On Thanksgiving Day in 2006, I was alone in the bathroom of my Tahitian lagoon bungalow, shaking and vomiting blood.
Outside, a lushly tropical island jutted up from the water and topless newlywed brides sunbathed on the decks. But in my all-expenses paid room – courtesy of a contest I'd won on "Live With Regis and Kelly" – the shades were drawn. I looked in the mirror and told myself to stop drinking, yet kept washing my mouth out with vodka. I hadn't eaten anything of substance in two days. I was doing exactly what I promised myself time after time I wouldn't do again.
I spent seven days puddle jumping to different islands in Tahiti, and I can tell you more about my hotel room than I can about the archipelago. My ritual consisted of cleaning out the mini-bar, ordering room service or making my way inland to pick up food that was easy on my stomach – bread, butter, crackers.
More importantly, I'd buy two bottles of vodka so I wouldn't have to return to the store the next day. Even though the mini-bar and room service were only footsteps or a phone call away, I wanted options.
When I went on my sole excursion – a jet-skiing trip around Bora Bora – the tour guide took a look at me and asked if I'd been partying the night before. No. I was just a guy who'd stayed up all night in his room drinking vodka.
For many years I suspected I was an alcoholic. Countless health classes taught me one shouldn't wake in the morning wondering where he'd parked his car the night before. Or start his day with a glass of wine instead of a cup of coffee.
After numerous attempts to stop, my escape – even to a place considered paradise – devolved into a hole in which I continued to drink, even as my body told me it had given up and couldn't take it anymore.
I'd vowed to give up drinking in Tahiti. And I did. I stopped drinking every night. Then I started drinking every day and on into the evening.
I like to think I've retained the finer traits of my Irish and German forbearers – the luck and work ethic, perhaps – and eschewed the less desirable. But alcoholism runs strong on both sides of my family. Each of my grandfathers was an alcoholic and, ironically, I'm named after both of them.
"Papa would cry about his drinking sometimes," my mom says of her father, who I've been told I resemble in both smile and spirit.
My dad's father was often unmentioned in my home, a man I knew only through photographs and passing references. He was an Irish immigrant and alcoholic. The disease killed him, but not until it twisted him into a recluse who couldn't hold down steady work. A low point came when he was fired from his job as a janitor on Wall Street after he went to work so drunk he urinated on himself.
My father says the only time he ever saw his father sober was in the three days prior to his death from alcohol-related dementia. My dad, who bears his father's name, swore he'd never allow himself to succumb to such a fate.
But he did. My father is also a recovering alcoholic, several years into his journey of sobriety. As my own illness took hold, I came to understand his torment and the chaos that went with it. By high school, I was already following in the family tradition.
I was a sophomore when I got drunk the first time. A Friday night, a case of room-temperature Molson Ice, and a house where the parents were out of town. Textbook suburban bacchanalia. Before I knew it, my friends and I decided to take my car "mudding." We found a construction site along one of Marietta's busiest streets, and I drove into the wet mud. A week later when my car puttered, a mechanic pulled a sheet of metal from the chassis and pumped out three boxes of dirt from the engine.
Despite that experience, drinking became my weekend respite. And once I reached the freedom of college at the University of Georgia, drinking became even more a part of my life.
One night, when I was blacked out on spiced rum in a bar, I confronted a British coke-dealing biker who was hitting on my girlfriend. He head butted me off a barstool. I awoke in a bush at the corner of the busiest intersection in downtown Athens, convinced my cocktail had been spiked.
"No," my girlfriend later told me, "you were just drunk."
In Key West during spring break, I was kicked out of a bar and decided to return to the hotel early. The next morning, I woke up nude on the hotel room floor, my clothes next to me soaking wet. Later that day, a security guard told me he found me floating the swimming pool by myself, face down in the water; he had to fish me out.