Commentary: Hitting bottom, but then bouncing back

By Gerard Shields

Two of my friends walk beside me, each holding one of my elbows in a move they called "the pallbearer."

I am stumbling drunk after a night of carousing in Wildwood. Faced with a throbbing hangover and a commitment to play with my doo-wop band at an annual church fund-raiser, I drink beers for breakfast to avoid the day-long headache, taking the old drinkers' advice "bite the dog that bit you."

My friends lead me in as if I am blind and park me in a chair in the center of the patio bar filled with my family, friends, bandmates, and church members. The onlookers giggle. The residents of our section of working-class Kensington, which heartily supports two beer distributors and a state store, shrug off my inebriation as just my turn.

My buddies John Sharkey and Joe the Bear joined me in visiting all our friends in Wildwood the night before my collapse. Then we closed Moore's Inlet, the beach bar where we spent much of our youth that was shutting down forever at the end of the summer.

We needed one more Viking drinking session, swigging beers chased with shots of kamikazes, the powerful vodka-and-lime mix that goes down like Jolly Rancher candies and then lives up to its name by punching us in the face at the end of the night.

The next day as we walk to the event, I notice my car perfectly parked along the sidewalk and I ask Joe the Bear who drove home. "You did," he replies.

I shiver.

I find myself in a church basement a week later at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. In my war with alcohol, my appearance isn't part of the rules of engagement, but unconditional surrender. After 30 years, I am finished.

I didn't drink daily, or even weekly for that matter. But every six weeks or so, I would go on a rampage to reduce life's woe, to find my peace, which I once saw defined as "the absence of stress or anxiety." Because I wasn't sure I belonged, I looked up the definition of the word alcoholic in the dictionary. "To habitually drink to excess." Bingo.

Through my years with AA, I explored the roots of my carelessness and traced it to one moment when I was 12 years old. My mother was in the hospital with tuberculosis for a year and my father, who broke his ankle, was trying to figure out how he was going to provide for six kids.

Knowing I was getting great grades in school, the 35-year SEPTA mechanic looked down from his lounge-chair throne as I laid on the floor watching TV. "You," he pronounced. "You are the one who is going to lift us out of this." It was a lot of pressure to put on a kid, but I carried it on my shoulders.

Dad meant no harm, instead infusing me with a nuclear ambition that catapulted me like rocket fuel up the ladder of life. But the only way I found refuge from the pressure was by getting drunk.

I eventually learned that I needed to seek new, less destructive ways to find that peace. Hit the gym to burn off stress. Read a book to relax. Watch a movie to escape for a few hours. Walk to contemplate.

My drinking buddy Sharkey died of liver damage at 53. I gave the eulogy of the funniest man I ever knew, the John Candy of Kensington. As we stood next to his grave on a bitterly cold February day under dishwater skies, guilt enveloped me as I pondered my role in his demise.

Five years sober, I had returned to the annual church fund-raiser, the scene of the crime. I shamefully approached a huddle of cousins with my head down.

"The last time you saw me, I was in pretty bad shape," I say. "That was a bad day."

Cousin Mary Frances counters.

"No," she says. "Maybe that was a good day."

Gerard Shields is a Kensington native who lives in Washington, D.C. gerardshields@aol.com