I had my first drink when I was 8 — a Sloe gin fizz.
“Sloe gin fizzy/do it till you’re dizzy/give it all you got until you’re put out of your misery.” Aerosmith said that. It was the ’80s, the decade of day-glo and hair bands. My first cassette was an album by Poison. I grew up in a small town in the suburbs of Philadelphia that was populated with middle-class Catholics, a place where neighbors used their front lawns as storage, the restaurant of choice was Friendly’s and the popular Friday night activity was tailgating down High Street while intoxicated.
I showed up to my first day of high school dressed in a rayon orchid-print button down shirt, Lee’s husky jeans and a pair of sand-colored loafers. I frequently dyed my hair, tortured it with hair gel, and had pierced ears. I got my navel pierced when I was 16 at the Jersey shore, and got my first tattoo that same year. I ran, no walked, a 16-minute mile in gym class, sneaked out for lunch at McDonald’s, and when the name calling and threats got worse in school, took refuge in the music room and “All My Children” at 3 p.m.
I felt overwhelmed — an overweight, gay, soap opera-enthusiast teen. Then came acid, LSD and the ‘90s rave scene. It was a place to escape, where people were too fucked up to care if you were gay, straight or listened to Poison. I took acid. A lot of it.
I went to my first gay bar when I was 17. Armed with a fake ID and a tube of Carmex, I tripped through the front door of Woody’s, a gay hot spot in Philadelphia, with a dream of meeting a boyfriend. He would be cute, have blond hair, blue eyes and be 19.
Fast forward three gin and tonics later: He was a brunette, had brown eyes and a limp and was 45. Every Wednesday night I would drive my Mustang into Philadelphia, booze up at Woody’s, drive home drunk and try to make it through the next day. I made friends with people who bought me drinks, better friends with the bartenders and was merely acquaintances with those I would wake up next to.
At college in Allentown, Pa., there was a new set of rules. Let’s play the game “drink till you’re no longer straight.” The theatre department was full of tomorrow’s artists who were today’s misguided youth. The drinks of choice were Zima and Natural Light. Then I discovered the beer bong, a competition featuring horny, stressed college students guzzling beer out of a hose with a funnel on one end.
And what about that boyfriend? I sought him in AOL chat rooms; those meetings seemed to go better with booze. And cigarettes. I smoked a lot of cigarettes. My vocal coach smoked cigarettes, so why couldn’t I? Finally, graduation came. Cap, check. Gown, check. Flask, check.
And now what? No more structure? I took a trip to Atlanta and didn’t come back. Atlanta introduced me to house music, 24-hour clubs, warm weather, circuit parties, and the letters E, G, K, T and C. Ecstasy, GHB/GBL, ketamine, crystal meth, and cocaine. They all made you high, and when used together, made you “crunk.” Considering that among that list, one is a solvent used to remove superglue, one is used as an anesthetic for your dog and one has been known to trigger explosions, it might cause you to think that snorting them up your nose while box-stepping to a Deborah Cox remix may not be such a good idea.
But, the drugs shrunk my waist from a 36 to a 34, made me feel socially acceptable, and were highly addictive. Ah, addiction. That force that causes you to do things over and over again expecting a different outcome. Or in the words of George Carlin, “Just cause you got the monkey off of your back, doesn’t mean the circus has left town.”
I was doing nothing with my life. I worked at Nordstrom, snorted ketamine in the stock room, boozed it up at night and blacked out. Wash, rinse, repeat.
I made the decision to go to grad school on a hit of E. I moved to Tennessee while high, I unpacked high, went to class high, studied high, met a boy drunk, got him high, and then moved in with him. We did coke and we were poor so we sold coke to pay for our coke, all the while telling ourselves that we weren’t getting in over our heads. I got in over my head and moved again.
You may want to consider your options when the list of your achievements starts looking more and more like the storyboard for a Lifetime original movie, rather than that of a successful person.
Consider the following criteria. You may be an alcoholic when you have a glass of wine at a meal and that meal is breakfast. Or, if you find you get your best eight hours of sleep from noon to 8 p.m. Or perhaps you decide to increase your fiber intake by drinking more Guinness. Or you carry around business cards that have your name and address with the phrases “Hello, I’m ____” and “Please take me to ______”.
I moved to Philadelphia and I drank. I moved to New York City and drank. I moved to Raleigh and drank. I moved back to Philadelphia and drank. I moved to D.C. and drank. It wasn’t working. No matter how much I drank, I was still not the pretty, smart, extroverted starlet that a bottle of vodka was telling me I could become.
Even though I managed to shrink my waist size to a 32, I was still terribly unhappy. I was chasing something down a long, dimly lit tunnel, with no end in sight. Blackout. Wake up. Who are you? Where am I? The walk of shame after impulses came to me from the bottom of a bottle of booze. I made many mistakes and lied a lot. My life became a fictional narrative, a choose-your-own-adventure story, with no happy endings.
It was time to do something. Something had to change. I took off my sunglasses, soaked up the daylight and asked for help. The party was over. The lights came up. “Hello, my name is John and I’m an alcoholic and drug addict.”
I haven’t had a perfect recovery. I’ve had my share of slips, trips, falls and follow-ups, but I’ve learned how to ask for help, and to listen to those willing to share their stories and suggestions. It’s not the same script, different cast, but a different script, and more diverse cast.
I’m grateful to be sober today. Addiction is always there. It’s a Christmas present neatly wrapped in sparkly paper with a glittery bow that contains an empty box. I choose the other gift. It is the gift of stories of other men and women who are recovering and shedding the burden of their pain. They are young, old, black, white, straight, gay, bi, trans, lawyers, doctors, artists, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, Poison fans and soap opera-enthusiasts and they all have one thing in common. They hope for a better way of living. A sober way of living.