By Michael James Frizzell
As I write, I notice the leaves have begun to fall from the trees. I am in Paris, sitting in a cafe, waiting for my colleagues to join me.
The light is magnificent but the wind off the Seine cuts through my overcoat and pierces my heart. I can’t help but look back over the last 40-plus years and remember the struggle; how hard life has been, how much it’s changed, and how I’ve exceeded my dreams.
I left home at 17 and joined the Marines. Three years later I got out after two tours in Vietnam. The year was 1969. I survived the War but lost my God and my innocence. I had constant ringing in my ears; I suffered from panic attacks; I had nightmares and couldn’t sleep. The only thing that kept me from ending my own life was alcohol.
I discovered the power of drink at 19. A young Marine Lieutenant gave me a spare set of his second lieutenant bars and took me into the officers’ club in Da Nang. He ordered a Rum and Coke and I followed suit. When the Rum started to take hold, I thought I had found God. I looked up to the heavens, my hands stopped shaking, and I had a feeling of well-being. I actually thought I could make it. I chased that Dragon for many years. I lived a life of remorse and deep sadness during this period of drinking.
I came home from the War to a country of unrest. I felt ostracized. I enrolled in college; I needed to become as educated as possible. My mother had left the family when I was 15 leaving me and my two younger brothers with my father. He found a new wife immediately. After this, I never felt part of a family. My three years in the Marines and my Vietnam experience pulled me even further away from any connection. I was alone.
I went to school and worked full-time. My drinking was getting worse. Now I needed amphetamines to keep up with my schedule. I rarely slept. I was on a path of destruction. The sadness and shame I felt was pulling me further into the abyss. I dropped out of school and quit my job.
I moved to a beach community and the sound of the ocean helped drown out the constant ringing in my ears but nothing helped my dependence on alcohol. I got a job in a bar and I was starting a marijuana business. I was a mess, without fears or morals. I was out of control.
The inevitable train wreck arrived and I was sentenced to 18 months behind bars from two different busts. It was 1979. I’d married not long before, and they took my wife to jail with me, which almost killed me with guilt. I waived my preliminary hearing so she was cleared immediately.
With an impressive War record and a lot of money for a good legal team I continued the case for a couple of years. In the meantime we had had our daughter, but by this time I had added cocaine to the alcohol problem. Cocaine let me drink for longer periods of time. I never slept.
My wife was losing all respect for me and needed to save herself and our daughter. I remember the day she left. She had my daughter in her arms and I watched her walk up the stairs to the street and out of my life. My neighbor, a Native American screenwriter, was crying while witnessing this. Horrifically, all I felt was relief. Now I could drink and use cocaine without anyone bothering me.
I went from a talented young man and a well-respected Marine to a full-blown alcoholic in a relatively short time. I wasn’t 30 years old yet.
I lost my case and would be sentenced in the coming months. I was running out of money. I was evicted from my house and had to give my dog away. The booze and drugs were not helping me at this point … I cried like a baby. It had been a long time since I felt anything ….
I made my way to the Veteran’s Administration (VA) hospital in Westwood and checked into the mental facility. I was being processed when I started to have a panic attack. Without alcohol and cocaine, the world started to crash down on me. I could barely breathe. The thought of being in a mental hospital and facing life sober in the middle of losing my family and my dog, was unbearable. I escaped. I crashed on friends’ couches and lived in my car. I told my lawyer I was ready to go to jail. It had been two years since the arrest, without priors, and being a decorated Veteran, the judge only gave me six months with work furlough. I had dodged another bullet. Jail was like a rehab center for me. I got out in four months. It was the first time I had been sober in years.
The day I got out was memorable. My wife agreed to take me back if I didn’t drink. My intentions were noble, as they always are with an alcoholic. I walked out of jail into the warm embraces of a friend and his girlfriend. I noticed that getting out of jail was much more festive than going in. They both were full-blown alcoholics and had a blender in the van. They handed me a margarita as I climbed in the back. Needless to say, I boarded the train south dead drunk. When the conductor barked out my stop, I staggered off the train to my wife’s sad eyes. A month later she asked me to leave. I was homeless once again.
The shame of hurting my family had put me into deeper despair, but I needed a job badly. I was introduced to a restaurant owner, a Chicago gangster who didn’t seem to mind I had just gotten out of jail. He hired me on the spot and I ended up being the General Manager within three months. I had Carte Blanche in the place, with many perks. Six months later I stared at a .45 pistol in my ocean view apartment contemplating suicide.
I was arrested five more times for alcohol related incidents. I would wake up in the drunk tank and the only reason I never had a DUI was because I had a Purple Heart license plate. I’m so grateful I never killed anyone.
I continued on this downward path for many more years. I was sentenced to another year in jail for my second drug bust. I was married and divorced one more time. Another train wreck. I went back to sleeping on couches and in my car, but I had joined a beach club when I was married, so I could shower and use the facilities. After tennis I would swim out to the club’s raft and think. Thinking was always a problem … but for a homeless drunk I was living pretty well.
I bumped into a member’s wife one day on the beach. She knew how I lived — it wasn’t easy to hide. She said she wanted to invite me to a meeting she was going to that night. I rarely turn down an invitation from a beautiful woman, so I agreed. Before going to the meeting we met at her house and she told me she had been sober for over a decade. She asked if I wanted to get clean and sober. I told her I had tried many times but always went back to the bottle. I didn’t have the strength, and I told her I was different and that she probably shouldn’t waste her time. She said if I wanted it badly I could do it. One day at a time.
She was my angel it turns out, and saved my life. It was a 12-step spiritual program that gave me the opportunity to be honest about my life and where I’ve been. I was able to rediscover the kid that I was before I went off to War, and lost myself and all hope. I learned in the meetings that these people felt a lot like I did. For the first time in a long time I felt that I wasn’t alone.
I stayed sober for three years until I was having more panic attacks from my PTSD. The VA prescribed me Xanax. After taking my first Xanax, I was drinking within four days. My life quickly spiraled out of control. I got back in the old business, and was arrested again. My daughter and I had grown closer and now I was going to miss more milestones in her life.
I let so many people down. Most of all, I had let myself down.
Thirty days before reporting to jail I stopped taking the Xanax and drinking. I didn’t sleep for several days. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I walked into jail sober. I walked out eight months later and have lived a sober, spiritual life one day at a time ever since. It had taken me 11 years to finally surrender and give myself permission to be sober.
There have been some very tough times during my 19 years of sobriety. Many friends and family members have passed away, including one of my best friends and my younger brother to pancreatic cancer. I have remained sober through it all. I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer (because of Agent Orange) three years ago. I am now cancer free.
I live the most extraordinary life now. That lost kid has turned his life around and exceeded his dreams tenfold. By living a sober life, one day at a time, and carrying the message to other alcoholics, anything is possible.
I’ve written the end of this in Dakar, Senegal — the Western most city in Africa. My team has done amazing work there, educating the African leaders on global warming solutions. We’re now ready for the next meeting of the Montreal Protocol, in Dubai, which I will be attending.
Michael James Frizzell has been traveling the world the last 11 years working on Global Warming education. When he is home in Santa Barbara, CA, he works with Veterans with war related issues. He is currently working on a book of short stories called Places I’ve Done Time. Hollywood is interested in turning his stories into movies.