Monday, July 19, 2010

I am an Alcoholic, Part Three, Final, "To the Bottom"

I have struggled with how to wrap up this brief series. I do not want to go into detail because most of the people who were friends, some of whom were also alcoholics, are still living and I have no right to expose them, even disguised, in this series.

So rather than discuss details that involve particular individuals beyond my immediate family, I would like to reinforce a couple of the truths and to dispel a myth about alcoholism by using myself as the example. Challenging the myth requires a bit of “tooting my own horn,” which makes me uncomfortable. But I also cannot expect you to take my word for the myth's lack of validity.

The simple fact is that the essence of my addictive behavior was set within the first years of my drinking. I drank for the feeling that alcohol gave me: it lightened my burdens, reduced my anxieties, and made me feel mellow, while usually making me happy and extroverted. At times, though, it would unleash my fear, anger or self pity; and that was when I could hurt others the most. Under the influence of alcohol your cognitive ability to control emotions is greatly reduced while your emotions are heightened. And there is no question that alcohol fed my already rather large ego, which made me during those times hardly the epitome of the well adjusted person.

I did not drink periodically, nor did I drink in moderation. I drank daily and to excess. But I did not feel or appear “drunk” until I had many drinks. I had a “high tolerance” for the drug. I can only remember twice when I was “fall down” drunk, and alcohol never stopped me from remembering what I did and did not do. Rather, I was a highly productive “functional alcoholic.”

People who did not know me well did not know how heavy a drinker I was. This pattern never changed until the last year of my drinking when I gave up trying to have a life beyond drinking. Toward the end I was drinking literally from the time I got up until I went to bed, and I really didn’t care who knew it. I was at my bottom. But for the first 34 years I was nowhere near that bottom. The final fall was off a cliff, not down a sloping hill.

One of the truths of alcoholism that I want to reinforce is that I hurt mostly those who most cared about me, my loved ones. I was not an awful husband and father, but I was surely not a good one, even by my standards in those days. I was too often indifferent, unloving, overly strict, suspicious, jealous, tired, short fused, angry, and self absorbed. Those whom I loved did not come first. I did. Or perhaps I should say alcohol and my career came first.

Another truth of my alcoholism is that deep down I knew the damage that I was doing to those who loved me and yet I did nothing about it. If there was a choice between booze and them, and there was, I chose booze, all the while telling myself it was a “false choice,” and that they did not really understand me and the important things I was accomplishing. Yet I knew that was a lie when I left my family after 12 years and sought a divorce, but, even then, I told myself they were better off without me. Perhaps that was literally true, considering that I had no intention of stopping drinking. I will never know. But I know that the wounds from that divorce have never healed in my children.

The myth I would like to dispel is that alcoholics are not as productive, creative, smart, inventive, imaginative, and morally driven as are nonalcoholic members of society. While we all can easily identify alcoholics in history who disprove that myth, social propriety insists that alcoholics are wastrels and worthless.

I fervently believed that when I finally got sober. I believed it because for many years after I quit drinking I came to two conclusions about myself that supported the myth because I was afraid that if they were not true then I would go back to drinking.

The first conclusion about my self was that I had stepped all over others in my career in order to get to the top as quickly as I did; that I was egomaniacal and ruthless and let nothing stand in the way of my personal success.

And the second conclusion was that I would have gotten much further and been more successful than I was had I never been a drinker.

I no longer think that either of those conclusions is true.

It is true that I may have stayed longer in the government part of my career and may have, given time, advanced to higher positions, which would have involved accepting political appointments. But I was a career civil servant and proud of my nonpartisan role in government, and it is highly likely that I still would have tired of working for the government and would have moved on in any case.

And I can not remember one time when I was given a promotion that I had not earned. I believed fervently in meritocracy. Nor did I ever do anything that would have otherwise stood in the way of someone else getting the same job as I got, or a better one.

To help put the lie to the myth, let me give a sketch of my life as a practicing alcoholic.

After the first three semesters of college at Washburn U. in Topeka, I got married on my 19th birthday. I dropped out of school for a semester to earn enough money to go back, and I went to Wichita U the following Fall. I had decided to study and completed my course work with a 4.0 average, taking extra courses, while working full time. I graduated in 1960, BA, cum laude, in Political Science.

I then accepted a post graduate teaching assistantship at Colorado U. at Boulder. I completed the MA course work, 30 hours, in two semesters, 4.0 average, while teaching two American Government undergraduate courses and a senior seminar in Constitutional Law.

I left Colorado for Cornell U. on a post-graduate fellowship at the end of that year to work on a doctorate. However, I was deeply in debt from school loans, had by then three children to care for, and decided to quit after one year.

I went to work for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller at Albany in the NY state Executive Development program. During that year I wrote my Master’s thesis (political theory) for Colorado U. I took the Federal Management Internship Exam the following Spring, scoring in the top 1% nationwide. I received offers from many federal agencies and chose to go to the Bureau of the Budget, Executive Office of the President. I was 23.

I moved up annually from GS 9, to 11, 12, 13 and 14. I wrote and reviewed proposed legislation, and was responsible for reviewing the budgets of the Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Land Management, US Geological Survey, and Federal water resources management programs.

When President Nixon came into office I moved to the Bureau of Land Management, as Director of the Division of Energy and Minerals, GS 15, responsible for management of the Government’s programs under the Mining Law and the Minerals Leasing Act, including Outer Continental Shelf Oil Leasing programs. I was 29.

Three years later McGeorge Bundy, then at the Ford Foundation, asked former TVA Chairman, David Freeman, to launch a high profile study of US energy policy. I knew Dave from working with him when he was on the White House staff under LBJ. He asked me to come to the Ford Foundation with him. Dave became Director of the Energy Policy Project and I was Deputy Director. We published a library of 23 books on US energy policy. I co-authored three of those and edited others. I also designed a new methodology for the Project into which all of the research flowed: “Alternative Scenarios Analysis.”

During this time I gave speeches throughout the US and in Europe, appeared on numerous panels and wrote and co-authored several professional papers and journal articles. I also taught at George Washington U., the Aspen Institute, the Federal Executive Institute at Williamsburg, and appeared on TV and radio in support of the recommendations of the Project.

After the completion of the Project, Elmer Staats, Comptroller General of the US, asked me to come to the General Accounting Office as Director of a new Office of Special Projects where I would implement policy analysis within the GAO using the scenarios analysis methodology. I went to the GAO at GS 17 and the next year, they created the Division of Energy and Materials and appointed me head of that Division at GS 18, the highest level civil service appointment. I was 35.

During the time at GAO we wrote between 30 and 50 reports to Congress a year, and I testified many times before congressional committees, was interviewed often by newspapers, magazines, TV and radio, particularly National Public Radio.

By age 38, I was burned out and tired of offering the same solutions to the energy crisis over and over and seeing essentially nothing happen. So I moved on to NYC as VP of a chemical company, ending up in St. Louis as CEO of a subsidiary of the company. After turning it into a profitable operation, I was out of a job, but with enough of a parachute that I was able to buy a small retail energy conservation company in St. Louis, which I owned for the next ten years.

All of this time I was drinking continuously and heavily. I was smoking 3 plus packs a day and getting about 4 to 5 hours of sleep a night. I was working 60 to 80 hours a week, usually 6 or 7 days a week. I was a successful, productive “workaholic alcoholic.” That I might have gone higher, further, faster is to me, looking back on it today, highly doubtful. At every turn I was the youngest ever to hold the positions I held, or positions were created for me to fill.

In terms of my public service career, I was an effective, competent, and innovative thinker in my areas of expertize, and was recognized as such by my peers, and by the academic and political communities that counted. And I was an alcoholic.

But, I was not a success as a husband and father, and there is no one but me to blame for that. That I could have been a much better father is, without a doubt, true.
In the end after my life all crashed down on me, I was saved, and not by my own doing. I do not know “why me?” But I know how and by whom.

Most of all I was blessed, after being alone for over 10 years, to have met Sue, who saw enough in me to love me in spite of my drinking and then to make me face a choice when I hit bottom: her or the bottle. And for the first time in 35 years I chose correctly. It was the best decision I ever made, and all of my academic and career successes pale into insignificance in the light of that decision.

And there is one thing I am sure of about that decision. When Sue forced that decision on me I was in no condition to make it on my own. I owe that to God. God gave me her and then God put Jim White into my life to show me the path to sobriety at exactly the time I hit bottom. Jim took me to my first AA meeting and stood by my side for three years until he was too frail to continue as my sponsor.

That is why I know that my 20 years of sobriety is a miracle. All we have left are miracles when we have no capacity to create for ourselves a future, when we are beaten down, consumed by something that we have no strength to resist, nor the will to try. Some higher power has to reach into us from the outside and lift us up out of the pit of despair.

God did that for me. While I had been a religious person all of my life, even when I was drinking, I know now that God was not then my higher power. Alcohol was. But when I got sober I dedicated the rest of my life to God, and to the service of others in God’s name. I have never once come close to regretting that.
It has been my intention with this series to show how this one alcoholic has, by the grace of God, achieved the reprieve of sobriety. I am not cured; but I am in remission, one day at a time.

I do not think of myself as unique. Rather, just the opposite. While the details differ there are common things that bind all the addicted. We have many more things in common that we have differences.

I also know this: If I can make it, so can others who share my addiction. And I will continue to reach my hand out to any who will take it. I will help them to walk the path I have been blessed to walk these past 20 years. We can walk it together.

God bless you all.


Author tags:
health, 20100719, addiction, my story, habits off alcoholism, alcoholics anonymous, alcoholic, alcoholism