Before I got sober, I’d only gone without alcohol for more than seven days three times since I was 13. The first two “extended dry times” led me to attempt suicide and end up in psychiatric hospitals—the third included talking mice, fireworks and long conversations with princesses. Let me explain.
In March of 1978, I’d been stationed in Germany for a little more than a year and had quickly progressed from smoking hash to smoking opium to snorting speed to shooting speed to shooting heroin. Through each of these promotions, alcohol was my loyal aide-de-camp, always at my side offering comfort and condolences. By the brass ring of heroin, I recognized it was time to leave the drug merry-go-round, but dope has a funny habit, like gum on your shoe, of not wanting to be left behind. I went to my company commander, Captain Baines, a nice enough man I’d not spent much time with, and asked for help. Luckily the military’s pendulum regarding drugs—the brig or rehab—was firmly in the “get this soldier some help” position, and I was sent to a rehab program at Landstuhl Army Hospital. The SHARE program was a lot of things, but effective it wasn’t, at least for most people. I was one of the lucky ones, and I have not used any opiate since 1978. Unfortunately for me, alcohol was also verboten at SHARE. I knew I had a minor heroin problem, but banning alcohol seemed harsh. At the time, I didn’t recognize alcohol as an issue, but being separated from it seemed to make me go mad. Literally. After a couple weeks at SHARE, I decided I was in love with my married therapist and, while her husband was visiting, brutally slashed my wrists in a bathroom to demonstrate my love. It didn’t work on any level, and I was put in the psychiatric unit for a couple weeks, tested and determined fit for duty. I was discharged, returned to my home unit and dramatically increased my booze intake for the remainder of my tour. No heroin, though, so I was a success.
Eight years later, I was a seminary student at a conservative graduate school and Baptist youth minister, two roles that make secret drinking a necessity. I’d struck a balance, living 10 miles from seminary and 45 miles from my church, so I could still claim sanctuary and drink in the privacy of my own bedroom. The church, though, thought it would be great to have me closer, and helped us find a place to live right in that town. Now, I was stuck. Baptists have a finely-tuned sense of smell when it comes to booze, fellow students at seminary were similarly attuned, and I’d made a vow never to actually drink in a car. I had to stop altogether—except when I could get away for a couple days and get sloppy drunk. Still, between church and seminary I couldn’t drink the way I needed to, much less the way I wanted to. I quit . . . and slowly went insane. After a few weeks, I had invented a new sport—stair surfing I called it—that involved throwing myself face-first down flights of stairs and body-surfing to the bottom. Soon, I was back to slicing my wrists—not as horrifically as at Landstuhl, but still leaving wounds difficult to explain to fellow students or parishioners. Finally, I was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital for two months, where I was diagnosed with depression—yuh think?—put on medication and discharged. I resigned from the church and withdrew from seminary, found new work and returned to drinking like a gentleman. A gentleman who drinks too much, but a gentleman nevertheless.
The third time, with talking mice and rolling pumpkins and princesses? As a single dad, I took my three young daughters to Disneyworld, where we spent a week busy from dawn until near midnight. I’d just been fired from a job for drinking—and behaviors related to drinking—and needed to convince myself I wasn’t an alcoholic. Proving to yourself you’re not an alcoholic is one dead-sure sign you are, but I determined not drinking at Disneyworld while alone with three kids under the age of 13 for seven days was proof enough. We returned home with me as a certified, in my mind, non-alcoholic, and I embarked on a six-month bender. But at least I wasn’t an alcoholic.