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Hitting Bottom

by John Malone

It was Monday, August 24, 1981. Instead of working in my office at the World Bank in Washington, where I was supposed to be, I was driving north on I-95 from a cheap motel in Richmond, headed home.

I was driving with one hand and drinking Budweiser from a six-pack of sixteen-ounce “tall boys” with the other. I had escaped from my family on Saturday after a disastrous drunken display while hosting a party Friday night, after I had promised my wife and our children that I wouldn’t get drunk.

The party was to celebrate our second daughter’s graduation from Mount Vernon High School. We’d invited some of her classmates and their parents, most of whom I had never met, for drinks and a buffet supper at our home, before the girls would leave for college. The day of the party, my daughter had come to me and begged me with tears in her eyes, “Please, Dad, these are my best friends, and I really like their parents. Please promise me you won’t drink tonight.” And I promised.

Before the evening was over, I was falling over the furniture, spilling food and drinks on the guests and singing loudly. My own drinking was done on the sly while I was out in the kitchen mixing drinks for the adult guests. I pretended to drink only Fresca with ice, but I secretly laced each glass with hundred-proof vodka.

The next morning, I woke up with a terrible hangover and shuffled into the kitchen. The whole family was sitting around the breakfast table, grim-faced, and our daughter was weeping silently. They had to tell me what happened the night before because, after a certain point, I couldn’t remember. They said the party had broken up early, the other girls and their parents leaving hurriedly in embarrassment and pity.

My wife was the first to speak, “This is the last straw. Either you pack up and leave or I will take the children and go myself.” She had said such things to me before but not followed through. This time, something in her voice told me she meant it.

I turned to the children, panic-stricken, seeking their support. They usually sided with me, but this time was different. One by one, with the exception of our eldest daughter, they told me they agreed with their mother and asked me to leave.

Our eldest daughter, nineteen, was my drinking buddy. We two often allied with each other when my wife complained about our alcohol and drug abuse. She was due to check in at her college dorm at VCU that day, and I jumped at the chance to drive her and all her “stuff” down to Richmond, anything to get away from the rest of the family’s confrontation.

I knew, as I drove back home that Monday, that I was at the end of my rope. I drove faster and faster, weaving in and out of slower traffic, until I suddenly had the feeling that someone was in the car with me. It felt as if someone was tapping me on the shoulder. I even looked in the rear-view mirror to check the back seat and saw – or imagined – a shadowy form in one corner.

I glanced back at the needle on the speedometer. It was climbing steadily, past 80, past 90. Then I realized that I was going to die, if not then and there, a bit later and somewhere else, but surely I was going to die, and soon. But I was only forty-six! I was losing my family, my career, my health, everything that was important to me. I knew I was powerless to stop drinking on my own. I needed help and decided then and there to seek it as soon as I returned to DC. Having made the decision, I felt an immediate wave of relief and, for the first time, hope. I slowed down to 60 and drove home to my family.

That evening I arrived home to a cold, silent welcome. Unable to sleep without “a little help,” I polished off the remains of a jug of wine and went to bed. The next morning I struggled out of bed, sick, smelly, sweaty and shaky, and went to work. By coincidence, I had an appointment with the doctor for my annual employment check-up that very day.

For the past few years Doctor T, a tall, lean, healthy-eating daily jogger with a great chair-side manner, always asked me the same questions about my drinking. I always lied, minimizing the amounts I was actually consuming. The doctor wasn’t fooled for a minute. He urged me to go to AA each time I visited him, and I knew he would try again. I usually avoided eye-contact and mumbled something about maybe giving it a try, but this time, concerned about my deteriorating health, he put both his big hands firmly on my shoulders, looked me in the eye and said, “John, as your doctor, I really want you to go to AA.You need to get some help.”

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