A common definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again, but expect different results.
I am a combination of this process—but I am also a positive result.
On a hot morning, I began my walk from Seville Street and thought of where I could eat breakfast.
I crossed North Atlantic Boulevard and headed south on the sidewalk towards the strip along the beach in Ft. Lauderdale.
Along the way, I saw Tom walking on the beach’s side of the sidewalk. He was very tan. His face was unevenly shaved and his grayish stubble hugged his cheeks. The color of his eyebrows was salt and pepper, his eyes were steal blue, and there was a small gash on the top of his bald head.
Tom had the sort of tan that came with hours of drinking on white-sand beaches. He had a wealthy approach to him. And though his breath smelled from a bottle of Jim Beam’s Bourbon Whiskey, he spoke well, and carried himself as if life was paid for and everything he wanted was already paid in full.
Tom asked, “Mind if I walk with you?”
I liked Tom, but I saw him more like a distraction or a moment of entertainment than a friend. Neither of us knew each other. We were only victims of circumstance and chose the same rundown motel.
Tom chose The Seville because his wife threw him out of the house. I chose it because I needed an inexpensive place to stay while visiting from New York.
“How long are you going to be down here,” asked Tom.
“A few more days,” I said.
“I just have to get my mother situated.”
My mother was not well. Years of spinal disease had turned her back into a crooked question mark. She walked slowly and hunched forward with a walker. I had flown down to spend a few days with her; however, she was not feeling well, so I had nothing else to do but walk the beach and think.
Passing by the upscale resorts and hotels on my right, I looked over the white, knee-high wall, out to my left and across the beach with scattered bodies, already oiled and laying in the sun.
Beyond them, the light blue waters crested and folded in waist-high waves against the surf.
Tom asked, “How do you do it?”
“Not drink,” asked Tom.
“I just don’t.”
In an earlier conversation, Tom explained he had tried to stop drinking.
“But quitting drinking is like trying to break up with a bad girlfriend but she’s amazing in bed.”
I explained, “I haven’t had a drink in years.”
“Really,” asked Tom.
“I never did it well.”
“Drinking took me down a really bad path . . . So I had to give it up.”
Tom claimed, “All I do is drink.”
Pointing at the gash on the top of Tom’s head, I asked, “Oh yeah, how’s that working out for you?”
He smiled. “Not so well.”
We walked along with a few moments of quiet. My skin was warmed by the hot sun and my breath was relaxed by the sound of an easy sea. My shorts were a better version of clothing than the long pants I would be wearing if I were in New York. There were palm trees and beautiful people walking up and down both sides of North Atlantic Boulevard.
There were beautiful women on rollerblades, wearing tiny bathing suits, and sunglasses.
Men jogged passed with dark tanned skin, and women also jogged passed with their chest bouncing in the rhythm of their trotting footsteps.
“Do you mind if I asked what made you stop.”
“I don’t mind at all.”
With regards to addiction, my story is not unlike most.
True, I did wild things at a young age. I found myself lost inside the infected jungle of abandoned buildings and inner-city corners. I spent time with low-level hoodlums. I plotted scams, and I rehearsed my bullshit stories, as if the lies I told were the broken lyrics to an unfinished song.
I was fortunately unmanageable. And I say fortunately because there are many who live through addiction and remain highly functional. But that wasn’t me.
There are many who dodge the pitfalls. And had I not found myself locked in a cage; I might not have opened my eyes to see the damage I caused or the death that was on its way.
As Tom and I paused from our walk beneath the palm trees across from The Ritz Carlton, he put his hand on my shoulder while opening his drunken smile.
“What stopped you,” he asked.
“I mean, you have an edge to you. You’re covered in tattoos. You have that New York accent going on . . . so I know something must have happened.”
He asked as if he believed my story would be amusing. He asked as if it would be another war story or tale about blackouts and morning wakeups in the drunk-tank, jail cells.
Looking at Tom, I explained, “I’ve been sober for a very long time. But I wasn’t always sober and I was never a boy scout.”
About to turn 17, I found myself spiraling out of control. Everything around me was falling apart; everything I did went wrong and I was sick . . .
I was no longer in school because I was thrown out of junior high school and an alternative school.
I lost most, if not all of my true friends. At best, I weighed 80lbs and on better days, my skin was a pale shade of green.
My eyes were sunken in with dark rings beneath them and aside from my binges with the cocaine demons, I had just been introduced to the heroin gods.
I knew it was only a matter of time. I knew something was on its way, but I didn’t know what. I knew an end was coming, but I didn’t know what kind of end it would be.
I remember the day my life changed. It was Sunday and I was hitchhiking from the town of Seaford, New York.
My friend Mike was with me . . .
Mike and I decided we needed to get fixed, but neither he nor I had money.
I stood on a corner near a stop sign with a brick in my hand. Mike stood on the corner across from me and acted as lookout.
We waited for the right opportunity to come—but the right opportunity took its time. However, after several minutes, a woman slowly pulled up to the stop sign in an old, light green Dodge Duster.
I could see the door was unlocked and she was unaware that I was watching her.
As she waited to pull from the side street onto a main rad, I walked over in a steady pace, reached for the driver’s side door handle with my left hand, and I held the brick with my right. As I pulled the door open, the young, twenty something year-old girl turned towards me.
Her eyes opened with fear.
“What are you doing,” she screamed.
I reached in and grabbed the young woman by her throat. As I cocked my arm back with the brick to bash her in the face, take her, take the car, and take all the money she had; I paused.
I paused because I was afraid. I was not afraid of the woman. I was not afraid of what I was about to do.
I was afraid of who I became.
I was afraid of the reflection I saw in the blackness of her petrified eyes.
But I must have paused for a second too long. The young woman slammed her foot down on the gas, which shook me from my thoughts, and as she drove away, I launched the brick through the back window of her car.
In that moment, I became painfully aware of who I’d become.
Mike and I hitched back to our town, and not long after, I was picked up by the police. I was not picked up for the attempted car-jacking. Instead, I was picked up for two other charges of breaking and entering.
The strange part was my first moment alone in the holding cell.
There was an incredible stillness of time. The cells and the corridor smelled from filthy bodies and bathroom functions. In the dinge of flat colored walls, dimly-lit jail cells, and beneath the humming sound of fluorescent lights—I felt a moment of relief.
In my addiction, I have seen guns pointed in my face. I watched a man take a bullet to his shoulder; I ran from police, I thought I was dead on more than one occasion—and with all this and locked in the dankest of places—I was relieved.
I was relieved and thought, “At least I won’t have to do this again tomorrow.”
I knew something was going to change. I knew I was about to lose my freedom, but the fact that I lost my freedom was about to save my life.
For the first time, I was being held accountable for my actions. There was no one willing to bail me out. There was no one to enable me. And for the first time, I was going to be held and handled as an adult.
For the first time, I could not manipulate my way through, which was frightening—but at least I didn’t have to chase my high and kill myself the next day.
At least I would be forced to stop what I was doing.
Otherwise, I would have never stopped.
I explained this story to Tom in great detail. Tom was taken by surprise. At one point, I believe his eyes welled with tears.
“Hell son, when I was that I age, I was driving around in a rag-top convertible with the top down and thinking about going to my prom.”
To which, I responded, “I never went to a prom.”
Tom asked, “Was that the last time you ever got high?”
“Was that the last time you were arrested?”
Again, I answered, “Nope.”
Tom sipped from a cup that he had been carrying along the way.
“Yeah, I guess you weren’t ready.”
I cannot truthfully recall when I became ready. I assume it was after I took too many tumbles. I assume it happened after repeating the same behavior over and over again, but I could never figure out why I always ended up in the same position.
Tom shrugged, “I’ll say this much; my wife threw me out of the house. My partner and I broke up our business. I’ve been living in that crap-hole called a motel for the last month . . . and still, my wife won’t let me come home and my partner won’t call me.”
I asked,” What do you do?”
“Nothing,” he answered.
“I’m living off the fat of the land,” Tom said.
“Then what do you do all day?”
“I wake up and get on my laptop.” He answered.
“I check my bank account, and then I play my guitar for a little while. I get myself something to drink, and then I walk over to the beach to watch the waves come in and count the topless women lying in the sun.”
I asked, “How come your wife threw you out?”
“For drinking too much,” he answered.
“And why did you split with your business partner.”
“I got drunk,” he said, “And I punched him in the face for telling me to go home at a business dinner.”
“And why did he tell you to go home?”
“Because I was drunk,” replied Tom. “Apparently, I insulted someone at the table and I cost us some money.”
“And what do all these things have in common,” I asked.
“My drinking,” Tom laughed.
“Think maybe it’s time you stop?”
“Maybe,” said Tom. “Maybe . . .”
I received an email from Tom weeks after my visit to Florida.
He said, “You write like Kerouac and speak like a child of God.”
Said, “I hope I find what you have someday. You really helped me, Ben. And I mean that.
Said, “I read your stuff all the time,” and he told me, “You really seem to know what it’s all about.”
And by “It,” I suppose Tom meant the struggles people face on a daily basis.
In closing Tom wrote, “The one thing you said that hit hardest was the last thing you said before the manager threw me out of the motel. You told me, ‘I doubt what I say will help you get sober, but I guarantee now that you know the truth; it will fuck up your drinking.’ And it did, Ben. It really did.”
Perhaps if he didn’t drink so much
. . . . maybe Tom would have used spell check on his email
great story but the one line that stood out to me was, “Otherwise, I would have never stopped.”