38 Years Ago Today
A New Journey Began — As Another Culminated
I passed a milestone today that kind of stopped me in my tracks, and made me think about, and remember, how something like this seemed utterly impossible on the day this journey began, 38 years ago. That was the day I started working for the same outfit I still work for today. I started in an entry level clerk typist position, and have been a senior executive for the past 7 years.
Why did this seem impossible then? Well, let’s look at my track record up to that point. I was 29 years old, and had just gone through 17 jobs in the previous 4 years. Prior to that, I had managed to last two years in a pretty good job, where I’d moved up quickly into management, but then managed to completely sabotage my success there and wound up getting fired for doing something really stupid.
Before that job, I’d spent four years in the Navy where I had worked hard to get as far as I got. I had made it through the Naval Nuclear Power School and Prototype Training programs, that they’d told me in the beginning I lacked the aptitude for. I’d had to beg them to let me stay and try. I had not only made it through the program, but actually sat at the top of my class of 300 sailors for the first 3 months of it, and still finished in the upper half of the class when I graduated. Then I passed the even more difficult nuclear prototype training program, which qualified me to operate a nuclear powered propulsion plant on a naval war ship.
For two years on a nuclear guided missile cruiser I had established myself as one of the leading enlisted men in my engineroom, considered to be one of the up-and-coming leaders on my ship. Then, I’d thrown it all away. It just didn’t feel right to me — while I was good at what I did, there was no heart in it for me. I’d excelled in the school and the training program because they’d challenged me every day, and had awakened my intellectual capacity more than anything ever had before. Once on the ship, I’d found the actual work of running the mechanical systems of a nuclear powered propulsion plant to be one of the most insanely boring things in the world to do. I actually couldn’t stand it.
Unbeknownst to me at the time was something else that was going on. I was descending into a rapidly burgeoning addiction. I’d arrived on that ship with a resolve to stop doing all forms of drugs, and stick to drinking the occasional beer. See, I’d rekindled an old flame with the girl of my dreams right before reporting to that ship. I knew that she would truck no nonsense when it came to my drug use. That’s what had destroyed any hope of a romance when we’d first gotten together a few years earlier, before it ever even got started. So, with what I saw as a miraculous second chance with her, I’d sworn off everything but beer. My love for that girl burned brilliantly in my heart and my soul. She felt like my soul-mate.
My new resolve had lasted about one month on that ship. Before I knew what happened, I had become known as one of the hardest partying sailors on the entire ship — and that ship had some serious party-hounds. It is not what I wanted — it just seemed to happen. Some of these other hardened sailors had marveled that I even made it out of some ports-of-call alive, for the quantities of booze and drugs that I’d consumed.
The chance of my rekindled flame turning into anything serious went right up in smoke with all of that drug use, and I knew it. It was a devastating blow to me, because I really loved that girl, and had seen a bright future ahead with her. Despite all of that, I still didn’t see it as an addiction problem. In my mind, it was all the Navy’s fault. Don’t ask me why I thought that, I just couldn’t face the truth of who and what I really was. It was much easier to blame the navy.
I’d reached the point where, as long as I could maintain some sort of an ongoing high, everything was okay. I was a functional addict — I could handle the boring duties of running a reactor plant, in fact being high helped it not seem so boring. I always showed up for work, and knew how to do my job, even though I hated it. Drug use in the navy was so common back then, nobody gave a second thought to my abilities to do the job.
Then, havoc struck. My connection for drugs got pulled off the ship just as we were pulling out of Norfolk harbor for a 7-month long cruise to the Mediterranean Sea. What in the world would I do without the drugs I was accustomed to, for seven months? I was no good at scoring, myself — Ray had been my connection, and he’d always provided the best drugs to keep me going.
I went through a hellish withdrawal on the long Atlantic Ocean crossing — a lot of panic attacks and cold sweats, lying awake in my rack shivering and shaking, just praying to make it to the morning. My feeble attempt at scoring something of value at our first Mediterranean port stop in Tangier, Morrocco, had failed to even get me off — it only gave me a massive headache. The next seven months were a living hell for me. I’d never realized how much my drug use had served as my anger control system, but without the kind of drugs I was accustomed to, I quickly became a rage-aholic. I did some things in my out-of-control rages that I knew I would eventually have to answer for.
When that cruise ended, I tried getting transferred off the ship before my actions could come back to haunt me. No transfer requests were being honored! I was told, off the record, that the only way to get off the ship was to go AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave) for at least 30 days. Navy regulations required that a sailor be assigned to a different ship after being gone for 30 days, after serving whatever discipline was in order for going AWOL.
In times of war, that could be death by hanging or life in prison, but in times of peace, the consequences were much less than that. It was 1977, so the war in Viet Nam was finally over, and no official wars were being waged. I didn’t do it right away, but when I found myself in the middle of the worst of rages, ready to take it out on a poor, unsuspecting ensign, something told me it was time to go. I followed that voice inside, dropped the big-assed wrench I was getting ready to whack that ensign with, and walked off that ship, never looking back. That voice told me it just wasn’t worth it. It had a very calming effect on my rage, at the time. I’d later recognize this as my first connection with a higher power.
I spent two months on the lam, traveling the country from coast to coast laying low, working odd jobs for cash and living on my wits until, right before I’d planned to turn myself in, in San Francisco, got arrested and spent a couple days in that city’s felon tank. Not a nice place to hang out, I can assure you!
All I’d been looking for was a transfer to another ship. But the captain of Treasure Island Naval Base, where the shore patrol had taken me when they picked me up from the felon tank, had offered me a deal I could not believe. He said that, because my record had been stellar prior to my going AWOL, and since the navy was trying to reduce its ranks due to there no longer being a war to wage, he was offering me an honorable discharge. I had been in for 4 years, but still had 2 more years to serve on a 6 year enlistment. I had not even considered this possibility! I asked him if I could think about it. He gave me 48 hours to decide. Of course, I eventually said, “Yes!”
At that moment, I felt like a conquering hero. I’d fought the law, and I had won! I’d bucked the system! I was feeling so triumphant, so full of myself. I’d written to the girl, trying to explain how I’d fallen back into my old ways, but that it was because of the difficulties of Navy life. Now I was getting out, and would be starting out fresh, full of amazing dreams for the future. I revealed my deepfelt love for her, which I hadn’t previously — I’d only acted like a friend, hoping that my love would eventually win her over. Now, I laid all my cards out on the table, and hoped she would be wowed with my honesty, and hoped against hope that she felt the same way I did.
She wrote back to say she never wanted to see me or talk to me, ever again. She revealed that she had truly loved me too, but felt that I had ruined it all with my drug use, and now there was no repairing it. It was over. “Don’t write or call. Have a good life. I loved you.”
So much for my feeling like a conquering hero! Everything after that felt like I was just going through the motions of achieving my freedom. It didn’t feel real to me. I’d underestimated how much the hope of that relationship had driven me through the years, but now, none of it seemed to matter. It was over.
I got my discharge and tried to convince everyone that everything was great, I was free, and I had big dreams for the future. The only problem was, I couldn’t convince myself. I was totally devastated inside. My heart was crushed. After visits to some friends in Connecticut, and my family in New Jersey, I found myself back in Norfolk, looking for something, I knew not what.
A fellow sailor from my ship, inspired by my triumphant exploits, wanted to follow in my footsteps. He invited me to come along on his trip west. He was going to do the same thing I did. He had a jeep, a vision of freedom, and would love a companion for the journey. My supposed dreams were to build a new life out in California. I’d had it all planned out when I was on Treasure Island. So, I agreed to go along on his trip. After a week, I bailed on him, and found myself back in Norfolk. There was something there I needed to do, but I still had no idea what.
It took less than a month to find it. I found myself in an apartment full of addicts, using from the time I got up until the time I lost consciousness. Wash, rinse, repeat. Day in, day out. I was collecting unemployment, donating my blood plasma twice a week for some extra cash, and getting high all the time. I was unemployable, no longer a “functional” addict. I’d given myself over completely to the addiction. I woke up one morning, looked at myself in the mirror, and no longer recognized the ghost of a face staring back at me with hollow eyes, pale skin like death warmed over, and that voice inside once again asserted itself, and said, “Get out — now!” I was seriously concerned that I was losing my mind.
Once again, I followed that voice. I got my backpack, and hitchhiked home to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, wanting only to leave it all behind. I was done with drugs, drinking, the whole nine. I wanted out. I told my Mom I had a problem and needed help. I never drank again after that. The drugs would take a little longer to get over.
There was a program for drug addicts, but it took me two and a half years to find them. Once I did, I was able to leave them behind for good, after one relapse three weeks in.
The first four years of abstinence were a living hell for me — this was when I went through the 17 jobs. But, I was learning to live without drugs. It was like starting over from scratch. I got to do some amazing things during those difficult first years, not least of which was, helping to put together that program’s basic text on recovery from addiction. I had writing and editing skills, and most importantly, could type 75 words a minute. I typed my ever-loving fingers off, just happy to have something to do that was helping someone else. I still didn’t know how to help myself, but all I knew was, I couldn’t pick up, no matter what. I had to stay clean. That stuff all helped.
Then, I had a deeper surrender on a terrible train ride through the swamps of New Jersey. Something elemental happened, and I let all my false hopes and empty dreams go, and stopped trying to manage my life. I was soon thereafter led to a group where I found a sponsor who helped me to experience the 12 Steps of recovery. After that, everything changed. I met the girl I am still with, 38 years later. I got this job, that I am celebrating my 38th anniversary on. Life opened up, and I got to finally live it.
Somehow, despite my history up until that day, I haven’t managed to blow this opportunity up. I have somehow showed up, every day, for 38 years, and had an amazing career unfold before me. I raised a family with that girl, and find myself still deeply in love with her after all these years. I consider this all to be a most amazing miracle that happened to me, after a lifetime of bad decisions, numerous self-ignited explosions of everything near and dear to me, but now, I have peace of mind, a good life, and a grateful heart. Somewhere along the line, I was taught how to listen to that quiet voice from inside more often than just in a moment of crisis. It guides me into a better way to live. I thank my Higher Power everyday for leading me out of hell, and into what I consider to be heaven here on earth.