The Reason for Key West

(Published in the October 2013 issue of the AA Grapevine)

“Things happen for a reason.”

If you’re like me, you hear somebody say that about once a week. And if you consider what the phrase truly means…well, there could be as many interpretations of it as there are brands of Russian vodka.

To me, the phrase’s intention has to do with a combination of Karma and omnipotence. Past circumstances cause any event, whether great or small, but it’s all controlled by God (or Jehovah, or Yahweh, Allah, Sam Walton…whatever your personal moniker for the Supreme Being). In other words, everything that happens is a result of previous events, but all the events are under God’s control. (That’s all the explanation I’m good for. Already I’m leaking brain matter out my damn ears.)

On the morning of January 3, 2012, little did I know how meaningful those words would come to be. That day I boarded a plane in my hometown of Jackson, Miss., my eventual destination being Key West, Fla. I was going to visit Patrick, one of my oldest friends and a decade-long Key West resident, to a) get as wasted as I could, and b) run from the mountain of problems in my life.

But in hindsight, it seems as if God brought me to Key West for something a little different.

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Here’s the deal: I am, without any shadow of doubt, a colossal alcoholic. For the last 25 years or so, from the time I started filching leftover beers out of the back of my stepdad’s pickup truck when I was 16, alcohol has ruled me. And my buddy Johnny Barleycorn has been the source of alllllllll those aforementioned problems: DUIs. Jail. Rehab. Broken relationships. Lost jobs. Evictions. And on and on and on…

(Oh, yeah. I got beaten almost to death by a guy I met in a bar. There’s that too.)

I’ll start this one in medias res: I went home to Mississippi for the holidays last December, after an ugly breakup with my girlfriend. I’d moved in with her in Brooklyn the previous summer, and our entire six-month relationship was a disaster.

I’d told Patrick about a month before that I might be showing up at his place after the New Year, and he said that was fine; we’d seen each other only once in the twenty years since we left school. I’d given him the impression that I’d just be visiting, but honestly, I didn’t have anywhere else to go. Patrick and I had been roommates and close friends during college, and in addition to learning how to party like rock stars, we shared extremely similar outlooks on life. So he welcomed me with open arms…at first.

When I got there, the welcome party lasted four or five days. I don’t remember much about that time, other than hazy memories of making out with some chick I’d never met right there on the sidewalk in front of Pat’s house, and both pissing and puking on the couch where I passed out (none of which were new experiences).

But after our mini-vacation was over, Patrick came down to earth and went back to work at the strip club where he’s the featured DJ. (And stop right there. Despite what you might think, Pat works incredibly hard, no pun intended, with long, sweaty hours. Granted, the view ain’t bad, but I know he earns every damp, wrinkled dollar bill he makes.)

After surveying the territory for a bit, I decided I’d try and settle in Key West, and told Patrick as much. In my heart, though, all I wanted to do was get wasted–and stay that way. And Key West is the perfect place for that. There’s a bar on almost every corner. Shit, there’s a reason Jimmy Buffett owns both a nightclub and a music studio here–it seems like every single person in town, tourist or local, is searchin’ for their lost shaker of salt.

Patrick had a spare room, and he told me it was mine; all I had to do was find a job and start paying rent immediately. So I started “looking” for a job, which really meant walking down the block, then sitting on a bench for an hour, smoking cigarettes and watching people live their lives. That month-long period was one of the low points of my entire life; I was lonely, discouraged, frustrated, and running out of reasons to wake up in the morning.

Pat’s house was on Truman Street, half a block from the Duval Street strip. (If you’re unfamiliar, Duval Street is…well, if Bourbon Street and the San Diego beachfront boardwalk had a kid, it would be the Duval scene.) Even though some world-famous bars were mere feet away, I didn’t want to go to them. For one, because of my disability, when I get drunk I’m a friggin’ mess. I can’t walk, my speech is unintelligible, I piss myself every half-hour…you get the idea. So I didn’t want to be “that guy” in public.

More important, though, was that I was alone in my race to oblivion. I wanted to get as numb as I could, as fast as I could, and I didn’t want anybody else around to remind me of everything I was missing out on. So, as often as I could–or at least until my disability check was gone–after Patrick left for work I’d hobble down the street to the liquor store. Three hours or so later…nothingness.

It didn’t take long for Pat to get wind of what was going on. He had a small fridge on the back patio where he kept beer–unlike me, he could have two or three and call it a night–and more than once, I (sort of) remember getting an angry text from him when he got home from work to find the fridge empty, and me dead drunk in bed. (I’d crawled out there and drunk them all, of course.)

The worst thing that happened was the night he came home and found me passed out on the living room floor. I was lying in a puddle of my own urine, and there was a big hole in the wall where I’d fallen and hit it with my head.
The next day he told me that I had to get help, or I would probably die, and that I couldn’t live with him. At one point during that conversation, he wondered aloud what had happened to the happy, carefree, responsible John he’d known twenty years before…and it was like I felt something snap inside. (Probably my heart.) It was then I knew that after years and years of sinking, I’d finally found the bottom.

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Several days later, Pat took me to a place here in Key West called the Neece Center, run by the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition. The program had three phases, I learned: Phase One was basically a shelter for homeless men, with an emphasis on recovery from drugs and alcohol. (Phases Two and Three are continuations of that, are much nicer since they’re in apartments in another part of town, and are for guys who want or need some long-term help.) It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it was what I could afford. And it was a place to get sober–that’s all I cared about.

“Patterson House”–that was its nickname since it was on Patterson Street–was divided into two dorm-style sleeping quarters, with five bunk beds in each room, a common area, and a full kitchen. As I settled in, I was surprised to learn that my shelter-mates were from all walks of life. The first guy who befriended me was a previously homeless veteran named Jimmy, who had a gimpy leg and only one eye. Jimmy kept me sane those first few nights, telling me stories of how he got arrested in Miami for getting in a fight with a gang of Cuban midgets–I’m not making that up–and how many homeless people in South Florida die because they pick the wrong place to sleep and get eaten by gators.

Twice a week, we had house meetings to go over program rules and regulations for the new guys. (And there were always new guys. I divided the men there into two groups: those who truly had a desire to sober up and get their shit together, and assholes who just wanted a bed for a few nights until they got enough money for another bottle of Smirnoff.)

One of the program requirements–and in retrospect, here’s where I realized God was running the show–was that we attend daily 12-Step meetings. So it was on April 5 that I first walked through the door to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. I’d been to AA before, when I was in rehab about 15 years ago, so I knew the basics of the program, but it obviously hadn’t worked for me back then.

The meeting was one of five daily AA meetings in a clubhouse here in town called Anchors Aweigh. The clubhouse is an awesome facility, with several meeting rooms, a coffee bar, and a nice garden out back. I spent many hours in the garden, learning how to exist as a sober man.

I consider myself truly blessed that I had a lot of willingness to “work the program,” as we AA’s say, from the very start. For one, when I’d been home the previous Christmas, my mom had seen what sad shape I was in, and told me that I “needed to make some major changes in my life.” (Understatement of the century right there.) I was just sick of living the way I was living, so I was an open vessel.

I decided to swallow my pride and do as others suggested. I went to at least one meeting every day, and soaked up the information like a sponge. One of the central ideas that a lot of AA newcomers struggle with is that of a Higher Power. One thing I know now–and the AA literature repeats this ad finitum–is that pretty much without fail, not one person can stay sober on his or her own. God simply has to be a part of the journey.

Like others, that was my biggest obstacle to overcome. I had grown up in a small Southern town, where of course religion–specifically Southern Baptist Christianity–ruled everybody. I saw what I considered a lot of religious hypocrisy during my formative years, so as I got older I developed a disdain for organized religion of any flavor. I considered myself spiritual, but not religious at all.

And thank God, pun definitely intended, that spirituality is an AA cornerstone. I knew in my heart that I wanted to change, and I knew that God would help me do that. But I refused to pray to the “God” that had told me it was a sin to go to my high school dance, or that had allowed one of the church deacons to get a DUI on a Sunday morning with his wife and three kids in the car.

But it didn’t take me long to find God–MY God, who is not an invisible man in the sky, living on a cloud, with a list of things you should or shouldn’t do. Simply put, my God is the force of good that lives within each person. And once I came to that simple understanding, I was transformed. I found a fantastic AA sponsor, L_____, who has been helping me through the 12 Steps. Steps 4-8, especially, were particularly cathartic, since they involve laying out all your shortcomings, and being honest with yourself about your moral standing. Purging those demons made me whole again.

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Among other things, my sobriety has allowed me to move quickly through the FKOC program; I’m living in the third (and final) phase, which is a sober-living house I share with about fifteen other guys. I recently made some long-overdue changes to my Social Security Disability funding, and the process was extremely maddening. But I did it with the calmness of Buddha. The obsession to drink has been lifted; I spend my days with other sober, mature people…something that’s literally a first for me.

When I tell people I’m getting sober in Key West, the usual response is something like, “Sober in Key West, huh? Wow, good luck with that!!” I always correct them with some tried-and-true logic: Since drinking is so prevalent here, it’s out of necessity that the AA program is strong here, too.

That’s the logic part. Now let me get busy about faith: As I build my relationship with God–MY God, remember–I realize how little control I’ve had over my life. I used to think that all the bad stuff that’s happened to me, happened because I’m just a bad person. But you know what? I now know that’s not the case. Life’s a journey, and everything that happens–good AND bad–is a lead-in to now. Right now, as I sit here typing.

God built me to be a happy person. He helped me survive getting beaten almost to death. He’s allowed my life to be filled with almost non-stop laughter. And God had me drink uncontrollably for three decades so that I would come to Key West. I’m being healed here. And He put me here so that I can help people who are where I once was; so I can say, “That happened to me, and I got through it. You can too.”

But most of all, He’s made me feel proud when I declare: “My name is John, and I’m an alcoholic.”