Six Weeks Until Christmas
Chapter 6: People, Places and Things
During Detox, a number of counselors advised the group to avoid familiar people, places and things as they may trigger relapse. At first, I struggled to grasp the concept. ‘People’ represented me and a handful of others as I lived thousands of miles from home. ‘Places’ can mean anywhere within walking distance - Jose and the three hundred yard stroll to the gas station for booze an example. ‘Things’ didn’t really add up either. I’d grasp all three soon.
My first few days back in Texan reality were uneventful and dominated by boredom, restlessness and the occasional desire for a glass of wine. The most exciting event was registering for outpatient treatment. This was a mandatory part of my rehabilitation and meant attending afternoon sessions Monday, Wednesday and Thursday at a facility downtown. I met new counselors who were welcoming and positive. Eyebrows were raised when I told them I was heading to New Orleans for the weekend.
Before the failed breathalyzer and rehab drama, I purchased football tickets to see my beloved New Orleans Saints. Post-drama it became an opportunity to get away for a few days to a spot I felt at home, something to look forward to after my self-inflicted mental and physical rollercoaster ride.
The first inkling of temptation showed up when I awoke on the morning of my flight and packed a suitcase. Things. I’d have been through a few glasses by now, I thought, as I loaded my clothes. Play some music to take your mind of it, Si. Another thing. Oh, that wine would have been going down very well by now. I would have been really buzzing. The best way to start a mini-vacation, right? I snapped out of it thinking, Jay Z and packing a f_____ pair of white socks did not turn you into a booze hound, you idiot.
Arriving at the airport, the alcoholic Simon popped into my brain and reintroduced himself. You are terrified of flying and you can count on three fingers the number of times you’ve flown sober in hundreds of flights. Shit, that wind is getting up, I thought as I looked skyward and felt a gust ripple my jacket collar.
Sweat gathered on my brow and I thought it might be best to cut my losses, turn around and head back to my apartment. I took a breather in the restroom. Pants around my ankles, hands clasped on my knees, I sat there until calm descended and my breathing returned to normal.
This would not be easy. I knew that, but didn’t realize the people, places and things part would be quite as tricky. I regained my composure and held it together through the check-in queues and inspection lines, areas I usually passed having consumed or looked forward to consuming alcohol.
Walking around the D gate departure zone, I became aware of the neon signs hanging outside bars and restaurants. Perhaps I should consult my counselor on this the next time we have an appointment and share the experience. As a drinker, I didn’t need to look for signage and, to be honest, wouldn’t have noticed it anyway. A pub was sought and found on instinct alone.
This time I wasn’t seeking booze, so it’s not as if the signs lured me in, but they were definitely more apparent. I stopped outside one bar, not brave enough to go in and order a soft drink, and paused for a moment.
There I was. Sipping a glass of wine to calm the nerves in my head, hand shaking while watching sports on television or rummaging my back pack for the tenth time to ensure I had my necessary travel documents.
“Would you like a menu, sir? We have half price cocktails and our two-for-one specials begin in fifteen minutes,” the waiting staff member informed me.
The offer of alcohol brought my walk down memory lane to a halt. I politely declined out of fear because I wasn’t ready to take that step. If it’s possible to flashback to a flashback that is what happened in the brief seconds between the question and my reply.
On the flight to New Orleans my nervous reactions returned. I coped well with the take-off and bumpiness as the plane rose to cruising altitude. I relaxed, but my mind wandered and I felt restless. First it was the fidgets then the feeling of claustrophobia followed by more twitching. It was uncomfortable. One that the alcoholic Simon would have quelled, or attempted to quell, by holding the plastic container of wine and convincing himself that this was the remedy. Similar to the answer for everything else during a long stretch in my life.
I started writing, making lists. My favorite New Orleans locations. Planned Saints football purchases. A timetable from Friday to Monday. Mornings, afternoons and evenings. This was a worthwhile technique in focusing my scattered attention and, on leaving the plane, I considered its effectiveness in curbing my susceptibility to those horrible mental attacks.
Perhaps the biggest bonus was that at no point did I consider alcohol as the silver bullet. Having learned about the anxiety at my outpatient evaluation – more on that later – I began to recognize an alignment between my anxiety outbursts and alcohol consumption. I was jittery on the flight and it was uncomfortable, but it was nowhere near as bad as the episodes experienced during other journeys. I was happy and relieved at arriving.
I awoke the next morning with a ravenous appetite, the first time I had experienced such hunger so early in a very long time. It felt alien but welcome. My college friend Terry, who lives in New Orleans, was still in LA, and I wasn’t due to meet other friends until Sunday at the game, so Friday and Saturday were open. Aware of my alone time, a fear of boredom and desire to drink lurked in my psyche as I read my plans for the day. Without drinking, was this how it was going to be for the rest of my life? But still, the feeling of being away for a weekend and free from the last ten days was a relief.
After a refreshing walk along the Mississippi, I met a good friend Patti at a local restaurant Drago’s. A popular New Orleans haunt, I frequented it on every visit and became well acquainted with the bar staff. I was met by a familiar face, Paul, who worked there. As I noticed Patti approaching from the other side of the bar, I caught sight of Paul reaching down to the wine fridge. The place was empty so I guessed he was going to pour my usual.
Right on cue, “Simon, we just got this new one in.”
My first real test.
Rubbing my stomach and feigning sickness I replied, “Bit of a heavy one last night Paul, I’m good for now. Thanks bud.”
That wasn’t so bad. Okay, I was lying through my teeth but it was a white lie and I had good reason. Well justified, Simon. I can still see the look of surprise on Paul’s face.
Patti and I enjoyed a catch up over brunch and, in telling her about my break from booze, she informed me she stopped some time ago. We always met when I was in town, but with me at the bar and Patti serving from the other side. She had grown tired of alcohol and such a length of sobriety was impressive to someone like me with only ten days under his belt.
“Ten years,” I mouthed in surprise. “How did you do it?”
“It wasn’t so much ‘do it’. It was what it was doing to me. Then what I was doing with it if you get me.”
I didn’t get her. Too many ‘its’ but I was intrigued, however, my dumb look gave it away.
“I began to screw up. My life. Others. One big train wreck. It was time to stop. I’m glad I stopped when I did because I still have my family.”
One big train wreck. That resonated. I looked down at the table because I didn’t want to appear inquisitive anymore. Patti was a friend, but we never talked about personal issues. In discussing drink she spoke in short sentences. Normally she stretched them out so well I thought she’d never end. But just one more question.
“Do you miss it, bud?”
The screwed up expression on her face told me all I needed to know. Saying goodbye after our meal, we exchanged a big hug, and on breaking off Patti said, “Stay sober, Simon, one day at a time.”
Yeah, she knew. Either the white lie about the break, or my subtle-as-a-sledgehammer questioning were giveaways. It didn’t bother me though as I knew I had a problem and there was no hiding anymore. It felt both liberating and scary.
Later that day I strolled through the French Quarter. In doing so sober, I found a new world to explore. Royal Street in particular was a place I never paid proper attention because of its proximity to Bourbon Street, one block away. As I sauntered from one boutique to the next enjoying the art, antiques, books and crafts, the endless pleasure of shop-hopping was a far cry from debauchery less than one hundred yards from me.
I found myself at the end of Royal and after a small walk along Frenchmen I turned back down Royal and stopped for a coffee. Taking a seat I let out a weary, yet satisfied sigh. It had been a pleasurable afternoon and my shopping bags sagged with gifts for friends. The sun came down early on this Friday evening and looking out the window, I observed more and more short skirts and flashy shirts as we approached drink o’ clock.
Ah, Bourbon Street. One small stretch of bars, clubs and strip joints capable of giving and taking away as much as an entire city stacked with the same temptations. You can keep Vegas and its Strip. This was door to door action. Cheap booze, great bars, okay, some great bars, tourists, women, women tourists, laughter and a lot more. For me it was an alcoholic’s paradise. I was like a mouse in a maze chasing the cheese.
People, places and things. I finished my coffee and headed to Bourbon. Making my way up St Peter, I could hear its heartbeat. Loud music pounding out from Cat’s Meow welcomed me as I made my turn and there it was in front of me. Already cordoned off for revelers, it was early, but not nearly enough for some and the weekend was kicking off.
It was easy to spot a few familiar establishments along the way, as once again, I felt the neon signs saluting my presence. I nodded back to a few in mutual recognition. I felt an uneasy draw to the bars. Not in a ‘let’s get on it’ way but the familiarity jolted nostalgia. That was tempered by a recollection of the dramas I encountered during the previous ten days.
By the time I reached the sanity of Canal Street with the smell of booze twitching at my nose, I felt a small sense of satisfaction. Today wasn’t boring. It was a solid start to a different way of spending my time. It was what I made it.
Later that evening as I closed the curtains in my hotel room, I looked over the Mississippi as the Algiers ferry made its rounds. It was a beautiful sight, lit against the darkness of the night sky above and the river below. The ferry docked at the small port across the river. In the distance I could make out passengers disembarking for land. My eyes followed them, then shot off, journeyed right and then left to the top of Pelican Street. It was reminiscent of a movie scene where the look-out agent is trained on a target through his binoculars only to spot the real mark and readjust his hair-trigger. In this case, the Crown and Anchor British bar and a pint of good old UK cider was the real mark. Returning to reality I thought, where did that come from? I looked back. The same area took on the appearance of any other neighborhood across the water.
A solid start, yes, but I couldn’t get too cocky because I knew my addiction was still inside me and wanted out.
Saturday was another enjoyable day spent in the same vein as the day before; walking, thinking, drinking lots of coffee and fighting the odd pang here and there. That slower southern pace complemented the gentle calm within me which I had not experienced in many years and could not yet identify with. But when I lay down to rest that night, I knew the big test would come the next day. New Orleans Saints versus the San Francisco 49ers at the Superdome.
I woke up on game day like an excited fan. Since the schedule was released in April, I looked forward to this and felt a desire to see my team avenge their play-off defeat seven months earlier. Before my stint in rehab, I had already billed the event as redemption.
I stopped downstairs for breakfast and spotted a number of Saints jerseys worn with pride at tables across the restaurant. This was New Orleans for New Orleans football. Exchanging a nod with a fellow Saints fan was part and parcel of the pre-game experience. My personal favorite is the first sighting of the Superdome on gameday while walking up Poydras. It’s always guaranteed to give me a tingle.
But this day would be a different. My running mate Terry would not be with me. No beer. No Bloody Marys to give me a kick start. No wine. I didn’t give it too much thought early on because I wanted to soak up the day not the booze.
My friends Lori, Paris and Nance picked me up, in fine fettle for the game. They knew about my recent episode which was comforting but at the same time I felt like the odd one out. Tainted.
“How’s it been going then?” Paris asked.
“It’s been fine, thanks. A little strange with everything that’s been happening. It’s really nice to be here, and I’m hoping to return to work soon. This weekend is what I’ve needed.”
“Have you talked to Terry? How’s he getting on in the show?” Lori inquired.
“He’s well. I had a chat with him after I got out of rehab, and he’s in the next round performing on Tuesday, can’t wait. He was asking for you all.”
I felt much more comfortable talking about someone else. My self-absorption subsided as I settled in for the short ride uptown, enjoying their rapid fire conversation peppered with humorous one-liners. I sat in the front giggling at the quips coming from Nance and Paris in the back, prompting Lori to concede with a gentle sigh, “Yes, they are my friends.” The laughs continued as we walked to ‘Champions Square’, a large area in front of the stadium for fans to party and enjoy the festivities before every game.
When we arrived, everyone was drinking. Or so it seemed to me. Stopping for refreshments, we decided to head out of the square to a local establishment managed by a friend of Nance’s. A welcome decision as I felt a need to get away from the swallowing masses. Still, I ordered a Sprite and survived my first game day test albeit with a look to the stadium concourses where I’m sure I caught sight of the inebriated phantoms of Terry and me.
Lori and Paris headed to the buffet area to pick up lunch, leaving Nance and me at the table. Having never met before today, we developed a rapport and I was surprised to hear she had been sober just shy of nine years. Nance is all of five foot nothing with a big mouth – I mean that in the nicest way – and an even bigger heart. The first time we met I didn’t see her, I heard her. This was partly due to seat positioning and her raspy southern accent. With her red fringe, green eyes and sweet smile, Nance possessed such vibrancy and energy that I mistook it for a few pre-game tipples, and even Nance said she received similar comments from others.
“So how are you coping?”
A very different question to “How are you doing?”
I took a pause and a deep breath.
“A little nervous about today. It feels very different, unusual. I’m used to being out there drinking you know? Don’t get me wrong I’m enjoying myself. But I’m nervous. I’ll feel better when the game starts.”
Nance shared personal stories about her battles with addiction. I found our chat and her presence tremendously reassuring as, despite enjoying myself to the fullest, I still felt on edge.
Soon it was our turn to visit the buffet and what a buffet it was. Screw drinking, I thought, as I demolished two plates of seafood, pasta, chicken, veg and all the trimmings. This was turning out better than planned, thanks to the company and the wonderful food. Still the pangs remained, especially on the walk back to the stadium. Without a beer in my hand I felt like a cowboy in a gunfight with a water pistol.
The pangs increased as the adrenalin kicked in going through security, into the bowels of the stadium. Looking at my ticket and following the section numbers round the concourse, beer was everywhere. People drinking beer. People buying beer. People selling beer. People discarding beer. Beer advertised on the screens. Beer, beer, beer. Yeah, yeah, beer!
But I was here. Ten days ago I didn’t know if I would be out of rehab and now I was sitting in my seat next to three wonderful ladies who kept me smiling.
Being constantly surrounded by people drinking was tough initially, exacerbated during scoring plays for both teams. It’s not the same, raising a bottle of water to the skies in celebration when Drew Brees throws a touchdown pass and the Superdome explodes with elation. Nor is it the same when you drown your sorrows with a good ol’ H2O as the opposing team breaches your defenses. But today I was running my own plays and although it wasn’t pretty it was effective so far.
As the game wore on, as the beers continued to be consumed by others and as the 9ers ran away with the game, I noticed something. Some people just aren’t becoming when they are drunk. Before you think, he just got that? No, I didn’t just get it there and then in Louisiana. Let’s just say that I witnessed it with new eyes and heard it with new ears.
Heading to the restrooms in the fourth quarter, I walked by countless people who should have called their drinking a couple of quarters earlier as evidenced by their stagger, disregard for others in their path and foul language. I have no qualms over a few blue words but when a sentence can’t be completed without one and children are nearby, a line should be drawn. Still, I witnessed my old self in some of my team’s inebriated fans. No halo for Saint Simon.
With the 9ers victory came the final pang – the post-match feel-sorry-for-yourself-in-defeat beer. Instead, I hopped back in the car with the three amigos who dropped me off where we started.
On the ride there, I turned to talk to Paris in the back.
“Paris, I have an apology to make.”
“When I was here earlier in the year, remember, I was supposed to come out to yours for tea and I didn’t show. I didn’t text you until the next day, and I think you were pissed at me and quite rightly so.”
I felt Lori, in the driver’s seat, looking at me and Nance, in the back, had nowhere else to look. As I turned crimson, I thought perhaps I should have brought this up earlier when we had a chance to talk alone, but it was too late now. A lump formed in my throat.
“I got drunk in my room, threw up, had a panic attack and went for more booze to feel better. I’m really sorry. I just couldn’t tell you then. You put on a nice spread, and I was too embarrassed to even text you. I felt like dirt the next day, just plain horrible and I’m sorry. That was when…”
“You don’t have to apologize, Simon, but thank you,” Paris put me out of my misery.
“I’m very sorry.”
Before we met for the game I didn’t think to apologize to Paris about the drunken episode in February. My mind was a million other places and I was thrilled to see her. When I remembered it, I felt an immediate need to make amends for my actions. It filled me with that calm feeling once again.
I hugged them goodbye, and thanked them for a lovely day. And it was as heartfelt a thanks as any I have bestowed. Without them the day would not have been a procession of smiles, laughter and lively conversation. It was just one day but it was its own form of redemption.
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.