Cunning, baffling, powerful

Time to revisit a life changing story because it is especially relevant today in my sobriety journey. Well-meaning friends who don’t understand the significance of sober living or the insanity of alcoholism suggest, “Larry, you’ve been sober 41 plus years. Surely, you’re no longer alcoholic. A beer or a glass of wine won’t hurt.”

Perhaps not.

But why take a chance? My friends who do drink alcohol, when they drink to excess, remind me that the same insanity and heartbreak is still out there waiting for me. And I always drank to excess. Social drinkers were out of my league, I liked to get down there in the gutter with the drunks and derelicts.  My drinking buddies never understood, my family and lovers never understood; but I, Larry Paul Brown, could not sit down and have just one beer or one drink.  For me, one was too many and ten were never enough.

Alcoholism has not changed; but I have changed, and I know today that it is a disease of the body, mind and spirit. Only a Power greater than I can relieve me of my alcoholism and I will not be cured of this disease until I die. What happens after death is the mystery which God, as I understand God, will unfold.

“Cunning, baffling, powerful” is my disease. 

This is my story.

If you are one who remembers the music, sit back and reminisce. If you don’t remember it, that’s OK also. My point in composing this page is to remind myself and other recovering addicts that not always in our addictions was life unbearable. There were good times interspersed with the horrible episodes of drinking and drugging. We had great music and most often loyal friends. Many of us were functional alcoholics with relationships and families. Until recently I painted those years as absolutely dark and void of any joy. I refused to entertain the thought that remembering those times could be therapeutic and possibly uplifting. Faith in an unfailing God has strengthened and encouraged me to revisit those days. Of course, today it is not the same. I don’t fill my head with a steady diet of rock and my predominant interest now is contemporary Christian music.

I celebrate a sober life, clean and serene, remembering some of the great artists of the time who suffered through their demons and did not make it to a time of recovery. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison are just a few who died. They made great music.

The music of our generation defined who we were. The 1960’s rocked. We rebelled, we protested, we despised the hypocrisy of our government, our parents and our society. We embraced the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan sweeping into the 1970’s a newfound freedom in drugs, sex, rock and roll. The Vietnam war and Woodstock showed the world how polarized we had become. Most of us survived and matured to become upstanding citizens and family people just like the generation before us. Some of us stayed in the 1960’s drinking and drugging ourselves into oblivion. Many died.

The music is epic. Only recently have I been able to listen and reminisce comfortably. It no longer takes me to a dark time. It’s merely part of my journey.

‘Nam was a huge part of the late 1960’s for young American men. The government conscription which was in effect struck many of us as discriminatory and unfair as evidenced by the large numbers of draftees who were poor, unable to obtain deferments, and African-American. It seemed that a disproportionate number of men from those groups were drafted into the Army and trained for Vietnam.

It has been argued that indeed a large number of those sent to Vietnam were from these groups; however, not because of discrimination in the system but because they lacked the skills and education for employment in the States. Vietnam looked like opportunity to improve their lives.

Whatever the circumstances were, many young men succumbed to a habit of alcohol and drugs in the jungles to combat loneliness and fear. Those of us who managed to serve in other foreign countries and the States were not immune from the effects of war. My service in the hospital corps put me in daily contact with amputees returning for rehabilitation and with emotionally debilitated soldiers and marines. There were also numerous drug and alcohol abuse casualties.

I also relied on alcohol to combat my fears and insecurities. My disease was rampant and easy to conceal because nearly everyone in the Navy drank, most of us to excess. That was simply the Navy way of life. However, the difference between my fellow corpsmen and I was that I was much more comfortable socializing with my patients than with my peers. I and the men and women to whom I ministered belonged to the same brotherhood of brokenness.  Music was a huge part of our lives.

1968 to 1970 were very tumultuous years.  My insanity and my drinking had resulted in an AWOL, a captain’s mast, a demotion and threats of time in the brig for behavior unbecoming a military man.  Yes, yes, yes, I am guilty; just put me away to wallow in my miserable existence.  But a compassionate LTJG law officer, apparently recognizing that the problem was not a discipline problem but rather a drunk out of control, went to bat for me and subsequently the Navy gave me an honorable medical discharge.

Free at last!  No more military regimen, no more uniforms, no more Navy Chiefs telling me what to do and when to do it.  Free at last.  My demons pursued wherever I went, no matter how far I tried to run or where I tried to hide.  They were beside me, in front of me, behind me and within me.  The insanity and the drinking became an acceptable part of my everyday life.  Everybody lived this way, didn’t they?  This was a new age, a new creed, a new way of living.  Family ties were broken, lovers were trashed, old traditions were discarded.  The almighty god of alcohol filled the God-hole meant for honesty, truth, virtue, fidelity, spirit and integrity.  And yes, my demons and I were free at last to live in an alcoholic chasm void of love or compassion or anything remotely human.

And so it continued for 10 years.

Then in January of 1981 God was looking at me, a sorry example of his creation, and decided to put it on the road to sobriety.  At the time I was unsure of his decision but did not have many options.  Honestly, I didn’t know it was God’s decision because I didn’t know God. Oh, I had some carryover from childhood of the vindictive, judgmental entity my family’s religion force-fed me.  But I decided at a young age that no god was better than their god.

What I did know was that my life had dead-ended and I needed to find a change or kill myself.  It was that simple.  Of course, in my estimation, being the alcoholic that I am, my excessive drinking was not the problem .  Other people, the job, my boss, money problems, my lover, my upbringing, etc. were the reasons I hated myself so much.  I could never come up with an honest appraisal of me.

I decided that I needed counseling to learn how to deal with the issues and people that were creating my unhappiness.  On the way to my first session with a psychologist at the hospital’s mental health center I stopped at a favorite watering hole for some fortification.  I sincerely believed my drinking habits were normal and ridiculed those who did not drink.

After just one minute of baring my soul to the psychologist he simply asked, “How much do you drink?”

“Oh, maybe a few at night,” I lied.

The incredulous look from that man behind his desk was worth more than a thousand words of professional counseling.  We both knew at that precise moment, “Bingo.”

That was my day of reckoning.  God had decided to take me out of my miserable existence and in the beat of a heart I became willing.  It all played out so clearly in that moment of acceptance.  It was a light being turned on in a darkened room.  I didn’t at that time know who or what it was that had opened my eyes.  God’s revealing of himself then was just a twinkling and has been an ongoing experience, which continues to this day.

I did know that my drinking habit had destroyed much of my life since that first beer at age 17.  From day one of my career in alcoholism I was addicted to a potion that made me fearless, charismatic and good-looking.  I was so cool sitting up there at the bar with a cigarette dangling from one hand and a beer or a scotch in the other.  I could do anything and be anybody I wanted.  I was intelligent and funny.

On that day in January of 1981 God crushed me. I said to the psychologist, “Yeah, let’s try it your way because my way just doesn’t work anymore.”

I was 34 years old and I had not an inkling of the road ahead.  If I had known what was in store for me, I probably would have said, “Know what? Maybe we can try this another time.”

I spent 2 weeks in detox, another 3 months in a counseling program and introduced myself to Alcoholics Anonymous.  Life since than has been one helluva ride.  Calmness and serenity interspersed with absolute, sober terror and suicidal moments convinced me that my alcoholism was indeed just a symptom of deep underlying emotional issues just as my AA friends always said.

My road to recovery has been unconventional and probably not completely AA approved. However, I find myself with substantial continuous sobriety and have been prodded to share my experience, strength and hope with others who may gain an insight into their own struggles.

Who prods me to do this? God, of course. Who else?

ain’t going back no more

I spent too much of this past weekend reflecting upon my stint in the Navy as a hospital corpsman during the Vietnam era. I returned to the insanity and chaos of the war years as I remembered and honored my brothers who died in those jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. Tonight, my soul aches anew. I still sometimes feel guilt for not being one of them. I should have been there beside them. For many years I thanked the God of my understanding for keeping me safely out of harm’s way. Today it’s easier to simply say I was just one of the lucky ones. My number was not drawn, my reassignment orders did not say Marine Corps training for assignment to Vietnam. But, was I really one of the lucky ones? They paid the supreme price, the family received condolences, insurance money, a flag, and a medal, and another warrior found eternal peace having died a war-time hero.

My duty station was the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. Having completed training as a psychiatric tech, none of the schooling prepared me for the pain I saw of returning warriors broken in limb and mind. They shared their horror stories, stories of terror and fear in the rice paddies and the jungles where they stayed high on dope just to survive the craziness that filled their minds. Those who lost arms and legs were rehabilitating in the orthopedic wards on the other side of the hospital grounds. They visited my wards in their wheelchairs and together the broken ones tried to heal one another.

One of my special assignments was that of body escort for a returning corpsman killed in action. My military bearing was never up to snuff from my first days in boot camp and it did not improve with time, but I somehow stayed out of trouble and made rank. It was considered an honor to escort a fallen warrior. I had lots of time to think as I rode with the dead young man to his funeral site in Virginia. I met the grieving family at the funeral home and began doing what body escorts are supposed to do. After the body was lowered in the ground, after the volley of gun fire, and after final taps from a nearby hillside, I returned to my motel room, cried like a baby and got drunk as hell.

I friggin hated war, I hated Vietnam and most of all I hated the government which had sent thousands of courageous men to their graves for the enrichment of the privileged, white boys back home in the safety of the USA. From that day forward my life tail-spinned into the drunken story of a sorry-assed man who couldn’t forgive himself for still being alive while too many had died. My untimely discharge from the military gave me ever more reason to pursue a new found career in drinking. Espousing anti-government sentiments from my barstool pulpit, I spent many nights with Jack Daniels and Cutty Sark informing other barroom patrons of the inherent evils of ‘their’ government.

I have detailed my sobriety story many times on this blog. It is indeed a miracle which has led me to self-forgiveness and acceptance of things which I cannot change. My drinking was my way of leaving my personal jungles and rice paddies behind and I am OK with it. I titled this post before I started writing it and now I know it’s a lie. I must go back remembering those who died, those who came back broken in spirit and body, and those who never again had a chance to live normally. They are all a part of my story and I can never forsake them.

Duane, Bryan, Joe – I’ll see you when I get there. SEMPER FI

on bended knee

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Many years ago I served my country during the height of the Vietnam War.  Just a hayseed off the farm, I signed up with the Navy to be a hospital corpsman not realizing my government was desperately needing men of valor and courage to go into the jungles with the Marines.  I merely wanted to serve in a role of service to others, not in any combat situations.  It was my upbringing as a pacifist that led me to this decision.

After boot camp, hospital corps school, neuropsychiatric school, and a year on the wards of Philadelphia Naval Hospital, I was due for my deployment orders.  On the psych units where I worked, I ministered to men shattered emotionally by the horrors of what they had seen and done in the rice paddies and jungles.  Nearby on the orthopedic wards I interacted daily with the men who gave an arm, a leg, sometimes all their limbs to a war which was becoming increasingly unpopular.

At the height of the protests in the streets of Philadelphia against the war, we were restricted to the base for our own protection.  It was then that I questioned our government, I wanted to know why young men and women were rallying in the streets.  Certainly, our approved government propaganda would not provide any truth so several of us began listening to “the underground radio”, a local radio station which aired anti-war music and anti-government dialog.  Our base command threatened disciplinary action if we were caught listening to this “commie-inspired”  nonsense in the barracks.

That was 50 years ago when I was a naively trusting 20 year-old.  In retrospect, I believe that I would have taken a more active role in the protest if I were not also battling my personal demons which Providentially shortened my military experience.  Today, I know on which side of the protest lines I would have stood.  My government was wrong, it did not deserve my loyalty or my life.  But, what does a hayseed fresh off the farm know?

In the news headlines we see professional sports figures taking a knee to express their discontent with a government that apparently has learned nothing from the horrors of the Vietnam conflict, the civil rights movements, the gay rights protests of the 1960s through the 1980s.  Many athletes are putting careers in jeopardy to show solidarity with African-American players who see an increase of racial injustice and oppression within America.  They refuse to honor an institution or a flag which denies them equality.

The current Administration is labeling them ‘unpatriotic’ for ignoring a symbol, a piece of cloth, or a song while attempting to coerce the NFL ownership to cave to the distorted concept that patriotism is defined by an unthinking adherence to tradition.  That tradition got over 58,000 American men killed in Vietnam.  Most of them were too young to understand the lies behind their government’s involvement in a conflict across the Pacific.  They could not fathom the corporate greed of the American military/industrial complex nor the powers that condoned a winless strategy.  They are undoubtedly true patriots whose sacrifice we should honor and revere, but we must learn lessons from their experience and never stop questioning our government’s agenda.

The one salient lesson I learned back then in Philadelphia is “you cannot trust your government.”  It was confirmed again during the Iraqi conflicts. Today that lesson is apropos when we consider the deep divisions brought about by opposing ideologies intensified by a contentious election amongst the people of America.  We don’t yet know what freedom-subverting designs are being implemented behind the façade of chaos and confusion.

The players who take a knee are doing so under the good graces of team ownership.  Like any job which any of us work, ultimately it is up to the owners what behavior is allowed on company time.  But this has become a much greater issue since the involvement tweeted by the POTUS.  He has negatively politicized the rights of each of us to express our displeasure with a government which we believe does not uphold the tenets of its founding documents.  He has denigrated the patriotism of the protesting players and in doing so he has categorized all of us who question the actions of government as being ‘unpatriotic’.  Choosing the playing field to voice discontent is debatable, but the right to do so is guaranteed by our founding fathers and is as heroic an act as participating in any military conflict.

Like the protestors on the streets of Philadelphia and Chicago during the Vietnam War, this voice of dissent must be heard.  Perhaps if our political talking heads had actually served their country in a military conflict as Senator McCain did, they would understand that saluting, placing hand over heart, removing hat, standing at attention does not a patriot make.  Patriotism goes much deeper than a superficial act of respect.

During Vietnam many died on the battlefields, many suffered, many were persecuted at home for expressing their love of a country which supposedly honors the free exercise of God-given conscience.  We were all brothers in spite of the government’s attempts to divide us.  Let’s remember that lesson as we face again a government which is lying to us and intends to split us to the core.  Don’t allow the lessons learned by blood and tears to be wasted on a corrupt, self-serving Administration.

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