I continued drinking and getting high. I experimented with LSD a couple more times. The experiences were so-so. I never had any visual hallucinations, beyond occasionally seeing trails. I was never so out of touch with reality that I would put a baby in the oven, or try to fly off the roof of a tall building.
There were only a couple instances that were particularly memorable. On one night saw Pink Floyd The Wall at the midnight movie house while I was tripping. Fortunately I had seen the movie before, so the deeply unsettling imagery and content were not a surprise to me. But anyone who likes Pink Floyd and trips on acid should definitely have this experience at least once in his lifetime.
On another night I had dropped acid at the fraternity house, and I must have been sitting by myself merrily tripping away while everyone else headed out to a party at our sister sorority's house. I finally decided to collect myself and join them. I stepped out of the front door and noticed my car sitting in the driveway. At the time I was driving a 1972 Citroën DS21. If you're not familiar with the car, one look at it and you would think the person who designed it was tripping on LSD at the time.
As I noticed the car sitting there I couldn't help but just climb inside for a couple seconds. I really, really loved that old car, and while I was tripping on acid I just wanted to spend a little quality time with it. I opened the door and was immediately welcomed by the aroma of old leather. Nothing smelled like the inside of that car. I took a seat, closed myself in, and looked around at the controls. A Citroën DS is unlike any other car you can imagine. Beyond the quaint European flair, and the fact that the seats are like big overstuffed armchairs, there are all kinds of levers, dials, buttons, and other controls that just aren't found in conventional automobiles. I sat there for a while, just looking at the dashboard and marveling in the unconventionality of it all. The acid trip brought to the experience a heightened sense of perception, a particular appreciation for the eccentricity of my surroundings, and a propensity to be transported to another time and place. I began to feel like I was off in the French countryside, ten years in the past.
I noticed that the key was in the ignition. It always was. It had gotten hopelessly jammed in there long before I had taken possession of the car. I didn't worry about it because I knew that any would-be car thief would have no idea how to engage the starter, and even if he were lucky enough to get it running wouldn't know how to put it into gear and drive away. The car was really that esoteric. That was how the key got jammed in the first place. Someone went to drive the car, thought that it would be started in a conventional manner, and jammed the key while trying.
It dawned on me that since the key was right there, I could just start it up and drive it over to the sorority house. Despite the fact that I had become quite adept at driving drunk by this time, I knew that driving on acid was a whole other ballgame. But it was a short drive, just a few blocks, and I could take back streets the whole way. I wanted to give it a try.
I went through the startup procedure:
I sat there waiting for the suspension to pressure up. I listened to the engine. I noticed that it sounded like the one in the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car. After a minute or so the suspension came to life. First the front of the car lifted up to the standard ride height. As soon as it leveled off, the rear end followed. This was perhaps the most unusual characteristic of this unusual car, and it tended to freak out any passengers who were not prepared for it. But in that moment, tripping on Acid, it made me feel like I had just lifted off into the air. I was no longer in the French countryside. I was a World War I flying ace in his antique airplane. The smell of leather, and the gleam of the street light off the chrome levers and dial surrounds added to the sensation.
For better or worse, I decided to take to the road. I applied pressure to the brake button, placed the transmission lever into the first position, and when I released the brake button and applied throttle, the car took off. I drove very carefully up the street. I enjoyed the sensation of flying my earthbound airplane, but I was still very cautious. Fortunately the streets were deserted. But I had to remind myself of things like the meaning of red lights and stop signs, and that there could be consequences for not performing the appropriate actions in specific situations.
A few minutes later I was safely parked across the street from the sorority house. As I stepped out of the car I came back down to earth. But I was afraid to go inside the house. I somehow believed that there were fights going on inside, and that if I went in I would step right in the middle of some huge drama that I did not want to get involved in, and that I would not be capable of handling in my fucked up state. So I just stood there by my car for some time.
Eventually one of the brothers came out onto the front porch. He saw my car across the street (it was utterly unmistakable). Then he saw me standing beside it. "Toaph...?" he called out. "What're you doing out there? C'mon inside." I went in to find that it was just a standard party like any other. The rest of the night was unremarkable, except for the fact that I was tripping the whole time.
There was one other memorable LSD experience, and really the only time I really enjoyed the trip without being on edge about it the whole time. The big difference was when I dropped in the morning. That allowed me to have a nice trip all day long rather than it dragging out late into the night. And it wound up being the perfect day to trip. It was an absolutely beautiful, warm, sunny Fall day.
We had a "Drink-off" with another fraternity first thing in the morning. It was while the party was getting set up that I dropped. The point of the event was that each organization raced to finish its keg before the other did. Our opposing organization was a nice group of guys, but smaller in number and not as hard-core as we were. They were a "service" fraternity, and we were a "social" fraternity. We were assured an easy victory. But as the morning wore on, their keg kept getting lighter than ours. So we really stepped up our efforts. We all lined up at the tap. When you filled your beer you went to the end of the line, and you had until you got to the head of the line to finish your beer and fill up again. But the harder we drank the emptier their keg became. Finally one of our guys stepped up to the tap, and it sputtered foam and CO2. We had kicked our keg. It turned out that the lines had gotten crossed, literally, and we had been drinking each others kegs the whole time.
By the time the party broke up I was tripping full-on (known as "peaking"). There was still some time before the afternoon party started, so I walked around our back yard. I found an old shoe in the wet grass, and noticed that a slug was crawling on it. In my tripping state, marked by a heightened sense of attention and perception, I watched that slug crawl along the shoe. I watched it up close, and very intently. I watched it for more than an hour, observing everything about how it moved, how it probed, and how it ate. I was fascinated the whole time. It moved as if by magic, with no visible ambulation. I saw that what cartoonists drew as eyes on stems, were actually the two longer of four feelers that the slug used to navigate. And on the underside of the front of the slug, below these feelers, was actually a tiny little mouth that was chowing down on whatever matter was right in front of it. It was that mouth that captivated me the most. It gave the little being an identity. It was no longer a slimy little glop of flesh. It was a living entity that had needs and wants, just like any other animal. I would later write a paper about the ignored beauty and grace of the common slug, on which I would get an A.
While I was captivated by the slug, the rest of the fraternity had moved off to the afternoon's festivities. One of the other fraternities in town was having a "Beer Blast." These were massive outdoor events, attended by hundreds of students, and included live music and all the beer you could drink. On this day it was located on the other side of town, and since everyone else had already headed out I was walking there by myself. The acid trip made the beautiful day that much more beautiful, and the walk that much more enjoyable. The sun was bright. The sky was blue. The campus building past which I was walking seemed bigger and more impressive. And when I arrived at the blast, my friends seemed friendlier, and the day was just a whole lot of fun.
After the blast was the after-party back at our house, and more drinking on into the night. By the time I started coming down from my trip it was about time to start thinking about crashing anyway. It was the first time that an LSD trip didn't take me through the night until the sun was coming up.
That was the first truly enjoyable LSD trip I had, and it would be the last. After that day I moved from LSD to mushrooms, because the trip was considerably milder and it didn't last nearly as long. But one night I had my first bad experience. It started on a Friday afternoon. I'd just come home from classes, and I joined a group of guys who were drinking and getting high. They were also taking mushrooms. Someone offered me some, and I gobbled them down without giving it much of a thought. But when the marijuana buzz hit me, I realized that I'd gotten way too high way too fast. This had happened before. Occasionally I would smoke too much too quickly, and it would cause a bit of a panic attack. It wasn't a lot of fun. Frankly it was kind of scary. For a less experienced person it could be trouble, but I knew enough to know that if I'd just chill myself out and remove myself from the situation, the intensity would fade in a bit, and then I'd be fine. On the rare occasions that this would happen, I'd keep my cool, and eventually all would be well.
But here I was again. I had gotten too high too fast, and I was feeling panicky. But on this occasion I had just eaten some mushrooms. There would be no chilling out. The trip was on its way. I had started something that I couldn't stop, no matter how much I wanted to. If I had gotten too high, I could handle that. If I were headed into a bad mushroom trip, I could handle that. But the two in combination were more than I could handle. I had to hold on for the ride, and I was not looking forward to it.
I did my best to keep it together as I waited for the trip to set in. And when I did start tripping, things got very strange. My buddy Otto, usually a mild mannered and caring person, suddenly took on a more menacing persona. He would look at me sternly, and say derogatory and accusatory things. That just wasn't him, but here he was saying these things to me. It was like reality had suddenly been switched out on me. I figured he was just playing mind games with me. It was generally considered sport. If you weren't tripping, and you were round people whom you knew were tripping, the standard activity was to fuck with them. I still had enough of my wits about me to assume that this was what was happening, but it was still very unsettling. It was so not what I needed, and it kicked me even further back on my heels.
Then very bizarre imagery started popping into my mind. It wasn't a visual hallucination. It was all in my mind's eye. But it was strange and disturbing. I saw these odd, fat, sedentary avian-like creatures, wallowing in sloppy trenches on an alien world that was dark and dreary. They would gasp for air through exposed gullets that would slap open and closed as their breath passed through the gash-like orifices at the end of their wretched wind pipes. I would try not to imagine these disturbing things, but the harder I tried the more I saw them.
This was all just too fucking bizarre. I was extremely uncomfortable. I was way too fucked up. I was tripping and I really, really didn't want to be, but there was nothing I could do about it. All I knew was I had to get out of that room. I abruptly bolted. I just got up and walked out with no goodbyes and no explanation. But once I was out of there, I didn't feel any better. I didn't really know where to go or what to do. No matter where I went, I wanted to be somewhere else. No matter what I did, I wanted to be doing something else. I was in a fraternity house on a Friday afternoon. The place was packed with people, there was a ruckus of activity, and everyone was drinking and doing drugs. I had been on the verge of panic, and now I felt like I was falling over the edge. It was turning into the classic "bad trip," which is every druggy's worst nightmare.
What I really wanted was to just go off and be by myself, away from the people and the partying, until I came down a little. I was composed enough to know that this was just a bad drug experience, and when it wore off I would be fine. But in the mean time, I had to be by myself. I couldn't be around all these people. I tried to go for a walk, but it was a cold February day with a driving, freezing rain. I got about a block away from the house, but I had no choice but to go back and try to deal with the crowd.
I went up to my room and lay down on my bed. There were some other people in the room (I was in a triple at the time), but I just ignored them, climbed up into my bunk, and clutched my pillow. They weren't really sure what to make of the fact I had totally ignored them. One of them said, "Man, that Toaph, they should examine his brain to see what all these drugs have done to it." It was the worst possible thing anyone could have said to me at that time. It cut into me like a machete, and made my panic all the worse. I just clamped my eyes shut, ignored it, and pretended they weren't there. After that they pretty much realized that I wasn't in the mood for company and they left me alone.
Finally I had some peace and quiet. But I still couldn't relax. I found myself trapped in my own mind. I devolved into a state of intense and self-critical rumination. I questioned what i was doing to myself, taking so many drugs, and wondered what kind of damage I could be doing to my brain and my intellect. I felt like I was throwing my life away, and squandering the promise my parents had provided for me and nurtured over the course of my life to date. I was in a bad, ugly place, but I could do nothing but lie there and endure it.
Then, rather suddenly, the bad trip started to fade away. It was like storm clouds clearing and the wind settling down. I took a deep breath and realized that things weren't all that bad. Thank God this had only been mushrooms. If I'd taken LSD I would have had another 10 hours or more of mental anguish to endure, but as it was only 2 or 3 hours had elapsed from the time I'd taken the mushrooms. After my mind cleared up a little more I was ready to go back and rejoin the party. Those with whom I had started the evening said that they wondered what had happened to me, and were concerned about me. I said that I'd had a rather bad experience, but that they'd handled it the best way possible, by leaving me alone and letting me come down on my own.
That was a bit of a turning point for me. It would wind up being the 3rd worst chemical experience I would have in my life. And it pretty much marked the end of my days with psychedelics. Frankly I didn't have a lot of choice in the matter. It wasn't like I made a bold decision to abstain. I was afraid now. I was terrified of having another bad experience. It was no harder to stay away from LSD and mushrooms than it was to stay away from rat poison.
With that unpleasantness behind me, I pretty much got back to drinking, smoking, and getting high. I was having a lot of fun, and my grades were okay, but there was always something gnawing away at me. I knew that this behavior wasn't good for me. I knew I was doing my brain and my body harm. My cognitive acuity had already taken a hit. I was wondering what was next. I could tell I was changing, and not for the better. This was something that had always been a latent concern, but my bad experience with the mushrooms brought it more to the forefront. I felt like I was getting lost in my own drug use, like I was falling further and further down the rabbit hole. My pattern of use was actually pretty stable, but I feared what the cumulative effects were doing to me. Interestingly, this fear and concern didn't affect my behavior. I kept right on using in spite of my concerns. And I was aware of that. It made me feel even worse about myself.
Fast-forward to the following school year. A member of the fraternity got his hands on some "pep pills." He wasn't even one of the druggies in the house. He was a body-building fitness buff. The pills were actually gray-market diet pills, and all it really was was caffeine in fairly high doses. He was handing them out pretty liberally. I wasn't much for stimulants. I didn't even drink coffee. But I helped myself to some of the pills, just because it was something to do.
I somehow found myself home over break with some of these pills loose in my pocket. For some unknown reason I pulled an old prescription bottle out of my medicine cabinet (my mother never threw away old, leftover medicine), dumped out the ancient pills, and used it to carry the diet pills around in. It was totally stupid because I didn't even take the pills. And it was doubly stupid, because one morning my mother found them. She went fishing through my jacket looking for the car keys, and she found them in the pocket. She freaked out pretty bad, and burst into my bedroom waking me up and asking what they were. I should have said, "They're just diet pills. Go ahead and throw them out." But she woke me up out of a deep sleep, and I wasn't thinking clearly. In fact I wound up using the most cliché excuse in the book. I told her I was holding them for a friend. Somehow she bought it, and she said she'd put them right back in my jacket pocket. "That was too easy," I thought to myself.
And it was. Later that evening when my father was home from work he pursued the matter further. He wanted to know why my friend's pills were in a prescription bottle with my little brother's name on it. Again, I should have just 'fessed up, said they're stupid diet pills, and thrown them away. But I guess I figured I was in too deep. I used my best acting skills do describe how my friend was desperate to get rid of them, just handed me the loose pills, and I had to put them in something. My father clearly wasn't buying it, but he let it drop. That's the WASP way. Rather than dealing with problems head on, you turn a blind eye, and have faith that everything will work out okay in the end.
In one manner it was a good course of action on my father's part. Despite the fact that I had just lied to him, he trusted me, and he gave me the freedom to make my own mistakes with the faith that in the long run I would have good judgment. Ultimately that's really the only way to deal with these situations. But the incident would have a profound effect on my relationship with my parents. It drove a massive wedge between us. I, well entrenched in the WASP ways, kept my whole life of drinking and drugging a secret from my parents. I think most kids do, at least back in those days. But now it became more of an issue for me. Every time I was home on break, every time I saw them, I was afraid that something else about my secret life would be revealed. I feared that they would discover something else that would become a big, difficult, uncomfortable issue.
My relationship with my parents was no longer one of love, honesty, and inclusion, but of deceit, separation, and fear. It contaminated all of the time I would spend with them for years to come. In my effort to hide this part of my life from them, I basically hid who I really was from them. Rather than just be myself around them, I created this persona that was who they wanted me to be. I had to always be that person when I was around them. It was like being on a job interview 24/7 when I was home. Every action I took, everything I said, every opinion I expressed was guarded or even fabricated to be something that would not displease them. I never really felt close to them again after that day. In many ways, even now decades later, we've still not really recovered from it.
These stupid pills played another seminal role in my life of alcohol and drug abuse. One day back at school one of the guys who had an apartment outside the chapter house invited everyone over for a day of drinking at his place. It was a pretty typical affair. "Tap it and they will come" was our philosophy. But the fitness guy had a bunch of these diet pills with him, and I took one. I don't know why. I was pretty buzzed on beer and I guess I was in the mood for a further indulgence. I didn't feel any effect, so I took another. I was drinking at a pretty good pace, and I wasn't feeling any effect from the caffeine at all. So over the course of the day I kept popping pills. I took one after the other, like M&M's, just because I was drunk and didn't really think about what I was doing.
That night back at the house I lay down to sleep. But there was no sleeping to be had that night. There was enough caffeine in my system to get an elephant wired. And by now the alcohol was wearing off. I lay in my bed for hours and hours, stewing in my own juices. My concerns about my drug use came flying back to the surface, exacerbated by the jittery affects of the caffeine. I thought that if I were to die that night, and a doctor did an autopsy on me, what he would think when he found evidence of drug after drug after drug in my system. Once again I was questioning what I was doing with myself, but still aware that I was essentially unable to change my behavior.
If all this wasn't enough, there was something else that was eating away at me on that particular night. I was president of the fraternity that semester. The next day was our house meeting, and the president of the college was supposed to come by to speak. I knew that after this sleepless night I would look an utter disaster the next day, and be pretty incapable of speaking intelligently. I was supposed to be the face of the leadership of our organization, and I had every expectation that I would present myself as an unkempt, vapid, spaced-out, and inarticulate mess of a person. The anxiety was becoming more than I could bear.
I got to the point that I decided that since I wasn't going to be doing any sleeping that I might as well get up and walk around the house for a while. Coming down the front stairs I felt really funny. I felt like I was fucked up on drugs, even though I wasn't really on anything at the moment beyond high doses of caffein. This had been one of my deepest fears. I feared that one day my brain would fall into an intoxicated state with no chemical provocation, and that I wouldn't be able to just wait to come back down again. I feared that I might never come back down again, that I would be in a perpetual state of intoxication, and would eventually become a vegetable. And here I found myself possibly in that very state.
I went into the TV room. There were actually some people in there, still up at this late hour. I still felt all kinds of fucked up as I stepped into the room. I had to shimmy between the couch and the coffee table, and as I looked down at the slip cover over the tattered upholstery on the sofa, something was pushing out from underneath. I stopped to look. Then a pair of arms and a ghastly head reached out from the sofa back towards me, stretching the material of the slip cover that it remained underneath. It was like something out of a horror movie. I fell back onto the coffee table, totally freaked out. "What's happening to me?!?!?!?" I cried.
At that point I woke up with a start. It had all been a dream. I had never left my bed. I had only dreamed that I had. I was utterly exasperated. But at least the sensation of being fucked up without being on drugs had only been part of the dream. And the fact that I had fallen asleep at all was at least a good sign. I felt like I might actually be okay, but this business of the college president's visit that evening was still freaking me out. Thinking a little more clearly now, I wondered if it was even going to take place. I knew it had been discussed, but didn't recall it ever being confirmed. I could be getting myself all worked up over nothing.
I got up and walked to the room of the brother who had arranged the meeting with the college president. I pounded on his door (it was probably 5AM).
"Whaaaaaat........." he groaned.
"It's Toaph. Is the president coming to the meeting tonight or not?" I asked.
"No," the guy answered. "It got rescheduled."
"Cool," I said. "Thanks. Sorry to wake you."
I went back to bed. I could relax now. I actually got a couple hours of sleep. But that had been one miserable, Hell of a night. The whole fiasco wound up being the top worst chemical experience of my life, and the drug that did it was good old fashioned caffeine. From that day I declared caffein to be my enemy.
Fast-forward to my final year in college. I found myself back at the same apartment where I had done all that caffein. This time it was a small gathering. And instead of caffeine they were doing cocaine. This was a first for me. I had never seen it in real life before. My buddy offered me a line. I decided to give it a try. Despite my subliminal discontent with my already robust drug use, I was still open to trying new things. He explained to me the technique, that one should exhale in a direction away from the mirror so as not to blow the powder around, and then stick the tube up to the nose, bend forward, and sniff. I did the line in two halves: one for each nostril. It made the back of my throat numb. But other than that, it didn't seem to have much of an affect on me.
I did a couple more lines that night. I didn't know it at the time, but it was one of the best batches of coke I would ever do. I felt slightly altered, but couldn't really put my finger on the "cocaine buzz." I didn't feel wired like I expected to. I sort of felt some manner of amorphous euphoria, but again it was not the profound effect I would have expected from a drug that had the reputation that cocaine did.
We went back to the chapter house to a party that was going on with our co-ed affiliate organization. These were usually pretty routine, even banal affairs. But we arrived to discover that somehow this party had been spontaneously transformed into an underwear party. All the girls were in their bras and panties, and all the guys were in their boxers or briefs. It wound up being one of the best parties of my college career, made that much more special by the cocaine buzz.
I did coke again on a few other rare occasions, but it never became a habit for me. It was exotic, and exciting, and there was lots of paraphernalia and a complex process. There was also an entire subculture that went along with it. It was always done secretly and behind locked doors. This was partly because it was expensive, and no one wanted a bunch of free loaders trying to mooch in on the action. But it was also another class of drug. Getting busted with weed was no big deal. But cocaine was serious business.
There were a couple reasons that I never got addicted to cocaine. One was that I was just never big on the stimulants. I was always pretty happy with just beer and weed. But the ultimate reason was that it didn't pass a cost/benefit assessment. This stuff really cost a lot of money. And I never really felt the cocaine high to be that big of a deal. When you drank beer you got drunk. When you smoked dope you got high. When you ate 'shrooms you would trip. But when you did coke, all you really did was want to do more coke. You would do some lines, and then you would just see how long you could hold off before doing more lines. That would go on all night until you ran out of the drug, and finally accepted the fact that you couldn't get any more because either you'd spent all your money already, or the people who sold it were long asleep. It wasn't a social drug. It was done secretly when you were sequestered off away from the party. It just wasn't something that appealed to me.
It did continue to be a rare treat, though. While I didn't want to do it all the time, it was still fun and exotic to do on rare occasions. I only recall ever once actually seeking it out, and making a deliberate attempt to procure some. It was at the very end of my graduating year. A bunch of us were going across the border to Canada to a strip club. Canada was preferable to the states for strip clubs because the girls could get 100% naked. I wasn't really interested in ogling naked girls, but I went along because it was a festive outing in which I wanted to be included. I got the cocaine ahead of time, and kept it safe in my room. The plan was for me and another brother, a cute and charming lad named Roscoe who had just joined the house, to come home late after the strip club and spend the rest of the night doing lines.
It was a good plan, and it worked well. We got back rather late, but the cocaine picked us up and we had a grand old time doing lines all night just the two of us alone in my room. But in the wee hours of the morning I started getting emotional. I had become quite comfortable in the college life, safely supported in my fraternal womb, surrounded by an endless parade of energetic and like-minded young men in an nonstop succession of parties and good times. But it was all coming to an end. I had to leave this comfortable home and the company of all these young men to strike out on my own. I didn't want to go. I didn't want to, but I had to. My college career was over. It was time to move on to the next chapter of my life. This night became my swan song, all fucked up on coke and alone with this new friend whom I'd just made, and whom I now had to leave behind. To the guy's credit he was very patient with me, giving me as much emotional support as he could. If anything I would say that the cocaine was a positive element of that experience. It gave me an excuse to spend some quality time with this new young friend of mine, and it facilitated the release of emotions that really needed to get out.
After I graduated and left the fraternity house I moved to Washington DC where I lived for a few months. I didn't drink as hard as I used to because I didn't really have anyone to drink with, and at that point in my life I was too chicken to go and hang out at gay bars. I also had no access to weed, so for the first time in a few years I went without getting high for a prolonged period of time. On one night a friend came back from a party with just a tiny little bud of weed that he scored down at Dupont Circle. We smoked it up, and got so high off that small amount! And oh did it feel good. But that was pretty much it for the whole time I was down there. I hadn't gone that long without smoking pot regularly since I joined the fraternity house. After some time had passed I actually started to feel a little of the sharpness return to my cognitive functions. It gave me some hope that maybe the damage I'd been doing to myself might be reversible.
This same friend turned me on to another new drug. He would sometimes go to a local head shop where he would buy a box of Nitrous Oxide whip cream chargers, commonly known as "whippets." He had this plastic contraption with a big balloon on one end. You would put the whippet cartridge into the device and screw it down. A point would pierce the seal of the cartridge, and the gas would inflate the balloon. You would then unscrew the device to slowly release the gas into your lungs. It would space you out for a minute or two, but then the buzz would fade and you could come back to reality. We found it to be fun, but one day the plastic device broke, and we pretty much gave it up.
Alas, my time in DC wound up being short lived. When I got back home my substance use pretty much picked up where it left off. I had to live back at my parents' house for a while, which wasn't the best of circumstances. I would frequently escape back to my old fraternity house, where I would get massively fucked up for a couple days before I went back to my folks'. I think that I was actually getting more drunk during this time than I generally had back when I was actually a student. There were a couple times when I lost my glasses. That was the worst. I'm really nearsighted. I can't see a thing without my glasses. And here I was traipsing around this huge fraternity house that was full of garbage and clutter, trying to find a little pair of spectacles when I couldn't see a damn thing.
I also experienced what to date was perhaps the most troubling event. For a long time it had been not at all unusual for me to have blackouts. But it wasn't anything earth shattering. I just thought of it as "lost time." Somewhere around last call, or generally when the evening was drawing to a close, I would realize that I couldn't account for the previous few hours. But I had just been doing what I always did. I just had no recollection of it.
However, that particular year, the night before New Years Eve, I went out to a bar with some of the guys. Again, I had a few hours of lost time, but the next morning one of the guys started telling me stories about what I had been doing. It was totally out of character for me. One example was that I had gone up to a couple girls at the bar, inserted myself between them and put my arms around them both, all of this right in front of their boyfriends. This isn't the most disturbing behavior one can imagine, but I didn't like it, and it was very unnerving to me. As soon as I got off the phone I got sick to my stomach. I wound up staying home that night and watching Dick Clark while everyone else was getting drunk.
That Winter it turned out I would outdo myself. By a long shot. In fact it would be when I would hit rock bottom for the first time. In fact I've never hit that hard since. It was an ordinary Friday night. I was going to a nearby town to hang out with some of my fellow fraternity alumni who also lived in the area. I drank one flask of Maddog 20/20. That was it. Just one flask. The thing about Maddog, though, is that every batch seems to be a little bit different from every other batch. Sometimes you get a good buzz off one flask. Sometimes you get plastered. This time I got mega plastered.
One of the most consequential problems with alcohol is it makes you loose your judgement. The obvious course of action that night would have been for me to just crash at this guy's place and drive home in the morning. But my judgement wasn't just impaired, it was altogether gone. I decided to drive home. My friends advised me against it, but I was too drunk to listen. I wish they had wrestled me to the ground and taken my keys, but they allowed me to go.
This is where it gets a little difficult to write, because my memories of my own ridiculous behavior are painful not only to recall, but to put down in words in excruciating detail.
On the way out of this guys house I saw the beautiful Samoyed dog that he kept chained up outside. It was a peppy, good-natured dog, and I felt so sorry for it chained up all alone out there. Somehow I thought it would be a good idea to take it in my car home with me. I let him off the chain, led him to the car, and away we went. The fact of the matter is that I made it home just fine. I had long ago outgrown the granny-style driving that my friends and I initially adopted for driving under the influence. But I had also driven drunk enough to have gotten very accustomed to it. There were rare occasions when I would let the alcohol get the better of me, and I would hot rod it up pretty bad. But for the most part I would drive pretty normally when I was drunk.
On this night I made it back to my parents' house with no incident of any kind, despite the fact that it was through snowy, slippery conditions. But when I got out of the car and walked into the house, something happened. It was an example of how one, instantaneous event can have serious, pervasive, long-lasting ramifications.
I dropped my car keys somewhere in the snowy driveway.
I brought the dog into the house with me, somehow not waking my whole family. But after playing around with him for a while in my bedroom I came to my senses enough to know that I should get him back out of the house. I brought him back downstairs, and as I was getting ready to head back out I discovered that I'd lost my car keys. And this is where my judgement slipped even further. Despite the fact that I had already behaved in inexcusably bad ways that night, there were further depths to which I could fall. In fact I was only getting started.
I figured I would find my car keys the next day, but in that moment I needed to deal with this dog. I found my parents' keys, and I took their car. I put the dog in the front seat, and away we went. But instead of driving back to where the dog belonged, I somehow saw fit to drive clear across town in the opposite direction to where my older brother lived. I guess I wanted more human company or something. I don't know how late at night it actually was, but his place was dark and locked up tight. With that plan dashed I took the dog back to my parents' house.
By now I was coming down a little, and figured it was time to get the dog back to his own home. Somehow I decided to take my younger brother's car, which was our old family car (a full-sized Oldsmobile station wagon). I put the dog in and drove back to where I'd gotten drunk in the first place. I didn't know where the chain was, so I just let the dog into the guy's house. I then got back in the car and headed home.
Bear in mind I was doing all this drunk driving on slick, snowy roads that would have been a challenge under the best of circumstances. So far I had been doing remarkably well, but on this final drive back home I spun out. I was going at highway speeds when the rear end let loose, and the car spun clear around. But by the grace of God a big snowbank kept me from going off the road. The rear end of that big Oldsmobile wagon bashed square into the snow, and the car came to a stop. Since it was the middle of the night there was absolutely no other traffic anywhere in sight, so I just hollered out "Wooo hooooo!", pulled back into my lane, and got back on my way. When I arrived back at my parents house I put my brother's car where I had found it and I finally passed out in my bed.
From the early days of my college career, when I was home over break and would go out for nights of blacked-out drunken debauchery with my old hometown friends, I would inevitably wake up in my parents' house the next morning fearful that I would emerge from my room to discover that I had done something crazy the night before that had enraged them. But that fear always wound up being unfounded. Everything would always be normal. There were never any consequences of my behavior. But even after years of this, with nothing ever coming of it, I would still wake up with that same fear. As I did that morning. And like all the previous mornings, I figured the fear was unfounded.
Then my father came into the room. My parents and my younger brother had planned a ski trip for the day. As they were loading up the car, my father discovered that the skis he had placed on top of his car but not secured into the racks, were missing. He also noticed some white dog hair around the house.
Memories of the previous night came flooding back into my mind. I remembered the dog, I remembered taking my parents' car, I remembered spinning out in my brother's car, I remembered everything. I didn't know there were skis on top of the car. Obviously they fell off at some point while I was driving along, and now they were gone. They could be anywhere.
I felt like I was going to be sick. I made up some cock & bull story about the dog. I don't even recall what I said. And I disavowed any knowledge of the missing skis. My father wasn't convinced, but he left me alone for the time being. I was now on the verge of sheer panic. What the fuck was I going to do? I'd really blown it this time. Really blown it. I couldn't face them. I wanted to sneak out of the house and run away, but there was no way out of the house. There were no back stairs. There was no way to escape without going past them unless I climbed out the second story window. I just lay there in a cold sweat, shaking like a leaf.
Then my father came bursting back into my room. He had found white dog hair in the front passenger seat of his car, and he demanded an explanation. This was it. I was busted. I told him to let me get some clothes on and I'd meet them downstairs in a minute. When I came down, my father, my mother, and my younger brother were sitting there like an inquisition panel. I had no choice. All I could do was to tell them the truth. I told them everything that happened. I had no excuse. I had no defense. I had fucked up big time, and all I could do was to admit it and take my lumps.
Obviously they were really pissed off at me. It wasn't just that I had lost their skis, or even that I had brought this strange dog into the house, but that I had gotten that drunk in the first place, and more so that I had driven in that condition, and driven their cars to boot. But to their credit they didn't make a big scene about it. What was done was done. I had been honest with them, and they really had no recourse but to accept the situation. But I felt absolutely horrible. First of all I had lost some expensive ski equipment for which I would now be responsible despite the fact that I was unemployed and didn't have a pot to piss in. But I had also totally ruined a day trip that they had been looking forward to for some time.
In the bigger picture of the potentially dire consequences of alcoholic behavior, this wasn't that bad. No one was dead. No one was in the hospital or in jail. And other than some missing skis there was no real property damage. But it was enough for me. My parents' disappointment and disapproval, compounded by my perfectly well-behaved little brother's condemnation, was enough to put me in a rock bottom kind of a place. And not only did I feel miserable emotionally, I had a nasty, painful hangover. It was far and away the worst day of my life.
After giving them ample opportunity to express their anger with me, I had to get out of the house. I simply couldn't face them any longer. I walked out and found my keys right in the driveway. I decided to go see a movie to get my mind off things. Unfortunately the movie I chose to see was "Platoon." It was a miserable, nihilistic affair showcasing the base, incomprehensibly inhuman behavior that humans are capable of. It was entirely the wrong movie to see, and only served to make me feel a million times worse.
The next couple of days I didn't feel any better. I was wallowing around in this rock-bottom place, and there was no end in sight. I couldn't even begin to climb out until I had made restitution for the missing skis. But ski equipment was extremely expensive, and I had no money, and no prospect of earning any in the foreseeable future. If only I hadn't dropped those keys. If only I had gotten a flashlight and found them, all this misery could have been avoided. But at least it was a wakeup call. I didn't stop drinking altogether, but I did swear off Maddog, and I was a lot more conscious about putting myself in a position where I would be tempted to drive drunk.
Finally the police called saying that someone had turned in the skis. Apparently they had been found just up the street. I breathed the biggest sigh of relieve of my entire life, before or since. It was an ENORMOUS weight off my shoulders, and I finally felt that I could begin to recover from this terrible ordeal.
Within a few months I landed a job in Syracuse and moved off on my own. It was really the beginning of my adult life. Finally out of my parents house, away from their watchful eye and free from my consequences directly affecting them, I resumed my habit of drinking, smoking, and getting high on a regular basis. One of my fraternity brothers, Hermie, was also in Syracuse at the time. We would go out boozing pretty much every Friday night, and make frequent road trips back to the fraternity house. Our drinking behavior was pretty much the same as it had been in college, but since we had to hold down day jobs the activity was mostly limited to weekends. We had both subscribed to the culture that having fun meant going out and getting very drunk. And his capacity to get utterly, snot-hanging drunk even exceeded my own. I would get very, very drunk, but despite the fact that I would get really loopy, I would always maintain some level of composure. Hermie, by contrast, would get to the point that he was literally a drooling mess, and he would sometimes pass out on the spot and need to be carried away.
After about a year I moved out of my own apartment and in with an old High School friend Benny. He had been one of my drinking buddies back in the day. It was with him and others that I would go out and get plastered when I was home from school on break. And we picked up pretty much were we left off. As with Hermie, we kept it to the weekends, but boy did we over-indulge when the weekend rolled around. In some ways my drinking got even worse. There were times when we would wake up the next morning and neither of us could even remember how we got home the night before. That got a little frightening.
Benny didn't smoke cigarettes or weed. But one of our roommates, Jens, did get high. I was always very generous with my weed, smoking him up whenever I had anything to smoke. That was something that my fraternity brothers and I had noticed long ago. Weed is a very social drug. It is expected that people will share. If someone walked into a room drinking a beer, it was his beer and that was that. But if someone walked into a room smoking a joint, if he didn't pass it around, it would be very unusual, and considered selfish and rude.
During that period of my life, weed was very hard to come by. First of all it wasn't cheap. I wasn't exactly rolling in dough back in those days. Pretty much all I could afford would be a quarter-ounce at a time, which would last maybe two or three weeks if I really stretched it. Add another week of smoking the black, tar-like residue that accumulated in the pipe. It wasn't pleasant. The material was known as "resin," and some people referred to smoking it as "black death." But it would get you high. And spending all kinds of time scraping out every last little bit of residue would give you something to do while you were climbing the walls trying to get by without any weed to smoke.
I didn't know anyone who sold marijuana. It was always a friend of a friend of a friend, and it would take days, sometimes weeks to score a bag. It was a huge effort involving lots of phone calls, lots of unreturned phone calls, lots of false starts, lots of missed connections, and lots of disappointment until the connection was finally made. Sometimes I would make the 5 hour round trip to the fraternity house just to buy a damn quarter ounce bag.
One time I hooked up Jens. I usually only went to the trouble for myself, but he had some money, and he wanted some smoke, so I made the calls. When we finally connected, I was surprised to find that Jens wasn't as generous with his weed as I had been. I always got him high. I would usually leave the weed right out in the open so he could help himself whenever he wanted. But when he got a bag of his own, he was not the same way. He never offered to smoke me up. He only got high by himself, and he kept it hidden away in his room.
I learned something about myself at that time. First of all I learned that if there was weed nearby, I couldn't go without. If there were no weed in the house, then I could accept the fact that I was not going to get high, and I would get on with my life. But to have it that near, and not to have access to it, was a situation I couldn't accept.
I would get home an hour or two before Jens and Benny did. And I really, really loved to get high once I was home after a long day's work. I didn't really care to have a beer after work, because one would inevitably turn into six, and the next day at work would not be a lot of fun. But weed was another matter. I could get a little high and take the edge off things, and the next day at work would be fine.
So during this time, I would be home alone in the house, with no weed of my own to smoke, but knowing that there was weed somewhere in Jens' room. This was where I learned the other thing about myself. I learned that I was not above going into his room and looking through his personal things in order to get a fix. I justified it in that he owed me many times over for having smoked him up countless times in the past. I didn't have any compunction about taking some of that weed back. Even now, decades later, I get a little pissed that he was so stingy after I'd been so generous. But I knew full well it was wrong to invade his space, and I knew he would have a shit fit if he found out.
I tried to resist. I tried to ignore the fact that there was weed in there, and that I could get by without getting high. But that didn't last too long. In the end I couldn't help myself. I didn't recognize it as powerlessness at the time, but that's exactly what it was. I very carefully entered his room, and very carefully poked around his drawers until I found the bag. And I was extremely careful as I opened the bag, and picked out a little bud that he likely wouldn't notice was missing, and rolled the bag back up exactly as I had found it, and put it back exactly where it was. And I also had to be a little careful about actually smoking the weed, because I knew that he knew that I didn't have any.
I did that a few times. I started to get a little used to it. But I knew it couldn't go on. Finally I put out the calls to score myself my own bag of weed. As soon as I had my own stash I never went into his room again. But by the same token I never shared with him again either.
It wasn't long before I moved out of that house anyway. I moved into a house with two other fraternity brothers who had since graduated. It was like we had our own little fraternity house, and it was like old times again. All of us drank heavily, and all of us got high, and it was all share-and-share-alike. Plus I was making a little more money, and between the three of us we had more connections, so it was a little easier to keep weed in the house.
But during this time the frequency of my drinking seemed to increase. There was always beer in the fridge. It would become more likely that I would have a few on weeknights after work. I had always hated my job, but during this year I hated it even more. I had been made the manager of the entire IT department, and it was very, very stressful on me. I would drink to relieve the stress, but my drinking would impact my job performance, which ultimately increased the stress.
It was also during this time that I added another drug to my repertoire. I had enjoyed whippets once or twice a couple years back when I was in DC, but my interest was renewed when hanging out with an older fraternity alumnus who also lived in Syracuse. He turned my housemates and me on to the real way to do whippets. He had a commercial whipped cream bottle. It was refillable, both with respect to the whipping cream and the nitrous oxide chargers. By omitting the cream and just inhaling the gas, you could do the drug without that ridiculous balloon contraption. It was much simpler, more efficient, and it resulted in a better high.
It caught on with us. There was a party store right around the corner from our house. They mostly sold beer, but they also sold boxes of whippet chargers. We bought our own whipped cream bottle, and occasionally one of us would pick up a box of whippets when we were in the mood for a novelty. But I seemed to take to it more than my housemates did. I found it was better to do alone, because the effect of the drug was to put me in a very meditative kind of a state. I took to buying boxes without telling the others, and doing them in the privacy of my own room.
We lived in that house for a year. Exactly. We signed a one year lease, and by the time it was up we were all going our separate ways. I was lucky enough to have landed a job with Cornell, so I left my miserable job in Syracuse and moved to Ithaca. I moved in with yet another fraternity brother, but he wasn't as much of a boozer as my other brothers had been. And I didn't interact with him socially all that much. But I made some new friends at work who enjoyed a good TGIF experience. There was a brew pub in town that became my second home. I would often go there right after work on Fridays and stay until it closed.
That was becoming more of a pattern. I would really tie one on Friday night. I would pretty much go bar hopping until last call (which was a relatively early 1AM in Ithaca), and make my way home. Then Saturday I would be too hung over to drink any more. That was another thing that was changing. I was getting a little older, and I couldn't rebound the way I used to. Saturdays I couldn't do much but lie around, nap, and watch TV. Drinking more was pretty much out of the question. Then Sunday was off limits because I had to work the next day. I liked this job much more than the disaster I had left behind in Syracuse. I was much more concerned about my job performance, so I pretty much stopped drinking during the week altogether. But boy, I would make up for it every Friday night.
Something else happened during this period of time. I was getting really tired of the crippling Saturday hangovers, so one Friday night I decided to deliberately limit my alcohol consumption. I intended to drink until I got a good buzz and then draw the line. Well I found that I was unable to do so. I was out having fun, and I wanted to continue to have fun, and I wanted to escalate the level of fun, so I didn't stop. I was aware of this at the time. It's not like I just got drunk and lost control. I knew full well in the moment that I was intentionally exceeding the limit I had set for myself, and I recognized that I was essentially unable to control the quantity of alcohol I could consume.
At that time I was not familiar with the expression "powerlessness," but to my credit I was fully aware that alcohol had control of me rather than the other way around. It was in that moment that I first recognized and admitted to myself that I probably had a problem with alcohol. I would not go so far as to say that my drinking was "out of control." During the work week I had enough control to not start drinking in the first place. But I knew that once I did start, there would pretty much be no stopping me until either the bar closed, the alcohol ran out, or I passed out cold.
During this time I would still occasionally make trips up to the fraternity house. I didn't go quite as often as I used to, but it was still a regular event. I had picked up an old VW van and put a full-sized mattress in the back. This meant that I always had a comfortable bed to sleep in, rather than a couch or the floor. This mitigated the impact that these trips had on me, but I was still drinking VERY heavily.
Every time I drank I would continue on until I was essentially incapacitated, but on rare occasions I would get sick before I would actually pass out. It didn't happen often, but unfortunately it did occur with some regularity. And, if I can pull any shred of dignity out of this admission, it would be that it was always under controlled circumstances. I was always able to get myself to a toilet, or stumble off into the bushes. I never once in all my years spewed in front of people in an inappropriate place. And I went through it enough times that I learned some tricks. I knew that if I pinched off my uvula when I wretched, that all the stomach contents would flow out my mouth and not get scooped up into my nasal cavity. And when I was done wretching I would promptly drink a fair quantity of water. Not only does it help to rehydrate the body, but sooner or later I'd be heaving again, and it was a lot easier if there was something to come back up. Dry heaves were the worst of the worst, and putting water back into the stomach would entirely prevent the condition
In the times when I had my face in a toilet, I would find the experience oddly comfortable. I would be on my knees, hands on either side of the cold porcelain toilet bowl, the smell of fresh water inches from my nose, the sound of my heavy breathing echoing inside the bowl, saliva dripping copiously out of my mouth, and the back of my throat contracting. These moments were somewhat tense, but by the same token I would be 100%, entirely present. I could not be thinking about the past or the future. There was nowhere else I should be, or anything else I should be doing. I would be focused entirely on that moment, moment to moment, vividly conscious of the fact that I was not wretching at that moment.
But at the point in time when I would actually be wretching, while my guts were in knots and my body was expelling the contents of my stomach, I would take some comfort in that it didn't get any worse than that. As my whole abdomen would contract like a pastry bag, practically squeezing my tongue right out of my mouth, I would think to myself, "This is as bad as it gets. There's nothing below this. There's nothing to be afraid of now, because you are in what you were fearing."
And there was something about the involuntary muscular contractions of the vomiting process that was perversely relaxing. Not only was I 100% present in that moment, but I had even abdicated control of my own body. Or, more accurately, my body had taken control away from me. It was going to do what it had to do. I was just along for the ride. And my mind would be empty and quiet. In those moments when your body is heaving, you can't be thinking about anything at all.
There was something else about these times. Something that's hard to put into words. I would experience an enveloping contemplative sensation during the calmness between hurls, and in the time after it was all over but before I'd pick myself up and go to bed. It's late at night, it's perfectly still and dead quiet, I'm in the dark, in a small closed room by myself, and my body is limp and totally relaxed. My consciousness would move deeply into itself, a process facilitated by the highly intoxicated condition coupled with the no-mind state achieved during the vomiting. It was almost an out-of-body experience, where I would be transported into a vast nothingness. I can't help but think that it's the kind of place that those who meditate try to get to. And I have to say, ridiculous and irreverent as it may sound, I have never before or since felt more close to God than I did during those times. This is certainly not to say that I believed that excessive drinking was a spiritual practice, or a path to enlightenment. But this kind of excessive drinking took me to a place of extremity, and I believe that it is in places of extremity, be it extreme suffering, or extreme fear, or extreme joy, that God can be found. And I felt like I found him there.
On the topic of spiritual journeys, there was another drug experience I was having in those days that more closely resembled such a thing. I had discovered a way to enhance the whippet experience. I found that nitrous oxide and marijuana made a powerful combination. More specifically, it was combining the nitrous experience with the first high of the day. The way it works when smoking marijuana, is that the first time you get high that day, it's a very crisp, vivid, enjoyable high. Then the whole rest of the day is spent smoking more and more, trying to recapture that first initial high. Then after a full night's sleep, your system is reset, and you do the same thing all over again the next day. What I would do when I was going to do nitrous was to save that first high of the day until I sat down with a box of whippets. I would smoke a lot of weed, more than if I were just simply going to sit down and get high, and as the effects became noticeable I would start huffing the gas.
It created a very intense, almost magical effect. I took to calling it a "whippet cocktail." The effect of the gas was very interesting. If you do one or two whippets, you just get spaced out, and then you come back to reality. But if you do a whole box in a row (which takes about an hour), it has a cumulative effect, and it can be transformative. The key was to not try to think about anything specific, but to just let my mind wander. It would inevitably wander into unchartered territory. Then, suddenly, all the secrets of the universe would be laid out before me. And it was all so simple. Life, the universe, and everything came down to one simple concept that had been right before my eyes all along. But as the nitrous buzz faded, so did the knowledge. All these secrets, these universally intertwined truths, would slip away like sand through my fingers as my mind returned to the here and now. But certain germs of truth would remain, as would the comforting knowledge that the answers are out there.
Here was the pattern I started establishing. By this time I had bought my first video camera. I would spend a weekend at the fraternity, having an unimaginably good time, and shoot copious amounts of tape while I was there. Then I Sunday morning I would not get high before I left to go home (despite the fact that it would make the long, boring drive much more tolerable). On the drive back I would pass through Syracuse, so I would make a side trip to the party store by where we used to live, and pick up a box of whippets. As soon as I got home, I would put the tape in the VCR, smoke some weed, and start sucking down the whippets while I watched the tape.
Nitrous also had an interesting effect on memory. It could take similar events or emotions from various points in time throughout my life, and collapse them all into one concise bit that I could comprehend entirely in one single moment. It highlighted certain connections between these points in my past, and interpersonal connections between individuals over time, and made clear how these connections influenced each other, and culminated into the reality that I as a person and as a distinct intellectual entity experience now in the present.
Much of this came to me from watching the video tape while I was falling deep into the whippet cocktail. I would go and live my life, and then I would relive it through the video while under the influence of the nitrous. This would naturally put me in touch with the recent past, which would open up pathways to the more distant past, which would cause the various connections to be revealed to me. And like the answers to life, the universe, and everything, the knowledge would be eminently clear and logical. But unlike those metaphysical visions, this information wouldn't fade quite as completely. It wasn't exactly practical knowledge. It couldn't really be applied to daily life. But it did serve as a foundation to explain why things are the way they are, and how we have come to be the people we are.
The biggest trick of the nitrous experience was being able to separate fact from fiction. Nitrous has a knack of being a false prophet. For instance, nitrous would also give me vision into the future. I could sometimes see the future quite clearly and vividly. But of course, the future is what we make it, and just because I could see it didn't mean that I could make it come to pass. Nitrous also had a way of making cockamamee notions seem like brilliant ideas. I would often get an idea for a novel, or a movie, or an invention or something, and at the time it would seem like the best idea in the history of mankind, but when I came down I would realize that it wasn't that great of an idea after all, or it was utterly impractical, or it was too esoteric for people who didn't understand the kind of connections that nitrous made clear to me. I took to the habit of writing things down when I was on nitrous, but when my head would clear and I would read them, they would rarely make sense. Some of these notes can be found on another page in this site.
During these days I was essentially in the deepest depths of addiction, but the truth was it was one of the happiest, most carefree times of my life. Things were going well at work, I was paying my bills, my relationship with my family was fine, distant and detached as it was. I had great friends and a great social life. I wanted for nothing. But all of that would change on a dime. In one instant, one bong hit would put me over the edge. I would turn a corner, and those carefree days would be behind me forever.
When Memorial Day rolled around I decided to head up to the fraternity house for the long weekend. One of the recent graduates, Richie, was in Syracuse. I swung by and picked up him and his girlfriend in my VW van, and we all went up together. Friday evening we hit town, and I immediately started drinking and smoking pot. I didn't have any dinner that night. Or you could say I drank my dinner. I had a tendency to skip meals when I was drinking heavily, and I got deep into that pattern this weekend. I repeated it on Saturday. I drank all day long, morning noon and night, and I ate little or no solid food that whole day. Then Sunday I was at it again. I drank all day, and ate little or no food. It had been a long time since I'd gone on a solid, 3-day, marathon bender, but that was exactly what this had been. I drink like I was in school again, but it was even worse because I wasn't eating.
Then came the moment that would change things for me for ever. Monday morning I woke up in my van. I was really hung over from 3 straight days of nonstop drinking. Richie came in and promptly stuck a bong in my face. Literally first thing in the morning. I hadn't even rolled out of bed yet. I was not up for yet another day of hard partying. This was Memorial day, and we would be driving home. I had work the next day. But I figured that a little marijuana buzz would help take the edge off. "Wake-and-bake" we used to call it. That and "hangover helper." It didn't really lessen the hangover symptoms any. It just made you not really care that you were hung over.
I took a hit or two, and Richie went on his way. I lay in bed a little longer. The buzz hit me really hard. I mean really, really hard. I got WAY more fucked up than I should have gotten after just a couple bong hits. I lay there for some time, waiting for the buzz to mellow, but it didn't. It was very intense, and it wasn't like a normal marijuana high. It was like I'd blown out some circuitry or something.
And what was worse, my heart started acting funny. A year or two after I got out of college, my heart would occasionally do this unusual thing. It was like a weird, sharp heart beat, like someone poked it with a butter knife or something. I would just be sitting at work, or standing around, and then boom it would happen. But it would only do it once, and even then it only happened like once every six months, so I never really thought about it.
But on this morning it started doing it every few minutes. And it felt a little different. It no longer felt sharp, like being poked with something. It was more blunt, almost like someone squeezed my heart between their thumb and forefinger for a second. And it kept happening over and over again all morning. It went from once every six months to once every minute or two. It was really freaking me out. I was freaked out enough by the over-intense marijuana buzz that would not go away, and now on top of that my heart started going bonkers. I was really in a bad way, lying in bed in that old VW van.
At the moment though, disturbing as this was, it was not my biggest worry. I was still three and a half hours from home, and I was in no condition to drive. As the day wore on, I stayed in bed hidden away in my van, but I was no less fucked up. Even by the time we were starting to think about getting on the road, there was no way I could even consider getting behind the wheel. I actually felt like I was having an LSD flashback. That was how off kilter I was. Fortunately I had Richie with me. He took the wheel no problem. He and his girlfriend sat up front while I stayed in bed in the back of the van the whole way back to his place in Syracuse. By then it was late afternoon, and I still felt just as fucked up as I had first thing in the morning.
I said goodbye to Richie, climbed out of bed, and got behind the wheel. But things were not well. My alertness and concentration were practically nonexistent. But I had no choice but to soldier on. I drove off, and did my best to keep the van on the road. I managed to get myself to the Ithaca exit off Interstate 81, but I just couldn't go any further. I was utterly exhausted. I pulled into a gas station parking lot and got back into bed. I was actually able to fall back to sleep for a while. When I woke up I felt a little better. I was at least able to get myself the rest of the way home.
For the first time in my life I did the right thing. I stopped drinking on the spot. If memory serves, though, I kept smoking cigarettes and getting high. But I dropped alcohol like a bad habit. Within a day or two I had recovered from my bender, and my heart seemed to calm back down again. It would still spaz out once in a while, but it would just do it once and be done with it. It didn’t happen over and over again as it had done that horrible day.
I honestly don't remember the impact that my abstinence from alcohol had on my social life. The TGIF hoopla was such an integral part of my regular interactions. But at the time it was not difficult to stay away. Really, I couldn't even think of taking another drink. I was too scared. That awful experience took a toll on me.
Alas, nothing lasts forever. My older brother got married around the 4th of July, and before it was over I would experience my first relapse. It all started at his bachelor party. He made the classic mistake of having it the night before the wedding. It was held at the family cottage on Lake Ontario. He invited a handful of his friends, mostly the wedding party. The plan was that we would all crash there, and the next morning get ready for the ceremony and travel in together.
I showed up with weed, my whippet bottle, and a couple boxes of chargers. When not quietly in private, whippets become basically a novel party favor. It's kinda fun, you get a mild euphoria, and it makes the party slightly exotic. I was not able to stay away from the drink that night. I don't think I really even tried. My abstinence lasted from Memorial Day to the 4th of July weekend. Not a terribly bad run for a first effort. But in the blink of an eye I was right back where I left off.
Fortunately none of us seriously overdid it that night. We all got a little loopy, stayed up a little late, but then went to bed like good boys without letting things get out of hand.
However the next morning we started right back in again. There was lots of beer left over from the night before, and some of us were hitting it while we were having breakfast and putting on our tuxedos. I didn't dive in the deep end, but was seriously buzzed by the time we left for the church. When I got there I couldn't find my bow tie. The alcohol was a multi-edged sword. It was responsible for the situation in the first place, but it kept me from freaking out over it, yet it hampered my ability to solve the problem. In a while stoke of luck, one of my brother's high school friends and someone I knew very well from swim team had shown up in a tuxedo shirt and bow tie. He graciously let me borrow it, and away I went.
The ceremony went off without a hitch. The whole wedding party cleaned up just fine. As soon as it was over and we had exited the church, I found my bow tie in the pocket of my tuxedo jacket. It had been there the whole time. I was apparently just too drunk to have found it, although I distinctly remembered checking every pocket multiple times. But no harm done. I returned the borrowed bow tie so my benefactor could be properly dressed for the reception.
Speaking of the reception, I really tied one on. It was the first time I had ever been drunk in front of my father. I didn't care. Wedding receptions were a time to really let go. I didn't make a fool out of myself, or dump the wedding cake, or wipe out on the dance floor, or any of those other things you see on the funny home video shows. But I definitely got deeeee-runk.
I was driving a VW Van at the time. By the time the reception was over I was way too drunk to drive, and I wasn't going to go DWI in front of family and friends. So I conscripted the services of the son of long-time family friends to designated drive me back to the after party. He had never driven standard before. In my drunken state this was not going to deter me. I was somehow able to give him adequate on-the-job training, and he actually did really well. The only real wrinkle was that I had to pee really, really badly. Apparently there were no empty bottles in the back of the van that I could go into, so I had him stop at a used car lot. There I proceeded to get out of the van and pee right on a used car. The problem was that his parents were following in the car behind, and were witness to the whole thing. It still causes me some embarrassment to this day whenever I think about it.
Once I was home from the wedding I fell directly back into my old ways. I was not able to get back on the wagon again. I relapsed fully. And immediately thereafter my heart started doing that thing again. As I lay in bed hung over, it would just spaz out on me. It was really freaky, but I did my best to observe it and try to determine what was going on. The cardiac rhythm would go normally, like "baDump baDump baDump." Then suddenly it would go "baaaaaaaaaaaaaDUMP". It felt like my heart would actually stop beating for a second, and follow with one big, sharp, spaz-like beat. It was that big beat that had felt like someone grabbing the heart with the thumb and forefinger. After the spaz beat, there would be a brief pause, then a semi-spaz "baaaDUMP" followed by a shorter pause, then an almost normal "baaaDump" and then pretty much back to a standard rhythm.
This had me pretty scared, but not scared enough to stop drinking. It was the first time that I really exhibited true addict behavior. I was unable to stop using even in the face of serious, negative consequences. But I was powerless. I was totally right back where I'd left off. I'd go out on a Friday night and get all liquored up. Then Saturday I would lie in bed for hours with my heart doing this weird thing, and I'd totally stress out over it. But when I'd recovered from my hangover, my heart would pretty much go back to normal. By Friday I'd be feeling okay, and I'd do it all over again.
But as time went on it got worse. Until this time the cardiac episodes were pretty much limited to hangover days, but it got to the point that it would start doing it at any time, for no reason, like when I was at work or something. And it still wasn't enough to get me to stop drinking. In fact this went on for a full year and a half before I was able to do anything about it. A full 18 months of alcoholic binge drinking in the face of frightening health consequences. But the one thing to my credit was that I was not in denial. I may have been powerless to do anything about it, but I was fully aware of that over which I was powerless. I knew it was only a matter of time before I'd have to stop drinking for good. And I had become familiar enough with my own powerlessness to know that it would be a monumental effort. It wasn't going to be just removing part of my weekly routine. It would mean reengineering my whole life. The risk of failure would be very high.
I actually used the considerable stress I was experiencing to my advantage. What I was doing was basically manufacturing a rock bottom kind of experience, so that I would eventually welcome sobriety by contrast. And rock bottom was right where I was headed. I mean, this whole heart thing was really, really scary. I'd be lying in bed, hung over, feeling like shit to begin with, and then having my heart threaten to stop beating. Every time it did it I never knew if it might not fail to start beating again. It literally put the fear of death in me. I had thoughts of possibly needing open heart surgery at the tender young age of 29 years old. Add to this the self-esteem issues associated with my inability to stop drinking even in the face of this grave health condition. It made me a real mess. That was one of the darkest, most miserable times in my life.
Finally it got bad enough that I was ready to do something about it. I figured the first order of business was to get myself to a cardiologist to find out exactly what was going on. It was one of those situations where I didn't want to know, because I was afraid of what the answer might be. But it couldn't go on any longer. Still, I wasn't really sure how to proceed. I didn't even have a regular doctor at the time. I was still young, and otherwise pretty healthy, and had never established a relationship with a general practitioner since I'd moved away from home. With no better plan, I just looked up cardiologists in the yellow pages and made an appointment.
I was prepared that this even would very likely mean the end of my drinking days. In fact that was what I was counting on. So I planned ahead a little. The appointment was on a Friday. So the Friday before, I figured would be my last night of drinking. It wasn't epic. I didn't drink like the world was about to end. I just went out and had a good time. And the next morning I woke up and noted the date. It was October 19, 1991. I planned to never again drink from that day forward.
The following Friday I showed up at the cardiologist's office. I was scared as Hell, but by the same token I was ready for a change. After he got over the unusual circumstances of me going there directly rather than being referred by my regular doctor, he asked me what was going on. I tried to describe what my heart was doing, and I was quick to confess that it was exacerbated by, if not outright caused by, my heavy drinking.
Before he even examined me, he said, "The best advice I could give you is to stop drinking."
"I had a feeling you were going to say that," I said.
His plan was to give me a stress test. He hooked me up to all the EKG wires, and had me run on a treadmill as he watched the monitors. Of course my heart was behaving perfectly fine the whole time. "It looks good," the doctor said. "Actually it looks very good."
When I couldn't run any more he had me get off the treadmill, but he kept me hooked up to the machine. As we were talking and I was catching my breath, I felt a spaz beat. "There!" I shouted as I pointed to the monitor. "Right there!"
The doctor looked at the monitor. "Oh," he said casually. "That's just an extra heart beat."
"What?!?!?" I asked. "JUST an extra heart beat?" This had been inspiring mortal fear in me for a year and a half, and the doctor had just said it was nothing.
The "thing" was technically called a premature ventricle contraction, or PVC. I forget the actual explanation of what was happening, but it had to do with electrical impulses getting confused. Some nerves would fire prematurely, which caused one chamber of my heart to beat out of sync with the rest, which caused another chamber to fill with blood before it finally expelled it in that one, big beat. The "baaaaaaaaaaa" that I experienced was the chamber filling with blood, and the "DUMP" was all that blood getting expelled.
He said a PVC was to the heart muscle what a hiccup is to the diaphram muscle, and no more threatening to the cardiac rhythm than a hiccup is to the respiratory rhythm. He said I could just forget about it. He reiterated, though, that it would be a good idea for me to give up drinking.
I told him that I planned to. This was actually what I had been counting on. I figured that "doctor's orders" was what it would take to shake me out of my addictive behavior and get on the right path. I wasn't expecting him to say that this cardiac event was totally, utterly harmless. And while I took great comfort in that, I wasn't going to let it be an excuse to keep drinking. I had just gone through 18 months of pure Hell, and I was ready for a change.
This began a whole new phase of my life. It was good, but it was fraught with challenges. But I had one ace up my sleeve. I had resolve. I was entirely, utterly resolved to stop drinking. But that's not to say it was easy.
The first Friday night was the hardest. There had been an office party organized. There was a lady at work who was a Chinese emigre. She set up an evening at a newly opened Chinese restaurant. I got there just a few minutes late, and by then there was only one empty seat left. It was between the Director of the department (my boss's boss's boss), and this curmudgeonly, bitter old queen who was carrying a torch for me. I was in a bad mood to begin with, and I really couldn't see an evening between these two guys, trying to carry on some manner of conversation. I just turned around and left. I was seriously cranky. I wanted to just go out and get drunk, but that wasn't an option any more. So I went home and watched TV.
That was representative of the first and foremost challenge I had to face. The hardest part of this whole process was simply the lifestyle change. Drinking was more than just consuming alcohol and getting drunk. It was social interaction. It was copious, unbound social interaction on a massive scale. Not only did I have to do without the alcohol, I largely had to do without other people.
I fell back on the one crutch I had left: marijuana. My initial reaction was that marijuana was not a suitable substitute for alcohol. They're very different drugs, they have very different effects, and they're used in very different ways. Marijuana did not facilitate the wanton social interaction that alcohol did. It had much more of an inward-facing, contemplative effect. But in many ways, that was exactly what I needed. Years later I would hear it summed up perfectly in a South Park episode. Randy Marsh was talking to his son Stan, and he said, "Pot makes you okay with being bored." That really hit the nail on the head. The position I was in was having to face a lot of solitary boredom, and marijuana made me okay with that. Rather than go out on weekends and get loaded, I would stay home and get high. It got me through.
I did see an addiction counselor for a time. It didn't hurt, but I didn't really need it. I had resolve on my side. And when I faced temptation, the one thing that helped to motivate me was the knowledge that I wouldn't suffer a hangover the next morning. My hangovers had really become epic. Saturdays were vast wastelands of queasy, nauseous, misery. When I wanted to reach for a drink, I would just think about what that hangover would be like, and I was able to keep away. And the other thing that kept me clean was the knowledge that I had a 100% clean streak. I knew that if I cheated even once, the bubble would be burst, and the magic would be gone. I knew that if I had even one slip, that the next time I was facing temptation I would say, "Well since the prefect steak is broken, I might as well have a little drink whenever I feel like it," and I'd quickly be back where I was. In order for this to work, it had to be absolutely pure.
The counselor wanted me to join A.A., but I wasn't ready for that cultural change. It was too big of a step. To his credit, he gave me the freedom to decline. He explained how it helped him, and how it could help me, but when I didn't bite he let it drop. And after a few sessions he said I was clearly doing well and really didn't need to see him anymore.
There was another challenge I was facing during this time. My heart contractions didn't go away. They weren't constant, but they were frequent. And even though the cardiologist told me that they were harmless, they still freaked me out. I had given up alcohol, and I wanted to be all better. I think I may have been aware at the time that smoking cigarettes and marijuana might be contributing to the problem, but I wasn't ready to quit either just yet.
In fact it was my long-term goal. I intended to be 100% sober. But it would be a long process. I had a plan. One year to the day, October 19, 1992, I would quit smoking cigarettes. Then the following year on October 19, 1993, I would quit marijuana. Then I would be entirely sober. But I wasn't going to do it all at once. I had to give myself time.
But the continuing heart contractions, and the effect that it had on my emotional wellbeing, led into the third challenge that I faced. It was something that I hadn't expected, despite the fact that I very much went into this process with my eyes open. That 18 months of stress that led up to my abstinence from alcohol took more of a toll on me than I had anticipated. I found myself experiencing symptoms of Panic Stress Disorder. When I would be in certain situations, I would experience a panic attack.
I first noticed this one day when I was giving blood. I used to love to donate blood. It made me feel like I was contributing to the greater good, and there was something ghoulish in me that enjoyed having my blood drain out of my arm and into a plastic bag. But one day I was on the table, and I started to feel strange. I felt a little faint, which was something I'd never experienced in all my years of donating blood. I'd seen it happen to others many times. All the nurses rush over, they elevate the feet and make a really big fuss over it. I didn't want to be one of those people, so I just lay there and endured. But I was freaking out. I wanted to get the Hell out of there, but I was trapped. It was a little like the bad mushroom trip I'd had years before. There was no way out. But also like the bad mushroom trip, I knew that if I held on, it would all be over soon. I was traditionally a fast drainer. When the bag would fill, the nurse would usually say, "Well, that was quick." But this time it seemed to go on forever. Finally it was done, and I was so glad to get that needle out of my arm. The routine was that they make you lie there for a while, and then they have someone escort you over to the recovery area in case you drop like a sack of potatoes. Usually I felt that this was totally unnecessary, but in this case I was glad for it. I did need to lie there and collect myself for a bit, and it was good to have someone by my side as I gingerly made my way across the room.
I got over that, but I now had to deal with something I never really had to deal with before. I had to stew over the situation, and stress out about the next time. I always donated blood again just as soon as I was eligible. I think the interval was 6 or 8 weeks. And in the time that led up to the next occasion, I got very antsy about it. And as I arrived at the donation center, I was very nervous. They put me on the table and stuck the needle in my arm, and within seconds I had the same kind of panic attack that I'd dealt with the time before. "Nope," I said to the nurse. "This isn't going to work out. You gotta unhook me." Then there was the whole hullabaloo that I'd wanted to avoid the time before. They elevated me feet, and all the nurses rushed over, and it made me look like a total woose.
That one event would wind up heading me down a difficult path. At the time I just attributed it to the specific act of donating blood, but I would soon learn that it was more pervasive than that. And I would learn another lesson at the same time. It was during the weekend of my father's wedding. My mother had died of cancer a few years prior, and my father was remarrying. It was a festive time. His second wife was a very nice woman whom I liked and respected. I was happy for them both.
The first problem would occur during the Rehearsal Dinner. It was 100 days into my abstinence from alcohol. For dessert they brought out little dishes of vanilla ice cream with green sauce on it. It looked a little suspect to me. Something had my spidey sense tingling. But I looked around and saw that they were serving it to little kids. So I just dug in and ate the dessert. When the ice cream was gone I used my spoon to slurp up the last of the mint sauce. When I swallowed it I knew I'd just done a shot. The sensation was unmistakable.
I grabbed a waiter.
"What's this green sauce?" I asked.
"That's cream d'minth," he said.
"You mean there's alcohol in it," I asked.
"Mmm hmm," he said casually, as if I was an idiot for asking.
I was furious. I was absolutely furious. My perfect streak had been broken, and it hadn't been from my own weakness. This goddam restaurant had ruined it for me without my knowledge or consent. If they wanted to serve this dessert then that was fine, but I felt that they had an obligation to notify people that it contained alcohol. I felt as violated as if someone had intentionally slipped me a drug without telling me.
If I hadn't been around my polite, well-mannered WASP family, I would have freaked out like nobody's business. I would have stormed into the manager's office and torn him a new asshole. I would have made a total scene, ranting and raving like a lunatic. But I didn't. I couldn't. I couldn't ruin this night for my father and my soon-to-be step-mother. So I just quietly sucked it up and dealt.
The worst part was that this HAD broken my streak. It's a perfect example of how people don't understand how alcoholism and recovery work. To the non-alcoholic person, they don't get how one little sip of creme d'minth could trigger a full-blow relapse. But in my mind, in that one moment, all the magic was escaping. I immediately started having the thoughts I knew I would have if I ever cheated. "Well," I said to myself, "the streak has been broken. You're not at 100% anymore. The purity is gone. The power has been lost."
I was in an extremely dangerous place. This was a rehearsal dinner. The meal had just ended, and everyone was having drinks. There was alcohol all around me. People were getting loaded right in front of me. The truth was that despite the fact that my abstinence had been going very well, I was still fighting constant temptation and urges to start drinking again. And this incident had given me an excuse to give in. The magic was gone. I might just as well accept it. I knew I wanted to drink, so why not just let go and join in all the fun with everyone else.
Fortunately I was able to hold on. On some level I knew I was being silly. The streak hadn't really ended. Yes, some C2H5OH had passed my lips, but I hadn't "taken a drink." I didn't cheat. I didn't have a slip. Someone slipped me the drink without me knowing. And it was my anger over that that really saved me in the end. Spite can be a powerful motivator, and I was pissed off and spiteful towards the restaurant. I would be good and God damned if I was going to let someone else's stupid oversight change the course of my life that I'd fought so hard to set. I wasn't going to let them cost me all the hard work and diligence I'd built up over this time, not to mention my health, my happiness, and my very future.
The lesson that I learned was that sobriety is riddled with land mines. Despite your best efforts, there is always the chance that you might consume some alcohol without your knowledge. The important thing is that you catch it, abate it, acknowledge that it wasn't your fault, put it into perspective, and get on with your sobriety. That night I sat quietly by, and made polite small talk with family and friends who were getting liquored up at the open bar.
It was at the wedding itself that my life took a turn down a dark path. My brothers and I were ushers, and we stood in the front of the church with the rest of the wedding party during the ceremony. Everything was going fine, but all of a sudden I started feeling light-headed, like I had when I was giving blood some months before. I would have been fine, except for the fact that I was trapped up in front of the church. I couldn't take off. I couldn't dive for a pew. I had to stand there until the ceremony was over. That fact, that feeling of being trapped, made everything a million times worse. I went from being light-headed to having a full-on panic attack. I felt like I was going to fait dead away right were I was standing. But I didn't want to ruin the ceremony. I was able to hold on, but it was pure Hell.
I did manage to hold on. I made it through the ceremony, and when it was over I breezed through the reception without having a drink. But I had turned a corner. I now had this fear where there had been no fear before. From then on, any time when I knew I was headed into a situation where escape would be difficult, I would be very nervous and freaked out. And when I got freaked out, my heart would start having contractions, which would make me feel all the worse. And when I was actually in the situation, I would be fighting a full-blown panic attack.
These situations included things like flying on a plane, being in the middle of a crowded auditorium, and most of all public speaking. I would occasionally have to give talks and presentations for work, and it would be like death. One time I had to present some material in front of the whole department. In the past it was something i wouldn't bat an eyelash over. But now it was a huge ordeal. I sat in my chair waiting for it to be my time, and I was sweating bullets. When I actually got up to speak, I felt like I was going to faint. When I actually stepped up to the lectern everything went white and my mind went blank. As I started to speak, though, things went okay. I learned that the anticipation was usually worse than the situation itself, but it really took a toll on me.
I started practicing avoidance behavior. I would turn down opportunities to speak, or to travel, or to attend rock concerts with friends. It was really putting a damper on my life when I was already in a difficult time. The real kicker was that in these situations what would really chill me out was having a couple drinks to relax. Unfortunately that was no longer an option. Of all the temptations I faced, this was perhaps the most compelling and difficult to deny. But my resolve was holding steadfast.
My avoidance behavior may have been life-limiting, but it was effective. However there were some situations I couldn't avoid. A year or so after my father's wedding, my younger brother was getting married, and I would be standing up at the front of the church again. I knew it would be trouble, but there was no getting out of it. It was unavoidable. And again, it was the anticipation that was the worst. The thing that got me was that it was really stress for stress's sake. I knew that physically I was fully capable of being on my feet for the duration of the ceremony. It was simply the fact that I couldn't get out of there if I wanted to that made me want to get out of there.
What I did in the moment was to diffuse the situation. The one person I really cared about was my brother. It was his wedding. I mean, his and his bride, but he was the one I knew, and he was the one I didn't want to concern or embarrass. When we were in the church, as he was sitting off to the side waiting for the ceremony to begin and dealing with his own stress, I warned him that there was a chance I might feel faint, and that I might have to dive for a pew if I didn't feel well. That simple notification gave me just enough of an out that it took a lot of the stress off me. Just knowing that I could deal with myself and not freak him out too badly, meant that I didn't really need to deal with myself. As expected I was light-headed and my heart was pounding a bit as the ceremony began, but it never got into panic attack territory. I made it through the ceremony fine, and when it was over I felt fine. I made it through the reception without any serious temptation to drink.
Throughout this whole time I was still going to my fraternity house regularly. Any addiction specialist would have told me that was the last place on earth I should go, but I wasn't ready to cut the cord yet. My social interactions had been severely limited, and this was the one place I could still go and get my uninhibited jocularity fix. To my credit, I was able to get through these visits without drinking, and to everyone else's credit, they were very supportive and never tried to coerce me to join in. What really made the situation possible was that I was still smoking pot. Instead of getting rip roaring drunk I would just get stoned out of my mind. And on the drive home I would pick up a box of whippets, and zone out when I made it back to my house.
Still, it was a huge adjustment to be around all these drunk people without joining in. It wasn't so much a matter of managing the pervasive temptation to drink (although that was somewhat of an issue). It was just being in a totally different mindset from everyone else. The conventional party is really all about drinking and being drunk. To be among them, but to not be intoxicated, was like being an outsider looking in. I wasn't having the same experience they were having. I wasn't having the fun they were having. The marijuana was a crutch, but it wasn't a substitute. Still, this social scene was a big part of my life, and I was determined to carry on if even in a different capacity.
A new pattern emerged during this time that would have a profound impact on other parts of my life. I found that since I wasn't waking up with a nasty hangover the next morning, I'd wake up quite early. When I was all liquored up, I would "sleep it off." I'd sleep until all hours of the morning until my eyes finally opened up. But when I retired without my body saturated with alcohol, I would actually have some degree of quality of sleep, and I'd wake up more or less like a normal person. The thing was that it didn't seem to really matter what time I went to bed. Rather than wake up 8 hours later, I'd wake up around 8AM no matter how much or little I'd slept in the interim. At the time it was just somewhat of an inconvenience. On Saturday mornings I'd be up bright and early, and the rest of the house wouldn't start to rouse until noon or so. That would leave me with several hours ambling about all by my lonesome with no one to keep me company and nothing to do. But in subsequent years, when I started to take a close look at my sleep and try to improve it, this pattern would prove to be quite troublesome.
During this first year of abstinence, I had all the time in the back of my mind my plan to quit smoking on my first anniversary. My intent never wavered over the course of the year. Giving up alcohol was really tough, because I got so much out of it. It took a heavy toll, but in return it gave great joy and outrageousness. But I always saw cigarettes as just a habit for the habit's sake. It didn't really give anything back. And frankly I wasn't that fond of nicotine as a drug. My house was always littered with ash trays and cigarette butts, and it stunk to high heaven. And all of this on top of the dire health consequences I knew it was having on me.
I was actually looking forward to quitting smoking, but I still knew it would not be easy. I had tried many times in the past, and I'd never lasted more than a couple days. Despite the fact that I didn't really care for nicotine, it had insidious qualities that compelled me to keep coming back. And the process of smoking was quite a habit to give up. There are times when you really just want a cigarette. And heaven forbid someone else lights up in your presence. It's damn near impossible to watch someone else enjoy a cigarette without you joining in.
I had learned from my past experience giving up alcohol. I knew that it had to be an utter, absolute 100% cessation. There could be no cheating. Not even once. I chose not to try nicotine gum, or the patch, or anything like that. For me that would just be switching seats on the Titanic. If I were to quit smoking, I wanted to do it cold turkey, and get that nasty nicotine out of my system entirely.
The one thing that kept me going in my efforts to abstain from alcohol was my unwavering resolve. I had to manufacture a similar resolve with the cigarettes. Part of that would be the significance of the quit date. I spent the entire year with that date marked in red on the calendar, preparing myself emotionally all the while for the fact that on that day I would have the last cigarette I would ever smoke.
In the mean time I gave myself the liberty to enjoy smoking while I still could. A couple months before the quit date, I began the final preparations. Part of this was putting myself into the right frame of mind. Every time I lit a cigarette I reminded myself that soon this would be something I would leave in my past. But a big part of the process was to take a walk down memory lane. For a week or so at a time, I would smoke various brands that I had smoked over the years. I even went back to menthol for a time. It was vary nostalgic. And it did help me prepare for the finality of quitting for good.
When I had just a week or two to go, I had to start getting serious about the process. Logic would have dictated that the proper process would be to taper off, smoking less and less each day until I was hardly smoking at all by my quit date. But I took the exact opposite approach. There was this one brand of cigarettes I had smoked from time to time. It was Camel wide-gauge. They were filtered, but full-strength, and rolled wider than the average cigarette. And they were NASTY. They were rough on the lungs, they gave me a headache, and they just made me feel awful. For the last ten days or so, I smoked nothing these horrid things. And the closer I got to the quit date, the more of them I smoked. In the final days, I made myself practically chain smoke, lighting up again and again. Even when I really didn't want to, I still forced myself to light up another one, and smoke it all the way down.
It was one of the most thoroughly unpleasant experiences of my life. But it worked like a charm. When the quit date came around I was just begging to stop. I frankly couldn't wait until it was over. But I still knew it wouldn't last for ever. In just a few days all that nicotine would be out of my system, and I'd start craving more. I knew I needed something more to keep me motivated.
One thing I had learned from the fraternity culture was the significance of ceremony. Or, more accurately, how a ceremony can place a high degree of significance on an event. So I concocted a ceremony that I would go through to commemorate the event. And to further enhance its effectiveness, I would employ the considerable power of embarrassment. I invited some of my friends over to observe. These people didn't smoke, and they were the ones who would shame me if I ever relapsed. They also were GDI's, and had no exposure to the kind of ceremonies I was using as a model. To include them in the event would first of all make my quitting public and official. They would all be fully aware that I was officially not smoking from that moment on. But to go through this formal ceremony in front of them, knowing full well that they didn't get it, would make me too embarrassed to ever relapse. If I were to ever start smoking again, not only would they give me the typical shame that any non-smoker give someone who fails in his attempt to quit, but they'd be like, "You mean you made me sit through that silly ceremony for NOTHING???" I knew that this very thought would be enough to stop me in those delicate moments when I was facing temptation to reach for a cigarette.
The day arrived, and my friends showed up right on time. The ceremony itself was not terribly elaborate. I lit my last cigarette, and while I was smoking it I spoke certain recitations. With each drag I would make another statement. I forget exactly what I was saying, but it was some general commentary on the rejection of addiction and chemical dependence, and the affirmation of life and good health, all scripted out ahead of time in very particular ceremony-speak. When the cigarette came down to the butt, I used the embers to burn a hole in the front of my favorite baseball cap. The permanence of that hole was to symbolize the permanence of my abstinence from nicotine. I then dipped the burning tip in a cup of water to extinguished it, symbolizing the process of extinguishing my desire to keep smoking. I then used packing tape, trapping the butt between two strips faced sticky-side in, to basically emboss it and preserve it forever, making it a relic of my past use, and a talisman from which I could draw power in my never-ending efforts to keep clean. I still have that baseball cap, and I still have that embossed cigarette butt to this day.
I thanked my guests for coming. They gave me their best wishes, and they were on their way. They clearly thought that the whole thing was pretty silly, but I have to say that it was totally effective. I had a great deal of resolve. I embraced the permanence of the change. And indeed in those moments of weakness when I was overcome with temptation to light up a cigarette, the thought of embarrassment for having gone through this ceremony was all it took to keep me on the straight and narrow.
From that point on I started feeling a lot better. As the nicotine left my body I just felt more healthy. My apartment lost that nasty, stale tobacco stench. Food started to taste better and my sense of smell returned. And although I continued smoking weed, my lungs started to clear up. There is a debate over the relative injurious effects of marijuana vs. tobacco, but I can say as one who has been addicted to both that tobacco smoke is a lot heavier, and you inhale a tremendously greater quantity of it. Suffice it to say, removing it from the equation was a dramatic improvement.
I was able to successfully stave off the inevitable cravings for tobacco, but one day I got a notion in my head that I could not shake. I considered trying the "smokeless" tobacco. Of course I immediately rejected it, but it continued gnawing at me. Those who do not have an addictive personality can't appreciate the overpowering effect that these cravings can have. It really gets to the root of the disease of addiction. Those without the disease can manage the cravings effectively. But those who do suffer from addiction seem to have an innate inability to quiet the voices of temptation. This was why I leveraged the power of resolve. I got my mind to a place where the craving was simply not an option. It wasn't a matter of fighting it. The temptation would be squashed before it had a chance to manifest. If it did catch hold, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make it go away.
That was the position I found myself in. I had not prepared myself to deal with the option of smokeless tobacco, so the temptation was able to take root. And sure enough, I was unable to manage it. I tried for an hour or two, but no matter what I did, the notion was still in my head. I finally gave in and drove to the store. I bought the little green container of Skoal and ran back to my apartment. I had never done this before, but I just followed the "pinch between the cheek and gum" slogan. I had seen my fraternity brothers doing this in the past. They called it "dipping." Rather than spitting, like the guys in the Western movies, they'd just have a cup they'd kind of drool into.
I stuck the tobacco in and sat and watched TV for a while, making sure not to swallow any of my saliva. I can't say I found it to be particularly satisfying. After about 20 minutes I pulled the little wad of tobacco out of my mouth and rinsed out. I certainly didn't have the feeling that this would become a habit.
Then it hit me. A wave of nicotine intoxication bowled me over. It was a million times more intense than anything I'd ever experienced with the strongest, non-filtered cigarettes. And I was wholly unprepared for it. It just pulled me apart like a piece of taffy. I lay back in my recliner, curled up in the fetal position, shaking like a leaf. It was awful. My guts felt like there were ground hogs inside me burrowing around. I almost couldn't take it. It was worse than the bad mushroom trip I'd had all those years before. I just didn't know how to manage it. But all I could do was to do what I always did, which was lie there and wait for it to go away.
Fortunately it only went on for 15 minutes or so. And when I came down, I was never so happy to return to a state of normalcy. Pound-for-pound that had been the worst chemical experience of my life, but because it was over so quickly I downgrade it to the second worst. With my tortured, sleepless night on a caffeine overdose being first, that would make my top two worst chemical experiences being on banal, legal, over-the-counter drugs.
Well after that nightmare I certainly never had to worry about the temptation of smokeless tobacco ever again. It was like avoiding the temptation of a gunshot wound. It was not a problem. And it wasn't long before I was over the hump with cravings for cigarettes. I knew that it would be a lifelong process, but the worst of it was behind me. The odd thing was that once I got to this relatively safe state, I found that when I was around people who were smoking, I still needed to have a cigarette too. I didn't need to light it. I just had to have one to fondle and put between my lips. I would even flick it into an ash tray. I would make wry comments like, "When you don't light these things they last forEVER!" Particularly when I was driving I would really need to have a cigarette, which was odd because I never smoked in the car before. People thought I was nuts, but it seemed to help, and I really had zero temptation to actually light one, so I went with it.
Over the course of that year I got comfortable just smoking weed and occasionally huffing a box of whippets. I didn't really realize it at the time, but I was doing what the 12-steppers call, "The Marijuana Maintenance Program." It is also akin to the notion of changing seats on the Titanic, because you're just exchanging one addiction for another. But in my case it worked. Marijuana was effective in facilitating my escape from reality, but it didn't have the devastating consequences that alcohol did. Like alcohol, I couldn't really control my consumption, but I could control the onset. I would only get high after work and on weekends. Within those boundaries, I could smoke all the weed I wanted, and it didn't really impact my ability to do my job.
I was still plagued by these disturbing heart contractions, however. I went and talked to my general practitioner about it. He confirmed that they were indeed harmless, and that any medication he could possibly prescribe for it would in fact do more harm than good. He basically told me to just get over it. That gave me the confidence to pretty much do exactly that. I adopted an odd attitude. Every time I experienced a contraction, I basically said, "I dare you." I was in effect daring my heart to stop beating for good. I adopted the attitude that I was ready to die. I didn't WANT to die. Certainly not. I was just finally getting my life under control. But I sort of shrugged my shoulders and decided that if I did it would be okay. I didn't have a wife and kids to leave behind, so don't worry about it. And I have to say it worked. The anxiety that the contractions gave me only fueled more contractions. Anxiety was a trigger in and of itself. Worrying about the contractions inevitably made more contractions occur. So when I just chilled out over it, coupled with the fact that I didn't have nicotine surging through my system 24/7, it started getting a lot better. It didn't go away altogether, but my concern over it did. I really felt like I was starting to get on with my life.
When my anniversary date rolled around again, I quickly came to the conclusion that I was not ready to live without getting high. The plan had been that on this second anniversary I would go 100% sober, but I hadn't done the mental legwork. I wasn't motivated. I knew it would fail, so I figured I'd let another year roll past and pick it up the following year. In the mean time, I was sustaining my drug use fine, so I didn't really have an issue.
The following year I still wasn't really ready yet, but I felt that going sober was something I "should" do. It really came down to the mental struggle I'd had since those early days of drug use, where I knew I was doing my body harm. I knew that while I my job performance was satisfactory (well above average, in fact, according to all my annual performance appraisals), I could be doing better if I were able to emerge from the marijuana haze.
So the anniversary date rolled around. I had done a little bit of preparation. Not a lot. But I did what I could to get ready for it. I smoked up the last of my weed. I had some resin left, but rather than get rid of it I kept it off hidden away. I should have gotten rid of it, but I figured that my resolve should be strong enough to deal with it being there. After all, I could run out out to the store and buy beer or cigarettes whenever I wanted. The mere absence of a drug was not an adequate inhibiting factor.
Staying away from whippets would not be a problem if I wasn't smoking weed. I had long ago found that nitrous didn't stand up on its own if I wasn't already high on pot. I had tried a couple times when I didn't have any weed and was just desperate to get high. But without the marijuana as a foundation, the nitrous did nothing but anesthetize me for a time. It totally didn't have the same effect.
Things didn't really go all that well at first. When I quit alcohol and cigarettes, I had wanted to. I honestly wanted to be rid of both of those drugs. But I didn't really want to quit marijuana. I was doing it because I felt that I should. My motivation was sound, but weak. Honestly I was hanging on by a thread.
After two weeks of this, I was sitting at home on a quiet Friday night watching TV. A rerun of Roseanne came on. It was the one where she finds a bag of weed in the basement and blames Becky for it. But when Dan comes home he reminds her that she stashed it down there herself years before when she was pregnant with their first child. So they wind up smoking it and sitting around the house remembering what it used to be like to get high.
This was more temptation than I could bare. I figured it was a sign. I grabbed the resin that I had hidden away, and I smoked it right up. And it was good. It was very good. Having not been high for two weeks, I got a very vivid, enjoyable high. It made me very creative. Weed always had that effect on me. I grabbed my sketch pad, and I designed an entire cathedral. I did a floor plan, elevations, a cross-section, the works.
When I was done I felt I had accomplished something. All I ever accomplished on alcohol was getting drunk and silly. I didn't accomplish anything on tobacco at all. But marijuana was different. It always had been. And I decided again that I wasn't ready to quit it. I didn't even try to get back on the wagon. The very next day I set out to buy another bag and pick up where I left off.
That went on for more than a year and a half. I was getting along just fine. I was staying clean with respect to alcohol and tobacco. In fact one day I had come to the realization that I had so much time under my belt that it would have taken MORE effort for me to pick up a drink than it took to me to abstain. Work was going well. I launched my web site and started actually doing something with my creativity. Overall I was happy. But my drug use was still quietly gnawing away at me in the background. I knew that life would be better still if I could live it completely sober. And I was disappointed in myself that I wasn't able to do it.
I decided to try again on my 34th birthday. There wasn't anything significant about the number 34, but I thought that my birthday might be a special enough day that it might help my effort. The luster of October 19 had pretty well faded with my last failed attempt to get clean. It was like I was giving myself the gift of sobriety.
I did a little more preparation this time. I tried to psych myself up a little more for a life without drugs. And this time I was careful to get any leftover drugs out of the house. I wasn't ready to throw away my parafernalia just yet, but I did clean it out with rubbing alcohol, which would dissolve away the resin like magic.
I had my last high, I enjoyed it as much as I could, and that was that. I did my best to live my life clean. But I was bloody miserable. Years later I would learn that what I was doing was being the marijuana equivalent of a "dry drunk." Alcoholics identify this state as going without drink, but not being "sober." Sobriety is the process of livings one's life free from the effects of drugs. Just because you're not using doesn't mean that you're "sober." Just because you're not under the influence doesn't mean you're free from the effects. I was not being sober. I was not under the influence of marijuana, but its effects were dragging me down like an anchor. I was not living my life striving for sobriety. I was living my life trying to stamp down the overpowering desire to continue using.
This does not mean that I was failing in my attempt to abstain. In fact I had not picked back up again. I was even at a party on one occasion where it was being passed around openly, and I was able to decline. That was one of a precious few instances in my life when I was able to actually turn down an offer to get high. To not run out and get some was one thing, but to have it right in front of me and not partake was something else entirely.
I was proud of myself for keeping clean, but things were still not going well. I remember stomping around in a vile mood, thinking of nothing but the fact that one hit of weed would make all the anger go away. And I was having other thoughts. I was starting to think about maybe having a drink again. It had been almost 5 years since I had quit, and in all that time I had been steadfast. Except for rare occasions when I was faced with anxiety and wanted to use alcohol medicinally, I never once wanted to return. But now that I had no crutch of any kind, now that I was running around without a net, I was really facing temptation for the first time. It was only a whisper, but that voice was there.
About six weeks after I had stopped smoking weed, I found myself back up at the fraternity house again. I was hanging out with one of them, a guy nicknamed Linus who was one of my favorites, and I made the mistake of telling him that I was thinking about going back to drink. His response was, "I would LOVE to have beer with you, Toaph."
I had become somewhat of an icon by this time. I had been around for so long, and I had become known by so many of the guys, that I had become almost part of the institution. And I had been dry for so long that some of the guys had never known me when I was drinking. Linus was one of them. He'd never seen me drunk, and he'd never been able to share a drink with me. Drinking was also part of the institution itself. It as more than consuming a drug and feeling the effects. It was part of the social culture. To share a drink with someone was to reinforce a social bond.
In the past 5 years, no one had ever tried to coerce me into taking a drink. Everyone respected my choice and was always supportive. But the moment I mentioned the possibility, as soon as I cracked that door open, they had no compunction over swinging it open wide.
Linus's misplaced encouragement pushed me over the edge. It didn't take much. Frankly I was teetering as it was. But I wasn't going to relapse impulsively in a moment of weakness. I was going to return on my own terms. What I actually wound up doing was something that would establish a pattern for the next few years. I started substance bargaining. I told myself that I could start drinking again, but that I would continue to abstain from marijuana.
In terms of taking my first drink after almost 5 years, I planned it all out very methodically. I was driving one of those crazy Citroën cars again, like the one I had back when I was tripping on LSD all those years before. The one was almost exactly identical to the other one, except that it had brown leather seats rather than black. I had it in town with me, and it was just about to turn 100,000 miles. I had already planned to commemorate the occasion, and I decided to combine it with my return to drink.
I got a bottle of champagne and put it on ice. I grabbed Linus and a couple others, and away we went. We drove around until the odometer turned over and read 000000. I pulled the car over and we popped the cork. I made a little toast, and I took a sip. In that one moment, 1785 days without alcohol came to an end. My first thought was that champagne tastes kind of yucky.
My return to alcoholism started with a whimper, not a bang. It was a Friday afternoon, and there was a TGIF party ramping up back at the chapter house. I had a beer. I had forgotten what keg beer tasted like. It really wasn't all that pleasant. But I wasn't drinking it for the flavor. After a couple more, the alcohol buzz started to set in. It had been so long, I had actually forgotten what the sensation felt like. But this wasn't like the first time when my world changed forever. It was like an old friend saying hello again. I got a little drunk that night but kept it under control. It was fun.
But a little later in the evening, in my intoxicated state, mild as it was, I was ill-equipped to resist the temptation to smoke a little weed. The first time I walked into a room where they were doing bongs, I joined right in with them without giving it much of a thought. I got a nice buzz. It was the fist time in almost 6 weeks that I'd been high, and it felt good. It felt really good. My whole body was enveloped in a warm, tingly, vibrant manner of euphoria. I walked out back behind the house, sat on the bank of the river that flowed behind, and looked up at the stars and enjoyed the Summer evening breeze. The experience was markedly enhanced by the marijuana buzz. I decided quite conclusively that I liked getting high. I liked it a lot. I admitted to myself that I really didn't want to give it up. I briefly considered more bargaining, that I would go back to alcohol sobriety but forget about marijuana sobriety. But I pretty quickly gave up on the whole deal. I was drinking and getting high again, and that was that.
The next day felt fine. I drove back home without it being a nasty, hungover nightmare.
My intentions from that point on were to drink when there was a party, and otherwise not to drink just for the sake of drinking. That lasted for the work week. On Friday as I was driving home, I went past the local mini-mart. "Hmmm. They have beer in there," I thought to myself. "I could get a 6-pack to drink sitting around the house tonight."
This had become a foreign concept. It had been so damn long since I could just "have a beer," that I had basically forgotten the whole notion. Alcohol had become an all-or-nothing, disease-oriented, life-ruining, "you're with os or against us" push and pull. But I was starting a new life now, and a new relationship with alcohol. So I decided to go ahead and sip some beers on a Friday evening.
It went okay. I had the beers and got a buzz. It didn't feel all that great, but I didn't lose control and feel compelled to go out and drink the whole town dry. But as I lay down to bed I did experience another compulsion that I wasn't expecting, and I wasn't prepared for. I remembered that I had a cigarette sitting in my car. I hadn't planned to return to drinking. That wasn't part of the bargain. I was still glad to be rid of that nasty habit. But as I lay in bed a little drunk, I could not shake the notion. I could not abate the temptation. And I knew I was not going to get to sleep until I had gotten it out of my system.
I got back up, went out to the car, grabbed the cigarette, and brought it back inside. I lit it up and smoked the whole thing. It was not what I would describe as a satisfying experience. First of all, it was a stale old cigarette that had probably been sitting out in the open in my car for a year or more. But the nicotine buzz was really yucky. But I had quelled the desire, and at least now I could get to sleep.
At this point I entered into a rather odd period of my life. I think I probably realized it at the time, but with hindsight it is clear as day that my attempt at 100% sobriety resulted in a 100% relapse. But here I was. There was no going back now. It had taken a life-changing series of events over the course of years to get me to quit. I wasn't going to be able to just flip a switch now that I was back where I started.
In terms of cigarettes, I was in a really weird place. I really didn't want to smoke, but I couldn't not. It was a form of powerlessness that I hadn't really experienced before. I wanted the habit back, but I really couldn't tolerate the nicotine. It was awful. It made me dizzy and nauseous. I wished that they had denicotinated cigarettes just like they have decaffeinated coffee. I tried some herbal cigarettes, but they were totally unsatisfying. Hits of real tobacco had a kind of a bite that I felt down to the depths of my lungs, and these fake cigarettes just didn't have that. At the time I attributed it to the harshness of the tobacco smoke, but many years later someone pointed out to me that the bite was the nicotine itself. Just like the way a shot of alcohol burns the tissues of the throat, a hit of nicotine jolts the tissues of the lungs. The guy who pointed that out made me feel like a dunce for not knowing it, but it was something I had never considered. All I knew back at the time was that the only smoke I found satisfying was tobacco smoke, and I was just going to have to retrain my body to tolerate it.
In terms of marijuana, I still had few contacts, and it was still very difficult to procure. When I first quit drinking my conclusion was that marijuana was not a suitable substitute for alcohol. But now that I had started drinking, my conclusion ironically was that alcohol was not a suitable substitute for marijuana. I had grown quite accustomed to the effects of weed, and as the only substance in my repertoire (excepting the occasional box of whippets), I had developed a rather intimate relationship with it. I didn't like going without it. And just getting drunk would not make the desire go away.
In terms of alcohol, many things had changed over the 5 years that I abstained. All my old drinking buddies had either moved away, or gotten married and started families. All my old haunts were effectively filled with strangers. So I start getting drunk out at the local gay bar. I had been hanging out there for several years, and I had started to get to know the regular crowd. It was a difficult transition from skulking around the shadows trying to find a hookup, to just hanging out like it was the neighborhood bar.
The big change happened when I met this guy named Adrian. He knew absolutely everyone, and he started introducing me to people. I started making some new friends, but I didn't realize how handicapped I was until I turned back to drink. They call alcohol a social lubricant for a reason. When I would get a few drinks in me and get a little loopy, I would start conversations with total strangers, and make new friends on my own in a way that I never could while I was sober.
For the people who already knew me, admittedly a small number, they had to adjust to the transition from sober Toaph to drunk Toaph. Adrian actually said that he liked me better before. That was a far cry from all the people 5 years earlier who said that they liked me better when I was drinking.
One big problem that my new situation created was that I was driving drunk again. The gay bar (there was only one in the whole area), was a long drive from my house. To get there I had to drive all the way into Ithaca, clear through town, out the other side, and then still a few more miles. Reverse that for the drive back home. I wasn't really concerned for my safety or the safety of others. I'm not going to say that I drove just as well drunk as I did sober, because I know that that's patently false. However I will say with some confidence and a straight face that I drove better drunk that most other morons drove sober. I took driving VERY seriously. I always did from the day I started driving. I've never had an accident. I've never hit a deer. I've never had a moving violation other than the occasional speeding ticket and a plethora of uninspected vehicle violations in my younger days. I've never had a major mishap of any kind. And one of the reasons is that I recognize how stupid and clueless other drivers are, I'm prepared for it, and I adjust my driving accordingly.
And while I'm on the subject, I need to go on a little rant here. Drunk drivers are vilified in our society. But statistics show that drowsy drivers are every bit as dangerous as drunk drivers, yet there are no laws against it, no "Mothers Against Drowsy Drivers," and no associated social stigma. Elderly drivers have a reaction time considerably slower than an otherwise healthy drunk driver, and behind the wheel they can be considerably more clueless than even the most plastered person. But there's never been an effort to re-test drivers to ensure that they're still safe to drive. Once you get your driver's license that's it. You're good to go until you keel over. Nowadays there is some social stigma against cell phone drivers. They, along with other distracted drivers, are statistically comparable to drunk drivers. And while a few laws have been drafted in a few states, it's nowhere near as draconian as DWI laws. No one's spent a night in jail, lost their license, done community service, and suffered skyrocketing insurance premiums because they rear-ended someone while talking on their cell phone, texting, or looking for a song on their mp3 player.
Anyway, back to my story at hand, I felt relatively safe and justified in driving myself home after a night of drinking at the gay bar. I'm not saying it was okay, any more than I'm saying that drowsy, elderly, or distracted driving is okay. I knew it was a risk, but I went into it with eyes open. I wasn't in denial. I did my very best to be alert and keep on top of the bad judgement that came along with drunkenness. But what worried me terribly was that if by chance I happened to get pulled over, that would be the end of it. One breathalyzer and I'd be thrown in jail and suffer consequences for many years to come. That was a risk I was not at all comfortable taking.
Only a few weeks after my total relapse, my life would take a strange turn that I never could have anticipated. By total random chance, I met an Ithaca College undergrad. He was a cute, skinny, black kid who shared many of my creative interests. We quickly entered into an April/September bro-mance. The significance of this relative to my patterns of drug and alcohol use was that he was a college sophomore. All his friends, who accepted me as one of their own, were colleges sophomores. And they partied like college sophomores. I, only about 6 weeks into my relapse, also began to party like a college sophomore. Relatively speaking. I still pretty much restricted my partying to Friday nights as a matter of necessity. But beyond that I was right in there with them.
By convenient happenstance, the Ithaca College campus was just outside of town on the way to the gay bar. So I developed somewhat of a pattern. On Friday evenings I would come to campus to hang out. They were all poor college kids, and they tended to be very territorial about their alcohol, being very careful bout which beers were whose, and taking great umbrage if someone happened to drink someone else's beer. So I would usually show up with a case or two and just toss them in the fridge for anyone to drink. I'd hang out with them as the party started ramping up, and I'd catch a nice buzz. Then I'd continue up the road to the gay bar where I'd really tie one on and get a little crazy. Then I'd make the short drive back to campus where the sophomores' party would be winding down. I'd have a little night cap and crash there. This would greatly mitigate the risks of getting a DWI.
A number of interesting factors emerged at this time. One was that now that I had a cadre of college kids to hang out with locally, I didn't need to make the 3 1/2 hour drive up to my fraternity house to indulge my need to share in the college experience. For the first time since I pledged, I started falling out of touch with the membership.
While I my drinking patterns pretty much returned to where they had been before, which is to say that once I started drinking I would continue without an appreciable ability to stop, I wasn't falling over the edge anymore. I would sometimes get sloppy, falling down drunk, but I wasn't getting sick anymore. There may have been one or two odd occasions where I did, but it was nothing like where it had been before.
Also, these Ithaca College kids had easy access to marijuana. For the first time in my life, I could pick up a supply pretty much whenever I needed it. Rather than days or weeks of frustrating phone tag and missed connections, it was almost like going to the corner store. I could either buy weed on the spot, or get it the next day guaranteed. I also discovered that I could buy whippets right there in town. There was a local porn store that also doubled as a head shop. In a way it was a good fit, because both were adult-oriented wares. But it was so embarrassing to have to walk into this adult bookstore whenever I wanted some whippets. As I would walk out, I figured if I bumped into someone I knew I'd say, "Honestly, I was just in there to buy drugs." So anyway, instead of buying a box on my way home from the fraternity house, I could buy them any time. The result was that my intake of nitrous oxide did increase somewhat during this time. But it did tend to take somewhat of a toll on me, so it was still relegated to special occasions.
And one other thing was different. As I mentioned earlier, when I stopped drinking I started waking up early in the morning no matter how late I stayed up the night before. Well this pattern continued, but it was exacerbated by the fact that I was going to bed considerably later, and my body was saturated with intoxicants. I would wake up very early in the morning, quite hung over, and utterly exhausted. And yet I was unable to go back to sleep. I had lost my ability to "sleep it off." This made my hangovers a lot worse than they had been before. On top of all the other unhealthy factors, I had to deal with chronic sleep deprivation.
This went on for the rest of the school year. I was having loads of fun living like I was a college kid myself again. But that Summer it came to an end. My friend had to drop out of school, and without him I was just a sad old man hanging out with a bunch of kids, so I didn't go back to them when the following school year started. By now I had started falling out of touch with the fraternity guys (things turn over VERY quickly in a fraternal organization), and frankly I had lost my taste for the long drive.
With no other real alternatives, I concentrated on drinking out at the gay bar. In truth those nights were a lot of fun. I was making good friends and having a hollering good time. But I was increasingly nervy about the risk I was taking for getting a DWI. I started doing something that I wasn't too proud of, but that worked pretty well. By the end of the night I would find some lonely old man and ask if he would let me crash at his place and give me a ride back to my car the next morning. This worked with an astonishingly high success rate. I would usually let the guy have his way with me when we got back to his place, if I was able to get it up. Then we'd pass out.
This worked pretty well in terms of avoiding the DWI, but it was pretty unhealthy on a number of levels. And what was worst, I would still wake up at the crack of dawn, and the old man would still be sound asleep. I'd have to try to keep myself occupied in some stranger's house, sometimes for hours. I'd be hung over and tired, and feeling dirty both physically and emotionally. All I wanted was to get some breakfast, a hot shower, smoke some weed, and curl up in front of the TV for the day. But I'd be trapped with the previous night's mistake, totally reliant on him to get me back to my car.
This was becoming very tiresome, but I was finding that I could not let a Friday night go by without getting drunk. I would say to myself that I wouldn't drink, but when I passed the corner store on my way home I would in no way be able to deny the temptation to pick up a 6-pack. The intention was to just get a nice buzz and stay home, but it never played out that way. Once I got a little tipsy, the last thing I wanted to do was to go to bed. I wanted to be around people and keep the party going. So I would make that long drive to the gay bar, and I'd get even drunker. Then I'd pimp myself out for a ride and a sleep on the couch, and the next morning I'd be a mess.
There were times when things got worse. Sometimes I'd fell the temptation on a Thursday night. I'd rationalize it by saying that the next day was Friday, and nothing much happens in the office on Fridays, so why not get a little buzz on Thursday night. The problem was that I'd fall into the same trap. I'd be all tipsy and alone, and I would be compelled to make that long drive to the bar. This would become one of the most vivid, overt, self-aware forms of powerlessness. I would be sitting there, trying my damnedest to just go to bed, with an unstoppable force pulling me to the door. There were times when I had actually shut off the lights and gotten in bed, only to get back up again, get dressed, and drive all the way to the bar.
In truth these Thursday nights could be a lot of fun. The bar would be mostly empty. I would usually find my lonely old man as soon as I got there. Then we could actually have a very pleasant evening, talking for hours at the bar just the two of us. Then I'd go home with him and sleep on his couch, and make a futile attempt to make something of the next day at work, if I even went in at all.
One morning I woke up. I was really, really hung over. I had gotten blind drunk the night before. Then I remembered that it was a Friday morning. And what was worse, I had a meeting that morning that I couldn't miss. It was an important meeting with some higher-ups. I said to myself, "Well at least I'm waking up in my own bed." But then I opened my eyes and realized that I was not in my own bed. Memories came flooding back. I had gone home with the Taiwanese kids who hung out there all the time. I got up, and further realized that I had gone out the night before in black jeans, motorcycle boots, a wife beater, and a slave collar.
These clothes were obviously inappropriate for the workplace, but I didn't have time to get to my car, get home, change, and get to work before the meeting started. I roused the Taiwanese kid. "Get up!" I yelled. "Get up! I need to get back to my car ASAP!!!" The poor kid got up and dropped me off back at the bar. I had a little time before the meeting started, but I had few options. I wound up going to the gym on campus where I had a membership. I checked out a bag of workout clothes, threw on the ragged, over-washed t-shirt, tossed the rest of it in my locker, and went to my office.
When the meeting started, I immediately apologized for my inappropriate attire. They honestly couldn't have cared less. Since it was still early in the day, I could conduct myself reasonably well, and in fact the meeting was productive and we all got out of it what we wanted to. When it was over I then went right back to the gym, took a long, hot shower, and took the rest of the day off. That was a rough day, and I wasn't happy with myself.
In fact, my productivity at work was taking a big hit. There were the occasional hungover Fridays that were total wastes. But beyond that, I was having trouble concentrating, I found it difficult to learn new things, and I was just tired. I was chronically sleepy and tired. I never put in a full day's work. I would arrive late and leave early, and I usually couldn't make it through the day at all without sneaking out to my car for a power nap. In truth my performance was still adequate. Despite my diminished capacity, I was still able to crank out enough work to keep people happy. Frankly I was amazed that I could, but no one in the office was pulling me aside like there was a problem.
But I couldn't keep living like this. It was just abnormal how tired I was all the time. I knew full well that the alcohol was largely to blame, but I just felt like there was something more going on. Other people drank a whole lot more than I did, and still didn't seem to suffer in the same way. I began to wonder if maybe I had an underlying sleep disorder that was being exacerbated by my alcohol-laden lifestyle.
I got myself to a sleep specialist, and eventually had a sleep study done. The results were not encouraging. Not only did it reveal that I was getting zero, deep sleep, I exhibited a symptom that could be an indication of a serious sleep disorder. I figured he'd just prescribe whatever pill would fix it, but he told me there was no treatment and no cure. This hit me like a ton of bricks. It was a real wakeup call, so to speak.
In many ways I was back where I had been when I went to see the cardiologist all those years before. I was faced with a medial impetus to get clean and sober. And I was fretting about it. By now the Internet was coming into its own, so I could go online and research sleep disorders. Frankly it scared the hell out of me. Sleep disorders could have a devastating effect on one's life, and it was astonishing how little the medical establishment could do about it. In fact they could really do nothing about it at all except to observe and categorize parasomnias.
I felt discouraged and depressed. And what made matters worse was that unlike before, I was not finding myself able to parlay this situation into the staunch ability to stop drinking and using drugs. My head was there. I knew that I had no hope of getting better without getting sober. But this wasn't translating into resolve. I was older, weaker, and had fallen deeper into my addictions. I knew I needed help. I knew I needed to take the step that I had been unwilling to take years before.
There was a guy at work whose marriage had fallen apart, and he'd tried to solve his problems with alcohol. Unlike me, he couldn't hold it together in the office, and his career was starting to fall apart too. His supervisor did an intervention of sorts, and the guy started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. It wasn't being terribly effective for him, in all honesty, but he'd broken the ice. One day I asked him if he'd bring me to a meeting with him.
The day came and off we went. There was a group that met right on campus over the lunch hour. It was within walking distance of our office. I was a little nervous, but I was ready. As we entered the room and sat down, I felt like all eyes were upon me, like obviously I was the new person in the room that no one recognized. But still, I was ready. It was good that I felt that way.
The meeting was called to order, and they went through what was apparently standard procedure. There were a lot of readings, including the reading of the 12 steps. Then the moderator asked if this was anyone's first meeting since a slip. I spoke up.
"Uhhh," I said somewhat hesitantly. "This is my first meeting-- ever."
I forget if they applauded, but I was greeted very warmly and openly as people smiled and welcomed me.
The rest of the meeting became all about me. The moderator said, "Whenever we have someone new we always make it a 1st step meeting." They went around the room, and everyone talked generally about what their lives were like before A.A., how they got to A.A., and how their lives had changed as a result. Everyone began with, "I'm Sue and I'm an alcoholic," or "I'm Steve and I'm an alcoholic." One guy even went so far as to say, "I'm Jim. I'm an alcoholic, an I'm always going to BE an alcoholic."
Their stories were pretty dire. By and large these people drank uncontrollably each and every day, day in and day out. For them every day was like those hungover Fridays I had when I couldn't control myself on Thursday nights. The guy who said he was always going to be an alcoholic said that he came into A.A. one morning when he had a gun in his mouth because he knew he either had to stop drinking or kill himself.
Frankly I had real trouble relating to these people, because my story just wasn't anywhere near as extreme as any of theirs. Most everyone said that they had great difficulty accepting the fact that they were alcoholics, and I couldn't even relate to THAT. I had pretty much acknowledged I was an alcoholic that first night when I was unable to control my intake, which was a couple years before I even quit that initial time.
Still, I stayed through the meeting and listened to all their stories. While they were talking they had been passing around a card on which they were writing their names and phone numbers in case I wanted to give them a call. I didn't expect that I would ever call any of them, but it made me feel good that I had so much unconditional support if I needed it. I left the meeting with a glimmer of hope. It was surrounded by an ocean of doubt, but it was better than having no hope at all.
The next phase of my life would best be described as "swiss cheese sobriety." I would make attempts here and there to stay clean, but they never lasted. I was still partying pretty damn hard during this time. I also started traveling more, and alcohol played a pretty big role in the mischief I'd get into when I was on the road. Many of the stories further in this autobiography get into a lot of detail of this period in my life. To be honest, these alcohol-fueled adventures marked some of the most intense and interesting escapades of my whole life. The problem was that it came with a price, and that price was excruciatingly severe hangovers, often in dingy hotel rooms, in far-away lands making me wish I was home safe and sound.
I've also referred to the process I was going through at this time as "three substance monty." I would engage in endless bargaining between alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana, trading one for the other over and over again, but never able to successfully stop all three at the same time, or any one of them for any appreciable period. I lacked a solid foundation on which to build any lasting kind of sobriety.
A.A. played a tangential role during this time. It was to my sobriety like chicken soup is when you're sick. It doesn't hurt. It makes you feel better. But it doesn't have any real healing properties. I would go to meetings from time to time, but never really embraced the program, I didn't have a sponsor, I wasn't reading the Big Book, and I wasn't working the steps. I was also having a little trouble getting over a certain level of hypocrisy. Almost without exception, everyone I had seen in A.A. was addicted to caffeine. I mean, coffee was provided at every meeting for crying out loud. When people would walk in the door they would generally make a bee line for the coffee machine like an addict running for a fix. And then there were cigarettes. A highly disproportionate number of A.A. members were smokers. Neither of these addictions was discouraged. It was sort of like methadone to heroin addicts. It was considered benign be comparison, and something that could help placate the addictive drive.
The first step tended to be a huge barrier for most alcoholics, but was a no-brainer for me.
Step 1 - We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable
What this step really did was to put the label "powerless" on my relationship with alcohol. I had recognized this very early on, but didn't really have a name for it. But that was exactly what it was, and I had not been in denial about that from very early on. In terms of my life being unmanageable, I came to find that it depended on how you defined it. My house was a mess, I wasn't sleeping well, and I wasn't happy about the way things were going. Did that make my life "unmanageable?" I was still doing well at work, and was otherwise pretty healthy.
I came to learn that alcoholism was a matter of degree. I also learned a few new terms. I was deemed a "functioning alcoholic." Just because you're able to sustain your behavior doesn't exempt you from being an alcoholic. I also learned that I'm a "high bottom." You could make a lot of jokes about that phrase, but it was actually helpful in understanding my condition. Everyone has their rock bottom. Some people don't hit their bottom until they've lost their family, their job, their home, and they're sitting in the back yard with a gun in their mouth. That's a pretty low bottom. My bottom was much higher than that.
I also came to grips with the concept of powerlessness. I was still having a lot of trouble relating to the other people in the A.A. meetings. Their bottoms were so much lower than mine, and their degree of powerlessness was so much more extreme than mine. I wasn't a daily drinker. I never had been. But pretty much without exception, every story I heard had to do with drinking out of control day in and day out.
Then one day I finally put my finger on it. Someone described his drinking as "having no brakes." Once he started drinking, he couldn't stop. It was like a runaway train. That was it. That was me. For the most part I could control whether I started drinking or not. I couldn't really control that on a Friday night, and there were the occasional Thursday nights. But the real point of the matter was that once I did start, I would put into motion a series of events that would be out of control. I had no brakes. It was at that moment that I really understood where I fit into the pantheon of alcoholism, and for the first time I could relate to other people in the program, and I started to feel like I belonged there.
I continued to struggle with the steps, though. I pretty quickly got tripped up on the second one.
Step 2 - We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
The steps got into God territory pretty quickly. I couldn't be sure if I believed in God or not. To most people it's clearly a yes or no question. To me it was pretty much down to how you define it. I certainly didn't believe in a bearded grandfather sitting up in the clouds governing our every move. The concept of a "supreme being" was not something I could accept. It didn't make any sense to me. A race of supreme beings, maybe. But one omniscient, omnipresent deity was not something my scientific brain could get around.
I could conceivably concoct some other conception of God. Some kind of global group consciousness thing made sense to me. I had heard it said that God is the total summation of all human knowledge. If you take every bit of knowledge that everyone on Earth has, from the theory of relativity to what little Susie had for breakfast last Wednesday, add it all up, what you will get is God. Or you could take it in the opposite direction. Every bit of knowledge that man has yet to discover is God. On a slightly more tangible level, I could think of how the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and that maybe God is that which is the difference between the two.
All of these notions were things that I could potentially explore, but none of them was anything that could get me sober. None of them was the kind of higher power that I heard people describe as that which they turn to in difficult times.
Eventually I employed my scientific mind to analyze the step and try to make sense of it. The first half referenced "a power greater than ourselves." I was struggling over whether I believed in a higher power or not. But I use the analytical technique of inversion. I looked at the opposite. If I didn't believe in a power greater than myself, then that meant that I believed I was the greatest power in the universe. Clearly that wasn't true, so by deductive reasoning I could conclude that I did believe in a power greater than myself. I wasn't sure what it was, but I could be sure that I believed in it.
The second half of the step was the kicker. Did I believe that this higher power could restore me to sanity? First of all I had a bit of an issue with the wording. Sanity and insanity were clinical terms, and I wasn't sure if alcoholism qualified as a form of insanity. But I didn't allow myself to get hung up on semantics. I got the gist of it. But it still remained to be seen if this hypothetical higher power could get me to where I wanted to be. If I didn't know what it was, how could I know what influence it could have on me? But I focused on the word "could." That it "could" restore me to sanity. That meant that there existed a possibility that a higher power could restore me to sanity. By simply observing the empirical evidence that was all around me at every A.A. meeting, I could clearly accept that the possibility existed.
Okay, I felt that I was past the second step. But I promptly got solidly and completely hung up on the third.
Step 3 - We made a decision to turn out will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
This was the first point in the steps that "God" was referred to by name. They hedge it by saying, "as we understood him." That meant that it didn't have to be the Judeo-Christian god. I just substituted the term "higher power." Frankly I didn't know why it wasn't worded that way in the first place. But this was still the point at which the literature and most of the A.A. members started getting religious. They started talking about the power of God, and God's love, and all that.
I could get past that. If I had a higher power that was not God in the conventional sense, then so be it. But I hadn't met hat "if." I had been thinking a bit about what my higher power could be. I considered the group conscience of the A.A. membership. The strength in numbers, the support and encouragement I got from the membership, the shame I would feel before them if I were to relapse were all overt and tangible forces that I as a scientist could accept. I could see this as being a power greater than myself. But it wasn't a power great enough to keep me sober. Not even close. If I were in a weak moment, the thought of having to confess to my peers in A.A. was nowhere near powerful enough to stop me from giving in. Not even close.
I looked back to the past, and thought about the successes that I had experienced. The higher power that kept me clean, such as it was, was actually the resolve itself. My own resolve was a power greater than my desire to use. But at this point in my life, I was finding myself unable to manufacture that kind of resolve again. The first time it had gestated during a long, bleak darkness. While I wasn't happy with where I was at the present, I was not in the kind of place that could create that kind of resolve. I was looking to the program, and to the steps, for the inspiration and motivation to get clean.
But in terms of the 3rd step itself, I was still hung up on the phrase, "turn our will and our lives over." There was a sort of deliberateness to that act, a kind of A.A. dogma, an acknowledgement of the higher power as a conscious being that I wasn't able to accept. I maneuvered around it by reinterpreting it. I considered the act of turning myself over to a higher power as the process of committing myself totally, utterly, and completely to my own sobriety. It was something I could sink my teeth into. It was something I could understand and accept on my own level. And I felt that it was honest to the intent of the step.
The problem was that this didn't really help. I was really talking about having resolve, and that was the one thing that was lacking, and I wasn't getting it through the A.A. program. Some of the more experienced members, people who themselves struggled with this step in their early days, focused on the phrase, "made a decision to." Even if I wasn't able to turn over my life and my will, to totally commit myself, I could get past the step by making a decision that it was my intent. I could understand this, but it still wasn't helpful. I knew I wouldn't feel like I had passed the 3rd step until I had actually committed myself. I wouldn't get past the 3rd step until I was actually sober. I found myself stuck there for a very long time.
However this is not to say that say that I wasn't able to put together some significant periods of sobriety during that time. Or, I should say, abstinence. I was again focusing on alcohol as the most troublesome of my addictions. I was still engaging in some bargaining, some "3 substance monty," but alcohol was the substance that had the greatest impact on my health, my happiness, and the overall manageability of my life. A.A. continued to play a "chicken soup" role in this process. I found that if I were motivated to stay clean that I didn't need the help of A.A., and that if I weren't motivated, that A.A. wouldn't make a difference. There was something that was missing for me in the A.A. experience. Alcoholics Anonymous is more than a program, more than the steps, more than a succession of meetings. It is a community. It refers to itself as "the fellowship." And a big part of the process is to embrace the fellowship, to make solid an lasting friendships, and to recreate a social structure for yourself in sobriety, within the fellowship, that replaces the social structures that were founded on drinking.
My problem was that by and large I didn't really want anything to do with the people I saw at meetings. Most of them were scruffy, unkempt sots in dirty clothes, missing teeth, and speaking in red neck dialects marked by atrocious grammar. I could still get a lot out of what they had to say. I actually found it inspiring that these poorly spoken people could still express palpable, sincere emotion, show truly keen insight, and cite priceless gems of wisdom. Some of them I actually found to be quite interesting, or even intriguing. But when the meeting was over I pretty much wanted to get out of there and get away from them. Part of this was because I can be an antisocial sonofabitch. Part of it was the fact that my resistance to embracing the fellowship was an unconscious symptom of my resistance to embracing sobriety. But the real problem was that I has having trouble relating to these people. I did't feel we had any kind of connection beyond the fact that we're all alcoholics. And even that was tenuous based on the fact that their alcoholism by and large was more severe than mine by an order of magnitude.
One exception to this was the campus lunchtime group that I had first gone to. It was generally attended by Cornell staff and students. For the most part they were clean, well-dressed and properly groomed. But beyond that they were largely intellectuals, we could discuss the program and the steps on an intellectual level, and we could share our experience trying to get sober as intellectuals. This was actually quite significant. The state of being "too smart for one's own good" was a symptom a lot of people shared, and had a similar experience with it getting in the way of working the program. Particularly when it came to matters of God, religion, and the whole higher power thing, intellectuals have real challenges, and it was very helpful to hear what other intellectuals had to say about it.
Despite the fact that this group was a pretty good fit, it was still difficult to make it work. One problem was that it conflicted with my gym time. I had established a solid practice of physical fitness over my lunch hour. That was the only time that worked. Early in the morning was out of the question, and attempts to go after work always met with failure. It was too easy to blow it off and just go home. But lunchtime was perfect because it got me out of the office. I wanted to be in the gym sweating, getting naked and showering, more than I wanted to be at my desk. And I wanted to go to the gym more than I wanted to go to a meeting. I was learning that sobriety is a matter of prioritization. Those who were successfully sober said that their sobriety was the single most important thing in their lives. They said that anything you put before your sobriety is something you'll lose. I could understand this, but I still prioritized the gym over meetings. I decided that I would rather be a physically fit drunk than sober and sedentary.
Another problem with this group was that they were all heterosexual. I didn't realize how significant this was, and the role it played in my challenges embracing the fellowship, until I discovered the local gay/lesbian A.A. group. From the point at which I stopped hanging out at the fraternity house, my contact with heterosexuals had dropped off precipitously. Most of my contemporaries had by now gotten married and had kids, which became their entire focus. The whole world of soccer moms and hockey dads had no place for me. In fact I felt rejected by that world. People with kids tend to see homosexuals as anti-family at best, and promiscuous sluts or even pedophiles at worst. I would not describe myself as heterophobic. I didn't feel any specific animosity towards heterosexual people. But I had a tendency to distance myself from them in response to them distancing their families from me. Even in recovery, straight people largely talked about their addiction affected their spouses and their kids, how they were their inspiration, and how they had regained their relationships with them through sobriety. They all related on that level, and it was something I couldn't relate to at all. I didn't find myself caring about their problems, and ultimately I didn't find myself caring bout them.
But eventually I did discover a gay/lesbian A.A. group, and from the first meeting I attended, I started to experience the kind of fellowship that the program was supposed to be all about. We were a different kind of alcoholic. In the absence of conventional family lives with the responsibilities of raising children, gay and lesbian people often have the freedom to live in a state of perpetual childhood themselves. They can engage in drunken debauchery without being subject to a lot of the same consequences that family men and women are subject to. As long as their work doesn't suffer, their coworkers don't care what time they got in, where they were, what they were doing, or who they slept with. And to make matter worse for the sober gay or lesbian person, the whole gay subculture was largely founded on drinking, drugs, and dance parties that go late into the night. It's not easy to create a social structure as a gay man trying to live a sober, healthy life, when most gays do all their socializing in gay bars, and don't even leave the house until after you've already gone to bed.
The people I met in the gay/lesbian group all had to deal with the same issues, but on top of that I could relate to them on a level beyond being fellow alcoholics. We had a common experience. We had all struggled through the process of coming out. We fit into the same place in society. We all faced discrimination and homophobia. We were all expected to turn our will and our lives over to a God who supposedly condemned us as abominations. We shared a kindred bond that heterosexuals would never comprehend. These were people I cared about. I cared about their problems, and I cared about them as individuals.
For the first time, I found myself wanting to socialize with other people in the program. It all began with the practice of going out for a bite to eat after the meeting ended. The group met once a week on Sunday evenings. It was the perfect time to be around people and relax before embarking on another work week. For the most part, the lesbians would all go home, and the gay men would pick a place to go, and have a little dinner. Sometimes we'd talk about sobriety, but generally we'd just hang out and talk about the kinds of things that gay men talk about. And as time went on and I got to know some individuals a little better, we started making plans and just doing things together. I was actually starting to build a circle of friends. It was what had been missing in my program.
Alas, it still wasn't enough. Despite finding a group that worked for me, I still managed to relapse. I went to my 20th high school reunion. I managed to make it through the Friday night party and the Saturday dinner without drinking, even though everyone else was getting loaded. The problem came after. One of my old classmates had come out as gay (no big surprise). After the dinner was over, he and I decided to meet up at the local gay bar. I just drove right over, but he had to change his clothes and primp and preen. That left me alone in the bar with nothing to do and no one to talk to. I had managed to reunite with people I hadn't seen in 20 years, which was a socially intimidating process in and of itself, and yet I made it through without any serious temptation to drink. But alone in that gay bar I was experiencing an strong, nervous, uneasiness. I don't know why this particular situation was so acute. Maybe it was the unfamiliar setting. Maybe it was the strange energy of being in a gay bar in a town where I spent my whole life oppressively closeted. But it was absolutely overpowering. It wasn't so much a desire to drink as it was a need to relax. If my friend had been there to distract me I probably could have gotten through. But I broke down before he arrived. I got a drink, pounded it, and got another. By the time he got there, the genii was out of the bottle. I got totally loaded that night, making up for lost time, and I had a pretty miserable hungover drive home the next day.
There were still some critical components missing from my program. One was that I wasn't respecting the principles of people, places, and things. The concept is that if you still hang out with the same people you did when you were using, if you still go to the same places and do the same things, that you are putting your recovery in jeopardy. I violated this principle in spades during my first phase of abstinence from alcohol, when I would galavant up to my old fraternity house just like I did when I was boozing. I would see the same people, and except for picking up a drink I would do the same things. At the time it didn't cause a relapse because I had my resolve, but it wasn't a good practice. At my reunion, I put myself in entirely the wrong place, and it was my undoing.
The other thing that was missing from my program was a higher power. Despite one's best efforts to avoid the wrong people, places, and things, it's impossible to entirely avoid situations where one faces temptation. In those times, it's your higher power that will come to your rescue. Not having one myself, I didn't have a prayer.
In the time that followed this event I solidified my reputation as being a "chronic relapser." Sometimes I would put forth a half-hearted effort that would fall apart pretty quickly. Other times I would embark on a solid effort and get some time under my belt, only to come crashing down in a moment of weakness when I didn't respect people, places and things. Sometimes I was able to manage my powerlessness. On one occasion I was at a film festival as an exhibiting filmmaker. A few years back I had been at the same festival, and I got so loaded on the fist night that I was a hungover mess for the rest of the festival. Not wanting to repeat that experience, I was able to successfully pace my drinking, and not let it get out of hand. But the very following weekend, home at my familiar local gay bar, I tried to do the same thing again and was entirely unable to exercise any control whatsoever.
Usually I gave in to my powerlessness without resistance, but there were still times when it would be prefaced with moments of denial. Despite countless occasions and mountains of empirical evidence that I was unable to control myself, there were still times when I would say to myself, "I'll just have a couple and then call it quits."
The ultimate example of this was one fateful weeknight. It was a Tuesday. There had been a daylong retreat in the office, capped off by happy hour at a local bar. We were all in the midst of a huge project, and things had been a little tense. This was a valuable opportunity to forget the struggles we'd been having, let our hair down, and engage socially. I decided I would have two pints. Just two, and then that would be the end of it. After the second pint I was feeling good, so I decided to have just one more. Three pints, and then I'd put a cap on it. Well over the course of that third pint, most of the reasonable people filtered out, leaving just us hard boozers. If I had left after two, I may have been able to batten it down, but I hadn't. I was feeling good, I was hanging out with other people who were going to keep on drinking, so I went along for the ride.
Some of the people who had already left the bar went off to a local restaurant. After I had a couple more drinks I decided to take off and catch up with them. They were actually finishing up their meal when I got there, but they invited me to sit down and have a couple more drinks with them. I was actually quite entertaining. I was able to let loose and joke around like I could never do in the office. They liked that side of me. It was a personality they wished they could see more of.
By the time everyone left the restaurant, I knew I was over the edge. I knew there was no controlling the situation, so I didn't even try. I was too drunk to let the thought of negative consequences deter me. It was like the thought of getting wet deterring the rain. I wasn't so much experiencing a desire to get more drunk as much as I was admitting the reality that there was no way to stop it from happening.
I hit the ATM for some cash, put a little gas in my car, and headed out to the gay bar. The place was empty on a Tuesday night. There was one lonely old man at the bar, so I sidled right up beside him, and we talked the night away as I got drunker and drunker. When last call came he agreed to put me up for the night and take me back to my car in the morning. When we got back to his place he sucked my dick into the wee hours of the morning when we both passed out.
The next morning I woke up at the break of dawn, exhausted, hungover, and in a stranger's bed. It was a work day, but I knew there was no way I was going into the office. This was not good. Not only were we embroiled in a huge, high-profile project that needed all hands on deck all the time, but the Vice President of Information Technology at Cornell was joining us for lunch to see how things were going. I would be conspicuously absent. And because there had been a party the night before, everyone would know exactly why.
When I couldn't lie in bed any longer, I got up and stumbled around the old man's apartment in my underwear looking for my clothes. When I put on my pants I discovered that my wallet was missing. My credit card was there, but no wallet. I collapsed emotionally. This was too much. This was the final straw. This was one step beyond. This had to stop. I couldn't go on like this. I had had enough.
I was able to rouse the old man and coerce him into taking me back to the bar. On the drive home I retraced my steps, looking to see if I could find my wallet. I went to the gas station. It wasn't there, and no one had turned it in. I went to the ATM, and again there was no sigh of it. With no other options, I just went home.
The first thing I did was to email in sick. I knew everyone would know why I wasn't there. I didn't acknowledge it directly, but I did say I was having a "personal crisis." It was true. This was it. It was as close to a moment of clarity as I was going to get. It was a turning point.
Once I had sent the email, I smoked some pot, lay down in front of the TV, and settled in for a long, miserable, unproductive day nursing what I planned to be my final hangover. I napped as best I could. Later that afternoon the phone rang. It was some lady who had found my wallet. She said it was sitting right next to the ATM. I must have pulled out my ATM card, set the wallet down on the shelf, and when I got my cash just grabbed the card and took off with the wallet still sitting there. She got my name from my driver's license and looked up my number. We made arrangements for me to get it back from her the following day. I could relax a little now. It was like years before when they found my parents' skis. But I was still determined to make a change in my life.
I wish I could say that was it. The truth of the matter is that the following Friday evening one of my good friends and drinking buddies was being honored for receiving a full professorship at Cornell. He had invited to the celebration, and I had already accepted. While I was at the event I again succumbed to my powerlessness, and I had some drinks. Just a few. But I went back to my friend's place, and we continued drinking. I didn't get loaded, but he didn't want me driving home, so I fell asleep on his couch.
The next morning I woke up, tired and hung over and not in my own bed, and I said to myself, "What're you doing, Toaph? How much longer are you going to let this go on?" The previous morning I had been full of self-pity. This morning I was pissed off. I was pissed at myself. I didn't have resolve as much as I had determination. Stubborn, obstinate determination. I was determined that I was not going to let alcohol get the better of me any longer, goddammit.
That was it. I stopped drinking cold turkey. I dropped it like the bad habit it was. And I didn't look back.
Detox is a strange time. The flip side of being a chronic relapser is that you're a chronic recoverer. I had detoxed many, many times, and I had started to notice patterns. Everything seems to go wrong when you're detoxing. And the funny thing is that most of it has absolutely nothing to do with detoxing or recovery. You just enter into this strange period of discordant energies as your chi tries to regain some manner of equilibrium.
This occasion was marked by a couple of odd events. No sooner did I swear off drugs and alcohol than I was contacted by one of my old friends from the gay/lesbian A.A. group. He was a big, muscular, hot black guy named Andrew (not his real name (he's anonymous, after all)). Andrew's drug of choice was crack. He was a black crack addict. And he'd relapsed. He was living in an apartment not far from my house. He called me up saying there was a 19yo boy who wanted to have sex, but we had to entice him with more crack. He said that if I finance the deal that I could get in on the sex with him.
By this time I had come to appreciate the role of people, places, and things in recovery. It was not a good idea for me to get mixed up in a crack deal just a week into my sobriety. But I also knew that crack would not be a significant temptation for me. And I just couldn't resist the possibility of a 3-way with a hot black guy and a 19yo boy. So despite the fact that it was a work night, I set out on this adventure.
I went over to Andrew's place, and of course immediately asked about the 19yo kid. Andrew said he'd be over later. We had to go score the crack. He contacted his connection and I drove us into town (Andrew didn't have a car). We picked up his connection, who was a sketchy, paranoid, aggressive kind of a guy. I didn't like having him in my car, quite honestly. He was going to take our money (my money, actually), and make the buy for us. He was highly agitated, and very concerned about protecting the location and identity of the dealer. He borrowed my cell phone to make the call, insisting that I delete the number after it was all over. We parked somewhere downtown, and he then set out to his dealer's undisclosed location.
Andrew and I sat waiting for a while, but got bored and decided to go for a stroll. To our bad luck, we coincidentally headed in the direct direction of the dealer's house, and we bumped into our connection on his way back to the car. He was incensed, thinking that we were following him. But he gave us the drugs, and I gave him a ride back to where we picked him up. He was bitching us out the whole way. I was so glad to get him out of my car again.
We went back to Andrew's place, where he immediately started smoking the crack. It made him all horny and he wanted to suck my cock. I didn't mind obliging. I kept asking about the 19yo boy, and Andrew kept making excuses. It didn't take too long to figure out that the kid had been bait. He was a fabrication to lure me into buying drugs for Andrew. I think I knew going into it that this would probably be the case all along. Somehow I didn't mind. I was buying the experience of going on a crack deal. Early recovery wasn't good timing, but I'm all about chalking up life experiences, and this was an opportunity I didn't mind taking.
As Andrew was smoking crack and sucking my dick, he kept trying to get me to smoke with him. I kept saying no, but he was quite insistent. "No means no, Andrew," I said. "And if you don't quit asking me I'm gonna leave." He didn't want me to leave, so he let it drop. We hung out for a while with him doing drugs and sucking me off. I really wanted to suck his big black dick in kind, but he was totally limp. And after a while of this, I did leave. I used the 19yo kid as an excuse. It was his means of getting me into this escapade, and it was my means of exiting. By then it was very late at night. But because I wasn't all liquored up, I was able to make it to work the next day, and actually put in a reasonably good showing.
There was another odd event during this time, that was the kind of thing that would only happen during detox. I had been planning a big European trip. I was going to fly into Amsterdam, take the train to Paris for a few days, and take the train back to Amsterdam from where I'd fly back home. The huge project in which we were all embroiled at work would be coming to a head that Summer. I intended to take one last big break before buckling down and charging into the final stretch. I knew that going to Amsterdam as a newly sober person was not a good idea, but I already had my plane tickets and reservations. As the time drew near, however, I started getting other bad omens about the whole trip.
A friend of mine was living in Paris at the time. He was someone whom I had been pursuing as a love interest, but he was in an on-again-off-again relationship, and otherwise wasn't showing much of an interest in getting together with me. I figured with him an ocean away from his boyfriend, we might at least have a legendary fling in the City of Love. When I put the trip together, he was all, "Oh, yeah, we'll spend the whole week together." But as the date got closer, things changed into, "I'm not sure how much time I'll have." Then I found out his boyfriend was in Paris with him. When I was a few days from departure, it had devolved into, "I'll meet you at the train station."
There were other forces at work that were conspiring against this trip. Just as I was making final preparations, George Bush decided to invade Iraq. You might recall that the French were not too keen on the whole thing. Well I was understandably skittish about being an American in Paris just as troops were coming ashore in Iraq. It was becoming all too clear that Amsterdam and Paris were really the last two places on earth I should be going at that particular time. But it was a done deal.
The day before I was to leave, I had a meeting with a couple people on the project team. One was this snotty little upstart of a punk who had been making my life miserable. He and I disagreed on everything. When it comes to computer programming, there are a million ways to do any one particular thing. Sometimes the choices are mostly inconsequential, like the toilet paper rolling over versus rolling under. But other times it's fundamentally significant, like going with an automatic transmission versus a stick shift. Well this kid and I seemed to come on opposite sides of the fence on each and every little dispute like that. Every single fucking decision point became a battle with this guy. He was young, energetic, and totally up for the fight. I was old, coming off a period of chronic alcoholism and drug addiction, and utterly worn out.
Well the day before my departure date we were at it again. I proposed an approach for something, and he didn't only disagree with me, he invalidated my opinion in a particularly disrespectful manner. I was furious. I wanted to leap across the table and beat his ugly face with my fists. But instead I checked out. "Fine!" I said. "Do whatever you want. I'm out. You're on your own. You can do the whole fucking thing by yourself."
That meeting was towards the end of the day, so I just left the office. I stopped off to get my hair cut on the way home. I wanted to go on this trip with a nice, fresh haircut. Now, there's something you need to know about me. Ever since I left my home town, I've never been able to find someone who could give me a decent haircut. My hair is thick and curly, and apparently it takes a very particular knack to be able to deal with it. My entire adult life has been an endless succession of one bad haircut after another. Usually I would find someone, they'd give me a decent cut, I'd go back and get a not quite as good cut, and then I'd go back and they'd botch it. I'd then have to start over from scratch with someone new.
I was in the middle of one of those cycles at the time. I had found a lady who seemed to do okay. I swung by her place and she gave me a cut. I then went home and took a shower to rinse all the cut hair off myself. I got out of the shower, toweled off my hair, ran my fingers through it, and discovered the tragedy that she had perpetrated on me. I looked like a fucking conehead. I'm not exaggerating. It was short on the sides, and gradually tapered up to a cone-shaped pile of hair on top. It was ridiculous. It was one of the worst haircuts I'd ever gotten, and believe you me I had gotten a shit load of bad haircuts.
I stood there, looking at myself in the mirror, looking utterly preposterous on the eve of a massive trip that I just didn't want to take. I could only laugh. It was a brief interlude of levity in an otherwise overwhelming time. I took out my clippers and buzzed my whole head down to a #4. It wasn't a look I was crazy about, but it worked, and it was fool-proof.
I lay down to bed that night, but I didn't get a wink of sleep. I tossed and turned all night long. I don't sleep well before I travel under the best of circumstances. But in this case it was a million times worse. I pictured myself in Amsterdam, the drug capital of the Western world, with every waking minute being a struggle to not run out and use. I pictured bombs falling over Baghdad, and Hum-V's rolling across the dessert. I pictured myself walking the streets of Paris, unable to speak the language, and no one willing to help the ugly American. But most of all I pictured myself with my hands around the neck of that obnoxious troublemaker at work, wringing the life out of him as I spit in his face and knee him in the groin over and over and over again. I lay awake for hours, ruminating endlessly on my anger and resentment, marinating in a bitter broth of my own vile emotions, rehearsing revenge scenarios over and over all night long, endlessly stifling any attempts to relax and fall asleep. I think I may have drifted off for an hour and a half or so in the wee hours of the morning.
I got out of bed the next morning feeling like a total zombie. My schedule included a half-day in the office, followed by a drive up to the Syracuse airport for the flight out. I did make it into work, but I was not very productive. I was totally brain-dead. And I was awash in dread. I really, really, really didn't want to go on this trip. I had flown to Europe once before, and I knew the drill. It would be an overnight flight, on which I knew I would get no sleep at all. I would land in Amsterdam at a time that was morning to them. I would need to make it through their day before I could go to sleep that night. I was looking at being awake for about 36 hours. And all this after just having endured a horrific, sleepless night. I didn't think I would survive. I literally didn't think I would make it back from this trip alive.
It came time to leave the office. I went back to my house to collect my bags. I sat down until it was time for me to depart for the airport. I pictured stepping onto that plane, and it felt like I would be like stepping onto the gallows. Finally the time came. I had calculated the time I needed to leave my house and get to the airport in time for the flight. The moment had arrived, but I couldn't get myself to get up and get in the car. I just couldn't do it. I could not will myself to move. And finally I came to the realization that if I didn't want to do it, then I shouldn't do it. Fuck it. So what if I lose a few hundred dollars on airline tickets, train tickets, and no-refundable hotel deposits. So what. That wasn't enough to force me into a trip that I had every right to believe would be my undoing.
For the first time in weeks, I felt a sense of calm fall over me. I was relaxed. Everything was going to be okay. I made a couple of calls and sent out a couple of emails to officially cancel the trip. And then I lay down to take a nap. And when I woke up, I got on with the rest of my life.
After that I settled into a reasonably comfortable groove. It wasn't long before I started smoking cigarettes and weed again, but I was okay with that. As long as I didn't drink anything else was okay. I was satisfied with the marijuana maintenance program. At least for the time being. One thing at a time. I started going to the gay/lesbian A.A. group again, but things had changed. It was mostly lesbians now. The old gang was gone. But I was doing well with respect to alcohol. I was motivated to stay dry. I didn't really need A.A.
But it was again an adjustment to learn how to live without alcohol. Phase 1 of my drinking had been youth, college, and post-college binge drinking. Phase 2 of my drinking had been more exotic. It had included travel, and was marked with wanton debauchery with colorful people in far-off lands. The first Spring I was sober I went to see a friend in Chicago and attend the International Mr. Leather event. I was expecting a wild adventure, but without alcohol to unlock my inner jester, it was really all pretty banal. When it was all over, I figured that I might as well have stayed home.
Time wore on, and my abstinence from alcohol got more ingrained. Having gone through it once before, it was a little easier to adjust to life without it, and to re-learn how to have fun without getting drunk. It was true that my adventures were considerably less noteworthy, but by the same token my life was a lot more livable. When I would travel on alcohol, I would experience extreme highs followed by extreme lows. Without alcohol everything was on a much more even keel. It was undeniable that I wasn't having as much fun, but everything was just easier.
About a year after I had given up alcohol, I did something I hadn't done in many years. I added a new drug to my repertoire. When I was deep in my boozing phase, I had met a guy in a leather bar in Palm Springs. Long story short, we had reconnected, and we were sort of doing the long-distance thing. He wasn't much of a drinker himself, so it wasn't a big issue that I was dry, but he was definitely a pot head like me, and we loved to get high together.
While I was visiting him one time, he suggested that we get some crystal meth. I was feeling experimental at the time, so I figured I'd give it a try. Palm Springs is a weird kind of a place. Back home I would need to go out and make a drug run. This guy literally ordered out. He made a phone call, and within a couple hours the drugs were delivered right to our door.
I took my first hit of crystal, and the one thing I noticed was that the smoke was not nearly as harsh as tobacco or marijuana smoke. In fact I could barely feel it. So after a few hits we started tweaking out a little. The experience was not unlike cocaine. The effects were much more subtle than I expected. And we were perpetually compelled to keep doing more hits every so often. It's not like weed where you smoke every few hours or so. With crystal you hit that pipe every few minutes.
I knew from the whole PNP (party 'n' play) culture that people on crystal just want to have sex endlessly. Well we spent the night naked and fooling around, but the effect wasn't as much an aphrodisiac as it was just a overall heightened and intensified kind of sensuality. It was more about touch and exploration than it was outright sex. Which was good, because crystal also tends to inhibit erectile function. I was able to fuck him a little bit that night, but for the most part we just kind of groped and kissed and enjoyed each others nakedness.
This went on all night long, but eventually I got to the point I was running out of gas. Even with the drug to fuel me, I was reaching exhaustion. Eventually I had to knock off. I went out and lay down on the couch. I think I was able to drift off a little bit. But by the time the sun came up and a new day dawned, I was back up as well.
I could see how this drug became so addictive to people. It had been a night of pervasive pleasure, and the act of doing the drug also had a certain charm to it. It was no surprise that people wanted to replicate the experience endlessly. But I was in no hurry to repeat it. The one thing that I couldn't comprehend was how some people would stay up for days and days, constantly smoking crystal and never sleeping. Either I didn't have the constitution for that, or I just wasn't wired right. I was so exhausted from the night before, that all I wanted to do was rest. Doing it again was simply not an option. The experience was not unlike my experience with cocaine. I had never been in danger of becoming addicted to cocaine, because I was essentially unable to repeat it with any regularity. Despite my addictive personality, I was never at high risk with stimulants. Still, I decided to keep my experimentation with crystal to that one occasion. I swore to myself that I would never do crystal for a second time.
Later that same year I decided to make a change in my life. We were over the hump with the big project at work, but the aftermath had not been fun. In fact at times it was intolerable. And my experiences with the snotty upstart punk had caused me to question my own abilities in my career. I knew there were kids out there half my age with twice my energy and coming out of school with ten times the command of modern technology. My future looked bleak, and I was simply burned out. This big project just really took a toll on me. At the very least I needed a break. I arranged for a leave of absence from my job with Cornell, and I shacked up with the guy in Palm Springs.
As soon as I got out there we both decided we were going to quit smoking cigarettes. We set the quit date for about a week after I arrived. I knew he didn't have a prayer. He had no sense of discipline whatsoever. None. And I was right. We quit that morning, and he had his first cigarette after lunch. But I didn't. I found motivation in a place I had recognized before, but never really exploited until that time. For lack of a better term you could call it spite. There was an undercurrent of tension in my relationship with this guy. Beyond that, he always acted subtly superior to me, like he had all the answers in life and that I needed to learn from him. Well I decided that I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of me sharing his lack of will power.
It worked like a charm. I quit smoking cold turkey. In fact it had never been so easy. Every time I wanted a cigarette, I just thought to myself, "I'll show him," and the desire was conquered instantly. This guy's business partner, who also smoked like a chimney and had tried to quit many times, was astounded. I just stopped like flicking off a switch. No muss, no fuss, no drama. No irritability. No weight gain. No nothing. One day I was a smoker, and the next day I wasn't.
Of course this whole time I was still smoking weed like there was no tomorrow. My boyfriend was even a bigger addict than I was. By a considerable margin. Generally speaking, I wouldn't get high until the afternoon, or the day would be a whole waste. But he'd do bongs before he'd go to work in the morning. And he'd do lots of bongs in a row. Sometimes he couldn't get out the door, because he kept on wanting to do another bong hit. That would have knocked me on my ass for the rest of the day, but it seemed to energize him. More power to him, I figured. If he can smoke all that weed and still function, who am I to judge.
But he would go through weed at an alarming rate. I was not in the practice of buying weed by the ounce, but if I did, based on the amount of time it took me to burn through a quarter when left to my own devices, I could calculate that an ounce of marijuana would last me about 8 weeks, give or take. But this guy would burn through an ounce in just a couple weeks or so. And an ounce of weed ain't cheap. This was becoming an expensive habit. For the most part he would fork out the money. He was the one who was working. I was living off my savings during this time. But, money being one of the things we would bicker about, he eventually tried to get me to pay for the weed. I was reluctant, mostly because he was smoking 4 times more than I was. He tried to issue an ultimatum, but he was in no position. I could live without weed. I didn't want to, but I could. He, on the other hand, couldn't. He really put my addiction in perspective, because he was in a lot deeper than I was. So, in the end, if he didn't buy the weed, then we wouldn't have any weed, so he bought the weed.
Long story short, the relationship fell apart pretty quickly, and I moved back home after less than three months. Things got pretty ugly at the end. Real ugly. And the aftermath would prove to be extremely stressful. To deal with it I started smoking cigarettes again. I lit up almost as soon as I walked in the door.
For the next couple years I continued smoking cigarettes and weed, and I kept wanting to quit. What continually undermined my efforts, though, was that I had smoking buddies who lived nearby. It was the same guys on whose couch I woke up when I quit drinking for good. They both smoked cigarettes, and they always kept a stash of weed in the freezer. In fact I spent a lot of time with these guys during that time. And any time I tried to quit either one, it was impossible to resist the temptation of just swinging by their place to smoke up.
Something else was going on at this time. I've always been a fitness buff. When people saw that I also smoked, they would quite rightly point out the contradiction. I would always say that it's better to smoke and exercise than to smoke and not exercise. So while I wanted to quit, in the mean time I was going to continue my fitness program. And at that particular time, I decided that I would step up my cardio. I started running more and harder. And all the smoke seemed to be taking a toll on my lungs. It was like I got the lung tissue all raw and tender from the running, and then I would subject it to tobacco and marijuana smoke, which would then serve to damage it.
I always knew that any kind of smoke would damage the lung tissue, and it was not new that I was smoking after having exercised, but the effects seemed to be more sever at this time. There were observable changes. Particularly on the left bronchial path, the tissue felt raw and irritated. And it would be demonstrably irritated when I smoked. I tried to quit smoking cigarettes many times, but each effort quickly failed. As long as I was hanging out with the guys who smoked, I didn't have a prayer. The second they'd light up a cigarette, I just had to have one too. And these guys were the only people I hung out with on a regular basis. If I didn't visit them, I would have spent an awful lot of time alone.
Eventually the damage to my lungs progressed. I was getting a sensation deep inside the lung, on the left side up towards the top. It was sort of like a sharp pain focused in a specific point. It was unsettling. I really wanted to quit smoking cigarettes, but I just wasn't in a position to do so.
Then one day my friends decided to quit smoking. It was right after the holidays, and was their New Year's Resolution. "Thank God!!!" I said. I quit right along with them. I had never been happier to quit smoking in my life. And like in Palm Springs, I just stopped cold turkey. Without these guys being a constant source of temptation, and a perennial excuse to pick up a cigarette, I just stamped it out of my life instantly and completely. And I didn't look back. They actually wound up relapsing some months later, but by then I had gotten it out of my system, and there would be no going back for me.
My lungs rebounded to a certain degree. The focused pain in my left lung seemed to go away. But the tender tissue on the left bronchial path persisted. I knew that I would not be able to quit marijuana, at least not at that time, so I tried to reduce the amount that I smoked. Rather than buy my own stash and have it lying around the house, I would just bum small quantities from my friends, and ration it out to make it last as long as I could. I established the pattern of stopping by their house on Fridays after work, get all smoked up, and then take a few buds with me and try to make them last the whole week. They were actually surprisingly congenial about it. They were very generous with their weed to begin with, but I was the one with the connection. So whenever they needed to replenish their supply, I would be the one who would set up the transaction. So they felt like they owed me for that.
Still, it was a pretty ridiculous and unsustainable arrangement. Not only did I feel like a terrible burden on them, I just started to rue the inconvenience of having to call them and ask if I could pinch a couple buds every time I ran out and needed a fix. Finally I just said fuck it, and got my own stash. And rather than just pick up a measly quarter, I'd just get a whole ounce at a time. For the first time really in my life, I just had all the weed I wanted and could smoke up whenever I wanted with impunity.
My connection situation had improved, too. I was getting to know a guy whom I had been seeing around, and I eventually came to learn that he was the one who had been supplying the friend who had been buying for me. So since I could go directly to him, I didn't need to go through the inconvenient and inefficient process of calling friends who would call friends and wait days for the chain of calls to be returned. And I was maintaining enough on-hand reserves that I could always plan ahead and replenish it when I started running low, rather than waiting until it was all gone and then panicking until I got some more. But it was largely a moot point anyway. This guy was the best in terms of reliability. He was always available by phone and would return calls promptly. And he almost always maintained an inventory. In the unlikely event that he wasn't holding, he'd replenish his supply within a week or so.
On the one hand this was the glory days of my marijuana use. I had as much as I wanted, and I could smoke whenever I wanted. And while I wouldn't say that it was doing my career any good, I was getting by just fine. But not all was well. For starters, I was becoming more isolated. Now that I wasn't relying on my buddies to smoke me up all the time, I would usually just go directly home and smoke up by myself. And when I was home alone and stoned out of my mind, I would not want to go out anywhere and see people. I passed up a lot of parties and opportunities to get out and be social, just because I was stoned and lazy and didn't want to leave the house.
In fact the amount of time I spent high was becoming excessive, even by my standards. I would race home directly after work just because I couldn't stand to not be high any longer. And on weekends I would get high as soon as I got out of bed. I would try to hold off, but I would rarely make it even as long as an hour before I would finally reach for the pipe. During the Summer I could handle that, because I'd still get up and out and work on some home improvement project, or yard work, or something else active and productive. But in the dead of the cold, cold Winters, I'd just spend the whole day curled up under a quilt watching TV. I found that I wasn't enjoying that too much.
There was one distinct, demonstrable, and highly beneficial upshot that came out of addressing my excessive use. The only way to avoid smoking dope as soon as I got up on the weekends was to get myself out of the house and away from access to the drugs. I started going to the morning A.A. meetings. It was a little odd to do this considering that I was as deep in my marijuana addiction as I had ever been, but it was still a good influence and a way to get me out of the house.
I figured another good use of my time would be to hit the gym before going right back home. The problem was that the A.A. meetings ended at 10:00 and the gym didn't open until noon. So I started going into my office to kill the couple of hours in-between. I filled the time by writing. I had been wanting to start a novel for a while, but I never had the opportunity to spend any time at the keyboard. This new schedule introduced time that was specifically dedicated just to writing. It was amazingly effective. Once I got started on the novel, it took on a momentum of its own. I quickly got to the point that I would skip the A.A. meeting altogether, and just go directly to my office and write. Sometimes I'd just tap out a few keys and give up. But other days I'd totally get into the swing, and write heads-down for several hours. Either way, when I would get back to the house and smoke up, I would do so with a sense of accomplishment for having written that day. And better yet, I was making real progress on a project that I had wanted to tackle for a long time. And I attribute it all to my marijuana addiction. Or, to be honest, I attribute it to my strategy to manage my marijuana addiction.
On the one hand, things were going remarkably well. But on the other hand, problems were brewing. I was still experiencing considerable discomfort in my lungs. The tenderness in my left bronchial path was ever-present, and the focused pain in my left lung had returned. It was really starting to bother me. It totally sucked, because I really felt that I had found my groove as a marijuana addict, and yet my body wasn't letting me sustain it.
I finally got to the point where I figured I had to give it up. I knew this would mean full sobriety, and I knew what I was facing because I had been there before. But I had a new weapon this time. I had been toying with a concept for my higher power. I lost my mother to cancer when I was 27 years old. It was a real sad story, and I always felt guilty because I didn't think I had been there for her like I should. And it took me a long time to get over the loss. In one way of thinking, I got over it right away, because I didn't really let it affect me. But in another way of thinking, it took me many many years to get over it, because it took that long for me to accept my feelings. Either way, at this time in my life I had gotten to the point that I could allow myself to have fond remembrances of her without trying to block the feelings.
I got the idea of using my mother's spirit as my higher power. I was still coming at this with the mind of a scientist. I would say that I felt my mother's presence, and I knew that her spirit would want me to be clean and sober, but as a scientist I could not conclusively say that I believed in any substantive life after death. Never having experienced any first-hand evidence, I was not willing to draw any conclusions. But that was okay. Whether or not my mother's spirit was actually present, I knew what she would think if she were there. I knew what her reaction would be to my continuing to use despite demonstrable negative consequences. That was something absolute and concrete that I could solidly grab onto. If my higher power were not her actual spirit, it would be her memory, and the process of honoring her memory. I don't really want to look at it this way, but in a sense it was using my own feelings of guilt as my motivating factor.
This was a higher power that I could get behind. And beyond that, it was the kind of a higher power that I felt I could turn my will and my life over to. The whole, "I want my mommy" thing is really turning your will and your life over to the care of your loving mother, to curl up in her bosom, and to let her protect you and take all the cares of the world away.
The trick was actually doing it. In effect, I made the decision that I was going to do it, which was technically the spirit of the 3rd step. I planned ahead for a quit date. I wasn't a huge long preparation, but I did choose a quit date in advance, and when that date arrived I did a little ritual. I took whatever little weed I had left, and I went out behind the cemetery that is right on my property. I tossed the weed out into the brush, and I said three times, "I turn my will and my life over to the care of the spirit of my ancestors." I went back into the house and soaked all my paraphernalia in rubbing alcohol, which would devolve any residue that I might be tempted to smoke. The fact that I did this rather than ridding myself of the objects was a foreboding indication of my level of commitment to this process.
But I did enter into a period of complete sobriety. And once again I went through a bizarre detox period. Right around that time, I got a huge boil on my leg that had to be drained and packed with gauze while it healed. It was a hugely painful process that went on for weeks. Other little infections would pop up here and there, and I had to be on antibiotics and apply antibacterial creams all over the place.
I also tried to reconnect with my crack-head friend Andrew. I thought I could be a positive influence in his life, and that we could keep each other sober. It worked really well at first, but he couldn't stay sober and I started getting sucked into the drama of his disease. And let me tell you, crack addiction is a really serious disease. Things got immensely stressful, and it was not good for me at all.
Eventually the infections cleared up, and I cut my ties with Andrew, and I tried to get on with my sobriety. Things were going well in terms of me not using, but they were not going well in terms of me living a sober life. I was the equivalent of a dry drunk. I wasn't working the program, and I wasn't really using my higher power. I frequently fantasized about using again. It wasn't only the marijuana. I missed the nitrous oxide too. It was a special treat, both in terms of being an event I looked forward to, but also the metaphysical joy that it brought me. I was able to sustain a sober lifestyle, but I knew in my heart that it would only be a matter of time before I went back to drugs.
I was able to keep this up for about 6 months. But the more time went by, the more tenuous my sobriety became. Then one day I was faced with an opportunity. I was still going into my office to write on weekend mornings. But I had taken to the practice of getting into the gay chat rooms when I was done to see if I could find a hookup (sex was really the only vice I had left). On one occasion I saw someone who had 420 in his screen name, which was something I knew to be code for marijuana use. I was in the mood to tempt fate, so I privated him. He said that he had weed, and that he would be willing to trade some for a bottle of poppers. I guess he was too shy to walk into the porn store where it was sold. It was the same porn store that sold the whippets. That seemed too much of an omen for me. I could get this kid some poppers, pick up some whippets, go have sex, and head home with weed and whippets.
I didn't think about it. I didn't think about the program, or the steps, or call upon my higher power. I just did it. I showed up at the kid's house. It was a rare treat to hook up with a college kid. I still had a strong affinity for the whole dorm room vibe, with the tapestries hanging on the wall and the dirty laundry in the corner. Unfortunately the kid wasn't all that hot and the sex wasn't all that great. But my mind was on the drugs anyway. The kid actually got me off really quickly. So I got dressed, took a few buds from him, left him the poppers, and rushed home.
As soon as I was in the door I smoked a fair amount of weed and sat down with my whippet bottle. Unfortunately the drugs weren't much better than the sex was. They looked like really sweet buds, but it didn't give off that great of a buzz. And even the whippets were a little disappointing. In fact the whole afternoon had been quite a let-down. But it got me back in the game, which was really where I wanted to be.
From then on I picked up again like I had never left off. I called up my old connection, got an ounce of weed, and within days was smoking habitually like I had before. I went from zero to sixty overnight. It wound up being quite an adjustment. I thought of it as "re-toxing." One of the biggest parts of the adjustment was my sleep. I hadn't really appreciated how much my sleep had improved until I started smoking again. The big problem was the process of falling asleep. When I was stoned my imagination was so entirely engaged that it was difficult to get my mind to quiet down so I could fall asleep. Once I finally dozed off I think my sleep continuity was perhaps better, but I would lie awake in bed for a bare minimum of an hour every night, and considerably longer if I happened to be thinking about something interesting.
The general lack of sleep was exacerbated the pervasive fog that accompanied daily marijuana use. In the past it has always been just a part of everyday life, but now I had to re-learn how to get by in that condition. But within a couple weeks I was more or less back in the swing of things again.
Things were actually going pretty well. I was happy and content, and work was going well enough. The problem was physical. The discomfort in my lungs returned pretty quickly. I did my best to ignore it, but it was ever present. And slowly but surely it started getting worse.
mild emphysematous change; mild bilateral apical plural lung parenchymal scaring; no acute process; no nodules
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