Broken Glass — The Exact Moment I Finally Quit Drinking
I got home - her home really, not mine, from a night in the hospital and sat alone in a house completely devoid of alcohol because I had drunk everything I could find in the few days leading up to this… this, turning point.
In the overwhelming silence that filled the house, occupied by only me since the dogs were now housed in a shelter two towns away, I heard every minute of the clock tick by like a hammer blow as a dozen options splashed through my mind.
Run, I heard, again and again. It’s over anyway, you’ve destroyed another relationship, along with a substantial amount of expensive property this time, and there’s no point in hanging around until she returns. But, I had no money and the only way to run was to forge one of her checks for a couple of grand and disappear to someplace new. Someplace where I could start all over again.
Start what all over again, a second voice asked in more of a whisper, as if spoken from the back of a room full of people just loud enough to be heard during a break in the heated discussion regarding my future.
What exactly was there to start over, I replied, although I already knew the answer.
At 35 I had been drunk more of my life than I had been sober. I had been sitting in bars along the Jersey Shore since I was 15 years old, where the drinking age was 18 and I was grandfathered in when they bumped the legal age to 21.
I was buying beer for all of my friends at the local liquor store, and at the bar up the road where the old couple, who were selling the joint anyway, would hand me back a brown paper bag and my friend’s change with a knowing wink and crooked smile as I took the liquid gold and strapped it to the back of my bicycle.
A short ride later, pebbles against the upstairs window signaled it was time to lower the bucket, which was then filled with cheap 8-packs of Genesee Cream Ale. Once the makeshift dumbwaiter was pulled up and through the window, it was Knock, Knock, oh, hey Mr. J! Is P home? Why, of course, good to see you! Go right on up.
In that moment, when the whole world is crashing down around you, it’s so easy to look back and see the path you took to get to your current vantage point. Sitting on the hillside, watching as the buildings topple and everything “back there” catches fire, there is always an opening in the smoke where it becomes so crystal clear, so easy to see the outcome of each bad decision, one after another, until you’ve followed their crooked walkway right up to the tips of your own muddy shoes.
Can’t go back that way, another voice states with authority. Gotta go the other way. Then you can start over again. Start what over, I ask myself out loud this time.
Besides, I can blame someone. I can always blame someone for this mess. She’ll see it’s true. Not me, no ma’am. I’m not to blame for what’s left of your $70k Land Rover, and for nearly killing your babies. It’s bad enough that they ended up in the shelter, but at least they weren’t killed when all three of us were ejected from the car as it rolled down the hill before coming to rest back on it’s wheels in the drainage ditch.
They weren’t even injured, not a scratch. I was barely injured. How? How. I remember nothing. The car’s just a car, but if I had hurt those dogs…
I hear another minute tick past like thunder. There’s always someone to blame though, she’ll see.
It was the Navy’s fault, not mine. Although I was a seasoned drinker by the time I signed up at 18, I was still just having fun. Few beers every night, lots more on weekends. Nothing more. However, it was the few beers every night that led to an incredible moment of bad judgement when I tried the police car door and found it unlocked. Of course it was unlocked, who’d be stupid enough to open a cop car door.
I asked myself that question several hundred times while signing the paperwork in the recruiting station. It was the Navy, or an angry small town judge. And an even angrier small town mom.
After boot camp graduation, when Milwaukee and it’s 18 year old drinking age was the place to be, I was the one who flagged down a cab and got us back to the base when everyone else was passed out or puking. I was always the last man standing.
But then, Pensacola. That’s where I learned some lessons. Between the free-flowing drugs and the Navy Squid drinking expectations, that’s where I learned how to really party. I was still in the upper class, the guy who won the drinking games and still talked some sense into people at 4:30 in the morning, but at least I had some competition now.
And I was the guy who drove people home until I got caught playing on a friend’s new motorcycle one half mile from home, with no helmet and a gallon and a half of Carlo Rossi’s Fine Rhine Wine in my system. If I had just been wearing a helmet the cop would never have turned around.
I could easily blame Pensacola. Pensacola taught me to drink, and especially to enjoy recreational pharmaceuticals. Lots of pharmaceuticals.
But, no, wait. It was the Florida Keys that helped me take things to a whole new level.
My ribs hurt, bad, from being ejected from the rolling car. I don’t know how many I cracked or broke, but sneezing became a horrific ritual of pain and self discovery. Feeling a sneeze creeping up launched a race against the clock — get pillow to floor, ease down until knees were firmly set apart on the floor and face was planted deeply into the cushion. Sneeze. Scream. Clench up tight and hope to God there was only one.
While laying on the floor with the waves of pain rolling up and down from my rib cage, the voices started up again. Run, said one… To where said the other. Like the image of an angel on one shoulder and devil on the other, both trying to win your vote with empty promises and images of the past with the worst decisions and their bad outcomes redacted. It’s funny how your mind can make your memories of something so destructive and painful look like such great fun. If you let it.
I still had the Keys to blame, the place we met. She’d understand, she lived there for a few years herself and knew what island life was like. Isolated, living in a bubble of work, drink, fish, drink, work, drink, lather, rinse, repeat.
The Keys made me into the guy with his face buried in a pillow on the floor, shaking from the pain while internally arguing the case for bank fraud with himself.
The Florida Keys were one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been, but after a brief visit to see a friend who had moved their a year earlier it was the lifestyle, not the natural beauty, that stuck with me after I’d gone back home to NJ. That little voice nagged at me for over a year, drowning out the softer one that kept trying to get my attention.
Ahem, bud, those 6 beers you drank before work, the ones that just got you out of bed and moving, we need to chat about that, the softer voice said. Not to mention the rest of the case you drank after getting home. And, by the way, I know about the growing pile of empties in the spot part way down the side road you take to get home from work. Or to work. Or to the store. Oh, and there’s more we need to ta…
The other voice spoke right on up, loud and proud. The other voice, which kept presenting the Keys as an option where I could be left alone and enjoy my slow motion suicide without interference.
When I finally gave in and moved South, the Keys were everything I’d dreamed they would be. A bunch of drunks barely connected to reality just asking to be left alone as they drowned their own inability to cope with reality in warm beer and boat drinks.
Oh, and great fishing.
I thought I could go there and drink myself to death and no one would notice. Yeah. My parents wouldn’t know, right? Because they stop thinking about you as soon as you are out of their sight. They would never notice the slurred voice on the other end of a 3:30 am phone call, mouthing bullshit excuses about the world and how it was out to get me.
And they’d never notice the crying, for attention, for rent money, for another brick in the path I was slowly building toward an early grave with a tiny marker. “Here he lies, after all the lies.” What else would there be to say.
But, it wasn’t my fault. Not me, I wasn’t out to get me. Just the entire rest of the world. I know they’d see it. My parents and friends would stand up at my funeral, fists raised in the air in symbols of solidarity and chant Damn the Man! as they pointed fingers at everyone but me to lay the blame for my untimely demise anywhere but at my own two muddy feet.
There were attempts, many of them. My own insane self-inflicted detox, when I locked myself in my trailer with nothing but bottles of Gatorade and white-knuckled it out for three days. It took two more weeks before the world stopped shaking, moving around under my feet like I was standing on a boat at sea.
There was the 28 day rehab too. I let someone talk me in to that mess, going to the Key West facility for him, not for me. I’ll pick you up after, he said. Yeah, can’t wait. Can’t wait to hate you for making me do this. Can’t wait to resent you for forcing me in here.
Doesn’t matter that I blew a number so high on the breathalyzer that they did it two more times and said I should be dead. Can’t wait to hate you on the other end of my little vacation. Having a wonderful time, wish you were here.
Didn’t last, so there were others. More hospital detoxes, more three day home dry-out sessions. A month of sobriety, maybe two, then Holy Lawd, I am healed. Pass the Corona, I can drink just one. Until I can’t drink just one. Then, here we go again — lather, rinse, repeat.
But, yeah, The Keys were to blame, that’s why I left there and followed her North when she beckoned. She knew by then, not how much, but she knew. No clue what to do with it, about it, because of it, but she knew. And she opened her door to me anyway.
So I stayed in Michigan. And why not - I’d burned most of the bridges in the islands anyway. Burned the bridges and sealed all the doors, making sure they would never open to me again. Definitely time to go somewhere new.
Time to go, yeah. Exactly. The voice again. She won’t be home for 6 more days. Time to go, to leave her better off without my own personal brand of chaos leaving a film of greasy dirt on everything in her life. Time to go.
I wondered how hard it would be to suffocate myself by forcing my face deeper in to the pillow on the floor. Could I kill myself that way? Probably not. Probably just black out and fall over into a clump of stupidity on the living room floor.
I got up. And I sat on the sofa with the cushion hugged to my chest, all tightness and stress rolled up like a stick of dynamite. As I sat there, hearing the clock roll over and over, minute after minute, until an hour passed with no movement. No choices. Just breathing. In and out.
And then, I saw. There was no place to go. There was no one to blame. No one except myself. And there was only one blatantly obvious truth hanging in the air, like the smell of burnt plastic. Sharp, pungent, unmistakable. Undeniable.
The truth was, I was a drunk. I would always be a drunk. No one could help me stop being a drunk except me. And if I went somewhere else, I would be there waiting for me with a bottle of cheap vodka in my right hand and a six-pack in my left. Howdy, Pard’ner. Welcome back, home is where the heart is.
I would be wherever I went. An accident waiting to happen. A liability. A dent in each car door, a rip in every shirt. Red wine spilled on every white carpet.
There was no place else to go. There was no other choice to make. Stay, or go nowhere. Pick living, or go nowhere. Choose here, and her, or go nowhere and find me waiting when I got there.
I put down the pillow, picked up the phone, and called her Dad. The clock ticked over one more time, louder still, but through the ringing in my ears I heard his voice say, Hello?
Then, the hardest thing, the toughest challenge in my entire life. Admission. Acceptance. Acknowledgement. Right out there in the spotlight, hands folded over in a makeshift fig leaf, naked and afraid for all the world to clearly see.
The turning point - In a small voice, like water over broken glass I answered, It’s Me.