He's out of his mind on pills because he's trying to quit drinking.
Why is he trying to quit drinking?
Because it had taken over his life in such a way that he was starting to lose his friends one by one.
Other things had started to happen too; bad things.
He was starting to call in sick to work at an alarming rate. And, being a mental health counselor, he was afforded many paid sick days to do so.
This did not help his situation.
He had been lying to his family and telling them he had been sober since February when, in actuality, he was dabbling here and there and just chalking it up to letting off some steam.
Steam is much hotter than the boiling water it is born from.
See, his mother had died a little more than half a year from then, and he was taking it quite badly.
One of the most brutal things he had ever endured was to hear his mother tell him--not long after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer--"Alex ... I don't have many regrets. But one regret that I do have is that I never got to see you as a sober man."
And did he stop then?
No. No he didn't.
He drank more and more and more and practically bashed a clear .750 or Smirnoff over his head every night.
And she died on January 11, 2007 and he became a total basket case.
She never did get to see him as a sober man. Not the way she meant it, anyway. Though he did his best to hide his problem--the problem he had had since he had his first beer at 15, and giggled and laughed and threw himself on the hood of his friends car, denting it in two places.
And in February of the year she died--twenty-two years after that first beer--he went on what he thought was going to be his last bender.
He wasn't done yet, not by a long shot.
He had an undisclosed connection for his pills: Oxycodone, Morphine, Dilaudid, Vicodin, Klonopin, Ativan, and the pill he is on in the pictures here: Focasil.
Focasill is like Ritalin, only stronger.
It's supposed to make hyper people calm.
If you're not hyper to begin with--if you are just looking to get off--Focasil will make you feel like you are on the down-slope of a roller coaster for a few hours and then you fall asleep and don't remember so much when you wake up.
And he didn't remember so much at all.
But he did go to the television studios in Springfield, Massachusetts to take part in a video shoot for a promotion that the local weekly was doing.
His band had won a "best of" contest and he was to represent them and answer a couple of questions.
The station was home to his favorite show in the world: the news. ABC 40 to be exact.
And he showed up late; sweaty and amped up like a pill-popping freak.
It still gives him chills to think about that time in his life because it seems like a different person's experience. But, as he cannot deny from the pictures and the video, it is him.
And before he left the studio, he asked the producer, who would later become the band's publicist, if he would take his camera and record him sitting at the desk that he stared at every night, on some kind of substance, before he either passed out or levitated himself to the bar to pick up other things.
A few days later, he would have the experience which would send him on the worst week of his life, excluding the time immediately following his mother's death.
He would get in trouble with his best friend who had trusted him to take care of his house while he was away.
He would start drinking again.
He would take a handful of pills.
He would get on his bicycle.
He would try to ride downtown--for what, he will never really remember.
And he would fall off, going probably twenty miles an hour, and the handlebars, on impact, would fully fracture four of his ribs on his right side and leave him panting and gasping on the ground for air and feeling like he was about to die.
Which, for all intents and purposes, he was.
Luckily, he'd crash near the liquor store.
He'd buy a bottle of Smirnoff--a liter this time--and slowly stumble his way home with his weight propped up on his bike and one arm clutching his side.
He'd spend the next ten days pouring a liter of vodka down his throat, and assuming that he had only bruised one of his ribs. The injury will probably stop making him gasp for air from the pain soon, he thought. Though he had never felt like this in all his life.
His landlord would come knocking on his door, asking him if he was alright.
"Of coure, I'm alright," he would say. "Why do you ask?"
And the landlord would explain to him that the people in the house across from him had called him to say that there were sounds coming from his apartment which sounded like someone was being tortured--screams and howls.
And he'd say he didn't know what they were talking about.
And he meant it.
And later, when he was screaming in pain to get up off of his bed to fill his glass with the vodka from the freezer, he would put two and two together and it would scare the shit out of him.
And he would pass out, wake up, and drink some more.
Three days after cracking four ribs on his right side, Alex would take part in a performance with his band in front of 1,500 people, and he wouldn't play very well. Although, at the time, he would swear that he did a fine job.
Shortly after the set, his very frustrated band mate and best friend would yell at him and tell him he was disappointed. Alex would argue that he was wrong. Then, his friend would turn around and walk away without another word. Alex would get in his car and drive to the liquor store, then home, and there he would pass out, wake up, and scare the neighbors with his agonizing screams.
And time just kept on ticking.
He doesn't remember this moment in time, any more than he remembers why his right side hurts so badly. It could have been a bike accident; it could have been a beating he got from some punks. He seriously had no clue. It was all just a wash of motion and then pain. It would only be after he picked his bike off of the ground in his back yard and see the scratches and the broken pedal that he would be totally sure.
And the ball of string kept rolling across the floor at a swift and steady pace.
He'd spend the next day calling people he knew who were either at the show, or performed at the show, or both, to ask them--quite matter-of-factly--if they thought he was too drunk and played badly.
All of them said he was fine.
But that was as far as anyone would go.
And so, for a long time, he thought he had played fine.
And the ball of yarn just kept unravelling and unravelling, faster and steadier.
And on the ninth day of those ten days, he would wake up, get in his car grimacing in pain and wondering when these bruised ribs would start to feel better, and drive to the package store and buy a liter of vodka. He would spend the whole day drinking. He would spend the whole evening drinking. He would drink until it was four in the morning and he would look at the clock, get up, walk to the bathroom, look in the mirror, and realize that he didn't feel drunk at all.
He took fifteen showers a day--short ones--because it hurt so bad to stand up for too long. But the hot water felt good and he didn't really understand why he was doing what he was doing.
He would make his bed thirty times a night, neatly and tightly each time, and then he would try to lay down. It would only last five minutes and he would get up, make the bed again, and do it all over again.
And then he would get up and take another five minute shower and make the bed.
And he thought he was going completely mad.
And, of course, he was.
His therapist had told him to write a "Dear John" letter to drinking. She told him that it is a first step to recovery.
After months of procrastinating, he did.
9/3/07 9 p.m.
This is almost worse than the last time. I fell off my bike. I think I bruised a rib. I've been in excruciating pain. Can't really eat. I haven't slept well. Was too drunk at the gig (though I know I played well). As a result, _____ won't talk to me. I look like hell. I"ve been OCD'ing with the showering (must have showered 10 times and I'm sure I'll do it a couple more tonight). I keep looking in the mirror. I don't know why. I missed both rehearsals last week. Haven't been to the gallery in too long and I just hope I don't get fired. Can't stop thinking about vodka. My throat is sore and I don't know why. This has got to stop. I am breaking up with booze. I can't stand it anymore. I love it so much and it always makes me feel so horrible the next day. We are officially done. 21 years done. I feel like a total ass. My legs are tingling. I threw a ton of food away that I have ignored for a week and a half. I am lying to my aunt to her face and I can't bear to tell her. There's a throb that happens above my rib that's really got me worried. I am $428 in arrears with the bank. I don't have rent and I don't know how I'm going to come up with it. Damn! This sucks. Goodbye booze. I want to feel better and I know I will but all I can think about is vodka. My hands are shaking. I don't want to check my blood pressure because I'm scared what it'll say. My pulse is throbbing and I feel like I'm going to have a heart attack. I hope I don't, but I'm not so sure anymore.
F. Alex Johnson
He wrote another note shortly after this one. It ended with the line:
... I don't want this to kill me, but as I type this I am actually thinking for the first time that I hope it's not read too soon by the police or my aunt. I'm worried. This is serious. This is a BIG problem. Fuck!
Both of these he left prominently displayed on his computer desk, just in case.
By the end of this last day he hadn't slept in over 72 hours.
He spoke to his friend about how he was afraid he'd have a heart attack if he fell asleep. His friend told him he'd be available all night and any time in the future if he needed him to bring him to the hospital.
The sun came up again and he started to cry.
He took the last shower of the day before he put his clothes on.
He went to work for a few hours because he had neglected his job for almost two weeks.
In the middle of his shift he would call a friend and ask him about the 12 step group he belonged to. His friend said to come by and not think about it; just come.
And he did.
And he spoke that night.
He said how he hadn't slept in three days, and how he had fallen off of his bicycle--or so he thought--and how he felt like he needed to go to the hospital but he wasn't sure if they were going to admit him. He said that he had a lot of responsibilities that he had to honor.
He couldn't risk having them keep him there.
He didn't have that kind of time, what with his busy schedule and all.
The people he met there told him he just had to go to the emergency room and face whatever consequences there might be. They said he needed help.
And they were right.
He left that meeting with a couple of phone numbers and a sense of well being that he hadn't felt in years. He felt like he was finally doing the right thing. He felt like he was doing the thing he knew he should have done years ago. He felt that he was doing the thing that his mother had wanted him to do for years and years. She knew, however, that he wouldn't get much out of it if he did it for her. He had to do it for him.
And he finally was.
He drove to the hospital after that meeting and they took his pulse.
It was 154/109.
And he felt that familiar feeling in his right side. It felt like a little bubble that would form and then release and give him a sharp pain for a few seconds. He'd shift his ample weight around and sometimes it would hurt less; sometimes more.
It had been happening every five minutes since the accident.
He knew it wasn't a good sign.
But, he didn't know exactly how bad it was until the doctor showed him the x-rays.
"Well ... it looks like you've broken four ribs. But, you should consider yourself a very lucky man, Mr. Johnson. Any one of them could have punctured your lung."
"Um ... broken? ... four ... ?"
"Yes sir. There's not much we can do for you except give you a prescription for some Percoset."
Finally I have a real need for painkillers.
Life is so unfair.
He asked the emergency room doctor about the little popping sensation he felt in his right side.
"That's your ribs clicking against each other ... where they were broken."
And it all made sense. The constant showering, the agonizing pain, the strange clicking sensation.
And he took two pills and went to sleep, the only way he was able to: sitting upright on his couch, with pillows flanking him on either side.
And he woke up--actually woke up--from a few hours sleep and he wrote another note.
I finally went to the doctor's after my first meeting which was great. I was afraid he'd keep me there to detox but he didn't. What he did do was tell me I had 4 broken ribs. I have no recollection of the accident which is so sad. I think it was a bike accident, but I could have been beaten up. I plan on going to as many meetings as I can. I had to call my aunt and tell her I have been lying to her. She didn't scream and shout. She was just disappointed. She said, "I can live with an alcoholic. I just can't live with a liar."
I had to sleep sitting up last night. Thankfully I actually did get some sleep, until ______ woke me up. I'm in rough shape. I had to pay $30 for 40 Percoset. They see to be working, but they make me sleepy. I've never taken them because I had to; just for fun. How sad.
I will get better.
I have to.
It's been a busy year for our hero. From that day in September he made it almost three full months without drinking.
Everything else, however, was fair game.
That is not how a person reverses the madness that is substance abuse.
A person reverses the madness by confrontation and fearlessness, addressing all the trouble points and making positive choices regardless of whether we feel comfortable about them. Because, for those who fall prey, the desire to use when we know it's destructive, lives in our minds, in our hearts, and in our blood. And it will only leave us if we remove it forcefully.
The pain may be but a headache in the morning that feels a bit too familiar, or it could be a hiccup in our ribcage that we've never felt before and scares us so badly we can feel what we could only describe as the slow, steady, clutches of death start to pull us down.
And so we leave a note.
Or we make a phone call.
And we hope someone answers before it's too late.
Thanks for reading.
And yes, this story does have a happy ending.
As I go to bed tonight I am one day away from eight months of complete sobriety.
And time just keeps on ticking.
And though my mother may not have lived long enough to have seen me as a sober man, I can surely say that I have.