Sunday, July 24, 2011

Step One

Disclaimer: In the spirit of anonymity, I have modified my original document to remove the names of the people I've included in this narrative. There is no point in revealing their real names, and it wouldn't be fair to one or two in particular, to have their identities known. Their identities are not what are important anyway; it's the history, the relationships, and the impact on my personal life that need to be considered. So, if you know me then you know some of my life history already, and you may be able to pluck out the identities of some of the individuals included here, but do me a favor and don't speculate about who they are.

Step One: Admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.

Before I even opened this journal page, Dear Diary, I reread the chapter on Step One in the 12 and 12. I also reread my own journal entry from a few days ago; Do I Believe In God?

I think it is important to have established exactly what my Higher Power means to me before talking about the rest of the twelve steps. As AA is based on a solid foundation of spirituality with frequent references to God, my creator, and miracles, it helps to have that "minor detail" clear in my mind, right? Right.

I've been told the concept behind Step One is Honesty. If I am to be truly honest with myself and others, I must admit I am powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable. I do so admit! And in the service of honesty, I need to go back a few years to a revelation point, or "aha moment," that is important in my drinking career. Not a starting point, but a revelation point.

Ah heck, I'll gloss over the starting point as well! It isn't particularly dramatic, but it does perhaps set the tone.

I was very young when I started drinking beer, I'm sure as part of the male bonding ritual with my dad. I remember always begging for sips of his beer, because he would pop the top on a can, pour salt on the top, and then lick the salt just before taking a drink of beer. He taught me this fine art when I was probably 12 or 13. I remember many, many nights at Draper Lake when Dad and I would go fishing, and we'd always have the beer cooler with us. Aside from just liking salt, it made the beer fizzy in my mouth, which I also liked.

One night while on the lake I kept sneaking sips of daddy's beer, and in a slightly annoyed but yet amused voice, he said, "Leave my beer alone and get your own out of the cooler!" YES! That was exactly what I wanted to hear. I dug out a can of Coors Banquet, pulled off the pop top (yep, they came completely loose back in those days, circa 1965-1966), sprinkled the top of the can with a generous portion of salt from a shaker tethered to the cooler, and sat back to enjoy my first, fully my own, can of beer.

Beer was not an acquired taste for me. I've heard many people say they had to acquire a taste for it, but it was just the best tasting thing I could imagine when I started drinking at that age. I'm sure the salt had its influence as well, since every kid loves salt on everything, right? I know I did.

Lest you think Dad a totally amoral cad, he didn't let me drink as much as I wanted whenever I wanted. He made me go slowly, and usually only allowed me two whole cans of beer over the course of the night while we were fishing.

I don't remember much else about those fishing trips. In fact, I used to hate going fishing at night. I was bored (couldn't read in the dark), couldn't listen to a radio (because it would either scare the fish or disturb dad's peace and quiet), and the bugs were ferocious! (And I absolutely HATED getting sprayed with bug spray to keep them away.)

Dad was usually quiet on these trips, not avoiding conversation, but not usually going out of his way to initiate it either. I had little patience for fishing, and never understood its appeal to my dad while I was a kid. But I certainly never refused to go along once I knew I could have a beer or two during the trip. Much later in life I understood perfectly why Dad liked it so much. He enjoyed the quiet time to himself!

Although I don't have many specific memories beyond what I've already shared, I do have a very strong feeling of enjoying the time with my dad, and would have done so sans beer, I'm sure. I was one of those kids who bitched about having to go somewhere with his parents, but usually ended up having a great time once I got there. Fishing trips with Dad were like that.

So much for glossing over the beginning! Well, for the purposes of this narrative I'll at least flash through the subsequent years, to approximately 2004.

Late 2004 to early 2005 is when I started hanging out at the Hollywood Hotel at Portland and 39th St in Oklahoma City. (Back in the 60s it was a Holiday Inn.) The Hollywood was a gay establishment with a restaurant and three bars, as well as a fully functioning hotel. I liked the bar in the restaurant, the Topanga, because it was open and bright, and the south wall of the restaurant/bar was floor to ceiling plate glass, affording an outside view. I much preferred this to dark, dingy bars where I always felt I was hiding away from the general public as though embarrassed to be caught drinking, or caught being gay, for that matter.

It was at the Hollywood where I met the majority of my current circle of friends. I sat at the bar reading books on my Pocket PC. Yes, even back then I was an avid ebook reader. I became a regular there, and all the bartenders knew me. Soon, other regulars and I struck up casual conversations, which grew into regular meetings, and eventually strong and lasting friendships. Four or five acquaintances, and a few others by association, grew into the group we have today.

I would describe my drinking at that point as regular (daily) but not particularly destructive. I drank mostly red wine, having abandoned beer a few years before in an effort to lose weight. I always had a side drink of club soda to go with my wine. (One of the Topanga bartenders with whom I became friends, called me "Merlot Joe," as a way of remembering both my name and what I liked to drink.)

My drinking didn't interfere with family or work. I still attended family events and kept up with my nephew's sports activities. I was in my stride at work; well thought of, respected, and I enjoyed what I did.

My drinking began to accelerate because I was hanging out at the Hollywood more, and with friends who drank like I did. I was excited to be gaining a group of gay friends, something I'd missed since most of my previous "circle" had moved away in the previous few years. Some moved to the Washington D.C. area, some to Seattle, Illinois, and California.

When I bought my condo in October 2005, it became the "party condo." Quite a few people made use of the party condo practically every weekend, because the booze was always there. I started skipping my nephew's sporting events because I was drinking with friends.

But the "aha moment" to which I referred earlier occurred December 22, 2006. That is the day TP passed away, at the age of 56 (a year younger than I am now). It's hard to believe almost five years have passed. A lot has happened since then.

TP died from choking on a piece of grilled chicken. The story, as I recall it being told to me by his wife, LP, is this. About a week prior to TP's death, LP was working on the computer in the office and TP ducked into the room to say he was going to grill a piece of chicken and asked if she wanted one. She said no, but that he should go ahead. He did. A while later he came running into the room, blue in the face, and grabbing his throat in the universal "I'm choking" gesture.

He collapsed, and she tried to help, but even the Heimlich Maneuver didn't work. She called 911 and the paramedics did all they could. They managed to extract the piece of chicken from deep in his airway and revive his body, but he'd been unconscious so long there was no brain activity when they got him to the hospital.

A few days later, on December 22, 2006, TP's daughter finally made the decision to turn off life support, and he was gone. (I won't go into all the family drama between TP's daughter - from his first wife - and LP, with whom he lived. Suffice it to say, things were not cordial.)

LP kept me updated throughout the few days this was going on. I debated whether to drive to Kansas City to see TP in the hospital before he died, but LP said he was brain dead and there was no point. She tried to turn off life support much earlier, but the daughter intervened, preventing her from doing so until the daughter, whom TP had not seen since she was a toddler, was ready.

At the time, all I remember was being in shock. TP had contacted me a few weeks before, in a slump from recent business related losses and from recovering from a long illness; diverticulitis. He'd lost his private investigator business due to some embezzlement activities of his business partners while he was sick. He had actually asked me if he could come to Oklahoma City and stay with me while he attempted to get reinstated with the Postal Service.

His plan was to get rehired so he could work out the rest of the time he needed to qualify for civil service retirement. He was several years short of eligibility, since he'd left postal employment to start his PI business 15 years earlier (maybe longer).

I was used to his stories (lost his business?) and scheming (get rehired at the post office after 15+ years?), so I took his request with a measure of skepticism, thinking it very unlikely that I would hear from him for quite some time. Well, I never did. The next contact I had was with LP.

I never associated the date of TP's death with the holiday season that year. He died three days before Christmas. And I had a nuclear meltdown. I drank pretty much non-stop, except during working hours. I never drank at work, or during work hours.

There was a lot going on at the Hollywood Hotel for the holidays in 2006. One of my closest friends, JB, was the bar manager there. He was really busy keeping things running over the Christmas holiday period, but when I called him, blubbering like a baby, he dropped everything to come over and spend some time with me. He found me in my condo, sitting on the floor, going through photo albums and tearing out pictures of TP and shredding them, one by one.

I tried to explain to JB my relationship with TP, which was complicated. I truly believe that I had fallen in love with him when I first met him in the 1970s. I met him when he hired on at the post office after leaving the Marines in 1975; he was 25 years old, cocky, outgoing, and (I thought) very handsome.

TP and I became fast friends almost immediately. Although I didn't tell him for a very long time that I was gay, or how I felt about him, I know he heard rumors about me at work and stood up to a lot of teasing from his other friends about our friendship. He never let that interfere with us, though. I did eventually tell him I was gay. But the depth of my feelings for him I kept to myself for many years, for fear of losing his friendship. You see, we had had some long discussions about friendship and male relationships, so I knew without doubt he would never feel the same about me as I felt about him.

Had I known I would be setting myself up for so much self-torture in the coming years, I wonder if I would have made any effort to distance myself from him early on. A gay man in love with a straight man never has a happy ending.

But our friendship thrived. I loved being a part of his life, and being his confidant when he needed to talk, or a drinking buddy when he felt like getting out of the house. I was there for him through more than one divorce, and quite a few break-ups with a number of women over the years. We might go as long as a couple of months without talking, especially if he was in the early stages of a new relationship with a girlfriend, but we always gravitated back to each other.

I remember one time TP said to me when we were drunk, and he was crying in his beer over a recent break-up: "Do you know why I like having you as a friend, Joe? Because you never try to cheer me up! If I'm in a bad mood, or sad, or whatever, you just let me be. You're right there with me, but you don't try to cheer me up. I really like that about you."

A dubious compliment, perhaps, but I was proud of it. Over the years, I had fallen into a supporting role for TP, and that often meant just being a companion, even a silent companion, during his down periods when he didn't want to talk but didn't want to be alone, either.

For the better part of 10 years, we maintained a steady relationship along these lines. I kept journals back then, too, all hand written and gravid with longing for a fair-weather breeze to turn our relationship in a direction more to my liking. It never happened, though. The realization that my wish for something more was never going to happen finally started to sink in, and I got depressed.

I finally felt like I had to separate myself from TP, or I would lose myself in him completely. I recognized the futility of lingering in such a hopeless situation, and I couldn't shift our friendship onto more level ground without putting some distance between us first. Very likely a great distance, not one of space, but of time. I was used to not hearing from him when he fired up a new relationship with a woman, so I waited until the next one came along. The separation was a bit easier to manage that way. He wasn't suspicious when he didn't hear from me for days on end, or when I was abrupt if he called me.

It took a few months, but I finally managed to drag myself out of the quicksand in which I'd been mired for so long. When the eventual break-up happened with his latest fling and he knocked on my door at 2 AM, I left him standing on the porch with the door unanswered. He sat on the porch steps, drunk, with a six pack of beer, softly knocking now and then. I sat on the edge of the bed and cried quietly, mentally trying to turn the doorknob to let him in, but resolved not to move or make a sound. A mere few weeks or months prior to this and I would not have had the emotional strength to leave him standing outside.

The next day he called to check on me, since I hadn't answered the door. I lied. I told him I had passed out drunk and never heard him at the door. At least that was a lie he could believe.

In the late 80s, geographical distance added itself to the emotional distance I was trying to maintain, in a couple of ways. One, he moved to Kansas City to open his own Private Investigator business. The physical distance accompanied by the amount of time and energy it took for him to start a new business kept him from contacting me for long periods at a time. Second, my career at the USPS was taking off. I was promoted to a position in the Finance department in 1986, and approximately a year later I had proved myself useful enough in the job that I was offered a 3-month assignment at our regional office in Memphis, TN. That was in the summer of 1987. I accepted the offer, but the 3-month assignment turned into almost 3 years! I had regular trips back to Oklahoma City, but TP wasn't there anyway and with both of us concentrating on our careers in different cities, we fell out of touch.

Mentally and emotionally, I was much stronger for the separation. Actually, a little too strong, in retrospect. When I had clearer hindsight with time between us, I realized my relationship with TP had been very unhealthy for me. I had been too absorbed by his life, trapped in a close orbit around the bright triple-star that consisted of his personality, looks, and intelligence. I resolved never to let myself get that involved with another man, again, lest I completely disappear. That resolve has held for decades; I've never been in a long term relationship with another man as a result. Yet sadly, in the back of my mind, I think I harbored hope that maybe someday TP would come around to my way of thinking. So was I strong and detached in my independence from relationships, or just waiting for TP to come to his senses? Doubt the Destroyer always lingered just out of sight.

The point seems moot. We stayed in touch over the following couple of decades, but sometimes years went by between late night phone calls, or even the infrequent lunch. Those lunch reunions were a mixed blessing for me. While I enjoyed the time with him, I felt he had remained stagnant while I had grown, emotionally and professionally. He still asserted his "one-upmanship" personality, always besting your story with his. If I lost $100, he lost $1,000. If I bought a new Toyota, he bought a new BMW. I tired of it quickly.

The late night phone calls were even worse. Every now and then he'd get nostalgic and call me at 2 AM wanting to talk, to relive the early years of our friendship. He'd usually been drinking and was even more gregarious than usual. I, on the other hand, was deep in my professional career at the USPS and certainly did not appreciate the sleep interruption! But, as the dutiful old friend, I stayed on the phone for however long he needed to talk. He'd usually devolve into reminiscing about the good old times when we'd been newly promoted supervisors at the plant, and how he'd chase after the women with me scrambling after to pick up the pieces when those shallow relationships fell apart. (He always made me out to be the stronger, more resilient, of the two of us, because he was always the one needing support.) And then there were the occasional references to late night, drunken, affection between friends that were physically and emotionally painful for me to remember.

That type of contact grew less and less frequent over the years, until he contacted me in early December 2006 asking for help getting reinstated at the Postal Service, with him having fallen on hard times. I was deeply skeptical that it would ever happen, but I put forth the effort to gather information for him and refer him to the right people in Human Resources who could properly advise him.

When he died later that month, I was devastated.

As I mentioned earlier, my friend JB came over at my plea for help, and found me shredding photos of TP and ripping my handwritten journals about TP (that I had not read in decades, but oddly enough had kept) to shreds. I was drunk, very drunk. I was sobbing, hardly able to see through the tears to continue my destruction of photos and journals, or to find the bottle of red wine that had to be somewhere within arms reach. Only the bottle, no glass. No time for niceties like a wine glass when a meltdown was in progress.

JB physically stopped me from destroying all of the photos. It was too late for the journals, but he did manage to prevent me from losing all the pictures by taking them away from me. Of course, I'm grateful for that now. At the time, I was determined to excise every artifact that might someday remind me of TP. I had cut him out of my life years before. I carried a forlorn disdain for his feeble efforts to stay in touch over the years. I thought his boastful manner juvenile and unworthy of someone who professed to be as successful as he was; a self-made man.

And, evidently, I was still in love with the boy who had become a man, and was still dragging around a huge resentment toward him for not feeling about me the way I had felt about him all those years ago. Here I thought I had outgrown those feelings, when in fact I had only repressed them; walled them up. Now he was dead, and there truly was no hope of experiencing the unique, fairytale, "happily ever after" relationship I had forever longed for with him. My sadness was complete.


The path to alcoholic destruction was now laid at my feet.

All of these thoughts and feelings floated around in my mind, firing stinging barbs occasionally, with an odd recollection or two serving as reminders of my failure to really set my life in order. The only thing that killed the memories and dulled the emotions was alcohol. My drinking escalated after TP died. At first I blamed him, but then I realized I was falling back into old thought patterns and behaviors. I knew I couldn't blame TP for my own feelings, no matter how much I wanted to do so. And it's not as if he choked to death on a piece of chicken on purpose just to dig up long-buried feelings in me!

So alcohol helped dull my senses, for the moment. And those moments were frequent, so the alcohol was needed more than ever. JL, my confidant and best friend, knew what was going on in my head. So did JB. My other friends knew I had a friend who died, but didn't know the circumstances behind it, nor why the event was so traumatic for me.

The party condo was in full swing every weekend, especially during the summers when everyone wanted to swim at the complex's pool. I stayed busy in the condo keeping the alcohol flowing and the food set out. Credit card balances skyrocketed, but I didn't care. I fell into frequent binge drinking, and black-out drinking. How I managed to drive home from the bars without killing myself or someone else, I don't know. I chased after the cute guys at the bars, throwing money at them to gain their affection, as was my way, and then dropping into depression again when their interest waned when the money and booze ran out.

Professional woes began to stack themselves upon my personal problems; already a shaky prospect and certainly not sturdy enough to support them. Work related stress increased, partly due to changes in the work culture, partly due to my unfocused attention to the job. My alcohol consumption began to affect my decision making abilities, and I started to rely more on my staff to take care of things with as little input from me as possible. There were long days when I would close my office door and take a nap in my chair, biding my time until 4:30 when I could get home and start drinking again.

This behavior continued, getting worse as time marched on, from when TP died in December 2006 until December 2008. That's when even my friends realized I was too far gone. I was ignoring medical advice to stop drinking or else my liver would not survive. I was mixing Xanax and pain meds, when I could get them, with the alcohol to provide a different flavor to the high. I was blackout drinking every weekend, to the point where I would either be late for work on Monday or not show up at all.

The work situation and my deteriorating health were what finally got my attention. And the fact that one friend in particular, EW, made an effort to gather information about detox and rehab to give to me, encouraging me to get help before it was too late. One Monday, I overslept the alarm. Someone came to my condo door and a friend went down to look through the peephole. He said, "There are two women out there." I checked my phone and realized I had missed calls from my sister and at least one of my employees. I never opened the door. I was too ashamed to let them see me so hung over and ragged.

Instead, I called in and left a voicemail for my manager telling him I wouldn't be in; that I was sick. When I got off the phone, I saw the rehab literature on the table. With a shaky hand, I picked it up and studied it, and made the call that changed my life.


In an odd coincidence, it was two years to the day since TP died that I decided to seek help. I don't think I recognized that unusual coincidence at the time; I just now thought of it! It was December 22, 2008 when I made the call to the START unit, the rehab department of Saint Anthony Hospital. I was shaky and unfocused, but made the call anyway. Unfortunately, they had no beds available in the unit at that moment, but the nurse said she would call me as soon as one became available. I was somewhat relieved because I suddenly worried that I might be in rehab over the Christmas holiday and I would miss hanging out with friends and family.

Well, in the spirit of rigorous honesty, I wasn't that worried about missing time with family because I was already in the practice of avoiding them when I was drinking. The alcohol came first! That wasn't a problem with my friends, however, since many of them drank as heavily as I did. The only difference being they were a lot younger and their bodies were able to handle the alcohol better than mine.

I got a call on December 27, 2008 from the nurse at Saint Anthony Hospital letting me know a bed would be available on the 29th if I wanted it. I said I did, so she scheduled a formal interview for me with an evaluating nurse. I had already given her my insurance information the week before, so she knew what it would and wouldn't cover. She also knew the insurance company's requirements for admission. She told me in order for insurance to pay for my detox and rehab, I would have to have been drunk within three days immediately prior to my evaluation interview, which was scheduled for the morning of December 29, 2008.

I was ecstatic! I had pretty much been told I had to drink for the next two days if I wanted to be accepted into the program. And not just drink, but get drunk. In my alcoholic state of mind I morphed that information into an invitation to get and stay drunk for the next two solid days.

My family was still unaware of my situation, but I had spoken to my manager at work to let him know I would be off for a significant period of time; in fact, I did not know at that point when I would return to work. As has always been the case with him, he was totally supportive and promised all the help he could provide, and that I should only worry about getting well and nothing else. It brings tears to my eyes even now to remember that conversation.

The next two days are lost to me. Memories of them are lost in a swirling alcoholic fog. The only clear memory I have is of my friend BJ driving me to the hospital for my evaluation interview. We had sex in the car while on the way to the interview, and again in the nurse's office while she was in the next room on the phone with the insurance company.

I only reveal these sexual incidents because they serve to demonstrate exactly how base my behavior had become. The memories are embarrassing, and these are events that happened almost three years ago.


To summarize this narrative, a little less personally, I'd put it like this. An early introduction to alcohol, in the form of beer, and my obvious love of its flavor and effects, pretty much revealed my tendency toward alcoholism at an early age. (Drinking through my teenage years was another clue, but I don't think I drank any more or less than my peers at the time.) I continued to drink as a young adult, at the beginning of my postal career and fell in love in a hopelessly stereotypical gay/straight way. I was nearly absorbed in someone else's personality and had to wall myself off in order to protect myself. That, in turn, set me up for a lifetime of solitude, providing yet another incentive to drink. In my early 50s, the apparent lifetime object of my affection passed away, triggering an emotional meltdown from the sudden realization that I still had buried emotions and unresolved feelings toward him.

So many fuses running into the powder keg of buried emotions and profound loss had no choice but to explode when the plunger was finally pushed. The fact that I lasted two years between the trigger and the explosion is remarkable. The fact that I survived at all feels like a miracle.

Yes. I admit I am powerless over alcohol. And I admit my life had become unmanageable. As revealed, I eventually sought help at the Saint Anthony START unit and let someone else take control of my life for a while. It felt really good being in a safe place where I knew I could relax, let go, not drink, and hopefully learn some skills that would serve to keep me sober for the rest of my life.

It was in the START unit that I was first exposed to Alcoholics Anonymous, and I thought, Finally! Now I have something that can save me! Until I got to Step Two and realized I was going to have difficulty with the concept of God in AA. Still, I gamely plodded through the daily routine in the START unit, placing all hope for recovery and sobriety into its proven track record. I assumed I would figure a way around the "god thing" at some point, so I didn't worry about it. It was that attitude, an attitude of "I'll figure out how to do this without God" and just rely on my own willpower to get through, that provided a less than sturdy foundation for my beginning.

But at least I had a beginning! For the first time in many years, I felt I was getting a grasp on life and that I wasn't hopeless. Helpless, perhaps, at least momentarily, but not hopeless.

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