Not Rock Bottom

Wine Glass. Photo by Callen Harty.

The first time I ever got drunk was, appropriately enough, on St. Patrick’s Day, 1978.  It was also the day I turned in the paperwork to quit college.  Prior to that time I was a teetotaler.  I knew family history and didn’t trust that I would be able to control it if I drank.  I had organized the first-ever non-alcoholic graduation party at my high school.  I was a determined non-drinker.  But on that fateful night in Eau Claire I drank about a pitcher and a quarter of beer by myself and I did not get sick and did not suffer a hangover.  Before long I was drinking regularly at parties every chance I got.  I was a fun drunk, not a mean one, but I was a drunk.

I was a long way from rock bottom, but did not know I was heading into hell.  Drug-induced hallucinations, low wages and poverty, damaged relationships, drunken binges, depression, suicidal tendencies–these defined the next ten years of my life.

One time in Platteville I woke up at about 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning, but was not in my bed.  It took a moment to figure out that I was on a small strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street, underneath a street lamp shining on me like a cold sun.  It was several blocks from the university campus and several blocks from my house.  I tried to get up but was so dizzy I fell back down again two or three times before I managed to stay up and stumble home and fall into bed.

This was not rock bottom.  Passing out or blacking out, like vomiting, was a regular kind of experience.

Winter.  Madison.  I had been kicked out of my lover’s house after a drunken argument (both of us being drunk).  I wandered the streets of the city, wondering where to go.  I ended up in the basement of a downtown apartment building, sleeping behind a washing machine with my winter coat as both blanket and pillow, hoping that I would sleep and stay warm and that nobody would find me.  It was perhaps the most alone I had ever been.

And it was not rock bottom.

In Denver I had so many lost weekends and lost nights that I could not count them.  I remember staying in one of my favorite bars after hours night after night drinking still, partying until all hours of the morning.  There were long nights of beer, whiskey, cigarettes, along with political and philosophical discussions and bullshit.  There was emptiness in everything.

That also was not rock bottom.

The thing is I don’t believe I ever did hit rock bottom, but I did have an epiphany in the middle of a drink in the middle of a bar in the middle of the night and suddenly realized that I was lucky to be alive and that if I wanted to stay alive I had to quit drinking, and had to do it at that moment.  This was a couple years after I had already cut other drugs out of my life.  Alcohol was really the hard one to let go, but I am so fortunate that I was able to do it.  That was 23 years ago now.

I have had at least nine lives, and I believe I have used the latter ones well.  I truly am lucky to be sober and alive.  Some people can have a drink now and then.  I could not.  I cannot.  If I drank a beer tomorrow it would not be one, and it would not just be tomorrow.  This is something I know.  So now I have come full circle, back to where I was as a youth, knowing myself well enough to know that I cannot drink anything.  My head is clearer.  My heart is clearer.  I have learned to love myself and others, to forgive myself and others, to find peace in the middle of a violent and chaotic world.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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3 Responses to Not Rock Bottom

  1. Malcolm Conner says:

    Thank you, Callen.

  2. debikayo says:

    Callen, this sounds so much like a made up story! I only knew you when you were sober- I remember you best in college before that St. Patrick’s Day, vaguely remember being SHOCKED that you drank something, and then of course not seeing you or hearing from you again for 30 years. Thank God you are sober and alive. AND I Thank GOD I found you again! xoxo

  3. Great post, Callen. I’m very glad for you, as I do have some experience with it. Both my parents, both my step-parents, as well as other members of my family, were hard-core alcoholics. One of my boyfriends — the one I Iived with longest, 10.5 years — too. In my 20s and 30s I drank immoderately on occasion. But I guess what somehow saved me was the awfulness of being hungover. So I might have two or three drinks over the course of an evening, maybe one more if there’s been food too. I had a much harder quitting cigarets, actually. I haven’t been shit-faced drunk since News Year’s Eve 1982-83, but I didn’t get off the cigs until 2006.

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