20 Years of an Improbable Life

20 years ago today I took my last drink of alcohol. I was told it was a vodka martini. I have no recollection of anything occurring that night after the second or third one until I emerged from the blackout tethered via restraints to a hospital bed (still very drunk). My body soon started shaking uncontrollably. I remember trying to hold my body still by gripping the bed rails and willing it so, but my torso, legs, and arms just kept shaking and flailing. I could not control my own body.

I was also told it had taken four police officers to put me in the ambulance, that I bit one of the paramedics during the ride to the hospital, and that my blood-alcohol level was well above the “legal limit.” (To the paramedic I bit: I’m sorry.) Hence the need to have me restrained.

So these past few weeks as I’ve been anticipating this anniversary of sorts coming up I find myself thinking and feeling many things, but most of all feeling grateful for the life I’ve lived since that night. (My life before sobriety could be a book titled How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.) I also feel humbled, knowing that the possibility always exists that I will relapse. And so I do wonder, “How did I make it so long without ever taking a drink?” The answer: It’s complicated.

I did not take the expected path to sobriety.

Fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough to have had plenty of love and support from my mother, father, and sister, and later on from my wife.

I did not go to rehab (no, no, no). I refused, signing myself out of the hospital a few days after being admitted.

I don’t attend A.A. meetings.

This is not a judgment against A.A. I personally didn’t like it. But I know it works for millions of others and as a fellow addict I’m happy and relieved for them that it does. Getting clean is easy. Any addict will tell you they can get clean…for awhile. It’s staying clean that’s difficult.

Staying clean involves no longer thinking like an addict. Staying clean requires a lot of confrontation; confronting ugly truths about yourself, and your relationships with friends and family, and confronting your fundamental motivations for reaching for the bottle before the addiction took over. Confrontation is extremely difficult for addicts since addiction itself is, among other things, a professional career in avoidance. Staying clean ultimately involves arriving at the absolute knowledge that nothing in this world is worth drinking over.

Twelve Step programs help addicts do all those things and more; the things they need to do to stay clean.

I’ve done those things, just differently, mostly with the help of therapy.

Though I am by no means perfectly reformed. I still struggle sometimes with the alcoholic’s binary way of thinking when it comes to doing things; either not doing it at all or doing it to the exclusion of all else. Many times I tell myself, “moderation, moderation, moderation.” I still struggle with what I call being “emotionally constipated,” my emotions sometimes held too coiled too tightly for too long. I still struggle with the impulse to tell people I don’t like to fuck off.

Of my drinking life, I could tell you about how I can still remember the sharp calm that would fill my body with that first drink. And how every drink after that was an attempt to recapture that feeling, compound it and savor it. But that it was a fruitless chase, descending into that oh so wonderful numb oblivion…I loved being drunk, loved it more than anything else.

I could tell you about how there is a history of alcoholism in my family, (though neither of my parents are addicts).

There is much more I could tell you about how and why I became a drunk. But any thing I say in a blog post would only be a broadly-sketched outline. The crudeness of the picture would be inadequate at best, and dishonest at worst, to an accurate telling. Regardless, the why and how are not excuses for my own actions pre-sobriety, which were at times stupid, pointless, and despicable, actions for which I am sorry.

I was 21 years old when I hit bottom. I still find it difficult to characterize in words the abject broken feeling of having failed as a human being. It’s a torrid pain that burns from the impossible-to-ignore realization of how hollowed out you are inside from having lived a life devoted to a drug. Few things survive the scorched earth policy of drug addiction; in the end it’s just you and the drug.

I had alienated nearly everyone I knew, even the people I used to drink with. My former college roommates were suing me for unpaid rent when I did not return to Northern Illinois University that fall. (I probably would have sued me, too. I was a shitty roommate and an even shittier friend. What kind of “friend” can an addict ever truly be? One incident involved a drunken brawl where one roommate fractured his hand on my jaw.)

I had dropped out of college to work and save money to attend the University of Hawaii. Those plans fell apart. Why Hawaii? At the time I would tell people I wanted to sip screwdrivers on the beach in-between classes. In reality it was a desire to flee, to run away from everyone and everything I knew. At the time I was not aware that it was merely an outward extension of my own alcoholism. Of course, I had no idea that I was an alcoholic.

I don’t wish the hell that was my first year or so of sobriety on anyone. The utter clarity of the pain, misery, and grief that you’ve caused yourself and other people becomes apparent. Most acutely so after the “the fog” lifts sometime in the first six months.

It’s very lonely being 21 and not drinking, and being uncomfortable and insecure with yourself, and learning again how to be a human being.

That year I told a number of people to fuck off. Figuratively burning bridges was what I knew how to do, having spent many years building them and oftentimes gleefully blowing them apart as if to revel in my own power to destroy myself. So burning bridges was the chosen method for dealing with certain relationships early on in my sobriety. As effective as it was, it was far from the best method. But it kept me sober until I could learn and develop better ways of straightening out my life.

I hit a different kind of bottom just a year after I had been sober. I was confused, depressed, resentful, and angry at where my life was (seemingly) stranded. I had dropped out of college (again) in order to change majors (again), walked away from a stint in A.A., and some of the few friends who were left in my life were now beginning to appear in a negative light to me. I believed my own life was hopeless, thinking that if A.A. couldn’t help me, then I was truly a lost cause. One day when I was lying on my back on the floor of my bedroom, wallowing in this restless broken feeling, and thinking my way through where my life had been, I said to myself, “I want to live.”

Wanting to live allows you to shove aside so many things that really are inconsequential. Wanting to live gives you the courage to understand that doubt and fear are normal but should not cripple you. Wanting to live means no longer defining your life by the things you do not want or like to do. Wanting to live means defining your life by who you are, what you want to do, and who you want to be.

Later that year I took a car trip by myself up to Minnesota to visit a cousin and her husband, then I spent some time with my great aunt on the Indian reservation in North Dakota where my maternal grandfather had been born and raised, and attended a week-long writing workshop at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa. (I had been encouraged to attend the workshop by a professor who remains a cherished friend and mentor to this day. Being there erased any doubts I had about my need to be a writer.)

From there, my life went on to become even more improbable for a drunk working class punk from Northlake, IL. I graduated college, met a smart, funny, passionate, beautiful woman with whom I fell in love, got a job in the Loop as a technical writer, quit that job, backpacked around Europe for over two months, returned to the States and moved in with the woman I loved, married her, worked at a dotcom, took up boxing as a hobby, moved to L.A. with my wife and our two cats, went to grad school for creative writing (while working full-time), bought our first home (a townhouse in Echo Park), supported my wife while she earned her Phd, published a short story, developed an Opera Habit, traveled to places as diverse as Argentina and Bryce Canyon, learned some French, celebrated the birth of our son, moved to Michigan when my wife landed a job at MSU, bought a house in the ‘burbs where deer regularly trek through our yard, became a stay-at-home-dad, became a blogger, celebrated the birth of our daughter, went to the 2008 DNC convention and witnessed Obama accepting the nomination, learned how to make pies from scratch, and…there is so much much more.

Here’s the thing: the life I have lived these past 20 years could not have been imagined by me the morning after my last drink, when I was still restrained on that hospital bed, viciously hungover, despondent, and afraid that my family wanted nothing more to do with me. Yet, there it is.

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16 thoughts on “20 Years of an Improbable Life

  1. Dare I say it? One day at a time. And I am very grateful for having had you (and that wonderful wife of yours) in my life for the last few years. XOXO

  2. Postscript to your wild and amazing tale: a few years ago you stumbled upon a little blog-in-the-wall wherein a bunch of DFHs scream into the ether about politics, and somehow through some crazy confluence of events, you ended up meeting me…for which I am eternally grateful.

    You’re amazing, Rich. You and Steph are two of my favorite people on the planet, and however bizarre and painful the journey may have been, something tells me you landed in the right place.

  3. You are truly a wonderful person and a very good friend of mine.

  4. Beautifully transparent and inspirational. Thank you for sharing your “junk” so others can see the beauty in redemption. Love that you are my brother in law!

  5. I have to say that I have met very few people who choose to disclose their challenging experiences so that they may inspire others… that takes courage and a great heart. I am grateful to have had a chance to read about your journey, and specially happy to know the beautiful, caring and fun family you all are.

  6. Outstanding entry, Rich.

    As the daughter, granddaughter, sister and friend of alcoholics I commend you for speaking so honestly about your experiences.

    While I hate that you went through what you did, I’m glad you hit your bottom at such a young age when you still had so much life ahead of you.

    And you have my permission to tell me to fuck off any time you feel like it. 🙂

  7. Thank you, everyone. I do appreciate you guys and am thankful that you all are in my life.

  8. Wow, really great piece Rich!

  9. Geez, I feel like a voyeur stumbling upon this due to FB. But I’m glad I peaked on my neighbors blog. Does this mean the case of wine I bought for you and Steph for Christmas is a no-go? 🙂 Actually, I never give alcohol as gifts because really, I don’t get why people consider it a good gift. Overzealous drinkers love getting the alcohol but I find those folks are hard to build healthy relationships because of the alchol and I really don’t want to add to the problem. And the casual drinkers would much rather have a good book or a great meal so I would never even consider giving them the alcohol. So in a nut shell, I can promise you’ll never get alcohol from The Riggs as a gift. But you might get some homemade food. Why? Because we’re overzealous eAtErS :).

    Happy Holidays Rich and Hugs to the Nawyn-Hellinga crew.

    • Happy Holidays to you, too, Rigg family! You don’t have to feel like a voyeur. I did post this on the Internet for all to see. 🙂 And we like food here in our house.

  10. I’m gladiator stumbled on this blog and back tracked to the beginning. A part of you that I didn’t know about and in many ways a tale I could tell from the opposite side of the story. One where I watched and now watch from afar my ex still not understand or see this in his own continued struggle to stay sober…

    Life, is what happens to us when we didn’t plan it too. Staying present and sober in those moments is the fuelto continue living…

  11. This is one of the most poignantly accurate portrayals of addiction and recovery that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Being a fellow working-class addict from Northlake (and one who witnessed the very beginning of both of our addictions) I can tell you that what we both managed to accomplish was (is) truly amazing. I am truly thankful to Steph and your family for helping you to get there. Although my own journey involved pills and such and not alcohol the results were no different; the recovery no easier.

    Thank you for sharing your incredibly amazing story…and for never telling ME to fuck off! ; ‘)

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