Truth and Consequences

     I took my first drink at the age of eight. This seems like a rather young age but considering the European culture of my family, I never thought this to be unusual. Throughout my childhood family get togethers were comprised of first and second generation, Irish, Polish and Ukrainian happy-go-lucky sorts who chose New Jersey as a home. My sisters, cousins and I enjoyed life in the 80's knowing that someday we would grow up, live out our dreams and the good life as well. Our parents acted silly sometimes after drinking but there were no apparent consequences. The weekends were fun for everyone and nobody wanted them to end.

     Growing up, I always felt unchallenged and bored. I would often do things to solve my curiosity of the unknown. One day when in the eighth grade on a school night, I snuck a half bottle of red wine from my parents liquor collection and downed it. I was a scrawny kid and by the next morning was violently ill. My mother came into my room and didn't see the vomit on the carpet which I artfully concealed with boyhood clutter. She drove me to school and insisted I wasn't going to play sick. I lasted less than two hours into the day and was sent to the nurse's office then home. Much to my surprise I got away with it and suffered my first hangover for two days. At the age of thirteen, I swore I would never drink again and meant it!

     My freshman year of high school I was sent to a Military Academy outside of Philadelphia. It seemed like a place to offload troubled rich kids who lacked discipline. The penalty for drugs was expulsion and if caught drinking you would rather be expelled. I was lucky then and remained that way for years. I dabbled with drugs from time to time into my adult life but never took a liking to them. The next three years of my education was spent in a regular high school with occasional parties and drinking excursions to the Jersey Shore during school days. I was a normal teen thinking booze in moderation was legal, excepted by society and encouraged by peers.

     At the age of eighteen, I enlisted into the Army. The drinking age was debatable, either 18 or 21. It never really matter because I initially had clerical job that included making military ID's. I thought I was brilliant until I got into trouble for buying booze for my fellow soldiers who were under age. If I would have given my ID with my correct birth date on it, I would have been spared additional grief. The military and civilian authorities around bases were sympathetic those days and it wasn't really a consequence, just bad luck. During university and my early work years there were more bad luck episodes like this. There was always a way out of trouble if I sought it.

     In AA meetings and literature there is reference to crossing an “invisible line. “ This is when someone changes into being an alcoholic. I can't pinpoint exactly when I crossed the line. In my late twenties, I found myself in a miserable marriage, working a job I hated and living in place with very cold weather which I despised.  Looking back it is easy to see that my problems had simple solutions but found an easier way to cope with them by using alcohol to defer them to a later time or until they just went away someday. I had become lazy in coping with life.

     This adopted coping mechanism carried into my flying career and came with a price. I got fired from one job, quit before terminated by another and eventually found myself at one that decided to fix me. My introduction to recovery began five years before my last drink. I didn't want to believe I was an alcoholic but by now realized that one debacle after another had to be more than bad luck. I am an airline pilot and fly airplanes damn it!  The possibility of being an alcoholic is not acceptable to me!  Perhaps I can learn how to control my drinking from other pilots and not do AA with the real alcoholics.

     Then came a time of desperation that required immediate action. I was being investigated for a drinking episode that involved work so I finally wandered into a Birds of A Feather meeting looking for an escape. Many of the stories told were painfully similar to mine but still believed that I was not that far gone. If I needed a solution of abstinence, this would be the answer.  Sure, I was an alcoholic but not like them!  I quit my present job which I made another mess of to avoid a second termination. I managed to get a good job in Europe and worked there for a couple of years. During this time I crossed another invisible line. Things I promised myself that would never happen happened and the stories heard in those Birds meetings gradually became my own.

     I didn't have any problems with my European airline but resented them for the terms and conditions of my upgrade so then decided to look for another job and found one with a reputable US carrier. I started to have problems at home. For a pilot who is an alcoholic, his job and flying is coveted and is often the last thing he will jeopardize. Coincidentally, one of the fellows who I met at those meetings years before works for my new airline and is involved in it's recovery community. The aviation world is small and my past finally came back to haunt me. This time it was going to be different. I intended not to get drunk with my colleagues and create a facade of abstinence to keep the recovery people/HIMS Committee at my airline off my case. I would sometimes have a drink or two with my crew but would go back to my room and have some more.

     I thought I knew enough about alcoholism that I could contain, control and compensate by using drinking time-lines, exercise, sleeping aids and etc. The truth is that alcoholism is a progressive illness and sometimes very slow in nature. Over two years went by with no problems at work at all however my personal life was falling apart at an alarming rate. On an overnight, I showed up in a hotel lobby for a trip not intoxicated but terribly wrecked from a binge. I did not know at the time that the captain I was paired with recovered from alcohol through help of our airline. He recognized I had a problem. I could have been fired but was given a generous opportunity to recover instead.

     My actual recovery started with an evaluation from a company doctor who drew some blood. It was discovered that my liver GGT was high and alcohol was detected in my blood from the night before. One might think that it is pretty stupid to drink the day before an alcohol evaluation but this is how I coped with fear and believed my liver could process a few drinks out in ten hours. Hours after the evaluation, I received a call from our HIMS Committee Chairman with the results of my evaluation. I was expecting this call of doom and knew this was one mess I could not get out of. By now, I was an experienced escape artist when it came to trouble but for the first time in my life there was no way out. It was time gave up the fight to keep drinking and finally admit defeat.

     The next day I was given a plane ticket to treatment. This was the start of learning how to approach life's problems with logic rather than chemicals. A needed basic skill that had eroded over the years. It took time to realize that problems I would drink over caused me alcohol induced problems that I remedied by drinking more and more to cope. It's been over two years since I was freed from what seemed like a death spiral and could never even imagine then how good life could be today.

     Today I remain abstinent by help I received by others. I would not try to do it on my own even if I could. It is so much easier and enjoyable to quit drinking with a little help.

Richard P.
Dec 2011


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