My name is Vic Dillinger . . .
. . . . and I'm an alcoholic
There are many not so good places to be during a major holiday: a Turkish prison, having dinner with the George W. Bush Fambly o' Idiots.
But for a whole new perspective on life and what it means to be alive, spend Christmas in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.
Portrait of a Young Squid
I come from a long line of practicing alcoholics.
Recent science has determined there is a genetic pre-disposition (not a certainty but a pre-disposition) for children of alcoholics to become rummies themselves.
Thus, I took up the mantle of practicing my alcoholism at an early age. And much like my predecessors, I failed as well.
I learned from him, though – I learned to do exactly the opposite of what he did with his life. As a result I was fairly successful at an early age, and found work rewarding both financially and mentally (as long as I was doing something I loved). He, on the other hand, had dropped out of the work force by the age of 32 to devote all his time to being a booze hound. I swore I’d never be that guy.
But in the end, I became that guy.
Alcohol and I have a genuine love affair that transcends time and space. It has always delivered on its promise (unlike other illicit substances I have ingested that merely wasted my time – fortunately, I wasn't paying for the crap). Booze, however, never failed me.
I ranted against both parents for smoking cigarettes (which I do now), but particularly howled about my dad’s drinking up the household money. Too many times I’d awaken in winter to find our gas had been cut off for non-payment or the electricity was off or the phone was out.
Freezing was one thing, but there were too damn many times there was no food, either. I remember one fine week where we ate nothing but boiled barley (from a box) because that’s all that was in the house.
My idiot mother kept leaving the guy and going back, and she finally got up the stones to leave for good. I was about 12 when this happened. Long story short, I smoked a little weed as a young teen, but really liked the booze, drinking off and on throughout high school, and getting an alcohol-related misdemeanor conviction (before the age of 18).
Despite being an alcoholic, I have the good fortune of having a genius IQ. This meant I was a straight-A student who took advance-level college-prep courses and was able to skate through high school, work a job in a funeral home, and qualify for a serious boatload of scholarships, all while being drunk half the time. I also tested out of my freshman year of college, so when I walked in the door of my university, I started as a sophomore. It was the effortlessness of this life that led me to believe, falsely, that I (unlike my dad) had a handle on the sauce.
By this time I had already switched from beer to rum as a beverage of choice, then settled on gin with tonic as my favorite potable. My wife and I both had jobs, no kids, and a freedom to do as we pleased. I’d come home from work, my wife and I would cook together, we’d eat, and I'd have a few drinks. Sometimes we'd go out at nights. Sometimes I got drunk, sometimes I didn’t.
Later on, after divorcing that woman, moving to a new city, and sharing my boudoir with a few more babes, I got married again. I was riding pretty high at that point, making excellent money, had a house built, bought another one as a back-up in another state.
My newer wife didn’t care for drinking (her dad drowned when she was five while he was loaded). So, there was no booze in the house, and I didn’t really miss it so much. Sure, I drank on company outings or whatever (vendors take you out for the wine-and-dine), and yeah, sometimes I’d come home loaded and she’d nag, but no big deal.
[An interesting side note: despite my lack of judgment I have just been plain lucky. I never got any kind of STD and never got any woman pregnant. My "No Fatties" rule is apparently so deeply ingrained that it has kept me from waking up with two tons of fun after a night of drunken sex. Similarly, I have never blearily awakened next to a coyote-ugly woman, either.]
I never missed work. That was the one point of principle I stood firmly on – my dad didn’t work, but dammit, I sure as hell was going to. If I was feeling crummy from too much bingeing or seriously hungover, it didn’t matter. I went to work.
Most importantly: I am eternally grateful I never injured or killed anyone during any of the times I was driving drunk.
The Dark & Downward Spiral
Mental illness in any of its many forms can strike at any time. It also still carries a stigma for the sufferer and his or her family members.
For me, everything fell apart seemingly all at once. In late 2003 I started feeling listless, unfocused, and lethargic. My joie de vivre took a hike; if it weren’t for the fact I had a job that both paid me well and for which I was responsible for others I wouldn’t have bothered getting out of bed. In fact, many weekends I did not. I didn’t know what was wrong.
On a business trip to Florida in late 2004 I discovered something wasn't right, however. It was twilight on the East Coast; I was standing on shore facing the Atlantic Ocean, and all of a sudden I was overwhelmed by a complete and inconceivably crushing sense of loneliness and despair. I have never been lonely in my life – I had been alone from time to time, but never lonely (I don’t really like the company of other humans, except women, and generally only then if I’m sleeping with them or have already had sex with them).
So, I went home and didn’t say anything to my wife about that weird despondency that had overcome me. A woman I worked with, however, was on psych meds for various reasons, so I went to her and described what happened. She told me I was depressed. I lost it – I had no respect for depression. I didn’t get it, and I thought anybody who whined around and complained about being depressed was a weenie and just needed to snap out of it.
The thing is, though, you don’t snap out of it. I flatly refused to see a doctor. Finally, my wife convinced me to see one. After telling him what was going on, he said it sounded like chronic depression. He prescribed Zoloft. I took it for two months, but still had all the same problems as before (suicidal, loss of appetite, couldn't sleep or sleeping too much and worst of all my sex drive was down the dumper). I was sure I could beat this thing by myself. So, when the Zoloft ran out, I switched to vodka.
Skipping ahead to 2008 I was divorced by then, living alone in my rather large home (just me and a pet bunny), and I was going nowhere. I was still depressed, not medicated, working a crummy job with no relief in sight (recession was in full swing, and although it had never taken me more than a couple of weeks to find decent employment before, somehow, nothing was happening economically).
I drank over a liter of vodka a day, straight from the bottle, no chaser. It went down like water. I knew this was not good. Yet, when I tried to stop drinking, I'd end up shaking so badly I couldn't even hold a pen steady enough to write my name. I could not carry a full glass of water without slopping it all over the place. So, I'd go back to the vodka. Now I was at the point, the really bad point, where I no longer wanted to drink but I had to just to function. In early January 2009, I went four days without eating, and just stayed in my house smoking cigarettes, drinking vodka, and drinking water (when I remembered). I ended up in the hospital for several days. I didn't care. I got dosed up with Valium, and got released. Knowing I couldn't afford my house, I called my bank, told them to take it, and moved away. I racked up more DUIs, spent more time in jail, and was going downhill fast. Yet, I would not ask for help either with the depression or the alcoholism. [And I knew I was an alcoholic. I'd even tell people that. Most alkies deny there's anything wrong; I never did.]
Early November 2010 I was driving from another state, drunk. Roughly 2 AM about a mile from where I was staying, the front end of the vehicle I was driving collapsed. The friction at that speed caused the tires to catch afire. I pulled off the road, got out, saw the fire, and decided this was the best way to go out, in a blaze. I hated being alive. I got back into the burning vehicle, locked the doors, and waited to die.
Unfortunately, some do-gooder called an ambulance and the police. I didn't get to burn to death. In fact I was completely unscathed. I went to jail, but because of the circumstances (I told them I had willfully got back into the burning wreck) I was packed off to a nuthouse for a few days for observation. That was great. Pumped full of Valium, got weaned off the booze a little, got to sleep and eat well, no stress. But, alas, all good things come to an end, and I was transported back to jail when it became clear I was not going kill myself.
After this latest court trial, I realized this was enough. I now had six DUIs under my belt (along with some other offenses) and had been in and out of jails in several states from 1982 to 2010, and it was time to quit. I found out when I was in the loony bin that the same institution had a residential rehab program. I figured it couldn't hurt. Meanwhile, I also went to a doctor who prescribed Prozac. So, I started taking Prozac for the depression, and prepped myself for 30 days of residential rehab.
Rehab Ain't NASCAR
The program I entered may differ in the minor details from what is offered elsewhere, but they all fundamentally do the same thing.
I didn't know what to expect when I arrived. We could not smoke (as the facility was owned and operated by the State, and there is no smoking on state property). We were not allowed cell phones – I didn't care about that as I hate the phone and rarely talk on it anyway.
Straightaway, though, I got into an argument with the admitting administrator during the intake interview. It was a philosophical one: she asked if I believed alcoholism was a disease, and I truthfully replied, "No." Apparently, that wasn't the correct answer. These days, alcoholism is classified as a disease – I don't see how that can be. It didn't happen to me for no reason, and I was not coerced into being a drunk. So, we went around about that. I hate the "disease" concept of alcoholism – it tends to absolve the individual of responsibility for his/her behavior. I will never embrace that theory – people with cancer have a disease; drunks choose to drink.
The thing that surprised me mostly, however, was the fact you were pretty much left to your own devices with respect to your treatment program, and you were an active participant in outlining treatment goals. I always imagined rehab as being the sort of thing you walk in and a team of specialists swarm all over you like a NASCAR pit crew and fix you up. Rehab ain't NASCAR. In fact you as an individual are heavily invested in your recovery. The counselors, psychiatric personnel, etc., on hand are there to evaluate and guide you, but it is up to you to make it work or not.
I was assigned a "buddy" (you can only imagine how loathsome I found this). I had to stick with that guy for three days (he was a drunk like me who had gotten there the week before). He showed me around, where the coffee was, where I would sleep, that sort of orientation thing.
I was assigned a counselor (himself a former alkie who then took up social work, got a degree, and worked in that place). Most of the counselors and case workers (not all) were former drunks, or dopers, or some form of addict (one woman bravely reported she had been a sex addict. I thought that was heroic of her. And she had been a real sex addict, too, and not one of those guys who claims to be one because he got caught with his pants down. She had the low self-esteem, and all the self doubts that go along with a true female sex addict).
This particular program (as I believe almost all of them are) was based on the most widely known 12-step program of all time, Alcoholics Anonymous. Because there were dopers on hand the Narcotics Anonymous program was used as well. I didn't care for AA as it is way too touchy-feely. Also, they have that whole "embrace a Higher Power" concept I absolutely cannot get my head around.
However, the good thing about AA was the group dynamic. I have never been a fan of working in a group or with a group on anything. Groups working on a task are never as creative as their most creative member. So, I hate groups. However, I liked this one – it was one of the rare times in life where I never had to explain myself to anybody. They were all in the same boat, all addicted to one thing or another (smack, crack, meth, whatever). AA is a method with a proven track record of success. But frankly, it wasn't for me wholeheartedly, although I did gain some insight from it.
Rehab is not a competition. I would hear some guy say he'd downed a half-pint of peppermint schnapps the morning he got arrested for DUI, and I would think to myself, "What a lightweight" (only in slightly different words – you probably can guess). Some kid said he drank two beers and wrecked his motorcycle: my thought was "Girlie man-boy!" (in different words – you can probably guess this one, too).
Then I realized that it wasn't about who was the most hard-core (the junkies and meth heads – with their needles, meth pipes, and jack-o-lantern smiles – made me look like a wuss comparatively speaking). It was about that person's reaction to his or her substance of addiction, and what it did to him or her.
It was an interesting demographic in rehab as well. Addiction apparently has no favorites. Although I was one of the few college graduates I was fortunately not unique. The social strata was well-represented, but I did notice one thing. Regardless of whether the addict was male or female, the drunks were smarter and older than everybody else there. The junkies were smarter than the meth heads. The meth people and crack users were the stupidest bunch I'd ever met, not because of their meth and crack use but because they were just plain stupid.
I surprised myself by beginning to care about the recovery of some of the other addicts. Some of the people there were in the program by court order (I was one of only two there voluntarily). Anyone was free to leave at any time (sacrificing his/her certificate of completion if aborted). The guy I first had to "buddy" with started losing it the second week (wanting a drink), and he packed his stuff to leave. I can proudly say I had a hand in talking him into toughing it out (he only had a couple of weeks left).
Also, they could throw you out for rules violations. So, discipline for some was a problem. They separated the men from the women for sleeping and interactions. We only got around our female counterparts in group discussions – in the past they'd had some sexual misconduct among the inmates, so it was better and less disruptive to keep us apart. Get caught messing with the femmes, and you were outta there.
My tongue was hanging out for a cigarette by Day 3. One of the junkies had sneaked in a pack of smokes at some point, and he and two other guys would smoke in the shower stalls. For me, this bromantic activity of sharing coffin nails in the men's shower just wasn't gonna happen, no matter how badly I wanted that cig. It also wasn't worth risking ejection. And both men and women were thrown out after being caught smoking or taking other drugs (that visitors smuggled in for them).
One of the truly important things this facility did was bring in a nutritionist to speak about proper diet. Most of the inmates (male and female) were obviously malnourished upon arrival. Meals were all state regulated for content, and they had fresh fruit available at all times, something most of these people never bothered with until they got into rehab. Many of the young women there were stick-figures, smoking meth or crack and not eating. Several of the meth chicks would have been very babe-a-licious with a few pounds thrown on them. It pleased me to no end when I got ready to leave that one girl had put on some much-needed and healthy weight while she was there.
Finally, the younger people there provided moments of amusement via their inability to function as fully formed humanoids. I had the supreme joy of teaching an 18-year-old kid how to use a coin-operated washing machine. I taught another guy how to think critically about what he was hearing daily in sessions, since he was the kind to believe almost anything (Bigfoot is real, Elvis is alive, that sort of thing). I had to explain to a third guy there is no such thing as white supremacy and that he was an idiot.
Christmas in Rehab
This particular program in 2010 experimented with letting the inmates out, released into the care of their wives or husbands or families, for a couple of days at Christmas. It meant you had to tack on an extra two days to your rehab stay. Most people wanted to go, but not me. I didn't have anywhere I wanted to be. I was perfectly happy to spend my Christmas in rehab. I thought I was making some progress, and I didn't want the distraction (considering the shaking had stopped a couple of weeks before – finally!!). Nope, I was all happy to spend that holiday in rehab reading a book, and going over some of my class notes. I took a nap, watched a movie on the tube, and me and another guy sat around shuckin' the jive for an hour or so.
Within recent memory it was the least stressful and most enjoyable Christmas I'd ever had. I was getting re-acquainted with my brain, the Prozac had taken away constant longing for death, and I was on the road to recovery. It was a time for some serious introspection, and I realized maybe there was something left worth living for after all.
For alkies there is no "recovered" only "recovering" in the AA terminology. Since getting out of rehab on New Year's Eve day 2010, I have not been to an AA meeting. I am not one of those guys who counts his days of "sobriety", either. The only reason I can remember the date I last had a drink is it also coincides with the date I last went to jail. If not for that, I couldn't tell you when I last drank booze. As far as the sauce goes, as a free man in a free society I can take it or leave it. I choose to leave it. I don't miss it.
My holiday in rehab saved my life. I haven't had a drink since November 7, 2010.
My name is Vic Dillinger, and I am an alcoholic.
Author’s Update: In the spirit of transparency and honesty I need to report that my sobriety, as noted above, came to an end in 2013. I started hitting the sauce again pretty hard, only this time I became one of those “black-out” drunks, the kind who can’t remember what they did when loaded. I also became violent—I used to be a “fun” drunk but turned into a mean one, just like dear ol’ Dad.
So, late last year, with much at stake and sick of being a rummy, I made the decision to join (and embrace) Alcoholics Anonymous and its lifestyle philosophy. Interestingly enough, I find that it is working. I haven’t had a drink since December 14, 2015, and I don’t think about booze at all except when doing something like this. And it has paved the way for me to go on and function more productively.
Thus, I’ll end with “My name is Vic Dillinger, and I’m still an alcoholic”.