My last drink to date – okay, drinks, since we’re talking about at least a bottle of wine – took place exactly 26 years ago, on Jan. 31, 1992.
The setting: An ex-girlfriend’s apartment in West Los Angeles. The reason: I was hoping that if we both got drunk enough, she would sleep with me one more time. The timing: I was leaving Los Angeles the next morning, to move back East.
The result: I couldn’t get her drunk enough. Nothing happened.
At least, nothing happened in the apartment, other than my registering her look of disgust at my drinking. The real “something” took place outside her building, as I sat in my car, sobering up, and I experienced my first moment of clarity in 15 years of drinking.
I remember so clearly sitting there and thinking: “I’ve turned into an animal. This woman loves me, and all I want to do is use her and throw her away.”
Even before then, I had realized I needed to stop drinking. Despite degrees from Amherst College and Columbia Law School, I was unemployable. I was unlovable.
Couldn’t keep a job. Couldn’t keep a dollar in my pocket. I brought out the worst in every woman I ever dated. At the age of 33, I had hit bottom.
I had stopped drinking eight times over the 21 months preceding that night at my ex-girlfriend’s. I found I could go two months without drinking, then eight months, then four months, whatever.
But I would always pick up again.
After all, I wasn’t an alcoholic, right? Right?
The feeling of being a user – not just of alcohol but of people, and especially of a person who loved me – intensified as I sat in my car outside her apartment that night. I had the dim realization that if I were smart, the awakening I was experiencing was worth hanging onto.
Over the next few months, my view of myself changed. “I’m not really an alcoholic,” I first said to myself. And then, “I’m not not an alcoholic.” And then, finally, painfully, came the truth: “I am an alcoholic. Yes, I am an alcoholic.”
I actually sat down and wrote out my entire drinking history. In 45 minutes, 17 double-spaced pages of alcohol-related trouble and loss poured out of my pen. I took what I had written to a meeting of a group that specializes in problem drinkers.
The speaker that Sunday morning happened to have the same first name as mine and happened to have an awfully similar story. “Would you read this and tell me if you think I’m an alcoholic?” I asked, offering the pages. He accepted and then called back a few days later.
“These blackouts are a signpost for alcoholism,” he told me. “Your inability to hold a job is a signpost for alcoholism. Same thing with your inability to function in a relationship. Same thing with your poor family relationships, your anger.”
And on and on until I finally got the point. I surrendered. Stopped drinking for good, a day at a time.
Now, 26 years later, my last drink to date remains that bottle of wine that I knocked off, hoping to inspire my ex-girlfriend to get as drunk as I needed her to be. I’ve since made my amends to her and we remain in contact. We’re friends.
Equally important for me, every year, right around the anniversary of that last drink, I park outside her building – she’s moved, but that’s not the point – and I think about the thoughts I had sitting in a car, that moment of clarity, all the way back on Jan. 31, 1992.
In fact, as I write these words, I’m sitting in front of the building right now. The building looks a little older, but then, so do I.
It’s not just that I never want to use alcohol again. It’s that I never want to use another human being, as long as I live.
One of my favorite clichés about sobriety: “I used to use people and love things. Now I use things and love people.” That’s a better way to live.
People are not packs of tissues, to be used and tossed away. I know that now. If only I’d known it then.
But another sobriety cliché reminds me that I can’t be happy today by wishing for a happier yesterday. I’m not looking for applause, medals or praise.
After all, I’m doing what I should have been doing all along. Living like a decent human being, instead of, well, the animal I had become back then.
Life without alcohol or drugs isn’t just possible. It’s better. Much, much better.