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No One is Coming

At the start, it was a starburst of luminous warmth. It was fun, it was freeing, it was sophisticated. It was summer beers, sunset champagne toasts, French martinis and obscure Italian wines. I started drinking because it made me relaxed and connected and in love. I felt closer to people around me, to myself, to the buzzing hum of energy I called God. Drinking helped me inch from chrysalis shells of shyness and insecurity. It took me to temporary planes of higher consciousness. Drinking was my friend.

At the end, I was stranded and alone in a darkened house, a husk. What once connected me had led me to self-imposed isolation and crippling loneliness. What once elevated consciousness actively clawed at my very sanity. At the end, it was impossible to sleep through the night without waking up and taking several drinks to calm my nerves. My hands shook so bad each morning, it would take minutes to coax my contacts onto my eyes. I hid liquor bottles around the house and snuck hurried gulps of cheap white wine straight from the bottle on Sunday mornings. When that ran out, it was on to the mouthwash, just to keep the shakes at bay. I was thirty-five.

I wasn’t always an alcoholic. My descent into alcoholism was gradual and lined with many enchanted nights. There was a time when I could take it or leave it. But, I never saw a reason to leave it. Drinking was too much fun. It was like having a magician as an ever-present friend: tip the bottle, spin around three times, and an ordinary night got lifted. I was really good at drinking. I learned how to cozily float in the liminal spaces, the candlelit magic suspended between cold florescent reality and blackout oblivion. That was my happy place. I visited every day, often with friends but, if not, then always alone. It worked like magic until, suddenly and without warning, it didn’t. When it stopped working, I couldn’t find the buzz and the laughter and the warmth and fell headlong into the razor teeth of chemical dependency and blackouts. By that phase in the disease progression, I didn’t drink to feel good; I drank to feel less bad.

Long before I was physically dependent, alcohol had wormed itself to DNA depth. From the first drink in my early teens, I developed an emotional and psychological dependency. At sixteen, I would daydream about bottles of liquor, pining for the day I was of age. From age twenty-one to thirty-five, I drank—literally—every evening other than five or six nights, two of which were during the bar exam. But while daily I inched imperceptibly closer to the invisible Rubicon crossing that many alcoholics point to, I was succeeding at life. I got places pretty young. At age nineteen, I graduated from college at the top of the heap; at twenty-two, I had fallen in love and said “I do”; at twenty-three I had graduated law school and jetted off to work at one of the best law firms in the world. I charged hard, I was serious and earnest and diligent, and I needed—hell, I deserved—to let my hair down and take the edge off. I told myself there’s no way I could study, or love, or laugh, or practice law without booze.

As I built a life and a career, my drinking kept pace. It was high-functioning and practical. I drank after work to relax, and then to get to sleep. I drank to socialize with my law firm colleagues and to meet new friends. I drank to dull the tension of high-stakes corporate deals. I drank every day, but I had rules: I never drank during the day, and I never missed work. I drank expensive single malt scotch and bought good wine from a local wine monger I knew by name. I compared my drinking to my colleagues that stumbled and threw up and cheated and told myself I had it under control. I wasn’t like Them.

Over time, my drinking crept in like the tide. Sometimes it ebbed in its volume, but it never left. I started to fray. Weekend binges started making appearances. The blackouts weren’t far behind. When I had quiet days at work, I’d steal off in the afternoon to “grab drinks”. I usually found similarly inclined colleagues. I worked in Big Law; they weren’t hard to find. The progression continued for years.

One morning, about two years before I got sober, I decided I needed to control my drinking. “Decided” implies I sat in an armchair, soft rays of morning sun casting shadows in my study as I made a list of pros and cons about My Drinking. That would give a civilized gloss to my pitiful state. In reality, I woke up on a Monday after a weekend blackout to find that my wife had moved all of her possessions out of our shared bedroom into the upstairs guest room. I didn’t remember anything. Clearly, something was amiss.

I vaguely knew about AA. I knew that I could show up and listen and drink some bad coffee, take some heat off my back. I somehow dragged myself to the office that morning and found a lunchtime AA meeting nearby. When I got there, I had no idea what was happening. People took turns reading from something they called the “big book”. They recited the story of a doctor who was caught up with booze and pills and shooting up morphine in his garage before he ran past his wife and kids to collapse in bed when the drugs hit his bloodstream. What have I gotten myself into, I thought. Drugs weren’t part of my story; I was too much the rule follower. Then people started sharing, about divorces and interventions and car crashes. Some even laughed about it all. I listened, and I judged them. Then I snuck out and didn’t come back. I smoothed things over with my wife. I told myself it was all an overreaction. Too much stress at work, I said. After all, I was a successful law partner. I drove a nice car and parked it at the nice house I owned. I paid my taxes on time. I didn’t drink and drive. I wasn’t like Them. I started drinking again the next day, convinced I could drink like a gentleman.

Over the next two years, I tried to get My Drinking under control. I made rules about how much and when and where I could drink. I broke them all. I got into yoga. I meditated, before it was mainstream. I got a therapist. I went hardcore vegan, and I ran long distances. I began seriously digging into my spirituality for the first time in my life. I devoured books and podcasts on God and faith and mankind. I became environmentally conscious. I switched political parties. I went on silent retreats. All these things made me a better human. But they didn’t help temper My Drinking. Not one bit. I was missing the gnawing emptiness of deflation at depth. That was around the corner.

I parted ways with My Drinking when the pain of staying the same outweighed the fear of change. For me, the apogee of pain arrived on back-to-back days: on the first day, I inexplicably blacked out and missed my wife’s graduation from a Duke post-graduate program she had been working towards for several years; the next day, I blacked out again and missed an international flight with her to hike part of an ancient pilgrimage in northern Spain. I couldn’t understand my behavior. I was baffled. In the past, I had blamed my binges on stress at work, on family-of-origin dysfunction. This was different. I was missing the good stuff in life.

I reached out for help. I spoke with my new therapist, who I had recently met through the BarCares referral program. He suggested I call Nicki Ellington at the North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program. That same day, I called Nicki and scheduled a meeting a few days later. Before the meeting arrived, though, I was hopelessly drunk. My wife, fresh back her solo Spain journey, looked at me with eyes equal parts sad, perplexed, and straight up done. I too was done; I was done in the middle. I asked my wife to drive me to a local detox facility. I am forever grateful to her for that act of kindness.

So that’s where my best thinking took me: a mental institution. I entered voluntarily, but then realized the gravity of my situation when they asked for consent to hold me for three days, and to put me in a solo padded cell if things went left. The pen shook in my trembling hands as I signed my consent to enter the Unknown. They gave me Librium to help my body come off the booze without having a seizure.

Ms. Ellington came to visit me in the detox facility. She was kind but serious. She told me that I was sick and I needed to get some intense treatment. I needed the real talk. I didn’t know the first thing about alcoholism or rehab. LAP helped me make arrangements to get a direct transfer to a wonderful treatment center in Tennessee, where I spent the next month and a half. It was the best thing that happened to me. It saved my life. I needed a drastic reset, the chance to let my body and spirit have a fighting chance to rewire old habits of thought and behavior. I remember arriving at the treatment center and, for the first time in years, being able to breathe. The game was up; I could stop pretending I was okay while I slowly died.

Rehab was a gift. I took it seriously and did the work. I learned how to attend 12 step meetings, how to listen and find the similarities in people’s stories, not the differences. I learned how to empathize. I learned to smile, and then to laugh. One day, some ray of light burst upon me: no one is coming to save me. I realized that if I want sobriety, I have to do the work myself. No one else is coming. There are lots of people who will help, but I have to choose recovery for myself. At the same time, I can’t do it alone. I need the community of other breathing humans to mirror the positive character habits that point true north.

When I got home from rehab, I threw myself into the local AA community and supplemented it with the local LAP support group that meets weekly. I went to meetings. Lots of meetings. Over time, I started enjoying them. I listened and tried not to judge. I took phone numbers when people offered them to me (yes, that’s a thing). I called the people who gave their numbers. I took their suggestions. I got to know one of them a bit and asked him to help me work through the twelve steps of AA. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been good. I’ve learned how to be comfortable in my own skin. I’ve learned how to look life straight in the eye.

To my surprise, I’ve learned that practicing law is so much easier, even fun, doing it sober. To my surprise, I didn’t lose my edge. I can more effectively stand up for myself and my clients in boardrooms and tense negotiations. I used to view law as a means for accumulating personal wealth and status. I now see my role as a lawyer as one of service, of being a social engineer instead of a parasite on society, to quote the late Charles Hamilton Houston.

Just as important, in recovery, I’ve finally found a spiritual path. I used to think that to find God I must pray on the mountaintop, wander in the desert, walk the pilgrim’s path. In sobriety, I learned that the path towards the Real is the journey within, the slow deflation of my ego that insists on separation and superiority. In the days of My Drinking, I was someone who wanted to want God. In sobriety, I have become someone who actually wants God, with all the messy, nitty-gritty grist for the mill that comes with it. I used to pray to a God that required tribute, penance and sacrifice. In sobriety, I found a God that wants me to be happy, joyous and free. In the days of My Drinking, I used to pray for success and for happiness. These days, I pray that I may be of service, that I may be free of illusion and that, just for today, I might begin to comprehend the meaning of serenity. As it turns out, that’s a life second to none.

If you are reading this and find yourself in a dark wood and have lost the way out, please ask for help. LAP is a great place to start. There you will find the company of men and women who have found a spark of hope at midnight and see no higher service than to help you find yours.

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