Before the age of eighteen I drank periodically. But by eighteen I was drinking all day, every day. I would sell my belongings for liquor; I would wake up and have six beers for breakfast. I would drink an eighteen pack at work and return home for shots. I would wake in the night to drink and go back to bed.
It all began on a vacation trip I took with my family. My cousin had successfully beaten leukemia for a second time, and his family decided to celebrate by inviting the extended family on a reunion cruise.
We went for a week and had a good time. The whole trip was a party; I kept a beer in my hand virtually the entire time. On international waters, the drinking age is eighteen, which enabled me to purchase my own drinks at will. Not only that, but drinks were charged to your room, so you never needed cash. I’m sure they do this on purpose. On a five day cruise I ran up a 500 dollar bar tab, which may parents made me repay. But I was working full time so it wasn’t a problem. Still it was an awkward conversation.
Up until this point, for the previous year, I had been drinking moderately. Some might say heavily. I would drink four to twelve beers between three and five nights a week. This didn’t feel excessive, and most of my friends fell into this range. It wasn’t a problem; it was just good fun. I could quit any time I wanted to.
But my drinking escalated as soon as I returned home. I returned to discover that my girlfriend who I was living with had met someone else while I was gone. I arrived home from the cruise only for her to ask me to pack my things and move out. I packed up my clothes and was out on my ass that day.
To add to my problems, my car had broken down the week before the cruise. If I remember correctly, the catalytic converter had gone out, or maybe the water pump. Not having the money to fix it, I parked it at my parents’ house so it wouldn’t get towed. In the week we were gone it got ticketed for facing the wrong way on the street, and the windshield got smashed by neighborhood hoodlums who had been throwing pears at it from a tree across the street. Needless to say I didn’t have the money or the skills to fix it, so it sat.
But it got worse: in my rush to leave for the trip, I had miscommunicated to my boss the amount of time I would be gone. He expected me to return sooner, and had fired me in my absence. So I returned home to no job, a broken-down car, no girlfriend and no place to live. I was at a total loss. I found myself on foot with a backpack full of clothes.
But I wasn’t without resources. I went straight down to Francesco’s, the Italian restaurant where I had worked previously, and regained my position as a cook. They even promoted me to seven dollars an hour. All my friends still worked there, and they had an apartment across the street. I told them my situation and asked if I could crash on their couch for a while. They welcomed me over.
This apartment was a mess. Three people paid rent there, my best friend Matt being one of them, but dozens cycled in and out. No less than seven kids slept on the floor of the living room, most of them runaways and kids who had emancipated before the age of 18.
I was welcome sleep on the couch or the floor and use the shower. But I didn’t have a towel, so I would dry off with a magazine or toilet paper. There was no laundry; I didn’t do a wash for months. I only had three or four outfits anyway.
Substance abuse was rampant. Everyone took pills, smoked pot, drank like a fish, and snorted coke. We’d mix morphine with milk, we’d drink whole bottles of Robitussin cough syrup and eat a whole tube of Dramamines. Every morning we would pick up hundreds of empty beer cans and several liquor bottles.
When the guy who worked at the corner gas station found out I worked at Francesco’s, we started trading pizzas for beer. He’d sell us beer since he knew us, and if we brought him a pizza he would turn his head while we walked out with a couple 18-packs. Since pizza was free for us, beer was now equally free.
It was during this time that I started to drink problematically. I wouldn’t be sober another day for the next three years. Before this moment, drinking was a party. But now I needed it to cover my pain. I began to binge drink every day, starting as early as possible. Several mornings a week Matt and I would mix Jim Beam and Cokes for breakfast at work. If we ran out of booze we would steal beer from the walk-in. Matt was flirting with serious pill habit, too.
One morning, after several long days of drinking, Matt complained that he felt weird. Over the course of the morning he became increasingly incoherent. He shook uncontrollably and couldn’t keep water down. Not knowing what to do, some friends and I took him to the ER where they determined he had severe alcohol poisoning. They fed him charcoal, pumped his stomach and smashed four IV bags into his veins. By the time we left he was ready to drink again that night.
This was one of the lowest times in my life. I had nothing My depression was crippling. A doctor prescribed me Trazadone and I tinkered with the dosage on my own. I was estranged from my parents, especially my dad, my girlfriend of three years had kicked me out, my car was broken, I didn’t have a steady place to stay, and I worked long hours for peanuts. My only relief was intoxication. No foreseeable future could relieve my situation.I was at wits’ end.
Months went by and I still had no plan. One evening, as I lay on the couch drunk out of my mind I saw a commercial for the Marines. Suddenly I was inspired:
If I joined the Marines I could be somebody. They would whisk me away and give me clean clothes and hot meals. They would give me an identity, a skill, something I could be proud of. And people would be proud of me. People would thank me for my service. And if I went overseas and died, so much the better; at least I’d be a hero instead of a loser. I fell asleep thinking about it.
The next morning I awoke with a sense of purpose. Matt and I had the day off, and I told him my revelation from the previous night. He was surprised to hear me talk this way; neither of us had ever considered it. But suddenly it sounded like the thing to do. I asked him if he’d drive me to the recruitment office and he agreed.
We arrived together. The recruiters were stoked that two young men of fighting age had walked into their office of their own accord – that made their job easy. But I was the one interested in joining; Matt was just there for support. I sat down and told them I was ready to sign up. I was ready to leave today.
We discussed my enrollment for several minutes. I had no high school record, which was a small problem. But I already had a tattoo on my neck – this unfortunately was a deal breaker. As a matter of official policy, recruits cannot have tattoos “below the cuff or above the collar.” My only shot at redemption had just fallen through. They apologized and the meeting concluded. I was crushed.
But suddenly Matt was interested. “What if I wanted to join?” he asked. They talked about it for several minutes. Interestingly, Matt had tattoos on his knuckles – tattoos I had given him while drunk. But they did not balk at this like they did my neck. They gave him some enrollment information, exchanged numbers, and asked him to return in a couple days.
I was bitterly disappointed. I think I may have even cried in private. Not only had my plan fallen through, but it now appeared that my best friend might take the opportunity. He suddenly began talking about it with fervor and intensity; he now saw in it what I had seen. It was a way out, a way to something better, a source of accomplishment and pride. He was beaming by the time we got back to the apartment.
His paperwork went through in a few short weeks. And as sure as time passes, his date came to ship off to basic training. On the morning of, me and several close friends dropped him off at the office. We all hugged and shook hands. We all cried on the drive home. I cried for the rest of the day. Nothing solidifies your feeling of immobility like seeing someone else escape. I was utterly trapped in poverty and despair. And now things were worse than they had been.
The next three months were a blur. I drank every chance I had, at work or home. Matt and I wrote a couple of letters back and forth. But for the most part I was engrossed in my own problems. And to manage them, I drank.
I got so drunk I shit on the floor. I got so drunk I pissed in a wire trashcan with no trash sack on the rug in the middle of the bedroom. I got so drunk I tumbled down a hill into a mud bank. I got so drunk I headbutted ten or more large dents in the siding of our duplex. I got to where I couldn’t eat unless I had four drinks first. I was a complete mess.
Things went on like this for several more years. I cycled through a few more jobs and a few more living situations. But for the next two years I would remain drunk every moment I could. It would take some time, but eventually I would conquer my addiction and stay sober for fourteen years strong. More on this shortly.
Next: Read “Busting my Shin.”