I didn’t know it then, of course, but James Frey and I were on the same ride once, headed for the same destination. He got on before I did, and I got off before he did. We reached our destination at about the same time, but ended up in totally different places. I became aware of Frey’s trip when his account of his own journey — A Million Little Pieces — showed up in my recommendations after I finished reading Stephen Elliott’s A Life Without Consequences and Happy Baby, and rated them on Amazon. But I didn’t know how different the end of his journey was from mine — which ended quietly in a parking lot one night — until I came across his book while shopping for another title, and read the first paragraph.
I wake to the drone of an airplane engine, and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin. I lift my hand to feel my face. My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut. I open them to look around and I’m in the back of a plane and there’s no one near me. I look at my clothes and my clothes are covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit, and blood.
Talk about a rough landing.
I guess I should mention now that the journey Frey and I were both on (he arrived on a plane, while I arrived in my car) was to a place fondly known as “Rock Bottom.” We were both about 23 when we arrived there; Frey due to alcoholism and a crack addiction, me due to alcoholism. For whatever reason, despite some flirtation with marijuana and some other drugs in college, alcohol was my drug of choice. There are other differences, of course, among them that Frey had parents who could afford rehab, while I knew mine could not.
It didn’t occur to me until I’d finished reading Frey’s book and wanted to write about it that I realized I’d never written about my alcoholism and recovery on my blog. Not that it’s a big secret. Most people who know me know I don’t drink, even if they don’t know exactly why. My friends all know, and it’s something I’ve always been willing to talk about if it comes up, depending on how well I know the person asking at the time. Also, it seems so long ago — 13 years, actually — that I just don’t think of it very often.
The same year that James Frey found himself on a plane, bound for a treatment center, I had my own moment of recognition about my drinking, in a parking lot behind a church.
I don’t remember exactly when it started for me, exactly when I got my ticket and had it punched for that destination, but it was sometime during the beginning of high school. It wasn’t my first taste of alcohol, but it was the one that “took.” It was a few years after my coming out, at least to my peers at school, and after two years of harassment and bullying at the hands of those peers which left me tremendously depressed. And isolated, because I couldn’t talk to anyone at home about what I was going through at school; because there were things about me that even my family wouldn’t have approved of. Add that to the regular pressures and roiling emotions of adolescence, and you have an idea of the emotional mess that I was.
Now that I think about it, maybe it didn’t start with alcohol — at least not an alcoholic drink. Maybe it started with medicine. One of the results of the pressures mentioned above, besides rapid and severe mood swings, was a pretty bad case of insomnia. One night when I couldn’t sleep, I stumbled into the bathroom and found some NyQuil, did a couple of shots of it, and went off to sleep. This became such a habit that my mom noticed it, remarked on it, and even stopped buying NyQuil for a while. Then there was our tradition at home of celebrating birthdays with cake, ice cream and champagne. Afterwards, I went around knocking off everyone else;s unfinished champagne.
In high school, I drank what I could get when I could get it. It wasn’t until I went away to college that my drinking really took off. I can remember at least once during my freshman year when I woke up drunk and went to class in that condition. I’m sure there were others that I don’t remember, because afterwards the blackouts set in. First I’d lose nights, then sometimes whole days. It would happen when I was driving back to my dorm or wherever I was living. I’d get home and not remember how I got there. A few times I woke up with bruises that I don’t know how I got, or with people I’d no idea how I met or what I’d done with them. I’ll spare you the catalog of how often I threw up from drinking. (Frey does a lot of that too.)
Then there were the friends who’d remarked on it. There were the friends who cut me off when I came to visit. After guzzling down a fair amount of Scott’s bourbon and sherry, I remember him telling me that he couldn’t afford to keep me in liquor any more. As it happens, Scott also played a role in my final epiphany.
I’d been watching a movie with him and Katharine one Saturday night, and we shared a bottle of wine. Actually, I’m not sure that “shared” is the right term, since I remember them having one drink each while I finished the bottle. It wasn’t my first drink of the day either. By that point, it was my practice to start drinking at home, before going out, in order to ensure I’d get enough to drink and get the effect I wanted once I went out. Plus, I could drink what I wanted, without appearing to drink so much. Usually I’d hit the bottle of Dewar’s I kept in my room, but whatever was available would do.
I don’t remember where Katharine went after the movie, but I remember Scott and I were going to a party, one where there was going to be a keg of beer. I was driving. I remember the party vaguely. I know I drank plenty. When it was time to go, Scott and I got into my car. I remembered staring the car and thinking to myself “I’m too drunk. I shouldn’t be driving.”
That’s all I remember. I don’t remember dropping Scott off at his apartment, or driving myself home. I don’t remember anything else before finding myself sitting my car, parked behind the house I was living in at the time, feeling very scared. I’d blacked out while driving before, but never with anyone else in the car. Putting my own life in danger was something I had no problem with. Putting my friend’s life in danger, so directly, shook me pretty much too my core. I got out of the car and walked around it to inspect it. It was OK. No sign of any accident. I went in the house, went directly to the bathroom, an became violently ill. I looked at myself in the mirror and felt sick again, this time not from the alcohol but from what I’d done and what could have happened.
Like I said, I had a somewhat softer landing than Frey’s own literal face-first landing. My “rock bottom” wasn’t nearly as low as his or the people he met in the treatment center. I hadn’t lost a job, a career a spouse, a family, or my health to alcoholism, yet. And it was the “yet” that scared me at the time.
It’s funny how things work out. Frey landed in probably the top rehab facility in the country. I, on the other hand, couldn’t have afforded rehab but somehow I landed right where I needed to be. At the time, I was living in a boarding house run by a small Episcopal church on campus. The house was right next to the chapel, and as a resident I knew where the to the chapel keys were in case I ever needed to let someone in. I also knew that a student-focused Alcoholics Anonymous group met in the chapel basement. For most of the time that I’d been living there I was often the one to unlock the chapel for them so they could set up for their meeting.
Sometimes, fate works in funny ways. By the time I realized I had a problem, I didn’t have to wonder where to go. I was living next door to an AA meeting location. I made plans to go check it out, but in order to avoid having to talk to anyone, I decided to slip in a half an hour after the meeting started, and maybe I could slip out early. As fate would have it, I got the meeting time wrong. Instead I showed up half an hour early. It was just me and the guy who came early to make the coffee.
Couldn’t sneak out unnoticed. Had to talk. I don’t remember what I said. I don’t remember much except that when people started rolling in, I knew half of them, including a gay guy who was also new to the meeting. Upon seeing me, one of them said “I was wondering when you were going to show up.” As the end of the meeting, the other gay guy picked up a “one day chip.” Then all eyes in the room turned to me. After a minute I just said, “I’ll have what he’s having.”
Where Frey fought the AA program offered in treatment, I tried to fake it, got called on my bullshit, and then finally got down to it. That’s probably the most difficult point in the book for me, where Frey adamantly rejects the AA program along with the notion of a “Higher Power” (which I also struggled with) and the idea that addiction is a disease and that genetics might play a role. “ Eventually he did so some of it in his own way, based in part on his reading of the Tao Te Ching which his brother gave to him. Along the way he falls in love, befriends other addicts (whose endings are summarized at the end of the book) falls in love with a former prostitute and fellow addict, and stares down his addiction in a way I’m not sure I could have with less than thirty days clean under my belt.
I did it pretty much by the book. (I had a sponsor who called me on my bullshit and wouldn’t let me get away with half-stepping it.) I went to regular meetings for four years, until I began to drift away from them, feeling I didn’t really need it in order to stay sober. By that point I knew in my bones that whatever was going on in my ilfe a drink wasn’t going to make it better, and would inevitably make it worse. The important thing is that 13 year after hitting bottom both Frey (as far as I know) and I are still clean and sober, and living very different lives.
Frey, whose addiction had progressed further than mine at the time he landed in rehab, showed me a different life in his writing and his searingly honest portrayal of his own course and the wreckage left behind, as well as the lives of his fellow rehab patients, some of whom are on third and fourth times through rehab. It’s different because, being a rather ”high-bottom drunk“ — one who hasn’t lost all before entering recovery — it’s a window into a a life that I probably could have had by now if my drinking career had continued for another 13 years … and I have lived that long. Chances are, without the resources to get into rehab when the addiction progressed, I wouldn’t have lived for 13 more years.
And that’s where Frey’s story resonates with me, the difference between the life I could have had, and the life I do have. It’s a bit like looking at your reflection in a mirror half covered by a curtain and then having the curtain pulled away momentarily, and then it falls back into place. You catch a glimpse of the other side. For my part, I’m grateful for that glimpse. That’s probably why after finishing Frey’s book I’m more than halfway through Augusten Burroughs’ Dry : A Memoir. It reminds me of that part of who I am, as well the value of what I have and how easily I could lose it with a single act; one choice.
Choice. Frey believes that addiction is a choice. I’m not sure I agree with him, but in one respect he may be half right. In the early days of my ”one day at a time“ recovery, there were times when I literally got through it by simply telling myself ”I choose not to have a drink today.“ Thirteen years later, I’m still making that choice, but it has gotten much, much easier. In fact, it’s second nature. The big difference between now and then is that I know I’m also making another choice. I’m choosing my life now — all of it. Remembering where I was and where I could be makes that choice even easier than it already is.