Sobriety Birthday


“I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.” —

Bob Dylan, “My Back Pages”

Around this time of a new year, Ryan used to dread the coming of a new birthday.

There was a time, as a kid, when he could not wait for April birthdays so he could get “older” to get out of kindergarten and into big boy school. Then, he ached to graduate grammar school and become a cool teenager going through puberty in high school.

Then he couldn’t wait until he was 14 so he could get “working papers” to get an after-school job. After sneaking underage beers in a local park and on a factory roof by 16, Ryan couldn’t wait to be 18 so he could drink his first legal beer with his old man in a neighborhood tavern, which was a rite of passage in his old Brooklyn Irish neighborhood where there was a saloon on every corner with a glowing green neon shamrock in each window.

But as 18 approached, Ryan had a 14-month older Irish brother serving as a medic in the 173 Airborne in the Central Highlands of Vietnam during the ferocious Tet Offensive who urged him, in grim letters home, to go to college to stay the hell out of the draft and that dirty and unwinnable war that a lying, war mongering President Richard Nixon had spread into three new countries.

It was the first year he realized that getting older sucked.

The one promise the counselors at “whiskey school” made was that “if you stay sober, your life will improve.”

Ryan suddenly realized that being old enough for a legal beer — the legal drinking age in New York State was then 18, not 21 — would also make him eligible to be drafted, his hippie locks shorn in boot camp before being handed an M-16 and dispatched 9000 miles across the globe to the bloodied rice paddies of Vietnam.

Ryan instead enrolled in college, which earned him a student deferment from the draft. But that first year of legal drinking at college keg parties, from shared wine skins on peace marches to Washington, DC, through wine-and-weed summer nights on Hippie Hill in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and Boones Farm apple wine at Woodstock, and cold beers during the moon landing would be an overture for a drinking life.

After college, Ryan began a career in newspapers and joined the ink-stained stampede with fellow scribes for the saloons after deadline that would lead to a life of drinking that would develop into a disease of functional alcohol abuse.

Ryan met his wife in an Irish pub in Dublin and Ryan’s over-served last-call-nights in New York saloons with names like Farrell’s, Maguire’s, Costello’s, The Lions Head, P.J. Clarke’s, and Elaine’s took their collective toll on his marriage.

The money he made from a few book and movie deals were left on wet mahogany bars. Ryan rented a year-round house in the Hamptons, in town instead of on Dune Road, so that he could stagger to and from the saloons on the main drag instead of getting a DWI.

After the divorce, by age 39, Ryan had lost his newspaper job and a once-beautiful woman he was living and drinking with daily awakened one morning gaunt and the color of butterscotch. The cirrhosis would kill her two weeks later at age 35. Her death devastated Ryan, and after her cremation, he packed a small bag and used his remaining medical COBRA coverage to check into a detox center and a 28-day substance abuse rehab in upstate New York where he learned not to focus on the sins of yesteryear if he wanted a sober tomorrow.

Ryan left the rehab into a new alcohol-free life.

Some people go through religious epiphanies that make them “born again.” Ryan was just happy to leave behind the insanity of drinking and become “sane again.”

The one promise the counselors at “whiskey school” made was that “if you stay sober, your life will improve.” They didn’t promise Ryan that he would win a Pulitzer and an Oscar and become a millionaire and live a life of luxury and fame. They told him that if he stayed sober, one day at a time, his life would climb ever upward from the sub-cellar of hell he’d hit face-first on booze.

Ryan soon reestablished a sober relationship with his kids. He took baby steps in trying to find a new job in newspapers. He began work and completed a long overdue novel he’d signed on to do while on the rocks of the stormy sea of active alcoholism.

A few months later, he was offered two full-time journalism jobs in the same week. He took one. He received a steady paycheck. He paid his bills. He supported his kids. He provided them health insurance. He wrote eight more books and a few movies in the next dozen years. And every year Ryan celebrated his new birthday not on the day he came into the world but on the date he first started climbing out of the imprisonment of alcoholism into the free world of sobriety.

Ryan celebrated each Rebirth Day, which made him feel younger and more productive in his 40s, 50s, and 60s than he had in his blurry and meandering 30s. In clear-eyed mornings, he never had to search for where he parked the car the night before. Didn’t have to be told by others the awful things he’d said or done in a blacked-out whiskey haze.

So, with a new year of 2020, Ryan realized he had another old-school, old drinking life birthday looming. Then he heard a Bob Dylan song from the 1960s he’d first listened to around the time he reached legal drinking age. “Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.”

Ryan flicked a backhanded wave at the calendar, remembering that his new birthday wasn’t till October, when he’d be celebrating 29 years sober.

Ryan felt young, clear-minded, and made himself a cup of coffee and hurried off to work at a new job in the television business.


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