Under the Bridge

“To understand me is to understand that I am an alcoholic, through and through. If something is good, then more is better, right? Balance is for ordinary people. Why not strive for extra-ordinary. This had always been my rule. And my ruin.”
– Rich Roll – personal inspiration, recovering alcoholic, endurance athlete

I struggled writing this. Then I wrote it and struggled deciding to post it. I wasn’t sure it belonged here. The inspiration for this blog was to share my love of travel and adventure and this is a radical departure from that model.

I wasn’t even sure my story belonged in the public eye. I felt some would find it preachy or holier than thou. I know that some people simply don’t want to hear about these sorts of things.

But I could not shake the fact that my own life has been profoundly affected by reading and listening to other people’s stories about their struggles. Everybody has a demon, or a monkey, maybe even a skeleton. I think it would behoove us all to acknowledge that and share our stories so that others do not feel they must fight their battles alone.

I have chosen to include my tale here for a few reasons. First, it tells the story of one of my most significant journeys.  Secondly, I believe that sharing your story is harder than not sharing your story. Most importantly, if just one single person reads this and makes a positive change in their life, then it will be worth it. So, here we go.

Allow me to take you back to my late twenties…

The slam of a heavy metal door wakes me up and I peel my face off a cold, concrete floor to see who was making all the noise. As I sit up, a wave of thoughts flood my mind. “Oh no, not again. What did I do this time?! Where is my wallet?! Does anyone know I’m here?!”

These thoughts are soon overcome by the rapidly increasing urge to empty my bladder. I stand up and wobble toward one of those metal doors. Peering through the tiny pane of thick polycarbonate, I yell at the first person I see – “Yo! I need to pee!!” The uniformed guard strolls up to the door, cracks a shit eating grin and points behind me. I feel the pit in my stomach grow larger. I turn around to see a hole in the floor. I should’ve known…

That wasn’t the first time that scenario had played out. Or the second. At that point, I was 28 years old and had seen the inside of a jail cell through the eyes of a drunk man more times than I cared to count. As I stood there peeing into that hole in the floor, I swore that it would be the last time. Alcohol had wrecked my life enough. No more. I was done.

But, I didn’t mean it.

Sure, it sounded good but I just kinda wanted it. Kinda wanting something is about as useful as not wanting it at all. Like the dozens of times before, I stayed dry for a while but eventually the hangover wore off, the charges were dropped, the shame diminished and I found my way back to the bottle. It would be another seven years before I found a sticking point. A sticking point I have miraculously clung to despite and partially in spite of the 73 failed attempts that came before.

Just so we are clear, I don’t know that it was actually 73. But that is the number I calculated on October 18, 2016 when I sat down with a twelve pack and a bomber and wrote down every failed attempt, fuck up and wrecked night that I could remember. Every Sunday afternoon I spent drowning in anxiety and shame. Every time I messed up bad enough that I had to seek help. Every time where I had swore that time was the last time.

By the time I had finished that list, I had a nice buzz. I flipped the page and filled the next with all the reasons I wanted to quit. All the ways that alcohol was robbing me of my potential. All the ways that it was destroying my health and relationships. I wrote until all the beer was gone and fell asleep amidst empty bottles with my legal pad still on my lap.

The next morning, I threw out the empties, burned the lists and by the grace of God, with a heaping of grit, sleepless nights, and no small amount of luck, I’ve avoided #74.

I would be remiss if I did not point out the fact that I have not done this alone. I have an incredible support network spearheaded by two remarkable individuals who themselves found sobriety years ago. Anonymity is valued in the recovery community so I will refrain from using their names here. But, I know they are reading this and I hope they know how much their support has meant to me. I could not and would not have wanted to do it without their help. I have enjoyed traveling the path with them and one of my sincere hopes is that I can offer companionship to others who seek to join the journey.

My road to sobriety started a long time ago when I drank my first beer in the LaGrange High parking lot at the age of sixteen – a Bud Heavy in a can my friend had pilfered from his dad’s stash. I thought it tasted awful. But, I drank it and a second because I wanted almost nothing more than to fit in with my peers. I had my first taste of liquor not long after when a buddy and I swapped swigs off a bottle of cheap vodka he had swiped from his sister. Alcohol soon found its way into all areas of my life. Parent’s basements, river trips with friends, concerts. All those things were enhanced by alcohol. I loved it, wanted more and had no idea when to say when.

I soon learned that I could use booze for almost anything. It was great to get geared up for a night out or perfect for an evening around the house. It made me a better singer, a funnier friend and a more talented cook. It eliminated my image issues and caused my social anxiety to vanish. Alcohol was my constant companion after high school, through college and well past grad school. I worked part and full time jobs, made decent grades, stayed active through outdoor adventure and from most outward appearances probably looked like I never had too much of a problem. Even when I did mess up, it would seem that fate would just give me another get out of jail free card.

It took almost two decades, but eventually the cumulative shame from my actions led to the realization that I could not allow myself to go down that road anymore. I had a hunch for some time but it hit home for me one sunny afternoon in Malibu where I was sharing lunch with a friend. As we rose to leave the restaurant, I noticed my friend had left half her beer on the table. When I mentioned it, she just smiled and said that she had enough. That just didn’t compute with me. Not only had she only ordered only one beer, she didn’t even drink the whole thing! If Don Johnson ordered a beer, he was going to order at least two more and he sure as hell wasn’t gonna leave half of one unfinished when it was time to go. I knew then that it had to be all or nothing. This wasn’t going to be something where I could one day reintroduce alcohol into my life and enjoy it in a moderate fashion. That wasn’t me and it never would be. I had to stop completely because I didn’t know when to completely stop.

I’m not going to paint some rosy picture of recovery. Staying sober is one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Giving up the luxury of being able to twist off and make my problems temporarily disappear was a huge adjustment for me. Furthermore, alcohol was a band aid I used to cover up my social anxiety and I never realized how much I depended on that bandage until I ripped it off. Without it, I found my social circle shrinking and some of my closest friendships suffering because I withdrew to a place of comfort.

Saturday nights were eye opening.

I often chose to stay at home rather than deal with choosing between finding a sober activity or not drinking at my familiar haunts with my old friends. Not only did I not yet trust myself but it was exhausting. Friends would ask me if I was still not drinking or when I thought I would drink again or why I stopped and on and on and on. I didn’t know how to answer them. I didn’t want to talk about it. Like someone who keeps a terminal diagnosis a secret, I stopped telling people because I felt it was just easier if I could avoid the inevitable conversations.

At one point, I mentioned to one of my sponsors that it seemed I had basically traded one set of difficulties for another. Sobriety wasn’t the panacea I had hoped it would be. I was losing friends, coming to terms with my natural introversion and constantly battling the urge to drink. His response? “Yeah, we try to keep that under wraps. Not good for business.” Great. Just great.

Some of my friends would even insinuate that I had overreacted and that I didn’t have a problem. But, I did. I had a huge problem. The glaring absence of a DUI or worse from my arrest record is a testament to how lucky I was, not an indicator that I wasn’t an alcoholic.

People are in jail or dead for much less than what I did. I wrecked a Jeep and a motorcycle drunk. I came close to burning a house down. I was almost shot trying to enter the wrong apartment in a drunken stupor. I got stitches at the ER on three different occasions. I blazed a trail of destruction and with the exception of a few small scars, I somehow managed to walk away practically unscathed.

But, worse than all that are the things I did that didn’t leave visible damage. I said horrendous things to people I love. (It should be noted that I said some pretty awful things to complete strangers as well). I ruined relationships and disappointed those who loved me most. I lied, broke promises and acted in total disregard of anyone’s feelings other than my own.

My mother probably bore the burden of my behavior more than anyone. I have no idea how many sleepless nights she endured. It tears me apart when she says that giving up alcohol is her proudest moment of mine. Of all things a mother should be proud of her son for accomplishing…

I know she has forgiven me, but I will spend the rest of my life trying to make up for the heartbreak I caused her. And not just her.

I’ve taken an active role in trying to make amends with those I wronged. I’ve apologized to so many people. I’ve made phone calls, written letters, sent texts and stopped friends and old acquaintances in public to express my regret. Most people are gracious and tell me not to worry about it. Some people just say thank you. Others don’t respond. However a person chooses to react to my apology is fine by me. I’m not looking for forgiveness. I just want them to know that I feel remorse for my actions.

I make it a point to not blame the alcohol; even in conversations with myself (You have a lot of those when you stop going out on Saturday night). A great and insightful poet once said “the bottle ain’t to blame and I ain’t trying to. It don’t make you do a thing, it just lets you.” I used to sing that line at concerts without much more than an iota of understanding the truth contained in that statement. I’m still wrapping my head around it, but I think I know what he’s talking about.

1000 days is a big deal to me but it’s a drop in the bucket to some. I love to hear stories about people who have decades of sobriety under their belt. I also try to remind myself that all it would take is one drink to breach the dam. For every story about someone who found sobriety and kept it, there is a story of someone who did not. So sure, 1000 days is great but what really matters is right now. Not the months past or the weeks to come. Today. I will not drink today. “Not the prize, but the journey.”

Writing this caused me to give my situation a lot of thought and I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe this story belongs here after all. It is its own version of a travel tale. Sobriety has been quite a trip and the places it has taken me are ones I never want to forget and hope to be able to share with others.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story. I have one favor to ask before you go. If you or someone you love needs to to chat, vent, run, cry, yell or just have a cup of coffee, do not hesitate to reach out to me. I would love to help in any way that I can.

Happy trails…

3 thoughts on “Under the Bridge

  1. Thank you for sharing your story Don… that in itself is such a brave thing to do and many will find solace in reading. My son, who is 29, is now five years sober #everydaysastruggle and also shares his story (he’s a radio presenter). I think that it always helps when others hear your story as they can relate and know that they are not the only ones going through these things. Well done on your 1000 days and every day to come x


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