Sober At 60
Something Happened: A Christmas Story
"The spiritual life justifies itself to those who live it; but what can we say to those who do not understand? That it is a life whose experiences are proved real to their possessor, because they remain when brought closest into contact with the objective realities of life." From William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
This is a true story. It is not meant to endorse or exclude any treatment for the disease of alcoholism or addiction. This is a difficult time of year for people struggling to recover, or stay sober, to avoid relapse. Nearly 12 years later, I have to shake my head in wonder that this really happened to me. The usual music columns will resume next post. WR
In the spring of 2010, my family was tired of my drinking. I was tired of my drinking too, but despite more than 10 years in and out of recovery programs, I couldn't let it go. The worst part of it was that my family did not yell, or shout, or make demands. They'd look at me with pity and disgust. It was a real pain in the ass.
I had promised I would stop; I was going to meetings occasionally. My 40-year love affair with vodka and its friends was frayed but intact. Once I drank vodka and ate caviar across the street from the Kremlin, sampled every vodka at the bar of the Russian Tea Room paid for by the magazine that assigned the story.
Now I was sneaking upstairs a glass with cranberry juice or dry fruity Italian soda, to which I'd furtively add what I needed from the plastic pint of vodka under the bed. I'd sit in bed and drink, if that's what it took.
While my wife and daughters got on with their lives, I was trying to figure out how to end mine. I had been laid off from my job as a copy editor at Billboard when the sister magazine whose budget I was under, Radio & Records, closed suddenly in 2009. I was 59, and knew there would be no more salaried jobs in my future. A year later, I was still at loose ends, seeing no future, no future for me.
My mother, now widowed, and living in Boynton Beach, Fla., had a housekeeper with a car. Tired of paying to insure her late husband's car, she offered it to me, a 10-year old Toyota Avalon with 40,000 miles on it, if I flew down and drove it home.
Road trip! That's what I needed. My ambitions were small: take a 10-day solitary drive from South Florida to New York. I would drive about 250-300 miles a day. I would stop in the late afternoon in some sort of pleasant city or town, check into a nice hotel, eat local cuisine, and drink undisturbed. If I found a place I really liked, maybe there would be a local newspaper where I might take a job at prevailing entry level wages—hoping for $25,000 a year, but willing to come down from that lofty number for the right situation—find a furnished room, work at the newspaper, drink, send what money I could home—be a migrant worker in the dying newspaper business. I just wanted to drink alone, undisturbed by my nosy and disgusted family. Lofty dreams.
I left Boynton Beach at around 4 pm on the afternoon of Thursday, May 6. I'd had the car tuned up, tires checked that morning.
The one problem with the car occurred before I left the parking lot. I had a package full of CDs for the road. I stuck in a Kings of Leon CD in the changer. But my mom's dead husband Hyman, ever fastidious about his car (he carried $0 deductible insurance), had opted for a top of the line sound system (good), and a six-CD automatic changer (bad). I'd never seen anything like it, especially for a music listener whose tastes were limited to Glenn Miller and other big band budget CDs. The revolving CD changer swallowed Kings of Leon. Then, when it rotated, it swallowed the Best of Little Feat. I had to stop at Target to buy a boombox for the road.
But finally, I was on my way.
I had my spiritual suicide kit packed: a bottle of vodka; some Xanax to settle the morning jitters; and music including my go-to song for staring into the abyss: Johnny Cash’s version of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus."
By 6 pm, I got off Interstate 95 north in Melbourne, Fla., and headed east for the coast road, A1A. Continuing north, I drove past dozens of hotels and motels along this miles-long strip, looking for the perfect place to drink. There are some alcoholics who will just stop anywhere they can get served, but I wasn't one of them. I had my standards, and my rule for the road was no drinking and driving, to check in first, then drink. Some hotels looked too expensive; some motels looked too cheap. Some looked like they catered to golfers, all tam o'shanters and lime green pants; others to crack heads and whores.
I had driven through Melbourne Beach and through Patrick Air Force base before emerging in the next resort town, Cocoa Beach. I drove past dozens more, with the same indecision. I thought about the Frank Zappa movie, 200 Motels: I had passed at least that many. I was feeling not just hungry, but restless, irritable, and discontent. I went through Cocoa Beach and saw the signs to Port Canaveral, where the cruise ships came and went. I pulled into Lori Wilson Park at the end of the strip, thought it was a funny name, so much like Lois Wilson, wife of AA founder Bill W.
I turned around and pulled into the last hotel I had passed: a non-chain resort, the International Palms. I checked in, and was delighted to see these beach front facilities included Mambo's outdoor poolside bar, with live jazz and reggae. There was another bar and restaurant, the Captain's Grill. I ran to my room, grabbed the ice bucket, poured a stiff vodka, and finally, for the first time in hours, exhaled. I refilled, walked out to the beach, and was happy to see plenty of conventioneers with name tags. I was thinking, maybe they'd be like the worker bees in the movie Cedar Rapids, eager to shed the oppressiveness of the job for a bacchanal on the beach.
I wanted to order my longtime beverage of choice, an extra dry premium brand vodka martini, and Mambo's, with its frozen drinks in plastic cups, didn't look like the place for that. I went to the Captain's Grill, where happy hour was still on. But the place was empty. Befuddled, I went back to the main building lobby. Perhaps there was a lobby bar with proper fixings there, where the convention people might be having cocktail hour. I was about to ask someone at the front desk about this when I looked at the sign listing the day's activities at the resort. The sign said:
Welcome Woodstock of AA
Having driven more than an hour and dozens of miles out of my way, with the singular purpose of finding just the right place to drink for the night, I realized what the name tags were about. My random sojourn had directed me to an Alcoholic's Anonymous convention that was just getting started. I wondered if a "Woodstock" meant music for sober people. There were some: Robert Earl Keen's "Corpus Christi Bay," for one; Todd Snider's "Long Year" another. But I asked a conventioneer what it meant, and was told that a "Woodstock" was a weekend full of hour-long "speaker meetings" where they would go into detail about each of the 12 Steps over the next three days.
For the next few hours, all I could say was, “wow.” Wow. Wow. Later, I learned that Anne Lamott had a book called Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.
I went to a nearby steakhouse, ordered a vodka martini, but sipped it very slowly. I swallowed hard as I sat at the bar, watched a ball game on TV, chatted with the bartender, but my mind was elsewhere. Wow. Did that really happen? Because I had been around recovery long enough to know there are no coincidences. I was being offered grace, a release from my long addiction to alcohol. And I mean, they called it Woodstock. Someone, or some thing, was sending me a message.
The next morning, I woke up with a mild hangover. As I watched the sunrise on the beach, I watched a circle of conventioneers from the Woodstock. I was too timid to join them, but as tears rolled down my face, I dug my bare feet in the sand. I knew I would see them next year. I did not stick around for the rest of the weekend: I had reservations at a nice inn at St. Simons Island, Georgia. But I took some email addresses and phone numbers from some people before I left.
A year later, I returned to that morning meeting circle, and celebrated my first year of sobriety at 2011's AA Woodstock in Cocoa Beach. It was kind of cool. At the dinner, they sat me with the speakers, the men and women with long sobriety, including the teacher Sandy B., who'd come back from their own spiritual death spirals. The announcer told my story from the podium. I stood up, and 450 recovering alcoholics applauded. I'd go around say hello to people all weekend and hear whispers: "he's the guy who saw the burning bush." The guy who experienced a miracle.
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