Dancing with Death

By Richard Sanders 04/30/11
Sometimes it takes the threat of death for addicts to clean up their lives.
Spirit in the Sky

Recently, I happened to reconnect with a former drinking buddy of mine on Facebook and discovered, much to my surprise, that he'd been sober for many years. He embarked on this path after standing on the penthouse balcony of the Century Plaza Hotel after a ferocious four day coke binge, and while he looked down on the sprawling city below, it occurred to him that if he jumped over the railing of his hotel room he could not only end the intense pain the was feeling, but could also avoid returning the growing number of insistent calls that were piling up on his cell. Luckily, as he was staring down at the sidewalk, a powerful thought went through his mind.  “Am I going crazy?” After briefly pondering the question, he decided that he probably was. Shortly afterward, he checked himself into a rehab. He's been sober (and calmly returning phone calls) for the last 18 years.

But his brief moment on the balcony was a defining moment or him—an instant that many of us experience when an unexpected light breaks through the nimbus of drugs or alcohol that surrounds us, and forces us to make a clear choice between living and dying. It’s much like Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment, a recognition of the perfect time to snap the camera shutter—only in this case you’re cutting the cord of suicidal addiction and taking another stab at life.

I experienced my own defining moment on Dec. 30, 1988. At the time I was drinking 17 hours a day, switching to booze after years of dropping acid and shooting crystal meth. Alcohol seemed like an alternative to drugs since it was legal, relatively inexpensive and you didn’t have to carry a gun to cop it. I drank willfully and happily for years until I reached that daily 17-hour juncture. I never drank a minute more than that, but never a minute less. I’d start at 11:30 A.M., when the morning tremors became too much to fight off, and promptly cut myself off at 4:30 A.M., figuring I needed three hours of sleep before I got up and went to work as a senior editor at People. I was good at my job. I felt I was very health conscious.

But by September of 1988, I started noticing that every time I passed a window I felt an overwhelming urge to throw myself out of it. By then, my drinking had become a untenable. In short order, I  spent 28 days in rehab, went to A.A. meetings when I got out and was enjoying my new life until early December, when I began hallucinating. Later, in the psych ward of Roosevelt Hospital, I was diagnosed as bipolar and was told the hallucinations were part of the manic aspect of my illness. For the moment, though, the visions—they resembled the zooming, light-bursting Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey—were frequent visitors, along with daylong periods of catatonic depression.

On the 30th of December, however, I was feeling okay—at least well enough to go to work. Except that every 20 minutes or so, my body would go completely numb. Later—when I was back at Roosevelt Hospital—the doctors told me that I was so depressed that my nervous system was shutting itself down. All I knew was that I’d never felt so strange and miserable in my life. What I needed, I thought, was sleep, and—applying the best addict logic I could muster—how else could I do that except by drinking a liter of vodka?

So I left work at 3 P.M. and walked to a liquor store near my apartment. By five, I’d downed a gallon and a half of cheap white wine and a quart of vodka and still didn't feel sleepy at all. Quite the opposite. More liked wired and desperate and Rasputin-crazy.

I went back to work. As I was kicking in the door to my office (who’s got time for keys?), I decided I had to let people know how bad I was feeling. And what better way to get their attention than by throwing my computer through a window on the 29th floor of the Time-Life Building? Followed by a TV through the other window. Followed by a chair and a lamp. (Everything landed on an eighth-floor balcony. No missiles reached the street.)

And then, with my office running low on furniture, I had my own defining moment. I stood in front of the first broken window and thought, “Okay, get it over with. Finally find some peace.” But then I thought, “What if there’s a better way to live? What if all this A.A. shit and all this Higher Power voodoo that I can’t for the life of me understand is real? If I jump now, I’ll never find out. And if it isn’t real, what the hell, I can always jump some other time.”

I don’t know the source of these deciding moments. The last-minute voice of reason? The compassionate whisper of God? I can’t say. I can only testify to the result: Turns out that shit was real. Turns out there was a better way. Turns out Dec. 30, 1988—one day at a time, including above all today—was my last day of drinking. I am a happy and productive man, and excited to be alive.

Richard Sanders worked as an Executive Editor of People and Entertainment Weekly. His new novel, Dead Line, is out now.

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