Today, as I have done on June 6 of the 22 previous years, I will face a group of people — some that I know, others I have not seen for a while and still others I’m meeting for the first time — and I will say, in a clear, unhesitating voice: “My name is Doug and I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been sober for 23 years as of today.”
At the end of the meeting, I will be presented with a coin, larger than a 25-cent piece but not as large as a half-dollar. On one side will be engraved “XXIII” to signify my 23 years of sobriety along with the words: “To thine own self be true. “On the other side is the serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.”
It will join another coin, called a “chip,” in my pocket until I get home. That chip with “XXII” goes into a desk drawer to join various other chips that chronicle my steps as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous since the evening of June 6, 1994. I will carry the new chip for the coming year.
In a decision made more than a dozen years ago, I decided to forgo my anonymity as an AA member and wrote a newspaper column about my journey from my 35 years of alcoholic consumption to that fateful day when I finally admitted that I was a slave to the bottle and began the long ride to get sober, stay sober and become one to tell my story in the hopes it will convince others to take control of their drinking and their lives.
Before June 6, 1994, I was an alcoholic who abused friendships, lied without compunction, took advantage of others without consideration, drank away more opportunities in my life and was close to losing my loving and understanding wife.
Today, 23 years after walking into my first AA meeting in Arlington, Virginia, Amy — that long-suffering but loving wife — remains my best friend, partner and lover and we will celebrate 38 years of marriage in December.
Without her intervention, we would not still be married and I probably would not be alive.
I drank for 35 years, taking my first drink — a glass of moonshine from the still of Cleophus Sowers of Floyd County — when I was 14. The drink came from a woman some years older who thought it would take the edge off of her other introduction of the evening — a sexual encounter with a lady who knew a hell of a lot more about both drinking and physical pleasures.
She taught me a lot, about many things.
Some years ago, when in her 70s, she asked to meet for lunch and apologized for that drink and what followed. I thanked her for the apology for the drink but said no apology was needed for the other parts of the evening.
I drank in high school, concealing a flask of vodka in my locker. As a young reporter at The Roanoke Times, I joined others at the Ponce de Leon Hotel bar across the street from the Times building and drank lots of beer even though I was just 17 at the start of my five-year stint with the paper.
My drinking continued and increased during my 12 years as a newspaperman in Illinois and then 23 years in Washington.
As a longtime drunk, I managed to keep my alcoholic life hidden when the Department of Defense granted a Top Secret security clearance and, later, a Department of Energy “Q” clearance so I could enter nuclear labs at places like Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico and other parts of the nation and world.
For too many years, I lived under the illusion that I was a “functioning alcoholic” as I worked for Congress in Washington, on Congressional and Presidential campaigns and later when I ran a political division that included the nation’s largest political action committee for the National Association of Realtors.
I couldn’t admit to myself that my drinking was getting more and more out of control or that the alcohol spurred me to questionable things I did in political settings. I took steps to virtually bankrupt a rival candidate in New Mexico, produced a campaign mailer that disclosed the private phone number of a Congressman in Texas and told another Congressman that his performance in debate practice proved “that if you were up there masturbating, you hand would be asleep.” The booze washed down any doubts I might have had about those actions and worse antics.
Then my betrayal of trust to those who trusted me in 1994 left me at the bottom, where a carefully-crafted “intervention” developed with help from my wife, and others who still had faith, convinced me to walk into that AA meeting room in the basement of an Episcopal church on North Fairfax Drive in Arlington, Virginia, and seek the help I needed so much.
Robert, a fellow traveler, took me under his wing and guided me through the early steps of AA. With his help, I never drank again and even lost the urge to drink around the time I accepted my 10-year chip.
Getting my act back together still took several years. Even though I did not drink, I was still a “dry drunk” who acted too much like the out-of-control alcoholic who lived on single-malt scotch before June 6, 1994.
It took a while to reach step 8, which requires compiling a list of those whose lives you have harmed through your actions while drinking. It took a long time to compile that list and I am still trying to complete step 9, contacting each and every one so I can to offer amends.
Many welcomed my contact. Others did not. Some never responded to my requests and still others said “stay the hell away from me. I cannot, and never will, accept any amends or apologies from you.” Their hurt and anger haunts me, as it should. What I did was my fault and mine alone. I deserve their anger and their hatred of what I was and what I did.
I may feel like a recovering alcoholic who no longer has the urge to drink but I will — for the rest of my life — be just one drink away from becoming a slave, yet again, to the beast called alcoholism. That realization is one of the reasons I chose to break my anonymity and go public with my drinking and recovery. It it helps just one other person to take that first step towards recovery, it will be worth anything I can do.
I serve as a sponsor to those who seek help in AA, answer calls 24/7 from others who have fallen off the wagon and spend whatever time is needed to talk with those who have trouble dealing with the addiction we share. For more than a decade, I have served as Floyd County’s representative on the advisory board of the New River Valley Alcohol Safety Action Program (ASAP).
Does any of this make me a better person? No. I am a seriously flawed man who has made many mistakes in a life with many twists and turns over more than 69 years on this earth. I have hurt far too many people, violated too many trusts and abused those who had the misfortune of knowing or dealing with me over the years. I can only try to spend whatever time I have left on this earth to try and make amends for what I have done and do whatever I can to help others who share my weaknesses and addictions.
Many of the fellow travelers in AA also ride motorcycles. Several fellow travelers and riders carry chips with higher numbers than mine. We stop and cheer anyone who gains a new chip and reaches a new goal — be it one day, one week, one month, one year or 50 years.
Today, I will receive chip XXIII. Tomorrow, I start the year-long process on getting chip XXIV, on June 6, 2018,and I will get there…one day at a time.