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The day I stopped fooling myself

Editor’s note: The following is an updated version of a column that first appeared in the Mail Tribune on April 1, 2001.

Hidden in the evergreen hills above Leverett, Mass. (2001 pop. 1,785), sits one of four Buddhist Peace Pagodas in the United States. The 75-foot-high white ceremonial structure is fronted by an ornate Japanese garden and is accessible only by foot after parking along either side of Cave Hill Road.

The Pagoda site is honored by locals as a spot for contemplation and confession. Through cutouts in the pines, or after New England’s early autumns have stripped trees bare of their leaves, you can see out across the fertile Pioneer Valley to farmland hugging the meandering Connecticut River, or the brick and granite towers of the state university in neighboring Amherst.

In May 1979, before the Pagoda was built, a small band of college friends walked through makeshift paths in these woods to a rock bluff that jutted from the face of the hills. There, we could hear the echo of The Grateful Dead, who were playing the annual spring concert a dozen miles away at the football stadium at the University of Massachusetts.

We had ourselves a picnic. And, being a small band of college friends, we drank. Rolling Rocks, White Russians, a little white wine. Well, a lot of white wine.

Monday is April 1, April Fools’ Day to those inclined to practical jokes and impractical pranks. For me, though, April 1 is a more formal holiday. A day of redemption and reflection, commemorating a day spent at that Peace Pagoda 10 years and a long, strange trip after that picnic on the rock.

April 1 will mark the 30th year of my sobriety, the 18th year since this column first appeared — after much inner debate — in the Mail Tribune. Now, what follows isn’t one of those “Hello, my name is Rob and I’m an alcoholic” soliloquies that ultimately cause listeners (and readers) to glaze over and mutter cleverly to themselves, “Now, I need a drink.” At least I hope not.

Instead, I’ll just ramble on from now to the final line of type and, if you find yourself walking the same road as that of your narrator, then maybe we’ll both get somewhere.

On April 1, 1989, I was the assistant sports editor of a small paper in western Massachusetts. Ink and alcohol ran through the vein of a life that was, at that time, a mess. The roots of my alcoholism were genetic and environmental.

Newspaper work long has been umbilically tied to the beer at the end of the day; add that to a lengthy family history of crooked elbows and, well, you can do the math.

I was not an everyday imbiber; I was more of a binge drunk. There was no such thing as “a beer or two after work.” Usually, there was a beer or two after that.

And after that. With a few exclamation points of ouzo or tequila or whatever they put in the shot glass.

I woke up on friends’ couches. I woke up in my car. I woke up in a mess of my own making, sprawled on the front porch of my apartment — after spending the night with my brother helping close a bar called Guido Murphy’s. Once, back in college, I woke up in a parking lot. In December. Without a coat.

A treasure trove of war stories seen through the foggy bottom of the looking glass.

Needless to say ... then, and now ... I married a saint.

But in 1989, I grew up, somewhat, and did something I hadn’t done in a while. I looked in a mirror. And saw my father, his mind then half-gone to the booze-fed dementia that ultimately would claim his life.

A friend coaxed me to my one and only AA meeting. I was scared off, I suppose, by the fear of self-exposure, or the false sense that I wasn’t “one of those people.” Of course I was, and I knew it, even as I pounded Bass ales at the regular Thursday afternoon newsroom getaway to The Depot Lounge.

But while the 12-step framework was not a good fit, the message took. There was only so much others could do to help someone unwilling to help themselves.

I wrote in 2001 that I missed Bass ales. I still do. I’ve missed the entire microbrew phenomenon. The flavored beers, the wine coolers, the fruit-and-rum summer thirst quenchers. On the plus side, I missed Zima.

That little nagging devil of desire is how I knew. And how I know, even now.

And why, 30 years into sobriety, I’m an automatic designated driver addicted to iced caffeine drinks. Even the occasional “nonalcoholic” beer I once allowed myself three or four times a year is no longer on my menu.

That April Fools’ Day in 1989, I took a pair of friends to the Pagoda on a chilly Saturday afternoon. We walked the stony path laid by true believers and sat on benches facing the stucco wall. Below us, shimmering like jewels set between the rocks, were brown and green shards of jagged glass from broken beer bottles.

The site long had become a favorite haunt for howling at the moon.

“I’m not going to drink anymore,” I said that day. “I can’t. Not ever again.”

And, with help and purpose, I haven’t ... now some 10,957 days later. And yes, as trite as it sounds, they pass one at a time.

This Thursday, April 4, is National Alcohol Screening Day. At sites across the country, health-care and psychological professionals will give tests and have consultations with those ready to come face to face with themselves and the stranger they release from a bottle.

Even if you can’t find the strength to talk to professionals, to strangers, that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of the day to make an examination of your own.

Ask a friend to go for a walk. Ask a loved one. Ask yourself.

You don’t have to climb to a Buddhist shrine outside a small town (2019 pop. 1,853) or make a list of the war stories you can’t quite remember. The first step is really quite simple.

You know who you are. Look in a mirror.

Mail Tribune copy desk chief Robert Galvin can be reached at rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com.

Robert Galvin