They all stare at me as they sing. Some of them mean it, I can tell. They’ve been here long enough and they know how I’m feeling right now. Some stare at me but don’t see me, their eyes as glassy and unfocused as mine must be. Most of them are off-key. But hey, beggars can’t be choosers, and drunks are lucky to get any sort of birthday celebration at all.
I stare awkwardly down at the table and try to remember the last birthday I was actually sober. It certainly wasn’t this one.
I had planned to stop drinking by forty and if I had, I wouldn’t be spending the big four-oh in the hospital’s involuntary admittance program, listening to a bunch of strangers sing happy birthday instead of my family.
They all stop singing at different times and on different notes and I try to smile my thanks. My lips are dry and cracked. There’s no cake. Nobody hands me a cigar. I could use a drink.
The first day in rehab, not much happens. My first day in this program was my fifth or sixth first day—I’ve lost count at this point. You get the good drugs and you’re groggy and lethargic throughout orientation. It’s almost like being drunk. Almost.
Then you get sick.
I woke up on my second day with diarrhea and nausea, worse than any hangover I’ve ever had. It’s almost worth staying drunk forever just to avoid this moment, this feeling…but I guess that kind of thinking is what got me here in the first place.
I was depressed, too. That lasts a while.
Today, my birthday, has been a little better, but it might not be completely better for a long time. Maybe ever. I’ve done some damage. To myself. To my wife … my kids. Those poor kids. Thank god they’re still so small but Mary … oh, Mary.
I’ve been drinking since I was a teenager, since I first started performing on stage and my hands shook too much to hold a guitar. Now I’m forty. There’s no changing what I’ve already done, but maybe I can stop it from happening again. I have to stop it from happening again or I risk losing everything—my family, my friends, my life…
Because drinking will kill you. Rehab has taught me that. Watching myself waste away has taught me that.
You do it hard enough, for long enough, it will turn your body into something you never imagined it could be. A gaunt, pale, wispy, trembling version of yourself. A ghost of the person you once were, complete with translucent skin, a haunting cry, a poor memory, and most likely a lot of unfinished business.
Right after breakfast, a big black man named Ishmael taught us about fear. Apparently, I’m afraid to change and I’m afraid of who I am without drugs and alcohol. Sounds about right. I don’t actually remember the last time I wasn’t afraid and I’ve never liked being myself…my father didn’t much like me being myself either. But that’s a story for another therapy session.
Every bad situation in my life that caused me to drink only happened because I was too afraid to change it. How’s that for self-awareness?
Another speaker talked about addicts as misdirected artists. Now that’s definitely me. I spent years drinking before shows, to kill the anxiety, preparing to put on an act, change my personality, make people like me…somewhere along the way, I got lost in that act.
I got to see my family after dinner. My little girl’s voice is the sweetest music I know, and I’ve played a lot of music.
When I saw her, I picked her up and tossed her into the air. She’s older than her little brother but still lighter and she squealed as she left my hands for the briefest of moments. When she came back to me again, my arms shook and my legs almost gave out beneath me. In my head, her happy squeal had turned into the panicked scream I heard the last time I was in the car with her.
Nobody noticed my legs falter and I slid easily into the chair behind me. I pulled her to my chest, remembering the sound of tires squealing and her shriek when my car jumped the curb. Her seat, the seat I had forgotten to strap in, flew forward and hit the dash.
I’d been drinking. It’s shameful to admit even in my head but it’s the truth. I drank, I smoked, and then I got into a car with my beautiful little girl. She was okay, thank God, but nobody else was.
I looked up and met Mary’s eyes. Mine were filled with tears and I was shaking as I held my baby. I whispered into her hair, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” In that moment, looking into my wife’s eyes over the heads of our children, I knew she was seeing not only the car accident that could have been so much worse, but everything I’d ever done to hurt her or the children—the affairs, the bounced checks, the stealing, the hiding, the yelling…my face burned with shame and hot tears dripped down my cheeks.
With everything I had, I tried to make Mary see just how sorry I was for everything. It wasn’t me, I pleaded silently. None of it was me.
The problem was, it was me. All of it. The alcohol may have made me do it, but I chose to drink. I set my chin on my daughter’s head with a shaky sigh.
My wife just smiled sadly.
It’s much too early to think about forgiveness.
The incident shook me, but it was a reminder of who I’m doing this for. It’s only been a few days, but I think I can do it this time. I want to do it. I want to get back to being me, whoever that is. I think that will be the hardest part in all of this. Just being myself. Accepting all my faults just as they are, recognizing my strengths … if I have any.
But first, I just need to get back to being human. How do people do that without drinking?
When everyone left the facility and I was alone again in my chair, I felt depressed. Lost.
Most of my days here, I end up feeling lost.
I think I’ve felt that way most of my life.
Happy Birthday to me.