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Last Friday, my good friend Paul Draisey and I were talking about a former co-worker at a local radio station we both worked at. The co-worker, who I’ll call Mike, hadn’t been heard from since losing his job a little over a month ago.
Our concern was real. Paul had known him for decades, while I only knew him the year I worked with him. But we both knew he had a drinking problem. Everyone did. As his boss, I had many conversations with him about it. And in the process, I learned a lot about the demons that haunt those afflicted with alcoholism.
When I was growing up, getting drunk was seen as harmless recreation. It’s what you did on Friday and Saturday nights to blow off steam. When I was going to Virginia Tech in the 70s, you were somehow less of a man if you didn’t drink until you passed out. Frats had “hairy buffalo” parties, where some sort of hay or straw was put on the floor. You drank until you couldn’t walk, then rolled around on the floor like a “hairy buffalo.”
Beer consumption was measured in six-packs, not cans. Hung over? Hair of the dog will get you back in the game. Mess with drugs? That will get you kicked out of school. But alcohol? No problem.
I could never handle it. The more I drank, the sicker I was the next morning. And thanks to youth and peer pressure, I kept at it. As the years passed on after college, however, I noticed it became easier to say “no thanks, I don’t feel like throwing up for hours tomorrow morning.” And after one flight too many where I found myself praying “Dear God, make this a smooth flight or just kill me right now,” I realized I didn’t want to drink any more.
If I'm at a party and not drinking makes someone uncomfortable, I'll nurse one for an entire evening. But as most of my friends will tell you, Diet Pepsi is my beverage of choice, and has been for many years. Offer me a bottle of scotch or a big piece of chocolate, and I’ll take the chocolate every time.
Folks like Mike never got to that fork in the road. They just kept on going. Sober, Mike was a good guy. On Mondays, however, when I’d guess he’d had a weekend to imbibe, he could be a terror. In the year I worked with him, he must have turned in his resignation a dozen times. Something would set him off, he’d blow up, and he’d quit. Hours later, he’d come back, hat in hand, and say he was ready to go to work again. I’d say fine, and we’d go on.
When we’d talk about it, he’d be very nervous and quite defensive. But he’d admit he thought about drinking all the time. He said he wished he could stop, but he said he knew he couldn’t. He grew up at a similar time where drinking’s negative effects weren’t discussed as often, and he once said to me “who among us hasn’t had a couple of drinks before dinner, then drove somewhere.” I had to point out to him times had changed, and if he couldn’t stop drinking, he better stop driving.
The last time I saw Mike was 18 months ago, when the station's owners decided machines were more valuable than people and let most ofthe staff go. Mike was one of the few who stayed on the island, and kept working there until he and the station parted company last month. Paul was concerned that given his age, temperament and battles with alcohol, he’d have a tough time finding another job. “If we don’t hear from him soon,” I told Paul, “I’m afraid one day we’re going to be reading about him in the newspaper. And it won’t be because of anything good.”
Over the weekend, I watched football and occasionally surfed the web. The lead picture on the Loudoun Times-Mirror site Sunday showed a wrecked car that resulted in a fatality, with alcohol suspected as the culprit. At 1:23 a.m. Sunday, 20 teenagers from here in Ashburn were arrested for underaged drinking after Homecoming festivities at Briar Woods Saturday night, according to LoudounExtra.com. And after the Dallas Cowboys were beaten by the Rams Sunday, it was revealed one of their just-suspended star players, Adam “Pacman” Jones, was going into treatment for alcoholism.
If I had looked in more places, I’d have probably seen more stories on alcohol wreaking havoc in someone’s life. It’s not that I’m anti-alcohol. But it does seem as if everywhere I look lately, the message being shouted is this: Drinking is cool. You can’t have fun without it.
Even as I’m typing this, NBC is airing a show called Chuck (which is one of my favorites). In one scene, over a hundred people are in an electronics store, drinking all they can to help one of the characters out of a jam. It’s fun. It’s cool. Laying on a counter sucking down an entire keg is funny.
Enjoyed responsibly, I’m sure it can be fun. But some can handle it. Some can’t. And when they can’t, that’s not cool. It's dangerous.
That’s why moments after the Redskins beat Cleveland, I just stared over and over at the email Draisey had sent me. The subject line said simply “I am truly sorry to say you were right.”
When I opened the email, there was only a link to a newspaper article.
It was Mike’s obituary.