On Thanksgiving Day in 2006, I was alone in the bathroom of my Tahitian lagoon bungalow, shaking and vomiting blood.
Outside, a lushly tropical island jutted up from the water and topless newlywed brides sunbathed on the decks. But in my all-expenses paid room – courtesy of a contest I'd won on "Live With Regis and Kelly" – the shades were drawn. I looked in the mirror and told myself to stop drinking, yet kept washing my mouth out with vodka. I hadn't eaten anything of substance in two days. I was doing exactly what I promised myself time after time I wouldn't do again.
I spent seven days puddle jumping to different islands in Tahiti, and I can tell you more about my hotel room than I can about the archipelago. My ritual consisted of cleaning out the mini-bar, ordering room service or making my way inland to pick up food that was easy on my stomach – bread, butter, crackers.
More importantly, I'd buy two bottles of vodka so I wouldn't have to return to the store the next day. Even though the mini-bar and room service were only footsteps or a phone call away, I wanted options.
When I went on my sole excursion – a jet-skiing trip around Bora Bora – the tour guide took a look at me and asked if I'd been partying the night before. No. I was just a guy who'd stayed up all night in his room drinking vodka.
For many years I suspected I was an alcoholic. Countless health classes taught me one shouldn't wake in the morning wondering where he'd parked his car the night before. Or start his day with a glass of wine instead of a cup of coffee.
After numerous attempts to stop, my escape – even to a place considered paradise – devolved into a hole in which I continued to drink, even as my body told me it had given up and couldn't take it anymore.
I'd vowed to give up drinking in Tahiti. And I did. I stopped drinking every night. Then I started drinking every day and on into the evening.
I like to think I've retained the finer traits of my Irish and German forbearers – the luck and work ethic, perhaps – and eschewed the less desirable. But alcoholism runs strong on both sides of my family. Each of my grandfathers was an alcoholic and, ironically, I'm named after both of them.
"Papa would cry about his drinking sometimes," my mom says of her father, who I've been told I resemble in both smile and spirit.
My dad's father was often unmentioned in my home, a man I knew only through photographs and passing references. He was an Irish immigrant and alcoholic. The disease killed him, but not until it twisted him into a recluse who couldn't hold down steady work. A low point came when he was fired from his job as a janitor on Wall Street after he went to work so drunk he urinated on himself.
My father says the only time he ever saw his father sober was in the three days prior to his death from alcohol-related dementia. My dad, who bears his father's name, swore he'd never allow himself to succumb to such a fate.
But he did. My father is also a recovering alcoholic, several years into his journey of sobriety. As my own illness took hold, I came to understand his torment and the chaos that went with it. By high school, I was already following in the family tradition.
I was a sophomore when I got drunk the first time. A Friday night, a case of room-temperature Molson Ice, and a house where the parents were out of town. Textbook suburban bacchanalia. Before I knew it, my friends and I decided to take my car "mudding." We found a construction site along one of Marietta's busiest streets, and I drove into the wet mud. A week later when my car puttered, a mechanic pulled a sheet of metal from the chassis and pumped out three boxes of dirt from the engine.
Despite that experience, drinking became my weekend respite. And once I reached the freedom of college at the University of Georgia, drinking became even more a part of my life.
One night, when I was blacked out on spiced rum in a bar, I confronted a British coke-dealing biker who was hitting on my girlfriend. He head butted me off a barstool. I awoke in a bush at the corner of the busiest intersection in downtown Athens, convinced my cocktail had been spiked.
"No," my girlfriend later told me, "you were just drunk."
In Key West during spring break, I was kicked out of a bar and decided to return to the hotel early. The next morning, I woke up nude on the hotel room floor, my clothes next to me soaking wet. Later that day, a security guard told me he found me floating the swimming pool by myself, face down in the water; he had to fish me out.
Even as my clothes dried on the balcony from that near-fatal dip, I was in another bar getting drunk all over again.
In October 2005, I left my first job in journalism, at the weekly North Fulton Neighbor, and headed to New York City. Manhattan always held romance for me. It's where my parents met and fell in love. It's a city that pulses with characters and chaos and activity.
I hit the ground running to find a job in journalism. My résumé was solid; my clips were commendable. I had an award to my name and a list of people to call.
But things didn't turn out the way I'd planned. The journalism market already was in flux, blindsided by the Internet, and I was competing with people who had lots more experience. I exhausted my contacts quickly, and started to pitch freelance stories. To pay for my living expenses, I took any job I could – the least enjoyable of which was writing book reviews for a start-up sex website at $3 a pop. I felt like I was drowning.
Somewhere in there, the need to drink slowly took over my life. I already was drinking heavily, but I'd confined it to evenings and it was nothing I worried about. It felt under control. With each rejected job application and each pitch letter that went unanswered, I began to drink earlier and earlier in the day. Drinking allowed me to escape the reality of my situation, that I had essentially moved to the most expensive city in America to be an unemployed writer. I couldn't bear feeling like a failure.
I hid my behavior from the important people in my life. That was relatively easy when it came to Capucine, my girlfriend at the time who lived in France, and my parents, who were more than 700 miles away. It was more difficult to trick my two roommates.
"Dude, what's with your drinking all the time?" asked Wes, a childhood friend who'd scored a Soho apartment with another friend, Paul, before I came to New York to join them. He woke every morning knowing I was drinking behind the locked door to my bedroom. "Are you trying to craft some image as the hard-drinking writer?"
No, I told him, I was just bored. He called me out on my behavior and I hated it, but I continued to drink.
Eventually, I got a job at a media research firm and was able to take hours-long breaks to slam vodka tonics at a nearby Irish bar. When I'd return to the office, I'd sometimes vomit up a collage that looked like a box of crayons. I soon quit – citing the "stress on my body" – and picked up work at the Strand, the famous bookstore near Union Square. On 15-minute breaks, I'd power walk to a nearby Trader Joe's, stock up on discount wine and stash it in the break room.
I didn't drink on the job, so each night when I left I had a spring in my step. It felt like I'd been freed. I knew that in a few blocks, I'd be back to normal. And for me, normal was living life under the haze of alcohol. I'd pop open a bottle of wine, tune the rest of the world out, and dive headfirst into writing, reading and drinking, with the latter the most important of the three.
Strange as it sounds, I viewed my meager paychecks in terms of how much alcohol I could purchase. Food was secondary – I'd just put that on the credit card, I thought. I'd make a trip, sometimes two, every day to the liquor store conveniently located beneath my apartment.
The drinking was taking a toll on my body. A cholesterol test taken before I moved to Manhattan charted my levels hovering above 200. I was told by my doctor to eat right and exercise.
But after a year in New York, a test showed my cholesterol at 374; a nurse later told me it was the highest level she'd ever seen. My liver was working overtime because of the alcohol, breaking it down throughout the day while I continued to drink and then at night after I'd pass out, bottle by my side.
Back then, I rationalized that drinking wine was actually healthy for me. I even asked my doctor if wine would help lower the levels. He gently reminded me that grape juice would work just as well. Especially, he said, for someone whose family has a history of addiction.
A family like mine.
THE LIE AND HOW WE TOLD IT
For a long time, my lies kept me afloat. I lied to my parents, lied to my friends. I told them I needed to borrow money to go on dates, when I really used it to buy alcohol. I told them I was applying for jobs when all I was doing was drinking and writing prose that would never have an audience.
My two roommates had a familiar routine. They got up in the morning and went to work. Sometimes in the evening, they'd go to the gym; sometimes, they'd socialize. Then they went to bed around 11 and started over the next morning.
My routine grew into something different. I would come to from last night's drunk and proceed to imbibe, promising myself each day it would be different. But it would always end the same: I'd reach between my bed and my wall, grab a bottle of vodka or wine, and start guzzling. I wrote short stories and pitch letters. Between swigs and keystrokes, I'd place the bottle on the radiator next to my bed. Eventually, I'd pass out.
I missed countless appointments with friends. The occasional night I'd actually make it out to meet at neighborhood bars, I'd leave early and go home to drink by my lonesome.
One day, I had plans to meet my grandmother, who lives in New Jersey. I'd take the subway to the Port Authority, catch a bus to her suburb, and talk with her over a bowl of homemade turkey-barley soup.
But several screwdrivers and glasses of shiraz into the day, I found myself waking up. It was hours after I needed to leave. I'd stood up my own grandmother.
I lived in the most vibrant pocket of the greatest city in the country and wasn't making it out my front door. I didn't want to leave the reach of a bottle. I was drinking leftover beers from last night's party in the shower. If I went to the movies, I'd drink airplane bottles of vodka in the bathroom by myself. If there was no alcohol available, I would drink Listerine.
When I pressed my index and middle fingers on the area around my liver, it hurt. The vomiting grew more frequent and always showed traces of blood. My throat usually felt as if someone had scrubbed it with sandpaper.
When I visited the liquor store downstairs a second time in one day, the owner was alarmed enough to warn that I was going to have a heart attack. I deflected his advice with a joke about how wine was good for the heart. Purchase made, alcohol secured. I returned to my apartment and checked my pulse between slugs of wine from the bottle.
I might as well have been trying to hold a basketball underwater. The deeper I tried to push my demons, the harder they were to restrain. The second I let go, the urge to drink would rocket to the surface and I'd pick up where I left off.
It was a maddening cycle; in retrospect, a slow suicide. In the end, I drank because it was the one place where I felt safe.
After nine months in New York City, in July 2006, I made my first attempt at sobriety.
I managed to go two days without a drink. But I spent every moment watching the clock. I couldn't concentrate. I was obsessed with checking my pulse, because I feared I'd have a heart attack.
On the third day, I tossed on whatever clothes I had available and walked to Bellevue Hospital to seek substance-abuse counseling. I stepped into the hospital chapel to say a prayer and broke down in tears. I thought about my father, and how his alcoholism must have owned him the same way mine now owned me.
On the prayer request corkboard, I wrote "Please help my father in his time of need, and help me with my own addiction."
That's the last thing I remember until I woke up in the emergency room with an IV in my arm, the beep of heart monitors around me and a detoxing heroin addict vomiting on the floor to my left. "You had a seizure," a nurse said as she checked my pulse. "They were pretty scared."
From what I was told, I had walked into the business office and collapsed. Wiggling in a grand mal seizure, I'd bit my tongue and lost control of my bodily functions. My eyes saw the back of my head. The ER doctor asked me to hold up my hands. Each finger shook independently of the others.
Anti-depressants I'd sporatically been taking and the abrupt absence of alcohol sent my body into a frenzy. The hospital staff pumped me full of electrolytes and Valium. And for three days, I recuperated in a four-person room overlooking the East River. Every morning, my roommates and I watched the sun rise to cook the city. I walked the halls, dragging my IV along with me, chatting with nurses and chewing ice.
I was relieved to be sober, but I was also in a Valium haze for most of my stay. I left Bellevue thinking everything was going to be fine.
But three days later, I was drinking again. A half-hearted attempt at going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings – where I refused to admit I was "one of them" and didn't share what was racing through my mind – resulted in me caving. I made up for the lost days in Bellevue.
And as I twisted the cap off another bottle of vodka, I told myself the seizure was a fluke, a bump in the road, and that it'd never happen again.
My roommates asked what I was doing. I lied to their faces, telling them the doctor said a little alcohol was necessary to ensure I didn't have another seizure. After they'd go to sleep, I'd stay up until 4 a.m. guzzling bottle after bottle of wine, writing as much as I could, only to highlight all the text and press "delete."
Until Tahiti. I'd been sitting on the free trip for a year. I'd entered the contest on a whim – the chat show was merely background noise while I applied for jobs. I didn't believe the news when an e-mail declaring me a winner arrived in my in-box. Now I thought the change in geography might free me from the need to drink.
But I arrived in paradise with the taste of wine strong in my mouth. And as soon as I checked into my bungalow, I placed a call to room service for food and more wine. Two bottles, please. My need to drink was stronger than my will to stop.
And in a bungalow I may never be able to afford again, I lounged in my bed and drank until I passed out. While fellow vacationers were zipping around the far-flung paradise on bicycles and scuba diving, I was sprawled out in my bed, bottle on the bedside table, reading a book about independent filmmakers and following world events on CNN International. The top of the coffee table in my bungalow would slide open and I'd feed potato chips to the fish below me. I'd black out and then come to in the middle of the morning, raising the bottle to my lips again.
One morning, a vivid lightning storm was developing along the horizon. More concerned about the danger around me than the harm I was causing myself, I drunkenly called the front desk to tell them. They told me not to worry.
I was blacked out the entire way home.
It took me two months to have a second seizure, this time in my apartment. Capucine was visiting from France. Someone called 911, and I awoke to EMTs bringing a gurney through the door. Capucine joined me in the ambulance as they took me to another hospital.
Three days after being discharged, I was drinking again. That's when Wes decided to intervene. He called my parents.
I was splayed across my bed, hadn't showered in days, an utter mess of a person who lived to drink and drank to sleep. I knew my mother was on the phone before he handed it to me. She asked what I needed to do. Gasping through the tears, I told her I needed help and was coming home. I quit my job at the bookstore, drank to fend off the shakes and packed my bags.
On April Fools' Day in 2007, a black sedan shuttled me to JFK airport. I looked through the back window at the disappearing skyline in a Kodachrome New York morning. This was the city where I had ventured to follow my dreams. I was leaving shot and wasted, with an enlarged liver, shaking hands and tormented spirit.
CONSTANTS ARE CHANGING
My detox began with my parents.
They were knowledgeable enough to bring me down one step at a time. They allowed me to have two glasses of rosé on my first night back, then one the next night. I had nothing the third night, then a single glass the following evening.
The next day, I returned to a familiar place: the Talbott Recovery Campus in College Park, a nationally known treatment center. I knew it because my father had been a patient there after I left UGA. In fact, the leader of my mother's spouse support group had told me back then that she'd heard about me: She expected to see me in there sometime.
I had an initial consultation with the medical director. But I was still fighting it. I thought I was fine. I'd been sober five days. I was ready to take on New York City again.
My parents insisted. And deep down, I knew they were right. I wanted my life back. I was desperate. I feared that if I didn't die from drinking like one of my grandfathers, that I'd spend the rest of my life working odd jobs and living in between shots of alcohol like the other.
Two weeks later, I checked into Talbott, moved into an apartment with three other alcoholics, and began to explore the pain that was underneath all the drinking.
I was surrounded by people from all walks of life. The poultry farmer with liver failure. The pro wrestler who became dependent on pain pills. The anesthesiologist who huffed gas during surgery. The housewife who was so drunk that she forgot where she'd dropped her kids off for a soccer game. The child of privilege who became an escort and a heroin addict.
My brethren and I uniformly pegged the trust of our families as the greatest loss the disease had caused. I was younger than most of the group and would hear the same comment almost daily. "I wish I would've done this at your age," a businessman in his 40s said to me. Then his voice began to trail away. "I mean, the things I've put my family through."
There were fellow patients whose families wouldn't speak to them because of the wreckage they caused. Truth builds trust and trust builds relationships – addicts and alcoholics have lost all of that in the eyes of their loved ones.
Part of the treatment process involves using "impact letters" written by loved ones to make the patient aware of the wreckage he or she caused.
"Dear Thomas, the roller coaster has crashed. I am your mom. I shall always love you. However, liking you and being with you is uncertain. You could die before me. What would my world be without you? Will I be relieved that you do not have to continue to face your demons?"
The words of my father: "You are my son and I shall always love you, but I shall no longer participate in your demise."
The letters were so painful to read that they had but one effect: They made me desperately crave a drink.
This time, however, I was able to realize that whatever pain I tried to mask through alcohol would only be amplified if I picked up another drink. I sat with it and dealt with it. And, finally, the pain began to subside.
AN ENDING (ASCENT)
"Hello, my name is Thomas and I'm an alcoholic."
The first time I uttered that phrase at a 12-step meeting, and meant it, my voice cracked. When I looked around the room, I saw knowing smiles from strangers. When I say it today, it's like saying, "Hi, my name is Thomas, and I'm wearing pants." It's who I am, it's what is real and by vocalizing it, I can't second-guess the reality of my situation.
By admitting defeat and that I have a weakness, I was able to become stronger. The truth – that my name is in fact Thomas, and yes, I am an alcoholic – had settled with me once I vocalized it in a 12-step meeting. The noise in my mind is silenced. My most soulful moments now come when I least expect them – the colors are brighter, the joy is more joyful and the pain rattles me to the core.
I fall asleep; I don't pass out. I wake up; I no longer come to. I see the good in myself that others always told me about. More than anything, I can look in the mirror and not question the thoughts in my eyes. I've come to grips with the fact that humming through all of life is the unknown.
"That's exciting, yes?" Capucine says in that way that French girls do, masking a statement as a question.
A week ago, I received late news that a good friend of mine – one whom I'd pegged as one of those guys who "got it" and "understood" his alcoholism – had died of a cocaine overdose. Several months ago, my roommate in a post-treatment living facility died from a heroin overdose. .
To stumble in this disease can be dangerous. Friends and strangers often ask if I think there'll ever be a time I can have a casual drink. I can't. Treatment didn't "teach me" how to drink. I knew how to drink. Treatment helped me start dealing with life so I finally could stop.
I miss alcohol for all the wrong reasons. One of my most intense cravings happened six months ago while getting out of the shower. For no particular reason, I was overwhelmed with a desire for the chaos that accompanied my drinking. The waking up hours late and behind schedule, the missed messages, the need to make excuses. I ached to feel the downward spiral and anxiety that went with it
When I read an AJC article in February about a bitter battle over a late Cobb County businessman's will, I found myself suddenly envious. Not because he lived a life of success and bequeathed a bountiful estate. But because at the end of his days, he was incoherent, drinking a gallon of wine a day, drowning in an intoxicated world separate from this one. He was using a bedpan. And I was jealous.
But that's how this disease works. Ensconced in the depths of my brain is a glitch that no amount of willpower, teeth grinding or white knuckling will uproot. It's there.
And trusting in something greater than yourself – for some it's a notion of God; for me it's the power of imagination and nature – offers the greatest hope. It's been working. I received my one-year chip from my 12-step support group this month, and haven't had alcohol since that last glass of wine in my mother's kitchen.
But I don't harp on the number of days. I wake up in the morning; I go to sleep at night. And I don't drink today.
What I have is clarity. My cholesterol is a healthy 130. My liver survived. I am able to face the challenges of the day and my obsession has been lifted.
In times of loneliness and doubt, I'll stand on my deck at night and look into the sky that boxes all of us in. I remind myself that the melancholy is temporary, that the pain subsides, that thoughts are not facts, and that my mind will quiet. That with every passing night, I'm closer to another day I haven't crumbled into the disaster where addiction once led me. The slow suicide is over for the moment.
I'm happy. I'm sober. I'm still crazy and in love with life; I just don't numb myself from its wonder. I've been to the hell inside of me. And I don't have to go back.
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