A One-Percenter Drinks It All Away
Does being a powerful CEO with a lifestyle of Learjets, exotic parties and fast cars protect you from alcoholism? Of course not. Trouble is, it can make you feel invulnerable.
My last office was a little over 1,600 square feet. It had a wood-burning fireplace, a bathroom with a sauna, and designer furniture from Knoll and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There was an Andy Warhol on the wall. I had full access to three jets, two helicopters and four propeller-driven aircraft. As a Kentucky Colonel, I held court at the Kentucky Derby, making outrageous bets and lapping up Pappy Van Winkle Mint Juleps in sterling silver tumblers at a few hundred dollars a throw. I thought I was the protagonist of Morris Day and The Time’s song, “Cool”: “I might dine in San Francisco / Dance all night in Rome / I go any freakin’ place I want to, my Learjet brings me home.” I hung out with Morris and the boys in Jamaica one time, after they performed a private concert at a party I threw. Kid Rock was there, too. But beneath the power and extravagance, beneath the cool, I was afraid.
I got a jet for the company—but really it was for me. I would fly to Europe for cocktails, wine, dinner, Cuban cigars and Armagnac.
As the CEO or president of five multi-million dollar companies, I felt I’d joined an exclusive club of world-conquering drinkers. Many of my peers were also members: guys and girls who could produce extraordinary results in their chosen professions while imbibing extraordinary amounts of alcohol. Alumni included the theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer—who directed the Manhattan Project and reputedly created a drink from lab alcohol, grapefruit juice and dry ice, served in a 32-gallon government-issued can—and Alexander the Great, who built an empire stretching from Greece to India in just 10 years. “Alexander’s escape into alcoholism and desire to conquer the world were two sides of the same coin—uncertainty about his own identity, and a desperate desire to prove himself,“ wrote Professor John Maxwell O’Brien.
I first got to know John Barleycorn, Illya Stolynicha and Winston Boodles fairly late, simply because my dad was an alcoholic and I didn’t want to become like him. I didn’t really start drinking until I left Clemson University in 1976 and landed a job with a publicly traded retail company in South Carolina.
Once I started making some money, I bought a leather wingback chair, a reading lamp and a little table, all of which I placed in front of the fireplace in my apartment. After work, I would build a fire, pick up a volume of my beloved Ernest Hemingway or T.S. Eliot and drink a glass of whiskey. I experimented with various types and brands, and rapidly built up a sizeable bar. I fell in love with William Faulkner’s words: “There is no such thing as bad whiskey. Some whiskeys just happen to be better than others.”
I was very good at my job and was rapidly promoted. I got married to my pubescent fantasy dream woman, and we had two boys at our large colonial house in Richmond, Virginia. My evening ritual continued, but as the pressures of work increased, that one glass of whiskey in the evening became two, three or four. But I’d still get to the office by 5 am and work Saturdays.
The promotions kept on coming, and my family and I kept relocating, until I was appointed vice president. With more responsibility came more drinking: at lunch with clients, at dinner with friends and at home surrounded by my books—which I didn’t even bother to read anymore. I’d become a high-functioning alcoholic. They say that if you took all the high-functioning alcoholics out of Wall Street, there would be nothing left but the ATM machines. And they’re right.
In 1988 my Higher Power, which in my case is God, tapped me on the shoulder one rainy evening by placing a telephone pole in front of my fast moving, brand-new black BMW M5. The car totaled and I woke up in the intensive care unit, with my right arm handcuffed to the bed. They told me I had almost lost my left arm.
In addition to some fines and required classes, the judge sentenced me to 90 days of AA meetings. I went, but thought that the program was for derelicts and losers—I mean, I was one of the Masters of the Universe, not some guy in dirty trousers. So I tried to control my drinking.
It didn’t work; my alcoholism worsened over time. Several years later, when my home life with my wife and boys had deteriorated to nothing, she insisted that I complete a 28-day residential program—but that also didn’t take for more than a few months.
I changed companies. Became a Chief Executive Officer. Got a Platinum Corporate American Express Card. Got a jet for the company—but really it was for me. I would fly to Europe for cocktails, wine, dinner, Cuban cigars and Armagnac.
Then God gave me a real slap on the ass. My elder son was diagnosed with terminal leukemia, and I did not know how to handle it. My drinking escalated exponentially. I became an emotional wreck—now drunk morning, noon and night. After fours years of hospital hell, my son was told that he was in remission. So what did I do? I flew out to the West Coast and went on a four-day Four Seasons bender.
In early 2000, the NASDAQ stock market came crashing down. Then the World Trade Centers—and the rest of the financial markets followed. My company and my life—they were one and the same by then—fell apart. Much more drinking at business lunches and social gatherings followed. I got drunk and pretty much stayed drunk, and in the internet business sphere I now occupied nobody really seemed to mind. I started buying my whiskey by the pallet load. Literally.
My wife finally said she’d had enough; she took the boys and left. I had to sell the house, the modern art collection, the cars, the grand piano, the guitars—everything I’d spent 25 years acquiring—in order to pay off taxes and other debts. All I had left was the bottle. Within six months, I found myself living on the streets, eating out of restaurant dumpsters and begging for money to buy small bottles of Taaka vodka. I’d gone from mansions, sailboats and exotic cars, to carrying my few remaining possessions in a small backpack. This former Master of the Universe now felt like the seagull shit sullying the deck of one of his old sailboats.
After making many trips to the emergency room, what with drinking around the clock and attempting to control the DTs, my psychiatrist told me that the only thing that might work for me was a nine-month residential program at a Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center. I said no. She said, it’s the only way. So, in August 2006, I went.
Those nine months of intense manual labor and concentrated work on the Steps gave me a new perspective at last. I decided that I wanted to live a much simpler, more old-fashioned life—albeit with the Internet, a smart phone and AA for company. At 57 years of age, I’m now living in sober housing outside San Francisco.
The other day, I was standing at the bus stop, holding a dollar for the fare and a shopping bag full of dirty shirts. A red Ferrari 308 GTS was moving slowly towards me. The driver gave me a scornful look and shook his head. I thought to myself, “I used to drive that car, and I used to do just that.”
I rode the bus downtown. There I saw a guy sitting on the ground outside a coffee shop. He was tore up, with about a month’s growth of facial hair. His clothes were disgusting, he had holes in his tennis shoes, and he was shivering. I thought to myself, “I did that, too.”
When I passed by a building with a full glass façade, I stopped and looked at my reflection. I’d worked hard since I was 15 years old. I’d succeeded, and attained the American Dream. And along the way, I had stepped over people and been relentlessly selfish and self-centered. I had dined and partied with the very rich and famous, and drunk myself almost to death many times over. I’d become everything I hated as a child. It took a car crash, a financial crash, a business crash, repeated personal crashes and the obliteration of my self-image to finally get my attention.
I kept on looking at my reflection. I looked good. I felt happy. I now have food, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in, a few guitars and enough working activity to yield a sense of accomplishment. And that’s about all. Except I also have peace of mind and some real friends. I have sobriety. I have the Steps, and they work very well for me. For the first time, I have a real life.
E. Steve Stevens is a management consultant, sea captain and freelance writer whose work has appeared in Sailing, Sailing World, Yachting World and The Log—California's boating newspaper. This is his first article for The Fix.