Drinking Alone Together

January 18, 2017
Captain Morse worked as a firefighter and EMT for 23 years in the urban neighborhoods of Providence, Rhode Island. He is a popular writer among firefighters and EMS workers.

Captain Michael Morse, retired, Providence Fire Department

I opened the envelope, read the words, and let out a sigh of relief.

I was a firefighter. Finally.

After years of applying, taking tests, being grilled by prospective employers and then being rejected I had landed. Life was about to begin, and with that new life would come security, confidence, admiration from family and peers, and more important than all of those things, people I could drink with.

In my personal mythology, firefighters drank hard, lived hard, and died hard. That was the life for me. I couldn’t wait to get started; heck, I started living hard when I was thirteen. Now, at last I had a reason to do so. The training academy lasted six months. The city paid us minimum wage so I tended bar four nights a week during that time to help make ends meet.

There is no better job for an active alcoholic than bartender, and I did the job well. Unfortunately, doing the job well, for me anyway, meant matching customers drink for drink. I’ll never know if my hung over state contributed to my poor ranking by the end of the academy, but I suspect it had everything to do with it. I simply did not have the get up and go needed to excel. The firefighters that I planned on drinking with when we were through with school managed to show up for training bright eyed and prepared, unlike me. I was the guy dragging himself through the door, falling asleep during lectures, and performing the drills that shape a firefighter’s future with one eye open.
Every day as I left the training academy, changed from my firefighter uniform into my bartender clothes, and started my shift, I promised myself that I would not drink. That lasted till 10 or so, and then the promise was I won’t drink too much. Shortly thereafter the promise left the building and it was all drinks on deck. This late night rendezvous with excess was my little secret, and I carried it with me the whole six months of schooling. After a while, I just dispensed with the burdensome sobriety promises. I finished out barely passing the tests and was sworn in with the rest of my class.

As a fresh-faced firefighter, I was stunned and disappointed by the responsible way my new colleagues drank. I thought I had entered a profession where men were men, and drank like men. Imagine my surprise when it became abundantly clear that I now belonged to a group of professionals. Actually, they did drink like men, not like boys who simply have no concept of responsible limits.

So I did what any self-respecting new firefighter who drinks too much does, I drank alone, like a shamefaced boy.

There were a few of us who drank alone. Every now and then we would meet, and drink too much together. For the most part, though, we were loners, sort of accepted by the group but not truly accepting ourselves. We knew each other’s secrets. Getting drunk at parties is not how the majority of the firefighters carried themselves. Now and then somebody would overdo it, but that was an exception, not business as usual. Knowing through experience that all of the promises we made to ourselves were worthless, we receded into the background and seldom joined the rest of the crew at social events. Those missed opportunities remain one of my biggest regrets.

Living in the moment is all well and good, and taking life one day at a time great advice, and for the most part, I embrace the creed. But sometimes I cannot stop my mind from travelling backward and remembering all of the parties I didn’t go to because I was too busy drinking. I regret the friendships that never materialized because I spent far too much time with my 12-ounce buddies. When I recall those days, I secretly visualize a different life for my younger self, the kind of life I enjoy now as someone who is clean and sober. In this revised version of my past, I was fully present at all of the outside activities (events I chose to pass on, in my real history). I was able to compete with the best of the best at the academy. In that alternate life I am easy, free, and comfortable in my own skin. This vision is a wonderful distraction. I can fantasize all day long about this version of what could have been.

But in truth, I think I had things a little backwards, then. When substances insisted on keeping me down, I insisted they were my support. Fortunately for me, I managed to pull myself from my self-imposed wreckage before all was lost. Now my “support” is in a few close relationships.

Ironically, I am stronger. I’m living a life I created, with this support, and I’ve forged something new without any help from addictive substances.

Eventually, I skipped the after-work socializing, not out of shame, but because I chose to. I’d found deeper connections.
In spite of my occasional retroactive fantasies, I feel the important thing is that I did leave alcohol behind. Had I continued to drink alcoholically, I never would have made rank, taken control of my career, and gained the self-respect I craved. I have plenty of regrets, but those fade away as each new experience takes place in my sober life.

I think I’ve learned the enormous difference between life controlled by addiction and choices made in sobriety.

Morse blogs from the Fire/EMS world for American Addiction Centers in conjunction with the Fire Services Member Assistance Program, and the Share the Load 24/7 Helpline, 1-888-731-FIRE (3473).

His books, Responding, Mr. Wilson Makes it Home, and Rescuing Providence, are filled with compassionate insight from the field.

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