It was New Year’s Eve 1997 and I woke up – or came to – being beaten-up in the back of a van. The one throwing the punches was Noah, a low-level drug dealer whom I had known for the previous seven years since my arrival in Los Angeles. We had been up for days partying with a small band of sorted characters, flying high with cocaine and the obligatory bottle of vodka just to smooth things out a bit. At some point the dope ran out, as it always does, and everyone crashes. For me, that meant the back of a van, which wasn’t all that bad considering the options. Choices are limited when you’ve run your life to the bottom.
The punches jolt me from my sleep. Noah’s yelling about something – who knows what – and I’m fending off as many blows as I can for someone who has just been jarred from a drug and alcohol induced stupor, groggy and defenseless. Any good street fighter knows the value of the element of surprise and on this chilly December morning I was caught cold. I was so busy fending off the assault that I don’t think I even threw a punch.
I’ve never been much of a fighter. It’s just not who I am. I got into a fist fight once when I was in junior high school. I got my ass kicked. Other than that day behind the gymnasium, I honestly cannot remember ever throwing a punch at anyone again in my entire life. So that morning in the van I was an easy target. And who knows, maybe I deserved it.
Noah finally ran out of punches and left. I stumbled out of the van and looked around. It was early morning. The air was crisp and cool. I just stood there…in silence. In that moment I knew it. What I knew was this – that if something didn’t change, nothing was going to change and I would end up dead. Maybe it would be from an overdose or from my body just giving up and collapsing under the weight of the past twenty-seven years of alcoholism and drug addiction. Or maybe it would happen like it did for Kenny – a bullet in the head. Either way it was only a matter of time and circumstance. In the end, drugs and alcohol always win.
I knew I had to make a choice. I could continue on this road that was leading to death or I could choose to live. After all the years of slavery to the bottle and the bindle; all the jails and institutions; all the broken promises and disappointments; all the people I’d hurt, on this New Year’s Eve Day it was all caving in. My soul was trembling. I was desperate as only the dying can be. It was a moment of truth – indeed a moment of clarity. I chose to live.
And so I started walking.
I ended up at a meeting that I was aware from a few years before during one of my countless vain attempts at sobriety. Clearly, I wasn’t sober, and in fact it would be another few weeks before I could remove the claws of addiction, get an honest foothold and begin my sobriety. But this was the day that things indeed changed, and I was able to make a move in the right direction.
I have asked myself what made that morning so different than all of the others that had come before it. The answer is that there was nothing different. It was the same desperation, wrapped in the chains of addiction, the same sense of hopelessness and aimless wandering; the same awareness of impending doom…and death. That’s why I knew that unless I made a move in a different direction I was a dead man. I was painfully aware that I had already begun to die spiritually. If I didn’t make the move, there would just be more of the same and worse, until one day I would cross that line of no return. I had seen it happen to others. Why should I be any different? I knew I wasn’t. It was, as they say, a sobering moment.
Dirty, trembling, sweating, and dazed with the terror of the nightmare I had just somehow simply walked out of, I walked in and sat down in the meeting. Everything in me wanted to bolt, but I didn’t. Somehow I stayed. That was over seventeen years ago and I’m still here.
So the day that changed my life started out with me being beat up in a van.
God’s grace can be like that.