Actually, it was 21 years ago. Twenty-one years ago today when I washed ashore at JFK airport from Antigua after making a couple of pretty important calls―collect―from this phone booth (pictured above) in Falmouth Harbour, Antigua. I didn’t have enough money for the ticket back to Boston (where I grew up), and I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do when I landed in NYC.
It’s kind of a long story.
But, as I sit in yet another airport under very different, and extremely exciting circumstances, I’m compelled to tell this story for several reasons:
1. Sheer gratitude for the way things have worked out (thanks to a dash of luck and many, many kind people along the way).
2. The humble belief that if I share some of the hurt, and pain, and loneliness, and honesty, and the…goofiness, and gee-whiz-i-ness, and the warm relief of the story, it may help some of you 7 readers out there face whatever challenges you may be facing.
3. And this may be the most important…to simply entertain.
I walked off that plane at JFK with nothing but a deep, deep tan, some plastic flip-flops, and a couple of faded T-shirts in my bag. It had only been about 6 months since I’d sailed down from Newport, Rhode Island to Antigua (via Bermuda) aboard a mighty Swan 651 that was state-o-the art in 1979 and that was enjoying her “golden years” as a vacation/charter/race “yacht” for her English owner. I didn’t care. It was the biggest boat I’d ever sailed on and they were paying me (the princely sum of a return ticket) to sail over the horizon in the fall of 1993. I’d graduated from the University of Colorado a couple years before and was bumping along from beach town to ski town in search of “happiness,” but the wheels had really come off the wagon years before.
Because, you see, this story really begins way up on the forearm of Cape Cod in a 9-foot-by-12-foot toolshed on the banks of a cool freshwater pond in the bustling metropolis of Eastham, Massachusetts. It was there, in that crazy toolshed that had been converted into a pseudo-charming little 50-dollar-a-week “beach cottage”(complete with hot pink trim), that I descended down into the darkness of a major league drug and alcohol problem and yet, was also granted the most unmerited of gifts.
Now I’m sure you’re probably thinking to yourselves “How bad could it have been, really? I mean, you don’t look so bad these days, and we all go a little bonkers sewing wild oats in college, right?”
Well…….I never could have admitted it then, but I was running from something that proved to be gasoline on the fire of fear, and shame, and loneliness, and hate, and despair that every alcoholic/addict suffers from (and paradoxically, and often tragically, feels utterly alone in experiencing). And if a paradox can in fact be wrapped in a paradox, the unmerited gift that has led me to be on this very special trip to sail a very special boat today, was the pain, and loneliness, and despair that beat me into a state of willingness to try and stop running.
I’d been sober for about 70 days when I got off that plane at JFK 21 years ago today. No money. No place to live. No job. No car. No girlfriend. No nothing.
I’d set off to have adventures and sail around the world. And what happened? I failed. My big “adventure” ended up being a two-week sailing trip south, followed up by six months of homelessness. I failed at getting a job on another boat. I failed at “sailing the world.” I failed at my first atempt at sobiety (I’d been sober for almost 2 years when I drank again in Bermuda). And worst of all, I had to accept the fact that my best ideas, literally the best plan I could come up with for my life led me to be a penniless, clueless, rudderless homeless person on a somewhat exotic Caribbean island. And oh yeah, I’d started drinking again because I thought Sally, the Kiwi cook on the boat tha had a sweet smile, sexy accent, and called me “Lovey” would like me more if I was a freewheeling drunken sailor instead of the teetotaling loser I thought I was. Turns out she called everybody “Lovey.” Isn’t that brilliant! And um, news flash, she sure didn’t like me any more.
So what’d I do when I landed in NYC after bottoming out in Antigua? Put the last shred of pride I had into the nearest phone booth and called Mom. She helped me get on a shuttle back to Boston and took me in. And lucky for me (and lots of others who are just like me) I ended up getting sober. Needless to say I was pretty ashamed (living with Mom, no money, no car, failed adventure, failed sobriety/relapse and being sentenced to what I thought was a fate worse than death—never being able to escape the grind of reality), but a curious thing happened. I felt like I belonged. It didn’t happen right away. I didn’t want to belong. I still felt like (pardon my French) shit. I still was in possession of a major league obsession/addiction to drink and drugs and escape. I felt wronged. And way too young (I was 25). And I was swimming in self-pity, but I wasn’t alone.
Turns out life was just starting, and a lot has gone on in the last 21 years.
And that’s what makes today’s trip to sail on a pretty special boat so special. Be sure to tune back in to find out why.
Swizzle note: I’ve felt compelled to share this story for a while now. I even published it once and took it down (sorry if you’ve already seen this), but don’t worry, we’ll be getting back to all sorts of Swizzlelicisousness soon. And honestly, I only got up the courage to re-publish this now because of a recent David Brooks column for goodness sakes. Check it out here. It’s pretty good.