It was after the bars had closed, and, just outside the final watering hole on my stumble back home, I lay supine on the clean, late-summer concrete, caressed by a gentle breeze that said autumn was on its way. I rolled over to a set of headlamps glowing from an old econo coupe. A dark man with a Hispanic accent opened the passenger door and yelled at me:
“You OK, man?”
I summoned enough drunken bravado to overcome my better reflex to not strike up a conversation. I needed a ride for the mile and a half the rest of the way home; there was no way I could walk it feeling like this.
“Yeah, I’m good.”
The driver, also Hispanic, at least my height at 6 foot 1 inch and not nearly as scrawny, got out and helped me atop my legs, precarious from enough shots that I couldn’t remember the number.
“You wanna ride?” the driver asked.
“Sure,” I said.
Gingerly feeling my way into the backseat of the blue ‘70s-era Cordoba-style boat-car so popular among area partiers, I figured they, too, were drunk, driving home from the bar. Our town had a relatively thin police force, and people were not shy about having a few too many and driving home, though at that time I never drove drunk. But these two Mexicans seemed sober, and simply eager to do something nice.
“Where you live, homie?” the passenger asked.
I told him, and off we went.
“We almost ran you over, man,” the driver said as we turned left from Main Street at the one Rangely stoplight and drove up North White Avenue, toward the run-down cul de sac that was home to the Pepto-pink duplex my kid sister and I were renting.
We didn’t say anything else. They just dropped me at home, I thanked them for the ride and went inside to the party that raged. I probably should have been embarrassed, but I wasn’t. I drank from the bottle being passed around a circle of people in my living room. Yes. In a group of friends whose daily question for itself was not, “What will we do tonight?” and instead was, “Where will we drink tonight?” this was perfectly normal.
That was the first time I remember waking up in a gutter – Rangely, Colorado, 2006, where I was attending a small community college and progressing into nightly binge drinking.
The sketch factor for getting into what looked like the vehicle of a methamphetamine distributor behind a dirty bar in a town near the center of one of the biggest meth hubs in American history didn’t bother me at the time. Nor was it higher than that of many of my other experiences at the time. A friend once showed up at my door telling me he’d sold his soul to the devil. Another day in another house I occupied, a random woman showed up to a party to sleep with my roommate. When they were done, she had me drive her about town, looking for her place. The first stop was a double-wide trailer that was locked and boarded. She drooled and rambled about not wanting to go to jail and her head bobbed around, and I asked her if she was on meth. “Duh, silly!” came her playful, croaky reply. She finally had me drop her at a meth den, with dogs in the yard whose shit had not been picked up in weeks. In another town, I watched another friend with whom I now don’t keep close enough contact – though her Facebook pictures tell a happier story now – slip back into the clutches of a meth addiction she had once overcome.
Lots of meth. It was quite horrible, much worse than anything I could ever do with my simple drinking, which compared benignly. So I kept finding myself in gutters.
I found myself in one in Torrington, Wyoming, where a girl I met at the Moffat County, Colorado, fair lived. She was tall and mysterious and she told me she was very good at tennis. I followed her there, a six-hour drive. We hung out until she told me she didn’t want to anymore. So I bought a 12-pack of Budweiser, which I drank to a hot, windblown summer sunset on a curb on the main drag like a homeless person even though I had a hotel room. I drank away the afternoon, and went to a bar.
I found myself in another on a mountain highway in northern Utah, about 10 miles west of Vernal. This time, it was freezing winter. I had drunk whiskey from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., until two of my roommates brought home two strange women from a bar. One of the roommates was dating a good friend of mine, and he cheated on her on the floor of our Vernal living room. So, angry, I walked through crunchy snowdrifts for the 10 miles, counting mile markers, until I wanted to turn back.
I woke up in another gutter several miles north of Fort Collins, Colorado – where I would spend three of my four final drinking years – in a different winter storm to semi-trucks wooshing past me on a highway. I had been at a party at which I still only remember arriving – so I don’t know why I left. I stopped in a gas station to ask which way I needed to head. “Fort Collins city limit is about three miles that way,” said the checker, who pointed out the door and to the right. I walked into the city until I arrived at an indoor shopping center that was getting ready to open its doors for the day. I snuck in past an employee who left a door open, found a bench and slept for about half an hour, until some manager came and told me I couldn’t sleep there. I called a roommate and asked for a ride.
I sometimes found myself in mental gutters, too. But I couldn’t get up, dust myself off and walk away from these. The only way out was a self-destruct mechanism – a cell phone charger or a gun my Dad owned or several large bottles of hard liquor. But even those never worked, mostly because I couldn’t bring myself to go all the way.
I talked to a therapist, attended some 12-step meetings, admitted I had a problem. None of that worked, either. I guess the problem didn’t seem bad enough for me to do anything.
So I kept going. I drank like a person should exercise. I pushed myself to the limit, and once I reached that, I was drunk enough to go farther. Though I had a bed, I acted like a homeless person, like a wild, insane beast with a shaggy mop of hair that swung to the middle of my back. I slept under pine trees in the city, swam through trash cans, escaped my home, escaped my sanity, escaped the human level of being. I yelled in otherworldly tongues at friends who made fun of me in night terrors, comical to others, hideous to me. I strung myself out on booze, and I refused to sleep until I had drank so much that I had no other choice but to pass out. I did it all on purpose, and then I cried out my plight, that I was no longer a person, just a rabid animal, as if those who heard could do something to fix me.
Some people tried to help me. A girl I knew offered to bring me special vitamins that would help me down, sober me up, keep me from dying of shock if I suddenly quit drinking. Another girl I knew offered to hang out with me and not drink, to still be my friend if I sobered up. I never took either of them up on it. I couldn’t believe that people would still love me if I stopped.
Paradoxically, people started to hate being around me. A friend invited me over to watch movies, with the caveat: “but you can’t embarrass me” in front of other people who would join. So I recused myself. One roommate would always tell me to “take it slower” when we hosted parties. I sometimes woke up to angry text messages from friends about something stupid I had done the night prior – “thanks for pushing me down the stairs last night, asshole,” and others I don’t remember verbatim.
I kept asking my parents for money, ostensibly for school. They didn’t have it, but they usually helped me out. But one day, they asked me where my money was being spent. I couldn’t tell them it was alcohol and partying, so I said I didn’t know. They said if I kept asking them for money, they would begin to resent me, and I wanted to cry, something I never did in rare sober moments. I told them I felt like the Wall Street bankers asking the government for money, knowing they didn’t deserve it. I couldn’t ask them for money anymore.
So I found it where I could. I took out a $2,000 credit card with Wells Fargo and maxed it out in less than a month on bar tabs and booze store transactions. I swallowed my pride and negotiated with a boss I hated to get some paychecks advanced to me. At my job at the school paper, I didn’t drink quite as much – just several beers several times a day purchased from a bar on the ground level of the student center. I found change in couch cushions and brought it to a liquor store that had a bin full of bottom-shelf pints for less than $5, and constant sales on malt liquor. I subsisted on that and Ramen Noodles I stole from roommates.
I once paid a bar tab with a pocketful of pennies that somehow came to the correct amount. A friend shot me a weird look.
“Hey, it’s legal tender, man,” I told him.
It was perfectly normal to pay a tab with change. It didn’t matter that the other five people at our table promptly handed over a debit card or crisp green bills freshly pulled from a bank account in the black.
I left other living creatures in gutters. I was looking after a roommate’s dog one night, and I got so drunk that, when I let him out to go to the bathroom, I forgot he was there. The vicious cold front that night left the dog shivering, almost dead.
I made plans to do active things outside with friends and cancelled because I was too hung over. I ruined drinking plans with others because I started drinking too early to be any fun by the sensible time everyone else started drinking.
One summer, I went tubing on the Cache La Poudre River with a group of people to celebrate the birthday of the girl who’d offered to get me vitamins. We drank on the way down, and I got too hammered to stay on my tube. So I got out of the river and hitchhiked to a park where the group planned to land. At the park, I drank beer offered me by a group of fishermen and swam and jumped off Poudre Canyon cliffs into the dark river until the rest of the group showed up. We drove back to the city, and by the time we arrived home, I was strung out. I raced downstairs to my room and grabbed the bottle of 100-proof rum I’d hid under my pillow, and slammed 10 shots in rapid succession and mixed the rest into a bottle of orange juice. A coworker and I had planned to watch movies together that night, but I was too drunk to see straight, so I stumbled to bed.
“That was a dick move,” another friend told me the next day. So, beer in hand, I sent the coworker a Facebook message apologizing.
One more night of drinking, I told myself, more times than I can count. Then, I’d quit. I always woke up the next day to look for more alcohol. OK, after this weekend. It was important that I party this weekend. Then, I’d quit. Another beer, another shot, another night, another weekend. One more gutter. Then, I’d quit.