This is the story of the end of my drinking.
I was a 17-year-old high school senior in the fall of 1993 when I moved in with my grandmother. Her house was only 300 yards from my parents, but I could no longer live under their rules. In retrospect, they weren’t unreasonable, but I had always struggled with regulations and restrictions. Still do.
For the first few weeks, I would go out each Friday and come back on Sunday. One night around 6 pm in mid-October, Gram asked me to stay home. I told her I would, and I sincerely and thoroughly meant it. But when 9 pm rolled around, I was off. It hadn’t been my intention to break my word.
Eventually, I just threw parties at her place. They were small get togethers of 10 to 20 people. We had a lot of fun. The merriment went on for several weekends until the Tewksbury police arrived. They said some neighbors complained about the noise. The cops walked around outside and said that things looked fine and that they knew we weren’t into drugs, so they would leave us be but told me to “quiet it down.” Reasonable and damn fine police work.
The next weekend, the neighbors complained about the noise again and the cops returned. This time, they claimed that someone threw a bottle through a window at them. It was bullshit, but they used that as an excuse to enter. I was arrested and charged with under-age possession of alcohol, underage drinking, and distribution of alcohol (that last one still rankles a little).
A few days later, a friend of mine came home from college and we drank on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving. I went to school the next day and the pre-calc teacher said I smelled of booze. I was suspended and sent to get an evaluation. My parents and sister came along and told their versions. It was there that I learned that my mother was the neighbor whom had complained about the noise. Of course. The counselor told us all that I was a mid-stage alcoholic. I balked at that. I had been drinking for less than two years. I had a cute girlfriend and a varsity letter.
My parents asked her what the options were. The counselor recommended rehab and counseling and AA meeting attendance. To my amusement and my mother’s chagrin, my Dad said that “if the choice is between him becoming a Jesus freak and being on the sauce, I think I’d rather have him on the sauce.”
I refused to go to treatment but agreed to move home and attend some AA meetings. I never went, but lied and said I did and that people there told me that I didn’t have a problem. A few months later, I got arrested again for throwing a party at my grandmother’s house. There was an intervention after school on St. Patty’s Day and after a 90-minute talk with my parents, teachers, coaches, class advisors, guidance counselor and the student assistance counselor, I agreed to go to a facility in the Catskills.
I was a couple months shy of 18, so I was put on the adolescent wing. The other kids chain smoked cigarettes and told wild stories about their abusive parents, homelessness, violent crimes, sexual assaults, fights with cops, shitting green ooze, and hallucinations of ninja gremlins tugging on their ears. They clearly had problems.
One counselor had a wooden leg. He told us that he had been shot in a drug deal gone bad and that he woke up in surgery as the doctors sawed his leg off. He said that it had ruined his high and that all he could think about was getting off the operating table to get another shot of dope. He was now a few years sober and said that he still couldn’t listen to Radar Love because it reminded him of when he used to run drugs across the Canadian border.
Between the one legged counselor and the green-ooze shitting, chain smoking teens, I didn’t identify. The adults who came over from their wing each night to tell stories about their crushed finances, shattered marriages, lost children, chronic legal troubles, and ill health did leave an impression on me. “I might need to stop down the road,” I thought.
Kurt Cobain died while I was in rehab.
I drank again the first weekend after I got home. Three weeks later, I got pulled over after dropping some friends off after an afternoon drinking a couple of 40s in the city. I was doing 70 in a 55 when the Lebanon cop pulled me over. He said he smelled alcohol. I told him I drank in NYC that afternoon. He had me step out of the car and walk a straight line, say my ABCs backwards, and touch my fingers to my nose. I passed all the tests. He said that he was going to let me go. Lucky. And then he went to his car and then came back five minutes later and said that he had to arrest me and that he called a towing company. I asked him what changed and he said he called his station and the Tewksbury cops heard my name and said that I should be arrested and that they would like to pick me up. “They are out to get me,” I thought as I focused on them and not my own actions. This was a long-standing pattern of mine.
The cop was cool. He asked me if I was ok and then put me in the back of his patrol car. I remember sitting there wishing I could undo the last few hours. Just turn back time. I thought about the adults that spoke in rehab and their chronic legal troubles. Fuck. I was taken to the Lebanon station and given a Breathalyzer test. It came back .03, well below the legal limit, except when it came it people under 21. I was charged with DUI. The chief came in. He was in civvies. He was unshaven and his hair was all messed up. He sat down and lit a cigarette and talked to me. He said he was addicted to smoking and that I was addicted to booze. He said that the Tewksbury cops “have a hard-on for you but I’m not letting them at you.”
The arresting cop took me home and let me go inside to tell my Dad on my own. It was a difficult conversation to start. I went to some AA meetings and was amazed at their candor, humor and happiness.
A few weeks later I went to court for my party charges and the DUI. I lost my license for six months, got a year of probation, a fine, community service, and mandated counseling. I didn’t schedule a counseling appointment in a timely fashion and my probation officer flipped out and ordered me to come in twice a week. That was an additional problem, as I lived 15 miles from Flemington and had no license and neither my parents nor girlfriend were interested in driving me.
My friend Frazer introduced me to some other substances. He was a character: funny and smart and cynical. His addictions were probably worse than mine and he had carried the fuckup label far longer. Together, we were on a freight train towards ruin marked by regret, resentment, chaos and regular blackouts. At parties, we entertained other revelers with funny stories as we all got buzzed. As evenings wore on, the wry anecdotes and clever observations occasionally turned into angry rants and uncomfortable ruminations. Many nights ended up in wrestling matches in kitchens, with broken furniture, destroyed phones, mayonnaise on the wall, and puke everywhere (I had become a projectile vomiter).
I worked at a gas station in Clinton that fall, a video store at the Bridgewater mall in the winter, and a huge golf course in Bedminster the following spring. I didn’t hold any job for more than a couple of months, as I was often late and sometimes didn’t show up at all. I enrolled at the local community college but never went. My girlfriend dumped me. I had already felt bad about not being at a four year school. Being on probation. Losing shitty jobs. Not having a license. The end of the relationship, even though there was a lot of fighting, was crushing. With a lax schedule, a pile of sadness and shame, and nothing to really look forward to, my drinking increased in amount and frequency.
My parents divorce was finalized around the same time I lost my license. My Dad bought a new house with a barn out in Jutland. The barn was a good little hide out. Late one night, my father came into the barn and caught a few of us drinking: “Frankie, you sneaky little bastard!” My friends loved that line and would repeat it over the next few months.
In March of 1995, I attended a two day class for drunk drivers (IDRC) at Hunterdon Drug Awareness. There were 12 or 13 other people in the class. I was the youngest by at least a half dozen years, but most of the people were in their 30s to 50s. We had to go around the room and introduce ourselves. We had to say our name and where we were from and talk about the night we got arrested. The first guy said that he was leaving his brother’s wedding when he got pulled over. He hadn’t had much to drink and that the cops were assholes and that he was targeted and unfairly arrested. I identified with him and I remember thinking, “YEAH! Fight the power! This is bullshit!”
And then the next guy shared something similar. And the man after that said he didn’t have a drinking problem. And the woman after that bitched about the cops. By the time the sixth person talked how the cops were assholes and that they didn’t have a drinking problem, my heart was racing as I realized something fundamental: all of these people were full of shit and they were spewing the exact bullshit lines that I had thought and spoken. Clearly, I was an alcoholic.
A few days later I told my Mom about my experience at IDRC. She asked me if I was going to stop drinking. “No, I’m not ready. But I know what I am.”
I completed probation in May. I got my license back. I bought a 1970 Buick Skylark (my grandmother’s last car was a ’77 Skylark) for $350. It was purple and rusted and the body wasn’t fully attached to the frame, so it swam a bit when I drove. It had snow tires and couldn’t pass inspection; cops would pull me over and write me three or four tickets at a time.
And then my grandmother died. I was already at the lowest point of my life, and her death sent me into an abyss. Even if I got drunk or high, I felt like utter shit. I hadn’t made a conscious decision, but my solution to all of this was to get completely smashed as much as possible.
On August 9th, Jerry Garcia died. He was 53 years old. I was a big fan of the Grateful Dead. I thought about Jerry’s drug use and my own. Four days later, Mickey Mantle died. He had gotten sober about 18 months before and talked about how he would have taken better care of himself if he knew he was going to live so long. Both hit me hard. I thought about their lives and how they had gone off track and ended early because of their addictions. I continued to drink and smoke and snort, but their deaths weighed heavy.
I bounced a check for buffalo wings and had to go to municipal court.
My Dad got tired of me sleeping until one, careening from job to job, not being in school, and occasionally throwing parties in the barn whether he was home or not (I had entered the full on “I don’t give a fuck” mode that often comes in late stage addiction). He gave me the choices of getting a full-time job, going to school, or moving out. I couldn’t hold a job; I wasn’t qualified to do anything and I didn’t even have the soft skills necessary to keep an entry level wage-slave job. It was clear that I had to go to college. But the trick was to find a place that would accept someone like me in mid-August.
That is how I ended up at CW Post on Long Island. I applied and was accepted a few days before school started. There wasn’t much room left on campus, so I was placed in the quiet dorm. I had a Dominican roommate from the Bronx and a Puerto Rican roommate from Islip. A Boston Jew with a heart problem lived next door. The Dominican liked Wu-Tang but was a straight edge, so I bonded with his weed smoking friends. I introduced about a half dozen of them to the first bong of their life (a 4 footer made of glass) and when Alejandro came back to the dorm and saw all his friends passed out on the ground, he asked me if I had killed them.
Carlos and his cousin and I went out partying. I blacked out. When I woke up, his cousin told me that watching me in the middle of the night was one of the worst things he had ever seen.
“What are you talking about?”
“You rolled off your bed and smashed your head against the wall, and then rolled back over and smashed your head against the bed. I think I’m going to quit drinking.” I was amused by this instead of being alarmed.
On campus, people would come up and start talking to me. They’d share personal details and reminisce about some recent evening where we partied and chatted all night long. I had no idea who they were. One time, I came out of a blackout while standing on a table at a frat house. I was surrounded by women and people were staring at me. “Well…?” someone asked.
“Well fucking what?” I responded.
“Finish the story man. This is hilarious.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about. I just got here.” And I got down and walked out. That concerned me. I was walking and talking and going places and meeting people and I couldn’t remember any of it afterwards.
I decided to quit everything for the month of October. I made it to October 8th before I got drunk and high. Discouraged, I went to the campus counseling center and asked to see a drug counselor. They said there wasn’t one, but they gave me a pamphlet with 20 questions about whether or not you had a cocaine problem. I scored 17 out of 20 on a quiz that you needed only a three to pass.
I felt like such a fuck up. Walking back to the dorm, I saw this outrageously cute Hispanic girl walking with a guy in an Army uniform. “I should really join the Army,” I thought.
I drank that night or the next. A few days later, I bumped into a couple of young Mexicans who were working on some campus construction project. They didn’t speak English and I sure as fuck didn’t speak Spanish, but they had some beers and I had some weed and we ended up partying together. I showed them how to use a bong and then on my second hit, I had what seemed like small seizure (I shook and fell down and everything appeared to rush towards me). I was lying on my back when I came to about ten seconds later. Two of them were leaning over and staring me in the face, like some kind of movie shot. I got up and told them I was ok. They were freaked out and left.
I went home for Thanksgiving and out with my friends that Friday. I went into the city with Frazer and a few others. Frazer and I ended up in a bar. Chaos ensued. There was a minor melee. Frazer drunkenly drove us home and cried out while wickedly smiling, “I’m pie eyed.” I remember thinking that I needed to get sober.
I went back to school to find that my room had been broken into. All my DJ equipment was gone. I knew instantly what had happened – people that had sold me drugs had come by over break and ripped me off. The window had been smashed. It was never fixed the rest of the semester. Carlos had moved out earlier in the month to live with another cousin off campus, so it was just me and Alejandro. He felt bad about my stuff but was pissed about the window and how we had to sleep in the cold.
I was so lost. I hated looking in the mirror. I kept thinking about how my life was a disaster and I couldn’t see a way to fix it. I’d wake up and think “I need to get drunk and high.” Then I’d be drunk and high and think “I need to get sober.” I was near the jumping off point.
I brought a few hundred dollars to school and went through that in about two weeks. Just by chance, I figured out a way to make money. Sometime in late September, someone whom I never met knocked on my door.
“Hey Frank. Are you still willing to write that paper for me?”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“The other night. I told you about my Civil War class and how I was stressing and you said you could write the paper for me in your sleep.”
“I don’t recall saying that.”
“C’mon man. I’m desperate. I’ll pay you 25 bucks.”
So I wrote his paper. And I wrote 63 other papers that fall too. I failed all my classes because I neither went to class nor did any work. But I wrote 64 papers for other people. I thought I was brilliant. That I had figured out how to get drunk and high without having a job. I would get messed up all alone and speak Shakespearean type soliloquies of hubris and pain to an audience of no one. “Who else could do this?” I’d say to the wall.
On December 15th, Frazer and two others showed up at my dorm room. “You look like shit,” one of them said.
“Yeah, I’m not doing so hot.”
“Can you party? We drove all this way.”
And we got fucked up. They asked about the broken window. I told them about the robbery. And then I told them about my classes. And my self-loathing.
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t see how I can go home. I’ve fucked up everything. You know, I’m here on Long Island because I fucked up everything in NJ. Now everything here is fucked too.”
“I’ve been thinking. I’m going to go home, go to rehab, join the Army, go to community college, and then go to Rutgers.”
“No, I think that’s what I’m going to do.”
I got to my Dad’s house around noon on December 17th. I was home a few days before he expected me. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“I called Mom. She’s coming over here. I only want to say this once.” A few years later, my Dad told me that waiting for my mother to arrive was one of the worst hours of his life. That he was afraid I had committed some horrible crime or accidentally killed someone.
My mother showed up and the three of us sat down at the dining room table (it had belonged to my grandmother and is now in my kitchen). And then I said the most important single sentence of my life:
“I’m an alcoholic and an addict and I’m ready to get sober.”
- I wrote this about 10 days before my 25th sober anniversary. I wanted to share my story with others in the hopes that it would help reduce stigma and supply a little hope. So thanks for reading. It’s pretty heavy at times but it has a good ending. After the last line, I went to rehab and then to meetings. And then the Army. And then Rutgers. And life got a lot better.