“There is an incredible amount of time invested in thinking about drinking, getting alcohol, drinking it, worrying about how much you drank the next day, then by noon saying, ‘Ah, I’ll just stop and get a bottle for tonight.’”
It all started in 1957 in Garfield Heights, Ohio. We’ll start with that one. I do that when I’m speaking sometimes, because people ask me about my background. I say, “Well, I was born in 1957 in Garfield Heights, Ohio, which is a suburb of Cleveland.”
I grew up in a family where my father was a dry drunk. He was not using alcohol during the time I was growing up, but he was someone that went to meetings. My mother went to meetings as well—support meetings. They were really involved in it. As a child, I was the child of an alcoholic, and pretty typical, it was somewhat of a—I would say it was a typical growing up for that period of time where discipline was physical, and expectations were extremely high, and there was a lot of yelling. I wouldn’t say it was dysfunctional, so to speak, but it wasn’t a totally happy childhood.
I was the golden child. I was the one that was the apple of my dad’s eye, and my brother really took the brunt of the anger. Whatever he did, it was not good enough. Whatever I did was perfect. My brother is also in recovery and he has been sober for probably thirty years now. He had some issues with prescription drugs and also with alcohol.
So I grew up in this family that parents were both teachers—elementary school teachers—[were] educated, wanted us to be educated, wanted to make sure we went to college. They saved enough money to send us both to college, to undergraduate school. It was a very middle class family. Now when I look back on it, it was probably lower middle class. I look at the neighborhood I grew up in, but we didn’t know it at the time. We just didn’t really have a clue. It was just what we knew, and I’m sure that’s true for everybody. I grew up in a family where meetings were a regular part of the family and evenings were spent with my dad going to meetings and my mom going to other meetings.
My dad was also the chief negotiator for the school union that he was in, and so he spent a lot of time at negotiations and during contract time and meetings and things like that. I wouldn’t say that he wasn’t present because he was, but he was also a very angry person. He didn’t like a lot of people, and even if he did like somebody, he eventually wouldn’t like them because they would do something that would piss him off. My brother says this to me still to this day: I always had the ability to completely blow off whatever my dad said. I was like Teflon—it didn’t stick on me, I just blew it off. It stuck on my brother like glue. He would internalize it more. It was more emotional for him. My dad’s been dead for fifteen years, and my brother will still say, “I just never could figure out how you could blow the old man off like that.” To this day I can’t figure it out. It was just that I didn’t internalize stuff, but it doesn’t mean that it didn’t affect me. I always tell people there was also no glory in being the favorite one, because I had a very warped sense of self.
I felt like I was better than I was, and I had a pretty big ego that was pretty hard to squash, which was a lot like my dad. I also had a lot of anger. I acted like him. I just couldn’t figure out why. Years of therapy later, that’s been resolved. As far as starting drinking, I went to Kent State University in the late 70s and early 80s. I graduated in ’79 from Kent, so late 70s. It was a pretty big party time back then. School revolved around partying. I don’t remember much of it to be honest with you. What i do remember was more of the using than I do of the actual educational experience. I was a functional user. I went to class, I got good grades, I played intercollegiate sports. I played intercollegiate volleyball and intercollegiate softball, so I was very functional in that regard, but I also had an apartment where we had a bong on the table right in the living room. It was on the table in the middle of the room and we just partied all the time.
We scheduled our classes around soap operas and getting high. That’s when it started. That was when I was a sophomore in college. I started drinking late in high school and then drank when I was a freshman in college, but started doing pot and smoking pot and experimenting with other kinds of drugs. I never really moved beyond pot and alcohol. Back then PCP or angel dust was popular and we played around with that. I remember doing blotter acid and microdot acid and I remember one trip, it must have been springtime. There’s this Michigan Women’s Festival and we all loaded up in a car and we all took acid. We went to the Michigan Women’s Festival. To this day, I still remember trying to pitch our tent in this field that was all this bumpy and we couldn’t get a flat spot, and we just were like, “Fuck it. Just put the tent down.” Then we stumble into the chemical-free area and we’re like, “What’s up with this?” We didn’t know what it was.
I remember we had to drive into town to get baloney because all they had—I wasn’t vegetarian—and all they had was vegan food. Now when I think back on it, I have this vision of hairy armpits and boots is what I remember. I don’t remember anything, I can’t remember any of the experience, but I do remember hairy armpits and boots and going into town to buy baloney. That’s what my college experience was like. God, my mother can never hear this.
Then I just got hooked up with people that weren’t in college. My friends became people that didn’t go to school. They were townies. That’s when we started doing the experimentations with PCP. I remember with PCP we used to go to the gay bars in Akron. I thought, “My god, that’s really far away from Kent,” but it’s probably twenty minutes at the most. It used to be, “Oh we’re going to Akron.” I just remember PCP and going into the bar one night, and I had never seen brighter pool balls than I saw that night.
They were so bright. I still remember that to this day. It’s so interesting when I think back to undergraduate school, that that’s the things that I remember. We used to drink Wiedemann’s beer, which was this cheap-ass beer that’s like those bottles. You know Red Stripe beer has those little fatty bottles? This was Wiedemann’s and we could buy it by the case for probably, back then I don’t know, seven or eight bucks for a case. I remember just going and getting cases of Wiedemann’s and that’s what we drank and it was shit beer. At Kent we used to have blizzards every winter and the big concern was did you have enough beer to get through the blizzard? Did you have enough pot? Like I said, my friends started to be townies instead of students. I actually roomed with—when I was a junior and senior—my roommates were not students, they were people that lived in town and they were partiers. We just partied all the time. Just crazy.
Then I started coming out and started running around and not dating even really. Then it was all about sex. Just running around and just having these wild parties and just hooking up with women and just having a good old time. That’s what I remember. That was college. That is probably when I started using. I don’t remember thinking at that time that there was ever a problem. It was just what everybody was doing. Probably for some people it wasn’t a problem. I don’t remember feeling like I had an addiction or I couldn’t stop or it had control of me in any way. At that age there’s no perception of that, it’s more a perception of you’ve got the world by the tail and you can accomplish anything. I managed to graduate in four years with a degree in criminal justice studies. Could that be any more ironic? The last internship that I had to do for my undergraduate, I did at a juvenile court center for kids that were incarcerated for petty crimes.
They were awaiting adjudication, they were serving [in] like a detention center. Short sentences, not part of our state youth criminal justice system. Lo and behold, all my co-workers were partiers. We used to smoke pot in the judge’s chambers, because it was all connected in the same building. I remember one guy I worked with, his name was Woody. Woody and Tim. See I remember all my party buddies. Woody was, I think he might have been a student. Tim might have been a student as well. They were all working there, and Woody brought some clothes in from home to wash, and he washed a bag of pot in the clothes, and they got all up in the dryer. It was a hot mess. That was one story from there. Tim, for Halloween one year, he was a tall guy, I remember him, beard, really fun, fun guy. He borrowed the judge’s robes for a Halloween costume and got beer and cigarettes and pot, everything, all over them and we had to sneak them back in, hang them up in the closet and pretend like nothing happened.
I graduated in four years. I took a job in Kent with that same juvenile court center, worked there for a while. Partying must have been a part of that at that time, I have very little recollection of that time in my life. I eventually then moved to Columbus and took a job with the, back then it was called the Ohio Youth Commission, which was working with kids that were more significant crimes and they were incarcerated for a longer period of time. Started out on a grant project and then got another job. That was when i was just running to the gay bars and picking up women and just living the life down here in Columbus.
In Columbus I was just having fun. Just working, running around, having a lot of sex and drinking a lot and smoking pot and that was just kind of the lifestyle. Back in that time—that would have been the early 80s—that was a pretty prevalent way [of life]. The gay community was pretty connected with bars and alcohol and that was the culture. That was the culture that we all lived in. I didn’t know anybody that didn’t do that. That’s where my friends hung out. We hung out at the bars, we played pool, we went dancing at Wall Street, which was the disco club. That’s what we did every weekend. We didn’t even go out until ten o’clock at night. You pre-drink to go out, then you go out and you get high in the bathroom and stuff like that. I was never at that time, never introduced to any other kind of drugs, which was really pretty fortunate, because I’m not sure that I would have not done it. It was just that I never was introduced to it. We were just pretty big pot smokers and pretty big drinkers. That was my lifestyle for many years.
I called myself a serial monogamist. I would have long term relationships—three, five years, eight years, eight years. That was what I did. Eventually during that time, I was all functional, it was all good. I went back and got a Master’s degree in rehab counseling. I got my first job as a director of a facility that supports people with developmental disabilities. All the whole time I don’t remember alcohol being a huge part of my life, but I think it always was. I think at that time it was more binge drinking and weekend partying, and that type of stuff.
I don’t remember it being an everyday thing. I don’t even remember when it evolved into an everyday thing. It just did. It evolved from probably the weekend partying and that type of thing to an introduction to wine, which then became an everyday thing. The wine.
I was probably in my forties by then and still smoking. I quit smoking pot off and on. I’d be like, “Oh, I’m not going to smoke pot.” The funny thing for me is, pot is probably more of an entry to alcohol than the other way around. Everybody’s, “Oh, they’re going to legalize pot now, are you going to smoke pot?” Ohio’s going to hopefully—I don’t care now, but I’m like, “No, I can’t. If I smoke pot, I’ll drink. I can’t do it.”
At some point in my forties, I just became a functional wino. I don’t remember when it happened exactly or when it became an everyday part of my life, but it did. It wasn’t until November 25th 2012. I quit for a year prior to that, in 2010. I quit for a year or eight months. I had been drinking every single day and thinking, “Oh my god, I have a problem.” Brother, father, alcoholics. Grandfather on my mother’s side, alcoholic. So I think, “Maybe I’m an alcoholic,” so I quit for eight months.
Eight months into it, “I’m not an alcoholic, I got this, right?” So I start drinking again. You start drinking again and you start right where you left off. Have a glass of wine and pretty soon it’s a bottle of wine, and pretty soon a bottle of wine a night is not enough, and it becomes two bottles of wine. I used to love it at first, so I did that probably for fifteen years, drinking like that. I decided in 2012 that, “This is not good.” So I went to counseling, not for alcohol. I went back to a therapist that I had seen years before for just other stuff. I go for tune ups. She made it clear, she said, “I’m not a drug and alcohol counselor, it’s not what I do.” She said, “I’ll be happy to work with you.” She was really, really good, because I would come in and she said, “Well, I don’t know how you want to approach this,” and I said, “I really just want to cut down. I don’t want to drink every day.” She said, “Okay.” We would set, “What do you think is reasonable?”
I said, “I think that three or four days is reasonable.” So we settled on three or four days a week. I would go in a couple weeks later, and she’ll go, “How you doing?” [I’d say,] “Well, I had events where I had to meet people for a drink after work. I had conferences that I went to that they had alcohol, so I had to. I had to drink, so I just didn’t do three or four days, I did every day.” She said, “Well, you want to try that again?” She knew what she was doing. She knew exactly what she was doing. She just let me play that out for probably I want to say four to six weeks. Then finally on November 25th, it was probably a couple days before that that I went in and said, “I got to stop.” She said, “I was just waiting for you to tell me when it was time.”
I remember that day, the last time I drank was the 24th in 2012. It was Thanksgiving, and I drank a lot of wine on Thanksgiving. I remember going to dinner with my partner’s family at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and I realized, “You know, I’m ordering more than anybody else.” I never paid any attention to that, because I thought everybody drank the way I did. Everywhere I go, I’m assuming everybody drank three or four glasses with dinner. They don’t. Most people don’t drink like that and I didn’t know until I quit and started to pay attention to what other people were doing. Some people don’t even drink when they go out to dinner. Crazy! Who does that? People don’t drink at the baseball games. Who goes to a baseball game and doesn’t drink a bunch of beer? A lot of people.
I remember talking to my brother about that actually, because he loves baseball, he’s a baseball fanatic. He lives in Atlanta. I tried to catch a baseball game with him down in Atlanta. I remember saying to my brother, “People aren’t drinking,” and he’s, “No. Most people don’t drink at baseball games or they’ll have a beer.” It just became this realization that, “Wow, I thought it was normal that when you go to dinner you have three of four glasses.” You drink before you go, right? You have couple glasses of wine before you go. You go to dinner, you have three or four at least, depends on how long you’re there. I mean the more the better, right? Then you come home and you finish the bottle and you hope—I hoped—that somebody would come stop by after, because then I could open another one. That was always my favorite, when people came by. Because then there was no check and balances to how much I was drinking because we were all drinking. I was just drinking five times more than everybody else. Keep opening bottles.
So my partner eventually got a little done with the whole drinking thing. She never said she was going to leave—we’ve been together for ten years—she never said she was going to leave, she would get really annoyed and I could tell. I at a couple points was, you know, “It’s me or, if I have to choose, it’s not going to be you. It’s going to be alcohol.” Then I realized, “Wow, that’s a pretty intense relationship with somebody that’s not giving a lot back.”
I think that all came together at the same time, the counseling, the, “You’re making some really stupid decisions here.” I felt like I wasn’t remembering stuff as well. I say it never affected my career because I’ve had a very successful career, but what could I have done if I didn’t drink during that time? Since I’ve quit drinking, I’ve written a book, it’s been published. Could I have done that ten years ago? I don’t know. How do I know? I was so focused on getting to the next bottle of wine and that alcoholic thinking, that it was just—I mean all that time you spend drinking. There is an incredible amount of time invested in thinking about drinking, getting alcohol, drinking it, worrying about how much you drank the next day, then by noon saying, “Ah, I’ll just stop and get a bottle for tonight.” Then right back into it boom, boom, boom. That’s a lot of time invested in alcohol. Either thinking about it, or drinking it, or recovering from it. It’s a job. So what could I have done?
My method of quitting was probably very unique. I have never been to a meeting. I have an issue with meetings because I grew up in a family that that’s all that happened, and I just said, “I just can’t do it.” I did go to meetings years ago when I was in school because it was part of a class, and was just like, “Bleh, I am just not doing this. I’m not listening to a bunch of whiny alcoholics complain about their lives. I’m just not doing it, it’s not for me, it’s not going to ever work.” I’ve never wavered from that. When I quit I just did it the same way that I quit smoking, which was cold turkey.
Where I found my support eventually was on Twitter, which is the weirdest place in the world to find support. I originally got on Twitter for my business and I started following some people that were sober, so I created a different Twitter account that is personal, and keep my business one separate now. I found these people from all over the world in Australia, Toronto, Nebraska, places everywhere all over the world—Ireland. They all had supportive stories. They all had struggles, they all were supportive of me and I’m not probably one of the most active Twitterers. Some of these guys are all the time, but I’m more of a—I try to read through it every day, because everybody that’s on my twitter now is alcohol-related, that is sober or trying to be sober.
I have lopped off a few people that just can’t seem to stay sober. What the hell, I don’t need you. Obviously I’m not helping you and you’re definitely not helping me, so they’ve had to go. And I’m sure they don’t give a shit either, because they’re drinking. If you’re tweeting, if you’re saying your name is “sober something” and you’re tweeting about your drinking, I’m not really interested in following you. It is like instead of reading any kind of book associated with a group or anything, it’s more like reading Twitter feed and following what people are doing and getting support. If you reach out and you say you’re struggling, they’re usually going to jump in and then have something to say. That has helped tremendously.
The other thing that’s helped is a very supportive partner who does not keep alcohol in the house and rarely drinks around me. When she does, we have an agreement that, “You just need to go away, you’ve been drinking because you’re obnoxious.”
The other part of the sober journey is really changing who I am friends with. I’m still friends with my old drinking friends, but the amount of contact is really minimized. I’ve noticed that I don’t get invited to stuff anymore. That’s affected me more recently than anything. I ran around with a whole gang of people that it was just all about drinking. They’re all probably alcoholics or at least binge drinkers. That’s who you hang out with when you drink because you’ve got to find drinking buddies. So I don’t get invited to stuff. I didn’t get invited to the pub crawl. I didn’t get invited to the poker party. That might have been a big drinking thing, I don’t know. That’s been hard because these were friends for ten, fifteen years. That kind of group of people.
I have made other sober friends, that’s been good. [I’ve] connected with people that are much more sensitive about my sobriety and spend a lot of time encouraging, and are very respectful when they’re with me. Two years and three months, four months, still doing pretty good. Not saying perfect, but good. I mean I’m perfect as far as not drinking and not getting high, but that’s it. That’s the story.
Photographs taken outside of Susan’s home in Columbus, Ohio.