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A Hard Year of Living Soberly

November 15, 1991|ARTHUR R. VINSEL

The day, dusted by grit blown up by passing traffic as I walk beside a rural highway, marks the end of my first year sober since 1961, when I drank my first alcohol, two beers at a teen-age house party.

One full year sober--without a hangover or a blank spot in memory--gives a man a few things to reflect upon. My mind wanders easily on this daily hike at first light. I walk in solitude and silence, save for the odd dog barking from a darkened farmhouse.

A few watchdogs know me now. They remain silent. I'm familiar, no longer a threat on my three-mile walk south from the bus stop to the sheriff's training facility in Riverside County.

I push a broom in hallways there, working off driving-under-the-influence jail time in public service. I used to push a pen and pound a typewriter in the news business, but that was long ago.

I didn't always travel by bus and foot.

I never injured anyone, but I was a drinking driver. I no longer drink, but I no longer drive, either. Work is scarce for a Southern California newsman with a bus pass instead of a driver's license.

I live in Olive House in San Bernardino, a recovery home for jobless and homeless veterans in a neighborhood where, in the wee hours of Sundays, distant Uzis are sometimes heard.

Once, I lived in a beach condo within hearing distance of surf and foghorns. That, too, was long ago.

I head for the 7-Eleven early on the weekend to pick up the Sunday paper for its grocery coupon sections. They make our food stamps go further.

What is it like, living in a nonprofit agency's recovery house with a handful of other vets who also search the shrunken help-wanted ads during a grinding recession?

It's not Date Night at Disneyland, as we see it.

We are grateful to the Veterans Care Project of California for providing a modest place to stay while we hunt for suitable employment or consider college or vocational training. We range in age from 32 to 50. We have about 18 years' college and a couple of degrees among us. We were craftsmen, professionals and skilled workers before we could no longer function well enough. We are in recovery now, but our economic recovery is not yet indicated.

One of us is a teacher with a background in archeology. He has a job as a substitute teacher. One bookkeeper and tax consultant now reports to a day-labor pool.

There is a bright, quiet guy here whose draft deferment ran out one semester short of his becoming a pharmacist. Instead, he became an infantry sergeant in Vietnam. He dares to hope for apartment maintenance work.

Almost every basic necessity is provided here, but we manage a bit extra, even those of us who can chip in only spare coins.

We must buy food for our cats. They make the place more homey.

Smokey, a gray-striped, potbellied, mischievous male shorthair, would eat as much as one of us each day if he could get it.

We got the female, a now-fluffy black-and-white runt, after she was rejected by her mother because of a spinal deformity. A Veterans Administration hospital social worker thought of us when the crisis developed. We weaned the foundling on creamy-rice baby cereal and bits of spicy hot links sausage.

She landed here in the jobless vets' alcohol-recovery house about the time America was welcoming Desert Storm troops home with $12 million worth of gala parades and ceremonies.

So, we named her Stormin' Norma.

A sense of humor is essential in recovery from alcohol addiction, a rather baffling disease of both body and emotions; one that is planted in the genetic makeup of its victims. Worldwide, we total about one-fifth of the human race, including people who've stopped drinking and those who haven't yet begun.

We are said to be among the brightest and best, the people most sensitive to beauty, emotional pain, fears of inadequacy or uncertainty of our simple right to live, love and be loved.

Think of that next time you see a wino in the weeds.

"You know, you guys are beautiful . . . you're wonderful . . .," is the way psychologist James F. MacMurray put it to 20 of us in group therapy at the addiction treatment unit of Jerry L. Pettis Memorial Veterans Administration Hospital in Loma Linda.

We at Olive House have completed the Loma Linda VA program, up to 12 months of comprehensive care dealing with our multifaceted disease and related problems. We must let childhood sorrows be ripped open and the memories of war in Vietnam be exhumed and exposed.

I have seen tattooed and bearded men who once would respond with fists, feet and the vernacular of the mean streets they roamed if their manhood were questioned. I have seen them hug each other and sob for pain, grief and loss they had stifled as being unmanly.

I am one of them.

Some of us learn we have other problems that must be faced and dealt with, if we are ever to live with a sense of emotional wellness, freedom and the capability to do and be what we want to do and be. Or, to simply be content with who we are.

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