“Don’t buy a bar if you have a problem with drinking—that’s my suggestion to anybody. Seems pretty obvious, right? But you would think that would be right there, maybe like, “Don’t drink if you have a problem with drinking.” Number two, “Don’t buy a bar if you have a problem with drinking.” Yeah that would be number two.”
I’m Michael. I’m a drinker. My experience didn’t start like I have heard a lot of others. I wasn’t a little kid who started drinking. I wasn’t sucked into it as a child. I started later on in life. I grew up in an Irish neighborhood, so there was drinking all around me, but it was natural—it was part of the norm. There was no such thing as a drinking problem in the neighborhood I was in. I was just outside of Boston, and I came from a family [where] there were no drinkers—no drinkers or drug users. It was my mother, my grandmother and my grandfather. [I] never knew my dad.
My mother didn’t drink; my grandfather didn’t drink. He would come home every year with bottles as gifts from work, but they would sit up in the pantry. It wasn’t a big deal in my life; it had nothing to do with anything. I picked it up later in life in high school.
I came from an entrepreneurial neighborhood. The older guys were well-connected guys. In Boston the Irish run everything; [in] New York City you have your Italians. So as kids we grew up doing things that weren’t really the norm. We did mostly normal stuff but we got involved in other things, too. I always got pleasure out of that. I enjoyed being part of the gang—the group. I was more of the thinking guy than the—I didn’t swing the bats or beat people up. I told other people what to do, really, and had some success at that as a kid.
I was lucky. My mother knew all the local police so we didn’t get in trouble and drinking just became a part of it. It was the next progression as kids. We hung out and I don’t think I drank more or less than anybody else when I was younger. When I got into college I picked up.
My mother died when I was only twenty and my grandfather had died by then, so just my grandmother was left but she wasn’t that well. My mother dying was—well I hate to say it, [but] it was like a highlight in my life because she was not a good person. She was not good to me.
I’m sure now that drinking was just a way to get away from all that and feel good—feel better about things. She had a really good way about making me feel less than. She beat the hell out of me all the time, every day until I got too big. But the psychological part of it just continued my entire life while we were together. So I’m guessing that drinking filled that hole kind of—kind of filled that void [and] made me feel like a whole person.
Then out in the street I was respected and a tough guy and drinking was just part of the background. We would party all the time. I was smart, I went to college. [I] didn’t go where I wanted to go or should have gone; I went where it was convenient so I could keep making money in semi-illicit fashion and just live that life. Drinking became prominent [and] it was an all the time thing now.
I lived with three other guys. We had a house just outside of Boston and that’s what we did. Weekends were planned around partying and drinking all the time. So I did it. I did it a lot and it didn’t spill over into the rest of my life. I didn’t do it except for socially. I say socially in quotation marks because it’s all we did. I didn’t drink at work, around work, at school—until I did.
Like I said my mother died when I was twenty and now I was completely on my own, which seemed great—it didn’t bother me. The drinking became more than just social; it became a planned thing. That was the deal. Friday night get home early so we could go downtown. And [in] Boston last call was 1:30 in the morning, but we knew everybody who knew everybody and we would go to after-hours places and just hang out until whenever we wanted. We had our own club back home, too, which was a private deal, and you could drink there for free if you were part of the club, and we did that a lot.
After my mother died I stopped hanging out with the old crew and was sort of taken in by a family. I didn’t live with them, but a very well-connected Italian family took me in and so my allegiances sort of swapped. Now I had even more luck. I just almost couldn’t get in trouble—it was almost impossible. [I was] just connected to everything, really fortunate. But it didn’t help because maybe not getting in trouble just allowed me to run crazy.
I got sick. I got an ulcer and then I had acute pancreatitis, and one of the things that the doctor told me to do was no spicy food, stay away from high fat—and no drinking. So I did it and I think it was no big deal. I know now that I was probably just a rotten, dry drunk the whole time, but I didn’t [drink] for four years.
I moved. I took myself out to Denver [and] stayed there for a little while. I had established myself at a really good job and I got to Denver and a company back here in upstate New York found out that I wasn’t working in Boston anymore and tracked me down, offered me a job to come back and I said, “I’ll be there as soon as you get me there.” I didn’t want to be in Denver. I wasn’t drinking, it was a young city, and everybody’s partying [and] having a good time, and I was—there was nothing there for me.
The company moved me back here and I didn’t drink for a long time. The company I was with, we went from four million to fourteen million pretty quickly. I was successful—I had a good run. I did a lot of work with law enforcement. I did a lot of federal work—got hooked up with the federal government. I was lucky. I got training that people normally don’t get unless they go directly through the federal government—a lot of training with the marshals. I worked for the FBI, I did work with a lot of law enforcement agencies around here and that changed my life— but then I picked up again.
Really, that’s when the world started to change. Drinking became totally social. I’m older now, right? Everybody’s doing it, everybody’s hanging out, everybody’s drinking, we all met at the bar. I was doing so well at work and socially [in] my social life. There was a bar local to where my condo was up there in New York and we were there every night. It was a restaurant bar. I probably could’ve bought the place with the amount of money we spent. It didn’t seem a big deal and things sort of grew from there.
Now lunchtime was two martini lunches. Right after work, where we’re gonna meet— we all met at the bar, same place. All weekends were just—we would just saturate in alcohol—all the time. But it was social, it’s what we did. I didn’t have a problem, I didn’t think there was a big deal. I didn’t recognize it. Meanwhile my social life was crumbling, my relationships were crumbling, people didn’t want to be near me. I had made so many—I had no friends really. I had connections. I had associates.
I used to joke I was a ‘phone call guy.’ I could get anything done—anything at all—it was just how many phone calls it was going to take. And what you owed me for helping you out was based on how many phone calls I had to make—“That’s a three phone call deal.” “Oh that’s a one phone call deal, that’s nothing.” But everything was conditional; every single thing I did was conditional. Everything I did with people who were alleged friends—there was always something—what was in it for me?
The more I drank, the more belligerent I was or the more—I was arrogant and cocky. And what ultimately happened was I drank myself out of this really good job that I had. I actually called my boss and said, “I’m not coming back,” because I had gone on a bender and it kept me out of work a few days. I was embarrassed—I just couldn’t believe it.
[I thought], “Okay, I have a problem, maybe. But it’s not a real problem; it’s just bad luck. Just bad circumstances. I had too many other things going on, so that was affecting me, so that’s why this happened.” I backed off for a little while, and then the best and the worst thing that could’ve happened to me was another company that I had done a lot of business with had found out I wasn’t working, offered me a better job—a tremendous job—to come in and help them out in a situation. It was really unfortunate because it meant I had to work in Miami, Florida, so I was commuting. At this point I was married. I had gotten married before and my wife was—she acknowledged that I probably drank too much when I drank, but it wasn’t an out in your face, up in your face, “This is a serious problem.”
So I stayed sober for a few months, went down to Miami, and I was commuting from Saratoga to Miami back and forth, every ten days or so—and I did pretty well. I didn’t drink in Miami right off the bat, but it was Miami and I was making ridiculous amounts of money, I had ridiculous amounts of responsibility, I had good connections, and it wasn’t long before I was back in it. And then the group I worked with in Miami, most of the upper management did not live there, so people were in and out every week. So on weekends people would come in and then they would go out, come in and they would go out. It got to a point where work became so involved we were building airports. Miami International Airport—we had a huge contract— and pretty soon I was down there a lot on my own in the condo. I was alone, nothing to do—so I would drink all the time.
And I would do what everybody else I’ve now heard does. I would go to different liquor stores so no one would get too used to my face and buy whatever I needed. Then I would go out at night, go down to South beach and hang out there. The sad thing is back home with the wife and her kids it didn’t seem like that big a problem because I’d only see her four days out of every 15 or 20, and when I was home there was a lot of catching up to do, a lot of socializing to do, so we were all going out and drinking with all those groups.
It got bad; the wheels came flying off in a huge way. This is the second job that I left, and I left because I drank myself out of it. I found that in my life, my drinking got worse as I was encountering things that made me sad or depressed, and rather than dealing with them, I guess I just drank my way through them or drank to avoid it or drank to ignore it.
I didn’t work for a while after that and then my wife and I said, “You know what?” We lived locally [in] upstate New York, and something that she had always wanted to do (she had a big grown up job for a big grown up construction company), and I had taken some time off. We were okay—we had money—it wasn’t a big deal. That’s another thing—money was never the issue. I flew first class everywhere, I stayed wherever I wanted to, we went on vacations, we did whatever we wanted to do. We had a beautiful chunk of property up on a river and life was grand. And she, throughout her life, one of the things she had done to supplement her income as a single mom was she worked as a bartender at a local tavern and the place was vacant. And we knew the owners who had failed at it five years before they bought it and failed within a year.
[She said], “What do you think of opening that business?” And I said, “We could make a ton of money and it would be great.” [She said], “Think you can handle it?” [And I said], “Sure no problem, all right.” [She said], “Are we making a mistake?” [And I said], “No I got this, I got this.”
Don’t buy a bar if you have a problem with drinking—that’s my suggestion to anybody. Seems pretty obvious, right? But you would think that would be right there, maybe like, “Don’t drink if you have a problem with drinking.” Number two, “Don’t buy a bar if you have a problem with drinking.” Yeah that would be number two.
Fail—complete fail. I ignored that. I was bigger than this whole thing—I had it all put together. I worked there, I was operations manager, owner, and I was the guy and I was back in that spot, I was the go-to guy. I was wired into the neighborhood, I was wired into the, well not the neighborhood, but the community. I was involved in local politics. I was a respected guy. Actually my wife was very, very highly respected. She was appreciated by everybody and I was more—I was respected, but it wasn’t love, it was more I think fear. And she gave me validity because her reputation was stellar and mine was more of a ‘Don’t piss him off’ sort of reputation.
And I did okay for a while and then I didn’t—and it was easy. I would drink with patrons and I would—I was the great, fun guy and it really wasn’t that big a problem— but it really was. And it got progressively worse. I would go in early in the morning to take care of ‘paper work’—that’s in quotes—and I would schedule all my meetings for the morning so I could drink up until the time we opened. Then I’d work behind the bar and sober up before my wife got done with her grown-up job and came to check on the business. That worked for a while and then it didn’t, or I thought it was working great but it wasn’t. And that—that was three years of essentially non-stop drinking all the time.
When weekends would come and we had put the schedule together where we had people covering work so one of us didn’t have to be there and we could take the day off, I didn’t know what to do. I was lost. I couldn’t drink. But we always did something that allowed us to go somewhere where there was a bar and I would just try to catch up quick. We had money and we had connections and we had prestige and we had all kinds of good stuff going on. I was asked to run for mayor for our little village and I was smart enough to say, “I don’t think so. No, that probably isn’t a great idea.”
I was very involved in the community—a lot of charitable events and efforts. See now I don’t know how many people I fooled or how many people knew and just didn’t say anything. If you’d asked me back then I would have said, “I got this, I got everybody fooled,” and now I say, “I probably didn’t fool anybody.” I’m sure there was a lot of talk and my wife started getting sick of it. She was edgy about it. She was watching all the time. And now there was more energy put into trying to cover up my drinking then—I mean there was no joy.
Anyway, the wheels came flying off a couple of years ago. Now I was so miserable in my life, I was so miserable in my marriage, I was so miserable in everything and I was lost. I was completely lost. I was emotionally lost, I was bereft of any feeling for anything. I was so hurt I was numb. And drinking was the only thing—being inebriated was the only thing—that gave me any sort of feeling. It gave me courage and it gave me…I was charming and I was taller and I could make decisions and I was convinced I couldn’t make them without it.
I made a lot of bad decisions. I owned a tavern—a really successful one. I got offers—a lot of offers for a lot of things and a lot of women—and I took advantage of them and those wheels came off badly. So I let down everybody. That last six months I was without question, probably a year, I was drunk every day. But my tolerance was so high that I didn’t realize how bad it was.
My wife found out, called me and said, “I’ll see you in a couple of hours,” and I said, “Yeah you will.” She showed up at the tavern, I handed her the keys and I left that day and never went back. I spent the next two-plus weeks on a bender of epic proportions. I moved from hotel room to hotel room and I found a partner in crime who was coming along and enabling me and keeping me going. Two weeks into it—I kept my phone off so I couldn’t be tracked [through] GPS—and I finally turned my phone on. I think they call this a ‘moment of clarity,’ and I turn my phone on and my wife had been looking for me desperately. She said, “Where are you? I will come get you.” And I said “No.” I actually said, “Listen, I’m running a little low on cash.” It was just before Thanksgiving and I said, “Give me some cash. Let me find a hotel. Let me take care of this with some dignity.” As if I had any left, right? There was zero, but in my addled brain it seemed as if [there was]. Anyway, she said, “I’ll help you out. I’ll work something out. We’ll work something out.” And she never quit. I knew she was the best person I’d ever met when I married her and it just boiled right up to the surface there when I really needed it.
So I wanted to be dead and she didn’t want me dead. I was done, I had everything figured out. I went from the peak—I was flying first class and using American Express black cards—and now I was bouncing from hotel room to hotel room and waking up to drink so I could go back to bed so I could wake up and drink some more. No regard, no care, no plan—and I bailed. One day I was with this partner in crime and we ended up at a house of a friend of hers and they were all out. I reached out and my wife said, “I’ll find you. Give me the address.” And she did and she picked me up and took me some place safe—to a friend’s house.
The friend had some connection to this, had worked with mental health, and had some experience and said, “Okay, you realize he can’t stop drinking right now because that would be really bad. It could be… let’s figure out what we’re going to do.”
I didn’t. A week later I got into detox and then requested rehab and I went and they kept me sixty days. Twenty-eight days? Nope. Sixty days. Not that I was worse than anybody, but because I had a great counselor who wasn’t going to send me back to a homeless shelter and knew that I had no home to go back to and everything had shattered and everything had fallen apart and knew I wanted it. She said, “I know you’re a real smart man, you can do this and you have potential.” So they helped me out tremendously and I realized I wanted it. I did the sixty days then had requested and ended up in a halfway house.
It’s funny. It’s been a year—just over a year since I set foot in the halfway house and it’s changed everything. My whole life has changed—everything. I should’ve been dead, certainly could have been dead, wanted to be dead—and now I don’t. Which is an improvement. It saved me completely and it made me open up to how shallow I was. The successes I thought I had were all—they weren’t fake, they were real—but they weren’t important. There was no substance behind any of them. For all the times I thought I was being such a good person and I was very giving—oh, I would share like crazy. I had money to give, I owned a tavern, I had BMWs—a whole bag of horrors—anybody can have it. But it was always conditional and there weren’t real friends. I had some; I didn’t know it. Those were the ones I had dusted the worst and blew up the most. But everybody else did say, “Gee, I think there’s something missing from the relationship,” and I said, “It wouldn’t be the cash by any chance would it?” Because that was what usually drove them away.
Now I had nothing, but I was better. I was a better person. I’m just a better person now. I’m lucky to be here and I care about things and I care about me more, too. I’m still not all the way there, but I care about me. And I’ve learned. When I came in to all these programs and when I got into [the] rooms and I listened to people say, “You can’t love anyone else until you really love yourself. And if you can’t love yourself right now, don’t worry about it. We’ll love you until you’re ready.’”
And I said, “Fuck you. Yeah, right, whatever. Look, I run the show. I’ve always run the show, I had 160 people working for me. I would sit down with the mayors of big cities and negotiate budgets and work on fifty million dollar contracts. Don’t tell me about holding my hand and singing Kumbaya. It doesn’t work. I’m not gonna buy it. I’m pretty smart. I’m a well-read guy. No, I got this. I’ll figure it out.”
Somebody shook me one time—his name was Maurice—and he said, “It isn’t a drinking disease, you idiot. It’s a thinking disease. And that’s what you got right now—you have a terrible thinking disease. You’re not drinking, but you’re not thinking either. Get it right.”
It took me a long time to know what he meant. I still only know about half of what he meant, but it’s like I think it was Justice John Paul Stevens [who] was trying to describe porn. He said, “I can’t describe it but I know it when I see it.” Well that’s kind of with me right now. I can’t describe what I’m doing to screw up, but I know when I’m doing it. And I catch myself on it now. For my purposes I use what I learn—what I hear in the rooms—and what I’ve picked up from other people.
And the whole ‘we’ thing? The whole ‘we’ aspect of recovery? Take a hundred percent of all recovery, if you wanted to dismiss fifty percent of it because it just doesn’t register with you—okay, fine. And of the other fifty percent? If you only get ten percent hard and fast and put it in your core, it’ll work if you actually listen to that ten percent and don’t prejudge and just learn it. Then the rest will come in through osmosis. But that ten percent—and for me it was the basic, like the most basic friggin’ things that registered with me—because I realized that’s how I lived my own life. I was so black and white with everything. Well why can’t I be black and white about my recovery? “Don’t do this and do this” and this is going to work and the feelings will come and they’ll get better.
The whole “we” part of it—it was true. I am the ultimate loner, isolator, “stay away,” “I got this,” “I’ll figure it out,” “I’m smarter than you.” You know what? A, I’m not. B, why did I have to give my resume to every single person I met anyway to let them know I was smarter? Right? They’re not out to get me, but I didn’t trust anybody. I had a mother who beat me until I was fifty. Every day. Every single day—every single day. I’m not exaggerating. The only time she didn’t beat me was when she was sick. I didn’t trust anybody. I kept my ship tight because the more I had control over, the less random beatings.
The “we” part of it changed everything and that’s been the hardest thing for me and the one I work on all the time. I joke about the “we” part. We harp so much about “we.” “We” find recovery. “We” get well. And I said, “I don’t know what the big deal is. I was in a “we” program before I even got into recovery. Everyone would say, “We think you drink too much,” “We want you to go home,” “We don’t want to listen to you anymore.” So I’m down with that—I got it—and yeah that was the wrong “we.” And now I have the real “we.” If I had been able to embrace that right from the get-go, I would have been better faster. Now I’m glad that I just got what I got out of it and that’s the one I can really work on and focus on.
Right now I fall over myself to do service stuff and I know that that’s probably trying to swing the pendulum way too far to the other side because I was such a shit in my early life. Oh, I did a lot of stuff, but I would call you later and there would be a quid pro quo. And now I just want to help everybody. I was such a cold, calculating, tough guy. Would you rather be feared or loved? I would always say, “I’d rather be feared because people who love you can take advantage of you. People who fear you tend not to do that.”
How sad is that? Is that like the most isolating way to think in the world? I think it is now. But that was my life all before and I was supremely successful in that—supremely. I had a lot of respect but it was begrudging respect and I had a real tight circle of really, really, really close friends who I did exactly to them what I said people will do to you. I nuked them the hardest when everything fell apart.
Now I still struggle with the whole loved concept, but I think the people who do care about me now—and I don’t know, who am I to say… I don’t know if people care about me or not—but the ones who seem like they care about me, really seem like they genuinely care about me, not about stuff.
And I get off when I’m able to help other people and I love the fact that I’m able to do it now—without conditions. Because I’m in it I have a real bend towards people in recovery and I hate it when I see people slip, but I’m not mad at them anymore. When I first got in I would be angry with them like, “How can you do this? You know better. We made it this far. You should know better.” You know—black and white thinking. It’s not their fault—that’s the beast. That’s their disease. We call it “the beast,” or I call it “the beast,” and the beast is smarter than us and it hangs out and it looks for opportunities to find little chinks in our armor.
Now I know that whenever I start feeling funky and if my brain starts pulling the funky chicken about something—I realize that’s “the beast.” I need to stop thinking. I need to stop and say what’s really going on here. And that works for me and helping people keeps me out of my brain and gets me better. I spent a fair amount of time—and I still do on occasion—it still gets me thinking about how I was way up here—way, way up here. If I wanted something, I had it—I could do it. And now I got nothing, but I got everything that I need.
I’ll get back out in the real world and I’m not rushing to do it because I’m not going to fall backwards. And I have a tendency to overwork and over-involve, so I’m smart enough now to pace myself now. I’ve had a lot of offers—people trying to pull me back in—and I’ve had to say, “Gee, no. Gee, I can’t right now.”
But the stuff I am doing I love. I volunteer—I love it. I love helping other people and that’s hard for me to say, because I didn’t ever want to show weakness. [In] my neighborhood where I grew up [and in] the businesses that I ran—“Don’t show weakness or people will kill you.” That was it—“Take advantage of you.” But now I just—I don’t care. I don’t.
I used to say I wasn’t afraid of anything. I was ruthless in business and ruthless in all my relationships—but I was afraid of everything. Really—that’s what it was. The anger was all fear. The drinking kept it in check or made it worse. I could drive you away faster. I’d get drunk and tell you what I really thought of you. And everybody I challenged… nobody would take me on—nobody. Now I’m genuinely not afraid of almost everything, but when I am afraid I’m okay with it. I’m like, “Yeah, I’m afraid of it.” Now I can sit back and go, “Why am I afraid?”
Nobody still wants to take me on, but I’m fine with that because now they ask me for help. I’m just better—and I’m better because of the program. I don’t have to live like that anymore and I wish I had known that twenty years ago.
Photographs taken in Michael’s apartment in Ballston Spa, NY.