I walked out of the side door of the dorm at college and wandered out to the crosswalk on Route 7. It was about 8 in the morning and chilly. I felt sick, dehydrated, and unkempt. The traffic light was red, and the traffic was stopping in front of me. It was late October and I was on an especially long daily-drinking bender, and I was beginning to get withdrawal symptoms in the morning. I was extremely self-conscious about it, so to keep from feeling sick and crazy, I learned to keep a small flask of bourbon to nip from so I could “feel better”.
Prior to college I’d been living somewhat of a transient lifestyle with a job in Florida building greenhouses for the Gators. There was some drinking during that summer for sure, along with cocaine and smoking weed. But there was enough responsibility and workload to keep daily drinking at bay. But now that I was at college, all bets were off. College life had very different drinking norms than the hard work ethic of the contractors who paid me for labor in Florida. The very first night at my new dorm after getting off the plane from Florida, I met some guys like me, drank into a blackout, terrorized my new roommate, and woke to the reality that I’d lost my shoes and shirt the night before. Honestly, it went downhill from there.
You see, I’d been heavily drinking and drugging for about 6 years already (since I was 12 years old) in secret. I was open about the kind of drinking and drugging that was acceptable to the people and friends around me at the time, but my general appetite for substances was larger than what they would have thought acceptable. Consequently, there were two Marks: the teenage partying Mark, and the secret, daily, heavy-user Mark. Combined, it was a hell of a habit! At college, the freshmen were just beginning their heavy partying career while I’d been on that plan for years already. My drinking and drug using habits were fully formed. While most of those who spent time partying with me knew I liked to hit it hard, they had no idea that I believed I was fully engulfed in “alcoholism”. Two months later, and with full withdrawal symptoms and the chaos it brings, my drinking and drugging would crash down and force my eventual quit. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As I stood there, at the light on Route 7, a young man pulled up in a grey Chevy Celebrity. I remember thinking, that must be a car his Dad gave him for his 16th birthday – he just looked so innocent and well, good. He was dressed in a suit, and was obviously uncomfortable as he sat not ten feet away from me waiting for the car in front of him to go, while I was staring at him. I couldn’t stop staring at him, and I didn’t know why. I tried to shake off this awful feeling inside of me as I stared, and then I quickly looked down when our eyes met. As I looked at the ground, I felt a sense of resentment and then a flash of real jealousy and embarrassment. I remember that sensation washing through me, and realized this must be what homeless people feel when people look at them and judge them.
I was jealous because I knew he was going to some new job where he needed the suit, while I was going to the Grand Union Supermarket to try to convince a young cashier to let me buy a six pack with my fake Florida ID at 8 in the morning. I was feeling that awful morning drink anxiety and shakiness, and this kid in the car was in my way. He drove off, but try as I might he remained in my mind for months! Whenever I crossed Route7, I looked for him.
That was actually the beginning of the end of my drinking. For the first time in years, I saw something I wanted – I wanted to be that young man. I wanted to be in a suit, going to work, being nervous at the interview – or whatever he was doing. It didn’t matter. He looked healthy; I wasn’t. He looked nervous; but for all the right reasons. He looked responsible; I hadn’t been for years and that embarrassed me.
His image in that Chevy stuck with me for the next couple of months. He became a quiet icon of how I wanted to be. I’d think about him as I got drunk and more alone.
And then it happened. I got into a DUI accident, and I finally had a big enough reason to try my hand at becoming that nameless young man. I did change my life. I did gain responsibilities and was nervous for all the right reasons; not because I was some drunken fool trying to hide his pathetic habit, but rather because I was taking the risks needed to become successful and happy.
The rest is history. I found my way. 33 years later I can still remember him; he’s a faceless memory now, but I have to say thank you to the kid that was nervous for all the right reasons – he saved my life.