I’ve been drinking about every day since I was 20 years old. I know, usually the first drink is enjoyed at 15 in your parentsʼ garage or something like that, but for me it was different. I was raised in a strict evangelical household that abstained from even so much as the mention of things like sex, alcohol, or drugs. Thusly, I finally was able to let myself enjoy my first sip of beer at the age of 20 with an ex- girlfriend in her parentsʼ house. They were gone for the weekend, and I had procured a twelve-pack of Red Stripe and a night alone with my special lady. So there I sat, shaking, with those little brown bottles in front of me. She sipped heartily, as she was used to such things, and I was wholeheartedly reluctant, picturing my parents distraught and disappointed in me. I raised the bottle to my lips, reluctant and sad, tumbled it down, and then felt the cool sear of liquid upon my bottom lip. It was over. I became an alcoholic that very moment.
My first sip tasted something like a mix between a basement floor and a salt shaker being poured down my throat. See, my girlfriend was Catholic and thusly raised on the stuff, and I, being wholly evangelical, had never so much as a family member consume the shit. As you can imagine, I hit it hard. By the end of the night we had fucked twice and were both lying naked on her dirty bedroom floor watching the ceiling spin. She might have been 17 at the time, I don’t remember. I think I miss her more than I should. I miss those moments where I felt so connected to another human being.
Thus started what has become a four-year binge of booze and self-loathing. I grabbed beer any way I knew how. Older friends at my art school would garner me 24-packs of Corona and 30-packs of PBR. I was new to this game. I didn’t know what was good; I just knew that six of whatever was enough to let me pass out on the floor at two in the afternoon and avoid my studio homework.
So, when I finally turned 21, I was ready for the big time. In fact, on my 21st birthday I remember buying two bottles of Sky Vodka and a bottle of Johnny Walker Red for my party. My ex-girlfriend was there in a tube-top dress, with all my art school friends gawking at her hot little ass. We drank and drank. We were in my 9th story downtown Columbus apartment destroying our livers and wishing we were so much more. I remember the night ending in a bleak gray haze of her naked ass below me, dress up around her back, as I tried to rail her in my inebriated state. My dick softening with the booze in my blood, portending a lifetime of future disappointment. It was the first step towards down and out.
That relationship ended three months later. She left me for the party scene that the Ohio State University had to offer, and I left her for the 12-a-day I was downing before driving drunk as shit to a Chipotle to drown my sorrow by five in the afternoon. I became more introspective and an acute alcoholic, drinking before class at ten in the morning and often giving advertising presentations totally balls deep in beer at around six at night. For some reason, I did well and people found me persuasive. I sped through my winter drunk. I lost my job at the school and maxed out my credit cards and school loans. It was 2010, there was no tomorrow.
I met a new girl, and somehow convinced her to like me. We began a relationship, yet my intimacy with alcohol deepened. A jealous mistress, the booze kept creeping in and around our new love. We did nothing but get drunk on Saturday nights alone in my apartment while I neglected my senior level art school homework and woke up the following Sunday to roll around and have sex three or four times before finally getting up and going to get coffee, hung over and cold. I still miss those times, though. The bottle was more my girlfriend than the girl, and she knew it. It’s why, two years later, she would finally leave me and find someone that made her happy.
So there I sat, downing Manhattans, at The Leaf & Vine, a self-proclaimed martini bar in Troy, just 10 miles from my parentsʼ country ranch. I have no recollection of how many I drank that night. Maybe seven or eight, I don’t know. My ex texted me that night and pissed me off, so I blamed her and kept going. I had driven myself there that night out of spite towards my mother, who had made me feel small that night because I was living with my parents again. I was there, at the bar, surrounded by successful business types of the rural Ohio Midwest and trying to just feel halfway alive. I think I spent upwards of $70 that night. I vaguely remember running into some folks from high school who seemed very concerned with my ability to stand. I didn’t care. It was one in the morning, and I was pissed, so off I went. I paid my bill and walked defiantly out the front door and hopped into my truck. Thirty seconds later, there was a sheriff blinding me with his flashlight and asking me to walk in a straight line.
There are moments when your life leaps out of your chest. There are times when you feel the burning betrayal of all that you thought was good and true. The time when a Sheriff slams you down onto the hood of his cruiser because you backed ￼away from him as he pulled out his handcuffs, that’s one of those times. Let me be clear kids, don’t fucking drink and drive — they’ll get you. I was in the back of his cruiser being told I had the right to remain silent. I was asked what my parents’ numbers were and if they could be contacted. About five minutes later — the sheriffʼs office was right downtown across the street from the bar — I was in a holding room looking at my bearded father signing paperwork for my release. I had never felt lower.
About five days later I was in the courthouse waiting with my dad to hear the charges against about 100 detainees from the previous weekend. My name was called among the “trouble” category, as the bailiff put it. I was directed to the hallway as a public defender told about 20 of us to just plead not guilty and wait for a pretrial date. I had no idea what any of this meant. All I knew was this was a much bigger deal than previously anticipated. I told my dad we needed to hire an attorney and figure it all out. Luckily, our family has a good one on retainer, and he was able to provide immediate council.
My attorney reprimanded me for drinking so much that night. See, my blood alcohol level tested at .164 which is twice the legal limit in Ohio. He told me he could probably get the charge dropped to a reckless operations offense and my jail time lifted to a three-day DUI intervention program. The 90-day license suspension was something he couldn’t do anything about. “They’ve really cracked down here,” he said with a disparaging glance to my father and me. So, at 23, I anticipated the worst. I sat in waiting for a month before my pretrial date. The pretrial came and a plea bargain was offered of a reckless op charge in exchange for me doing the three-day intervention program and serving two years unsupervised probation. So, there I sat, awaiting the rest of my 90-day suspension and the coming 72-hour DUI Weekend Intervention Program.
Day 1 — The Birth Canal
The DUI Weekend Intervention Program was held in a high-rise hotel in downtown Dayton, Ohio. I was to check in by 5:30, Thursday evening, for the beginning of my weekend. I promptly presented my bag to a lady who searched me head to toe for any alcohol or drugs that I might have been hiding on my person. I then went to sit in a large hotel meeting room. My dad had dropped me off early, so I was one of the first to arrive. I checked in with another lady who gave me a name tag and had me sign some additional credit card information. Seemed capitalistic. Without my consent, she flipped my full “Raymond” name tag over and wrote RAY on the opposite side, and then told me to go sit and wait.
There were four rows of tables set up with approximately six chairs and an aisle in the middle. It was kind of like church. I sat myself in the middle of the left-side back row, right next to the aisle. I sat and watched people slowly filter in. Some ￼sauntered in with a weight on their shoulders. Others skittishly looked around and then settled in a chair. No one made eye contact, despite my repeated efforts.
About an hour later there was every variation of person present. White, black, young, old, attractive, ugly, those obviously well-off, and those who looked dirt poor. The leader introduced us to the program and went over the rules. I scanned the backs of my new best friendsʼ heads. The next 72 hours would be spent with these people. I started trying to figure out who would talk to me, and which girls I could freak out the least by my presence in the room.
What followed was a four-hour lecture about how bad consuming anything resembling alcohol could be. Around 10 we received room numbers and were assigned roommates. We were ushered up two floors to our hotel rooms. The rooms were first class, highly plush and well-finished. I was surprised. The big screen TV was promptly turned on by my roommate, Brandon, and flipped to the NFL network, a channel that interested me little. I settled into my queen-size mattress with a short novel and was out in about ten minutes.
Day 2 — Colic
Wake up call was 8 a.m. We received a knock at our door. We were all ushered single-file downstairs to one of the hotel ballrooms where we were served a pretty decent breakfast of french toast, bacon, and something purporting to be hash browns. We made small talk around the table. I didn’t know these people and my anxiety levels where through the roof. I downed two cups of coffee and we were made to go back to the conference room for our 8-hour defensive driving class.
This part of the program was lead by an ex-cop, and I remember little other than a few bad jokes and stressing over a test that proved impossibly easy. The morning swiftly ran out and we found ourselves in the dining hall again. Time seemed to be flying. The table I sat at earlier that morning was full, so I sat at the table next to it with more people I didn’t know. This crowd was younger, and more jokes were flying. I found myself making eye contact with a girl sitting across from me quite a bit as we exchanged escalating sarcasm about the program presentation and the general state of what was supposed to be a roast beef sandwich. The people here were quick-witted, and at that point I realized I had found the people I would stick around for the remainder of the weekend.
Up, again, and back to class. More driving training. More threats about how awful alcohol is. Dinner. Some kind of lasagna and something colored green. I hadn’t realized it but a whole 10 hours had passed since the classes had started. I was on my 5th or 6th cup of coffee, and Friday was almost over.
I’m not a smoker, but at this point I decided to go out with the smokers for their break just so I could breathe some fresh air. I stood around with my new group of ￼friends and chatted. People were generally friendly. I remember a few jokes about smoking pot. The girl I found myself talking to the most was Lena, she was the quick one from lunch. Lena and I shared a cynical sense of humor and would become the self-proclaimed best alcoholics at the program. I looked around at this band of ladies and gents, and reveled at how quickly I had made friends. It took me months in college, but somehow here, it didn’t matter who you were. If you could make fun of the program in a unique way at any moment, you were in.
We were rushed back inside and sat down for the last four hours of our Friday night. At this point there were 15 new people in our program. Ohio judges assign you to either a 72- or 48-hour program, and the new kids had filled up the conference room before we had returned from outside. All our seats were taken, but a few in the back row were open. Lena and I settled into some chairs in the back row, ready to make some serious fun of our confinement.
The director hemmed and hawed about this and that and then told us we were watching a movie next. The room shuffled, a little excited, as she fiddled with the laptop and projector. When a Man Loves a Women started to play and Lena and I simultaneously tilted our heads to the side and slowly glared at each other, rolling our eyes. This was going to be a long two hours. At this point I was so high on caffeine that my temples were pulsing and I was crawling out of my skin. I made snarky comments about the movie, and we somehow made it through. Our gang of cohorts was surviving, somehow. It was time for bed now. The end of day two, my second day sober in over six months.
Day 3 — Tiny Clusters
Saturday was our introduction to small groups. After our gang’s self-proclaimed breakfast club meeting and smoke break, we were back in the big room being called off by individual counselors for small groups. Lena was sitting in the front of the room, and I somehow knew her name would be called and then my own. I actually laughed when it happened that way. She got up, gave me a sarcastic smirk and we walked with the rest of our small group members into a small room. The next four hours consisted of about 12 people in a circle talking about our convictions and how alcohol has ruined our lives.
Lena and I sat next to each other and the rest of the semi-circle filled in appropriately. So we began sharing how we got arrested and the various stats of our charges. The councilors, both named Kim, wrote the stats on giant pieces of paper taped to the wall. All lined up, it didn’t look good. Our monthly totals spent on drinking. Our BAC’s. How many days a year we drink. Lena and my numbers were both over 350. She’s a bartender. We were clearly the highest in the room. We looked at each other and kind of grimaced in a way that said, “Yeah, we’re fucked.” The day trudged onward.
￼Lunch. Then a three-hour health lecture about the effects of alcohol on the body presented by a woman who had obviously never had a drop in her life. She was so high strung that she gave me a tension headache. Maybe that was the coffee, though. After her spaz fest, more small groups. More revelations. Then another movie.
Back inside from another smoke break, we were in the large room again. Lena was in a ball on her chair with her head buried in her knees. We were both trying to figure out a way to get out of a rehab referral as our final assessment from the program. We would make snarky comments back and forth about how fucked we felt. She was swiftly becoming my best parallel in the program. She had an honesty about her that I envied. It felt like she knew some kind of pain.
They showed us the movie 28 Days with Sandra Bullock. In the movie there’s a running joke about a soap opera that her roommate in rehab likes to watch. In one scene there’s a man dying on a bed seizing from “tiny clusters” in his brain. The humor comes from the doctor saying the term over and over in an unchanged tone while the man dies in agony. I found myself sitting there shaking from caffeine in my chair, my new friend almost falling out of hers from boredom and then forty or so other people around us all suffering in varying degrees from tiny clusters. We were the doctor and the patient, waiting for some change in tenor.
After dinner that night a leader from Alcoholics Anonymous came and gave a lecture and introduction to the 12 steps. I found it really interesting, and his story was pretty compelling. Lena and I kept nodding our heads and mouthing the word “yup” at some of his more potent alcoholic points. After his presentation was over we had two more hours of small group discussion about our tendencies and how to make a plan to never be arrested from drunk driving again. By the end of the night, our leaders came to both Lena and me specifically and told us to really work hard on our plan of attack and be ready for the morning. Day 3 of sobriety: Saturday. Stress on high. Time to not sleep all night, figuring out a way to avoid a rehab referral. Lena and I just glared at each other and sighed heavily.
Day 4 — Reckoning and Eventual Let down, the 72-Hour Finale
Breakfast went quickly; everyone was nervous. We then went into our final small group meeting of the weekend. We all took turns, about 20 minutes each, going over our plans. I went first. I chronicled my varying states of lowness and depression I’d experienced over the past few years and tried to pin my alcohol use on feelings of worthlessness, instead of a straight dependency. Seemed good at first. I made one of the Kims cry. They both told me I had a breakthrough. I felt relieved, for now.
After that everyone else followed suit. Lena revealed that her boyfriend was
dying of cancer over the summer, and that’s why she had drunk so much. I felt sad, heartbroken that someone my age could come down with leukemia and almost die. To have just one year left. Seems impossible. The next few hours I listened to varying degrees of sorrow. We went over our time. In all I think we spent about 5 hours in that room crying with each other. The therapists said we all touched them so much over the weekend. I felt really good.
After that we had a quick lunch and then it was time for the final assessments. They called us all back individually while everyone else remained in the main room watching a 30-year-old Phil Donahue documentary about drunk driving. By this time we were all at the end of our ropes. Almost at the end of 72 hours and almost free. Felt interminable. My name, of course, was called next to last.
Alcohol abuse assessment: that’s what they recommended for me. My heart sank; I wasn’t out of this shit show yet. The stigmas of being both arrested and then deemed “a drunk” weighed upon me. Felt awful. They sent the paperwork back to my courthouse and probation officer, and that was that. I had a two-hour therapy session to pay for and attend, and then, hopefully, I would be out of the woods.
I went back into the main room where the leader of the program read us a letter from a woman who had attended the program previously but then went on to kill a kid while she was drunk driving and is now serving four years in prison. I didn’t even process the words. I was so tired at this point. Ready to be done. As soon as we were dismissed, Lena and I exchanged phone numbers and walked up to our rooms to retrieve our stuff. I wished her “good luck,” and she replied in kind. I got my duffle bag and met my dad outside the hotel in his truck. I was out. Felt really odd and awful. My dad took me to Buffalo Wild Wings. I had one Yuengling and 12 hot wings, sauce on the side.