After having a seizure and losing my driver’s license, I went right back to drinking again. There was no sense in that, but nothing seemed to make sense anymore. The COVID pandemic had turned the world on its head. People were dying. Businesses had closed. No one knew what was going to happen next. In only a few months I’d gone from exploring Angkor Wat in Cambodia to cowering in my Mom’s backyard. My anxiety was once again at panic attack proportions.
The problem was no matter how much I drank, it didn’t seem to be working anymore. For most of my life I’d been playing my own pharmacist, knowing just how much alcohol I needed to lift myself out of a fog of depression, or bring myself down from a peak of angst. Now it was like trying to put out a fire with kerosene. The more alcohol I tossed on it, the more the fire of anguish spread.
I would be the first customer at the liquor store every morning, pretending the rum I was buying was for later in the day, implying that I had a few friends coming over after work. Then I’d be back a few hours later, apologetically shrugging, as if I’d just talked to a few more friends. The woman behind the cash register didn’t care. Her family was making a small fortune off my race to rock bottom.
Some mornings I’d put off the inevitable for a few hours by taking a long walk on the bike trail. I’d go north, all the way to the bridge at Bolsa Chica, or south, to the river jetties at Newport, the whole time, my thoughts moving faster than my feet, as if my mind were a defiant child on a leash, and I was the frazzled parent being dragged behind.
Every afternoon I’d watch Magnum PI with my Mom, then head out to the camper and get into bed with a bottle, often while the sun was still high in the sky. If I managed to sleep at all, it was only to have nightmares of the worst magnitude. Whenever I caught a reflection of myself in one of the house mirrors, I couldn’t believe how bad I looked. There were black rings around my eyes and my face was as pale as a sheet.
One night I had a full-blown panic attack that caused me to leap out of bed in fright. I put on my shoes, went out the gate, and started walking towards the pier as quickly as I could. My idea was to throw myself off the end of it. I was hoping by the time I got there I’d come up with a better plan, but at the moment it was all I could think to do.
When I got to the pier it seemed oddly empty. COVID had shut it down for a few months, but even after it reopened there hadn’t been many visitors. People were playing it safe and staying at home. Once I got past Duke’s, I began to slow down. It felt like I’d recently entered a No Man’s Land, where I didn’t want to live anymore, but didn’t have either the courage, or the decency, to take myself out. All I really wanted was for the pain to go away, but my old buddy, alcohol, had turned on me and was only making things worse.
It was then I heard faint laughter, coming from the beach on the south side of the pier. In the distance, about three lifeguard towers down, I could see a group gathered around one of the firepits. One of them was on his feet, waving his hands over his head. It looked like he was telling a story. There was more laughter and then a round of applause.
I decided to go down and see what was going on, but just then everyone got to their feet, and a moment later began to disperse. I was too curious to not go down anyway, but by the time I got to Tower 7 there were only a few stragglers left, a man and a woman, standing beside a wall, talking and laughing. They noticed me and smiled over in recognition, which was strange, but it did give me the courage to approach them and ask about the group.
They told me they were a fellowship of kindred spirits who met every morning to battle the addictions that had robbed them of their humanity. Saturdays were their bonfire nights. They called themselves the Holy Ghost Tribe and Tower 7 was their home base. I don’t know why, but I found myself telling them I needed help, and then going into the whole story, about Vietnam, COVID, driving around in the desert, the quarantine in Buena Park, all the alcohol, the seizure, everything.
They just laughed and admitted that I looked pretty bad. But they’d heard worse, they added. Way, way worse. Stepping towards me, into the light of the bike path, I could see they had the same dark circles under their eyes that I’d noticed in the mirrors at home, and their complexions looked as bleached out as mine. It felt like I was meeting long-lost family members.
Phil and Shirley, as they introduced themselves, told me to come back the next morning, assuring me that I was at home now and could get the help I needed. The gathering started at eight. All I needed to do was show up and introduce myself, and then keep coming back. I promised them I would and thanked them at least a dozen times as they were leaving.
That night I still needed to drink a bottle of rum before lying down, but once I did, found there was something new keeping me awake, something totally unexpected, that I hadn’t felt in ages, and that was a powerful surge of wonder and hope, cutting through the darkness like a crackling neon light.