Before you go any further it should be noted this is very personal and very, very TMI and way too over-sharing. If bared personal truths make you feel uncomfortable, it’s best you leave now. That’s not a dare. I’m terrified of what you might read next. It’s OK if you don’t read it. It’s OK if you read it and never want to see me again. But if it upsets you, the fault will be your’s for going past this sentence.
When I think seriously about my life there are a few things of which I’m a little proud, a little ashamed, or a little regretful. A few things I regret a lot. For those that were my own doing, I am ashamed. Living does that to us.
I’m certainly ashamed of some of the things I did between the ages of 18 and 24. And some of them are the things I’ve done that I most regret. The people I hurt the most in my life were the people I knew then, many of the good, loving people who could have been part of a healthier man’s whole life, who could have been there for me in my hard times and who have lived hard times since without any comfort from me.
I could lay blame. Blame is not relevant. Blame is our way of saying the Universe should have been different at some point in time.
My truth is that I’ve survived the big and small traumas I think caused so much loss in my life. Sometimes not very well, but any landing you walk away from is a good landing. And there are those who came through far worse to be far better at this living thing than I ever will be. I shouldn’t be proud or boastful.
And I’m not. I know why I’m not like most of the people who experienced my sort of childhood, unprepared parents, those chaotic social, political and economic times. I know why I didn’t die of a bad liver in Otter Creek Tavern, or kill myself as my brother did. I know why I’m not living in a shack or trailer, angry at the world, trying to find some meaning in TV or Rush Limbaugh or a stockpile of guns and porn, which is the life led by many of those I left behind. I know why I’m living a good lifestyle with a decent job while a childhood friend who had the skills of a great artist still works in a Chinese restaurant.
It isn’t because I’m smarter. And luck of both kinds comes to all of us with the same randomness. And while I didn’t have the opportunity some of them did, I had better than others.
I escaped. That’s all. I escaped. Not by pushing myself hard through college or a career, and not with religion, and not by winning the lottery.
Escape isn’t all good, though.
My route out of the life I had was to join the Army and get drunk, and stay drunk for the next six years. I was drunk in places I never imagined existed, with people I didn’t know could exist. Drug dealers and Pulitzer Prize winners. Burned out Vietnam vets and ambitious West Pointers. Black guys fresh from Chicago and Detroit, Hispanics, Asians, kids from all over the country. Right-wingers with their duffel bags packed and anxious to go to war. Headbangers. I discovered drugs, lots of them, and spent a lot of time on uppers, hash, weed, cocaine twice. But it wasn’t the drugs that I needed, and I walked away from them after three years. It was rum and coke, Jack Daniels, tequila, ouzo, cheap wine when I didn’t have money.
Every drunk has a million horror stories. And there are a lot of drunks. By “drunk,” I mean someone who can’t drink in a way that doesn’t bring harm to their lives or others. I mean people like me who tried cutting back a hundred times, who tried to pick nights of the week, who tried to put limits on a night’s drinking, who tried to drink in a way I could justifiable say I wasn’t a drunk.
It was a good escape. The pain was still there, but it was a lot easier to live with. I didn’t think I minded the other stuff either, the bad days everyone who drinks has but that I experience for six straight years. Almost every day. A few of my personal horror stories: Standing guard around missiles known to be unstable and loaded with jet fuel, carrying an M-16, live ammunition, and a canteen filled with booze. Driving a deuce-and-a-half down the autobahn on a grueling field maneuver with the rest of my platoon catching what sleep they could, uppers keeping me awake, a co-driver keeping me in my lane. Destroying friendships, destroying marriages. Watching my body fall apart.
Things add up. The embarrassments the next day. The regrets. The dreadful nights vomiting. The losses. The cost. They keep building day after day. Then one day I did the worst thing I’ve ever done.
A kinda-sorta girlfriend had shown up at my door with a kitten. It was the last of a litter and she had saved it from her neighbor, who was killing all of them because he didn’t want a bunch of kittens. She was allergic. It was heartbreaking. I knew nothing about cats. Of course I took her. And for the next few months I’d get up at 4 AM, feed her, ride my bike to work, get off at noon, waste some time, then drink until about midnight, when I’d go home and feed her again. A kinda-sorta friend named her Pudding.
Pudding crapped all over the place. She ripped apart anything she could. I thought she was making my life miserable. Inside, I knew I was making her life even more miserable. I was desperate to find a way to make her happy, and it never crossed my mind that I couldn’t.
One summer night I came home drunk, dreading what Pudding might have done to the apartment, angry when I got there. I gave up and was trying to go to bed. Pudding, desperate for some attention scratched me. The world spun.
It’s a Buck 119 hunting knife I bought in 1982 for no good reason. I’d grabbed it. I was screaming, I don’t know what. A bookshelf fell over. The sofa was slashed. Pudding was a small, darting streak. I stumbled, screamed, slashed, and lost sight of her.
One of the luckiest things about my life is that no stumbling drunk can catch a terrified kitten.
I went back to my bed. I sat, stunned at what I’d tried to do. I wasn’t even drunk any more. Thoughts slammed into me like punches. How much I love animals and what I’d just tried to do. The friends lost. The nightly throwing up. The physical damage. The shame of so many things I’d fucked up. Sorry, but there’s no other word for it. I’d fucked up so much. I’d ruined my best friend’s marriage, driven away another woman who loved me but couldn’t stand the drinking. A wise and kind Army major searching some way to say something good about me blurted out that “if nothing else, I kept the office entertained.” The guy in the barracks whose head I’d busted open, the other guy I’d down the hall chased with a knife.
Every drunk has a million stories. Mine aren’t the worst I’ve heard. But in that moment, in an apartment that matched my life when it came to shambles, I held a Buck 119 hunting knife and knew I had to make a decision.
There was the easy one. I tested the edge of the blade on my wrist. It was sharp. I was strong enough to go deep. And the other choice was unthinkable. Unlivable. Horrifying.
I’m far from the bravest person I’ve known. But that night, facing a final escape I turned to the door to a dark house with so many rooms full of dread and shame and anger and everything I had escaped. That night, with the blade resting so cool and comforting on my wrist, I made the harder choice.
The thing about escapes is that even when the place you escape to is better than that you’re escaping from, you still have to survive it.
I got Pudding to a better home. I hope she had a better life. I hope she settled down, came to trust humans, led a long and loved life. But I know any feeling creature suffers most from the earliest injuries.
The first few days were bad. There were a few slips The first few weeks were worse. Because the Army was trying to repair itself of so much damage from Vietnam, drugs and booze, I had a lot of resources. Lorraine, the first person I came close to being honest with. Rehab, before it was even called that, where I had to face others like myself every day all day. There was AA, sometimes three or four nights a week, a place to be where there wasn’t any booze, where I fit in for a while. The colleague’s wife who told me she was glad I quit because all that summer I’d been trying to grope her. I still don’t remember that.
I got through on the old cliches. One day at a time. Twelve steps. Don’t take the next drink. They’re on bumper stickers everywhere, but try living them. Bumper sticker truths are a hard way to live.
Everything changed, and nothing changed. I still had to be at work at 4:30 in the morning. I still had to get food. I had to face people every day whom I had wronged, and a few who were good enough to forgive me.
And while I had slips, finally on Oct. 6, 1984, I had my last drink.
Thirty years ago today.
I’m more than a little proud of that. More than a little grateful. More than a little lucky. Now I’ve gone through an entire pot of coffee and half a liter of Smart Water trying to write this in a way that would fit a Facebook post. I wanted to come up with something wise to say, but nothing’s there because nothing fits every life. I know that for me I’ve had to learn how to be brutally honest with myself. I’ve had to learn to forgive myself. I’ve had to learn how to face fear and what it teaches us. I can’t say any 12 steps or bumper-sticker wisdom works. I did my work. I had help, I had steps and cliches to guide me, but they could have been any steps and any cliches, just so long as I followed them.
And it’s not done. This is thirty years of journey, but only one day on the calendar. Just as I couldn’t drink yesterday to make it to 30 years today, I can’t drink today to make it 31 years and one month, or 32 years. And today or tomorrow everything could end in an infinite number of ways. I’m ok with that now, because I don’t fear dying “not having lived.” I’ve lived. I’ve seen hard times and good times, I’ve loved and been loved, I love and am loved, I’ve tried to be a good person and I’ve got a good life. I have a wife I love and a house I adore and a yard that drives me batty but obsesses me. I struggle with my career and becoming a technological dinosaur when not so long ago I was on the edge of everything. But I have the resources for that struggle, I have Jenn to stand by me with it and with all the other baggage I have (and Samsonite itself would be in awe of how much baggage I carry). Who I am now came from escapes, and from surviving those escapes, but also from NOT escaping. Not escaping who and what I am, what I’ve done and not done. Looking inward. Breathing.
And lots of medication, but that’s another matter.
So that’s what was going to be a Facebook post three hours and a dozen re-writes ago. If you’re still reading, I hope you’re OK with it.