What It Was Like
It all started innocently enough, as most tragedies do. When I was a small boy, perhaps five or six years old, I spied a strange looking bottle on the very top shelf of a cabinet in our kitchen. It was thin with rounded shoulders, a red and white label and about 2/3 full of clear liquid. It was a pint of Vodka. Our everyday drinking glasses were on the lower shelves so the cabinet was opened quite frequently. One day I asked my father (who I never actually saw drink alcohol in my life) what was in the bottle. He said, “nothing you need to worry about. It’s for grownups.” That must have been unsatisfying for me because my eye kept catching that bottle and one day I climbed up onto the counter, opened the cabinet, reached up and brought it down. I noticed the label was pretty unusual and striking to me. I screwed off the lid and took a big whiff. The strong fumes burned my nose but smelled kind of good to me at the same time. I took a sip. It burned my mouth and throat all the way down. So much so that it made me cough and sputter. I was quite sure that I hated it but I took another sip just to make sure. Yep, it was terrible. I put it back exactly as I found it. I can’t say that those two sips made me high but I definitely felt different afterward. I returned many times over ensuing months to retest my dislike for that clear liquid in the odd shaped bottle with the interesting label that was just for grownups. Each time I reconfirmed my dislike for the stuff only to return later for another taste, err uh, I mean test.
One day I opened the cabinet and was shocked to notice that the bottle was now 2/3 empty. Had my dad noticed? I didn’t think so or I would have surely heard about that. What to do? I know, I’ll replace the missing horrible tasting liquid in the odd shaped bottle with the interesting label that was just for grownups, with water. Which I did. I had gotten away with my little crime. Or did I? Dad had opened the cabinet one night to get out a drinking glass and I noticed the bottle was missing altogether. I was sad, mad and afraid all at once and not realizing why. I asked him where that bottle on the top shelf had gone. He said, “I threw it out. It must have gone bad.” At the time he threw the bottle away, it must have been almost completely water. I soon forgot about the horrible tasting clear liquid in the odd shaped bottle with the interesting label that was just for grownups. I had no further exposure to alcohol until I was teenager. There were the occasional remarks that my mom would make form time-to-time about some of her family members that were either alcoholic, drug addicted or in recovery. There was at least one card carrying alcoholic on my dad’s side of the family as well.
I had my first beer when I was fifteen years old. One night I was working at a fish camp (fish restaurant) in north Belmont, NC, when one of the older boys that worked there suggested that we go out after work, buy some beer and go to some place and drink it up. Of course, I wasn’t going to say no to the guys I hung out with. It would have been seen as some sort of sign of weakness. We left work at 10 PM on a Saturday night, went to a service station just over the county line (our county was dry back then) and purchased two items, six beers for 4 guys and a loaf of bread and drove to the local dump. Of course, the loaf of bread was to “absorb the alcohol”. I should have wondered, what would be the point of drinking the beer only to absorb the alcohol with the bread thereby diminishing any effects of said beer. Not to mention that it doesn’t work. But, I didn’t know that then. Being unsure of the effect the beer would have on me, I dutifully and in turn ate two slices of the loaf bread. We were all assured and reassured by our pack leader that the proper pre-beer drinking dose of bread was two slices per beer. He had this on good authority from his older brother who was in the military and therefore an expert on the matter.
I still remember my first taste of that first beer. God awful. The brand was S****z which rhymes with the s***s which I was afraid it was going to give me. But, I heartily guzzled it all down right along with the rest of the guys as we slapped each other on the back celebrating our grownupness in seclusion in the middle of a smelly and dark dump yard. One beer each left two remaining beers. I split one of them with my best friend growing up, Larry M. Within fifteen minutes of downing those beers I began to feel rather strange. It was at once both a little frightening and glorious. I felt lighter, empowered, manly, wise, bold, rebellious and oddly enough, afraid of losing control. I was quite convinced that the latter feeling was because I did not eat an additional slice of bread prior to splitting that second beer. Of course, that would be an important future safety tip the next time we went to fully display our grownupness in the dark isolation of the local dump.
I had also started to smoke at age 15. One of my buds, Tony B., shoved a cigarette in my face one day and said “here, have one.” I declined his offer. Both my parents smoked and I didn’t like it. Tony goaded me with a question that could have predicted the outcome in advance. “What are you, chicken, he asked?” I said “give me that” as I snatched the Marlboro from his hand. Without hesitation I lit it up and breathed in a huge insufflation of the hot noxious smoke. I coughed my ass off. I hacked and coughed as Tony and a few others laughed and slapped me on the back in mocking support. It was terrible. Of course, I couldn’t fail at this in front of all of my peers so I kept at it until I was no longer coughing even though it was making me sick. Funny thing, even though that first experience was a bad one, I sneaked and smoked another one before the end of the day, just to make sure I hated it of course. Within a week I was smoking a pack a day. Before long my parents became aware that I had started smoking. They certainly expressed their displeasure of my behavior clearly enough but never really said that I couldn’t smoke. So, I did. My grownup parents smoked. I smoked. I felt grownup. It was as simple as that.
One night I found myself at a party at my best friend’s girlfriend’s house. My dad drove me there because I was still 15 and had no driver’s license. The only reason he let me go was because I told him that her parents would be supervising, which is what I was told. But, when I arrived they were no where to be found. The house was full of mostly under aged kids and beer. I saw this girl out of the corner of my eye, a senior at my high school. She was staring at me. Her name was Patty. She was a tall, blonde and pretty 18 year old. I was a tall, shy and dorky 15 year old. Though, I always looked older than my actual age. I was 6 feet and two inches tall with long black hair and a full mustache at age 15. In fact, I looked older than most of the guys I hung with so they began sending me in to the store to buy the beer, oh and the bread. Of course, for that I received their continuous praise and adoration for pulling off a masterful misdemeanor in the face of the ever-present danger that I would be carded and thus caught. Truth be told, the store where we bought the beer (and requisite bread) probably sold beer and cigarettes to pre-schoolers while their lazy and alcoholic parent waited in the car outside.
I wanted to talk to Patty but I didn’t know what to do or say. I didn’t have to wait long to devise a plan, not that I would have ever carried it out even if I had come up one. She got up, walked directly over to me and handed me a tall beer. She looked to have been drinking beer for some time already. Her eyes were sharp but glistening glassily. Her cheeks were flushed and her speech was slow, breathy and measured. We dank one beer together and then another over small talk and comments like, “good beer huh?” “Yep, it’s great beer!” Teenage repartee at its finest. So I am sitting there, actually talking to a beautiful girl, drinking beer, laughing and having fun. That, combined with the effects of those two tall boys was immediate and intense. At one point Patty set her empty beer can down, leaned in and kissed me. I had kissed a girl before but nothing like this. She was experienced, which meant the she knew more stuff than me. Just as was famously quoted in the movie The Sandlot, “she kissed me long and good.” After which she stood up, took me by the hand and led to the bathroom were she had her way with me right then and there on the bathroom floor. As I said, she was more experienced than me. I felt invincible!
Let me review. I had a family history of alcoholism and drug addiction. I developed a taste for alcohol at an early age. It was sanctioned behavior by my peers who praised my participation, in which I reveled. It allowed me to feel more confident to do and say things out of the ordinary. I was able to talk to a pretty girl, who was also drinking beer, which leads to me having sex for the first time in my young life. Under its effects, I felt invincible. I don’t mean to give the impression that life had set me up for failure here. Early on, before I became addicted, I was presented with a series of choices. As in life, some of our choices will be good and some will be bad. But before I was gripped in the throws of addition, I was free to choose. I feel very strongly about that. I would say that for me, conditions were certainly favorable for my alcoholism to blossom based on choices that I had made, choices that no one forced me to make.
There were many nights where me and the guys repeated our routine after work – beer, bread, drinking in the dark at the dump. I was able to hide that particular clandestine activity from my parents so I was never challenged on that issue. However, all of that activity eventually came to a self-imposed end. Before I turned sixteen I had started to attend church more, all because of a girl I had met at a church-sponsored summer camp. I fell in love with her. Her name was Joy. I stopped drinking beer. I stopped smoking cigarettes. I wanted her to love me as much as I came to love her. She eventually did fall in love with me. But, was it the real me? I can tell you that over the years in sobriety, you begin to ask yourself those sorts of introspective questions. I have found that courage comes not in the asking but by mustering the rigorous honesty required to answer them. One has to shine a light into all of the dark places before you can satisfactorily answer the question: who am I really?
While we were dating I attended one year of college out of high school at Gardner-Webb College in Boiling Springs, NC. I don’t even know why I went. It seemed like the thing to do. Most all of my friends went off to college somewhere and I had always been told that I should go to college. So, I went. It was an unmitigated disaster. I really didn’t want to be there so my grades were terrible. My GPA was virtually undetectable. A tunneling electron microscope couldn’t spot my GPA for that first year. At that point I made one of the best decisions in my life followed by one of the worst. I decided to quit college to go to work and ask Joy to marry me. I know which was the best and which was the worst decision. Would you, dear reader, care to hazard a guess as to which was which? The answer would depend on one’s perspective.
Joy and I were married just before my 19th birthday. We honeymooned in the Pocono’s mountains of Pennsylvania. We were sitting at the dinning room table on our second night there when our waitress asked “would you like something from the bar?” Well now, surely I can’t be any more grown up than this? I’m married for gods sake. Surely I can have a beer now, out in the open and miles from the closest dark dump. “Yes, I’ll have a beer.” It was out of my mouth in an instant. I only had one, for Joy’s sake, even though I thought about ordering a second one. Also, the look that she gave me was hardly one of approval. From there the transition from the occasional beer to alcohol abuse and then on to full blown alcoholism was insidious in onset and took years to occur.
After our honeymoon we went right to work. I started and operated a wall papering company with just two employees, Joy and me. My dad was a painting contractor and I had spent summers working for him painting and hanging wall paper. It seemed it would be easy to start that kind of business. As with most things though, reality proved to be very different. My inexperience was glaring. We struggled the first few months but then landed a big contract that would garner us a large income for the year. It was a one thousand plus roll job in a new Ramada Inn being built in Gastonia, NC. Just before the conclusion of the project, after we had hung over a thousand rolls of wall paper, the builder went bankrupt and we were never fully paid. We were broke.
I had been working part-time some evenings in my hometown of Belmont, NC at a local Radio Shack out of an early love for anything electronic. It was about that same time that the manager of the store quit to pursue his happiness elsewhere. I told the district manager, Danny R., that if he would give me a chance, I would run the store for him. He took a chance on me and I became the youngest manager in the Radio Shack franchise at the age of 19. I had no way of knowing then that years later, the man who gave me my first chance at success would one day become my patient…..
During those first few years of marriage and work, if I did drink alcohol it was occasional and usually just one but never more than two beers. Weeks would go by and I wouldn’t have anything to drink containing alcohol. The escalation in drinking would come later. There was one rather memorable Radio Shack Christmas party. It was in a ballroom in some hotel in Charlotte. All of the district’s store managers were there. There was a DJ and an open bar. They served dinner too. One of the best filet mignons and stuffed baked potatoes I had ever tasted and cherry pie for desert. I had never drunk that much liquor prior to that night or in my life for that matter. After all, I was six years old when I had my last drink of Vodka. I decided I would give it another try. I finished the beer I was drinking but this time I stepped up to the bar ordered up a screw driver. I had heard those were good. Boy oh boy, it was more than good to me. When I was six, I had to keep testing and retesting the Vodka, the clear liquid in the odd shaped bottle with the interesting label that was just for grownups, to make sure is was still horrible. It was each and every time but I finally figured out why – lack of orange juice! After several screw drivers I began to regale my friends with the virtues of the screw driver drink when one of them posited “if you like screw drivers you would really LOVE a Harvey Wall Banger.” I was intrigued. It was a very descriptively interesting name. I asked the bartender if he could make me one. “No problem” he said. If I wanted to I could close my eyes and taste that drink in my head to this very day. It was that good to me. Better than good, it was awesome! I don’t know how many HWB’s I had that night. The shortest and most correct answer is too damn many.
My memory of the rest of the evenings events remains incomplete. I may as well have been abducted by aliens. I had big chunks of missing time. I do remember coming to my senses briefly in the passenger seat of our Toyota station wagon traveling down I-85 on our way back home from the party. My wife was driving because I obviously couldn’t. I suddenly felt hot, like I was on fire, I mean crematory hot. And nausea, I remember incapacitating nausea. Though, I did manage to roll the window down just in time for a most excellent Technicolor yawn, all down the side of the Toyota station wagon. I spewed forth like a water cannon for miles down I-85 except it wasn’t water I was spewing. It was HWB’s, the screw drivers and everything else I had guzzled, slurped and pounded down that night, including one of the best filet mignons and stuffed baked potatoes I had ever tasted along with the cherry pie I had for desert. Oddly, I seem to remember the cherry pie was the last thing to come out. Beats the hell out of me how the last thing eaten wasn’t the first to shoot out of me. Or, I could have just been hemorrhaging from a Mallory-Weiss tear from the violent retching for all I know.
I woke up the next morning in my bed not remembering how I got there and unable to remember all of the events from the previous evening. That was my first alcoholic blackout. I did remember the great purge while traveling down I-85. I was so sick I felt like I had thrown up food from past lives. My head felt like an anvil that someone was beating on with Thor’s hammer. I had always been an early riser no matter what time I went to bed. On this day I woke up after twelve noon. I finally got myself together enough to go downstairs to find my wife sitting in the den with a rather stern but sad look on her face. She was clearly disappointed. I quickly apologized. I told her that I was aghast at my behavior and that I would never have that much to drink again. She invited me to go outside and look at the car. All down the side of the Toyota station wagon were the remnants one of the best filet mignons and stuffed baked potatoes I had ever tasted and the cherry pie I had for desert. Most of the liquid HWB’s and other drinks had long since evaporated leaving a sun dried mess stuck to my car that wouldn’t rinse off with a garden hose. It had to scrub it all off. I think when I finally sold that car years later there were still bits of that meal stuck in the cracks and crevices of the molding and trim on the passenger side of the car. It would be days before I ever felt right again. Of course I vowed to my wife and myself to never drink that much again. Did you catch that? I said, “never to drink that much again.” You see, absolute abstinence is never a choice option for the addicted brain to choose. It is usually I’ll just drink less, or I’ll switch from beer to wine, or I’ll switch from liquor to beer, or I’ll drink at a different time or some other bit of self-placating nonsense.
I did manage to keep that promise, for a while. After starting to work for Radio Shack I began to smoke again, just a few cigarettes at first here and there. Within weeks I was back up to a pack a day. This time around I smoked Salem Lights because I heard they were safer for you. But so is not smoking but that never occurs to an addicted brain. Also, I liked the little spruce tree on the filter which I thought was pretty nifty. So, of course you can see my flawless and totally impeccable logic here, right? I tried hiding my smoking from Joy at first, well, until she caught me. She was very disappointed in me. Why did I even try to hide my smoking from her? I was an adult. In a word, shame. It wouldn’t be the last time I tried to hide my addictions by keeping secrets. The secrets of private shame can keep an addict an addict. In the full light of the truth, when there is no longer a dark dump to retreat to in order to drink or to use, the addict has no defense and that means his or her addiction comes under the scrutiny of others. You see, the addict lives in continuous fear, fear to continue using drugs or alcohol and the fear of quitting at the same time. One is greater than the other, always. Having to quit or being made to quit is the biggest fear of all. Unless you can think with an addicted brain, you can’t understand this. It will make no sense to you. But, it is true. Trust me, I know. I’m a recovering alcoholic and a former tobacco addict.
I worked for Radio Shack for a total of four years and was very successful with the company. I won many sales contests. Danny R. went on to become a regional manager. But, the new district manager, Bruce H., kept giving me bigger stores to run. After just one year I moved from Store #1905 in Belmont to run Store #2311 in Gastonia, NC. Bruce started to use me to help trouble shoot and turn around troubled stores within his district. Then, a new opportunity presented itself to me. A brand new store was to be opened in Hickory, NC. The store was offered to me and I didn’t hesitate for a moment to say yes. The grand opening was a huge success. My confidence level rose exponentially while working for Radio Shack. I was given opportunity and responsibility and proved my ability to perform. I was a convincing and successful sales person which spilled over into other realms of my life. Joy was working at a dental office and beginning to learn managerial skills. We were happy. For a time I felt invincible again!
Inevitably, I began to feel as though something were missing. Slowly at first, a quiet unrest began to build inside of me. I now know that it was there all along and it was just being amplified by circumstances. I wanted more. I felt that there was more in life to be had than selling stereos. It reached a crescendo when I decided to quit Radio Shack and go back to college after four years with the company. Those were great years. I called the vice president of the company, Lewis Kornfeld, my last day on the job and thanked him for what I felt the company had done for me personally.
I had decided to back to school at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, NC where we were living at the time. It was during those years at L-R that my drinking began to escalate. Not out of fear, or anxiety, or tragedy, or failure but out of exuberance and hubris. Originally, I went back to school with the intentions of going to dental school. I heard it was easier to get into dental school. Even though I possessed a greater confidence, I wasn’t absolutely sure that I could perform well enough to get into medical school. I was wrong. I attacked my course work with gusto. I was doing well in college. After my first semester, I set my sights on medical school.
There were many parties along the way and of course there were always beer or liquor at those parties. My first year in school I would only drink at the parties. But then I began to buy beer and bring it home, usually a quart bottle. I would drink half one day and half the next or the next. With time, I was drinking an entire quart on days that I drank. First it was two to three days a week, then three to four, then five to six until it was most everyday. Exceptions were went I went home to see my parents or my wife’s parents. I never drank around them. Even then I needed it to be a secret. The only one who knew was Joy but she just accommodated to my change in habits over time. After all, I was being responsible. I was going to school, making excellent grades and working nearly full-time at the local hospital, Glenn R. Frye Memorial Hospital. I started out as an orderly there and did that for a year. Then I moved over to the EKG department and did that for a year. Next, I was able to do on-the-job training in respiratory therapy and did that for a year. I was on cloud nine in that job. I was drawing blood gases, giving IPPB treatments with the old Bird respirators, giving nebulizer treatments and assessing the patients before and after, and even beginning to manage some of the old MA2 and then the newer Bear ventilators, all while I was still an undergraduate. It made me to know that I could do medicine. I would work two back-to-back eight hour shifts with eight hours off in between so I could work 32 hours in a single weekend. It was almost like having a full-time job. But sometimes I would need to unwind a bit, with a beer of course.
How did the slide up in use occur? One big issue for me back then was control, specifically, the fear of losing control over myself, my actions. It happened that one night at the Radio Shack Christmas party. I vowed it would never happen again. But it did happen again. One night I was challenged to a chugging contest at a party. It was at the house of the dentist who was my wife’s employer. But it wasn’t beer we were chugging. It was bourbon. I had been drinking at a steady pace that evening even before the contest. I won the contest but a short time after winning I staggered to the bathroom and sat down on the toilet. People heard a thud coming from the bathroom so my wife went to check on me. She found me on the floor, passed out with my pants around my ankles. I had slipped off the toilet, knocking the tile toilet paper holder off the wall with my head. I don’t remember any of that humiliating experience. I wasn’t in a blackout. This time I had passed out. The next morning my shame, guilt and remorse were on full display. Again, I vowed to never drink so much again that I would lose control. The best option, actually quitting alcohol, was never really an option.
So, I decided on a different course of action. I would continue to drink but only until I got that old all too familiar buzz and then I would stop or drink just enough to maintain it. Simple really. Right? Here’s the problem – tolerance. It is one of the hallmarks of alcohol abuse or alcoholism. The liver gets quite adept at chewing up alcohol and your brain develops a dose dependent relationship for the release of dopamine as well. More alcohol is required for equivalent releases of dopamine over time. Or, higher levels of dopamine must be released for the same effect over time. Fundamentally, it is the release of dopamine that every addict chases. The end result is that eventually one has to escalate the amount of alcohol ingested just to get the same feeling that once took just a small amount. As you will see, over time I built up so much tolerance that I was able to imbibe huge quantities of alcohol and still manage to function.
I graduated L-R in May of 1980 with a BS in Biology. In fact, I was just four hours short of a double major with an additional degree in chemistry. I had completed a four year curriculum in just three years and my grades were competitive. It was during my last year at L-R that I sensed that my wife and I were moving in two different directions. We had married young and had grown apart. We were starting to want different things for ourselves. The last year I was in college I applied to three of the medical schools in North Carolina. I interviewed at all three but I didn’t get in any of them. I thought, well hell, what if I never get in to medical school. What will I do or what can I do with just a BS in Biology? I weighed my options and decided that I should probably do some graduate work while waiting a year and then reapply. I did just that. I drove to Charlotte twice a week for two semesters and took some graduate level courses while waiting to resubmit applications to medical schools. The time came to reapply. Three applications were sent out. Three interviews were scheduled. Three rejection letters were latter received. I no longer felt invincible.
I had to do something. I couldn’t continue working at Glenn R. Frye Hospital for yet another year while waiting to reapply. I asked myself again, what if I never gain admission to medical school? Again, I weighed my options. I decided to pursue a Masters degree in Biology. I reasoned that if I never got in to medical school then at least I could probably get a descent job with a Masters degree. I looked at a lot of in-state programs and the one that seemed most attractive to me was at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. That would mean Joy would have to quit her job in order to move. I knew that would not be an easy thing for her to do. She enjoyed her job and she liked the added responsibilities of office management. It was time to discuss my plan with her.
We were at a table in a restaurant having dinner inside the Catawba Valley Mall in Hickory when I informed her of my plans. I was having a Long Island ice tea. For those of you who don’t know, there is no tea in a Long Island ice tea, just five different liquors. I had been discussing all of my options with her leading up to that moment but had yet to make definite plans. Her answer surprised me but then again, it didn’t. As I said, we had grown apart and seemed like we were headed in two different directions. She said, “yes, I think you should go to ECU and get your Master’s degree, but I will not be going with you. I am going to pursue my career here.” I knew at that point our marriage of eight years was over. It made me sad and I became tearful but I new we would part. In August of 1981, I moved my self to Greenville, NC to begin a Masters program in Biology At ECU. Joy took care of selling the house and within one year we were divorced.
I met Dawn one day as I was moving things into my apartment at Green Mill Run in Greenville. I heard a voice, looked up and there she was, commenting on an antique bed that I was unloading. I thought she was drop-dead beautiful. We struck up a short conversation about the antique bed. It was my grandfathers. I found out she was temporarily staying with some friends of hers, Rick and Lisa, right beneath my apartment. Cool. I found out she worked at Belks in cosmetics at the Lancôme counter and she was a ballet dancer finishing up her undergraduate degree at ECU. I had stood in a blisteringly hot gym on the main campus just the day before to register for my classes. A graduate student at the table was most helpful. His name was Rick, the same Rick who was providing Dawn a temporary place to stay. I had told him where I was staying and he had told me that my apartment was directly above his. We developed an instant friendship. He had told Dawn about me and that she should introduce herself to me. We had our first date within a few days of our meeting. I was pretty much smitten from the very beginning.
I got right to work on my graduate program’s curriculum. My thesis adviser and program director was Dr. Vincent Bellis in the Department of Biology at ECU. He was an awesome adviser, mentor and eventually became my friend. I worked for him for three years on a project in some salt marshes off the North Carolina coast near Aurora. He had me measuring the above ground biomass in six salt marsh plant communities for him on a grant from North Carolina Phosphate. I decided that I would do my thesis work on measuring the belowground biomass in those same salt marsh plant communities. Once a month for three years, come rain or shine, cold or hot, rain or dry I would head to the salt marshes off Jack’s and Jacob’s creeks which were tributaries of the larger South creek estuary that emptied into the Pamlico Sound. There I would do my collecting, clipping the aboveground vegetation and taking core samples for analysis. It was hard work, but a lot of fun.
I was also teaching general biology lab to freshman while doing my course work. Dawn and I dated nearly two years before we were married. It was during those years at ECU that my drinking began to escalate. There were always parties at ECU at any given time on any given day. I got to be friends with a lot of the big bar owners in Greenville and I rarely had to pay for a drink. I would finish up around two or three in the afternoon with class work so, what else was there to do but go to a bar or the local pool hall and drink beer until Dawn got off work? At first, I didn’t bring beer home very often but that would later change.
Dawn and I began to have problems almost as soon as we were married. In hind sight, we were having problems long before we were married. We should have never gotten married. That is something that we have both agreed on since. I became resentful over several issues I had with Dawn but instead of trying to work through them, I began to isolate and drink. The amount I would drink steadily increased over time. I was starting to build up quite a tolerance to alcohol, one of the hallmarks of abusive drinking.
After finishing the salt marsh biomass studies, I took a job at the Institute of Coastal and Marine Resources on the campus of ECU maintaining an aquaculture facility. It was located in the basement of Ragsdale Hall where the medical school at ECU had first started. I was helping conduct nutritional studies on the American eel through the ECU Department of Nutrition. Every night I went to feed the eels, clean out their tanks, or make their food. Every night I would take beer with me. A few at first, then a six pack. I would drink it quickly before I went home to Dawn. She would see me drink just a couple at home but I was already loaded by the time I arrived. Of course, none of this was helping our problems, it was just making them worse. I was spending less and less time with her and more time either at work, on the main campus in my office, at the pool hall, or in a downtown bar with my drinking buddies. We were getting further apart but because I was thinking with an addicted brain I was blaming her. It was just an excuse to justify my behavior.
Drinking with my friends became the stuff of legend. I remember going on fishing trips with some of the guys I hung out with on a regular basis. My alcoholism was going from blossom to full bloom. The fishing trips were really drinking trips but we couldn’t call them that. So, we called them fishing trips. We would camp in rickety cabins on Cape Lookout National Seashore with no potable water and no electricity for days at a time. There we would be, standing out on the beach with a surf rod in one hand and a beer in the other at eight o’clock in the morning. We might forget to bring certain food items, pieces of fishing equipment or perhaps items for personal hygiene but the one thing we never forgot was the alcohol. We would take one case of tall neck beers per person per day with half gallons of liquor for backup. Such was our fear of running low on alcohol or, God forbid, running out. You know sometimes we did run out, because, there is just never enough alcohol for the alcoholic, or a bunch of alcoholics for that matter.
I had reapplied to medical school and was in my third year of my Masters program when I was finally accepted. The prospect of becoming a physician excited Dawn and me both. Of course, I celebrated for weeks on end, right up until the day I started at the ECU School of Medicine. But then, I never stopped. I was at a point where I was drinking on a daily basis. I would get up every day and swear, SWEAR that I wasn’t going to drink that day but would end up doing just that by three or four every afternoon. My class work in medical began to suffer. Nothing seemed easy anymore. I had gone from earning an income, even while in graduate school, to living on borrowed money. It added to my list of self-inflicted pressures. Thinking with an addicted brain, drinking more seemed to be the best and sometimes only solution. My relationship with Dawn continued to deteriorate. She started to withdraw from me which made me more resentful. Rather than blame the alcoholic behavior, I began to blame the pressures at school. I was struggled all through the first year and into the second.
Dawn and I continued to drift apart. One night in December, on the 22nd if I recall correctly, we were at a Christmas party with some of her friends from work. I had been drinking steadily all evening and was feeling no pain. It was getting late, even for me. I went to Dawn and began to insist that we should go. She kept putting me off which was beginning to piss me off. I pressed her hard to leave and that is when she said it, “I’m not coming home tonight.” What? What did she say? I knew we were having problems but I didn’t feel that they rose to the level of separation. Or course, that is how I felt, not how she was feeling.
I stood there dumbfounded, speechless, confused, drunk. She went outside with me to explain that she was fed up and couldn’t live with me anymore. She had been thinking about this for some time. She had laid plans to leave that evening. She told me that I might as well go on home without her and she went back inside to the party. She knew I was in no shape to drive but she didn’t offer to take me and neither did any of her friends. We lived less than a mile from our modest home on Library Street in Greenville. I could’ve walked but I just hung around outside by her car in the freezing cold thinking that she would eventually have to come out. I was devastated.
I didn’t know what to do so I waited and waited and waited. Hours went by. She eventually came out looking rather annoyed and a little frightened. She let me in the car and drove us home. She came inside just long enough to grab some clothes and a few personal items and stuff them into a bag. She walked right by me to leave when I grabbed her hard by the arm and begged, pleaded with her to stay. I was still weaving and slurring my words as she glared at me, gritted her teeth and demanded that I let her go. I let go. She left. I slumped into a heap on the floor crying, my mind racing but unable to formulate a coherent thought. I went to the refrigerator, grabbed several more beers and spent the rest of the night walking through the surrounding neighborhoods drunk, looking for my Dawn, even though I had no idea where she might have gone.
I woke up the next morning after aimlessly wandering the streets of Greenville, drunk and on foot, looking for my wife who had just left me. I was hung over. I didn’t know where she was or how to contact her. This was before the advent of cell phones. I tried to remember the last names of some of her friends at work but my head was too fuzzy. I went over and over the events of the night before but it made my head hurt even worse. It was December 23rd.
I was despondent. Even though Dawn and I were having problems and I had constructed and maintained some resentment toward her I did love her and I did not want to see our marriage end. To my addicted brain thinking our problems had to be coming from the difficulty I was having in medical school, not my abuse of alcohol. I came up with what I thought was a brilliant solution. I would quit. Not drinking of course, but medical school. I would quit, get a job and work on our marriage. I headed to the telephone to call the medical school and tell whoever answered the call to shove it, I quit! It was very close to Christmas but I resolved to leave a message on the dean’s answering machine if no one answered. I had my diatribe all prepared. Medical school was ruining my life. My marriage was more important. I didn’t need to be a doctor to earn a living, or something like that.
What happened next was one of those rare moments when you can look back and clearly see that it was a compassionate act by a concerned individual that saved your life and changed it forever. It would be the first of many such instances for me. I was literally reaching for the telephone when it rang. I answered and it was Linda Spino, the Student Affairs Counselor for the medical students at the school of medicine. I had spoken to here often about my life and what was going on with my marriage to Dawn. Although, I had always minimized the role that alcohol had played. To my addicted brain thinking, it couldn’t possibly have that much bearing anyway. Spino had become a fierce friend. She had called just to check on me. She asked, “What are you doing?” I recounted the events of the night before, Dawn leaving, my desire to keep my marriage intact, my plans to quit medical school. She emphatically shouted back at me, “You hang up that phone and you get over here right now! You hear me? Get over here right now!” I reluctantly complied.
I went over to her condo and she listened to me as I cried and told here again what had happened. She listened patiently until I had gotten it all out. Linda spent the next hour or so convincing me what a terrible mistake I would be making to give up on medical school. She got me to see that if I quit school and Dawn never came back then I would have neither. Once I realized that, I would suffer a devastation that would last a lifetime and all of my hard work to get into medical school would have been wasted. Then she made me eat something. You know, I felt a little better and her logic was sound. I didn’t quit medical school. Dawn never came back. We divorced a little over one year later.
Because of my addicted brain thinking, I spent probably the next five years blaming Dawn for leaving me. Yes, she left me but it was my behavior, my alcoholism that drove her away. Years later, sometime after I became sober I began to see things differently. I began to see my part in the failure of our marriage. We both made mistakes but I was mostly to blame and I saw that more and more as time went. One thing that a good program of recovery requires is rigorous honesty. I had to take a long, hard, critical and honest look at my actions. Some things were hard to admit but the whole process was also quite liberating. I would eventually stop blaming Dawn altogether. Eventually, I would seek her forgiveness.
After meeting with Spino, I cleaned up my act. I stopped drinking altogether, at least for a while. I threw myself into my studies. I tried winning Dawn’s approval but to no avail. I replaced the love I had for her with anger. Not the healthiest course of action but it helped me initially to get past her. Things temporarily improved. That is, until I started drinking again. It only took a couple of months for me to start back. I started slowly at first. I placed strict limits on how much I would consume at a sitting. Over time, as I saw no immediate consequences of my drinking, my inconspicuous consumption increased. I say inconspicuous because I drank mainly at home, away from those that might judge or criticize me.
I was doing okay in medical school, not great, but okay. How could I do better with my daily ritual of spending more time drinking instead of studying? I was almost back to where I was in terms of consumption but I had built up more tolerance. I made it through the second year somehow. I spent a total of three hours studying for the Pathology final which covered 46 weeks of coursework. I drank the night before the exam. I was scared to death I was going to fail but I squeaked by some how. I still have nightmares about being unprepared of the exam to this day.
I sold the little house we had on Library Street and moved into University Condos after the first year Dawn and I were separated. I began to date. There would be one or two dates here, one or two dates there. I ended up dating my next door neighbor for the longest period of time until she graduated and moved away to pharmacy school. I was busy so it didn’t seem to matter if had someone special in my life.
The third and fourth years of medical school are the really fun years. It is almost all clinical. We rotate through the various disciplines in medicine and get to have actual patient contact. That is also when we began to see patients in the family practice clinic. That is precisely when and where I first saw Denise.
Soon to be continued…..