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Yeah, no. Photo by Anthony Mariani.

 

 

I was about 10 feet in the air when I felt the contents of my lower intestine begin to force their way through the seat of my cargo shorts.

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Fudge.

“You OK?” my wife said, having just joined me on a landing with our 11-year-old son.

“I’m not doing well,” I whispered.

“What?”

“I …,” I began, sheer shame preventing me from meeting my soulmate’s eyes. “It’s … I gotta use the restroom.”

Go ziplining, they said. It’ll be fun, they said. Now here I was about to crap myself, and we were only on the first measly level of a 6-story structure. I had no idea what my body was trying to tell me. Maybe the heat was to blame. Maybe the height. Maybe it was the four? six? 10? Natty Lights I’d drunk the night before — just like pretty much every other night dating back to 2018. All I knew was that I had to get back on flat, steady land. The only problem was how. Rope bridges, ladders, and bright yellow zipline tracks shot off in all directions from the landing where I had set one palm on a support beam, casually, as if I didn’t want to hug it like an old friend with a $10,000 check addressed to me. From near the center of the three-dimensional M.C. Escher in which I had found myself, I was able to spy an escape. Or so I’d thought. The quickest way down seemed to start with crossing a “bridge” of around two dozen brown, plastic octagons, each about the size of a dinner plate, each sitting atop a vertical steel pole. This “bridge” looked like a series of geometric lily pads, but if you stepped wrong, you weren’t going to splash gayly into a refreshing pond. Your harness was going to snap (guaranteed), and you were going to plummet what seemed like 1,000 feet to your painful death. No railings. Just angular lily pads. And unforgiving open air. Still stuck on the landing, I watched my wife and son, D. and A., power across a rope bridge to my left. I looked down. My feet were swimming in my cavalierly, stupidly untied sneakers. Every part of my body below the waist was Jell-O. My heart skittered like Morse code. Shadow rimmed my eyes. My mouth was so dry, I could barely swallow. “Fudge.”

 

*****

 

This excursion to Twisted Trails was part of an alleged mini vacation. We were spending a few days in San Antonio visiting D.’s seventysomething parents at their new senior-center house. I think I Earl Campbell’d them to reach into the cooler for a Natty the second we walked through the door. The big idea to go ziplining definitely did not come from me. For me, afternoons weren’t for cheating death. They weren’t even for breaking a sweat. They were for kicking back and getting loose.

Like all of my close friends, every single one, I had been boozing off and on since high school. Unlike them, I’d been boozing nearly every day since my beloved older brother killed himself five years ago and nearly every day ’til exhaustion since the lockdown. A study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says that per capita consumption increased 2.9% in 2020, the fastest rate since 1968. Alcohol-related deaths also shot up 25% between 2019 and 2020, and Harvard experts said that, while the world may be back open, rates of alcohol consumption still hover around their pandemic highs.

Grief only worsens the situation. I’m 52, the same age as my alcoholic brother when he put his service revolver to his head and pulled the trigger and only about 10 years younger than my alcoholic dad when lymphoma claimed him. The volumes of literally hundreds of aluminum and glass containers over the years flooding my body have reduced my central nervous system, or CNS, to something like a dozen strands of last night’s spaghetti left out in the sun all day. I can’t believe I’d made it as far on the “amusement” ride as I had. It was only the first level, true. Still, I had to zipline from one point to another to reach the landing where I’d begun to clench my cheeks and plan my rapid descent. The whole time I was slowly falling apart. The whole time my central nervous system was failing me, the decades that I’d spent ingesting effectively poison stripping me of my ability to think rationally or control my haptics. I just didn’t realize I was doomed.

As I had been conditioned by our absurd, upside-down culture, I was trying to be alpha. You should have seen me on that first zipline. As my sweet son looked up at me (and possibly “to” me), I aligned the wheels of my harness to the track above, trying to hide my shaking. Then you’ve got to step out onto this tiny fucking ledge with nothing around you except unlimited sky and the tops of leafy trees and just fucking shove off. Into the air. I must have astral projected because I did it, and crossed another “bridge,” before my body started to shut down. Fact: “Fake it ’til you make it” works only when you’re sad and then even barely. The inspiring idiom has absolutely no bearing on central nervous systems pushed to the point of death by too much partying.

I haven’t always been like this, this sad, soft, pathetic kind of way. I used to be in decent shape. I could bench press way more than my own weight, and I could run three miles rather easily, even in the heat. The last time I tried jogging a couple of weeks ago, I had to stop after one and a half laps exactly. I could barely breathe, and tiny demons were stabbing my knees with flaming-hot pokers. Being about 1 stone overweight apparently conjures them.

I’d always considered myself more alpha than beta, on the ground or in the air. One summer in college, I roofed. Walking the pick took some getting used to, but I never felt I was going to evacuate my bowels into my clothing. I never felt less than alpha. On the landing, I had to “fake” alpha status as best I could. There was absolutely no way I was going to embarrass myself by calling for help from the very fit brats running the ride and patrolling it like Spider-People, and my wife would have been so utterly ashamed she would have made me walk back to Fort Worth. I would have rather fallen. Or shat myself. Or both.

If you started drinking socially in your teens and early 20s like the author (left), you can expect to suffer from a severely impaired central nervous system later in life. Or sooner.
Photo by Anthony Mariani.

Holding onto the harness strap above my head with a grip so tight I could have crushed a human skull, I step-step-stepped across the octagons. Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit, don’t look down, holy shit.

The CNS is quite amazing. It’s like our multitentacled CPU, guiding “everyday activities such as waking up; automatic activities such as breathing; and complex processes such as thinking, reading, remembering, and feeling emotions,” Google says. Too much drink depresses the CNS, slowing down brain activity while also messing with our mood, behavior, and self-control. Drunk People Doing Things isn’t freaking hilarious because everyone in the clips is executing perfect swan dives into pools or dancing expertly or riding bikes off roofs without fracturing several bones below. The follow is funny because we clearly love self-anesthetizing and celebrating our newfound temporary relief. Every buzz is a shiny, sparkly little gift from the gods, and we sure do love the sweet release that only alcohol can bring.

On the landing on the other side of the octagon “bridge,” I exhaled and searched for D. and A., the maze of ropes, ladders, and ziplines seeming to shift slowly in multiple directions at once like the gears in some rumbling monster machine. My options to earth had now been reduced to only two: either ride another mf zipline to who knows where — my vision kept zigzagging — or, no kidding, cross a tightrope Karl Wallenda-style. Super-hard pass. Hands still quaking, I aligned my harness wheels to the track above me and stepped out onto another stupid little ledge. I bit my lip while shaking my head — “got dang it” — and, once again, just fucking shoved off.

 

*****

 

The first time I tried alcohol, it was one of my dad’s Miller Ponies. Probably angsty about one real or perceived heartbreak or another, I simply opened the fridge one night while the rest of the family was asleep, popped the top, and took a sip. I recall recoiling in disgust and replacing the open bottle. There ya go, Pa. I did not develop an appreciation for the hooch until only about 20 years ago, perhaps not uncoincidentally around the same time microbreweries and craft distilleries began blossoming and producing real, solid flavor. I’m sure I still love it. Budweiser Zero’s not half bad. Heineken 0.0 is on the sweet side but decent. Alcohol-free wine has to be basically fruit juice. And I guess we’ll never know.

They’re getting me through, the N/A drinks, along with caffeine, spinach/pineapple/ginger smoothies, and sleep that’s real and restorative as opposed to the result of passing out after downing Natty after Natty until my eyelids closed.

The new normal may not be as scary as ziplining 60 feet in the air but is still a little challenging.
Photo by Anthony Mariani.

As I’ve read, most alcoholics dream of a day when they’re sober, when they’re finally free, essentially, and I know for sure I needed to dry out. It wasn’t my sadness bordering on rage that said I was drinking too much. Or my sneakily pigging out late-night. Or my sleeping in sometimes ’til 10:30. Or my inability to wait in line either at the supermarket or in my car without wanting to explode. Or my unreasonable anger about stuff I couldn’t control, like my son’s behavior in school or sucky showings by my favorite sports teams. And it wasn’t even my distracting myself even further from my life by scrolling ad infinitum — on quite a few nights, I’d stayed up late sipping on Kraken, dreading losing even an ounce of my buzz, when I swore I’d reached the end of Twitter and Insta. My phone was like, “There’s no more terrible news and definitely no more clips of adorable dogs, seven-string guitarists, or Kate Beckinsale.” A simple, seemingly innocent trip to Twisted Trails in San Antonio was all I needed to let me know I can’t do it anymore, that all this nonstop partying/self-anesthetizing is killing me.

 

*****

 

On the next landing, I heard “Dad” from above, and it could have only been A.

I looked up. “Yeah?”

“You coming?” he said.

“No, buddy,” I replied, shaking my head again, this time out of pure self-loathing. “I, uh, there’s … I gotta go … somewhere.”

“But, Dad, I need you.”

Now I know what you’re thinking. Tough guy Anthony Mariani manned the heck up and met his son on his level, which was somewhere between Story 3 and 4 now. Mariani, biceps blazing, then led his innocent, doting child all the way up to the top, where the two of them shredded their T-shirts, howled like wolves, and ziplined off into the sunset.

Thankfully, hanging my head in shame seemed to make me invisible because A. stopped haranguing me to join him and simply moved on. I guarantee you all 900 people there saw this and are still probably talking about the maybe-once-athletic Italian guy in the tight, gray Black Panther T-shirt who left his young son hanging — literally. I’d never been as low (also kind of literally). I still had no idea what my body was trying to say.

I had to cross another bridge, an Indiana Jones-y one that was comparatively easy. Still shitty and uncalled for but easy. Extending from the landing on the other side were, to my right, another zipline and, to my left, a nightmare that never should have gone beyond the conception stage let alone be built: two flat 5-inch-wide beams running parallel to each other about a foot and a half apart. Basically, Twisted Trails was asking riders to walk about 10 yards across a pair of really long skis 10 or so feet from the ground. Once again to the zipline for homeboy.

I was getting good at hiding my shit-pantsery. With my nerves still crackling and my sphincter ani externus still on lockdown, I hooked up the wheels of my harness to the track above and just fucking shoved off, got dang it. When I reached the landing, I scanned the tracks and paths above for A., who was shuffling across one of those tightropes with relative ease. His trick was to walk sideways. #genius

Then I peered down.

Did I … did I just go up a level?

 

*****

 

No, not up. A loop. The octagon “bridge” had appeared in front of me again. I wanted to punch myself in the jaw.

I can understand why alcohol becomes such a bauble to some of us. Growing up, I watched my father’s daily ritual. On the coffee table in front of him sat an opened pack of Luckys, a green maple leaf-shaped ashtray (a souvenir from trips to visit family in Canada), and either a glass of vino or can of Iron City. And while sitting forward on the ratty couch, sometimes with the gallon jug of Carlo Rossi resting on the brown carpeted floor between his feet, he would watch reruns of Gunsmoke, Sanford and Son, and F Troop all day and get bombed, sip by sip. Like a lot of Rust Belt guy-guys, my dear father had become unemployed after building a life for his wife and my three siblings in a country he had emigrated to from Italy without knowing any English. He was depressed. He was bored. He was angry. He drank it all away.

That’s what I was choosing. Between the hours of about 3 and 10 p.m. every day since 2020, I sipped on Nattys (and Ultras and Bud Lights) and Krakens, and sometimes margaritas, Bloody Marys, or wine, until that false, chemically induced version of bliss washed over me. No one was doing shots or pounding beers or anything or staying out late. Just sipping steadily to achieve, in my words, “cruising altitude.”

I functioned pretty well. I transported my child to and from school and activities, I did chores, I even managed to hold down a full-time job, one for which I had written some silly, offensive things back in the day which my editor olé’d into print and which, in the spirit of sobriety, I’m happy to apologize for now (again). Had alcohol not fogged up my brain pieces so much, I’m sure I would have been more present for all of it. I know I would not have been as absent and absentminded as I was. Or as needlessly mean and ignorant. “Edgy,” as I cruelly found out, only works when you’re on HBO or living in South Park. Writing for a small-town paper is a whole other thing.

This life that I had chosen was distracting me from the very important people in it. I did not see that my lack of thereness — avoiding problems, isolating myself, breaking promises — was the main driver of all the strife in our house. My poor family. Every time D. or A. saw me, there was a bottle or can of beer in my hand. Constantly asking themselves, “Is Dad/Anthony in charge, or is Natural Light?” likely made both of them feel unsafe, which is undoubtedly what led to the friction. When I stopped to consider my immediate and future selves back then, I saw only divorce and pain while living in some shanty with roommates of the two- and six-legged variety. And as my father did for me, I was creating a horrible portrait of fatherhood and adulthood for A. sip by sip. Like a G.D. baby with his bottle.

Facing the octagons again, I took a gander above to see that little dude was on Story 5. I rattled my head to correct my surely wonky vision, then sent my eyes back skyward. Holy cow. It really was him.

This 11-year-old afraid of grasshoppers achieved lower Earth orbit despite his father.
Photo by Anthony Mariani.

This was a big deal. Our guy and adventurousness do not go together. He has never ridden a rollercoaster, and he jumped about 20 feet the other day when a grasshopper flew in front of him. I’m surprised he made it past the harness-getting-on phase. And with some minor complaints about the contraption’s impact on his tiny junk, he plowed forward. And up. Bro was in the zone, inching forward carefully but steadily, surveying his terrain, analyzing routes. I had no idea this was my A. None.

Stepping out onto the octagons, my diseased CNS worked in my favor. I was pissed. On the landing on the other side, I dazedly surveyed the Rube Goldberg around me for A. again. Not finding him among the miles of twisted track and dozens of bodies overhead and all around, I pictured him, his entirety. My boy is sweet, creative, fun, a little crazy, and smart, and if he can force his young self through this horrific, patently offensive “ride,” I can make my way down one lousy level.

Eat shit, Twisted fuckery. Here comes Beer Man.

 

*****

 

I’m pretty sure all two dozen Twisted Trails workers saw my family enter the ride together. We are quite a sight: a tall, muscular Black boy, a pretty and fit white auburnhead, and me, a beefy, bronze goombah with a short black ponytail and graying beard. I can’t accurately describe the intensity of the smallness that overwhelmed me after my abbreviated amusement experience when I stood at the harness station on the ground — by myself — for what felt like two days waiting for one of the Spider-Brats to come and unhook me. I impotently tugged at the carabiners. I stopped and waited. I tugged at them again, this time a little rougher. I stopped and waited some more. I begged the sun to melt me out of my misery. I didn’t even have a phone to scroll through desirously — your pockets must be empty to enter the ride, so I left my device in the car. I just stood there like a stop sign in the desert — harness still fully strapped, everyone around me having fun, sun beating down on me seemingly out of spite — and wallowed in shame. Whether out of pity or from excellent training, the Spider-Person who finally freed me did not ask for the whereabouts of my wife and child. Thank you, kind girl. Thank you.

After nuking the bathroom, I hit the faux log-cabin restaurant next to the trails and did the bravest thing I’d done in the past hour or so: order a Bud Light in Texas. I’m supposed to say, “And that was my last drink for a long time,” but it wasn’t. I didn’t quit for another couple of days. I still had not connected my airborne shits/shakes with my alcohol consumption. Then, unrelated, D. mentioned her older sister, and that’s when I was able to piece together the beginnings of my sobriety effort. S. is a recovering alcoholic, and she was a world-famous scaredy cat until she stopped drinking. Now she says she can ride rollercoasters, tour haunted houses, go 71 in a 70, and enjoy lots of other low-stakes adventures that she couldn’t while booze was inundating her CNS. My goal now is to reach that level. And the second story of Twisted Trails.

Is Guido here on the wagon or a really high horse? I keep telling myself that I’m not shelving the booze permanently, which has made quitting somewhat easier. I continue imagining a day — maybe an afternoon at the ballpark or on the beach; maybe a night out with old friends — when I can imbibe without the ravenous compulsion to drink my face off and just cower from reality for a few hours. I’ve been out to eat a couple times, spent some time alone with booze in the house, even went to a wrestling match — the urge has been minimal. So far.

My therapist said it takes about a month for alcoholics or alcohol abusers to reach their new normalcy, and in the 22 days that I’ve been sober, I’ve seen some appreciable dividends. Along with sleeping better, I feel more productive and generally healthier. Not having to burp every 30 seconds or suffer through raging heartburn or go to the bathroom every 20 minutes has been a major plus. My wife is glad to be able to sleep through the night without being awakened repeatedly by my Metallica-concert-level snoring, and while I’m still an asshole, I’m a kinder, gentler one, which translates to: I may want to bark at my son for interrupting me when I’m working, but instead I just glare at him and say, “What?” See? Better.

Odd aside: The weirdest aftereffect of my sobriety has been the inability to stomach music from my past, when I had spent the last few years mainlining it for comfort. Now when I hear pretty much any rock or rap created between 1954 and the 2010s, I think, “Most of these cats are old or dead, and they’re not coming back. Most of their fans are old or dead, and they’re not coming back. My dear brother is dead, and he’s not coming back. The old me who loved this stuff is dead. I hope he’s not coming back.”

Odder aside: Amazon Music’s Classical for Dogs playlist is not just for dogs.

Google does not know when a severely impaired central nervous system can return to full power. The timing depends on the depth of the damage. For my internal spaghetti, it’s probably going to be a while. And I’m OK with that. My friend Steve went 24 months without a drink. It was court-ordered, but still. Like that guy in the meme who raw-dogged an 11-hour international flight with only a cup of coffee, Steve was raw-dogging reality. That’s old-man strength right there. I bet he would have torn up Twisted Trails. Just like A. was.

As soon as D. came down for water — she had reached Story 4 or 5 before her thirst overpowered her — she commanded me to retrieve my phone. We needed to document how far our child had come since we brought him home from West Africa when he was almost 2 and how far he had gone on this stupid deathtrap.

I was sitting on a bench enjoying my gay beer.

“But my phone’s back at the car,” I replied, twisting my head to meet her gaze. The fat on my neck bunched up beneath my chin, my swollen face about to explode like a tomato beneath a sledgehammer.

“Go get it, Anth,” she said. “Come on.”

But, but what if my Bud Light gets warm? What if a bee crawls into it?

“Anth?”

My very essence shrinking by the second, I decided to take the directive as an opportunity to show her — and all 899 other Twisted Trails silent smack talkers — that I was not as pathetic as my poor performance on the ziplines and bridges may have indicated. I bolted.

The hardest part was not the run itself, which was hot, tiring, and painful. It was coming back and pretending not to be completely out of breath. I handed the device to D., grabbed my beer, sat back, breathed in and out deeply a few times, and stared up.

You could barely see A. from where we were on the (firm, steady, wonderful) ground, a shadowy stick figure kicking major ass across the sky, just fucking shoving off and soaring. And I had absolutely nothing to do with any of it.

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