The day had finally arrived: July 20, 2016. I didn’t know what the actual date would be, but I had just knocked the last two people off my list, drove home from San Francisco, and figured it would happen now. Amy knew it was going to happen, was understandably nervous about it, and if I didn’t quite have her blessing, per se, I had her understanding. I unpacked from my trip, hung out with the family a little, and eventually grabbed a Sierra Nevada Nooner out of the fridge, opened it, walked outside to our back porch to enjoy the California sunset as the sky went from dusky to dark over the next half hour. I took a sip of the beer, sat down in the patio chair and looked at the Crape Myrtles, blooming a vibrant pink. The early evening was still and perfect as I slowly savored the beer, contemplating this turning point my life had irrevocably taken.
The Sierra Nevada was the first beer – the first alcohol of any kind – I had consumed since I was sixteen years old, over thirty years prior to that night. I started to feel a little buzz, a nice warm glow settling over me. Amy came out and said “Wait, are you doing this right now? I don’t know if I’m ready for this!” I understood; it wasn’t really fair. When we met in our late twenties I had already been clean and sober for over a decade. Amy was more than ready to settle down with a guy whose wild oats had already been sown, about whom she didn’t have to worry how he was getting home, or if he was getting home. If she would have fought me on it, my decision to give up my sobriety after all that time, I might have rethought the project. But she’s the kind of person who has always allowed me to make my own mistakes, not wanting to control what I do or don’t do, and it’s one of the countless things about her that I love and appreciate.
Amy was the first person I talked to about my plan to attempt to drink alcohol moderately, like a “normal” person, for the first time in my adult life. (That Sierra Nevada was my first legal drink, at forty-six years old.) The other people I talked to in advance were all three of my kids: fourteen, seventeen, and twenty-one at that time, one of my older sisters, and my closest sober friends. Being in Alcoholics Anonymous – sorry, I’m not anonymous anymore – for as long as I had been, I had known an uncountable number of sober people who had “relapsed” in one way or another. Many of them snuck off into the weeds to start drinking again, hiding it from their friends and family, keeping up the premise of sobriety on the outside, but really living a lie until the lie could no longer be hidden. Others quietly drifted away from The Program and started drinking and using drugs again, while still others went out with a huge bang, sometimes crawling back into the rooms of A.A. a few days or weeks later, sometimes not. Some of these folks got a handle on their drinking, and it ended up not being an issue for them anymore. Some went over the deep end and were dead before long. In all my years hanging around sober people I had seen every possible version of this play out. From one extreme to the other and everything in-between.
But how would it be for me, and why do it at all? I was confident drinking again wasn’t going to be a problem, but it was still a big deal. Although I hadn’t been to an A.A. meeting in close to a decade, being clean and sober for thirty years was a big part of who I was, how I saw myself, and maybe how some others saw me too. After that Sierra Nevada on 7/20/16 it had all changed. I was no longer clean and sober; I was a guy who drinks, hopefully not too much. But time would tell. The first couple of months were hard. I dealt with some sadness and grief, as if I had lost a crucial part of myself. I imagine it felt a bit like a Christian who gives up his faith, or like leaving a marriage or a long-time job. Same me, now, but different. What comes next?
My story about Camp Fox outlined the type of teenager I was. My main problem when I was young was that I was just plain bad. My sisters and the few adults who are left who knew me when I was a kid might disagree, but the truth is I was a shitty person who was often mean to people, bullied other kids, smoked pot, drank beer, dropped acid, and destroyed things without regard for consequence. I was expelled from my high school for marijuana use, arrested, chased by cops and con men who ripped me off, joined other con men to rip other people off, stole, cheated, and broke my poor parents’ hearts on a regular basis. I had good parents, but was a child of divorce like half of us are, so no excuse there. My folks splitting up, and then my mom’s and my move from Sacramento – the only place I had ever lived – to Los Angeles after third grade was probably the worst thing that could have happened to me.
I look at my eight-year-old self in this picture, at the wedding of my mother to Richard Springer, and I see a very unhappy child. Everyone else is smiling: My mom not quite forty; Richard three years younger with a new, beautiful, wife; my new stepbrother Mark, a great guy who was one of the only bright spots during those first years in L.A: they all seemed to be willing to give this new family a go. But I wasn’t having it. I wasn’t getting married. I didn’t fall in love. I was leaving Pony Express elementary school and all my friends, older sisters, and my own dad, to move to a new city. I was pissed! I’m sure it wasn’t easy for Mom to leave Sacramento either, but she was marrying the love of her life, apparently, and Richard and Mark got to stay in the house in North Hollywood in which they were already living. The way I saw it, I was the one getting a raw deal here!
It was during these first years in L.A., fourth through sixth grade, where I first remember actively looking for trouble. I wasn’t like that in Sacramento before the move. It all might have started as harmless boys-will-be-boys pranks of childhood, but such antics had previously been out of character for me. Ding dong ditching, mercilessly bullying kids at school (this remains the biggest source of shame for me), vandalism, shoplifting: I shudder to think about the things my new L.A. friends and I got into. And this was before I ever even tried beer or pot.
One story, and not the worst of them: Charlie was the maintenance man at our elementary school. He was a cool guy, probably in his early forties, with wicked curly hair heading to gray with the hairline starting to creep back, work shirts opened a couple of buttons like they did in the seventies, and a jovial East Coast demeanor. He always had kind words for the kids, knew our names, and actually whistled as he worked. He’d pitch to us in kickball after school. I was the fifth-best kickball player in the fifth grade – or at least tied for fifth (we were very serious about these rankings) – and I was going through a “slow and rolly” phase, in respect to the kinds of kickball pitches I would request. Charlie would pitch for both teams when he could, and once when I was at the plate I sent his pitch back to him, requesting slow and rolly. He replied, loudly, “If I pitched it any slower it’d be going backward!” This got a big laugh from both teams, and if I’m being honest, from me too. It was a great line, despite the gibe at me. I respected him for it. Charlie was one of the few adults that kids actually liked. He hung with us at our level.
But one day a couple of guys and me jumped a short wall at the edge of campus to find ourselves in a small maintenance yard. There were a bunch of garden tools in there, hand trucks, bags of soil, paint cans, a wooden cart, and the like. Now, we would have been in trouble just for being in Charlie’s area, but the punishment probably wouldn’t have been too harsh as long as we didn’t cause any trouble. Wanting to explore by climbing walls (and trees, and onto rooftops, and into drainage tunnels) was probably a natural and even wholesome recreation for kids, especially boys. But we took a look at that rickety wooden cart, and we started to kick the shit out of it.
It was an old cart, and the boards snapped satisfyingly with our clumsy karate kicks. We destroyed that wagon, hopped the wall, and went back to start the kickball game or to play on the monkey bars. Well, after school the next day Charlie called a dozen of us boys into the auditorium. He made us all sit in seats in the first row while he lamented the loss of his cart. “I use that cart every day!” he yelled. “And I use it to do work for this school! For your school! And now I don’t have a cart! I don’t have a way to carry the things around that I need to make your school a great place to be.” He was pacing back and forth, breathing heavy, face red, pate glistening. He was furious and distraught at the same time. That’s what I remember most: Charlie was heartbroken. He had been betrayed by the very kids he loved so much.
But he knew it wasn’t all of us; it couldn’t have been. He demanded to know who it was. We all kept our mouths shut. I was ashamed to the very core of my being – and still am – but I wasn’t going to cop to the crime. Eventually, dejected, he set us all loose and we went back to our usual after-school activities. I don’t have many memories of Charlie after that; it was a long time ago. I can’t imagine things were ever quite the same.
That’s the kind of kid I was. And it got worse.
About six years and endless trouble later, an accidental overdose of formeldehyde-laced marijuana (I thought it was regular marijuana) sent me to the hospital, then a drug rehab, and ultimately things turned around for me. I started going to therapy, and A.A., Narcotics Anonymous, and various chemical dependency recovery programs that specialized in treating adolescents. My sobriety birthday was January 24th, 1986. I was sixteen years old. That was the day after I finished my “superdope.” That was the day I smoked no more marijuana, drank no more alcohol, and did no other kinds of illicit substances until July 20, 2016. Thirty years later.
Those thirty years were a journey, one that maybe will be chronicled another time in another place. The first three or four years I was sober were honestly a magical time. I made dozens of – if not a hundred – great, close, new sober friends. Good, fun people from all walks of life, and we all had this bond in common: we were teenagers and clean and sober. I had a handful of girlfriends during this period, so that natural part of the adolescent process was fantastic (i.e. I was getting laid finally). We had incredible adventures in Southern California, all of it drug and alcohol-free, much of it dangerous or at least ill-advised: racing down Mulholland Drive with our headlights off; bringing caravans of teens into deserted campgrounds in the Malibu hills to spend the weekend; sleeping on Zuma Beach overnight, or at least until the cops told us to scram; playing poker for sixteen hours straight, until people were literally crying with poverty or windfalls; camping out for tickets then going to rock concerts in giant stadiums (U2, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd); descending en masse on the home of whichever teenager had parents dumb enough to leave them alone for the weekend; and of course, getting laid.
I moved to Sacramento in the summer of 1989, when I had been sober about three and a half years. Once I finally made some new friends, sober friends, many similar adventures continued. But by now we were in our twenties, and college and jobs and serious things began happening. My oldest son, Vincent, was born in 1995, when I had been sober nine years. Vincent’s mom and I split up after a couple of years, but we both always lived in town, and he basically hopped back and forth, living with both of us. Amy and I married in 1998, Henry came in 1999, and Josie in 2001. I was a homeowner, a college grad, and employed with a good job by the time Josie came along, and had been clean and sober fifteen years.
But where I used to enjoy going to A.A. meetings, my attendance eventually slowed down to infrequent appearances, to rare appearances, to never appearances. I had gone regularly for about ten years, and made countless friends; I experienced a world of personal growth there. My sponsor at the time, the inimitable David C., warned me when my first kid came along that I needed to keep my meetings up. He had seen a lot of folks drop out of the program after starting a family, and I assured him such would not be the case with me. But it was exactly the case: I never went to meetings as much as I did before I had children.
A.A. and N.A. meetings all have different flavors and styles, but they more or less follow a pattern: some ritualistic reading of materials, a personal story by an invited speaker (who is often just a regular attendee of that same meeting), and then people share, meaning they give a little three-to-five minute talk about what they’ve been going through lately, and how that relates to their recovery from alcohol or drug addiction.
Meetings are good places.
However, I stopped feeling like I belonged, and it wasn’t anyone’s fault. In A.A., as anywhere, people are more or less as nice to you as you are to them. Members are typically good at reaching out to new members who are just beginning to get sober, and to out-of-town visitors, and really to anyone who extends a hand. I’ve sat in meetings (especially in L.A.) with rock stars and famous actors, respected professionals, and bottom-of-the-barrel drunks and dope fiends, sometimes homeless, sometimes not. We had one thing in common: a desire to stop doing the things that had been hurting us and those around us.
By the time I was about twenty-one years old, old enough to finally take a legal drink, I had already been sober about as long as I had spent drinking and doing drugs. After five more years, then ten, and fifteen, and twenty, my previous life – from the first time I smoked pot near the end of sixth grade with Ronnie and David in East L.A., to the last time in my bedroom with the formaldehyde-laced weed – seemed so far away it was as if it had happened to someone else. I went several years without attending a meeting, and the inevitable thought began to creep into my head: “Man, that was a long time ago. I could probably just enjoy one beer or a glass of wine without it being a problem.” Back in A.A., people would talk about having these thoughts, and they were chalked up to “your disease talking.” We’d chuckle about it: “That’s how messed up I am. I think I can have just one drink! Ha ha!” But by the time I was thirty years past my last drink, a drink that was taken by a sixteen-year-old boy, I stopped feeling like a person with a disease or an affliction. I felt like a normal, happy, productive member of society.
And I felt like I was missing out on something. Not necessarily the alcohol itself, but the sociality that comes with it. I had gotten deeply involved in a technology user association, attending annual conferences, sporting events, and various other social gatherings with an ever-expanding network of great people, almost none of them sober. It’s not that they were getting shitfaced, but alcohol flowed freely at these events, and I always felt a little apart from. There was some experience, some conviviality, that these people were having that I wasn’t. I was comfortable with these and other people. I liked people, I wanted to talk to and hang out with people. But when you’re the only one not drinking it can feel a little off. In A.A. they would say to avoid or limit these situations. But I didn’t want to limit these situations; these were the exact situations I wanted to be in.
Back when I had been sober only about six years, and still fully engaged in A.A., I went on a date with a woman who was about eight years older than me: thirty to my twenty-two. We went to a comedy club one night; she ordered a beer, and I ordered a non-alcoholic beer. It was the first time I had tried such a thing. (These practices are not strictly forbidden in A.A. – the program doesn’t have a lot of rules – but they are considered risky behavior.) Why did I order that O’Doul’s? Because I wanted to belong. I was in a dark, smoky, comedy club with an attractive, older woman and I wanted to do the things I felt one was supposed to do in such situations. I didn’t want to give up my sobriety, but I did want to have an “adult” drink. I didn’t immediately crave more O’Doul’s, or real beer. But I did drink non-alcoholic beer with impunity for the next couple of decades. Never to excess (there was no point), and I’d sometimes go months without it. But at a pool party, or a barbecue, or a dinner out, or unwinding in the hotel bar after a business meeting, I just wanted that adult beverage. Occasionally I’d order a grapefruit-and-soda from a bartender, so I could join friends after work at some new spot downtown. But I felt like a boy play-acting, pretending I was a grown up. Since the entire history of my drinking and drug use literally happened when I was a boy, I subconsciously, I think, wanted to move past it. Look at me, I can drink a (fake) beer at the club. I can drink a (phony) cocktail at the bar. It was ridiculous! Either you care about being sober or you don’t, and somewhere along the way I had stopped caring. That’s the truth of it.
My biggest problem when I was younger was pot. After being introduced to it a few times, by the time seventh grade rolled around it was my and my stoner friends’ obsession. We pooled our money for it, stole for it, grifted, and cajoled others to buy it to share with us. We tried not to get caught by the authorities or our parents, but when your lives revolve 24/7/365 around buying and consuming an illegal (back then) substance, trouble is going to follow. Eventually I was buying and smoking weed alone, as I was on January 23, 1986 when I finished my unbeknownst-to-me formaldehyde-laced marijuana in my bedroom, and David Letterman, his guest Danny DeVito, and the entire TV set, began throbbing and pulsating like it was a living organ with veins and a heartbeat: a hallucination that continued in one form or another for several weeks, and directly led to my rehabilitation – once I recovered my senses – and sobriety.
But alcohol I didn’t care so much about. I would drink it when it was around, but rarely-if-ever alone. Of course when it was around the point was to get drunk, and I would often drink too much, too fast, and get sick. I look back on this now and realize that’s kind of the whole point of being a teenager (not that it’s healthy, or desirable, but it’s common), and the kind of drinking I did then did not necessarily require a lifetime of sobriety to recover from. It just seemed normal.
The pot smoking, however, concerned me then and concerns me now. I loved smoking weed, knew I was addicted to it (to whatever extent marijuana is addictive, psychologically or otherwise), and had no desire to change my behavior. I really didn’t understand that I could perhaps NOT smoke weed the way I did. I thought “Well, I’ve got this bug, and that’s just the way it is.” So getting sober was a good thing: the overdose, hallucinations, and rehab stay were all blessings in disguise. And when I finally started drinking again thirty years later, I felt like the best thing to do would be to avoid smoking marijuana altogether.
Of course, in the last two years that I’ve been on this non-sober adventure, I have smoked pot a handful of times when someone around me had it, and I realize that I don’t care for it at this stage of my life. I get cotton mouth, I get quiet, and I kind of retreat inside my head. This is an uncomfortable place for me to be. I don’t want to put my brain in that position. So I haven’t sworn it off forever, but I don’t really want it, and I have no problem saying no to it on the rare occasion it’s around.
Alcohol, on the other hand, I have learned to love, and this concerns me somewhat. When I began this journey on July 20, 2016, I figured I would have a beer, a glass of wine, or a cocktail if the situation presented itself: a business dinner, a night out, a friend’s barbecue. But the reality is I really, really, like it. I don’t like being drunk, and the handful of times I’ve been in that state have not been fun. Well, at least the next day hasn’t been fun. I think, like most drinkers, the ideal is the twilight between sober and buzzed: that little comfort zone when you’re just feeling quite good. This payoff is what I didn’t expect, but it shouldn’t surprise me. People don’t drink alcohol purely for the taste (although, with my grown-up taste buds now, it tastes great!); they’re getting something out of it.
These are all lessons many people learn much earlier in life. I learned them later, and I am still learning them. Amy, the love of my life, has been understandably nervous at times. I don’t blame her, and I do my best to try to embody the values of a responsible adult, that thing that I had claimed to be before beginning this project: moderation, discretion, self-control.
But like feeding gremlins after midnight, adding alcohol to a somewhat socially-repressed individual who had been sober for decades has had interesting results. It has released my inner extrovert. As much as I love spending a quiet night – like tonight, sitting in my cozy home, surrounded by my awesome wife and the last two kids who still live here, grown and getting grown – I also absolutely love to go out. I love checking out new bars, night clubs, seeing bands, meeting people, and having adventures. I almost immediately befriended – or was befriended by – Jeff (formerly Young Jeff) from work, twenty years my junior and truly one of the finest people I know. It was with Jeff, at Harlow’s in Midtown at a Jonathan Richman gig that I had my first drink at a bar, about nine days after that Sierra Nevada on my back patio. Jeff is a music nut, a talented musician, and a genuinely good and kind and interesting person, and always down for any adventure. I took to that dude like a duck to water, and we’ve been pretty tight ever since. Along with Jeff came scores of other younger friends from work, all really cool, fun, smart people who are into having a good time as well, some as young as twenty-two, some in their mid-thirties. They are so gracious to let an old man like me hang around with them. I don’t make a big deal about hand-crank car windows and four channels of television; I just try to be myself and they seem to like me OK, or at least they humor me. I love people my own age too, and older, but many of them have different energy levels than I do right now. Understandably, they went through what I’m going through in their twenties; they aren’t necessarily entranced by new bars downtown, live music on a Saturday night, or road trips to the Bay Area to see bands they’ve never heard of. Honestly, I tend to hit my limits with my younger friends quite often. I do love my family more than anything, my home, and a good night’s sleep when work beckons in the morning.
But it has been an interesting ride. Not many in their late forties get to relive their misspent (or unspent) twenties with willing confidants, at least not without becoming embarrassing anachronisms. I feel like I do OK. I stay in my lane, and I don’t try to be anyone I’m not.
So as I sit on the same back porch I sat on that day almost two years ago, 7/20/16, about halfway through a citrusy IPA, feeling the beginnings of a buzz coming on, thinking about a bottle of Bonny Doon Grenache I’m going to crack open later, I also reflect on those thirty years I spent sober, without a single sip of alcohol, without one hit of pot. I have no regrets about those years. The way I lived as a teenager, I needed some time sober: how long I don’t exactly know, but my path got much easier once I got clean back in 1986. I went to college, got a degree, made amazing friends, had a child, got married, had more children, bought this house I sit in right now, and I wouldn’t trade any of it. I would be a different person today had I not been sober all those years, and I’m good with the person I am today. Those thirty years were amazing, full of meaning and adventure.
When I began this journey, as I spoke to family and friends about my plan to give up my sobriety, a common observation was, “Well, if things get bad, you know where to go for help.” I nodded my head, but inside I knew things wouldn’t get bad. At least I hoped. If there was any part of me that thought giving up my sobriety was going to be a bad idea, I wouldn’t have come to the decision I did. It took many years to get to this point. But I knew, I knew, I would never go back to A.A. I would never get sober again. This journey has had a lot of surprises for me – it hasn’t been as rosy and carefree as I thought it would be – but I cannot imagine starting over. Raising my hand in a meeting, getting a 30-day chip, 60 days, 90 days, a year. Getting a sponsor, working the steps. I can’t even imagine it now. A.A. is a good program, it has helped millions of people. But to demand of a sixteen-year-old that he must put down alcohol for the remainder of his days (I know, it’s one day at a time; they don’t speak of forever. But still, it’s one day at time forever) because of a semi-shitty home life and an undeveloped prefrontal cortex. Sorry, I think there’s a different way.
But check back with me in a couple of years.