Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Day Three Thousand Six Hundred and Fifty Three . . . The Plan.

I had a plan.

Oh man, oh man, did I have a plan.

I was going to get my shit together and clean up my act. After twenty years of debauchery which began in high school--a lifestyle which kept evolving and growing slowly but surely from teenage experimentation to full-on, ugly, self-destructive and morally compromising co-dependence--I was going to kick it all.

I was going to enter an outpatient program in Florence, Mass (just a couple miles from where I was living in Northampton, and coincidentally where I live now) and get on some craving-reducing medication, clear out the old liquor cabinet (read: freezer) and start living life better and cleaner.

That was my plan.

Hell, I had only been in the habit of ruining gig after gig with my band at the time. To the point where I had to be physically taken off stage at one show in Boston and made to watch the quintet which was now four people work their way through songs I co-wrote and played an important role in. I don't remember riding home in my friend Paul's car, leaving my car parked outside the club near Fenway Park overnight. I barely remember waking up the next day and--finding my car gone--figuring out what had happened and sheepishly taking a cab to the New Bedford bus terminal where I somehow got to Boston and on a Green Line and found my way to the club--in the middle of December--and got my keys back from the bartender (a good friend, Matty C) who I promptly asked to spot me a drink as I had spent my last dime on the subway (he told me he was broke, thank goodness, and couldn't help with the booze). I had shown up to the show in a tattered and oversized Minnie Mouse tee shirt and sweatpants and Steve, my bandmate, made me ask to borrow a staff shirt from the club. Then, after realizing I didn't have a guitar to play, making friends with the opening band and getting them to agree to lend this guy, who could barely stand, a guitar for a 90 minute set which turned out to be--for me--only about ten minutes long. Thank God I don't remember much of that because that kind of stuff is just so hard for me to believe I lived through. But I know it happened and I remember how I felt--cold, alone, but connected to the one thing that made everything else seem okay: alcohol.

I had only spent a week continuously fucked up at my aunt's house while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery. This was a time I was supposed to be taking care of her cats (one with a very serious medical condition requiring eye drops) and watching the house while at the same time pilfering the pill collection I had amassed from the remnants of a family friend who had recently passed away. There was no need on her part to feel like she had to get rid of the Klonopin. I mean, she knew that her nephew liked to drink too much and smoke some weed, but he didn't know anything about pills, right?

And on Christmas Eve I had only waited for 45 minutes at the wrong hospital entrance to pick her up--the reason being because I had a head full of those little green devils. When I finally rolled slowly up to the right ramp and found her sobbing hysterically and she saw my face with my sunken eyes and blotchy-red skin, that was a horrible moment to have to remember. I can almost still hear her scream, "Oh Alex, what is wrong with you? You look like a monster!"

And when we sat face to face later that day, and I admitted I was taking pills on top of the alcohol I remember her getting madder and madder and seeing her head shaking violently, finally ripping open the top of her pants to reveal her wound from her surgery and screaming, "I have half my guts taken out and spend a week in the hospital trying to save my life and you cope by popping pills to get through it all?"

I don't remember anything about Christmas Day that year. Not one goddammed thing.

All I remember thinking--in general--was how much easier all of this would be to deal with if I had some vodka.

But I told her I had a plan.

I was going to start right after Christmas. Shortly after Christmas I was going to get it all going and try this thing for real.

I had even called that outpatient clinic in Florence and made an appointment to begin the course. I wanted to learn more about how to live life on life's terms.

But before all of that happened I was going to go out for one last night.

I was going to spin the wheel and see where it landed and make this one last night make up for however many nights I was going to stay sober for in the future.

So on the evening of December 26 I picked up a .750 of Smirnoff--my all-time favorite--and drank half of it (in a rocks glass with ice, nothing else) in about an hour.

I called up my buddy, Paul, and had a short conversation with him. We had been friends at that point for twenty years and he had been sober for a while. I shared with him some of the worst of my problems. We were in it together and he understood.

I told him that I was going to get my shit together the following week but--as I swept up a handful of pills from my table into my hand and brought them to my mouth--I was going to go "out with a bang" or something to that effect. I think I even made an audible "glug glug" noise on the phone with the cold-as-ice vodka as I let the pills slide down.

I don't remember what he said to me. I wish I did. I'm sure he tried to warn me against driving--or walking for that matter. I'm sure he told me he loved me and that he was worried about me.

But whatever he said to me didn't matter because I had a plan.

I needed to go to _____'s to get a little bit of _____ to keep the night going. Mind you, my idea of a night out on the town was basically spent in my bedroom with the windows covered with a heavy blanket so that when the sun came up I might be able to get an hour of sleep before calling in sick to work. I don't really want to get into too much of that part of the story. I never got into that stuff so heavy because I didn't know enough of the people who could get me it to get to the point where it was a serious issue, if you know what I mean.

But this night I had called a friend and asked if The Guy was there and he said yes.

So I got in my car and peeled out of my driveway. I only know that I peeled out of my driveway because my former neighbor told me so afterwards. I owned a Subaru Forester at the time. These cars are not known for being the best at peeling out.

But I had a plan.

It was in motion.

And so was I.

I took the back way through the industrial park area so as to evade whatever police might be lurking. I knew how to get around under the influence. I must have done it more times than not.

But this time was different.

And as the pills kicked in I found myself not at the edge of the parking lot of the place where I needed to go. I found myself in front of a main Northampton thoroughfare. Because, of course, I had to stop at the ATM down the road to get money for my guy.

I was only about 800 feet from where I needed to be.

If I just took a left and then pulled into that parking lot . . .

The police report that Officer Satkowski and Officer Liptak filled out said they observed me exiting the parking lot at a high rate of speed.

They said they saw me cross the white fog lines on the right and that's when they put on the blue lights for me to pull over.

And that's when my plan merged with their plan.

Among my possessions I have a photo of me taken shortly after December 26th turned into December 27th, 2007. Almost a year since my mom had died at 65 and just about nine months before my aunt would join her--the youngest of three--at age 60. It was taken by the cops and it's not a pretty sight. 

When I blew the breathalyzer my blood alcohol content was .25%--three times the legal limit but pretty standard for me. I think that was more or less my goal on any given night of drinking, sad but true. 

I probably would have never made it to 40. Hell, who knows if I would have made it to 38 (I'm 37 in the photo above). My guess is that I would have tried to clean up--again--and done well for a while. Maybe I would have gone back here and there and used and maybe I would have bounced back. Maybe it would have stuck this time, who knows?  

Anyone who has kept up with my story over these past ten years will know that shortly after my aunt passed away in September of 2008 I had a bout with Oxys which had been delivered to her (or me, really). So I can't claim ten full years of sobriety. That comes in the fall and I don't really celebrate the date. Alcohol was my demon and that demon stopped terrorizing me on December 27, 2007.

Since then I have rebuilt my life. 

I found the joy of all joys in Jodi, my amazing wife and best friend. 

Together we cleared out and sold my family's home on the Cape.

I began my new musical venture, Colorway, and have put out two albums with a third in the works. I don't wear my heart on my sleeve in my writing, but I do touch on issues of recovery and the joys of a life spent free from my vices. 

I have begun sharing what I know about the guitar with students of all ages. I've even seen some go from knowing absolutely zero about how to play, to becoming the proficient lead guitarist in a popular teen band in the area. My mother and aunt--lifelong teachers--would be so proud. 

I have been a big part of the Young@Heart Chorus pit band. I luckily get to travel the country and the globe on a regular basis making people of all ages happy. 

I have, for almost two years, hosted a weekly open mic night at a local brewery (ironically enough) showcasing the amazing talent that exists here in the valley. 

And I have helped many people who thought they were too far gone to change their ways and seek help for addiction. Some of them have written me and thanked me. Others I know are struggling and may be reading this at this very moment. I am always here and easy to find and will lend a hand to anyone who may need help. 

And, of course, there are far too many friends of mine who weren't so lucky. I haven't updated this blog since this past June. That's because one of my former bandmates--a guy who had to play on that stage while I was forced to watch from the audience ten years ago at that Boston club--died from complications of pneumonia that stemmed from a lifestyle that his body just couldn't sustain. 

His name was and is J. Scott Brandon and he was a beautiful, kind, compassionate, funny and insightful man. When I last saw him he was in a bad way and I wish I had made more of an effort to try and help him. But people who were closer to him than I say they tried and tried and nothing was working.

We had discussed getting clean and what it would take to change his lifestyle but it never ended up more than talk. 

My last post was inspired by that last run in with him. Shortly after I posted it his sister wrote me to say he was in the hospital. 

He never made it back home. I will miss that man forever. 

We all have our directives in life. Some people figure these things out early on. I was always jealous of the people who knew what they wanted to do in life and then just went for it. They knew what schools to go to (or try to get into anyway) and how to climb whatever ladder their profession entailed. Some made it and some didn't. But at least they had a plan. 

I just knew I wanted to have a good time. I wanted to make music and be funny and be around funny people. I never really thought too hard about how I was going to sustain that directive. But alcohol kind of provided a goal for a while--make enough for rent and beer and the rest will fall into place. 

My plan came later in life, as happens sometimes. 

And it's still not clear cut. I'm getting older and feeling the effects of middle age settling in. 

But my plan is sturdy.

My plan is strong.

My plan will hopefully carry me the rest of the way through life.

Be good.

Be kind.

Stay clean.

Remember that no emotion or moment--no matter how awkward or uncomfortable (or amazing, for that matter)--lasts forever. 

Stay strong.

Love fully and with all my heart.

Do not fear death.

Remember and cherish those who shaped you, whether that was when you were younger than you can remember or even just something small that happened yesterday. We are all products of our environment and we are evolving every second of every day. 

And finally, try to the best of your ability to help those you can, and remember that we are all here on this crazy planet trying to get by in our own way . . . 

We all have a plan . . .  even if it takes someone else to reveal it. 

Here's to the plan and the next ten years.

Thanks for reading,


Friday, June 2, 2017

Day Three Thousand Four Hundred and Forty Five . . . Disk Almost Full.

My computer is pretty slow.

It's at the point now where it's kind of an embarrassment and I can't let anyone else use it. And if Jodi and I are on it together--researching wedding stuff or making getaway plans or just general web surfing--I inadvertently end up getting self-conscious because I know her computer is so much faster than mine. And I know that there are only so many fifteen second waits for a page to load before she wonders aloud, "what do you have on that thing?"

Well, everything. Almost.

I've invested hundreds of dollars over the years on backups to help divert the flow of HD videos of gigs I played, posters I made, pictures I've taken, recipes I've stored and zip files that I've unzipped and never zipped back up. But in short order the accumulation seems to just creep back up little by little until I get that pop-up that tells me . . . "disk almost full."

And when that happens, of course, I always head to my go to: I empty the trash.

But lots of times there's nothing in there . . .  because I hate throwing things away.

So I'll go to my disk utility and run a program that will take 30 minutes to execute and render my laptop useless while it searches to find all the little fragments of stuff that I don't need and won't ever know about.

That'll free up a few gigabytes which will last about a week, maybe less.

But this is the computer in my lap we are talking about. It's something I bought and rely on but it's something that I don't need to keep me alive, and it's something I didn't have as a kid. I was born and raised in the 1970s and for a long while we barely had flashing lights on any of our toys let alone a touch screen.

But I never really thought about the computer we are all born with until yesterday.

I was at Young at Heart Chorus rehearsal and we were going through a set of about fifteen songs. The folks in the group are 74 and older and many are way older than that. And these men and women are tasked with remembering the lyrics to a seemingly endless list of songs from the 1960s through today. And most of them do it without having to resort to looking at the lyrics sheet. It's truly amazing because these are songs that more often than not were popular to a different generation--the Boomers or the Gen Xers, not the Greatest Generation.

I have a hard enough time remembering the words to my own songs, and some of these guys are twice as old as me and they have no problem remembering the (sometimes esoteric) lyrics to Radiohead, MGMT or The The.

And that got me wondering about the little computers we all have inside our heads. I simply couldn't get over the idea of how much storage our hard drives must have.

Now, of course, everyone is different. There are plenty of people (some we may even know) who have a hard time remembering something we just told them. Or others who's attention span is so narrow that new ideas have to take a number and may never be absorbed to the point where they can be utilized.

But every single thing we do and every little piece of information we see and hear gets stored away in that grey matter. It's all in there whether we remember it or not because that's what it's job is--well, one of it's many jobs, anyway.

There was a very long period in my life where I drank myself into a near coma each and every night. I would pick up a clear plastic pint of Smirnoff and maybe a six pack of beer at the local package store. I'd drink it all while I watched TV. In time it progressed to just a bottle of Smirnoff--the .750L in the glass bottle because I wanted to lose some weight and the beer had to go. I'd drink most of that bottle in one evening. When I opened the freezer in the morning I would always have that last 2oz or so left in there. I will never really know if I left it in there because I was passed out, or if I wanted to save it in case I really needed it in the morning, or if I just couldn't handle the idea of it being over--the bottle being empty and therefore of no use anymore. Like I said, I hate throwing things away.

I really owe my brain a debt of gratitude. It took so much unbelievable abuse from me--at my own hands--and kept going and going and just chugging along logging the days, hours, minutes and seconds in my life. Compiling all the things I did, all the things I had to do, all the things I hoped I'd do, all the people I cared about, all the people I envied, and on top of it all, all the words I wrote to the songs I composed as well as those of my bandmates. And when it was time to put that all in play at a show it would more often than not come through for me.

Now, of course, my brain is not immune from prosecution. And it fear it must also bear much of the burden of getting me so fucked up to begin with. Because let's face it, that's where this all comes from, right? Our heart is supposed to have this magical power to make us feel certain ways about people and movements and drive us to great lengths to make our dreams come true. But we all know there would be none of this, that or the other without the brain. And if I have a family history of something, sure it's encoded in my genes, but my brain is the headmaster, so to speak. I may have been born with a proclivity towards overeating but my brain is what allows me to see the numbers on the scale, my image in the mirror and the amount of food on my plate.

If there was a way to stop the madness in the world I would have to guess its genesis could be traced back to the rubbery lobes inside our skull. And isn't that quite a paradox?

So let's see, where are we now? My brain is amazing because it ceaselessly works to keep me alive, moving forward, remembering myriad data and processing everything new that my eyes, ears, nose and mouth take in.

And it is also to blame for me nearly killing myself possibly hundreds of times during an almost 20 year span of drug and alcohol abuse.

Well, I don't know, looking at it from where I am now I'd have to say that I'm okay with all of that.

But there are too many people in my world that haven't been or weren't so lucky.

I just saw a birthday notification the other day on Facebook for a friend who drank himself to death last year. He had reached out to me to talk about getting sober. We hung out a bit and he had a good attitude but we lost touch and I didn't keep on him and now he's gone. Friends of his told me there was "nothing anyone could have done" to change his path. I guess I have to live with that but I wish I had tried harder.

There are at least five people I know who over the past ten years I've been sober have not been able to get the help they needed and who died because of their addictions.

There are many that are still with us that I know could use some help.

I see friends of mine who didn't get the wakeup call like I did and are still going about their daily routine like they're 25. I tend to want to keep to myself. I don't go to AA because I feel that talking about my past problems only can do so much good. I like to live by example--an example to me, really--keep moving forward and seeing how just doing the next right thing (a trusty AA adage) is really all that one needs to do. But a new goal of mine is to reach out to the people I know who could use some help in the hopes that there may be a way to introduce the idea of a different way to be. I know this can be exceedingly difficult because as we get older our identities become so entangled with what we know and what we've done that to give that up is more than just giving up a way to relax, as it were. It's more like getting a limb removed. We wonder how we could survive with only one leg or one arm--how would we do the basic things in life that we need to do to survive. But I see examples every day of people from all walks of life overcoming adversity--sometimes mental, physical or both--picking up the broken pieces, finding a way to connect them back together and learning to live again.

But just because others do it and just because I did it doesn't mean anyone else can or will.

Our brain is our brain and our brain is the final word on the subject. And me seeing something one way and feeling like it's the way life makes the most sense doesn't mean anyone else will get it. It's all just data coming in and one would hope that there is enough space on the disk inside our head that the information is accessible.

I'm constantly having visions from the earliest parts of my childhood and beyond. It seems to be happening more and more these days, but I know it's been a constant since my last drink on December 27, 2007. The memories are all there--the swing set at Columbus Park, the snake show at Southeastern Mass University when I was five, that first fateful attempt at a kiss at 13, my first guitar, my first gig, my mother's hugs, her big pink hands that used to smooth my hair back and hold my head straight when I was trying to wriggle away because I was too cool for school, her kiss on my forehead, my first apartment away from home, my first hangover, my worst hangover, my cross-country tours, my European tours, my mother's joy at how far her boy had come, the late night talks on the phone with my her and holding the receiver away from the rocks glass so she couldn't hear the ice clink, her audible tears, her visible tears, the hospital visits, the hopeful doctors, the resigned doctors, the last Christmas, the last New Year's, the long, labored last kiss on my bearded, bloated cheek, the unbeknownst last visit to the nursing home, the news at the nurses station, the shrieking, my aunt's furiously grasping hand, the sun over the ocean, the keys in the door, the empty house, the cats knowing all, the year of accelerated self-destruction and the day it all stopped.

It stopped because I was arrested. I've told you all about that. That was almost 3,500 days ago.

But this story could have had a much different ending. In fact, it could have ended nine years ago after my aunt left this world to be with her sister.

But it didn't.

And I guess I have to thank whatever part of the computer in my head it was that decided that no matter how much data was crammed in there and no matter how much of it was seemingly trash that needed to be purged, that it was going to keep things in order and keep this whole system moving forward.

I never thought I had the will to stay sober. I never thought I'd ever really do it for very long even if I tried (and I tried many times). But I somehow managed to convince whatever part of my brain that the things in front of me and the possibilities down the line are greater than that which I'd grown accustomed to. It wasn't easy and it didn't happen overnight. But it happened and I am living, breathing proof that it is possible.

So today I dedicate this post to anyone who is struggling with their addictions. There is help available to you and it's as easy as visiting a website like AA or NA and seeing how you can find a way out. I'm happy to talk with anyone who would like to write me. You can write to and I'll be sure to get back to you.

And if my words here on this page or anywhere in this blog have made even a little bit of difference in anyone's life I urge you to keep on going.

The disk up there in your head will never fill to the point where new ideas are not allowed. You may need to empty the trash or fix some of the fragments that aren't connected to see it through.

I had my pop-up almost ten years ago. It was a warning that I heeded and is why I sit here today.

Let the world open itself to you and bring joy and magic inside.

Believe me, there's room.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Day three thousand three hundred and three . . . All the ways I love you.

I am crying as I type these words.

I have shed many tears over the past ten years to the day since my dear mother left this world.

I have cried because something more special than the earth I am hopelessly stuck to, or the air that I breathe, was taken from me.

I have cried because I had nowhere else to turn to for guidance.

I have cried into the immediate surroundings from my lips, eyes and mouth to the outer reaches of space for the chance for one more embrace--to just put her fat, red hand in my fat red hand and squeeze them warmly together.

I have cried for sheer guilt that I was too selfish to show that I could exist without a bottle in my fat, red hand.

I have cried because the art that I have made will never again have her eyes slowly and excitedly ingest and caress from the outer edges of the paper inside towards the words or scribbled picture, or the first plucked strings, hummed melody or residual applause that might follow.

I have cried for knowing that the love I have found in Jodi must grow without her knowledge or relief--relief that the man she knew was always inside finally and furiously emerged from the shell of a pained and terrified life he was living, bursting into the real and the new, pulling back the drapes, throwing open the windows and screaming until he could scream no longer, falling onto the floor in a heap of fat, bones, muscle and blood and panting the words "I have found a true love" to the blue-grey walls around him.

That's not to say that I don't cry for sad commercials, too. Because I do. And my mom did, too. She always had a box of tissues nearby just for such occasions.

But I remember when she had a small, non-life-threatening cancer removed from the corner of one eye. They didn't fix her up exactly the way they should have. In the spot where they took the little piece off tears would spill out at random moments. She had it fixed, of course, but it was hard to watch this woman who cried so much for so many things in a seemingly perpetual state of emotion at any given time of day.

I can only imagine how many, many times she cried for me--because of me--as she sat, or walked, or talked with my aunt, or laid down in her bed a mere 75 miles away from "her boy". I'm sure it was less than I imagine, but from where I see things the past is often darker and stormier than it really was.

I put that poor woman through hell and I have no excuse for it.

But that book is one I keep on the shelf for safety and security. I don't need to re-read it. I've got it pretty well memorized.

But ten years ago, on January 11, 2007 at 10:20am, Judith Ann Johnson's energy left her body.

She had fought a valiant battle with pancreatic cancer--one of the worst and most vicious types--and finally let go.

She let go of the pain and the suffering.

She let go of the uneaten, pureed meals left sitting on the tray, the ice water in the squeeze bottle and the IV, the hospital socks and gown.

She let go of the emotional visits from her son and her sister.

Oh, how I wish I could have one more chance to put my bearded, bloated cheek up against her lips for even the faintest of kisses. How I wish I could lay my head on her belly and my arm across her body and just for a few moments pretend we could die together. Just leave the messy, dilapidated house and the unplowed driveway and the legal documents behind and just . . . go.

Oh, how I wish.

But I am here and I am well.

I am here and I have love.

I am here and I am continuing her legacy of making others happy.

I am here and I have her hair on my head, her tics in my eyes, her fat, red hands on the end of my arms and her seemingly limitless ability to remain hopeful that the sun will shine again even in the darkest night.

I am here and I am still crying as I write these words.

Because I am alive and I am breathing and I am hungry and I have love in my heart and I have music in my soul.

And I am able to share this little bit of me with the world--and every little bit of me has a little bit of her inside.

And she is crying, too.

But she's not worried anymore.

No, she's crying because she is happy.

I can almost hear it.

Thanks for reading.

I love you all, but especially Jodi.


Dedicated to Judith Ann Johnson

May 14, 1941-Jan 11, 2007