From drinking to get through life, to taking pills because he wanted to die, to accepting that living was a choice he was capable of making.
By the time I was 24 years old, I long ago passed that line between social drinking and alcoholism and, in that nebulous alcoholic fog and exaggerated egoism, smirked at relatives who actually lost money to each other on bets that I wouldn’t live that long.
That smugness was of no comfort when I was made a desperate decision to end my life on a cold Thursday morning in January. I had long before quit asking why I could not begin any day without at least three mixed drinks, what was so wrong that I carried a flask in my car to have a mid-morning shot and why literally every night I drank myself into oblivion.
The why’s didn’t matter any longer. I knew that morning that my life as it was then had to stop and, so cognitively and emotionally ravaged by years of daily drinking that I didn’t consider that stopping was an alternative to death – at my worst, I was drinking a fifth of Canadian Club a day. I saw only that every day of the rest of my life would be like “this,” and “this” was no longer acceptable. Only in dying could I stop it. And I tried, with what police later said were about 60 anti-depressive and other psychotropic medications that I had been prescribed by a psychiatrist.
I woke up in a hospital intensive care unit, wondering why and how I got there. It was later I learned that my only older sibling, a sister – who died in January 2008 after her three-year war with breast cancer – decided to “check” on me, something she’d never done before. She said she found me on my living room floor, no pulse, not breathing. She called an ambulance, and the burns on my chest where paramedics “hit” me with the electric “paddles” to get my heart started again remained for three months, a reminder of the desperate, lonely and pathetic soul I had become.
Strangely, it was anger at God because He wouldn’t let me die and some warped perception in my brain that got me to stop drinking. I figured there was no reason to drink anymore if I couldn’t even die right. I had gone to a 12-step program for about a year before my suicide attempt but, clearly, I didn’t get it.
With time on my hands that would otherwise be spent drinking, I started hitting the meetings two or three times a week. For six months, I carried a chip on my shoulder and that anger at God because of what He “did to me” – until one late July afternoon. Sitting on the stoop outside my apartment, drinking coffee and thinking what BS coffee was when only a few short months earlier I was inside, door locked, curtains drawn and drinking myself into that oblivion where there is nothing, nothing to feel and nothing to hurt.
Drinking my coffee sitting on my porch step that July evening, I could hear a gang of kids playing in a nearby park. And this, what I to this day believe to be the first “spiritual awakening” that I heard about in the recovery meetings as I was thinking that I wished those “son-of-a-bitch kids would shut the hell up,” I noticed at the same time the setting sun behind the top of a huge oak tree and the sound of birds chirping. Then, my own spoken words: “Oh, dear God. What have I done?”
In that moment, I realized that the sound of children playing, a setting and rising sun and the outline of a setting sun in a clear sky behind a towering tree – they had always been there, but I hadn’t noticed. I had been too drunk.
My anger at God gone, bulldozed by the brutal honesty of what I had become, what I did to myself and sobbing softly, I had to get to a meeting and, then, this time, just shut the hell up and listen. An “inner voice” suggested I not drive and, in a rare instance, I listened to it. I called an acquaintance also in recovery and said simply that I wasn’t drinking, that I wasn’t OK but I was going to be that I needed a little help to get to a meeting. My friend said only, “Okay,” asked no questions, sat with me at the meeting and, for once, I shut up and said nothing but listened. I began to hope then that God apparently still had business with me.
By His grace and getting myself into service to others who want and need recovery, I have not had a drink since my botched suicide try. And the regularly scheduled visits to the shrink gradually became fewer and now are non-existent. In the years since, I came to understand why the time I decided to die was not in the cards. I could go without trying to amend for the damage I inflicted on others with my drinking and behavior. Some people to whom I owed apologies opened their arms to me; others kept their doors locked to me.
Most of those people have long since gone on – both parents, all my brothers and sisters and most extended relatives. I’m still here, sober and alive, and sometimes wonder why. Maybe it’s because I found myself in the unlikely role as sole caregiver to a terminally ill senior citizen in my home and, I hope, to throw a lifelong of recovery to those reaching for it helping them to hold onto it.
In the years after my last drink, as part of my own evolution in life’s ever-changing process, I came to understand that the “reason” for my “need” to die was not alcohol but deeper and darker reasons that led me to alcohol as a solution to those reasons. I came to terms with those reasons long ago, and the most important fact that I have discovered is that we, as individuals, must accept ourselves for who we are, not empower others to demean or hurt us because we might not rise to their standards and to live life without setting out to hurt ourselves and others.
I am a suicide survivor, though I do not and never have thought of myself on those terms. Instead, I see myself as someone who stumbled along life’s way but got through it in spite of myself. And I’ve simplified my life’s philosophy to three basic concepts: choice, consequences, and responsibility. Simply, what I do in life are choices, including drinking or not and, with those choices are consequences. And, in the end, only I will be responsible to the consequences of my choices. But if the consequences of my choices might feel too great for me to be responsible for, my choice is simple: don’t do what I don’t want if the price is going to be too high.
Overly simple? Maybe! But it’s kept me alive and sober since that cold January morning all those years ago.
Photo: Flickr/Roland Molnár