Category : Stories
I grew up in Shelby on Montana’s Hi-Line. We still have a ranch up there. It is very cold, very beautiful and very windy. I never felt like I fit in. I was not an athlete. When you have a town with 3,000 people and a gymnasium that seats 5,000, you have a sense of priority. Like many people, alcohol helped me fit in in late middle school, early high school years. And certainly there were no consequences for my alcohol use except for the positive ones of being able to suddenly be kind of cool and have friends.
In high school, that was kind of the scene, but in a sense mine is one of those “if it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone” stories. I wanted out of my little hometown, and so I became a very serious student, one of just a few recruited out of high school for non-athletic purposes. I was the worldwide President of Key Club International, a National Merit Scholar, Valedictorian, and so on. I won quite a few awards, because what mattered to me most was getting into a good college. So on the one hand, I would go to keggers and drink and try to fit in, but on the other, I wanted to get out of there.
I ended up going to Stanford, and once I got there, it was a whole new world. What had worked before was alcohol, so in college it was “just add drugs” – take it up a notch. I did get into some trouble, but I was always able to mimic the old Warren Zevon song, “Send lawyers, guns and money! Dad, get me out of this!” Definitely a white privilege thing. I had a successful career there. I graduated with honors in Political Science, specializing in strategic weapons systems there under professors such as Condoleezza Rice.
Next came three years at Georgetown Law School, where I focused on international law and diplomacy. I was very serious my first year, as one should be in law school, although I did get a DUI regardless. But through a program called “probation before judgment,” once again, there were no real consequences. The last two years though, I drank myself stupid every single night. It was never anything that seemed problematic, just the pressures of being a student, so you drank. There were a lot of people like me, or maybe it just seemed like it. Maybe there were only a few people like me, be we were always all together.
After law school, the Berlin Wall fell, and my planned career path suddenly seemed untenable. World peace having seemingly screwed me, I decided just to make as much money as I could. I moved back to San Francisco and got a job in a big law firm, for a while continuing to drink myself to sleep every night. Eventually, however, I acknowledged that I had a drinking problem, so I tried a cold turkey break from alcohol, which I was able to sustain for over a year, leading me to believe, of course, that I wasn’t actually an alcoholic. I could manage my drinking.
The law firm I had joined, Pettit & Martin, would tragically become better known as the site of the 101 California shooting in 1993, still the largest mass murder in San Francisco history. People were shot where my office had been as well as the conference room next door. I lost friends and colleagues. It was a seminal event in my adult life, as well as in the lives of many others, and it hit me harder than I might have expected. It was quite traumatic for many people.
My initial reaction was to quit practicing law and join a rock band, which seemed rational at the time. Of course, that’s a really suspect path for someone with a self-diagnosed alcohol issue, and it wasn’t long before our success brought us a Jaegermeister sponsorship, and from there it was off to the races again. We weren’t successful enough to make a full-time career out of music, but I was able to turn my experience in the business into a solo career as an entertainment lawyer, and I also started a record label, sensing impending doom for what I felt had become the plastic disc selling business, rather than one centered on art. I also became the entertainment law professor at UC Hastings Law School right as the Napster-fueled dot-com boom hit, which led to working with many pioneering digital media businesses. I did that for a long time.
Between my law practice and record company, I was living a pretty high life throughout the 90s. In 2000, however, realizing that premature digital media madness was just about to ruin the American economy, I fled to Los Angeles and I got into the movie business. So that added cocaine to the booze intake I had watched steadily and uncontrollably rise once I brought it back from its hiatus. By the time I moved to LA, I had already begun to arrange my life around drinking so that I wouldn’t have to drink and drive. Then I started arranging everything else around my drinking or in a way that could incorporate my drinking, as there were still three martini lunch producers back then (maybe still are…). Anyway, it was all well and good… until it wasn’t.
After about five more years of the high life, the strain of my addiction began to show in my daily life. I wasn’t holding up my part of the wonderful law partnership I had helped to found, we weren’t getting any more movies made, and my screenplays were all trapped in development hell. Not to mention that my girlfriend had decided she had better things to do with her life than tend to a drunk. A very nice drunk, but a drunk nonetheless. I figured a good geographical change would reset things, and I was pretty sure the real estate market was going to crash in any event, so selling my house and going on walkabout seemed like a good idea.
After a few false starts and lots of bar stool declarations of greatness to come, I finally decided that what I really wanted was to write something actually meant to be read. So I moved to wine country and wrote a novel about the music business starring, what else, a middle aged alcoholic. My days blurred into a pathetic slog of waking up, throwing up, drinking a red beer (which nobody in California had ever heard of), and then “working” from home. It became pretty easy to isolate. I’d go out for lunch in a bar for a while and be “hail fellow, well met,” but then I’d go home and continue to drink until I passed out.
That went on for several years until I got involved with an actress, and we decided to move back to LA. She was considerably younger than I and had a fondness for opiates. I didn’t have much awareness at the time of the incredible dangers involved there, but after we moved to LA, her actual opiate addiction became evident. We went through a terrible period of it getting worse, getting her into treatment, and then coming home and relapsing, in large part because I wasn’t staying sober myself. It was an impossible situation for us both, and the only surprise in retrospect is that our shared addiction didn’t kill us both.
Opiates were terrible. With drinking I had always felt I could deal with it eventually. But with opiates, we suffered a downward spiral for 3-4 years, and it just worse and worse. There seemed to be no hope. I blew a small fortune and basically ran out of work and couldn’t be counted on to do anything. We pulled various con jobs on my sainted mother and others and spent a lot of money on rehabs, as much or more than on drugs. We sent her to very Hollywood kinds of places, more like spas than what was probably really needed, but regardless, neither of us truly had the willingness to surrender and get serious about living clean and sober. I learned a lot from that experience. I went to AA and NA some, and so did she. I had a real issue that I now recognize as my own lack of willingness, but part of it was also that I was in LA. LA is a different place. I have considerable respect for people who get sober there, but I do now believe you can do it anywhere if you’re willing.
Toward the end she was in rehab, and I went to Mexico for a so-called “silver bullet” treatment known as Ibogaine, which turned out to be a wicked, evil, African root bark that is basically a psychotropic that occasionally has the side effect of relieving withdrawal symptoms in some people. It’s not at all what they make it out to be, and it’s just an example of how lost and desperate I was that I would even think of doing something that insane and ridiculous. But I did, and it turns out it essentially paralyzes you from the neck down for several hours, and then there are usually some hallucinatory effects. I’d done lots of acid, but I was not prepared for this. First, the paralysis, and second, it felt like I was lying naked on a stage under a blindingly hot spotlight with a voice screaming at me about what a horrible person I was and how it would be better for all if I were dead. Eventually I started to vomit while lying paralyzed on my back, and I thought well, here we go, it’s Jimi Hendrix time, and I can finally be done with all this. And then I felt a shove in my back from behind me, but there wasn’t anyone there. Nobody noticed what was happening until I flopped over and threw up, clearing my throat and windpipe. Only then did the attendant come over, and it was clear that there wasn’t anyone there to touch me. However you want to look at it, that’s what happened. I was out of my mind for weeks afterward. I couldn’t distinguish reality from what happened in my head. It was a very bad experience.
I finally came out of it and decided, okay, we have to move because we can’t pay rent next month. So I was basically ready to just OD and die. This from somebody who was given everything. I was dealt a handful of Aces, and when I misplayed them, they kept giving me wild cards, but here I was ready to fold. Obviously there are people that had much worse things happen to them, but for me, it was a pretty big fall. So eventually I called my sister and asked for help. She looked at a bunch of Betty Ford-like places, and those were an option, but I knew what kind of option that was. She lives in Kalispell, and so she also learned about Recovery Center Missoula, which was relatively new then, and she was able to get a bed for me fairly quickly. Somehow the idea of rehab in Montana made more sense to me given my previous experience. She retrieved me from LA in February 2016 on Valentine’s Day. I abandoned my still-suffering lover and left everything I owned behind. I didn’t know that I wasn’t coming back. I thought it would be 28 days and I’d be back. I agreed to go with my sister and a few days later, I was in RCM. I went through the whole detox thing. My health had deteriorated. I had deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolisms. I was ill too on top of all of the alcoholic issues.
While I was here, I fell down and couldn’t get up. I was utterly powerless. Unable to even try to take on my problems myself. That was probably one of the real turning points in my recovery. I tried very hard to shut my mouth and do what I was told, regardless of what I thought, as my own thinking had proven ineffective time and again, and I had nothing less than an extraordinary experience at RCM as a result. My therapist Patrick met me on my level. He said, “Let’s just try and scratch the surface and get you ready to deal moment by moment to start,” which was a good approach.
My time with him was really well spent and helpful in that way, but at one point, he came back and said, “I want to go back to something you said earlier…. When you were 17, you were the worldwide president of Key Club?” I told him that I spent two-thirds of my senior year travelling all over the country and in other countries, giving speeches, talking to groups, and being the CEO of this huge high school organization.
He said, “That’s not really normal, you know. I suspect that you have no idea who you are and haven’t since you were 17 and adopted this approach to life. This persona has worked for you very, very well, but it’s a mask that has kept you from feeling connected to your own success, and that, along with a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, has been ruining your ability to enjoy life and cope. I think when you are ready, going back and talking some of this stuff through would be a good idea.”
So, despite only trying to scratch the surface, his insights really gave me something to think about and opened up an opportunity for me to start over, thinking, acting, and being a revised version of what I thought I was supposed to be. For example, after I got out, Patrick suggested I move into Hands of Hope, the sober living house. And I said, “That’s not a very Joe thing to do,” and he said, “No, it’s not.” So I knew it was the right thing to do. Fortunately, they had an opening just a week or so later, and I was able to get a room there.
First, however, I stayed with my mom for a little while. The first night I was out, I took the advice of virtually everyone, and went to that very important first AA meeting. It was St. Patrick ’s Day in Kalispell, and it turned out to be a really good meeting. I was still pretty raw, and I never really thought that for me AA would be a big part of my recovery. One of the things that was important to me about RCM was that it wasn’t foisted AA on me. It was just one of the choices. But I went, and I thought this was all right, and then I moved into Hands of Hope and continued to do aftercare at RCM, checking in once or twice a week. I stayed about five months at Hands of Hope and it was a very good experience. I also did 90 in 90 for both AA and NA, which was one of the smartest pieces of advice I ever took, as I soon found how much I could get from the program.
I didn’t have to believe in someone else’s god or religion or even a highest power. I just needed to believe in a higher power than myself, and that I could do. As a result of that, I found a home group and have, over time, made AA a way of life in a way I never could have imagined. It taught me just how very few things in life are within my control, including absolutely everything in the past, everything in the future, and everyone else. About all I control are my own values, goals, and attitude, and to a lesser extent, what I choose to put in my mouth. But if I stay in touch with that reality, and recognize my right-sized place in the Universe, no more or less, then I find I can have a conscious contact with a higher power that brings me peace of mind.
For this, I am grateful daily to the people who loved and didn’t give up on me, to the people and the organization (RCM) that provided such excellent care in my direst hour and set my on a road to recovery, and to AA the organization and AAs in my sober living facility, in my home group, in my present home, and everywhere for providing me with a program for living happy, joyous, and free.
At no point in all the high times of my prior life did I ever feel as happy, satisfied, content, or successful as I do each day now in general. That’s saying something indeed.