“I felt like I was just burying my life underneath alcohol and consumption. Day in and day out would just become a cycle of work, television, alcohol.”
My name’s Craig Oppenheimer. I was born in North Jersey. I’m the youngest child of four other siblings. All of my siblings were older. My parents are older. My dad was actually forty-five when I was born.
My childhood was mostly me kind of alone. My siblings were off doing their own thing. They were older. They were all in high school when I was a little kid. Parents always worked. It’s kind of the definition of a latchkey child. I would classify my childhood as pretty much typical. It had its ups and downs. Didn’t always have the greatest relationship with my parents, but they weren’t the worst parents. They did the best that they could.
The first time I ever drank alcohol was when I was thirteen years old. I was born and raised Jewish so I had a bar mitzvah. I didn’t really know any of the significance of the bar mitzvah experience and what any of the prayers were that I was saying during the ceremony. I took a couple weeks of lessons for Hebrew just to be able to say the words, but I don’t even know what I was saying.
What I do remember about my bar mitzvah was some of my older cousins and their friends gathered around the bar drinking. It was just the thing to do, it seemed. I kind of looked up to them. They were older. They were cooler. Alcohol just seemed to be kind of like a gateway from where I was as a child to adulthood. I do remember going over to them, thirteen, naturally short child, I think I was maybe five foot at the time, and them just all handing me various different drinks. Beer, vodka drinks, whatever type of alcohol. Thirteen, really small, really short, I got drunk pretty quickly.
From there I just remember every time that I would move to another stage, junior high, high school, every social event, every interaction involved alcohol. Every person that I thought was cool, every person that I wanted to be friends with, every girl that I thought I would never have a chance to talk to and relate to on my own individually, I kind of just viewed it as the only way to fit in with any of those people was through alcohol, the only way to be able to attend any parties and be friends with anybody and to get any girl to like me was to drink and to just assimilate and fit in. That’s what I did in high school. I didn’t realize it at the time, but alcohol was just a way to try to fit in with everybody else.
I don’t think I really ever thought my drinking in high school was problematic. I didn’t even really think about what other people at my age, at that stage in life, what they were doing. All I knew was everybody in my immediate world, everybody around me, everybody that I knew was drinking. That was a socially acceptable thing to do and that’s what I needed to do as well. Otherwise, I would have been judged, I would have been rejected, and I would have been abandoned. To me, that was like the worst thing that could ever happen was to be rejected, to be abandoned by everybody else around you.
I would say maybe my drinking got a little bit heavier in college. There was certainly periods where I would go out with friends drinking and I’d have no recollection of what happened that night. It’s certainly nothing that could ever be viewed as bad or unseemly that ever happened. I never got to the point where I was in the hospital, where I was involved with the law or anything like that. There was certainly definitely periods where just whole days would go by on the weekends that I don’t remember attending parties, I don’t remember meeting people, I don’t remember saying things to people, I don’t remember doing things because they were all stuff that was done while I was drinking. Again, at the time, didn’t really think too much about it because everybody else around me was doing the exact same thing, so I thought it was socially acceptable, socially normal. In the back of my mind the worst thing that could happen was to be different and to not be socially accepted by everybody else that was around me.
I made a decision to stop drinking completely. I was finding myself more often than not just different and not like everybody else when it came to what they were entertained by, what they liked to do, what they liked to talk about. I would hang out with my friends at bars and it would just be conversations about sports and conversations about what was on TV and conversations about what they did the prior week and how much they had to drink that prior week and what they were going to do the following week, and just conversations that I just didn’t feel a part of and didn’t feel like I could relate to in any way. The only thing that connected me to everybody that I was with was just we were in a social setting, drinking. It felt like, “Well, I got to keep up appearances. I got to continue to keep drinking.”
It’s hard looking back and trying to put the pieces all together to find out when was like the definitive point when I really started to feel different. All I knew was that I spent a good part of my life doing everything possible to avoid being outwardly different from everybody else because I had this intense fear of rejection that I found myself just going along with whatever everybody else wanted to do. Over time without even realizing it after college, I find myself just walking into a bar at 5:30, 6:00. I’d get out of work. I wouldn’t have anything to do. I wouldn’t have any plans. I would just go to a bar and I’d find myself sitting there three, four hours. Then it starts becoming five, six hours. Very soon, I was closing down bars.
Wasn’t getting to the point where it was disruptive or interfering with my daily life. I would still be able to get up, go to work the following day, but I would just find myself three, four, five, six days out of the week spending time alone, sitting at a bar, drinking. Just sitting on a bar stool, watching television, drinking by myself. I would find myself sitting at home, watching television, drinking a couple beers by myself. I started questioning, “Why am I doing this?”
I think it was a numbing aspect. Alcohol, throughout the centuries, has been around to help people lower their inhibitions because it just numbs people over. On the one hand, it makes people seemingly more social and able to talk with each other and get along with each other, but a lot of it is just dumbing down their senses. I felt this wave coming over me with alcohol. I felt like I was just burying my life underneath alcohol and consumption. Day in and day out would just become a cycle of work, television, alcohol.
The date December 29, 2012, what I do remember about that day was, it was actually the night before—it was a Friday night—I was supposed to meet several of my friends at the bar around ten. For some reason, I showed up at the bar at six. We were supposed to meet at ten. I showed up at six, maybe partially out of boredom, nothing else to do. I proceeded to just drink from six to ten, waiting for my friends to arrive.
By the time my friends arrived, I was pretty much drunk. At that point, I had been drinking since I was thirteen for a number of years. I was able to have eight, nine beers in a night and not really have too much of effect on me. None of my friends really sensed that anything was wrong. There was nothing outward about my appearance in my demeanor that was different other than the fact that it was clear that I had been drinking. I wasn’t fall down drunk or anything that night.
My friends arrived and we continue to drink. It was just status quo, same old same old. We ended up closing down the bar that night around two-thirty in the morning. I drove two of my friends home. I have no recollection of getting into the car and driving them home. I don’t remember anything after a certain point in that night. Fortunately, nothing happened to the car, nothing happened to my friends. There was no accident, no loss of life, no injury, no property damage. I’m blessed to say that I didn’t have any great tragedy that spurred me to act. That date does stick out because while I don’t remember any of the details of driving them home, they told me the following day that I had driven them home. I don’t remember it.
What I do remember was the twenty-ninth, the following day, that Saturday, a bad snowstorm came in and I was driving around and it was near where I went to college at Arcadia. The roads were pretty bad. I tried to navigate a right turn, spun out, lost complete control of the car, and crossed over two lanes of traffic. Again, fortunately didn’t hit anybody, anything. The car spun across two lanes of traffic and ended up in some parking lot for like for a car dealership. Fortunately, didn’t hit anything in the parking lot at the car dealership at all.
I sat there, scared, adrenaline surging, trying to figure out what the hell just happened, and I get my bearings back. I was never really a religious person, but I kind of took the fact that spun out and for a period of it had to been like a minute or two, had no control of my vehicle and crossed over two lanes of traffic, but didn’t hit a single person or object, and then spun into a parking lot and didn’t hit anything. I kind of just viewed that as something, while I didn’t have control of the vehicle, something did have control of the vehicle that day. For whatever the reason, I was supposed to get a message.
The metaphor seems a little strained, maybe, but I was getting the message that I don’t have control of my life at this point. Something else and somebody else has control of my life. I was very fortunate that the prior night I didn’t get involved in an accident when I could have, when I had no control of my faculties and no control of the car. When the weather came and when the roads where bad and I had no control of the vehicle, I still didn’t get into an accident. I kind of took that as, “This is a sign. This is a chance for you to reevaluate what you view as important and how you choose to spend your time.”
I kind of view that as a two and half year dialog with God. I’m still struggling to have a conversation with God because he doesn’t really talk back to you when you talk to him. When he does try to talk to you, his messages are kind of subtle and shaded and you kind of got to work to maybe try to figure it all out.
Since that time, I have asked God to be apart of my life. I feel like by asking him to be apart of my life, he has reciprocated and he has revealed himself to me in various different ways and in various different messages. Part of that has been to move away from a life that’s centered around alcohol and things of that nature.
Since that time, physically, mentally, spiritually, I’ve gotten healthier. I was not overweight, but I never exercised. I grew up with parents that didn’t exercise. I was never a super athletic person when I was younger. Part of that cycle of work, sleep, plop down in front of the television, either at home or inside a bar, it was part of a lifestyle that didn’t lend itself to exercising. I devoted myself more to running. I run about four or five times a week, five miles a day. I’ve hiked more than I ever have in my entire life. I took a trip to Spain and hiked across an old pilgrim’s trail called the Camino de Santiago. It runs from the border of France and Spain, you have to cross over the Pyrenees Mountains and then the hike goes all the way through the northern part of Spain to the western edge of Spain.
I mentioned mentally and spiritually stronger as well. I started a dialog with God. I’ve asked him to come into my life, to be apart of my life, to be apart of my decision making. I try each day to wake up and try to find ways that I can improve my life and make my life better. By making my life better, I give myself the strength and the courage to make other people’s lives better.
We live in a very cynical age where people feel that they either feel that they don’t have the time or they don’t have the abilities to help other people that are in need. I get it. People have mortgages, people have debt, people have health problems and medical bills and student loan and a lot of people feel like, “No one’s looking out for me so why should I look out for other people?” I shared those views a lot. I grew up practically raising myself, coming home and parents weren’t really around because they were working, and my siblings were all off doing their own thing. When I was struggling and going through issues when I was younger, I didn’t really have a lot of people to rely on, so I just kind of relied on myself to do it. I grew up with the worldview that people that are less fortunate kind of brought their miseries upon them.
Over time, my views in that regard started to change, and I started to realize that everyone’s doing the best that they can. While I’m not naïve enough to think that there aren’t bad people in the world, a lot of the people are just people that are trying to do the best that they can and struggling to get by. I wish that I was strong enough to help those that are less fortunate than me.
Part of my dialog with God is, “How can I use the strengths that I have, the skills that I have, the abilities that I have, the privilege that I have, how can I use that to better people’s lives around me in some small way?” This was a conversation that I didn’t feel that I could have when I was drinking. When I was drinking, I was so absorbed in doing everything possible to fit in with everybody else around me in my own small little world of my five or six different friends. I couldn’t see the suffering of another human being if I didn’t know them. If one of my friends was in trouble, yeah, I would listen. I would do everything possible to help them. A stranger passing in the street, I wouldn’t take the time to see the pain that’s in their eyes and see that they need help.
When I took a step back and tried to distance myself from just my own little insular world, you start to notice that there are people that are talking to you, mostly with their eyes, and asking for help. That just kind of relates back to the dialog that I have with God, which he doesn’t really communicate in ways that you’re used to hearing.
Photographs taken at the Audubon Center in Audubon, Pennsylvania