“No matter what we face / We must face the moment of truth.” — Gang Starr
Getting sober is war. I’ve never really had a lot of luck. A good friend says I’m like the adult Charlie Brown, and the world keeps pulling that football away when I try to kick it. Being an alcoholic made my bad luck or foolish decisions colossally worse. Here’s a hard truth: There are people close to you whom you’d never fathom are recovering alcoholics. We are human, mistakes are made, and everyone has their private reasons why they (often inadvertently) became an alcoholic.
“What went wrong?” is asked when discussing my descent into alcoholism. I never have had a satisfying answer. I didn’t grow up in a broken home and my parents didn’t beat me — the pop culture cliche of an alcoholic you see in movies or read in a book. Neither drank around my older sister and me because their priority was raising us in a healthy environment. (But my mom did the right thing and took me to see Terminator 2: Judgment Day when I was 9.)
Growing up, I was an untraditional skateboarder who hung around cliche skateboarders, who did hard drugs and drank a lot and always gave me hell for not joining the festivities. I was also that annoying nerd in high school who carried around both a video and photo camera at school and took pictures of and filmed everything. I love movies and still watch them religiously. They make me forget about my everyday struggles for the duration of their running time. It’s my therapy. (Most of my friends I grew up skateboarding with turned out to be wonderful people, and I still talk to them regularly. They are doing well and in a healthy place in life.)
In high school, when friends were busy chasing boys and girls and getting high, I was watching movies. I chose not to drink then despite plenty of chances. I had a girlfriend who loved partying, so peer pressure enveloped me, but I never gave in because I made that choice not to.
Then there’s the classic bully, who made it impossible to enjoy school. He stood a full six inches taller than me and relished in slamming me into walls and lockers. He derived pleasure from my humiliation. I remember the first time he forcefully handed me a beer at a party, knowing I wouldn’t drink it, and encouraged people to watch me as I subtly poured it out here and there. They laughed at me like the opening scene in Carrie when she has her first period and doesn’t understand what’s going on with her body, and instead of helping, all the girls in the shower just laugh at her.
So what happened? How did I go from a nerd who watched movies through high school instead of chasing girls and partying to an alcoholic? That answer seems obvious — who wouldn’t want to drown their sorrows after a day’s worth of getting hammered into a locker and reliving the opening to Carrie every week? — but it’s deeper than that. I didn’t have a solid answer, and I didn’t know why it took me so long to wise up. I needed answers when I got sober for the umpteenth (and final) time, so I took a trip down Memory Lane, which wasn’t pleasant and was very uncomfortable but necessary.
My Moment of Truth
I grew up with remarkable parents, and I didn’t have my first drink until I was 21, but somewhere on the way to this article, my descent into addiction happened. Mental abuse has always been a dominant presence in my life and played a large part in my drinking later. I was mentally abused by my first girlfriend for almost six years. In her defense, I don’t think she realized what she was saying was wrong and traumatizing and that it would have a lifetime effect on me. “Y’all were just kids, and that’s what young people do!” some would say. Well, it hurt, a lot, and it traumatized, and I still dream about her and those moments of pain. It’s been almost 20 years. I have taken mental abuse from people close to me my whole life, strangers who only knew of me, and people who would cheer and piss on my grave if I were to die right now. Eventually, I also handed out mental abuse of my own. Along this odyssey, I learned that as a result of just letting the abuse sit and grow and grow and grow inside rather than seek help, I regurgitated the abuse I took onto others when drinking took control over my life. It was nasty. I’m still ashamed. I have forgiven people who’ve hurt me and been forgiven by many, but forgiving myself for the things I said to people while drunk is still one of the hardest challenges I struggle with. It’s not who I was, but I became someone else. A good parable is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Sober, I could handle my pain. Drunk, I wanted everyone else to feel what I felt. Yikes.
My closest (and most gentle) friend Rusty — who cofounded a once-popular indie movie website called GordonandtheWhale.com (GATW) with me — has witnessed me at my worst. I’ve screamed at him for no reason when drunk and said awful things to him when I was drunk, and I still cringe and become sad when I think about those moments. I still tell him from time to time that I hurt when I think about how I treated our friendship in the past because he’s always been so good to me. He reminds me every time that I’ve come a long way and bettered my life so much from that guy I once was, and he’s still here because he believes I’m a good man. Rusty’s an excellent judge of character, so hearing this means everything.
Most people on this planet deal with mental abuse in some way, but I handled mine in my adult years frighteningly poorly. I never realized my actions were bad for so long — in my early 20s, I moved to Denton, a college town where you could order a shot and a beer for $2 at any bar and the only extracurricular activities offered were drinking and partying. The first people I met were so cool, I thought, so I mimicked their (callous) behavior because I didn’t know any better. I was a cub taken in by wolves. I have had good intentions all my life, but I didn’t realize how awful these people were and how much it was changing me. Most of them thought it was funny to be cruel to others. I followed along with the people I hung around. All they did was get drunk and be awful to people. I followed their lead because I thought that was the cool thing to do in this strange place where alcohol was cheap, parties were everywhere, and almost everyone I met fucked their best friend’s sweetheart. I had just moved from a place where I spent most of my time at church and drank maybe once a month, so this was a new world to me. This is where it started — the excessive drinking and vomiting out words from my head that I wouldn’t dare say sober.
I’ve suffered depression and mental illness since I can remember. There’s a stigma that mentally ill people are dangerous. That’s not true because most people on this planet are mentally ill. Some of the best people I know are mentally ill and not dangerous. I am mentally ill and not dangerous. I’ve never physically hurt anyone but myself. Still, the irrational rage was a part of who I became, and it took a while to figure out why. Often, I would get furious and didn’t know where it came from or why or where to put it — it’s like a monster was inside me, ready to come out swinging, and it eventually did. Along with severe depression, I have also been diagnosed with severe anxiety. (Welcome to Planet Earth, Whale. Anxiety population: 7 billion.) I first used my anxiety as an excuse to drink when going out because it was hard to blend in and assimilate with the groups of cool hipsters I just met and wanted to be just like, uncomfortable tight pants and all. Just a shot and beer will loosen me up. Wait, two more shots and one more beer, and I’ll be fine. The next thing I knew, I was piss-drunk, and my head was full of delirium.
Movies Saved My Life; Film Criticism Almost Destroyed It
Where my drinking became alarming was when GATW took off. It was right at the boom of Twitter around 2007, a place now recognized as toxic because of how easy it is to bully others. Twitter can be judge, jury, and executioner and ruin a life in a matter of minutes. Twitter is an active landmine with live bombs everywhere. (You already know that, but back then, nobody did.) I would often get attacked by a wolf pack of the same people weekly who didn’t like me for myriad reasons. Movie bloggers would often attack one another because So-and-So was invited to this or that or a blog didn’t land an interview with You Know Who and another did. Those petty fights flamed out quickly. Then the verbal brawls became darker, meaner, more personal. The ones who basked in making me miserable figured my hypersensitivity out quickly and had an easy go-to: my depression. They took extreme pride in calling out my mental illness, and others would join in and laugh at my struggling mental health. They knew how to hurt me — I was once told that this place would be better if I killed myself. I never knew how to handle this cruelty. It was smothering me, and my real life was suffering as a result, so I drank a lot, and when I was at that point of no return, I replied with the ugliest things I could imagine because I wanted these people to feel the same pain and wanted that pain to last as long as it did for me. I wanted to hurt them so bad they would leave me alone. It only made things worse. Good people were hit in the crossfire of the verbal feuds — collateral damage. The ones who despised my existence had sharp knives and were always ready cut to the Chase when I messed up with my writing, an opinion, or almost any thought I tweeted. These people were cold to me, but I still feel contrite when I think about the things I said during those Twitter fights because that’s not who I was or how I was raised to talk to others. I just couldn’t handle the affliction, so I abused alcohol as a reason to cope and fight back the wrong way. To be fair to all parties I brawled with, I also started asinine fights with them as well, often for no reason other than hate and immaturity, and it was childish. I should have handled it better, but I didn’t.
When GATW hit its peak, so did my drinking. I was being flown all around the world by large companies to cover prominent film festivals like Sundance and Cannes in France, and all of this instant success encouraged my anxiety, arrogance, and drinking. (Stella Artois sponsored my trip to France, so it was impossible not to drink.) I didn’t know how to handle the success — it was almost overnight. GATW started out as a fun college movie website in which we spent the weekend watching movies and making silly video reviews about what we watched, and then I blinked and was in France sitting across from Ryan Gosling on a yacht, talking about Drive.
At film festivals, you get invited to a lot of parties, and if you go, you have the freedom to mingle with celebrities. I wanted to be a part of that culture. I wanted to fit in and mingle with the stars, and I did, but I had to be drunk to be able to enjoy myself. I went to a lot of parties because it was euphoric being around people I’ve watched on the silver screen my whole life, and I felt something I hadn’t before — I finally fit in. I’m not proud of this because I started missing movie screenings and interviews because I was hungover the next morning. The reason a film journalist goes to festivals is to watch movies, review them, do some interviews, and go home. Not party. I tried to do both at the same time and failed.
I shut down the site after Cannes because ad revenue declined and we had gone as high up as we could. We were covering the biggest film festival in the world with the biggest outlets in the world, but they were making tons of money and we were not. With managing 21 writers around the globe, I couldn’t offer them anything anymore. Shutting down the site is one of the most painful things I’ve had to do in my life. I announced the closure at 9 a.m. CST after I returned from Cannes in May 2011, and I had already gone through a pint of Maker’s Mark while bawling to “Transatlanticism” on repeat. (Yeah, it was that bad.)
I don’t regret my time as a professional film critic, but I do wish I had handled it more carefully. I had this romantic vision of how my life as a film journalist was supposed to be, and it didn’t turn out that way.
I was in my late 20s and single, and once I shut down the site, I took an opportunity to move to Los Angeles and freelance write for dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites — MTV, Film Threat, The Playlist, Twitch Film, Flaunt Magazine — the heavy hitters. Moving there was one of the greatest mistakes of my life because I made it a mistake.
This is where, as they say, the shit hit the fan (but the shit was already all over the fan and walls). When I ran GATW, movie studios gave me an avalanche of opportunities –– interviews with any actor or director, flights to visit sets of big movies to hang with the cast and director, early access to movies — anything I wanted. I felt important. When I announced the closure of GATW and began to freelance in L.A., I received a ruthless gut punch that put me in a hard, dark suicidal depression that took me years to conquer: The studio contacts I made and worked with a lot during my time running GATW no longer replied to my emails or texts, and the people I discovered and hired for GATW were now on to bigger and better things. I was stuck still struggling. Instead of being happy that these outlets were paying me enough to live in L.A. full-time and being thrilled for my writers’ success because I discovered them and gave them a chance and because GATW was their tipping point to what they are (deservingly) doing now, I was raw about everything. I was jealous. The decision to go freelance made me feel like a nobody because I was now just another cog in the machine. Making money was now at the mercy of the outlets I was writing for, and I often had to write embarrassing “editorials” like “hottest stars of the summer” to help pay rent. My dream was to write full-time as a film journalist, and here I was doing it, and I hated it. Movies became a chore. I worked from home and began to walk up the street routinely, stocking up on cheap whiskey, and drank while I wrote. I would be drunk and passed out before noon. I didn’t recognize this was a problem until it was too late. I was so depressed and angry. I thought studio people were my friends. I thought these massive stars I connected with were my friends, too. They only needed GATW’s popularity to help with their job and success (which makes complete sense in hindsight), and I was too vain and naive to see that. It never occurred to me that “it wasn’t personal, it was just business,” and I stubbornly learned that I was expendable once I was no longer the CEO of a once-popular movie website. My services were no longer needed. It stung, bad, so I drank as much and as hard as I could. Everything felt unfair — I worked so hard with GATW and was now back at the bottom. I should have enjoyed what many strive hard to do, but I was too focused on wanting to be numb and miserable and making everyone around me miserable. It worked, and it’s now why I don’t have many people in my life anymore.
If This Were a Movie, This Would Be the Second Act
I decided to leave the West Coast and moved to New York City. My second night set the tone for that experience. I celebrated my new beginnings by drinking with friends until I became blackout drunk. In my haze, I left the apartment I was staying at without my keys and ended up barefoot in the blistering cold. The police (who came to assist me and let me sit in their car to warm my shoeless feet) and a locksmith became involved. The very generous friend I was staying with was almost evicted as a result, and that friendship ended (which I deserved). I stayed in New York and just worked and went to a local bar every night. Eventually, I moved back to Texas to be with family. I mention New York because when I lived there, I was always alone, and the loneliness ate me alive while I drank, and this was about the time I started taking my anger out on everyone. I was bored and drunk, so I would send texts to friends with gibberish because I was so intoxicated and angry at the world. I texted things I shouldn’t have and lost a lot of respect and friends as a result. Alcohol is a cruel beast, but I made the choice to get drunk and send those texts.
So many dream of living in Los Angeles or New York. I did both back-to-back and did not enjoy my time in either place because I was always drunk and sad and bitter — therapy didn’t help, and I hated AA (the holding hands [for prayer] and ample cheery atmosphere made me uncomfortable). I tried sobriety on my own terms many times, but I always relapsed. I lied to my family and the internet, claiming to be sober when I wasn’t because I knew someone would judge me if exposed, so I became a closet drinker. I was ashamed about lying, but I felt like I couldn’t function without drinking because it helped ease my anxiety and I was too distracted to know at the time that there were healthier ways. I had forgotten who I was.
Alcoholics are very lonely, so my dating life was joyless and dramatic. Relationships always ended fast because alcohol was always involved, and some cruel shit was said by someone (mostly me). When dating went sour, I would drink and say the meanest thing that came to mind because it made me feel better for a fleeting moment, and then I felt like a real piece of shit the next day. Was it a lifetime of mental abuse and bullying that made me say these ghastly things? No. Emotional trauma leads to unusual behavior, but it was my choice to drink and take my pity party out on others with horrible words.
Once I returned to Texas, I made a plan: finish my undergrad, land a job, and live simple. I was 31. My sister had a baby — which makes me a proud uncle — and I had to move back to Denton for school. While completing my undergrad, I was still drinking a lot — I always gave myself an excuse to drink, even though I knew my time with the sauce needed to end. By this time, most of the people I cherished in life had gone away. I met new people who did not know of my history of drinking, and the cycle started over. I did graduate college, and I worked freelance as a copywriter. Eventually, I lost interest in writing and movies for a long time. I felt that I didn’t have anything else to offer the world. I had been writing for so long and didn’t know how to do anything else (except drink and piss people off), so I just went out every night, drank, went home and slept, and suffered through the colossal hangover. It was a self-punishing cycle I felt I deserved. My penance for all the awful things I said to people.
I was done with my undergrad and didn’t know what to do, and after sleeping my life away for months, I stopped feeling sorry for myself and applied to grad school, which changed the course of my life forever. Much to my surprise, I was accepted. I was going to do things right this time — not drink, focus on school, graduate, secure a good job, and appreciate everything because essential lessons were learned and life was finally going well in Chase Town, U.S.A. However, life has a way of throwing some traumatic curveballs when you least expect them, and it’s usually when life is going great.
I’m going to share something with you that I don’t like to talk about. It was August 15, 2017, Dad’s birthday, and I called him to wish him a happy one. The phone kept ringing, so I hung up and didn’t think much of it. Before I tell you the rest, you need to know that my dad was one of the most significant people I’ve had in my life. He was a hard man to upset. I know because I tried a lot as a kid. He lived a challenging life, blind and mentally disabled due to a brain tumor and a surgery gone catastrophically wrong that ruined his life forever. He could not drive or do anything but sit at home, and he did this with a smile for his kids for 30 years because he was a warrior. Dad was resilient and endured, keeping that smile for his kids, and did the best he could. Fast-forward to August 15, 2017, and he’s 65, had lived 30 years alone, unable to do anything, needed a ride to get a haircut and groceries, and barely saw his now adult son. (I was a lazy son to him in my adult years, and it’s something I’m trying hard to improve on with my mom.) So he drank. Dad was on so many medications for his health. He could have one beer and be highly intoxicated. When he drank, he would call crying because he had regrets of not seeing my sister and me more when we were younger and missed us. I called him the day after this birthday, and he was drunk and upset because he thought I didn’t call him on his birthday. I had just changed my number to a Fort Worth one, so he didn’t recognize it and didn’t believe I called on his special day. Since he was drunk, I hung up. I called the day after that so we could talk about it. He was sober now but still upset because he still believed I didn’t call him on his birthday. We argued, and I told him he needed to get help for his drinking. He told me I needed to get help for my drinking. Frustrated, I told him I didn’t want to speak to him for a while and hung up the phone. He died three days later.
This is a regret I have to live with for the rest of my life. It keeps me up at night. Our argument came out of love — we both wanted each other to seek help — but my last conversation with Dad before he died was an argument, and it haunts me every day, and my last words to him will always be the albatross around my neck.
The last two years of my life have been a rollercoaster barely on its tracks. Dad died two years ago, but it still feels like yesterday. I can still hear my sister’s shattered scream when she got the phone call and the devastated look on her face before she said these words: Dad passed away. People say grieving gets better, and that irritates me. Grieving never gets better. It changes, but it never gets better. There’s also no right way to grieve. For a while, I chose a wrong path but changed that.
When my dad passed away, we heard amazing stories from his friends and neighbors of him doing noble acts for them or gushing about his kids. We knew he was a great dad, but he was always “just Dad!” to us. Dad was well loved, and his legacy is that he was a good person and selfless, and he always did the right thing. Hearing these incredible stories made me think about my legacy. I didn’t want to be remembered as a drunk asshole, so I knew that I needed to re-write my life’s narrative again, and that meant making major life changes. My dad lived a challenging life with limited options, but he always kept his head up despite the tough obstacles he had to face. It made me step back and realize that my troubles were child’s play compared to what he had to tolerate. His legacy encouraged me to better my life.
The bittersweet irony of Dad’s death is that it’s the reason why I relapsed but also the reason why I finally sobered up for good. I want to make him proud by rebuilding my legacy as the good person I once was. During our last conversation, he told me he wanted me to seek help, so I did on December 20, 2018. I went to AA (again), put the bottle down (again), but this time, alcohol is in my rearview mirror for good. Moreover, when I finished grad school — and I don’t know how I did it — I earned my master’s magna cum laude. A monumental achievement I wish I could have shared with Dad.
As mentioned, I am mentally ill. I really want to drive this home because of that stigma that mentally ill people are dangerous. Again, I’m not dangerous. Beyoncé is mentally ill, and Queen B isn’t dangerous. Mentally ill people are scared, sad, and hurting all the time and don’t know why or what to do to improve, and they’re afraid to tell others out of judgment. As you’ve read, I have been judged harshly for my mental illness. I finally embraced it and went public with the hope that it helps others know this: It’s OK to hurt. I never wanted to be cruel to anybody, but I was. They say hurt people hurt people. I don’t believe that, but I hurt, and I did hurt. I still hurt, but with alcohol out of the equation, I’ve learned how to control my pain with a clear conscience and now make better decisions. I’m eight months sober — the longest I’ve ever gone — and it feels like I’ve hit a homerun.
Since we are in the circle of honesty, you need to know this: Being sober is very challenging. It takes extraordinary concentration and patience to steer clear of booze when you’re an alcoholic. It’s become easier, but there are bad days when I want a drink, but I don’t make that trip to the store or bar. I’ve learned how to take on difficult times with a sober mind.
Being sober also means starting over in many ways. You have to re-learn how to socialize and figure out new ways to navigate around alcohol and still have fun, as well as manage frustration or sad situations in a calming, rational way. I’m doing it, one day, sometimes one hour, at a time. A major reward is that I’m no longer a liability to my friends, family, and life.
I’ve been sober and relapsed many times and have made many sincere apologies. Most have forgiven me. Some have not and for good reason. I understand. Regardless, it was important to try to reach out to as many people that I hurt as I could and let them know that I am sorry for hurting them. Alcohol, hysteria, and cyberbullying were culprits, but I still made the choice to drink and hurt others. I finally made the choice to wise up, live simple and well, for good. There are still people out there I would love to apologize to because they deserve it, but I may never have the opportunity. There are also people that I hurt who will never know that I turned my life around, and I guess that’s OK. I need to focus on staying on the right path. Things are exceptional again with family, and my mental and physical health have improved tremendously.
I want you to know that being an alcoholic is a choice. Hurting others is a choice. Mental abuse didn’t make me an alcoholic, being bullied didn’t make me an alcoholic, not kicking that football the universe pulled away so much didn’t make me an alcoholic — sure, all of those things contributed heavily, but I chose to drink to cope with those problems, and the choice to drink to cope with my issues is what made me an alcoholic. I take full responsibility for my foolish words and choices from long ago. Now, I choose to be sober. I used to let alcohol take the wheel when I didn’t know how to handle hard times, but now I’m in the driver’s seat with a clear conscience, fully in control of my words and choices when a storm hits. I’m 36 and have a full life ahead of me (at least until death catches me). I’m writing again and watching tons of movies. The best part? I wake up every morning with a clear head, and I’m now looking at a clear sky.