Coming to, I couldn’t figure out where I was, my blurry vision zeroing in on a wrought iron door, a bleak security gate surrounded by naked, dirty cement block walls. I felt a hard, tiny bed under my body. I guess I heard someone breathing close to my ear; with inner voices shrieking and my heart pounding as fiercely as my hungover brain, I turned to the room’s inner wall. There, lying next to me on that narrow, cheap mattress in that wretched cellar-like room, was a young man with light brown skin, his big, soft brown eyes staring at me with drive and attentiveness. I had no idea who he was. He wasn’t anyone I recognized.
The last thing I remembered, vaguely, from the night before, was staggering out of a bar/restaurant after drinking copiously with girlfriends before being poured into an older, grey-bearded driver’s cab. I was scrambling to put two and five together, and it all added up to zero. Foggily—ready to jump up, grab my clothes, scream and run—I noticed a padlock on the seedy metal security door. On the inside. I couldn’t even get out if I tried. I didn’t know where I was, who I was with, or what I was doing there. Had I been kidnapped? Was I in a sex-offender’s secret underground lair? This kid could’ve been an ax murderer. A rapist. A torturer. He actually may have been a rapist, since I came to naked, but I’m going to leave that part out of my memory of the story. If it ever even existed.
I didn’t know what to do. So I just started laughing. All I could do was laugh. It was either laugh or cry. At some point, it occurred to me: I really can’t believe I’m not dead yet.
Brush With Death Number ??
They say cats have nine lives. In my opinion, some people have more than that, myself included. I think I’m beyond “Brush With Death #9.” The others on the list—most before, but some even after this—are tattooed on my psyche. Getting hit by a taxi as a pedestrian. Facing down a midnight intruder in my apartment while wearing only my grandma’s vintage silk teddy. Staring down the barrel of a gun a church youth group “friend” pulled on me in the chapel. Being found passed out without keys on the stoop of my apartment building by neighboring teens. Signing over my paycheck to somebody at a drug-fueled after-hours party in a burned-out building I would later learn was a crack den. Denting our old Beamer while parking on a street near our house before passing out in the driver’s seat. Seeing a pattern?
A few experiences were beyond my control, but most weren’t random acts of bad luck, inappropriate chance or crimes of opportunity: the list was becoming darker and danker. I was looking at life through the wrong end of a bottle. One mostly imported from France or Italy. Always containing red or white, but any hue would do. When I talk about these brushes with death, many people chime in with their own stories. A good friend shivers when she talks about the time in high school that she and a friend got into a boat with strange men and went off for a pleasure cruise that could have ended horribly.
But the difference is that the experiences they talk about are usually ones that happened when they were young. I was in my forties when I woke up naked in what amounted to a jail cell of my own making. I believe in a perverse way that I’ve led a charmed life; for some reason I was saved from myself over and over and over and over again throughout the years.
Mr. Taxi Driver
I was headstrong and willful and thought I knew everything. I was scared, suffered from social anxiety and eating disorders, worked in a high-profile fashion journalism position (this was before blogging and social media put us all out of, well, hell, just about everything) where I was expected to cover sometimes three or four events a night. And so I became a party girl. Only that’s merely a great euphemism. I became an alcoholic. And a substance abuser. A high-functioning addict who, without a snort of white powder and a Moroccan juice glass filled with leftover hair of the dog named Merlot, Pinot or Tempranillo, could barely crawl from my captain’s bed into the claw foot bathtub to shower for the day without uncontrollable shaking, body aches, and what felt like a drug-induced heart attack waiting to happen.
By all accounts, I should have been dead by now. There were so many instances of finding my way home by inner radar or relying on the “kindness of strangers,” all the while believing that angels were watching over me. In my “jail cell,” actually a rent-by-the-hour motel room in Queens (maybe worse), Mr. Taxi Driver lying next to me called himself my protector. He told me he had picked me up about two avenues from where I lived after seeing me get out of another taxi. He picked me up, but I was so inebriated that I couldn’t articulate where I was going, so he took me to this place. According to him. He continued to insist that I needed him to protect me.
Escape. Sort of.
With a key from a small parson’s table next to the bed, Mr. TD freed us from the padlock. We walked past a guy at a desk who manned the double buzzer gate that led to the parking lot (talk about a walk of shame; his sneering nod stung like a slap), where multiple taxis lined up from the night before, all the drivers taking cat naps during breaks between double shifts. Mr. TD drove me home, then turned to me in the back seat, sweetly requesting my phone number so he could, he said, ask me on a date. When I declined, he gave me his, insisting that he wanted to give me rides whenever I needed them.
This should’ve been the moment I stopped drinking for good. However, as scared and shaken to the core as I was, the lesson eluded me then. There would be more messy nights and messier moves made before finally I gave myself the gift of sobriety before my 50th birthday.
“Brush With Death #13” led to that present of presence. It was two days before my final drink. My husband and I had had a huge blowout fight that ended with me gaining consciousness under suicide watch in the ER, an incident provoked by bottles of wine and multiple pills and preceded by more of a stupid, stubborn willingness to prove a point to him than an actual desire to kill myself. But my head was not in the right place at the right time, for certain. While traveling to family down south the next day to dry out, I was kicked off the airplane for being too drunk to walk—I had been rolled to the gate in a wheelchair. Things spiraled so far out of control that police were summoned and I was sent to the hospital. Again. The second of two forced hospital admittances in two days.
Getting Sober: The Best Gift
That was ten years ago, and all I can say is thank God I made it to this age. And to this stage and phase of accountability and transparency, where I can go out with friends and get home safe and sound and alone. I can drive a car and not have to worry about a DUI. I can walk down a street and know that I won’t fall down, dead drunk. I don’t talk about it as much as I should. The fact that I’m sober. The fact that I did many, many, many ridiculous life-threatening things over the course of my years. Talk about party remorse. I do think others could learn from my mistakes, although I never learned from anyone else’s, so why would they?
We’ve all done stupid things in our lives. Lived through regrets, terrible choices, self-induced chemical imbalances. I am, though, working hard through all of that now. Life is good. So is tackling my fears—ones that I once used alcohol to tamp down, such as speaking in public, meeting new people (I almost never know a stranger these days) and fear of heights (Machu Picchu, I’m talking to you). I can get on a plane with just my little dog as emotional support to help me through my fear of flying instead of a bottle of wine beforehand.
It’s taken a while, and the lessons are still raw and, yet, delicious. As a student of life these days, I’m present, I’m alive. But sometimes, every now and then, I still can’t believe I’m not dead yet.