The Gift

Vodka bottle

Stocking cap and vodka bottle. Photo by Callen Harty.

April 18, 1989. A gay bar in Denver, the Triangle. A can of beer in hand, cigarette in the other. I was there alone, so I wasn’t there to be with friends, I wasn’t there looking for someone for the night. My friends were already gone home for the night. My partner was home in bed. I was there to drink, and nothing else. It was late in the night and there was a revelation, an epiphany, and in that moment I knew that I had a problem, that I wasn’t just consuming alcohol–it was consuming me. As a man stood next to me trying to connect I knew that I had to quit drinking, that it was destroying me in many ways. I went up to the bar and set my half-full can of beer on the counter and headed out into the Denver night.

As I walked home I may have sobered up some, but was definitely still as drunk as usual. I could easily put down a dozen and half mixed drinks or more in a night, or a combination of beer, mixed drinks, and shots. Sometimes it was less. It was whatever it took that night (or day and night) to get drunk. There was no such thing as social drinking. The sole purpose was to get drunk, be in a haze, hide multiple kinds of pain and trauma, and not deal with the realities of my life.

I hiked the long trip home up Colfax Avenue, made a couple turns and walked into the apartment, undressed, and got into bed, stirring my partner at the time. He turned and I said to him, “I’m quitting drinking.”

He looked at me and said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

It was understandable that he didn’t believe it. We had been together several years at that point and I had been in an alcoholic stupor for much of that and for more than a decade overall. He had often told me I had a problem and I had often denied it. Others had tried to tell me the same thing. But that night I knew that I was an alcoholic, that I didn’t control the drink–it controlled me–and I knew also that I had more faith in myself than he did. I had been living the stereotype of the drunken Irishman, but I also had the stereotype of the Irish stubbornness in my blood, and I knew that once I had made that decision that I would never drink again.

No more blackouts. No more good times that were defined by being forgotten. No more waking up in booths of bars in small towns in Wisconsin or under streetlights in the middle of the night. No more rousing good times spurred on by the drink–I was mostly a fun drunk while around others, but insecure and depressed once I was alone again. No more numbness. No more thoughts of killing myself when the alcohol opened the darkest parts of my interior and talked to me about what a worthless person I was. No more waking up behind the wheel of a car along the shoulders of the highway. No more hangovers and hair of the dog.

It was time to reclaim my life after wasting more than a decade of it. And I succeeded in doing that. Whatever successes I have had, whether in the theater, writing, at jobs, public speaking, in working for human rights and just laws, in helping others, are a result of that night and the decision to stop my downward spiral before I reached rock bottom or before I had fallen so far down I could not get back up. Whatever failures I’ve had too, are mine, and I claim them with pride. I don’t get to blame them on drugs or alcohol any more, so I get to own them and learn and grow from them. I know now they’re because I’m human and prone to both good will and human mistakes.

Being fully human and alive and able to feel joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, all the emotions that come in and out of one’s life–especially love–is such an incredible gift, and I would not have known any of it without coming to my epiphany and my place of understanding. It’s not that everything became easy or perfect the moment I quit drinking–but it laid the groundwork for bettering my life, imperfect as it or I may be. It allowed me to feel, after years of numbing myself. I can feel and I can deal with all the feelings I have. I can fully feel the highs and lows of life in all its fullness. This is the gift of sobriety. It is the gift of life, and today I hold that gift in my hands, with tears in my eyes, remembering the pain of childhood and the joys of childhood, the pains and joys of my life since. Like a child I can feel it all, and I am eternally grateful for that gift.

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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