In the Weeds: Summer of 1986 or so, continued….

Most of the rest of that summer was pretty cool, at least to me. My relationship with alcohol progressed a bit, but not much. There was a contractor that I worked for that always paid me $50 at the end of every work day and bought a six-pack of Coors on the way home from work, from which I was allowed two. My parents commented on how tired I always was when I arrived home in the evenings and how I must have just worked so hard all day long to be so exhausted. It’s true, I did, and I was, but the two cans of beer that I chugged in the cab of the old Ford as we rattled along the dirt roads of my country were really what made me so tired.

I felt there was nothing better. Sunburned, with the window down and my right arm hanging out, I felt I truly had life by the tail. I would sip the icy cold suds and wonder what else could possibly taste so good, feeling the ultimate rush of fitting in, of being respected enough by a contractor, no less, to ride around in his truck as dust sifted through the cab and sweat channeled its way through the rills of dirt around my neck. I truly felt that I belonged. School started to feel a long way off.

Although those were my very first encounters with alcohol, I really didn’t seek them out. There was a convenience store about a mile or so from our house where the owner had absolutely no moral qualms about selling beer to underage teenagers. It was a favorite place for all of us to hang out. We worked on our motorcycles, drank a few beers, smoked a little pot and we basically just had a great time being teenagers.

There were a few of the older boys that already showed signs of drug and alcohol abuse. Bigger than the rest of us, they were generally high school dropouts, petty thieves, moonshiners and coal miners when they could find the work. They would show up glassy-eyed and reeking of corn liquor, which was still readily available in that area. Watching them stumble about the shop, leering at the posters of scantily clad women definitely did nothing to promote alcohol abuse in my mind at least.

The rest of that summer, by definition, should have been quiet and busy. It was, throughout most of it, until the first of August. I worked several jobs, mowed yards, saw my girlfriend Lauren, visited my beloved grandmothers and generally had a great time. I was at that time of my life determined above all else to pilot jets in the Armed Forces, preferably those whose names contained the letter F. The F-14, F-16, F-15, F-18 or even, not a long shot to dream of in those days of massive government spending, the much-heralded F-22. My hormone ravaged brain was full of dreams and imaginations of speeding across the sky to save the nation and somehow Lauren at the same time, who in my imagination was likely tied to a tree in a deep jungle with Cannibalistic Zombie Commies Dancing around her in preparation of taking her bikini top off. Maybe I could save everyone by sacrificing myself and my beloved plane to take out a nuclear warhead that had been launched straight at our little corner of the world. The implausibility of such an event was not lost on me, not even then, but it still didn’t keep me from dreaming of it.

Through all of this, food was everywhere. As with nearly every culture, it permeated our lives and dictated our schedules. Our schedule revolved around the plants and animals that we cared for – my list of responsibilities included feeding the chickens, gathering eggs, splitting and stacking an endless supply of firewood for our house and various sheds, including my Dad’s workshop. We all pitched in when it was time to can. Canned corn, beans, okra, tomatoes, peaches, apples, mulberries when I could find them, wild raspberries and blackberries, cucumbers, yellow squash, potatoes – if we could grow it or trade for it, we canned it. We also ate astonishingly well, particularly to be so poor.

We had strawberries by the pound in early spring, along with stewed hens too old to lay, young roosters who would never do anything but crow and fight, salted pork, beef and venison from the winter before. We could not get enough of fresh fruit and greens. On multiple occasions I would gorge myself on the tiny wild blueberries in the forests beside our house and I would eat so many peaches with homemade sourdough bread and butter that my Mom would actually cut me off. My uncle would go fishing for wild salmon in Alaska and bring back what seemed to my teenage mind to be tons of fish, even though it probably wasn’t that much. Annual acid mine drainage and mine waste runoff into the local Levisa River had left the waters mostly barren of fish, at least any that we dared eat. Giant mutated catfish lived in deep holes, their fins showing in the shallows during the dreaded dog days of summer. We would catch them for sport, lugging about the riverbank, only to throw them back with some revulsion. They were not pretty creatures.

Crawfish, or “Crawdads” as we called them, were abundant in the softened soils and mud around natural springs in the mountains. My Grandmother Audrey, my Dad’s mother, would pay us five cents for every one that we caught and she would boil them in a giant cast iron kettle that she kept on her wood burning cook stove. In the fall and winter she also paid me 25 cents for every squirrel that I brought to her, fifty for the big fox squirrels, especially if they weren’t shot through the head. She would happily scramble their brains with eggs and serve them alongside thick slabs of bacon and lard cathead biscuits with some of the strongest coffee that I have ever tasted. She never changed the grounds through the week, which was saved for “Sunday Coffee.” Instead she simply poured more grounds on the old ones, added egg shells, and brewed it over and over again. By Saturday mornings I have no doubt that he coffee contained more caffeine than the most aggressive energy drink ever made, if you could stomach it.

We clicked more or less happily along as a family that summer, blissfully unaware of the looming future and the immediate changes that it would make on our isolated little world. Peaches were now ripe, which is one of the fondest memories of my summers as a child. I would stand under the peach trees in the early mornings just as the sun was coming up, watching the dew turn to gemstones as the first light of the summer sun breached the Plateau and penetrated deep into the incised valleys in which we lived. The peaches were so ripe, so juicy and so overwhelmingly sweet and sour that you would have to eat them at arm’s length to avoid the inevitable explosion of peach juice, which would still run down your arm and drive honeybees wild the rest of the day. On these mornings, in the cool mountain air, the little bees were sluggish and slow, mostly filling up on the sugar from the overripe fruit that lay about on the ground. There was always signs of other animals – the small, strangely human toed-in tracks of the raccoon, lazy steps of the groundhog, sometimes a small tuft of red fur left behind from the opportunistic red fox, who could decide on what he wanted to dine on – delectable peaches or peach marinated fat groundpig. He almost always chose the former.

It was into this relatively peaceful life that tragedy struck. The combination of events was most difficult for my mother, with its effect on me arriving in a distant second. We had known hardships, of course, our family with seven children in the poverty stricken region of deep Appalachia. There was hardly a family that we knew that had not suffered loss, either through coal mining accidents, logging or any of the other life threatening pursuit of natural resources that provided most of the honest sources of income that people existed on. But we had been largely immune.

The first such close personal loss was soon after a summer celebration party hosted by one of my best and only friends during her parents absence. My young girlfriend Lauren was there with me, along with most of the teenagers in the area. The party became rather raucous as the night progressed. I was not one to be generally swayed by peer pressure, but I did like being the center of attention if and when I so chose. At this particular party, under the influence of a little weed, a little moonshine and a lot of testosterone, I pulled off the most insane stunt of my short life.

I stood on top of the house with my usual swagger. I was fifteen, and I was thoroughly convinced of my own invincibility. About fifty of my peers, slightly to mostly drunk on pilfered moonshine, homemade wine and stolen beer, shouted at me to just DO IT. No fear. After all, I was the one who broke my cousin’s record for the longest jump on a motorcycle in our area. I was the one who jumped a car in the mall parking lot and ran from the cops, only to get caught. I was the first one of my peers to spend a night in jail, namely due to the fear of what my father would do to me if he found out I had been arrested. I was a rogue, although a reluctant one. It was a survival mechanism, honed out of years of being labeled as a nerd and a bookworm. My ability to make homemade chicken stock while reciting The Dawn’s Early Light did not do anything but wreck my popularity in high school, but stunts such as these, well, they did everything to restore it.

Only weeks before I had been caught riding my back tire up the wrong side of Rt. 460 by my grandmother’s place. I did it largely to provide amusement to my grandparents, my grandfather relegated to a wheelchair at that point in his life. Anything that I did that was derelict was, in his unspoken but loudly chanted opinion, awesome. He lived through us, his grandchildren, and as the oldest of the group most often around him, I was more than often happy to oblige. My grandmother Audrey would reward me with an extra lard biscuit and a little more red-eye gravy, which she was the ultimate master of. That was well worth the occasional moderate to severe whippings that I suffered at the hands of my father, which, in retrospect, were well deserved.

On this particular night, I was supposed to be at a Bible camp. I learned early that I could go nearly anywhere, at any time, provided that I gave a perfectly believable religious reason to do so. (My dearest parents: Should you wish, I would advise that you stop reading. But know this: I love you with all my heart and I am sorry for a teenager’s deceit. It is something that I will no doubt experience firsthand.) Instead, I found myself in the backyard of a supposed friend’s house on top of their house, more than a little buzzed on a few shots of moonshine. In my defense, I rarely drank as it interfered significantly with my ability to jump over cars on my bored out KX 250, of which I was interminably proud. So, it was with a mostly sober mentality that I perused the situation.

I had agreed to jump from the top of the house onto a trampoline located strategically adjacent to an above ground swimming pool approximately four feet in depth. Parents, should you find yourself so strapped for space that you choose to place a pool adjacent to a trampoline, go see a therapist. Especially if you intend on raising teenagers. The problem was, I was afraid of heights and couldn’t swim. These are two maladies that I have mostly remedied, basically by learning to swim and staying off high things. But at that point in my life, I had neither the wisdom nor the reason for such decisions. So, I weighed my options.

Nearly fifteen years later, I was aboard yet another tricked out motorcycle on the outskirts of Reno, NV, where I had been attempting to ride with younger versions of myself in the dunes. I grew up riding motorcycles in an era where every attempt was made to stay on the motorcycle. I am and always have had nothing but mad respect for these maniacs who get off their bikes in midair, do back flips, forward flips, and do everything but make a sandwich in midair. It never crossed my mind that I would attempt something as insane as an adult, especially when pushing hard towards my thirtieth birthday. I did wonder occasionally, if maybe, when I were younger, if I would have been able to do those stunts.

So, there I was, with a bunch of yelling teenagers roaring me to just DO IT. I once again in my life, for the umpteenth time, I perused the situation and weighed my options. I was getting ready to attempt a stunt called the “Flying Superman Seat Grab.” It’s about what it sounds like, in that you really shouldn’t attempt it unless you’re superman. Or slightly insane and being cheered by a group of fearless teenagers who are equally insane. I remember briefly wishing I had chosen to just stay home and make an apple pie, grill some peaches or maybe take up knitting.

But, there is the point of no return that people such as me have that will not allow us to back off when committed. Is it hereditary, that iron ruthlessness that enables us to do things that we know, without a shadow of a doubt, will hurt? Is it a product of our environment? I really don’t know, but I tightened my goggles and gunned the throttle, hurtling down the dune to launch off the next one. Just as so many years earlier I had blindly leaped off the house. I didn’t break anything in that leap, but I nearly drowned. It turns out that I had badly misjudged the acceleration of a falling mass due to gravity and the braking effect of a new trampoline and all the possible angles of departure from the said trampoline. I also had no idea that landing prone in about three feet of water after falling that far generally renders you unconscious. At least briefly.

I also badly misjudged how quickly the motorcycle would get away from me as I released the handlebars and launched myself perpendicular to the ground away from the bike. There was this brief blinding moment of exhilaration, as I thought, “I’ve done it!” The whole point of the trick though is to catch the seat as the bike passes under you. I missed. I’m so glad that this was before camera phones as I would no doubt have been all over YouTube under the moniker “Old Dude Tries to Ride” or something of the sort. Thankfully, the dune I landed on was sand, and slightly sloped, so my landing was somewhat softened. All I broke was my sternum and a few fingers. All I suffered in my bad landing in the pool was a lingering concussion – both small prices to pay for such enormous stupidity.

In the Weeds: The Ongoing Story.

Around Ten Years Ago.

Twenty-four hours and roughly 1800 miles after the blue lipstick in Radford experience, I sit brooding by a campfire. Eighteen hundred miles in a straight line, or as the crow flies. I had done anything but travel in a straight line. After stuffing my remaining pair of dress pants and shirt, along with the blue lipstick. My big mixed-breed dog, Rocky, whines a little and lifts one eyebrow, patiently waiting for the moment that we put out the fire, take a leak and pile into the back of the suburban until daybreak. The old Chevy is still ticking in the coolness of the night.

We’re not exactly roughing it, Rocky and me. I’m not grilling a jackrabbit or anything over the fire, although we had managed quite well at a little convenience store that sold basic food items: Rice, dried beans, vegetables (mostly hot peppers), ground pork (undoubtedly from a local farm, there was a “Not for Sale or Public Consumption” stamp on it) and some fatback. The past few years had honed my cooking over a fire with whatever you have at hand skills to a point of pride.

Scott LaSala, a native of Southern Georgia, had been my Jedi Master for outdoor cooking. We attended graduate school together, shared an office that was once a broom closet and did more than our share of camping and hosting parties. He taught me how to cook over coals, not flame, to start the fire early, how to properly utilize a dutch oven and how five or six bucks could feed a lot of people, especially if they were high and drinking.

Combined with my own kitchen experience and lifelong obsession with food, I had become a fairly competent cook. At least Rocky had no complaints. He ate his pork and rice with enthusiasm and wistfully stared at my beer until I felt guilty and dumped it in his water bowl. At around ninety pounds, he could handle one beer, but two would leave him staggering and glassy eyed the next morning, more likely than not impeding travel by constant diarrhea and vomiting. That is not a pleasant experience. I thought of the rest of the six-pack in the small fridge in the truck and decided to skip it. I had a nagging feeling that alcohol and I weren’t a very good mix anyway. Especially after missing an interview and ending up in a dorm room with little recollection of what had happened.

At that time, there had only been two places that I had been where the night sky was horizon-to-horizon stars. The American West, and a tiny island off the Gulf Coast of Florida. I had been blown away as I stared into the sky night after night, counting meteorites and marveling at the intensity of it all. The lights twinkling above me in all their glory is a distant view into the past – the very light I was looking at now had in some cases traveled billions of years to be here at this moment. This night was like that. Humbling, fitting for the moment, these lights so far above and so far in the past reminded me that my human speck of a life was barely nothing in the grander view of the universe. Surfing reminded me of that: Waves that had traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, invisible to the naked eye in their transfer of energy across massive oceans, only to end their journey in a moment of glory as they rise out of the ocean as some beacon of energy, flitting in their existence, fragile, to be ridden by a small person on a small board lucky enough to catch that moment in time and remember it.

Do we have control of our lives? Do any of us? I’ve always replied with a question: Does it matter? If you don’t know the future, you have no reason not to live your moment in time to the fullest. Time was annoying me then, the brevity and longevity of it directly connected to your mind and what you enjoy most. Do people really enjoy solving Fractals? Coding dilatational fracture tip mechanics into a language that a computer can understand so that we can better understand how rocks on other planets break under barely measurable rates of stress and strain, and thus, maybe, understand earthquakes better here on earth? Please. Somebody slap me.

I had been recruited into this work. Someone had gotten test results from military intelligence testing and IQ determination along with problem solving abilities while I was applying to be a fighter pilot in the Marine Corp. I thought that was classified information, but it isn’t. Bull shit. Nothing is truly classified. It’s only stamped that way so that the person really trying to get the information therein will feel they have actually accomplished something on their own and not fell into the giant spiders web that is becoming harder and harder to escape. Anyway, I was finished with the project in weeks, determined what needed to be done, fixed the code, adjusted the coordinates and spheroid of Mars so that the old data, which had been projected onto a planet not really shaped like Mars, could be geographically analyzed without setting up alternate coordinate systems, a maddening endeavor for anyone actually trying to get some actual research done.

I’d stopped in the small fueling station/convenience store not only to stock up on a few items but to feel out the town, see if there was any work. I’d accumulated a staggering number of general skill sets that I learned to quickly market in a new town. I’d wear my least ragged pair of Carharrts, grab my carpentry belt with my hand tools and show up on a job site looking for the boss. I’d make two campfire coffees that morning and if he liked it, then he’d hire me and pay me. Fifty bucks was my going rate. Cash. At the end of the day. You don’t like my work, I leave, no pay. No problem. I was always paid, and always asked to come back. I most often did, at least for a few days to work out some fuel money and stock up on water, diesel fuel, and service my old truck before the next trip.

The girl in the fueling station, sporting more tattoos than a Chinese Sailor, with piercings everywhere and a forked tongue, informed me nonchalantly that there was a diner down the road needing a cook for a few days. The current cook was coming down from a meth, heroin and alcohol high and would be better in a few days, but currently, there was no cook. I grinned at her, marveling at her piercings. “You wanna see?” She sizes me up, no doubt wondering if I would look cool with a trash can lid jammed into one nostril or something similar. “I’ll take a rain check, sweetie. Thanks for asking.” “Where ya staying?” She placed one black boot on the counter, ensuring that I would see her switchblade sticking out of the top. I vaguely pulled some bull shit about around, close buy, didn’t know, in the desert, in my truck…”I like your dog.” That stopped me in my tracks. I thought I had entered this little town unseen, not exactly out of paranoia, but I’d learned that it usually best to case a place before you park your truck. She must have seen my dog and the old truck. Hard to miss, actually. I thanked her for her help and headed for the door. I watched her in the window as I exited the diner. She was no longer interested in me but was instead inspecting her black lipstick in her reflection on the computer screen. I was glad she had a reflection.

March, 2013

The rest of my first hospital stay to recover from delirium tremens went without incident. Honestly, it wasn’t all that bad. My wife came to see me every day with Nolan, who was now nearly three months old. We really didn’t talk about addictions or drinking all that much – it seemed redundant and unnecessary. She was more hurt and concerned at that point than angry. We talked every day in person and on the phone when we could. It was her slow time of year, wedding photography had not yet boomed for the season and we were still in the grip of winter.

It had been a relatively bad winter that year. Heavy snowfalls and wildly fluctuating temperatures kept us on our toes and I had devoted much of my time to pretending to write my thesis and attending online classes that really didn’t exist. I didn’t have the heart, or the courage, to tell my wife the truth: That I had been released from the program on medical leave and ordered to stop progress within the teacher education program. That was a huge blow for me and I feared it would be a deal breaker for her, as she had personally paid the bills while I attended graduate school. There is nothing that can make a couple fight like money, particularly money wasted.

Graduate school had been a bumpy road anyway. I was still teetering between a total loss of control to alcohol and devoting myself entirely to the new program and the opportunity to be a science teacher, something I had wanted to be my entire life. I could feel myself slipping further into the abyss of addiction on almost a daily basis. Most of my classes were at night and I would rise early in the morning, before sunrise, to complete my homework and devote an hour or so to writing and studying for the upcoming classes. By the time I was through (this was before the arrival of our son) I’d be pleasantly drunk and have time to sleep most of the day before class. I honestly don’t really know how I held it together as long as I did. I’d deliver a stunning speech on the effects of reservation life and government aid on the health and education of the American Indians one night, then be barely coherent the next.

I dimly remember eating a Philly Cheesesteak one night after delivering a speech, the taste of it horrible in my mouth as I tried to sober up for the drive home. Radford is not known for fine dining in any sense of the word. But it does have a liquor store and the only fast food that I have ever eaten with any sort of regularity – Bojangles. To this day you could chase me around the room with a bag of that foul shit.

Just after that the University stripped me of my graduate status and forced me into a leave of absence. I believe only one person knew what was wrong, exactly, but everyone knew something was not right. I would deliver award winning research and scholarly papers one week and be conspicuously absent the next. I dimly remember giving a lecture on the effects of isolation on the children in rural communities, specifically citing research on the failures of our educational system on Native American children living on reservations. I was so drunk I had to hold onto the podium to keep from falling off the stage and swayed alarmingly on my way up the steps. I have no recollection of how I got there that night, only a foggy memory of eating an oyster sandwich at some bar in Radford while a cover band played a terrible rendition of “Blacksnake Moan.” The original version, if I remember correctly, which no doubt I don’t. I received a tentative standing ovation, followed by a barrage of questions, some of which I was able to answer, all the while smiling and bobbing my head like some sort of semi-enlightened yet confused sage. I was led off the stage by the person that I suspected, no, knew, how far I had sunk. Mercilessly, she left me alone with her business card and instructions to call a counselor the next day. I tossed the card in the trash and crashed on a couch long enough to make the drive home.

I threw up twice and went to the bathroom once in a field on the journey. My wife was waiting up on me as I chugged a small bottle of gin as fast as I could with a Bojangles tea for a chaser. I could see her small shadow with the beginnings of a baby bump through our kitchen window as she prepared a late snack/early dinner for me. My head swam sickeningly as the alcohol took hold and my stomach decided whether or not to deal with this torture at this moment. It did. I took a ragged breath and entered my home, where I pretended that I was not drinking; my stomach hurt from ulcers and briefly wondered how long I could live like this.

The rest of that early March hospital stay was rather uneventful. My hangover and tremors decreased throughout the week, and my cognitive skills improved. I still had a lot of shit buried though. I hadn’t told my wife how I managed to buy so much liquor, where I had been going during the day or why on some evenings I had been inexplicitly home when I should have been in class or working. I was still officially an employee with an engineering firm with whom my wife was also employed, I just hadn’t been getting any work or money out of that relationship. My nights were spent in an Ambien induced haze and the days worrying about what I was going to do when I got out of the hospital. I became well acquainted with the intern who came to see me every morning, and had great fun with the nurses, but I wasn’t well. My bilirubin values were off the charts, my blood platelets were very low and was constantly on an IV for hydration and vitamins.

My stomach slowly returned to normal, or as much as it could with hospital food. My wife managed to bring me food nearly every day and kept me supplied with books. I began to dread going home. I would remember this feeling months later as a woman lay dying on the floor of a rehab center with her wrists cut so she would not have to face the reality of life without constant supervision.

Doctors came and went, all with the same advice: “You can never drink again. We don’t know how you are still alive.” One doctor in particular was very stern. “Never let me see you in here for this again. You have no idea how close you came to dying.”

None of this fell on deaf ears, I was serious about remaining sober. I knew my life was at stake, my relationship with my wife, my young son and my family was in serious jeopardy. My father-in-law, one of the kindest, wisest men I’ve ever met, didn’t say outright that he would cause me physical harm if I continued drinking, but he came close.

My parents visited right out of the blue one day just before I was released. I was mostly upright by then, buoyed by my wife’s presence and careful nutrition by the hospital staff. I was in my hospital gown with blood all over my sheets. I had the dignity to pull the covers over the evidence that I was still bleeding, but hospital gowns are anything but dignified. My mother burst into tears. Alcoholism runs deep in her family and she bears the spiritual and mental scars of years of watching loved ones die from this affliction. My dad was just angry, but cautiously optimistic. They played with my son, talked with my wife and largely pretended I wasn’t there. When they did address the situation, it was with their usual bluntness. “I hope that you have learned from this experience, son.” My dad was deeply embarrassed that his oldest son was in this condition. As a pastor for nearly twenty years, this was an unexpected development in his eldest son.

I grinned at my dad and shrugged. “If you’re going to be dumb, you have to be tough.” My dad returned my smile with a stony glare. “Yeah, but you’re not dumb.”

I watched them go down the hall towards the elevators. My wristband doubled as a tracking device and I couldn’t follow them to say goodbye. They had driven two and a half hours to stay for fifteen minutes. My mom turned and gave me a quick wave as tears spilled down her cheeks. I waved numbly back, holding my baby son as my wife looked somberly on, her thoughts trapped and hidden behind her dark brown eyes. I climbed numbly back into bed, handing our son back to her.

In the Weeds: 6/24/2014

“You have a choice. You can’t do this alone. You need a sponsor. Only you can decide not to drink and/or abuse drugs. You have control of your life. Addiction is a disease. You must have a support group. You must have a sponsor. You must not tempt yourself with the presence of alcohol. You have to do the twelve steps to be sober. Give up all financial means to buy alcohol.”

During my first honest and sincere attempt at total sobriety, all this advice swirled in my head in melody of confusion. How could I be the only one to choose not to drink but not be able to do it by myself? If Jesus is the answer to all my addiction problems, then why on earth did he turn water into wine for his first miracle for people who had been drinking for days? Why twelve steps? Why not one? During my visits to Alcoholics Anonymous, I was dumfounded by the swirl of emotions in the people around me. Why did they all identify themselves as alcoholics?

My doctors called it a hereditary disease. My Reverend Father called it a trick of the devil. My Mom didn’t call it anything. My wife threatened, in no uncertain terms, to leave with our son. The people in AA chain smoked cigarettes, drank gallons of coffee and scarfed free doughnuts until I worried they would die from obesity, lung cancer, anxiety and nicotine overdose all at the same time.

A very good friend of mine, a recovered alcoholic, a term that is shunned by most circles of addicts, told me once that it was difficult to shed one addiction without adopting another. Which would I rather die from? Bourbon or doughnuts? Lung cancer or liver failure?

I grew up in coal country, in deep Appalachia, where coal mining was a way of life, along with church, picnics, pig roasts, sorghum squeezing, moonshine and food. Our lives revolved around food. We appreciated what we had. Saying grace before eating had real meaning during my early years, when every meal was shared as a family. We were not allowed to eat in our rooms, or in front of the television, which we didn’t have anyway. I learned to cook early, following my grandmothers, aunts and mom around the kitchen as soon as I could walk – placed strategically on a counter top nearby before I became mobile enough to move about on my own.

Poverty is all too often wrapped in a package that includes drug and alcohol abuse, particularly alcohol. Men would imbibe often in secret, or with one another in the background, outside of churches where preachers shouted hellfire and redemption and trials and tribulations from the pulpit in the stifling summer heat as people fanned themselves and jockeyed for a seat on the front row.

I’d seen more than my share of the effects of coal mining and alcoholism on families. I’d passed the men in Grundy, Virginia who had been crushed in mining accidents yet somehow lived, maimed and crippled, walking with short canes to support the remnants of a life lived too hard. I’d heard of the knife fights, shootings and seen the deadly toll that alcohol had on families, with children passed from family to family as their parents sorted out their inability to control their finances in the up and down cycles which are a way of life in mining.

I’d seen the men come around to collect their money for moonshine, not at my house, but at other places. Unexpected places. A country store that still took script for cash. A fueling station that doubled as a place to gamble, if you wanted. I always thought that drinking would be like making a deal with these men – give me my poison and I will give you my life.

Years later, I found that it was exactly like that, but alcoholism takes much more than that from you. First, you lose your freedom. You can’t travel, go on surprise vacations, or venture too far from your known sources. You begin to lose friends, as you isolate yourself to protect your addiction. You lose money: Cash, then credit cards, then savings, money for clothes, gifts, travel, retirement possessions to sell for more alcohol. Then the unthinkable – you begin to use your loved ones for money. You take all they will give under various pretenses. Then you lose your reputation, your ability to work, find and keep steady employment. You start to lose your family. Your parents distance you as you become more of a liability and embarrassment. You damage your credit with unpaid bills. You frequent different liquor stores in hopes that the clerks won’t recognize you. You lose the respect of your significant other, then their trust and slowly, their ability to love you as you are. You lose time. Days, weeks, months and even years can pass in a haze of half-forgotten events as you teeter on the edge of control, existing from hangover to hangover in a drunken stupor.

Finally, you lose your health. The one thing you take most for granted fails. Your body and brain can no longer take the poison that is now keeping you alive. At this point, if you are very, very lucky, like I was, you will have some family, friends and loved ones around that still feel you are worth saving. That there is hope. The advice pouring in from every source in the beginning of this journey into sobriety was true: You can’t stop alone. You need care, medical help and people to give you reason to endure the pain of the first months of sobriety. Conversely, you are also the only one that can help yourself. You have to first want to be sober. Then you have to do it.

There will be a day when a recovering addict can no longer be defined by their past, but by the present a future. That is my hope – what kept me going, what drove me to work in a professional kitchen, what made me care once again, not only about the big things, but about the moments. The first shift you can stand proud for what you’ve accomplished. The beginnings of real smiles and emotions on the faces of your loved ones. The freedom to reinvent yourself as a new person, someone not beholden to regular meetings or your drug of choice.

Is it Jesus, yourself, other people or a choice? I think it is a combination.

In the Weeds, indeed.

In the Weeds: Spring 2012 (3)


I collapse into the seat of my truck, trying not to vomit. One spell was enough. Only a few weeks before, while in Southwest Washington, D.C. I had tried very hard to ignore a Hispanic guy of indeterminate age who was vomiting helplessly into the street, propped up only by one hand on a parked car. Snot ran from his nose, mixing with the green bile he was spewing into the beautiful morning. Tears dripped off his chin as his eyes ran uncontrollably. At that point in my life I rarely ventured into the city, doing so only as a last resort to construction sites or when my girlfriend finally lost all patience with me and made me go. Like most people in deep avoidance, I did not frequent places whose occupants were a reminder of where I was headed.

Here I was now, in a college town that I had dearly loved, lying across the seats in the front of my Suburban, breathing from the bottom of my stomach in long, still breaths, praying that I wouldn’t begin to vomit again. My clothes still reeked of marijuana, lemon shots, peppermint schnapps and whiskey. I also had dim memories of eating Chinese Food somewhere after the bar had closed. Which added to the nausea building unsteadily in my tortured stomach. A glance in the mirror confirmed that I had lipstick on my face, bright red, and on my pants, bright blue. Who the hell was wearing blue lipstick?

As soon as I could, I tumbled into the cargo area of the Suburban. During my travels I had outfitted it with a twin mattress, tools, camp stove and my savior this morning, a small cooler that ran off the electrical system filled with water and Gatorade. I grabbed a blue Gatorade, fumbled through the green pack for ibuprofen, and chased both with an ice cold Heineken. My stomach clenched for a moment and I inhaled carefully until the danger passed. Besides missing the interview for a job I didn’t really care about, there seemed to be no ill effects from the night before. I laugh out loud, not caring much for how I sound, then collapse until the midday sun wakes me up.

It seems I am always waking up. Those moments right after wakening, as my befuddled brain makes sense of my surroundings (or not) are usually the only lucid thoughts that I have until the next time that I wake up. A glance around confirms what I last remember: I am in a hospital. The doctor-looking guy is sitting there once again, with only a different tie identifying that he’d ever left. I’m shaking very badly now, and my sheets are clean, recently changed, which could have multiple indications. Neither my wife nor my son are in sight.

The intern, as I would learn later, stood, brushed off his pants, tossed his McMuffin wrapper in the trash and sat on the foot of my bed. “Good morning, Mr. Matney. How do you feel?” I feel that, in the grand scheme of things, this is a relatively stupid question. “Do you know where you are?” “In the hospital,” I reply, as there really is no other answer. The fact that the toilet has a lid rules out worse places. He makes some notes in his notebook, similar to the one I carry while working in restaurants to help with remembering shit, like the special of the day, or one of the many stock recipes I carry around, mostly in my head. His pen scratches noisily, nearly enough to drive me crazy.

“Where is my wife?” He has turned his curious, unsettling gaze on me once more. I feel more like a lab rat or a medical curiosity than a patient. “How is my son?” My restraints are still in place, which is gnawing at me every single second that I am awake.

He assures me that they are well and safely at home. I relax a bit into the bed, relieved. I then turn to sorting out the sequence of events that brought me here.

I’d been drinking heavily since around mid-October, 2012. My wife had gotten pregnant with our first child around the first of March of the same year and I had made a half-assed attempt to sober up in September. I’d lost my scholarships, my status as a graduate student and dismissed from the teaching program in which I was enrolled shortly after my attempt to get clean. I lasted a few weeks a few weeks after that, then, tired of dodging the truth about why I was home and not in the school systems and why I wasn’t working on my thesis, I found it easier to pretend to go to work and instead join the early morning night shift crowd at a local bar that I liked very much at the time.

As to how, exactly, I ended up here, I realize I don’t have a clue. The intern watches my attempt to put together the recent past. Distinctly remember a very large, very sweaty guy in scrubs and a mask digging around in my ass with an air of vague interest and boredom. Checking for hemorrhoids, he had said. Most like causing them, I thought, expecting one of his cigar shaped finger to protrude out of my mouth, or maybe my nose as he rooted around like he’d lost something up there.

I explain to the intern that I had little idea of what had happened prior to my visit to my primary doctor. I remember going to breakfast, having a Bloody Mary, going to the ABC store, having a fight with my wife and throwing up blood in the bathroom. Beyond that, I reply, I don’t really know. “Do you know what day it is?” A valid question, no doubt. One I don’t really have an answer for. “March?” I guessed. Time to plant fruit trees and prepare the garden boxes for spring.

“What day is it in March? What year?” I frown at him. “I don’t know!?! It’s March! Where is my wife?” He sighs, and looks at his hands. “She dropped you off at your doctor’s office two days ago. Do you not remember any of this?” I stare at him blankly. Slow horror is creeping up on me in the darkness leaking into my peripheral vision. “Do you remember when your son was born? What day?”

My son was born on December 30, 2012 at 9:32 a.m. He was healthy, whole and my wife survived the ordeal with her usual toughness, ignoring or overlooking the fact that I had been drinking for about two months straight. By the time I left the safety of my office upstairs next to the nursery and drove my wife to the hospital in Roanoke, about an hour away, I was well into withdrawals and teetering on the edge of delirium tremens. My hands were shaking, my vision overcompensating and my basic motor skills were just about shot. I honestly wanted nothing more than to get my wife to the doctor and then find a bar. The further we went the less concerned I was about what order these things happened in.

It was late, and my wife was in labor. We did make it to the hospital. I concentrated on driving as though I was a steely-eyed participant in the Daytona 500 with the whole world watching, praying that I would pass a cop so I could ensure that the two people that I loved more than anything else in my life would make it safely to the hospital. The white lines became mental barriers as the wind howled and swirling snow slammed into the exterior of her car, muffled by layers of crash protection and sound proofing. Laura was in terrible pain and horrified that I would crash at the same time. My maximum speed appeared to be around 45 miles per hour, which I was convinced was nearly the same speed as an Enterprise Space Jump. The snow reminded me of the stars flying by in the movies.

We made it. Nolan was born without incident. I took the first few pictures of him and held Laura’s hand during delivery and managed to stay upright long enough for my sister and mother to visit, call her parents, who lived on the eastern shore, about six hours away, and converse with the nurses and doctors about Nolan’s health.

I reeked of rum and ketosis. My body was losing its ability to get through the sixteen hours or so that I had spent without alcohol. I was shaking and sweating horribly and wanted nothing more than a drink, an ambien, two ibuprofen and a place to sleep. Nolan solemnly looked around him in an attempt to see this noisy world he had been so rudely dumped into and napped between feedings. He mostly stared where the face of his mother was, into the voice and heartbeat that he had known for nearly nine months, a time of safety and care and bonding. His mom’s womb had nourished and held him and the bonds of love had developed deeply in that time period, as only they can between a mother and child that share the same space, blood, dreams and emotions from day one of his conception.

I recognized the moment for what it was, and was saddened to despair that I was too sick to enjoy these first few moments. I groggily got through it, with little sense of time or really even space. The nurses realized that there was something wrong with me, one of which sniffed my breath delicately and advised that I go to the emergency room. Despite my pleading they would not give me as much as an ibuprofen to ease my suffering, which seemed inconceivable beside the miracle happening in the next room.

Sleep would not come to me and when it did it was full of monsters and blood and my helpless newborn son screaming in pain. I lost my sense of time and space. I constantly fell from the couch on which I was attempting to rest. Laura had been awake for over 24 hours and begged me to go home and get some rest. She told me I was the one that looked awful. It was true. It was as if a ray of sunshine had rested on her and the baby and I were a lurching spawn of hell doomed to forever look upon total beauty and happiness from a safe distance, where they could not be harmed by my sickness.

As time started to slide back into place, Laura asked me once more to go home and clean and sleep before she and the baby joined me. Her only request was that I get something to eat and bring her something back. Weariness had settled into her and she needed me to leave. In my state, I was of no help. I stank of alcohol and sweat. My sheets were tangled and yellow and I felt terrible. I was shaking so badly that I could not trust myself to hold my own newborn son, terrified that I would drop this tiny living being that God had entrusted me with.

Stumbling my way along, I found my way out of the hospital somehow, to the car and drove home. The sun was just rising and it was cold and achingly beautiful. I was nearly beyond despair. I called my parents, pretended everything was ok, babbled nonsensically about Nolan and Laura, and then finally turned into the valley that led to our home.

Situated on a knoll overlooking the New River and surrounded with oak, hickory, beech and popular, it is a beautiful place. Smoke still rose from our chimney from the firewood that I had stuffed the wood stove with just before we left for the hospital. There was a heavy frost that turned the brown background of early winter into a wonderland of color and light. This was all lost on me as I hid behind my sunglasses and grimly drove the last one hundred feet or so in four wheel drive, sliding into Laura’s parking spot by rote and ritual rather than skill. I stepped out of the car, said hello to the cat, and vomited into the frost and snow. Over and over and over, until I was on my knees with snot running from my nose and bile running from my mouth. I crawled to the woodshed, where I struggled to stand, opened the door, and clumsily grabbed a handle of peppermint liquor out of the tool rack. My body clenched and shook as I poured my first drink since my son was born into my system. I shook violently for a few minutes, then crawled into the house, leaving tracks in the snow of a body drug rather than moving of its own volition.

Hours later, I awoke in the deepening cold on the floor of the kitchen near the door, which I had sense enough to close. The liquor bottle lay close by on its side, with only a trickle of liquid remaining in the bottom. I woozily got to my feet and managed to get the fire rekindled. I took off my urine and sweat stained clothes and crammed them into the washer on the “sanitize” option and staggered into the shower, getting a good look at myself in the mirror as I went. I was horribly fat. My eyes were but specks in my swollen, drunken face. My nose and cheeks were a terrible shade of yellow, along with the whites of my eyes. My swollen stomach reached far in front of me, protruding as if I were the one who had needed to give birth, not my wife. In self-defense against the stranger in the image, I rummaged through the space under the bathroom sink, retrieved a bottle of rum, and stepped into the shower.

The next few months are only bits and snatches of half-remembered facts and dreams. I remember having newborn pictures taken with our new son and my wife, his doting and protective mother. I dimly remember cooking, canning, keeping the wood stove going and holding my son when he cried at night and needed to be fed. I drank most of the time. I remember thinking, “Now I can drink all I want – my wife and family will be diverted by the baby.” My writing deteriorated into nothing but babble and nonsense. I posted nothing on my blog, nothing on my Facebook account, called very few people and had little to no human contact outside of my wife and son.

Now, faced with an intern in the hospital room who apparently had nothing better to do than to sit on the edge of my bed, stare at me in some combination of pity and loathing and ask questions for which I had no answer. “My son was born on December 30th, 2012.” “Were you drinking then?” I covered my face with my hands, and for the first time that I could really remember, began to sob.

In the Weeds: Spring 2012 (2).

Authors Note: The morning light is filtering through the darkness from somewhere. Keeping my eyes shut as long as possible, I listen and smell for some clue as to where I am. The taste is awful – cigarettes, expensive whiskey, cheap vodka and lipstick all congealed with the bacteria that congregates in your mouth and on your tongue when you pass out with your mouth open. I smell the unmistakable smell of cheap bacon frying, a smell that grew to haunt me while I was cooking three meals a day for a camp full of spoiled girls. There is the overriding smell of perfume I can’t place and my clothes reek of pot.

Taking a chance, I open my eyes. My head screams in terror at the sudden sensory overload. I feel thick, aching, sore, gross and relatively sure I’m somewhere I shouldn’t be. My interview! Shit. What happened? I dimly remember drinking expensive bourbon at a bar I used to frequent when I was in graduate school – when I was someone else. I remember high-fiving some guy I didn’t know while taking a piss in a trough in the restroom. I remember a blond girl with lots of lipstick and a fishnet outfit – it was eighties night, what a night.

The cinder block walls, adorned with selfies, Christmas lights, empty six-pack cartons and a shelf full of sex toys tell me where I am. A girl’s dorm room. Damn. I must have been wasted. I quick check reveals that I am still fully clothed, but I can smell lipstick strongly, so it must be on my face. My wallet is across the room on a nightstand covered in girl stuff – tubes of lipstick, make-up, glitter, thongs, bras, pictures of current and/or ex-boyfriends. I don’t know where my phone is, and I don’t care. It has only one number in it anyway and they will give me another one as soon as I turn up.

I slide out of bed and pull on my missing boot, not bothering with the mirror or state of looks. I only want to make it back to my old truck and sleep this shit off until I can make the drive back to D.C. This was stupid, dumb of me. I never went home with anyone. Not ever. My number one rule while drinking. I hear girls giggling in the background, behind the closed bedroom door and I catfoot to the window, relieved that it is open, even more relieved that it is on the ground floor.

I fade into the mid-morning sunlight like a vampire seeking his coffin. I catch a glimpse of myself in a store window while walking down the hill away from the girl’s dormitory. The man looking back at me is not the same one I used to see. He’s sad. Lonely. Sick. Tired. Emaciated.

I wake up to a cold rain rattling at the windows and the sounds of a hospital room. Breathing carefully, I open my eyes and see the IV placed in my hand, taped in place by what appears to be experienced hands. A catheter snakes out from under my blankets and I really don’t want to deal with that fact at the moment. Baby steps.

A man in a doctor’s coat is sitting in a chair at the foot of my hospital bed. A visual check of my surroundings reveals nothing about the date or what hospital I am in. I’m not handcuffed nor restrained, which is good, or at least not as bad as it could be. My brain tries to process for a moment, then retreats like a Comanche into the mist. I collapse back on the bed, still trying to breathe, pulling air out of my abdomen, as deeply as I possibly can. My abdomen is swollen, grotesque under the covers. I’m in more pain that I have experienced before. My mouth is beyond dry, parched, my tongue swollen. My hands shake so much that I can’t reach the water that is just out of reach beside the bed and I collapse back, content to let the mystery of the guy at the end of bed go unsolved for the moment.

There are footsteps from soft soled shoes, unmistakably worn by a nurse. They have the best shoes for your feet in the world. Even better than what we wear in the kitchen, as there worn shoes are a testament to the number of years you’ve spend behind the line, slinging plates, shouting orders, yelling for corrections, enduring the searing heat that you eventually begin feel is normal.

I realize that my alarm is going off and I feel the world fading. Hanging on to the present with both hands, filling my head with memories, I ask the guy at the foot of my bed about my wife, my son. He is on his feet with a clinical look of puzzlement, nodding to my questions. They are ok – yes, your wife brought you here, no you can’t call, not at the moment. The nurse leans in close and checks my pupils. I’m shaking all over now, trying to retch something up that isn’t there.

The doctor, if that’s what he is, pushes me back in the bed with one hand. Despite my massive weight, I am too weak to even attempt to sit up. My hands seem to belong to someone else as I place them over my face and begin to weep at the realization of how far I have sunk and fear of what I may have done. The nurse presents a needle and over my mostly feeble injections, adds it to the contents of my IV bag. I fall back into a semi-coma like a lost soul into hell, wondering what happened. Did I hurt anyone? WHERE is my wife and child??

Everything turns gray and I turn to the nurse, mouthing the question one last time. She squeezes my hand. “Everything will be fine. Rest now.”

In the Weeds: Summer 1986

Authors Note: I finish my fifth drink, and signal for the bartender to pour me another. Bartenders can tell when someone is there to spend money, there to get drunk, there to get laid or there just to drink themselves a little closer to hell. Not for the first time that night, I’m startled by how old I feel. Where I was once only a few years older than the people in this college bar, now I’m over a decade older than most of the clientele. The bartender even seems young, despite his tattoos and nostril piercings. I wonder what if would actually feel like if I yanked them out of his nose. Would he scream? Would he sue? Or, would he enjoy the pain so much, so very much? Would an act of random violence send this last legal purveyor of the world’s oldest and most dangerous drug into a cycle of self-destruction?

I let those thoughts go. I drift in a place of nonchalance and relative peace, despite the noise around me. I’ve been drinking steadily since early that morning and have to real intention of stopping anytime soon. I’ve finally achieved the buzz and perfect combination of drunk and upright that I had been looking for. I can maintain this shit.

Where is truth? What is it? As I write in the silence of my kitchen this night, free of drugs and alcohol yet still paying the terrible price extracted by years of addiction, I feel that this moment is true. My son is asleep in his bed. My wife is tossing a bit, but drifting off in our bedroom just off the kitchen. Fireflies are lighting up the night with their mating calls, the females patiently waiting for the males to locate their flashes of light as they fly about aimlessly, searching for a mate. I can feel my feet, my nose, the keyboard and I have a relatively good idea of what will happen tomorrow, I think.

But, I did grow up in the late seventies and early eighties. A poor kid, usually dressed in hand me downs that were either way too small or way too big. Still, I loved my childhood and enjoyed life all around me. I was relatively free in my wanderings and doted on by my parents and grandparents. Still, what triggered alcoholism, that descent into madness as an adult? It certainly wasn’t here…

You ask yourself and so many others ask the same question: “How did you get to this place? Armed with the knowledge that alcoholism runs in your family and you come from literally generations of moonshiners and drinkers and others that abused and/or made their living from alcohol, why did I start drinking? When did I start drinking? Why was it different for me and not for so many others?

There was a day in the dead of summer when I was fifteen or so. Exhausted from mountain biking all day and borderline dehydrated, a close friend of mine and I decided to cool off in a mountain stream. There wasn’t much water, as it hadn’t rained in a couple of weeks and the stream was dependent on runoff, as is much of region known geologically as the Appalachian Plateau. We swam and pretended to fish and investigated for what had to the thousandth time a large drain that caused the pool of water to form. The artificial pool had been built by my Grandfather in 1977 after flooding devastated the area and left me and my parents largely stranded for over a week. The stream jumped its banks and washed out the dirt road to our house, so rather than try to re-direct the stream into its old channel, my grandfather laid what ultimately became his last rock wall. Nearly twenty feet high, the stream tumbled over the wall from the overflow cistern and carved out a deep pool into the soft shale bedrock in only a few years. It was a magic place for a boy and a teenager, quiet and shaded, with newts and water skaters, frogs and water snakes, and, if you were silent and still, the occasional wild turkey with her brood taking them to the stream for a drink of water and to dispel the afternoon heat in the coolness of the deep pool.

Not too many people made the trip with me to the pool aside from my little sisters. It was my place, one of the many places that I had to be alone, from the spot under the tree on the North ridge where I could, if the leaves were off, see into the next county and dream boyhood dreams of conquest and escape, of riding down the Mississippi on a raft or of sailing around the world, visiting new ports and writing about my adventures.

Brock was a bit different, though. For better or for worse, the lonely kid, maybe a year or so younger than me, had attached himself to our family and shyly made my parents as his own. He was adopted, one of the thousands of children in Appalachia to fall through the cracks in foster homes and inevitably be placed with a home whose sole business was to raise children in return for the benefits provided by the government for their service. I liked him, but was rather ambivalent about his presence, which confounded my Dad. He was worried about the influence that Brock would have on me, and for once Dad might have been wrong. I think it was I that was a negative influence on him.

Even then, as a child and teenager, I was given to bouts of depression that would often last for weeks on end, especially in the dead of winter or the stifling heat of mid-summer. The books that I read so voraciously portrayed a life far different from my own, a life where the teenagers my age were exploring, solving mysteries, attending summer camps and doing all the things that I wished I had privilege to, somehow.

Yet, here I was, in a pool of water cascading down a hand build stone wall in the dead of summer, seeking solace from the sun as it made its way across the sky. Brock and I climbed, as usual, out of the water to dry for a few moments as our camouflage shorts dripped all around us. We discussed girls, the sweet jumps that we had just did, swapped the same stories and lies that we had been telling for years and investigated our surroundings as only teenage boys can.

“It looks like a boob!” Brock was scouring the stream for rocks and geological artifacts that could, in any way possible, resemble female body parts. He’d already found a butt and a vagina, so he nearly had a complete woman in his hands. All the parts of a woman that mattered to a fifteen year old boy, anyway. I ignored him as much as possible. My antisocial tendencies were already very deep at this point in my life and I rather detested his babbling about various pieces of quartzite and sandstone and what he was going to do with Sandra when we went back to school.

Brock didn’t know it, but Sandra and I had become quite an item anyway, at least in my mind. She was older than both of us by a couple of years and extremely attractive in a miniskirt, knit gloves and leg warmers. She had taught me a lot in the years that I had known her, from how to play basketball, sprint faster, drive go-karts and many other things that I took for granted. I dangled from a hold above Brock’s head, far above the pool, headed towards the pipe that channeled the stream into the pool.

Climbing had always been something that I was good at. I was a bit afraid of heights, something that I would not have then admitted under the threat of torture and bodily injury, so it was always a thrill to deny myself the relative safety of staying on flat ground. I followed the tales of climbers and explorers, surfers and sailors, marveling at the adventures that they experienced and longing for the same. As I chinned myself with an ease that I now envy, I pretended for a few moments that I was the lone survivor of an air raid into Vietnam, the only one left alive after our planes had been strafed with bullets by violent Commies, forcing me to parachute into the jungle, chute at the last possible second to avoid sniper fire, abandoning my dog tags for the enemy to find so I could not be identified upon my inevitable capture. That was the coolest, of course, the torture part. At least, it would be cool if I could somehow black out during the process, only to revive long enough to spit out my refusal to comply with their demands, which always involved a bikini-clad native and American freedom, which coincided quite nicely with the scenario I was acting out in my imagination.

I spun around in a move that would have left many professional climbers dumbfounded, grabbing a hold blindly that I had seized so many times it was ingrained in mind to do so. I was now facing the pool and Brock, who was still searching the stream for his stony girlfriend. I was around him more than anyone else and was more than a little convinced that there was something deeply wrong with him. Although I ultimately took the blame for him, he was the one whose idea it had been to tie two cats together by their tails and throw them over a clothes line like an abandoned pair of shoes on a college campus. Their ultimate battle to the death didn’t happen as he quite imagined, leaving one cat screaming in agony on the ground and the other fleeing the grisly scene with most of his mates hindquarters crudely tied to his tail.

The problem of the screaming cat was addressed by first pouring fuel on the unfortunate creature and igniting him. The cat immediately turned into a rudimentary incendiary device, hell bent on completing the destruction by escaping into the barn, which was stuffed to the rafters with fuel oil, hay, gunpowder, bullets and firewood for our wood stove, all of which were more or less essential to my family’s survival.

I arrived in a dead run, alerted from my chores in the chicken coop by the screams of my younger sisters and brothers and racket that the seemingly invincible cat was making as he attacked everything in sight. Two of my brothers were old enough to handle firearms, but they were rooted to the spot as if staked down, watching the entire scene open-mouthed with horror. I assessed the situation as best I could, screamed at Brock to stop, please STOP trying to club the inferno that used to be a healthy cat and ran for the front yard and my Dad’s work truck, which contained a firearm in the center console.

Handling firearms without my Dad’s permission and supervision was punishable by a certain beating and most likely a grounding, coupled with no dinner for the evening locked in your room as everyone else played in the cool of the day. It was a miserable experience, but I felt at that moment that it was justified.

My father arrived on the scene just as his gun in my hand went off, effectively ending the threat of a burning cat and no doubt adding to the trauma for my two youngest sisters, both of whom had sunk to the ground in tears. I was crying, by brothers were screaming and my Dad was yelling at everyone at once, most especially me. I watched in slow horror as my beloved father tore his leather belt off and gave me the worst beating I had experienced in my short life. The firearm was returned to its hiding place and life went back to usual relatively quickly.

My strongest memory of the experience is of Brock watching, expressionless except for a smile that played for only an instant around the ambience of his face. He said not one word to me, not in thanks nor explanation.

Maybe I was thinking of that the day I clung to my perch high above his head. I’m not sure. I grabbed the lip of the pipe and summersaulted into the cool blackness of the cavern. Brock was still babbling about something below me, but he had essentially disappeared from my point of life at that moment. As my eyes adjusted to the low light and I once again enveloped myself in my imagination I noticed something that, in retrospect, probably belonged to a close family member. I didn’t think about it at the moment, but the place was essentially hidden from view from the road and readily accessible on the upstream side without any fifteen year old bravado or Rambo-style guerilla attacks in the imagination.

There, in the cool of the stream on the far end of the pipe, maybe one hundred feet away, was a six-pack of Coors and fifth of Wild Turkey.

To this day I really don’t know whose stash I raided. Honestly, I don’t remember a lot of that afternoon. I pulled the cork on the bourbon after ripping the tag off the first can of beer, which loosened me up considerably, given the amount of exercise and lack of water that the day of summer activities had required. Wincing a little at the smell, but wildly curious and very rebellious, I took my first swig of what would become the bane of my very existence many years later.

The rest of the afternoon passed in some sort of blur. Dehydrated, young and holed up in my culvert with only the alcohol to keep me company for an unspecified amount of time. As I was to learn years later, alcohol mars the perception of passing time, rendering watches obsolete and either slowing down or speeding up your life. In my case on that day, it didn’t take very long for my mind to succumb to the effects of Wild Turkey 101. Brock, oddly enough, took one swig and promptly gagged and rinsed his mouth out in the stream. He then tried a Coors, with very similar results then threw the mostly full can at my head in a fit of anger.

To me, it was the ultimate form of rebellion and I reveled in both the immediate effects (mostly pleasant) and the morning after hangover. I felt like an adult. I was fifteen. I had essentially learned to drink.

In the Weeds: Spring 2012.

Authors Note: Have you ever had a story to tell? One that you’ve kept hidden, buried, shoved into the back of your consciousness until it becomes distorted and torn? I have such a story. This story is embarrassing, humiliating and deeply personal. It is also something that is rarely addressed in our society in it’s entirety, which is what I mean to do.

Please, if you are easily offended, shocked or put off by upsetting situations or language, then it’s simple: Don’t read it. It is a journey of a sorts, through space and time, a story of the life of an addict, who in this case, happens to be me. This story may not have a happy ending, and the hero is no such thing. Names, places, situations and identifiable projections of individuals have been changed as I see fit. If you think you spot yourself in the following narrative, you’re wrong.

I’m going to post this every other day or so as I write. It will keep me working and give the patient readers something to follow. What I really hope is that it helps someone, anyone that feels abandoned, hurt or lost in the long road that is the lonely journey out of addiction. With that said, here we go.

Spring, 2013.

“You’re dying.” I find these words to be irritating at best and extremely vexing at their worst. My head is swimming noisily, I’m relatively certain that I am going to throw up at any moment and to be quite honest, my ass hurts. In a way that can’t be good for me or anyone around me. I am trapped in my street clothes on one of those paper covered hospital benches that is, at this moment, way too high for my surroundings. I was happy, or more content only a few moments before while planted in one of the normally sized chairs in the tiny little waiting room where I was able to largely ignore the fact that I was sweating profusely, running an amazing fever and shaking like a leaf in a tornado while trying to deal woozily with the fact that I was suffering from multiple hernias and likely about to either a. Have a heart attack any moment or b. Slide into delirium tremens from alcohol withdrawal. I was banking on the heart attack.

So I sit, somewhat disconcerted, as usual, by my primary care provider’s insistence on sitting on a small, three legged stool that is at least three feet shorter than eye level from my perch on the outrageously overpriced hospital examination table. She’s dressed, as usual, in a loose-fitting, comfortable looking dress with no-nonsense shoes and a gorgeous scarf, along with eyeglasses attached by a beaded chain around her neck. I’ve never seen her deviate from this script of an outfit, nor have I ever seen her actually look through the eyeglasses. Over the years I’ve watched her look under and even around those lenses, but never through them. I speculate to myself that they are in fact for decoration only, but I know that this woman has a personality that would never allow her to wear something that did not have some function. Even if that function is just to throw the patient sitting awkwardly three feet above her head just a bit more out of kilter.

My eyes are so yellow and bloodshot and sensitive to light that I cannot for the life of me imagine taking my sunglasses off, yet that is what this evil woman perched on this stool around my kneecaps is demanding. At this point in our somewhat tenuous relationship I have realized that it is impossible to argue with her or question her motives, yet I hesitate with all the guilt of someone who is standing in the ruined remains of a bank vault that they have just blown to smithereens in the hopes of a million dollar payoff, only to find the treasure trove empty of the dollars they sought and instead occupied by a slightly deranged police officer seated on a small, three-legged stool.

So, I removed my sunglasses and ball cap. She squinted into my eyes, like she needed to, with her eye-magnifying-thingy and resumed place of authority on her stool to write in what is rapidly becoming a huge file on my health.

You’ve got to understand something. Just a few years ago, there was no health file on me. No medical records. Despite years of broken bones, car crashes, stitches, staples, multiple trips to the emergency room(s), I had never possessed health care that was decent or comprehensive enough to warrant medical records. This became a real problem when I was trying to get into Officer’s Candidate School shortly after finishing my Bachelor’s Degree in Geology back in 1997. The Marine Corp medical examiners were not blind, nor did they possess yellowish, bloodshot eyes. These young doctors were very determined and fit individuals, as was I at that time, and could hardly miss the fact that I was covered in scars from previous injuries suffered during a life filled with mostly recklessness. Nor could they overlook that despite the fact that I was 24 years old, healthy as I could be and did not carry one venereal disease, I had no shot records beyond my Mother’s memory.

Now there was a detailed file chronicling nearly a year’s worth of documented and extensive alcohol abuse. From that first Thursday morning when I finally admitted my drinking problem, while reeling with one of the worst withdrawals I had ever been through until today, my alcohol dependence and the breakdown of my independence were now thoroughly documented in a folder placed on the knee of a hard-eyed primary care physician who knew exactly what she was looking at.

She repeated the words that I was still trying to wrap my brain around. “You have six months with proper care and treatment, two years at the most if you continue to drink as you are right now.” My brain and body were still screaming at me for another drink, anything to calm the shakes and the nudges at my peripheral vision, something to return this world to some semblance of normalcy. “How much have you been drinking since your last treatment?”

To place a sense of time and space on this situation, my first attempt at total sobriety under the supervision of a doctor had been the past September, in 2012. My wife had just became pregnant at that time and I was trying to get rid of my addiction problems without really telling anyone exactly what was going on or admitting what was wrong with me.

This was the following March, 2013. It was one of those nasty early spring mornings when it rains, snows, the sun shines, then it sleets, then snows some more and everything is just a muddy mess. Honestly, I don’t remember much of the chain of events that brought me here, passed out on the examination table with my primary physician and nurse hooking up IV’s and getting me ready for transport to the emergency room.

So, to answer my doctors question was to admit that I really didn’t know how much I was drinking. I remember reading Stephen King once back when I had a serious writer’s crush on Mr. King and his description over how silly that particular question seems to a true alcoholic. “What do you mean how much have I drank? Why, all of it, of course.”

Nonetheless, she pressed the question to my blurry mind. This entire doctor’s visit had begun nearly twenty-four hours prior when my wife had overheard me vomiting in the bathroom. I’m not sure if you could describe what I was going through as vomiting. Dry heaves are never pleasant, but they are decidedly less so when you can literally feel your insides tearing and the first trickles of blood on the inside of your thighs from a release of internal bleeding. She was extremely worried, as she should have been and no longer bought into the “It’s just ulcers – it’s normal for my family” excuse that I kept coming up with. She is a gentle soul, and rather than demand from me that I go to the hospital she asked if I would please go see the doctor. By that point in the morning I had managed to choke down a couple of pills along with half a fifth of vodka and was feeling no pain, except for the nagging sensation that I had actually damaged something that may be important this time around.

By the next morning, the gig was up. My goose was cooked. I had not been able to eat, despite my best efforts and I was now under the scrutiny of Laura and unbeknownst to me at the time, my Mom. My mother was raised in a family saturated with alcoholism and knew all the signs of late stage denial and was also well versed in how stubborn her offspring could actually be, even when it seems that they are hell bent on their own destruction. Between the two of them and some rather strategic searching throughout the house and vehicles, they quickly realized that I was consuming mass amounts of alcohol. The exact amount remained a mystery, even when I was confronted directly with the question and too sick to hide the answer.

So here I am, face to face with an unyielding physician along with her glasses and penetrating gaze, trying, as is my smart-ass way, to find some sort of humor in the situation. “Does how much I drink per day include coffee? If so, you can count that out because I’ve given up caffeine.” She is anything but amused. She shifts the stack of paperwork on her lap and taps her teeth with the stem of her glasses. That is a new tick for me – I have to admit that I have never seen that one before. I wonder what this new turn of events has in store for me. Probably a new round of pills that take the edge off the urge to drink for a few days and provide me with a new buzz when that urge wears off and I combine them with a few gin and tonics. I’ll at least be able to eat an oyster po’boy and help take care of my son without shaking so badly that I’m afraid to touch my baby boy. I do at least have some of my wits about me, just not very many of them. I realize that she is not going to back away from this question, the one about how much I’m drinking each day, so I take a wild stab in the dark, not really sure of the answer. “Maybe a liter or so a day? Maybe less, maybe a little more?”

She is still tapping her teeth with her eyeglasses while studying me. “Why are you sitting sideways?” she asks. I explain that I’m pretty sure that I’ve blown a gasket of some sort in both my stomach and my large intestine, as I have a defined umbilical hernia and what I am sure is a severe case of hemorrhoids along with what is likely a miniscule tear in my lower and maybe upper intestine. I’m not stupid, after all. The pain is rather intense, and reminds me of a day, long since past, when a slate bar that I was using to apply pressure to a piece of mining equipment while it was being welded snapped under the heat and pressure and smashed into my lower abdomen and upper body cavity, rupturing my spleen. I already knew that if any engineered material was subjected to enough stress, it would strain – my brain had just not caught up with the unreality of what we were trying to do. Coal mining reminded me of what I’ve read and heard about Vietnam and other wars, where a select few in power order their minions around in a play for power and ultimately, profit. That particular night a multi-million dollar ripper head, that piece of a grander machine that cuts off the coal to be sent out of the mine for processing, had broken. We were attempting under the most dire of circumstances to weld it back together just long enough to hit our quota so that we could pass our problems off to the next shift and thereby avoid the inevitable wrath of the men in suits, who would arrive at a suitable hour the next morning, resplendent in personal helicopters and tailored suits which hid what I much later learned to be gathering fluid in the abdomen, a direct result of the consumption of too much alcohol.

“Ascites. Jaundice of the skin and eyes. Acute abdominal swelling, likely caused by fluid accumulation due to liver failure from acute alcoholic cirrhosis. Fluid retention in the hands and feet. Visual impairment. Excessive sweating and involuntary shaking of the extremities. Pupils are dilated. The patient is unaware of the date and suffers from severe abdominal cramps, rectal bleeding and dry heaves accompanied by some hemorrhaging. Vital signs are unstable, BP is 225/150. Heart rate is 115 and crashing.” I realize that Glenda is speaking into a tape recorder and that the main doctor for the clinic is standing just behind her. She turns to the other doctor who is wearing a tie with Golden Retrievers imprinted on it. They turn on a recorder. “I’m afraid that there is nothing that we can do for him here. Outpatient treatment has been unsuccessful in the past two attempts and I am unwilling to continue those attempts without hospitalization and detoxification under medical care.” She leans in close to me. “Do you understand what we have been saying?” I nod. “Is your wife in the waiting room?” Another nod. In a sudden flurry of comfortable garments and medical paperwork, my doctor abruptly leaves the room.

With a sinking heart I realize that Glenda is headed out that door to confront my wife with the enormity of my current situation. The doctor of record pauses for a moment, subconsciously, I think, adjusting his ridiculous tie. “I hope you realize that your life, for better or for worse, has just changed. I wish you the best.” I glance down at the bloodstained paper bed cover and spiral into unconsciousness.