For many older low-bottom alcoholics, the journey into long-term sobriety is typically preceded by a lot of false starts before finally sobering up. They make multiple trips to detoxes and programs before they gain an understanding of the connection between their drinking and their life problems. Although Skip had been arrested multiple times and had endured bouts of homelessness associated with his drinking and drugging, he never sought any treatment or even considered stopping his substance abuse. He assumed those life events were just par for the course for guys like him. He got sober at the age of 46 on his first try seven-plus years ago. This is his story:
One of the first times I can remember thinking about stopping drinking was when Irish Johnny, one of the guys I used to drink with at one of my regular shithole bars, said to me when I was all fucked up, “Skip, you’ve got to stop doing that white shit or it will kill you.” And I remember saying to him, “I can’t. Because if I do, that will mean I’ll have to stop drinking, and I ain’t doing that.”
My sponsor, who had been a drinking buddy of mine, swears that we had a conversation in a bar (while we were both hammered) where I said, “I have to stop drinking, and I think the only way to do it is to go to jail.” But I don’t think that’s what happened. I actually had a warrant for a theft, and I thought that the only way I could actually turn myself in to clear it up was to do it loaded. Either way, I did end up going to jail, and that’s the first time I ever went to an AA meeting. But the only reason I went was because they gave us good time (reduced sentencing) for going. But it didn’t really work, because I was drinking home brew that some of the inmates made while I was in there.
I didn’t actually decide to get sober until the last time I was arrested. I was on a two-day bender and went to my job at a body shop after being up for 24 hours on whiskey and blow, and I said to myself, “I got to stop doing this shit. This is nuts.” But by noon, I was calling the dude I got my coke from. Before I went to see him, a friend called and asked me to pick some up for him too, which I later found out was a setup.
I was arrested for just a few grams, and they sent me to a holding cell. I remember sitting in the cell when that conversation with Irish Johnny came into my head, and I said to myself, “I gotta stop doing coke.” But then I realized that the only way I could stop doing coke was to stop drinking, and that was probably the first time I ever really thought about stopping. The next morning they took us over to the courthouse, and on the way over I was shackled to this 18-year-old black kid in the meat wagon. When we got there, I found out that he was being held for murder. So that started playing in my head, like “What am I doing here? What the fuck has happened to my life?”
I had been arrested many times, but this time I got a really good court-appointed lawyer, and he got me out without bail. It was one of many things that just started to fall into place that day. When we were leaving the courthouse, he suggested that I get into a program. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but a buddy of mine had gotten sober in AA and I called him and asked him to take me to a meeting.
He said he’d take me the next day, so I went back to my shitty room and proceeded to have one last party with the booze and the coke I had left lying around. I knew the court system and I knew I’d start getting piss-tested, so I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to do anything again for a while unless I wanted to go to jail.
My friend took me to meetings for the next couple of nights. And while I know this isn’t such a hot idea when you’re trying to get sober, I shared my room with this Guatemalan guy who was kind of couch-surfing homeless, and every night I’d buy him a couple of 40’s before I went to a meeting. I did it just so he’d stay in the room and talk with me when I got home, because I didn’t want to be alone, and I did that for about a week. During that time, I went to a meeting every day and, surprisingly, I liked every one that I went to because people seemed to be pretty happy and I saw hope in the room. I mostly listened to the guys who had been around for a while, over five years, because I figured out pretty quickly that there were a lot of people who could stay sober for a little while—because that’s not really too difficult—but the only way I thought I could put any serious time together was to listen to the old timers who had been doing it for a while.
I kept going to meetings and I heard about a great noon meeting that met every day, so I went there, and that’s where I met my old drinking buddy who became my sponsor. I used to call him “Bobble Head” because I thought his neck was so skinny, but I realized later that it was because his head was so bloated from all the booze that his neck just looked skinny. But he looked pretty normal now, and that really surprised me, because he was a pretty bad drunk. But he got me to join his home group, one that went on a lot of commitments to detox, and that ended up being really helpful.
One of the problems that I had when I first came around to getting sober was I thought the coke was my real problem. I thought drinking was normal and was just a part of life, but then I started going through the withdrawal, shaking and sweating and all the other shit for about three months, and I knew that wasn’t from the coke. I’m an alcoholic and I now know that. I’m just one who does a lot of drugs.
Another thing I remember from the early days was that I used to drink coffee the way that I drank booze, one after the other, so I wouldn’t sleep at all. I actually told my sponsor that I thought I had to go to a detox to get off the coffee. He just told me to cut back on the coffee, so I did and eventually I was able to sleep. But that’s how fried I was.
Because of my arrest, I had lost my job, and after a few weeks, I ran out of cash and lost my apartment. But I told people at the groups I belonged to about what was happening and they helped me. They tried to get me into a halfway house in my neighborhood, but they wouldn’t take me because I smoked, so I got into a homeless shelter called the Bristol Lodge a couple of towns over. It was a men’s shelter and there were 40 or so guys there, and you had to be sober to stay. I had been there a few years before, but had gotten thrown out because I couldn’t stop drinking.
I still had no job, so I couldn’t even afford the bus, so I would walk about four miles from Waltham into Boston every day to go to meetings, but it helped me get back into shape mentally and physically. After a month or so, I got a job at another body shop, but I had to quit, because mentally I was just toast. After three months, I got into a program in another town, a real halfway house, and I started to clear up a little. I finished that program, then moved into a sober program in Chelsea for over three years, even though it was a fucking hellhole. The house was in the shittiest part of the city—it was like Tijuana. There were crackheads, pimps and drug dealers just outside my building so it was a tough place to stay sober, but I did.
I don’t like the word “gratitude” but the people at that program really helped me until I got back on my feet, so I guess I am pretty thankful. There wasn’t too much structure, and they gave me just enough rope to hang myself, but I stayed sober because I stayed active in AA with my group and went to lots of meetings. I also got to see the effects that booze and drugs had on the people in my neighborhood through sober eyes, and I knew how lucky I was.
I really couldn’t work with other people so I got a job re-doing a woman’s apartment room-by-room, and worked landscaping with a guy I used to drink with to get money for smokes and books and such. Eventually, I got a job in one of Boston’s better restaurants, and I’ve been working in the kitchen there for a few years now. I also got a live-in job taking care of a well-off elderly man, so now I get to live in one of the nicest parts of Boston in a beautiful home. I still go to meetings. Sometimes, I don’t go as often as I should. That’s when my thinking gets bad so I amp it back up again.
I don’t live a rock star’s life, but for a drunk like me, it’s a pretty good one. And I haven’t seen the inside of a jail cell—or a dumpster—since I’ve been sober. And I’m grateful for that.