“Who I am now is based on who I was over the years. Then discovering the need to change it, I kind of looked at living the twelve steps as though it were a set of instructions because we as humans don’t come with instructions—although we should.”
I used to go to meetings and whenever I was asked to speak and tell my story I would say that, “Once upon a time I had eight years clean and then one day on the playground during recess somebody handed me a joint and there went that.” This was when I was in third grade, so—but I didn’t make it until I was eight.
I had my first drunk driving accident—my only one—when I was five. I used to drink off of my dad’s beers and all that sort of thing. I used to love it. One day my mother had a friend over and they were drinking whiskey sours, so I was drinking those and decided it would be a good idea to run my tricycle down the basement steps. I got to the bottom and I was laying there laughing and my mother started crying so I started crying and my dad started yelling at my mother and all that—it’s one of those earlier memories, actually.
About a year or so after that I convinced a babysitter I had a beer every night before I went to bed and unfortunately it was the last time I ever had that babysitter.
Somebody handed me a joint when I was in third grade and you don’t become addicted in one day—it took me three days before I started stealing money so I’d always have my own bag. I was not a binge user; I used every day pretty much from the time I was eight until I was thirty-three.
And I ran the gamut. I started smoking pot, then I started doing pills, and I was shooting up by the time I was seventeen. I did a lot of psychedelics—that was one of my favorites—and that took me to California and [I] followed the Grateful Dead around. I followed the Grateful Dead back and forth across the country for a couple of years and everything, then moved to Seattle and hung out in the grunge scene for a while and worked in the clubs and all of that.
With the heavy drugs and everything, there was a lot more of that there and being in that scene—not being a musician, but being part of it—it was a lot easier to do a lot of drinking and to do a lot of dope and things like that. That was kind of considered—it was par for the course pretty much—except there [were] a lot of people that were involved in that [who] could go out and party and have a good time and be done with it and go to work and all that stuff. Not for me—it was every day and it was all the time and it was definitely compulsive.
To me there was a certain badge of honor depending on when I would meet a girl. It was, “I’m an alcoholic. If that’s okay with you, cool. If not, we can both keep looking.” And then whenever there was a problem over the fact that I was drinking too much and everything it was like, “Well I told you. What did you expect? That’s part of who I am.”
With the heavier drug use, that was not something I was as open with to people that were not using. It’s real easy to get by with drinking; people understand that. I met most people in bars anyway, but if you’re shooting drugs and things like that, most of the girlfriends didn’t understand that. Or if you’re smoking coke or if you’re doing any of those things it was not something that you generally talk about very easily, so that was something I didn’t do around them. Therefore over the years I didn’t really live with many women. I had roommates that tended to use a bit, too, and do that sort of thing. But I would kind of keep that separate. In between girlfriends then I tended to use more heavily.
Every now and then I would figure I had a problem with something. For a while I decided I was drinking too much, so I would stop drinking for a while voluntarily. I actually knew that whole, “One day at a time” thing, so every day I would wake up and decide, “You know, I’m not going to drink today. Just see how it’s gonna do.” But of course I would go out and shoot coke whenever I could because it wasn’t like I was trying to stop everything. I would pick a date and decide, “Well, you know, that’s a couple days before my birthday, so that’ll be a good time to start drinking again,” and then do all of that. That actually started in high school I think.
So I always figured that I was okay. I knew I was using too much—it was too much of my life. There were people that I didn’t feel comfortable around—people that were friends of mine—but I didn’t always feel comfortable. I didn’t feel comfortable going to parties necessarily because everybody had their nice, straight jobs, and they would drink on the weekends. They would get five or six people together and get a couple of six packs and everybody was happy, where that wasn’t enough for me to get started. So after a while some of my more straight friends I didn’t see anymore and things got more and more heavy.
I spent a lot of time living in cars over the years, things like that, because having a job and paying rent and all that just seemed like it was taking too much money away from other things that I wanted to do. I think I only got arrested about six or seven times total—never got convicted of anything, never spent more than four days in jail at a time. Although the last time I got arrested it was the Fourth of July in ’99—a couple days after my birthday.
I was sitting in the car, there were fireworks displays going off—this was in Seattle—there were fireworks displays over Elliot Bay, there was one over Lake Washington, and I was standing on a bridge where you could see both of those. There were thousands of people standing around doing the same thing and I decided, “Well, I’ve got some stuff in the car.”
So I went back to where this car where I had been living in didn’t run and I was there poking around trying to find a vein and all of a sudden the police come rolling up and they’re banging on the windows and everything. In my head at that point, I’m just like, “Hold on a minute, I’ll be with ya.” Thinking, “Look man, I’m a junkie. I gotta do this,” figuring they’d be all right with that. I was like, “Man, I’m sick. I’ve gotta finish this and we can talk then.” They threatened to break the window and do all of that and finally they got me out of the car and I ended up in the county jail for a few days.
At the time in Seattle their drug policy was smoking a joint was essentially the same as having a kilo of cocaine. It was called a VUCSA or something like that, which I think was the Violation of the Urban Control Substances Act. So for just the little bit that I had that I was trying to use, I was facing five to fifteen years. Of course seeing as I was white I guess, I was in there for a few days, where people with much less and everything ended up doing time because they were darker.
I was dope sick in the lockup and I had gotten to the point where, “If I’m here one more day I will be past the worst of it—I’m gonna stop.” Sure enough, once I finally got to that point they let me out that night. I met somebody on the way out, because it took six or seven hours to be processed out of the building, and we started talking along the way and figured out that we had about fifty bucks between us once we got our property back. So we went out and we got high—it was the first thing—and I went back to this car and sure enough the police hadn’t searched through everything, so there was still stuff in the car, and I was off to the races again.
But at that point I knew—I actually called my mother and I asked for help. It was another month and a half or so before she could get me into a rehab, but I had made the decision at that point. On some level, I look at that as taking a first step. Life was unmanageable, I knew it, I needed help, and I wanted to change things. Lucky for me it gave me the opportunity to kind of ease out of things.
You hear people in the rooms talk about—there’s that expression that, “My worst day clean is so much better than my best day using.” [I’m like], “Man, you didn’t do it right.” I loved getting high; I loved drinking—all of that stuff—for the first twenty years or so. The last couple years were kind of shit, but I did all of that because I liked it. I wasn’t trying to kill the pain; I wasn’t trying to escape anything; I wasn’t completely dissatisfied with who I was.
I can be quiet and shy and things like that. I’m not always comfortable in my own skin. I can put myself down a lot and so on and so forth. And through some of the things I was doing, that eased all of that. It was easy to meet girls when I was a little lit because I wasn’t as self conscious, but that wasn’t why I would drink; that wasn’t why I was using other things—that was just a fringe benefit.
I was a heavy smoker too. I was two-and-a-half packs a day for twenty-four years—at least. That was kind of a bare minimum. I do everything obsessively and compulsively when I get into something. Part of it’s an OCD thing, part of it’s just that addictive behavior.
When I was in rehab I heard one of my counselors, who was about four years clean at the time, going on and on one morning about how during our morning meditations she was so grateful that she was an addict. [I was like], “What the fuck you talking about, man? We have to go through all this crap and we can’t go out; we can’t party.”
Her reasoning was, “If you look around, everybody has got something that, whether you call it alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling addiction, workaholism, you call it shopaholism, sexaholism, etc. etc. Just about everybody can benefit from a twelve-step lifestyle.” Being that she was an addict, she had a real obvious in-your-face need to discover that lifestyle, and I kind of adopted that attitude for a while.
Who I am now is based on who I was over the years. Then discovering the need to change it, I kind of looked at living the twelve steps as though it were a set of instructions because we as humans don’t come with instructions—although we should. It made things a little bit easier.
Here I am a few years into this and there are parts—I’ve got old friends that I see every now and then that they’re okay drinking. They don’t do it excessively. But there are things that we do together when we see each other, but Ginnie and I will stay some place else other than where everybody else stays because we’re not part of that. When people get together that haven’t seen each other for a while and they have a few beers it turns into a bunch of beers and we’re not comfortable with that. So there’s that part of me that misses that, but that’s very seldom.
Life is much easier, it’s much cheaper this way, and there is the ability to do things that I wouldn’t otherwise do because it was all going into getting high. Now I find myself living a pretty good life. [I’m] living with somebody that’s on the same page that I am, so that makes life a lot easier. She never did meetings to the same extent that I did. I was very much into it for my first six or seven years, and then [there was] the realization that I was preventing so many other things from happening in my life, and so I stepped back from that a little bit.
I started going back to school. I was in a photography class actually and the first night of the class the teacher was [like], “So let’s go around the room and everybody talk about why you’re here, what you want to get out of this class and stuff,” and I’m thinking to myself, “You’re just Brian. You’re just Brian. You’re just Brian.” Sure enough they get to me and it was like, “Hi, I’m Brian and I’m an addi—uhh, I’m taking this class because I want to learn more about photography. I haven’t been in a darkroom in years and bla bla bla…” And found myself getting very red in the face. Nobody picked up on it, but the realization that I couldn’t do six or seven meetings a week and still expect to do things other places…
So I stopped going altogether for a while and now I find myself in a position where—another six or seven years down the road—now looking for a better balance in between those two. There’s not a lot of temptation; there’s not a lot of obsession for that sort of thing anymore either, which I’m very grateful for.
If you listen to my wife and I when we talk we have no problem talking or joking about who we are—we don’t forget that. A lot of the things that we find funny, a lot of the things we say jokingly or we mention kind of deadpan—I’ve known people in the rooms that will get very offended about those sort of things. But it’s like, “Screw that. I don’t want to forget where I came from because it helps to keep me where I am.”
Life is good these days. I’ve heard a lot of different people’s stories and when I look at the using that I did, I did things much more excessively than I think I had a right to live through, but at the same time that gives me a perspective now I think that I’m pleased with. I’ve heard people talk about being in the rooms where they lost their wife, they lost their business, they lost their house, they lost their car, their kids. When I got clean I had never had any of those things, and I feel pretty grateful about a lot of that.
There are certain things that I missed out on. There’s job skills and experience and things like that that I didn’t do because I wasn’t working regular jobs for a lot of years. I didn’t go to school the way that I should have. I didn’t get the education that I should have, but I feel pretty solid in my life because I got all those things out of my system and I didn’t lose those things, [and] I know what it’s like now to have those things and not want to lose them. I’m old enough and wise enough I guess at this point to think before I go and I take that first one. I’m fully aware that if I do, it’s out of my hands, but the first one’s my decision. I think I’ve learned enough and seen enough, and seen enough people do those sort of things that I have no desire to do any of that. It’s like, leave it alone.
Photographs taken at Brian’s home in Lincoln University, PA, where he lives with his wife and dog.