This evening, at a meeting of fellow travelers, I will speak up and say: “I’m Doug and I am an alcoholic. On this day, I have been sober for exactly 22 years.”
On June 6, 1994, I attended my first AA meeting at an Episcopal Church near our condo in Arlington, Virginia, and took the first of many steps away from booze.
As noted, today is 22 years from that fateful, and life saving, day. That’s 264 months, or 1,144 weeks, or 8,012 days (including four extra days for Leap Years).
Those 8,012 days are 192,192 hours or 11,531,520 minutes — a fair amount of time by most standards but still far less time than the 35 years I spent drinking God-knows how much of my life away.
I started drinking at 15 with a glass of Floyd County moonshine from the still of Cleophus Sowers. The drink came from a woman of legal drinking age who wanted to calm my nerves before she introduced me to other temptations.
We spent time together over a 13 month period. I graduated from shine to vodka because it was harder to smell it on my breath.
After graduating from Floyd County High School a year early at 17, I went to work for The Roanoke Times as a reporter while attending what was then the Roanoke campus of the University of Virginia (which later merged with Roanoke Technical Institute to become Virginia Western Community College).
The original plan was to transfer to the Charlottesville campus of UVa after two years but I decided, instead, to keep working and put off finishing college indefinitely.
As a reporter at a morning daily newspaper, my work shift normally ended at 11 p.m. and I joined others on the staff at the bar in the basement of the Ponce de Leon Hotel across the street from the paper. I was under age but the waitresses never carded me. They probably thought that since I was a reporter with the paper so I must have been 21.
At 17, I was already what some called a “functioning alcoholic.” I worked hard, drank hard and partied even harder. I rationalized that I wrote better and took pictures under the influence.
That pattern of life continued for five years in Roanoke, then for 12 years in Alton, Illinois, where I reported and shot photos for The Telegraph, an afternoon daily in the St. Louis metropolitan area.
In Alton, I developed a fondness for scotch, either Johnny Walker Black or Chivas Regal.
Amy, a professional actress who worked as the resident heroine on the Goldenrod Showboat on the St. Louis Riverfront, knew of my hard-partying reputation when we met and it took feeding her a batch of White Russian drinks to get her to go out with me. She never touched that mixed drink again.
We married two years before leaving Illinois so I could take a job as a press secretary to a Congressman in Washington.
Washington, of course, runs on booze. Cocktail parties occur most every night. Fundraisers depend on libations. There’s a reason why AA groups meet at the Pentagon, the Executive Office Building near the White House and all over town.
My drinking intensified as I moved up the political ladder from press secretary to Congressional chief of staff, committee “special assistant” and, finally, the Vice President for Political Programs of The National Association of Realtors.
My tastes in scotch went to single malt (as in expensive).
Amy’s concerns about my drinking increased. She had given up booze years earlier and tried to convince me that I needed help. She was just about ready to leave me as I ignored her warnings until a fateful day in June 1994 that struck down my illusions of invincibility.
It took help and understanding from her and several close friends to force me to face the sad fact that I was not a “functioning drinker” but one out of control. I was in danger of losing everything unless I took desperate but positive steps to bring my life under control.
A big step came at that first AA meeting on June 6, 1994. One step became many. One meeting became gatherings sometimes daily.
Amy’s love and the determined efforts of friends helped me walk away from a life at an edge that lies waiting for a moment of weakness. I work, one day at a time, to travel a better path.
Even though I am a member of an anonymous group that fights alcoholism, I decided to go public many years ago as an effort to help others who face the beast of alcohol. My actions are neither sanctioned or supported by AA. It was my choice.
Each year at AA, I receive a coin — called a “chip” — recognizing a specified period of time sober. I was physically sober but still a “dry drunk” in too many ways, still letting the beast control my decisions and actions. Each of the 12 steps that a member of AA reaches is a step in the right direction. The key is to keep stepping forward, not back.
Each June 6 is a key date and a goal of accomplishment. The 22-year chip that I get this evening replaces the 21-year one that I have carried in my pocket for the past 12 365 days. I will put the 21-year chip in a case that contains others I have received over the months and years since 1994.
With the chips is a journal that I have kept since that first AA meeting. It details each stop taken. It spends a lot of time on Steps Eight and Nine: “Make a list of all persons we had harmed, and become wiling to make amends to them all” and “Make direct amends to such people, wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
Abuse of alcohol leads to harm to those who become involved wth those who drink. My list of those I harmed during 35 years as an alcoholic is still much longer than the one containing the names of those where I have been able to make amends.
I hope and pray that I can match and complete the two lists before I leave this world.
It is something that I must and will try to do — one day at a time.