• My name is Tom… 

    by Tom McMasters-Stone


    At Christmas I was walking along Geary Street in San Francisco; just enjoying the weather and the beauty of one of the greatest cities in the world.  Suddenly, I realized I was in front of The Clift Hotel, and, more specifically, The Redwood Room.

    I came to a dead stop, and a shiver ran through me.  This is where it had all started.  If only I had known back then what I know now… 

    Like so many others, I had been a huge fan of Herb Caen.  The latest scoop and the ins-and-outs of the City as only Herb knew it was the start of many a day for me.

    He often talked about his beloved vodka on the rocks, as well as his favorite watering holes, which included the Redwood Room; there were many others. 

    It was during my inaugural visit to the Redwood that I drank my first Stoli on the rocks; in Herb’s honor.  A couple of them actually.  It immediately became my drink of choice.

    It was not long before I discovered that I could drink more than anybody I knew, and that I loved every minute of it.  Vodka whenever possible, but red wine, gin, and even rum were adequate substitutes.  The best part of each was those nice single-serving quart containers they came in.  Very convenient.  A little girl asked me once how I got the cork back in the wine bottle.  I told her that I had no idea.

    I honed my drinking skills on trips to Nevada, to southern California, but mostly at home and on the decks and docks at Lake Berryessa.

    A friend of mine went into alcohol rehab about 18 months ago.  We were chatting after he got out about some of the things he had learned.  One thing he mentioned was they taught them to always pay attention and listen to those that love you.  I remember thinking at the time that the idea seemed odd and provocative at the same time.

    I am fortunate to have 5 women in my life who are brutally honest with me most of the time.  At some point each of these 5 women decided that I had a drinking problem and needed to stop.  Some had come to that conclusion early on, others were more recent converts, but they were now all together on the same page. 

    I dismissed the whole idea at first.  I came up with all kinds of excuses and reasons not to stop.  I liked it.  I loved going to Reno and Vegas with the guys, or just getting together for Monday Night Football.  Mostly, though, I just drank at home.  Nonetheless, the idea of always listening to those who love you was still swirling around in the recesses of my mind.

    I told myself that I didn’t have a problem.  After all, my behavior wasn’t really that out of the ordinary, right? 

    That time I passed out half in the dog kennel while putting the twin pups to bed could have happened to anybody, right? 

    And doesn’t everybody, at least once in their life, get found passed out on the kitchen floor by their daughter?  Of course they do. 

    And hasn’t every wife had to come down to the local watering hole at 3:00 in the morning to get their husband, who was passed out on a bench, just a few short hours before the start of Winters’ largest annual celebration? 

    And how about those Winters alleyways?  Doesn’t everyone appreciate their fine architecture and utility?  Those nice concrete strips up the middle serve as excellent navigational aids when one is walking back from the evening’s second trip to the liquor store.

    Or how about polishing off the full bottle of vodka in the freezer one night, only to fill it up with water, and put it back?  Doh!  Sure, my chemistry and hydraulics background escaped me, but that could have happened to anybody, right?

    I was in complete control.  I only drank on days ending in “Y.” I never, ever drove, and only one time did I drink before noon (our time).

    I sometimes ask my buddies when we are going to a baseball game because I don’t remember the last time we went to a baseball game.  Because I don’t.  Remember.  Going in the gate at the Coliseum, they told me I had to dump my fresh drink or chug it.  The correct answer was A);  I chose B).

    Back then I didn’t know there was anything called a “blackout drinker.”  People “fully” awake, talking, drinking, seemingly themselves, but they are not.  Turns out that I am one, at least sometimes.  I knew there had been a few times on trips when I had sheepishly asked over breakfast if I had done anything for which I needed to apologize, but the answer was always no, and I certainly didn’t know there was a medical condition with a name.

    Most alcoholics drink to compensate for something; to feel better about themselves, or to hide something- you know, the kinds of things with which the shrinks would have a field day. 

    So, that’s the question for me, early 50s; what happened, why then?  Prior to that I feel clear that it was just about partying with friends and having a great time; something I had not done much of over the years.

    Well, I was suddenly retired from one of the world’s greatest brotherhoods, and I miss those people every single day.  I don’t feel like I had anything left to prove, but there is nothing like the bond that forms from seeing the things we saw, doing the things we did, and making sure we all came back safely each time we went out. 

    As life so often does, it has been interfering with a great love story.  I expected it, I knew it was going to happen, but that does not mean that I have accepted it graciously.  I’m also sure my father dying had a part to play in it, not because of what we had, but because of what we could have had; what we should have had.

    Alcoholism is a disease, an addiction, with no known cause, and no cure.  That’s not an excuse for the behavior, of course, and there are even some alcoholics who have the disease and never start drinking.

    It’s not just a Skid Row disease, either.  I am a testament to the fact that it can affect anybody, and you are not shielded from it even if you are a firefighter, an elected official, a Scout leader and Eagle Scout, a soccer coach and referee, a baseball umpire, a father of four, a husband, and even a Citizen of the Year. It crosses gender lines, political affiliation, race, creed, and religion, and the rest of the dozens of other things that set us apart from one another.

    I finally decided I needed to quit.  One day I stopped at Safeway, bought a bottle of Stoli, and spent a cold winter day sipping it and watching movies.  Just before my last sip, I looked at it, said, “I am going to miss you!” and polished it off.  That was it. 

    However, most alcoholics who want to stop drinking cannot do it alone, so I didn’t really try.

    There are many treatment programs for addicts.  There are “step” programs from 1-12 and beyond, and there are resident and outpatient treatments centers for every addiction and price range.  Some are religious, others completely secular, and there are more than just a few groups that use the Zen philosophy.

    I started going to meetings.  I told myself that I needed more than the local meetings could give me, so I went out of town.  The truth, of course, was that I lacked the courage to show my face at meetings in such a small town.  Thankfully it did not take me long to get over that!

    Today I wear a necklace of multi-colored tokens that commemorate the months I have sober.  It looks like a row of Lifesavers candy, actually, which is very appropriate. 

    With any luck, it’s over.  I am back, and here to stay, but that doesn’t mean I can let down my guard.  I let my wife, my daughters, and myself down along the way.  Thankfully, my sons were shielded from it by distance, although one of my sons and I have been having discussions about whether or not he drinks too much, and that he probably has not fallen far from the “vine.”

    My wife and kids are thrilled, although I doubt that my wife will ever forgive or get over the fact that I drank gin & diet coke one desperate evening.

    They say that all addicts and alcoholics have to reach bottom in order to pick themselves up and get back on track.  Some of you know of my fondness for t-shirt design, and that led me to design my first sobriety slogan: “Your Bottom is Nicer Than Mine.” There are over a dozen now, but another of my personal favorites is “Nobody Flunks Bar Exams Like We Do!”

    When you slap a tape measurer on a curb, it shows that it’s only about 8 inches from the gutter up to the sidewalk.  For an alcoholic, the climb back up seems so much farther, and is usually the journey of a lifetime.  Some make it quickly, some slowly, some over and over again, and some never make it at all.

    I have learned that if you have ever wondered if you are an alcoholic, you almost certainly are one.  “Normies,” as we call them, do not have such thoughts.

    One of the hallmarks of overcoming addiction is a mandate to pass the skills and knowledge on to others.  Even somebody with just hours of sobriety can help somebody who may have only minutes since they decided they want to try.

    That’s why there are literally thousands of recovery programs all around the world just waiting for you to call or show up.  And that’s all there is to it; show up.  It’s very simple, really. 

    I didn’t say “easy,” I said “simple.”  It might very well be the hardest thing you have ever done.  It also might save your life.  Not only is alcoholism a disease, it’s a fatal disease; left unchecked, it will kill you.

    It’s worth a try.  What can it hurt?  And if you pick a program or meeting to try out and you don’t like it, pick another one.  Find one you like.

    I certainly prefer walking on the sidewalk over crawling in the gutter.  I know you will, too. 

      • David Lacy

      • March 16, 2011 at 12:26 am
      • Reply

      Best column you have EVER written (that I’ve seen anyway.)

    • Hey Tom, I resemble that remark!

    • Tom, keep on the course. Wishing you well.

      • Judy

      • March 16, 2011 at 10:48 am
      • Reply

      Important and beautifully written.

    • That took a lot of courage – both to face your dragon and to write this column. Even more to let others read it. Great job.

      • Michael Carl, MD (Christy Sillman's Dad

      • March 16, 2011 at 11:50 am
      • Reply

      Great article Tom! Having grown up with an alcoholic step-father, I know first hand what the disease does to the family members living with that alcoholic. Over the years, as an ER doctor, I have seen first hand how unchecked alcoholism kills people. It’s a drawn out, slow death, with the final event usually being an unstoppable bleed in the esophagus, or a massive hemorrhage in the brain, since the liver can no longer produce the needed proteins for coagulation. All the while, the family is suffering with the mental and social effects of alcoholism with their loved one. Thanks for a great article, and hopefully, many of you will take Tom’s experience to heart and put down that bottle.

      • The son....

      • March 16, 2011 at 11:55 am
      • Reply

      Well said father

      • Joe

      • March 16, 2011 at 7:49 pm
      • Reply

      Excellent Tom. Thank you.
      Let’s not forget the nicotine addict.
      My mom is back in the hospital tonight.
      Wish she’d found the “key” like my Dad did… “One day at a time.”

    • Tom, I have to say that the gutter has it’s merits too. It is not so crowded, people don’t bother you, you can look up skirts, and you have a place to sleep on your way to work.

      • James Melin

      • March 21, 2011 at 9:48 pm
      • Reply

      I’m glad we’re in the rooms together. Thanks Tom!

      • The young kid

      • March 22, 2011 at 1:22 pm
      • Reply

      Well said Tom. It is well worth the read, and dare I say it, the most intellectual way of putting a story I’ve ever heard.

      • Tom

      • March 24, 2011 at 10:27 am
      • Reply

      Thank you all for the comments. I was away over the late last week and the weekend in Yosemite, and am just getting caught up. Just saw a news blurb that Yosemite Valley is closed, snow, trees down, no power, rockslides.

      I am grateful that my drinking career, the over-the-top part anyway, was relatively brief. I have found through this, and other aspects of life, that the hardest butt to kick is usually your own.

      • Carla Kakutani

      • March 29, 2011 at 3:08 pm
      • Reply

      Thanks for directing us to your site and this column. I write a weekly email for the Sutter Medical Group Family Medicine Dept and always include 2 links that are uplifting/thought provoking/etc. Let me know if it would be OK to link to this. Great writing, and an even greater accomplishment!
      your MFF’s (medical family forever)

      • Norbie

      • June 10, 2011 at 12:54 am
      • Reply

      Thank You… I survived one of the most horrific periods of my life when someone whom I deeply cared for attempted to commit suicide… Because of her alcoholism, when our long-term relationship “blew up” in my face, I began attending 12 step meetings.

      As I began feeling “comfortable” in meeting rooms, our Dad learned he was terminally ill with cancer. The friends whom I met from The Program were with me as our Dad’s health quickly deteriorated. I would have not survived without their love, compassion, empathy & support. Trust Me.

      Recently when I shared that I felt like I was intruding on meetings, a friend commented, “The Program is there for people who know alcoholics or deeply care for friends dealing with issues surrounding alcoholism.” I immediately looked at her and said, “Because of you I qualify, right??” and gave her a quick hug and a kiss.

      Reliving these long forgotten memories has been very painful… Your comment, “…One thing he mentioned was they taught them to always pay attention and listen to those that love you. I remember thinking at the time that the idea seemed odd and provocative at the same time.” is really resonating with me this evening.

      I am truly humbled to be considered a friend of your’s Mr. McMasters-Stone.

      • Carol Brydolf

      • September 4, 2012 at 8:20 am
      • Reply

      Great column, Tom, and happy 30-plus days! Your story will help others; it’s helped me. Thank you for your honesty and your willingness to share your experience, strength and hope.

      • virginia

      • September 4, 2012 at 8:32 am
      • Reply

      you are an inspiration

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