30 Years

From Play with a Tiger

Me looking in the mirror, 1986. From a production of Play with a Tiger. Phoographer unknown.

This week (April 18) marks 30 years since my last drink. Thirty years ago, late at night (or early in the morning) I had an epiphany in a bar in Denver and realized I had to quit drinking or I would kill myself. Once the realization struck me there was no choice. I knew I couldn’t fool myself about it any longer. I set my unfinished beer down and headed home, confident in my new-found knowledge and determined never to drink again.

Before that night, I had spent a little over a decade pretty much in an alcoholic stupor. I drank pretty much every day and did so to excess. I could easily down a dozen and a half brandy Cokes or beers or other drinks in a night, and did so regularly. Occasionally, I drank more. Occasionally, it was less. It would have been rare to go 30 hours without a drink, let alone 30 years.

I didn’t know until many years later that I was self-medicating, that I was using the alcohol to hide from myself and an incredible amount of pain that I could not face. It was too hard. Child sex abuse has that kind of effect on a person. It fills you with shame, embarrassment, guilt, hatred, hurt, and more negative emotions than most people even realize are possible. Although it’s getting better, our society has historically been afraid to honestly talk about issues like that, so it also makes you feel utterly alone and isolated.

In all honesty, the constant drinking allowed me to be more social and less alone, at least for a time. It also allowed me not to face myself. It allowed me to ignore the harsh reality of my childhood. With a few drinks in me I could be a more sociable person than I ever could be without it. I am naturally shy and uncomfortable in groups of people, but when I was drunk I could be the life of the party–I was a fun drunk for the most part. In fact, right after I quit drinking one of my friends actually said he wished I hadn’t quit as I was so much more fun when I was drinking.

Once I quit, my life started coming into focus. I feel that I’ve accomplished a good deal in my life and none of it would have been possible if I had continued on the path I was on at the time. There are countless ways that I improved my life, including jobs, relationships, and, perhaps most significantly, I dealt with the pain of my childhood. I faced it honestly, acknowledged it, and started to move past it. It was incredibly difficult and that work still continues, but it is no longer a dark secret. It is in the open where I can face it, cry, scream out in anger, talk about it, or do whatever I need to do to continue my healing journey.

That journey and others were sidetracked for a decade while I drank myself into oblivion, and I am so thankful that I was able to see the light and quit when I did. I am as proud of myself for this as pretty much anything else in my life. On the anniversary date I will celebrate myself for a moment or two and then will continue my sober journey through this beautiful life.

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 Amazon.com (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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