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20 Years of Sobriety: Thoughts On Drinking and the Recovery Process

Can we forget about the things I said when I was drunk…
I didn’t mean to call you that…

Today I celebrate 20 years of sobriety and the above line is from a song by the band Lit called My Own Worst Enemy. In a way, both the name of the band and song describe how it was before February 20th 1989. So here is a look back at how my life was before sobriety, how I got sober and my life since.

I started drinking at an early age, fourteen although I’ve heard stories of folks having their first drink starting at age seven so perhaps this is a late start for some, who knows. I have a pretty good recollection of things that have happened in the past. Everyone says I am good with dates and facts so I place the time of my first beer sometime in April 1976 with my neighborhood friends. We all tried drinking to impress an older crowd in our neighborhood, to fit in and to try to be cool. It was easy getting beer then as several of my friends had older siblings and they would buy for us. We had places like Talbert’s, Mario’s Pizza, Wagshal’s and Spring Valley Liquors plus numerous deli’s in Bethesda MD where if you didn’t have someone doing your purchases for you, you could ask someone in the parking lot to grab a rack of suds for you. I did enjoy the thrill of going out and trying to get beer on my own. I liked that challenge but more important, I wanted beer and I would do what I had to do to get it, including having a beer can collection. The fun of acquiring beer cans was actually drinking the beer before displaying the cans.

To make things easier a couple friends and I went to a place in DC called Fleming’s ID Bureau and we all got fake identification. They worked at most places so we didn’t need to pester older folks to buy us beer. Of course when I became of legal age, I would return the favor for others needing beer when I was approached. My way of giving back to the community, I guess.

I developed a good tolerance for beer and wine. I was at Western Junior High School in Bethesda MD during this time and I used drinking as an escape. It tasted good and as someone who was pretty shy, I was more outgoing when I had a few beers under my belt. This was important to me back then as I was in a bigger school trying to make new friends and impress the ladies. In reality, I impressed no one and often I’d make an ass out of myself. That didn’t stop me though.

About the same time I became friends with beer and wine, I was introduced to pot and would casually smoke with friends in the woods at Western. I enjoyed pot but never really kept any sort of a stash or paraphernalia around the house pot related as I was always afraid of getting caught and more important, grounded. This behavior continued into high school at Walt Whitman and throughout the three years there I did all kinds of jobs to make money. I cut grass, shoveled snow and had a paper route with the Washington Post. When delivering to each house I would drop off the paper, walk to the next house while looking in open garages for any evidence of a beer stash. Keep in mind this was in the mid to late ‘70’s and some folks just kept their garages open. Upon finding places with beer, I’d steal a few beers and would hide them. Pretty sad behavior but this was my selfish alcoholic behavior beginning to take shape.


I can’t remember what was said or what you threw at me….
Please tell me why….
My car is in the front yard
And I’m sleeping with my clothes on…...

So studying wasn’t really my thing but I did just enough to get through high school. Three or four colleges accepted me and I chose to go away from home five hours away at Elon (North Carolina). After graduation in the summer of 1980, the partying continued. Before I went off to Elon, I was arrested with a friend for breaking into the Woodacres Elementary School gymnasium to shoot hoops. We were pretty drunk and weren’t aware of the silent alarm we triggered. I saw a broken window near the door and a piece of cardboard covering the hole. So I popped it in and was able to open the door. We found the lights and were playing drunken hoops when the cops came and arrested us. Thanks to community service at a library and a good lawyer my Dad knew, this was expunged.

The drinking escalated into my college years and since I was away from home and wanted to impress yet another new set of friends, drinking was my way of doing so and I felt the need to constantly leave the impression that this guy knew how to party. It was in college when I started experiencing blackouts. I’d wake up on the floor in a strange dorm or I’d wake up in my bed with my clothes on wondering how I made it home. One such story occurred after North Carolina State completed their improbable run to the 1983 NCAA basketball title. A bunch of us piled into a friend’s car and drove to Raleigh NC to celebrate. We went through our beer stash but that didn’t stop us from just busting into any of the hundreds of parties on campus and continuing drinking. I ended up sleeping on a park bench and somehow got up when the sun rose and found a couple friends who I traveled with. As we were driving back to campus my roommate Spence casually mentioned “Hey Bill isn’t your physics test today?” Damn if he wasn’t right and I had a half hour to get to class. I got back to my room, vomited, splashed water on my face, brushed my teeth and, still drunk, was the last in and first out. I somehow got a 70 on the exam. While I had my share of fun there I was lucky to meet up with several friends who knew when to party and when to study. I eventually got my degree in business and headed out into the working world in early 1985.

It’s no surprise to me I am my own worst enemy…
Cuz every now and then I kick the living shit out of me…

When I was finishing up college, I decided that it was the occasional pot use that was slowing me down and if I was going to be in the business world, I had to drop the occasional pot habit, so I gave that up. I didn’t audit the drinking though, as that continued. Pretty soon several incidents and fights followed. I don’t think I was fully aware of what I was doing to myself physically and emotionally and I really didn’t care but I know I was alienating family and friends with my behavior. As long as I had alcohol, preferably beer and lots of it, I just didn’t care. I felt “as long as I could make it to work each day…” that I was ok.

Here is one story that always gets a laugh when I have spoken about it at AA meetings. One night I arrived at my apartment complex sloppy drunk and took the elevator to my apartment on Idaho Avenue in NW DC. I lived on the fifth floor and the elevator stopped at the fourth floor for some reason. Maybe while experiencing double vision I hit the wrong button, I don’t know. I got off the elevator and went to what I thought was my apartment. I couldn’t get the key to open my door, so I start banging on the door and this old lady answered it yelling at me. I started yelling at her wondering WTF are you doing in MY apartment! She said she had lived in her apartment, #406 for the past ten years and perhaps in my condition, I was on the wrong floor and didn’t know it. I went back to my apartment, #506 and passed out. The next night before I went out I slapped a Washington Capitals bumper sticker on my door so I could tell I was in the right place when I came home hammered.

Another story I like to tell was when I was at a Redskins-Giants game in December 1983. The Giants were not that good that year but on that afternoon they were giving the Redskins all they could handle. I was consuming my usual amount of beer and angry at the ‘Skins for their play. At the half I went to see my friends Tim and Mike at their seats in the end zone. I saw Mike was in some kind of an altercation with police and Tim, his brother was trying to find out what was going on and a policeman was telling him to leave.

So of course I had to chime in and say something smart to an officer, who took a look at me and decided to charge me with disorderly conduct. So Mike and I end up in the paddy wagon with the other drunks. We were all taken to the police station where I was given a fifteen dollar citation for disorderly conduct. I paid that in cash and I was given a receipt. Mike was in a little more trouble than I was and I won’t go into that here but I ended up taking a cab back to the stadium. I showed a security person there my ticket stub and receipt and was let back into the game. The game was in the early part of the 4th quarter and of course I stopped and got a couple beers because I lost my buzz in all the halftime excitement. I found my friend Tim at his seat and resumed drinking and watching the game. The episode didn’t faze me at all and I felt like a hero for being able to “take one for a friend” as I gave Tim the info where his brother was. So we just kicked back, drank our beer and watched the Redskins come from behind and win on a Riggo TD. Despite the trouble that I’d get into, I never really gave it any thought as to why things like this was happening to me. I’d just shake it off and snap open the next beer.

So that’s pretty much how it went for the longest time, just drink, stagger, fall down, do something stupid and repeat. Sadly, I’d become proud of wearing the drunk title and wouldn’t really give a damn at what others felt. To me it was have a good time either by myself or with my buddies and to hell with those standing in my way. I loved drinking and I didn’t care what happened. Sometimes my mouth got me in trouble after too much to drink and I’d get into a bar scrap. I brushed the behavior off as well, thinking it was just another thing that happened and it’s a macho thing to get into a bar fight.

Back to the selfishness part for a moment: As I said earlier my motto was usually beer and more of it. On weekends I would make case runs and stock my refrigerator. The best invention to me was Stroh’s and the fifteen and thirty pack. I’d drink eight or ten beers to “get primed” before going out and when I was out I applauded myself for knowing there was more beer waiting for me at home.

I just drank everywhere; Georgetown, Tenleytown, Friendship Heights, Bethesda. The Exorcist Stairs, parties, sports events, wherever. I’d go to Georgetown basketball games, stop at Dixie Liquor for a pint of rum and drink rum and cokes once inside the arena. My buddies and I would either take a bus or taxi around when we would go out so at least we were being smart about getting around while drinking. Sometimes I would just leave whatever bar we were at and go off by myself, again, the selfish alcoholic behavior and didn’t care how I got home. I did that from bars in Georgetown, from parties in Potomac, even Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.

To get home sometimes I would hitchhike and other times I’d hail a cab, get driven to a house close to my folks and ditch the poor taxi driver. I’d make up a story saying I had to go inside and get money, and I’d jump a fence and dash through the back yards until I got home as I knew the neighborhood well. Another trick when hitchhiking was taking a coin and throwing it at a passing car. When the driver would stop and ask what the hell I threw at his car I’d lie and then ask how close to Kenwood Country Club they were going. More often than not I’d get a ride there and then stagger home.

Folks often asked me what my favorite beer was and I didn’t really have one so I would say the next one….I was in my mid-twenties and felt indestructible. Or at least I thought so. As I said earlier, I’d have the occasional run in with the police, a bar patron, angry neighbors and family, but it was let the good times roll and they did.

The smoke alarm is going off and there’s a cigarette
Still burning…

After a night of drinking, I’d do my version of the Otis Campbell stagger into my apartment and I’d always want to continue the party. Since I always had beer in the fridge, the party always went on. Even at two, three o’clock in the morning when I was completely smashed I’d put on music. Over the years as my parents, roommates and apartment neighbors found out, I was famous for the “one song symphony. I’d play the same song over and over and over, often waking up on the floor with the stereo still on, beer all over me and empty cans next to me. Didn’t care….

This takes me to my final day of drinking. Of course at the time I didn’t know this…

February 19, 1989 started with me meeting up with my neighborhood friends to go to College Park, MD to see the Maryland Terrapins play North Carolina in basketball. Game time was 1:00 PM. I had been hitting the sauce heavy the night before and it didn’t take long for me to get the buzz going again before the game. Once inside, Maryland was getting clobbered, this was after Len Bias had died and coach Lefty Driesell was gone and the Terps were awful. A bunch of us were getting restless because the game stunk and we were out of booze. I think I got in a shouting match with an usher, I can’t remember. We ended up going to the famous Rendezvous aka “The ‘Vous” for a few beers after the game, then over to a friend’s parent’s house. His folks were away and we were shooting pool and goofing off. I do remember grabbing a bottle of vodka from his folk’s liquor cabinet and mixed a blender full of Bloody Marys, which I decided I did not want to share with anyone. Here’s the selfishness of an alcoholic kicking in here. Mine and mine only. I believe I ended up passing out around 6:00 PM. A couple hours later I somehow ended up at my parent’s house as my friends went somewhere and just deposited me as they didn’t want to deal with a sloppy drunk pal. Can’t say I blame them a bit. That’s how bad I got. I couldn’t control myself anymore and often times I was just deposited someplace. When I awoke, at the time I had no idea how I got to my folks as I blacked out yet again.

Monday, February 20, 1989 was President’s Day and I didn’t have to go into work. Not that I really was in any shape to. My Mom, ticked off, drove me to my apartment. I don’t believe we even spoke, that’s how hung over I was and how mad she must have been at me. I slept my hang over off and in the middle of the afternoon, I stumbled to the mirror and took a look at the mess I had become at the age of 27.

When looking at myself I decided then and there to end the nonsense. I didn’t know how I would do this but I remembered hearing "one day at a time" at some point in my life, so I decided that was how I would attempt to do this. One day at a time. So I stopped. I managed to get through the rest of the week without alcohol. I skipped happy hours I normally went to. I would go straight home from work, fixed dinner, read a bit and went to bed scared. The weekend was going to be rough. I disconnected my phone as I didn’t want to see friends, didn’t want to talk to my girlfriend at that time and I just stayed in my apartment all weekend. I had no idea what the hell I was doing or where I was going with it and I didn’t want any peer pressure.

I got through that weekend ok and decided I had to face my friends. I was too scared to tell them my decision, so I lied and made up a story about a bet to lay off the booze. Their party continued but without me and I understood.

As the days went by, I missed the camaraderie of my friends, so I tried meeting them at various bars and sip Coke or soda water. The abuse I took from them and bartenders who used to serve me beer after beer was too much. So I stopped doing it. I’d go out with my girlfriend and we’d end up at a bar or restaurant and I’m a mess. Sober, on edge and just paranoid I’d run into friends and the old me would start drinking again. At that point I didn’t know how to deal with the situation. I wanted to drink but I kept strong. Finally my girlfriend had enough. One night at a restaurant I remember hearing her say how she liked the “old me” better. I thought about this for a second and reacted to this by calmly opening my wallet and putting some money down on the table and I just left. That was that. Early in sobriety I realize it was not the greatest way to handle that situation but these feelings were all so new to me and I had no experience on how to react to situations such as this. I ended up calling her a couple days later, apologized and ended the relationship, saying I had to take care of myself first and get cleaned up.

Sobriety continued a couple more weeks. I was miserable and I was at a big turning point in my life. My way was not working and I did not know how much longer I could continue to fight. So I ended up consulting with a friend who had been going to AA meetings and asked if he would take me. I felt scared at first but got assurance that this was where I needed to be from the people I spoke with. So I got a Where and When booklet that listed every AA meeting in DC/MD/VA and went back again and again. I started to get into a routine and met some people who would later influence me as I progressed with my sobriety. I would go to meetings three, four, five times a week and for the first time in my life I shut the hell up and just listened. I talked to people in AA over the phone. I read books. A lot of changes occurred and I started to accrue sobriety time and I started to feel good about myself. The days turned into weeks, these turned into months and finally I had my first year of sobriety in February 1990.

During this time, my friends who were still partying started to understand where I was going and while I didn’t meet them at bars anymore, I’d still keep in touch with them over the phone. We'd get together for an occasional round of golf. It took awhile, but friends and family could start to trust me again. I worked the steps and while I wasn’t the greatest at it, I made phone calls to people I hurt with my behavior and apologized. I had skipped on a few bar checks in the past so I went to these places, ordered a coke and re-paid my debt. And yes, sometimes when I do take a taxi these days I give a little extra money to the unsuspecting driver as a way to make some amends.

Today I feel comfortable with my past and who I’ve become. I can never shake off the fact I am an alcoholic, that there is no cure. I used to have friends in the program tell me to listen to so and so, he’s got 15 years. Or it might be good to have coffee after a meeting with Mr. XXX as he’s got 25 years. So me and my six months, one year or whatever time I had accrued would do so and often I wondered what it would feel like having fifteen, twenty years sobriety. Could I do it? Well, here I am now, one of these “old timers” with twenty years, I made it.

I had a lot of friends help me along the way. Their insights, advice, assistance and patience with me have been greatly appreciated over the years. You know who you are out there and you know how much I value your friendship and guidance over the years.

I had family support and couldn’t have made it without them. I’m proud I was able to emerge from the abyss of alcoholism to get my life straightened out. I sure struggled along the way. Day by day though things improved and here I am twenty year’s later. It sure as hell wasn’t an easy twenty years. I endured a lot of pain during this time, a couple job layoffs, the loss of a good friend who was killed in an auto accident to name a couple. I also had experienced joy as I got married, I witnessed Benjamin’s birth. I’m a husband and father. When times were bad I never felt the urge to pick up a drink. I don’t always make the right decisions but I learned how to face things head on and I had a clear mind to think things out.

I’m blessed in so many ways. I hold a steady job; have a nice house with a wonderful wife and son Benjamin that I love very much! I never, ever thought that I would have a home, a wife and a son. I see Benjamin daily and am amazed at his progress. He is three and a half years old and the center of our life. I get a charge just seeing him when I pick him up from his day care and he runs to me yelling “Daddy!”

I do a lot of the same things I used to do drunk, only sober. It’s nice to come from a sports event or concert with a recollection of what I just saw. It's nice to be a reliable employee, a trusted family member and a good husband and father. This is what is at stake if I ever refer back to my old ways. I think I am smart enough to realize what is at stake and what I would lose if I ever went back to that way of life, so I just keep things in my life simple and easy to manage. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I forgot where I heard that for the first time but it works for me.

I'm not perfect by any means. I still have moments when I think like my old selfish alcoholic ways. Weena sees this on occasion and she knows when it is time to kick my ass and set me straight. I do my best to get to meetings when I can. If I am in a jam, I know I can call several friends to talk, get coffee or to take in a basketball or baseball game. That is what I am most grateful for. These are better days.

I honestly don't know what made me stop drinking on February 20, 1989 but I've never questioned it. There is an old saying I like to use and that’s “I’m just became sick and tired of being sick and tired”. Another favorite saying is spoken after every AA meeting. "Keep coming back". Hell, in my life I was used to being told to scram and people wanted me back?

After I had a year sobriety I destroyed every drunken memento I had. These were mostly pictures. It was something I felt I had to do at the time and I didn’t want the reminders. The only thing I kept was the ticket stub to that Maryland-North Carolina game. And speaking of Maryland-North Carolina, tomorrow I go back to College Park Maryland to watch a basketball game. Maryland is playing North Carolina. The same two schools almost exactly the same day, twenty years later. I saw that on the schedule and knew I had to make it back for that one. For once the score won’t really matter to me. Just that I am there to see it, does. Full circle, so to speak. I’ll keep this ticket stub as well.

Following the local sports teams sober is what I enjoy doing. I love sports. I used to go to Orioles, Caps, Bullets, Terps games wasted. Now there are two beautiful ball parks, Camden Yards and Nationals Park I can go to and enjoy an afternoon of baseball without beer. There is a great downtown arena where I can watch hockey and hoops sober. I’m a season ticket holder for Maryland football and I see a lot of folks who had too much tailgate in them and I just remember how that was and I am thankful I don’t behave like that anymore. I saw the greatest era in Washington Redskins history at RFK Stadium usually with a cup of Budweiser in my hand. I’d also go to RFK when I was in high school to see the old Washington Diplomats soccer team play. I could sit in the upper deck for five bucks, soak up sun and the beer vendors would not card me. Now I go to RFK Stadium to watch D.C. United soccer. I still think about how hammered I used to get there but for once it’s nice not to be that guy all sloppy drunk and ruining the experience for everyone around me.

I want to close by saying that if there is someone out there reading this and you are struggling with addiction and if you don’t know where to turn or want to talk, by all means drop me an e-mail at nilsrox1@yahoo.com.

For those recovering alcoholics, keep going back to your meetings, talk to your friends and know that you are doing the right thing. It definitely works if you work it. I also recommend if you are new to the program, sign up and volunteer for some service work. I made coffee at the Thursday meeting at Chevy Chase Presbyterian church on Western Avenue for a year. It’s a confidence builder, people count on you for the coffee and by taking on this responsibility you feel you can be counted on. Plus you meet a bunch of people and opening up, sharing feelings helped me a great deal. It still does.

A few of my favorite hobbies are reading, listening to music and crossword puzzles. I also got a nice Nikon camera and I’m enjoying taking pictures and putting together scrapbooks of Benjamin’s accomplishments. One piece of advice I got early in sobriety is keep your mind and yourself busy so you won’t think about that next drink. This strategy worked early on in sobriety for me and continues to be a part of my daily life.

I’m not sure if I will get the chance to speak at my anniversary tonight, so here is what I would have talked about for my half hour. I am not proud of some of the things I’ve talked about but I am proud of my recovery process.

I am no longer my own worst enemy.

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