Alcoholism can create chaos, loss, and even despair. Many battle the addiction up to the breaking point before finding the way out. Overcoming alcoholism, however, can lead to a singular grace, a new life, and a more profound understanding of self. On a recent Chicago morning, Paul talked about his past, present, and future journey through alcohol addiction, his love of the bass guitar, and the importance of the punk rock band the Sex Pistols. To protect his privacy, his last name—and his face—are withheld from this essay.
Paul has been sober since April 5, 2001, an occasion he has marked in ink. (Emilie Syberg/MEDILL) Paul experimented with alcohol as early as 12, mixing vodka and water to sip while riding his newspaper route. In high school he moved on to drinking with his “punk rock” friends every weekend. (Emilie Syberg/MEDILL) Hobbled by alcohol, Paul won a college football scholarship but flunked out of school twice. For the next 16 years, he worked at restaurants, played in bands, drank, then “moved when the fun ran out,” everywhere from Ohio to Tennessee.
(Emilie Syberg/MEDILL) Paul plays bass, guitar, drums, keyboards, violin, but is just “passable on a sax.” (Emilie Syberg/MEDILL) Walking the path to sobriety is a navigation of major ruts and cracks. Paul’s first marriage ended, his job disappeared, and no one returned his phone calls. “Everyone gets a custom built ass-kicking just for them,” Paul says. But God literally pulled him back from the brink. With the help of a friend, Paul began attending daily Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. (Emilie Syberg/MEDILL) Paul talks about the quotes that hit home in the AA book. “It says right in this book, ‘We found that alcohol was but a symptom.’ You get to this point where you realize that alcohol’s a cloaking device for you to be able to say, ‘It’s not my fault!’ I’ve come to learn that ‘I’m sorry’ means ‘Look out, because I’m gonna do it again.’ Always.” (Emilie Syberg/MEDILL) “I still have the exact same gratitude that I had when I got [to sobriety]…more…tenfold. A thousandfold,” Paul says. “When I think about all the people out in the city—right around this neighborhood right now—who are just sitting and chugging them back because they have to, because they don’t have any other choice, or they don’t know that there’s any other choice…in the program, they call it “the gift of desperation.” I’m just desperate enough to turn around and say those three magic words: I need help.” (Emilie Syberg/MEDILL)
Paul searches for albums at Reckless Records on Broadway. (Emilie Syberg/MEDILL)