He thought he was the only one who felt so empty and alone
In the days before I took my first drink, I remember seeing a photograph of a renowned existentialist philosopher. He was standing on a tiny ice floe, floating in a vast and otherwise empty sea, totally, absolutely alone. I remember thinking, even then, That’s me!
For a time, alcohol helped me to fit in. The first time I drank (which was also the first time I got drunk), I overcame the crushing shyness I felt around girls, and I called one up for my very first date. Alcohol gave me courage when I was scared, helped me to laugh instead of cry, and made me brilliantly inventive and creative.
It forged a tenuous camaraderie of affection and sharing within a family that was being increasingly rent apart by mental illness, rage, and hangovers. For a time, alcohol helped me to feel a connectedness with this family, especially with my dad, whom I loved dearly and whom I wanted to be just like. My main ambition in life at that time was to become a writer, and the writers I most wanted to be like were reportedly just like my dad–they lived life fully, wildly, and alcoholically. I believed that the main qualification for fitting in with them was to drink just the way they did.
But the more I drank, and the longer I drank, the more despondent I became. I tried to fill my wrenching emptiness with more and more alcohol, but no matter how much more I drank, my feelings of loneliness and shame just grew. I eventually came to lose everything that mattered in life. I lost my wife of thirteen years, and I lost a son barely past his first birthday. Losing a spouse is painful enough, but losing a child is unbearable. I lost the house that we had worked so hard for, together with the dog and the car and the white picket fence. I lost my friends, some of whom I had known since childhood. I lost whatever feeling of worth and purpose that remained inside myself. I was ridden with guilt at my selfish behavior and absolutely convinced that I was a gutless, no-good bum who could not stop drinking, no matter how hard I tried.
I did not lose my faith in a Higher Power, for that had been lost long, long ago. Inside my unloved, unloving heart, I knew that I was very near to suicide. At the age of forty, I was a ruined man, a man who now spent his nights and weekends painfully and desperately alone. Each day after work, I returned to my tiny, miserable, barely-furnished apartment (I called it my cell), and once there, I shuttered the windows, bolted the door, unplugged the phone, and proceeded to drink myself into oblivion.
In the morning, I awakened with a head-wracking hangover, sweat beading from my pores, my stomach in knots. Many times, I was still drunk from a night I could not remember. Most mornings, I came to and wished for death. Always, there was the emotional hangover and that chill wind whistling through the gaping hole in my chest where there should have been a heart. I was just about dead inside.
I did not plan on coming to Alcoholics Anonymous. I planned to die. But somehow, through the grace of the Higher Power I did not yet believe in, I was permitted to stumble into a noisy, dingy, smoky room filled with other alcoholics, and something absolutely astounding occurred. A miracle happened!
I listened to the people there tell me how it had been for them, what happened, and what it was like now. I never had heard men and women share their stories the way the people in that meeting did. Their stories sounded just like mine–not necessarily the facts, but the feelings, especially the echoes of past loneliness and despair. I had given up any hope that I could not drink long ago. AA members changed all that with their passion, gratitude, and love. They made me a believer. They made a connection for me. They gave me that very first glimpse of hope.
Later, I heard AA members talk of feeling, in their alcoholic past, a gaping hole in the middle of the chest, and harsh, chill wind whistling through it. I remembered the man on the ice floe, and I felt the pain of that wind, which had whistled through my chest so many years.
Today, the cold wind has been stilled, and it is the spirit wind that warms my heart. Through working the Twelve Steps, coming to trust a Higher Power I had once denied, and repeatedly asking for help in staying sober and in living life one day at a time, that hole of desolation and apartness has been filled.