- Mental Health»
Alcoholic at Sixteen
Life as an alcoholic began for me at the age of 16 and I was living in Germany as a military dependent. The legal drinking age there was 16. Of course, I didn’t know I was an alcoholic then. It began when I began working after school at the base cafeteria as a “soda jerk”.
I was in charge of making ice cream sundaes and serving customers with drinks…including domestic German draft beer. German beer has much higher alcohol content than American beers. It has about 12 percent alcohol content, comparable to most wines. I saw how much beer was wasted as it dribbled out of the tap after pouring a glass. So, not being one to be wasteful I placed a glass under the tap to catch the excess. When I took the used glasses to be washed I would secretly drink the saved beer when no one was looking.
It wasn’t long before I started to get a beer or two at a local pub during school lunch hour. It made the afternoon pass quicker. Surprisingly, no one seemed to notice. Sometimes my best friend, Doug, would accompany me. Soon after, we were regular drinking buddies after work.
There were already problems at home with my step dad and drinking didn’t help matters any. I left home and lived in Doug’s basement. I continued to go to school and work. However, on my 18th birthday I joined the Army to get back to the states on my own. My enlistment in the Army was cut short due to a few contractual details, but I later joined the Marine Corps.
Coincidentally, The Marine Corps was born at Tun Tavern on the Philadelphia waterfront in 1776. So it seemed I was in good company. The Marines may have an image of being hard, two fisted drinking men. However, I soon learned they frown upon drunks. One Gunnery Sergeant summed it all up for me. “When you’re straight you’re great. When you drink you stink!”
After a series of DUI’s over a few years the Corps in its’ infinite wisdom “suggested” I attend an alcohol abuse rehabilitation program. I went even though I was not convinced I was an alcoholic. Classic denial symptoms wouldn’t you say?
I graduated the 8 week program but my final speech indicated I still had a problem. My parting words were “I don’t know if I am an alcoholic or not…but as long as I don’t drink it doesn’t matter.” A page was subsequently entered into my service record book (SRB).
The treatment lasted about 6 months before I was back drinking again, but by this time I had been ordered to Okinawa, Japan. Many Marines stationed on “The Rock” found life on the small island boring after a few months and resorted to drinking downtown just to have something to do. Naturally, I was one of them. There were many mornings I arrived at work with a monstrous hangover but I managed to perform excellently at my job. I overheard one supervisor comment “He sure has a strong work constitution. I don’t know how he does it.”
There’s an explanation for comments like that. Alcoholics have to perform better to cover up the fact they have a drinking problem. There were strong hints by my superiors which I never caught. One editor assigned me to do an article on our alcohol rehabilitation program. But I was still in denial.
I had learned all the facts about alcoholism, but of course they didn’t apply to me. I had learned there is no cure for alcoholism…once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. An alcoholic can “recover” but not cured. Simply put, someone can quit drinking but if they ever fall off the wagon they don’t start at the beginning again. They continue from the point they quit and sometimes drink more.
Volumes could be written on the reasons people drink to excess but you don’t see many about why they should quit. Some studies suggest alcoholism can be hereditary. There is definitely support for this theory in my family tree. Professionals have also classified alcoholism as a disease but I don’t buy that. There may be some heredity factors involved, but I haven’t heard anyone claim crack addiction is a disease. What’s the difference?
Let’s look at a few rationalizations. People drink because their football team won…they will also drink because their team lost. What about “I drink beer because I like the way it tastes”? I like soft drinks but I don’t drink 12 at one sitting. People drink because they like the way it makes them feel. One humorous anecdote I recall is “The west wasn’t won with the Winchester rifle. It was won with firewater.”
I first quit drinking when my wife threatened to leave me. That lasted for 5 years until other problems forced me to leave her. Without her I felt there was no longer any reason to continue my alcohol abstinence. And true to the above stated facts concerning a recovered alcoholic, I picked up exactly where I left off. But now I no longer had the job security of military life. Civilian employers will not tolerate alcoholic behavior. I lost job after job due to alcoholism. Too many unexcused absences or the boss smelling alcohol on my person ended up with a pink slip being issued. But I had still not learned my lesson. Denial is a powerful thing. No one wants to be classified as an alcoholic.
The realization I was an alcoholic came about 10 years ago. I had lost yet another job and I was now homeless. I had believed I was covering my drinking habits fairly well. I wasn’t. My family and friends knew. They always do.
Fortunately, I hadn’t burned all my bridges and my family still cared about me. My sister, the oldest of my siblings, was the one who came to my rescue. Not gently, mind you, but rudely with a “tough love” tactic. Of course, I didn’t see it at the time. She just told me in no uncertain terms she didn’t have time to fool with me anymore. She had a business to run and her own problems to deal with. I was stunned and seriously hurt by her cutting words. I must have a serious problem if my own sister was tossing me on the rubbish pile. Her parting words to me suggested I needed professional help and not to bother her anymore until I had dealt with my problem.
So, realizing I indeed was an alcoholic I went to a VA substance abuse rehabilitation program. This time I paid attention. There are other good rehab programs available, but I won’t go into their track records of success since there’s some religious controversy surrounding some of the programs. Suffice it to say, I know who my higher power is and he has a name…God.
I can’t with any certainty credit the rehab program I was in for any success. My thirst for alcohol and cessation of drinking actually ended when I admitted to God I was powerless over alcohol and my life was out of control. I prayed for him to take the craving for it from my life. He did. The mere smell of alcohol disgusts me now and I have no desire to return to the pit which held me in captivity for so many years.
I have been sober for over 12 years now. It’s great to wake up without a hangover!