Lying in a Ditch Looking Down on the World.
Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain and all the children are insane.
I went back home after the conference and continued drinking. One night, I came home drunk and staggered down to the basement. There on a shelf were two clear glass jugs, neither one labeled. One contained paint thinner and the other contained homemade moonshine. I had forgotten to label the jugs and there they sat. I couldn’t trust my sense of smell, so I sat there for half an hour wondering if it was worth the risk. Finally, I just went to bed. There was a 50/50 chance I could have poisoned myself.
Not long after my return from Kitchener, my wife and I got into an argument one afternoon and I just walked out. I didn’t know it would happen that particular day, it simply did. It was my daughter Marcie’s sixth birthday and I walked out on my family. I had set them up financially. We had income property. I didn’t want them to lose the house. I had sense enough about me as a father and husband that I didn’t want my wife and children to have to move because I didn’t want to live.
It wasn’t that we never had good times as a family. We had wonderful Christmases and birthdays. I would play with my kids in our yard. I remember setting up one of those Slip ‘n Slides on the back lawn and turning the yard into mud with them. We had barbecues, we had good times on vacations, but that day was not one of those good times. It was traumatic for the whole family, more-so for me, since I was the perpetrator.
As I’ve said, I have never done well in confrontations, but I was sick of them and the wife had grown weary as well. I had built a bedroom down in the basement and I spent most of my time there drinking and trying to find people to talk to on my CB radio. I had run through the scenario of leaving a hundred times in my mind and finally, this argument was when it came to pass.
So, I walked out and promptly decided to drink myself to death. I became an alcoholic on a mission.
Those days and weeks are still vague for me. I lived in a little one- room apartment in a friend’s house for a couple of days, and then moved into a $20 a week room in a skid row flophouse. My credit cards didn’t mean anything by this time. At the end of it, I was dipping into the bank account where I had placed money for my children.
I was taking $50 out of their account at a time, fully intending to replace it. My intentions were honorable, but the addiction just took over. It was overpowering. I lived in this one room and the sad thing is today, when I go back to Sudbury I drive by that flophouse and it is still standing and there are still people living in it.
My room didn’t even have a toilet; the bathroom was upstairs, a shared bathroom facility. My hovel was so dirty that I called up my oldest daughter to meet me in a restaurant and she brought me a blanket because, even though I was drunk, disheveled and at my wits end, I knew that I couldn’t sleep in a filthy bed. The sheets were so stained that I refused to lie down on them.
The walls in the room were paper-thin. Plywood flooring showed through the holes in the worn-out carpet. A two-element hot plate, with one of the elements burned out, was my stove. A tiny beat up refrigerator and a small table with two chairs completed the furnishings.
The closet was made of wall paneling with a worn-out dingy gray curtain on a wire rod for a closet door. Not that I had an abundance of clothes. When I moved in, my wardrobe consisted of one shirt, one pair of jeans, a pair of boots, two sets of underwear and a black leather jacket.
I didn’t want to disrupt my family’s home life any more than I already had, so I stayed away. I was never there for them emotionally. I paid the bills the best I could. Even that got to a point near the end that was debatable.
After twenty years of abusing alcohol, my world was falling apart. I had no credit. I had nothing. I remember waking up one day and looked in my pocket and I had 25 cents. That’s a terrible feeling when you have no place to go and 25 cents to your name. You’re 37 years old and you have no idea who you are, what you’re doing or where the next meal is coming from. It’s a very, very sad state.
At times, I couldn’t afford the $20 for next week’s rent so I slept outdoors, in my car or, literally, in a ditch. I lied there looking down on the world. It was the world that had problems, not me. The world was messed up, but I was okay. How little I knew. That’s where I was. That was my denial, my way of coping and rationalizing to remain on my self-destructive course.
Over the last four years, my drinking progressed to the blackout stage. I’d be drinking and go into a blackout. My memory would go. I prided myself on being able to handle my booze, but the booze was finally taking over for real and beginning to mismanage my thinking. I would black out and wake up in places not knowing where I was or how I got there. Just as my jackleg drill was running me for the first six months I used it, booze was running me during the last six months of our affair.
I took to borrowing money. Sometimes, I’d be drinking at a bar, run out of money and have to borrow $50 or $100 from someone. The next day, I would have completely forgotten. Someone would come by and tell me, “Hey, you owe me $100,” and I wouldn’t remember. My pride and my ego were eating me alive.
During these last months, coming out of a blackout, I wouldn’t know if owed anybody. I’d be sitting in a bar and wonder, “Do I owe any money here?” I was scared to ask my circle of drinking friends because they would automatically say, “Yes!” whether it was true or not. That’s the circle I surrounded myself with.
I ran into my wife’s cousin one day and said, “Man, it is great to see you. I haven’t seen you in months.”
“What are you talking about, Al? We drank together just the other night,” he replied.
I was devastated.
I didn’t get in trouble every time I drank, but every time I got in trouble I’d been drinking. To lose control like that really tore up my mind. Even though I had experienced sleeping in a ditch, I maintained that I had class because I slept in ditches in front of five star hotels. No one ever caught me sleeping in front of a dump. I say that with humor, but there was a side to me that would not admit to my situation. Pride goes before the fall, as the saying goes, and when I fell, I fell so hard I never even bounced. I landed on top of my pride. It wasn’t much of a cushion, but it was a cushion.
It’s hard to believe that where I was sleeping, where I was staying, where I was in my head, that I still had a job. Somehow, I managed to keep my job.
Whenever the supervisor would come up to me and say he needed to talk to me about my drinking, I would come back with, “Hey, man, I’m so glad you brought this up. I’ve been looking at Alcoholics Anonymous and I’ve been to counseling.”
They would be glad to hear that and say, “Hey, great. Hurray. We don’t want to interrupt you. We don’t want to bother you. We just wanted to talk. If you have a problem, come and see us.”
I think they were sincere. I know that one supervisor was very sincere. However, I think they were also glad not to delve into it too deeply because it’s a topic that was, is and probably always will be difficult to broach when you’re digging into someone’s personal life but not trained to do it.
I really needed help. I couldn’t live like this any longer. One of the best things I ever did was move into that flophouse, which was clearly physical evidence that I wasn’t just pretending. My decisions had brought me to that level where I lived and it became a great awakening for me.
I drove an old beat up car, a 1973 Buick, on which part of the car body had rusted away from the frame. Every time I needed to change a tire, I had to use an axle jack because, if I used a bumper jack, only the body would lift. I bought the car for $250 and that’s what I drove back and forth to work.
My van had since disappeared out of my life. At one point, I was making $400 to $500 a week extra driving guys to work in that van. One afternoon, the bailiff came by. He was a bartender I knew, called Hooker because of his pool-playing ability.
“Hey, Hooker, what brings you by this way?” I asked cheerily.
“McDougall, I came by to repossess your van for not making your payments.”
“Oh, shit! Hooker, I can take care of it. Give me a break, will you?”
“Okay, Al. I just missed you. But take care of it.”
There was a little restaurant on the hotel strip—a dive, really—that I knew and that is where I ate soup or a hamburger, whenever I got too hungry, usually on credit. The flophouse was not too far away from the hotel strip. So, everything was quite convenient.
At long last, a close friend talked to me and said, “Allan, you really, really need to go and seek out help.”
My wife and my family had told me that to varying degrees, but hearing someone else say it to me in my own circumstances and knowing I couldn’t live like this anymore, the timing was right for me to seek help.
That is where my life had brought me. Somewhere in my mind, however I still thought that I was okay. Somehow it was everybody else causing my misery.
Then, on Sunday, May 30, 1987, at long last, I met up with myself. I was sitting in a bar, alone, in a run down establishment and there was whiskey and Pepsi on the table. I took a sip and swallowed it.
My mind told me I had to have the effect, but for the first time, my body no longer listened.
It rejected the sip. I went to the bathroom and vomited. For some reason, my body couldn’t handle it.
I went back to my table, sat down, steadied myself and took another sip.
Again, my body rejected it, and back in the bathroom, I again vomited. “What the hell is going on?” I wondered.
I sat back down and stared at the glass. Whiskey and Pepsi, as always. My mind commanded me to drink, as always. I reached for the glass and raised it to my lips, hesitating for a bit. The characteristic smell filled my nostrils. The warm burn as it slid over my tongue and down my throat was a sensation more familiar to me than the taste of water.
Again, my system rebelled. Within seconds, a wave of nausea rose from my gut and once more I hurried to the restroom. Crouching over the dirty toilet, I heaved for the third time in 15 minutes. Mixed with stomach acid, I could taste the alcohol as it flew from my mouth into the bowl, and the sensation made me retch again.
The spasms subsided and, somewhat dizzy, I stood up and leaned against the door of the stall. What was happening? I wiped my mouth with the sleeve of my jacket and made my way back to the table where the whiskey and Pepsi were waiting, two old friends now transforming into adversaries.
It went on like this for hours. Take a sip. Throw up. Take a sip. Throw up.
There may have been others in that bar, but I didn’t notice. I was locked in what had turned into a life and death struggle.
Again and again, my body cried out, “I can no longer handle the booze!”
“Drink more for the effect!” my mind screamed back.
So it went, my mind and my body battling like two desperate beasts.
Finally, after five hours of this pathetic dance, I broke down and cried. It hit me—I had just lost the best love affair of my life. After 20 years, it was over. Alcohol did not work for me anymore. It could no longer cover up that hole in my soul. The bandages had been ripped off for the last time and there was my emptiness for all the world to see, raw, red and hurting like you couldn’t believe.
It was over.