By the time I was 31, I was a full-blown, chronic alcoholic on the verge of losing everything.
It was June 20, 1976, and my wife and I were separated. She was pretty frustrated by my latest drinking episodes and my being off the grid for over 30 days. My parents and siblings did not know what to do with me either. I was not communicating with them at all.
Most importantly, my Navy career was in jeopardy.
For more than a month, I had eaten very little, maybe a small hamburger a day, and I drank 12-24 beers every day. My health was terrible. I weighed 80 pounds, had shakes and nausea, was weak, and my mental and emotional state were terrible. I had to drink just to function at all. Without alcohol I was hallucinating, depressed and experiencing extreme terror.
But in rare moments of clarity, I felt total disgust at myself. I knew I was trapped in a downward spiral I could not stop. It was a spiral that was sure to continue until that something-terrible-that-was-bound-to-happen actually happened.
I Just Could Not Stop
I was stationed on a Navy warship that was in dry dock at the Bethlehem Steel Shipyards in Boston, Massachusetts. For 30 days, I had been on a drinking spree — except for the last three days, when I tried to detox myself before reporting for duty. But I was not successful, so I settled on a maintenance-drinking plan — have just enough to function without getting too sick or drunk. My goal was to have a beer or two in the morning, a couple during the afternoon, then a few more (a lot more) at night.
It was the first time in my drinking career that I was not able to stop when I felt I had to.
Even though the Navy provided living quarters, I chose to stay in my one-man camper on the back of my truck, parked in a lot at the end of the pier. Living that way made it easy enough to maintain my beer intake and need for privacy without too much trouble.
It was on that ship, docked in the shipyards, that I first met Jesus. And his name was Steve.
I Was Coming Apart
I actually met Steve on my first day when I was meeting my new crew, and Steve introduced himself as the ship’s alcoholic. At first I thought: Hot damn; my new drinking buddy! But later I was disappointed to learn he no longer drank.
Turns out he was one of THOSE — a reformed drinker!
I tried to avoid him, but it was hard. A couple of times he asked me about my own drinking. I was totally shocked! How dare he ask about my drinking! He was the alcoholic, not me.
Shipyard employees performed most of the work on my engine room, and there was little for my guys and me to do. So we spent most of our time off the ship, making it easy for me to drink and stay out of sight of my superiors.
About two weeks after reporting aboard, I was assigned as the duty officer and was not allowed to depart the ship for 24 hours. For any reason. But by then I had to drink just to function, and by mid morning I was not well at all: sweating profusely, shaking almost violently and in a deep, fog-like state. At one point I stood in my engine room, desperately holding on to a large valve wheel just to keep my balance.
My chief was asking questions about my equipment, and I could not coherently respond. He was perplexed.
To this day, I’m still not really sure what happened to me. It was as if I received a jolt of electricity, short-circuiting all my muscles, and everything gave way at once. I screamed (maybe out loud — or maybe it was only in my head) and crumpled on the deck like I was made of Jello, and then I jumped back up, trying to act like nothing happened. My chief did not say a word — just turned and left the area.
I was scared I was going to come totally apart and float off in space if I did not have a beer pretty quick, but the only way on or off the ship was down a gangway manned by the officer of the watch who, incidentally, knew I was his relief and was not supposed to leave the ship. I saluted and mumbled for permission to go ashore. Before he could respond, I was way down the pier.
I was a career petty officer first class with 12 years’ service, and by deserting my post, I was committing a serious violation, subject to court martial, and more than likely would get jail time and a bad conduct discharge. But I did not care. I needed a beer. Or two.
I got into the back of my truck, grabbed a cold beer and drank it in one big gulp. I felt the nausea pass, my nerves calming, and the terror I had been experiencing left my mind. My heart slowed, and my breathing became a little more even. I was beginning to feel better, so I decided to have another.
As my head started to clear up, I knew I was going to have to make a decision about my next move.
Where to Run
I had few options: Go back to the ship or go AWOL.
I drank more beer while I thought about where I would run. I didn’t want to go any farther north (too cold). South was not an option. All my family members were in the South, and I was not ready to deal with them. My only option was to head west; however, I only had a couple hundred dollars in my pocket. But I had a full tank of gas and a couple of cases of beer, and I decided that was a good start.
So, with enough liquid courage in my belly, I had a plan to run from my problems, just like I had always done. I knew I would have to face the music and experience the consequences some day, but not today.
Right now you are probably saying things like, “Now that is just stupid! That makes no sense at all! You must be out of your mind.” And I would agree with you. The worst question for an alcoholic is: Why?
We don’t know. Really. We don’t.
From my camper I kept hearing the shipboard loudspeaker ordering me back to ship. Then it told me to report to the chief engineer’s office. Finally, in a loud, exasperated tone I heard the captain tell me to report to his quarters immediately.
I had a good buzz on and couldn’t help but chuckle. I got them all pretty upset; they might make me walk the plank if they can catch me. It was quiet for a while, so I decided I had best leave before they send the shore patrol to get me.
About that time, Jesus knocked on the back of my camper.
Opening the door and making no attempt to hide my beer, I scowled at Steve and snapped, “WHAT? What do you want?”
He just looked at me and said I was needed back on the ship. Glaring at him in a disgusted manner, I told him I was not deaf; I could hear them yelling my name.
“I will be there in a minute!” I barked.
He just stood there, so I ordered him back aboard ship. “No,” he responded. “I will wait and walk back with you.”
Now that really ticked me off, so I told him to get back aboard, or I was going to get out of the truck and whip his ass. He looked at me, shook his head and chuckled. After all, I weighed 80 pounds, was in poor physical shape and very unsteady.
He responded to my threat. “Petty Officer Baxter, you are going back aboard the ship now. You have two options. You can walk back with me, or you can go across my shoulders. But I am not going to let you leave.”
Then he looked at me square in the eyes, and said, “John, you have a serious problem, and you need help. And I am going to get you the help you need.”
There was a strength and sweetness in his words I had never known. He spoke directly to my heart, and for the first time in my life, I experienced Hope. I believed Steve — totally surrendered myself to him — and I was willing to do whatever he said.
Now I did not know Jesus at the time, but there I was, experiencing His love and compassion through this sweet, caring man, who had only been sober for less than a year but was strong enough to reach out his hand to someone who was scared and totally lost. I don’t know if Steve knew Jesus himself, but he sure knew how to be kind and caring.
Thank you, Steve, for saving my life. I’ve been sober 41 years.
Thank you, Jesus, for sending Steve!
The Rest of the Story
Steve did visit me once while I was in the rehab, but I have not seen him since.
In the early stages of my recovery, I developed a hunger to know more about the 12-step God — as I understood Him at the time — and I started praying, studying the Bible and attending church with my (still) wife and two daughters.
We have been married 48 years.
I stayed active in 12-step recovery programs, and after a couple of years sober, I was selected by the U.S. naval aircraft carrier commanding officer to attend Navy alcoholism specialist training and to open the first Navy recovery program on a ship.
Not only was I allowed to stay in the Navy, I was honored to spend the last eight years of my career working as an alcohol and drug counselor. I am also pleased to report I was promoted to chief petty officer.
After I retired from the Navy, I opened my own counseling center and specialized in assisting employers who wished to retain valuable employees who had been identified as having alcohol- or drug-related problems. Those employees’ jobs were in jeopardy, and in order to stay employed, they had to see the counselor — yours truly — and successfully complete whatever program was required.
The employer got to retain a valuable employee, and the employee’s family got to heal. Win/win!
I worked full time as an alcohol and drug counselor until retiring a few years ago, but to this day, I remain active in 12-step recovery and participate in Christian recovery ministry.
Today I can truly say, “I am a grateful alcoholic.” If I could, I would not change one second or one thing about my life because I am a sum total of all my yesterdays.
And today, I am a blessed man.