During childhood, my backyard Orinda play area was a cow pasture with adjoining stables. Of course, like any young boys at that age, we were fascinated by the mystery and danger of the electric fences that encircled the property. My brother, who was three years older than me, and his friends would ask me to find out if a fence was on. So I would grab hold of the top wire with both hands and then run home crying to mom. However, before long I would be back with the older kids and, if my brother asked me whether a fence was “hot,” I would repeat the cycle. I can only think that I was foolish enough to imagine that not touching the fence again would make me seem weak before my brother and the other big kids.
Through my rational “clean and sober” eyes I can look back at that pitiful young creature and clearly see an emerging personality that in adulthood would end up displaying reckless disregard for dangers that were far more scary and powerful than any electric fence.
As I grew older, I loved the challenge of getting away with something and performing acts that would make me look good in front of my friends. My life passed an important and terrible milestone when I was 13 years old and had my first beer. I was partying with my brother and some friends while our parents were attending a high school football game. The beer made me feel like a man.
My brother became my mentor and coach, teaching me lessons, such as how to shotgun a beer, that I would later be able to use to impress my friends. I embraced a risky lifestyle with both hands. I was the life of every party I attended. I began to drink at every opportunity that came my way and began to collect Minor Possession of Alcohol (MIP) misdemeanors as though they were trophies.
In those days, my reckless behaviors apparently had no apparent consequences. I was a member of the school wrestling team. I made the varsity squad as a freshman and was team captain during my senior year.
Following graduation in 1989 from high school, I had the opportunity of enrolling in the Naval Academy Prep School at Rhode Island. I was on course to attend Annapolis and have a career as a military officer. The option remained open to me even after I passed out on a sidewalk and woke up in a drunk tank. However, after six months in that military-like environment I grew tired of the restrictions so transferred to UC Berkeley. I decided to make up for lost time, joined a fraternity, and found myself in a society with 30 other guys who were just like me. We spent the next four years drinking and using together. Some mornings I would wake up with no memory of what happened the night before. My friends would just laugh. They admired my ability to get plastered so often without obvious consequences.
WHEN I WOKE UP IN THE HOSPITAL I KNEW WHAT I HAD TO DO. I COULD TAKE THIS NEGATIVE AND TURN IT INTO A POSITIVE.”
I graduated from Berkeley in 1995 with a degree in Organizational Behavior in Business and immediately landed a job in San Francisco as a Wall Street trader with a NY investment bank. It was a dream job for a drinker because I was supposed to give clients a good time. It was like college but with an unlimited expense account. Since our schedules were linked to the NY stock trading hours, I had to be at work 4:30 a.m. The bars closed at 2:00 a.m. so I would go to the office, crawl under the desk, and spend a couple hours sleeping on the floor. Sometimes I would see other guys sleeping under their desks. Drinking for 12 hours was tough so I began to supplement the booze with “powdered forms of alcohol.”
Life could hardly have been better! I was a single guy, earning a lot of money, living in the Marina, and drinking my way through life. Romance was the only missing factor, but that was solved in 1997 when I met “Marie” at a bar. We struck up a conversation, dated for eight years, moved in together, and finally married.
When Marie got pregnant my long slide into the horrors of uncontrollable alcoholism began. Life started to develop a hard edge as I confronted the increasingly more difficult challenge of balancing my hard-drinking lifestyle with my role as family man living the suburbia lifestyle. The last shreds of my integrity began to vanish when Marie quit drinking during her pregnancy, which gave me the insane (I can’t think of a better word) conviction that I now had the responsibility of drinking for three. I was far down the road of alcoholism, but remained perfectly convinced that I was far from actually being an alcoholic. The delusion was reinforced when I stopped using “powdered form of alcohol,” cold turkey. I reasoned that no alcoholic could abruptly stop using.
I ignored the growing signs that I had a problem. I was no longer a good drunk. Blackouts were happening with increasing frequency. Marie realized that I was in trouble and made the decision that she would monitor my drinking and help me control my alcohol consumption. It was a completely rational solution, from her viewpoint. The problem was that I was adopting increasingly irrational behaviors. My attitude should have been one of gratitude for her willingness to help, but I took it as a challenge and adopted the position that it never happened if I didn’t get caught. Before long I was addicted to the challenge of getting away with drinking as much as to the drink itself.
I became a master of appearing to moderate my drinking without actually doing so. I was aided by an incredible ability to “hold my liquor.” I would go to lunch with clients and limit myself to a beer so I could drive home safely. I would get home at 3:00 p.m. and when Marie arrived three hours later I would tell her about the beer at lunch but not about the two bottles of wine I had consumed before she arrived. We would go out to dinner and I would order a single beer. However, the bar would usually be near the bathroom. I would excuse myself, put down a triple-shot of Tequila, and be back at the table in just a minute or two.
In November 2006 the happiest moment of my life occurred when our child was born. Our marriage was in trouble so we went to counseling. However, I was in the thick of my disease. Marie knew I wasn’t being honest, so we split up.
At 6: 00 p.m. during “The Sunday Express” meeting at the Human Needs Center in Novato I raised my hand for the first time and recited, “I am T.C.; I’m an alcoholic.” However, I listened to all the differences but none of the similarities when people began talking about drinking in the morning, and then they began shaking so they drank more to control the shaking, because I had never had those problems. I was different.
I began meeting with a sponsor but failed to really take the first step: “We are powerless over alcohol; our lives are unmanageable.” I was at Helen Vine Detox a half dozen times over a six-month period. In the fall of 2013 Marie took me to court with a custody issue. The judge said, “If nothing happens between now and January, this will all go away.” I now had a motivation to get sober but discovered I couldn’t go 24 hours without drinking.
On December 24, 2013, I was caught and was about to lose shared custody of my child. I checked into Helen Vine that weekend and on December 29 my parents picked me up to look at sober living environments (SLE), which my sponsor demanded. At 4:00 p.m. I crashed into a parked car. By the grace of God a neurosurgeon was on call that night at Marin General. I underwent six hours of brain surgery. If he hadn’t been there I would have died. As it was I spent the next week in an induced coma followed by a month at John Muir Walnut Creek.
When I woke up in the hospital I knew what I had to do. I could take this negative and turn it into a positive. Every day I began to say the Third Step Prayer:
“God, I offer myself to thee to build with me and to do with me as though wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self that I may better do thy will. Take away my difficulties that victory over them may bear witness to those that I would help of thy power, thy love, and thy way of life.”
Things really did begin to change. At the beginning my condition was so serious I needed to have attendants by my bedside 24/7. I began to refer to my monitors as “My shadow people.” One of them once said that the team agreed that I was the nicest patient they ever had. They imagined it was because of my upbringing but, in fact, it was because of my previous experience with the program.
Towards the end constant surveillance ended, and I spent a lot of time by myself. One night I was struck by a sense that I wasn’t alone. After reciting the prayer, I looked up and said, “You are holding my hand right now; aren’t you?” Beyond any shadow of doubt, He was there and He was holding on to me.
I spent 28 days at the John Muir Center For Recovery (CFR). Each day I was involved in group therapies. We were supposed to describe our attitudes with “a feeling word.” Mine never changed. Every day the word was “gratitude” because any impulse to complain about something quickly led to a feeling of thanksgiving that I was actually still around to complain.
I’m taking my message to any club, gathering, or congregation that will listen to me. I describe three absolutes about alcoholism that I’ve tested and proven:
• It’s never going to be different.
• It always gets worse.
• This is an incurable disease.
There is no way people like me can lead normal lives if we have the smallest reservation about any of these. I’m always going to be an alcoholic. It is the only disease I know of that, if you are honest, open-minded, and willing, can make you a better person than you were before.
ONE NIGHT I WAS STRUCK BY A SENSE THAT I WASN’T ALONE.”
I know exactly how much charge there is in that particular electric fence and I’m keeping my hands off it now and forever.