Twenty nine years ago, on the 50th anniversary of D-Day, I took a first step to turn my life around by entering an Alcoholics Meeting in a church near our condo in Arlington, Virginia.
“Hello, my name is Doug and I am an alcoholic.” That meeting on that evening started a long, often difficult, journey to this Jun 6, 2023, when I will visit an AA meeting and stand and say: “My name if Doug and I am an alcoholic. Today is exactly 29 years since my last drink. I’ve been sober for a year short of three decades.”
They will give me a 29-year “chip,” a bronze coin celebrating that achievement and a reminder that, as an alcohilic, I am recovering for the rest of my life one-day at a time.
That day was a long-needed wake-up cal. It came after a an intense “intervention” arranged by my long-suffering wife, who was about to leave me, and friends who cared and refused to give up on me. One June 5, 1994, I joined with those friends for drinks at Bullfeathers, a popular bar on Capitol Hill. These sessions usually ended with me traveling alone on the the DC Metro Subway that had a stop a block from home.
Not this time, however. I woke up alone in a hotel bedroom on the other side of the country, When I called the front desk, I asked the operator: “Where am I?”
Her answer: “You’re in the airport Hilton sir?
“The what?. There’s no airport Hilton in Washington?:
“Your not in Washington, sir. This is the airport Hilton in San Francisco.”
I hung up and took a long, hot shower to dry and clear my head, along with the massive hangover from and evening that included far too many Tequila shooters at Bullfeathers.
On the table was a check-in receipt with my Amex card but no ticket for a flight from Washington to San Francisco. I called United and found that they had a seat on a nonstop to Dulles International Airport. Then I called my wife, who asked immoderately: “Where the hell are you?” When I told her I was in San Francisco, she said I was lying. I wasn’t but I had lied to her so much during our marriage that I was not surprised.
“I’m flying home and will be there in late afternoon,” I said. “Pick me up at the airport please. We can talk then .”
At the airport, United bumped me up to first class beause I was a “!K” member who flew more than 100,000 miles a year with them. After the plane took off, the flight attendant asked if I wanted a “pick me up,” which means vodka and orange juice.
“No, I said.”Just a class of orange juice and a lot of black coffee.”
On the five-hour flight, I racked my brain to try and remember a shred of the night before. That last thing I remembered was drinking with the guys. I did not remember any plane ride out or checking into the Hilton. When the plane landed at Dulles, Amy was waiting for me.
“OK,” she said. “You were on a flight from San Francisco. You got a lot of explaining to do.”
“Yes, I do,” I said, “but I have to find out how I got and take whatever steps I can to make this right.”
“The first step can be going to an AA meeting at the church,” she said. “We will be home in time for you to get there.”
I did, met a man named Al, who offered to be my sponsor. I agreed and he took me on the beginning of the 12 step program of AA. One of the most difficult steps was the one to meet with people I had hurt during my time with the bottle and offer my apologies.
That list was long and incomplete after 29 years of trying. I took my first drink of legendary Virginian Cleophus Sowers’ moonshine when I was 15 sixty years ago. It was served to me by a 27-year-old teaching assistant at U-Toll-Em Inn, motel in Floyd County, Virginia, because shefelt the alcohol to “relax me” for some more intimate things she had in mind. It worked, but the need for booze became an addiction that controlled too much of my life for more than 30 years.
For the first several anniversaries of my sobriety date, I would talk to AA groups and wondered how I got to San Francisco on that evening in 1994. At one meeting, I fellow traveler asked me if I had been part of a planned evening to get my attention.
I hadn’t thought of that. I had waited for the cost of an airline ticket to show up on m Amex bill but one never did. The only flight that I knew about involving San Francisco was the one i took home on June 6, 1994. So I called one of the group of drinking buddies. He had been a Washington lobbyist for a large company in Indianapolis but had retired to Hilton Head several years later.
“Let’s talk about that night of drinking at Bullfeathers,” I said. He laughed and said: “Did Amy spill the beans?”
“Yeah,” I lied. “But please fill in the details.”
“You had been a functional drunk for so long but you were losing more and more control. Amy was about to leave you and your job was in jeopardy, and you didn’t know either was about to happen, so we cooked up an intervention. Amy said your biggest worry was losing control and not remembering the day after, so we starting feeding you the Tequila shooters earlier than normal in the evening until you were mumbling and incoherent. Ir was easy to get you to the airport and put you on one of my company’s jets.”
“How in the hell did you pull that one off?”
“My boss, was in recovery and he approved putting you on the plane as a VIP passenger. You had flown with us before, so you were known . When you starting coming around, we would pour more Tequila down you. That made it easy for us to check you into the hotel and we flew back to Washington.”
The plane was a Gulfstream, the luxury business jet and I didn’t remember the flight. I would later get a chance to fly on a Gulfstream IV owned by a mining company and I realized what i had missed.
That memory wipeout was exactly the trigger to turn my life around but it still took the love and support of my long-suffering wife and better friends than I deserved.
I stopped having the will to drink 16 years ago but that doesn’t mean I am recovered. The journey contiues, one step at a time and there are still too many people out there who I have not made amends to. Most have congratulated and forgiven me. I am grateful for that but I understand others who feel that there is nothing i can do to make up for the harm they suffered from my drunken actions.
Shortly after moving back fo Floyd County after 40 yers away, the lady who gave me my first drink asked to meet for lunch and she wanted to apologize for what happened after that drink.
‘You have nothing to apologize for on that,” I said I cannot, in good conscience, forgive you for anything except introducing me to booze at age 15,” I said. I forgave her for that and we parted as friend. She died a few years later.
I’m a recovering drunk but I am still a drunk who can fall from the wagon at any time between now and the day I depart this earth. Until then, I will continue to make those steps…one day at a time.
(This article has been updated several times to correct too many types. At age 75, severe arthritis has made it harder and harder to type and my visions ain’t what it used to me. My apologies.)