Six Weeks Until Christmas
Chapter 2: Alcohol Test
It had all the hallmarks of a typical Monday morning. Feeling lethargic from a weekend dominated by alcohol consumption—sweats, shakes, sickness and paranoia of how I looked and felt. Nothing new there. In fact, I felt okay because I stopped my binge at 8:00pm the night before to sleep off the day-long session at the soccer game. My neatly pressed pale blue shirt was complemented by camel trousers. My hair was neatly styled and although my eyes were bloodshot, that could be attributed to tiredness. But deep down I felt rancid from severe alcohol abuse stretching back years. That remained inside.
Breakfast stayed in my stomach five minutes before being distributed down the toilet via my mouth. The other end wasn’t too reliable either, so best pad a man diaper, three sheets of TP, in the place where the sun don’t shine. But following a week’s vacation visiting a friend from Scotland in LA, I felt quite chirpy as I set off to catch the train to work on a crisp, fall morning.
I caught up with my manager on the previous week’s happenings and began the mundane tasks of opening post, filing, checking emails and listening to voice messages. Once settled I looked up at my wall calendar. November 12, 2012. I flipped back through the months, clueless where they had gone. Then I counted the weeks forward. Six weeks until Christmas. That seemed scary. Where had the year gone?
Somewhere around the time that I pondered Christmas’s proximity my name was randomly selected for an appointment. A random alcohol test.
Regaling my manager with vacation stories, my desk phone rang but I ignored it, letting it go to voicemail. Once it stopped ringing, my boss’s phone started, and stepping back to allow him privacy to answer, I headed to my office.
“Simon, can you call extension 3475 please as you have a missed message from them?” my manager said.
Maybe it’s a personal call I thought and dialed the number back without checking the solid red light on the phone signifying voice mail. No big deal.
“Hi, Simon, it’s the company medical team on the fifth floor. Your name has been selected for a random alcohol and substance test. Do you need some time before coming down to give a sample?”
Trying to sound as calm as possible, I said I’d be down in fifteen minutes. Suddenly no big deal became a big deal. Shit. 8.00 p.m. yesterday. That makes it twelve hours since my last drink. It’s fourteen before you clear. Or so I’d read on Google. I wasn’t hammered yesterday but I’d been drinking the entire day. All weekend. All week. I might luck out. I went to the toilet. Idiot, you can’t pee. You have to save it for analysis.
I dabbed my sweating brow with paper towels and felt my underarms fill with moisture. Come on Si. Man up. I rode the elevator down fourteen levels promising myself that if I scraped through this, I was finished with alcohol.
Lesson learnt and wake-up call heard loud and clear.
I sat in the waiting room feeling tense. My fists sporadically clenched themselves without my brain sending a signal. Staring at the caramel carpets, wishing they’d open up and swallow me whole, I glanced up at the clock, hoping for some kind of intervention.
The magazine racks adorned with publications promoting a healthy lifestyle stared back at me like gargoyles atop an ancient Gothic cathedral. Basketball’s Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar Blake Griffin gawked down from one. He does look good in a suit though.
Time to take the test. The urine sample for substances never produces immediate results so it was on to the breathalyzer. I had to do it again because of an error. The nurse asked me to oblige a second time. That’s what I thought. She silently read the second result, and although I’m no mind reader, I detected something wasn’t right.
After she filled in a million forms, I plucked up the courage to move this funeral procession along.
“So everything okay then?”
It was far from okay. I had posted a figure that would have Ollie Reed toasting me from the heavens.
“Can you sit back in reception please, Simon? Someone will be with you shortly.”
That someone was a company rep who was later joined by my manager but not before I was asked about my drinking habits and whether I had been drinking that very morning. I informed him that I never drank alcohol before entering any workplace and that my drinking had spiraled out of control in recent months.
More like recent years, Si. I looked around the team room. In my time with the company I’d been in these rooms thousands of time for hundreds of meetings. It felt wrong that these discussions took place in a meeting room. I wasn’t looking for something more regal, believe me. I thought more like the gallows.
My manager entered the meeting. Barely an hour ago, we shot the breeze on sports, and now I was listening to him informing me what was next. Although the sting of failing the test was sharp, all I thought about was how I let my manager down. In my career I have, like all of us, had my fill of shitty bosses. Here I was with a good one, and I’m not only putting him in an uncomfortable spot but, working on a very small team, increasing his workload and stress levels through my stupidity.
The drinking not only caught up with me, it had done so in the only place where I felt pride left in my life, the workplace. Behind closed doors in my apartment, I fed my addiction on a daily basis to satisfy my mental defects, quiet my burgeoning nerves and hope for a semi-decent night’s sleep. In doing so I hated myself. But work offered an escape avenue from my cave. Although I suffered withdrawals at my desk and nervous fits galore, I interacted with people, captured news stories and brought them to a wider audience.
My manager, not surprisingly, looked disappointed, but he handled everything with poise and respect. I wished he’d tell me what a frigging idiot I was and how stupid he was to trust me with the post in the first place. Instead, he wished me well and told me to get better.
Get better. I thought, “How exactly do I get better? A drink would make me better.”
The company representative informed me that I would be required to attend an evaluation at a clinic and was suspended from my duties immediately. A taxi was summoned to take me home. I would receive a call with more details about where to go for the evaluation later that morning.
I went upstairs to pick up personal belongings from my desk. I stopped by my manager’s office and felt such shame I could barely look him in the face. As I headed for the elevator, the lump was so big in my throat that I felt ready to give birth. I could not get through the doors fast enough. As they closed, I glanced at my reflection. Complete shame.
My thoughts ran to what my mom would think of me if she was alive and that brought back a memory. Summer 1987 in Aberdeen, Scotland. My mom and I stood in the local supermarket cab queue, our hands full of weekly groceries. We got in the next vehicle and the driver struck up a conversation with my mom about the newly opened store we had just left. Mom said she was impressed with the selection and some of the prices too. The driver replied he was equally impressed with the alcohol stock in the store and nodding his head towards my eleven-year frame commented, “This one will enjoy it when he is old enough.”
I heard the words but didn’t process them even if the moment stayed with me. In between hedging a mental bet on whether the fare would be two pounds fifty or two eighty and shuffling the plethora of bags at my feet to create space, I looked at my mum who by this time was ashen-faced.
I knew that look. It was the don’t mess with me look usually reserved for my sister and me if we were disobedient. She remained silent the rest of the ride. I didn’t check the fare at our destination. On our climb up the stairs to our apartment, I asked, “Are you okay Mom?”
With a serious measure of disdain, she replied, “That man thinks my son is going to turn into some alchy like most of them here.”
Thank God, mom could not see me now, twenty years later.
I had reached the bottom. Floor, that is. The doors parted and a cab awaited this alchy. The ride home seemed to take hours.
The time spent waiting in my apartment for the evaluation appointment was punishment enough, made worse by the temptation of a Pinot Grigio bottle in my refrigerator. I looked at it fifty times.
On arrival at the clinic for my appointment, I got out the cab to witness a couple, seemingly intoxicated, almost coming to blows. It didn’t get any better from there.
My evaluation amounted to another breathalyzer—still very high for which I was scolded—and a timetable being thrust across the table at me. It contained details of my planned residence there for the next forty nights.
My initial thoughts were, “Timetable? Forty nights? Oh my god! What about an evaluation?”
I was set to be interred into alchy boot camp. Every half hour between 8.00 a.m. and 9.30 p.m. was accounted for. I started to sweat, then shook excessively to the point that the nurse, previously prickly with me, showed some compassion.
That disappeared when I gained composure and asked if we could cut the term to a shorter length.
The nurse informed me, “Your work doesn’t like you” and “You are not wanted anywhere near them.”
Charming. Much to my further confusion and consternation, I was asked why I had not taken bags with me. It appeared I was expected to walk straight into this center and commence rehabilitation. Now this must have been a mix-up. I informed them that I wasn’t ready to check in on the spot with no belongings at all in my possession. If I was to commit to this, I needed a toothbrush and some fresh boxer shorts. Maybe some wine before, too. Thankfully, they allowed me to leave to go home and take care of business before returning.
My day moved from one personal misery to the next. I went outside and inhaled on a cigarette as the couple previously squabbling continued an hour and a half after I arrived. More fighting continued across the car park, too. Only this time, real punches were exchanged.
A man stumbled into my path and asked, “You got any booze in the back-pack man?”
Grabbing him by the neck, I shook him and shouted, “If I had any frigging alcohol on me just now, pal, I’d be ingesting it into my system through every orifice on this frigging body.”
“You got some booze in the back-pack, man?”
Realizing I’d wandered elsewhere in thought, I shook my head and politely offered a cigarette.
“Keep your goddamned cigarette,” he replied. “Those things are death in a box.” This was turning into quite a quaint, endearing place to dwell. Detox here sounded marvelous.
Another taxi. On the ride back to the apartment, I looked at the clinic’s timetable again. As we drove along the freeway my anxiety swarmed over me like a plague of locusts. Twitching, fearing I was on the verge of swallowing my tongue and coming close to vomiting in the back seat, I dialed my college friend Terry in Los Angeles.
Voice message. I needed to talk to someone about the unfolding episode of today and to take my mind off the attacks.
Family was a no-no, as were friends back home. What did I tell them exactly? What good would it do? Why burden them with my bullshit? The only person who sprung to mind was probably the least appropriate to share this with, Lori, a woman whom I confessed to have feelings for.
Great advert for yourself this one, Si. Call someone you are sweet on and say, “Hey, how are you? Me? Tested high for alcohol in my system, suspended from work, could be going away for forty days and I’m a few shakes and twitches from a seizure.”
Smooth going, Si. But I needed to talk to someone.
I texted Lori who called me back a few minutes later much to my relief. I needed the conversation so much even though I was fighting through tears talking to her. I didn’t know why they trickled down my face or why I was unable to check the stream but talking provided some much needed comfort.
Turning the keys in my front door, I dropped my back pack and headed for the bathroom. I hunched over the sink, head bowed, scooping half tears from underneath my reddened eyes. The last time I looked in the mirror was just before leaving this morning. How things change in two hours.
For several minutes I contemplated quitting everything and heading back to Scotland with my tail between my legs. I could make up a story when I got back. Something about ‘it was time to come home’ and ‘achieved all I set out to.’ Masking the truth was my specialty. I was capable of conning myself.
This morning I was looking in the mirror, telling myself I felt chirpy. I had been caving in for months on end but it made sense to look the other way with some self-convincing words of encouragement. I looked at my destroyed façade while taking deep breaths and told myself that this was it. My prayers to stop drinking had been answered in style. I had no place to hide now that my dirty little secret had been exposed. I needed to face the consequences. But, I could do it on my own terms.
Consumed by bravery, I called my work representative and proposed an alternative to the forty day stint based on counseling, ‘cold turkey’ withdrawal and daily testing to check compliance. Anything but to go back to that place would be a positive move forward. During my conversation with the rep, I was advised that their proposed course of action was absolutely necessary, as detoxing without supervision and care could be deadly.
Pictures of being strapped to a bed and fed medicine every few hours darted through my brain.
Rebuffed immediately, I implored them to consider an alternative clinic and an olive branch was extended. After further inquiries from the company representative, I would report to a different location for evaluation tomorrow and immediately begin detox treatment for a period determined by progress.
At last, a small break. Being single and still new to Texas, this allowed me time to take care of housekeeping tasks and bills before entering new living quarters.
The thought of these new quarters dawned on me. I was shit scared.
However, the overall result was cause to feel a small sense of joy. It was also cause for a drink. Simultaneously packing for the unknown and drinking from a glass of the very well known, I felt more relaxed. Then utterly selfish.
I looked at my wine and pondered the stupidity of events which I had set off. Down went another. The panicked tears of self-pity and fear which I had shed were pathetic. People were experiencing far more pain and suffering than I was. But I was consumed by my own existence. Down went another.
New bottle required.
Before leaving, I called Terry again in Los Angeles. “Aye, aye, mate,” said a familiar voice on the other end. Although in LA, Terry represented my first contact with ‘back home’.
“Aye, aye,” I replied, barely able to quell a new lump in my throat as tears trickled down my face for the umpteenth time. I had become adept at producing water work displays. This time they were not of self-pity but shame. The hollow feeling in my stomach bore witness to it.
Terry and I had known each other since college. Despite heading in different directions from Scotland on graduating, we stayed in touch. Sometimes in London, sometimes in LA, sometimes in Scotland and now most of the time in New Orleans.
When we met up, it was as if we were back home and studying again. We always clicked. Terry and I had both lost our mothers, and he was one of my few friends I could talk to about mom passing, knowing he experienced similar pain and vice versa. He is a great listener and we’ve always comfortably discussed personal issues, both good and bad. Despite that comfort level, I stumbled through my confession. I apologized for putting him in a situation which he could do nothing about. He was in LA shooting a TV series showcasing his enormous talent for singing, and I was on the phone spewing my stupidity. Ever supportive, he asked if there was anything he could do from his side, and I thanked him for being there before excusing myself as my throat lump moved down to my chest. More tears.
Heading for my next liquor hit in the bright afternoon sun, I felt the light-headed, pre-drunk feeling. I didn’t want to be out on this pleasant afternoon. I wanted to secure my poison and get back to my den. Only then would this troll be happy. Pushing the double doors open at the gas station and hearing the two toned security alarm chime bing bong, I mentally substituted it for two syllables – ‘drink-er.’
Jose was working behind the counter again and I was drinking again. We acknowledged each other, mentally attuned. He was thinking, “Off to the refrigerator for the one-point-five liter of wine and a little something else,” while I was thinking, “He knows full well I’m off to the refrigerator for the one-point-five liter of wine and a little something else.”
I wished I could just walk in there and buy cereal and milk. What would Jose think then?
Poison secured, I headed back to my lair for the usual routine. I thought back to Terry. Last week in LA we met up several times and he wasn’t drinking because his focus was on the show. He hadn’t had a beer in several months. He looked refreshed for it, and I recalled thinking that I wish I could have such discipline. Down went another wine.
By seven o’ clock I was packed, ready for tomorrow and completely wasted. The rest was a black out.
About the author Simon Tait
A communications professional with over 15 years of experience in public relations and freelance journalism, Simon graduated with a bachelor’s degree in publishing from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland. For the last ten years, he has worked in the energy industry within the public affairs and communications sphere in the United Kingdom, U.S. and Asia. In his spare time, he contributes to sports and men’s lifestyle publications and has written accounts on recovery for the National Council for Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.