A veteran finds a way to get rid of the pain and be released from the compulsion to drink.
Tom went into the Marines right after high school and was sent to Viet Nam as a member of a reconnaissance battalion. He didn't get killed but he did kill. He was taught the creed of Marines. They included, Semper-Fi, “Never quit”, ”never say die”, “never give up”, and so on along with all the techniques of killing other human beings before they killed you. But he eventually learned he had to unlearn some of those lessons. You can look at this little story several ways. One of those ways is, what does it take to get a Marine to say, “I quit”? The short answer? Twenty-two years of taking a drug, booze, to kill the pain. For the long answer, you need to do a little reading.
Reconnaissance guys in the Marines are the toughest of the tough, the most resourceful of the ingenious, these are “the few” sent out to find out where enemy troops are and where they are going, all the while taking utmost precautions to be undetected, the ones prepared to fight off a hundred or a thousand of the enemy if they stumbled on them while on patrol. The first guys he killed were on a trail his partrol crossed. Their rule was to never use a trail but they did need to cross them. The procedure was only one Marine should be on the trail at a time. Each would step out, look both ways, and cross. Then the next would do the same. Tom was the third to go and as he stepped out he did his looking. In one direction he saw three enemy. The lead man was carrying a very large pot of rice and spotted Tom at about the same time as he was spotted. The guy stopped and the two behind him bumped into him. As if in slow motion, Tom saw him set down the pot, straighten up and reach one arm across the front of his body for the weapon held on his shoulder by a sling. It was the reaching for the weapon that jolted Tom and made him realize the guy was preparing to shoot and it was likely to be in his direction. His training kicked in. He leveled his M16, setting the safety on semi-automatic, and fired three rounds killing them. It was a good thing his aim was dead-on because his weapon jammed and he was defenseless except for the grenades he carried.
At this point in his narrative, he explained an additional source of stress for guys who need more stress the way Newcastle needs coal. The M 16 was a worthless piece of crap for any use but firing in a pristine, clean environment. Any dirt down the barrel or in the ejecting mechanism meant a jam and the weapon wasn't even a good club because it was so light. An inoperative weapon was often fatal for guys in the field. The cure was dis-assembly, meticulous cleaning, and re-assembly. That is not something easily done in the jungle when someone is about to shoot at you. He'd been trained on M 14 weapons that could be dunked in mud puddles and would fire as if they were new. The 16 was so bad that Marines learned to put black plastic electrical tape over the end of the barrel and the ejection hole to improve the odds of the thing working when they needed it to work.
He beat it back into the bush and he and his patrol mates high-tailed it for a time until they realized they'd stumbled into a large enemy camp and would need to do something other than simply run. They snuggled down into underbrush and evaded detection and eventually made it back to camp.
It might help to think a bit about the stress of being on patrol, a week at a time, a few guys in strange territory, searching for people trying to kill you, sleeping on the ground requiring someone to be awake and alert at all times, eating food out of a can, being silent at all times using hand signals to communicate, and killing human beings, when ones religious background forbade that, all the while feeling, maybe being required, to keep up a front of invincibility and fearlessness. Think about the level of awareness and resultant emotional energy required to always carry the M 16 in the hands so that they could be leveled and fired in an instant so that one could shoot rather than be shot..
He was in Viet Nam for 14 months and went on thirteen patrols that normally lasted six or seven days. Only two of patrols he was on lasted less than a day because they were spotted by north Vietnamese which started a firefight right off the bat, thus ending the patrols.
His relief from the tension after patrols was ten cent-a-can beer—LOTS of them. One time during his tour he and his buddies came back to base from a patrol, got showers and got to the club about opening time—five in the afternoon. The rule of the place was that they could buy only two beers at a time but they could buy two as many times as they wanted. This fine evening as they were relieving the tension, they heard incoming mortar and the club cleared out--all except Tom and his five buddies who simply gathered up all the beer they could find on other tables and kept slugging them down. When the firing ceased and the others returned to the club, they found the six Marines with their table heaped high with beer. They drank it all.
Tom's field of expertise was the radio which he operated. One of the factors that was significant to him was that on patrols he was the first to land and the last to depart so that communication was always available. The radio guy spent the maximum time in danger. Just a little something extra to add to the stress.
As his tour neared completion and he prepared to depart the country he was assigned to a Marine base in a support role, communicating with patrols providing their needs and he no longer went on patrol. Boredom hung heavy on him when not on duty and he volunteered to man a fifty-caliber machine gun mounted atop a six-by-six (big truck) as it made a run to another base. During the trip they passed through a village and tossed whatever goodies they had to the kids. Candy bars, C-rations etc. went over the side to the kids. To this day, Tom is haunted by a six or seven year old boy who didn't care for his can of rations and ran toward the machine intending to toss it back to them. Tom swung his weapon around, put the kid in his sights and came within an eyelash of releasing rounds as the can hit and lay harmless on the deck. The incident shook him up to the point that he told himself he HAD to leave the place.
At the international airport in San Francisco where the plane carrying them home landed, the Marines were greeted by hippies gathered at the fence adjoining the unloading area. As they deplaned and walked toward the hangar they were greeted by catcalls, jeers, insults, plenty of fingers pointing up, and shouts of every despicable nature. They had faced enemy fire, their buddies had been killed and wounded and this was their greeting. It was early in November of 1969, and a new phase of dulling the pain was about to begin. In the future, the dulling of the pain would need to be less overt than the ten cent cans of beer.
He made his way to his parents house in Michigan. The first day he dropped his dad off at work and took their car to a shop to have repairs done. He'd asked his mother to get him a 12 pack of beer. His mother agreed even though his parents almost never drank so the request seemed unusual. But she complied. When his dad came home from work and asked for one of the beers Tom had to tell him they were all gone.
He tried to resume a romance with a girl he'd been dating before he left. He called and asked for a date. She said sure. It was a snowy, slushy November day when they got together. He asked her what she wanted to do. She said she wanted a Whopper. He didn't know what it was but they went to the appropriate place, got their food and ate. They left and as they got to his car, he opened the door for her. She got in and he went around to the driver's side. Just as he reached for the door handle, a worker dropped the lid of a nearby dumpster with a terribly loud BANG!!! Tom dove under the car. When he realized he needn't be there, he got up, cleaned the snow and slush off as best he could and, as nonchalantly as he could under the circumstances, got into the car. The girl asked what had happened.
“Oh, I slipped.”
Notice the hiding?
He got a job with the telephone company which became the mainstay of his life. A life which became a rut that kept getting deeper and escape ever more difficult.
In November 1970, he married and moved into a small apartment in Pontiac, Michigan. A couple of years later the couple bought a small house on a lake in a Clarkston, Michigan. They did a lot of work on the house and in 1973, a healthy son was born to them. It was “cool” to see him born, and then to celebrate with his favorite pain killer. But not TOO badly!! He had a sign of congratulations on a bill board that his wife saw as they drove home. It seemed the American dream was working to perfection.
Two years later, his wife delivered a baby girl, two months early. The outcome was not good. There were complications. The baby was twelve inches long and weighed eighteen ounces. The doctor and a nurse told him in a room away from his wife that things were not good. He held his baby in his arms until she died. He went in to see his wife, then to his parents to see his son. He cried a lot in grief. “My folks kept our son, for a couple of days, and I . . . well, I already knew how to get rid of the pain. I drank for two days. And . . . it worked. I was able to stuff all of it down with the rest of my 'junk.'” And the rut became a little deeper.
Life continued as before but it required ever more effort to hide the amount of booze he was consuming. A second healthy son was born in 1977, after some problems with the pregnancy but all was well after the birth. Another reason to celebrate in the usual way—for two days. Why not? And the rut got deeper still.
He and his wife agreed she should remain with the children. She hadn't worked in five years and it seemed to make sense. That meant there was pressure for more income which allowed him to take more overtime which was his for the asking. More work with an uncertain schedule allowed him to consume more booze and go deeper into the rut and hide even more.
The rut got deeper, the fog got thicker and it took more and more alcohol to dull the pain which became ever more potent and something had to give by 1983. He couldn't keep it all going. He clung tighter to the booze and gave up his family. He walked away from them by separating. His brain knew he was ever more out of control with the amount of alcohol required to keep the pain at bay. He couldn't face the thought of giving up his pain killer. His brain knew he had learned how to kill quickly and easily and he might do something unthinkable to some of his family so the safest thing for all was to leave. The divorce was final in 1984, and it was PARTY time!!!
As the spiral down got more serious he realized there were more potent pain killers. “I did try some drugs, but was just too chicken to continue with them. Hell … I could have been busted! Then I would have lost my job, and wouldn't have been able to buy my booze. Priorities, ya know!”
It took eight more years before the booze stopped working and the pain overwhelmed him. It all came to a screeching halt on the absolutely perfect Michigan Indian summer of September 30, 1992. He was abut 30 miles north of Detroit and had been drinking until 4:00 that morning. Tom had been given the job of splicing telephone cable for the world headquarters of Chrysler Corporation then under construction in Auburn Hills. By 9:30 in the morning as he arrived in his van to start work there was not a cloud in the sky, the trees were turning color from previous frosts, the sun was warm on his back. It was the sort of day relished by all outside telephone workers above all others. Not too hot, not too cold, plenty of light, no wind,--the kind of day every single dirty-shirt workman in the world would die for. He got set up to start. But there was a little problem. Try as he might he couldn't start work. Instead of splicing cable he sobbed and cried and was unable to work. He broke down. The sobbing, crying and lack of production continued. He says, “God put me on my back so I could see up again.” The first words out of his mouth are the three most important words he's ever said. Three words that formed both the end and the beginning—he sobbed, “God Help Me.”
Not knowing what else to do, he eventually called the number of a drinking buddy he'd last seen two years ago. Tom had heard his boozing buddy had been helping union members with their drinking problems. The guy wasn't available but he carried a pager. Tom called his pager and entered his number. In twenty minutes or so his phone rang. Tom picked up and the voice on the other end said, "Who is this?"
"What can I do for you?"
"I need some help."
“Too much booze.”
"Are you drinking now?"
"Were you last night?"
"Be at the union hall at 1:00."
"But. . . can't we wait . . .?"
"You get your ass to the union hall by 1:00, is that clear?"
At the union headquarters, the two of them talked for fifteen or twenty minutes. Finally, his ex-drinking buddy told him to stay put, he'd be back in a while. He was back in about twenty minutes and said, "Arrangements are all made. I'll pick you up at 8:00 in the morning to take you to the Insight Recovery Center at Clarkston. DO NOT DRINK tonight but tomorrow at the Center, you'll tell them you've been drinking all night. You'll stay there for as long as they say. Got it?"
The next morning they had breakfast on the way. At the Center, Tom was introduced to some of the staff on arrival. He didn't leave for 13 days.
He dried out for three days. They gave him a physical each day and monitored him closely.
"Did you shake from withdrawal?"
"Like Michigan had a severe earthquake the whole time."
"What did you do for the three days?"
"They had me doing some little craft shit."
He attended group therapy where five or six people would sit around and talk. Endless talk. They dried him out, propped him up, gave him some tools and set him off into the world outside but there was follow-up. At his departure he had to say goodbye to the staff and patients by making a speech to everyone assembled in a hall. He said those fifty three people could just as well been two thousand he was so scared and sweating and shaking. He made it.
He lived with some good friends for about a year, helped around the house, went to work and hid from his drinking buddies and went to meetings. You might say he's dodged some bullets—perhaps several of them. The good friends with whom he lived after drying out were drinkers and drank “like fish”.
He was required to meet the therapist three or four times a week and attend AA meeting five or six times a week. It was a constant, terrible struggle to deal with the pressure to drink.
“There was still a lot of fog then. I was fighting, constantly, that little person, whispering in my ear, to drink...just one, to relax. I knew I couldn't, I would surely die. Mostly from regret. I wasn't even worried about letting anyone down, except myself, because at the time, that is all I had. The guys at work, when they heard I quit drinking, started a 30 day pool, on when I'd drink. I think just out of spite, a lot of meetings, and some therapy I got through the first 30 days.”
The pressure to drink was relieved a little at a time and sometimes that came from something as simple as a single word. One of those he heard at an AA meeting somewhere between four and six months after his in-house stay. He'd heard there was an AA meeting some ten miles away. About 50 people there and the speaker, a man, concentrated on his early days of recovery. He explained in detail how he decided to pray for the compulsion to drink to be removed and how it had worked. Tom looked up the meaning of the word compulsion and and began his praying. Within a week it was gone. That meant that he could relax a little.
Strange things happened. One day about this stage in recovery, he put on his boots, bent over, and couldn't remember how to lace them up. He was petrified and shaken to the core. He solved the problem by sitting down and thinking about something else. In fifteen minutes or a half-hour, he was able to proceed.
He maintains that meetings were essential to winning the battle. There was always an aid he received at each one, a word, or phrase, or tool, something helped. His brain has won the battle for seventeen years and counting.
Another strange thing was a thunderbolt of incongruity that struck one day. His therapist wore his hair tied in a pony-tail that extended down his back to his waist. It struck Tom one day he was one of those God-damned hippies who'd given him and his buddies such a horrible greeting in San Francisco. And here he was trying to help him get the monkey off his back!!
That illustrates one of the keys to recovery. One must let go to gain control Oddly enough, it is by letting go, letting God, and being responsible for the behavior of the only person whose behavior you control, yourself, that recovery is possible. As he got deeper into his treatment Tom began to tell his therapist a little bit about his experience in Viet Nam. It was terribly difficult to go back through his time there. Close to the end of one session, the guy told Tom, "Stand up." Tom did and the fellow got up from his desk, came around and gave him a bear hug. He said, "Thanks for doing what I couldn't do." It was his way of saying he was sorry for not having the courage to go into the service. That was very important to Tom.
Eighteen months or so after inpatient treatment Tom found himself working for the telephone company in the thumb of Michigan. On a trip back to his old stomping grounds he met his therapist at an AA meeting. They exchanged greetings and phone numbers. Some weeks after that, he called Tom and asked him to speak to the patients at the treatment center because he had five or six veterans who might benefit from the voice of experience. It was a problem because it meant a trip of 150 miles or so one way but Tom went. He spoke to the patients for 45 minutes or so and finished by asking if there were any vets there. The five or six raised their hands. He told them to come up front and line up. They did. Tom gave each one a hug and said, "Thanks for defending us." to each one. He thinks it had an effect.
The pressure was relieved a bit at a time over a long time. One little release occurred about a year after his release as he accumulated savings to be able to move into an apartment of his own. He lived there until March of 1994. He was beginning over and it was tough. He moved to the thumb of Michigan and tried to buy a house on Lake Huron a hundred miles from the city, his work and his old drinking buddies. The house deal fell through and he moved into an apartment in Port Huron but the telephone company kept moving him around. In the next five years he moved eleven times.
In the spring of 1997, he noticed a lady at a meeting. Her words caught his attention and helped relieve a bit of the pressure. They saw each other again a few weeks later. She had been in the fellowship longer than Tom. Tom had begun a dee jay service and was doing a singles dance for a singles club at a golf club where she approached him and they talked. She seemed to know her stuff and, over time, they became acquainted and then enamored of each other. It was not a simple relationship. She had children, was going to school to become a nursing home administrator and the phone company kept moving Tom around. But they eventually married and the American dream was a bit closer to reality and a little pressure was released.
But there were also increases in pressure and Tom had the opportunity to dodge more bullets. Six months after their marriage, his new wife was diagnosed with cancer in her brain. Six months after that Tom took advantage of his company's retirement rules. But things got tough. She lost her job, medical bills mounted rapidly and, even with “excellent” health insurance, money became tight as his wife lost her job and, eventually, her fight against cancer. The pressure rose precipitously. as they divorced to protect some of their assets.
As this is written in this stage in recovery, Tom makes distinctions to help in the process. One of them is that he sees a big difference between being sober and sobriety. “Just being sober has never been enough for me. I've always wanted what I saw in some others, sober and happy.” What he seems to be doing is making a distinction between getting off the alcohol on the one hand and getting off the alcohol AND dealing with the cause on the other. We've all seen “dry drunks” who are simply non-drinking individuals who still have the problems that made them drink. Tom attributes the difference to proceeding through the twelve steps of AA and going through the work involved in recovery—the awful work of dealing with the pain that booze hid or covered over. It is work that can be excruciating. Going through the steps is painstaking. Tom found the fourth to be a “killer”. What is required is something that most of us ought to do, but few do. One must rigorously list all the things one has done to harm another and those who were harmed. The rigor is required because one must list all the individuals, institutions, principals or anything else you resent, fear, have harmed, and all acts of sexual misconduct. Then, and only then, one must list the reasons, the part of self involved, and what should have been done.
Tom has a healthy respect for alcohol but little need to use it. He has peeled the onion of himself far enough that the pain is mostly gone. But there ARE things on which he still needs to work. One of those being the fact that he gets irritated at the whining recovering drunks do early in the process—whining that he knows very well he himself did at that stage. Another is that he gets pissed off at those drunks and their enablers who use AA as a tool, not for recovery, but a ruse to allow the drunk to escape the legal consequences of his behavior under the influence of alcohol. The twelve steps are useless and a sham until and unless the person who is hiding from their pain is ready to confront the brutal truth. Those who choose AA, or drying out, or rehab as an alternative to jail are wasting their time, the resources of those who pay for treatment, and kidding themselves as well. They think they are making progress against the disease but they are not.
In a more reflective mood, he is pretty well convinced that if he ever started drinking again, he'd die. “I can't go back, and then even try to make it through what I've already been through in recovery. I really don't think I'd make it. It was way too hard the first time. And most of the times seemed impossible.”
He has recovered much of himself, although he will tell you the recovery never ends, and he has also recovered all the lost family lost to the disease except for the woman he divorced. He feels blessed to be back in contact with his children, siblings and family. Life isn't perfect but it ain't bad. In fact, he says, “. . . the truth is, I'm lovin' life.”
Almost eighteen years into recovery still more pressure was relieved as he talked with a Vietnamese lady who escaped after the fall. She saw the Marine emblems on Tom's truck and inquired of folks in order to meet him. They talked and, among other things, she hugged him and said “Thank you for what you did.” They both cried and hugged a couple more times. The healing continues.
A pretty good way to end this part of the story is his thought on the process. “A lot of people in the fellowship talk about the 'spiritual side' of it. I take exception to that. It's ALL spiritual. I got here by saying the three most important words I've ever spoken, and meant. 'God, help me!!' “