My parents abandoned me while I was still a baby, after my father put a bullet in my mother’s back. Raised by older relatives who were illiterate and very poor, and never feeling accepted by my foster father, I grew up with a sense of insecurity, fear and, at times, shame.
I was 10 when my foster father plunged a knife into his heart as I watched helplessly. Asthma, tuberculosis and heart disease had driven him to despair. The suicide attempt failed, but consumption soon took its final toll. My foster mother could not support me on her own, and she took me back to my biological father, who had left Puerto Rico for the United States. This man had his own family and it was obvious that I didn’t fit in. New York was no more welcoming, being at the time a city palpably hostile to my kind.
There was no escaping the fact that I was an outsider, and now a stranger as well. The gnawing perception that I was different fueled what at first seemed like an adolescent rebellion. I was 13, the year was 1956, and my battle with the bottle was about to begin. It unfolded as I came under the influence of a group of men who preyed on newly arrived young boys, seducing them with alcohol and pornography in the seedy tenements of Chelsea.
My father was given a second chance to be a father. He didn’t take it. One night I came home from work to find that he had bolted the door and had locked me out of his house. For the next few nights, I slept in a park in Greenwich Village. Fortunately, the city had its share of Good Samaritans. I received shelter in the backstage of the theater where I worked in the Village and found spiritual refuge in a nearby church, while at school some of my teachers took me under their wings. Thanks to such kindness, I was able to find my way out of the woods, and emerged from my first experience with depression. My hope grew as I began to focus on my studies and a newly found faith. After three years living backstage, I graduated from high school with honors. Pain and alcohol seemed a distant memory.
Attracted to the spiritual and intellectual life of the church, I decided to study for the priesthood and entered a religious college in New England in the fall of ’61. Unexpectedly, an interview with a priest caused me to relapse emotionally. The kinds of questions he asked me told me that he didn’t see me as just another kid. In his eyes, my place of birth made me an object of suspicion. I again felt out of place, like I wasn’t wanted. Apprehensive and ashamed, I contrived to conceal my “real” identity on campus from that moment on, even to the point of changing my last name when I started dating an American girl. My accent was like a scarlet letter, however; I could not entirely escape the label that said I was “different.” I was haunted by the sense that there was something wrong with me. For much of my life afterward I would lie about who I was–whoever that was, for I hardly knew myself.
In this state of alienation, I fell under the influence of the counterculture that in the ’60s was spreading on campus, and I absorbed a new view of the world. There was nothing wrong with me. Life was the problem. We lived in an unjust world, filled with suffering and oppression. Society and its institutions were to blame, and the church, no less. Thus, I joined the ranks of a new generation of rebels and renounced my priestly vocation. I walked away from God and my attempt at personal transformation, and embraced first agnosticism, and eventually militant atheism. I would change the world. My head oscillated between rage and depression, wanting to kill myself one day, cursing God and society the next. Revolt became my daily drink.
At the end of the school year I quit the college and the church. That summer, I went to work at a camp in the Berkshires. John Barleycorn awaited me. Confronted with renewed challenges to my sense of identity and personal worth, I took to the bottle with a vengeance. As if to prove my detractors right, I kept company with the wrong people, went to the wrong places and gave myself to wanton drunkenness. One morning, still hung over, I got into a fistfight with my supervisor.
In September, I returned to New York and started my sophomore year at City College, a bastion of radicalism where students represented every culture in the city.
I was quickly drawn into the turbulence of the times, marked by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam and the Anti-War Movement. I became a member of a select group, the aspiring campus intelligentsia–cosmopolitan, sophisticated and enlightened. Having felt “less than” before, I would now feel “more than.”
I graduated with plans to pursue doctoral studies in Berkeley, a West Coast political hotbed. But the seeming urgency of the times dictated otherwise. I married a college sweetheart and we embarked upon our careers–she as a teacher, I as a social worker–and we had a baby. Soon I set a course that would hold for the rest of the decade, when I would live up to AA’s description of the alcoholic as “an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.” I would neglect my family and my job and devote myself to the head-swelling activities of a union rabble-rouser–writing incendiary tracts; giving angry speeches laced with profanity; and leading demonstrations, marches, and strikes. During the week I would drink at bars where militants gathered for lunch to debate the issues of the day or plot our next move. On weekends I got blasted at parties and ran around with other women. God was dead. Anything went. I worshipped at the alter of the party that would overthrow the government and usher in a new utopia. I became inebriated with the illusion of power.
As the sun set on the ’60s, revolution became the god that failed, and the dream began to unravel. I had wanted to save the world, but couldn’t save my marriage. I had seen evil everywhere, except in myself. My wife and I divorced, and she kept our daughter. The movement began to fracture and split, turning former comrades into bitter enemies. I lost all my friends. Without a cause, I lacked purpose and meaning, and I descended into a dark pit of despair, depression and drunkenness. I cried inconsolably.
After a few months, I reached bottom. I was by nature a driven man, resourceful and full of energy, and willpower raised me up again–for a time, at least. So, as the ’70s dawned and I approached 30, I kicked into high gear, and with the help of alcohol regained what Bill W. described as that “old fierce determination to win.” I enrolled in graduate school, got a master’s degree in English, quit social work and started a new career. I made new friends and started dating new women.
The passion was back. Professional achievement, a new idol to give me purpose and direction and that elusive sense of worth, now replaced politics. By the mid-’70s I was teaching college and had started a Ph.D. I had found myself. Fulfillment was at hand. Surely I would be happy now.
What I didn’t know was that I had a progressive disease and had crossed the threshold. I had become a full-fledged alcoholic, a daily and a lonely drinker, getting wasted at home every night in a pathetic display of self-pity, wallowing in the tragic grandeur of a Wagnerian opera, the melancholy strains of a symphony by Tchaikovsky or the plaintive twang of a Dylan ballad, empty bottles of wine piling up.
Academic success never materialized. Nightlong bouts with the bottle impaired my ability to prepare lessons and correct papers. Hung-over and depressed, it became a torment to face class in the morning. I just wanted to run away.
There was no relief from the pain. Drunk and depressed, disaffected and alienated, I gave little and demanded much. I went from one woman to another, unfaithful to all, in search of something none could give me and that I myself could not fathom.
Then one summer, the sky fell. In rapid succession, the college laid me off, I watched the woman who had raised me die an agonizing death due to cancer, and my ex-wife took my daughter to a distant country. Penniless, I had to forfeit my apartment and stay with friends. If before I had blamed the world for my lot, now I had only myself to blame. It was all my fault. I was overcome with guilt and despair.
This time I sought psychiatric help. But my disease remained undiagnosed, beyond the reach of analysis and antidepressants. I sank deeper, inflicting even more injury on those still close to me. The repercussions would bring me, in time, to my last drink and Alcoholics Anonymous.
But, I still had to push the rock up the mountain one more time, and watch it roll back down again. I started to climb back and I pursued a geographic cure. I would get a job with the federal government and transfer out of New York. I got that job. I got an apartment and I even brought my daughter back to the states with me.
By 1980 I had taken my drinking and my daughter to Boston. My descent was fast and furious. Nearing 40 years old, I turned into a blackout drinker, and my daughter, just a teenager, became an alcoholic and drug addict. We had huge fights and, one day, I decided to do to her what my father had done to me many years earlier: I would throw her out of the house.
She ran away and simply disappeared. After many months not knowing whether she was dead or alive, I flew to California and, after days of pounding the streets of Haight-Ashbury and Berkeley, I found her by the university. She was indeed her father’s daughter. There was some reconciliation, and a few months later she came home to Boston. Meanwhile, I had joined a parents’ support group and was able to handle our relationship a bit better. But our lives continued to disintegrate as our addictions continued to wreak havoc. I was arrested for drunk driving and she for possession.
As badly as I now wanted to, I couldn’t be a good father to my daughter, any more than I was able to be a good husband before, or a good worker or a good friend. Mine was a disease of me and more, all or nothing. No satisfaction was possible. I simply could not stop.
And so, just a few months after my daughter’s return, I quit yet another job and career, moved back to New York to pursue a new scheme, and left her, still a child, to face alcohol, cocaine and her other demons all alone.
I hadn’t changed and neither had New York. Crime turned a retail business I started into a nightmare. Desperate, I started driving a taxicab to support my daughter. Getting high and then driving a cab for 12 hours a night pushed me to the edge of another emotional breakdown.
Coming home from work late one night, the alcoholic man whose apartment I was sharing in the Village told me to get out of his house. My odyssey had come full circle. I was homeless again in the streets of New York.
God then mercifully intervened through people I had harmed in an earlier crisis, for they finally held me to account. The veil of denial was ripped away, and I saw for the first time the darkness in my own heart. I was no innocent victim. I, too, was capable of evil. I, too, had caused great harm.
My self-will broken, my rebellious spirit beaten, no means of escape left, I was brought to my alcoholic bottom. I surrendered and came to AA on my knees. By the grace of God, I haven’t had a drink since. That was 25 years ago.
I made amends to my daughter and proceeded to make amends to others I had harmed and to reconcile with family and friends. My daughter went on to graduate from college and now has over 24 years clean and sober. She’s very active in her fellowship, helping with her region’s prison program, and we have a very loving relationship.
I located my biological mother and initiated a relationship with her and with relatives on her side I had never known; and though my father was dead, I reconnected with paternal relatives from whom I had long been estranged, returning to my country of birth and traveling to my father’s ancestral home. I made amends to my ex-wife, to girlfriends, and to other people I had hurt in ways big and small.
As I continued to work the Steps with my sponsor and my recovery progressed, many of the chronic ills that afflicted me abated, among them the recurrent rage, depression and self-pity; the self-centered obsession; the longing and restlessness; and the pride. Some shortcomings were lifted entirely: The profanity was gone, the womanizing stopped. Slowly, healthy habits learned in AA replaced the destructive habits of old.
I am Ray, and I am an alcoholic. In these simple words I would find my identity. In the anonymity of the rooms, identifying myself as a drunk and identifying with other drunks, having to hide nothing, to prove nothing and to fight no one, I was at last accepted, and accepting. I was no longer different.