After the jailer took custody of my shoestrings, I found myself locked inside the “gay cell” at the Hollywood Division station on Wilcox Avenue. It was around 3 a.m., and I had just blown way past the legal limit on a breathalyzer test.
A passed-out drag queen was facedown on a bunk next to me, and I read every line of my pink DUI summons three or four times, not quite believing that I had actually been arrested. Just an hour earlier, I had cut in front of an LAPD cruiser on Highland Avenue north of Hollywood Boulevard, was pulled over, and found to be intoxicated.
I had never been in trouble with the law before, and after the third or fourth read of the summons, I decided the lies needed to stop.
The lies had been with me every day for at least 16 years.
The first lie I had been telling myself, and everyone else, was that I wasn't gay. But I had known since I was a freshman at an all-boys Catholic prep school in New Jersey that I very much enjoyed the company of handsome young men. In fact, I thought about them all the time. I told myself, though, that I could snap out of it if only I met that special girl.
The other lie was that I could drink and still lead a fulfilling life. But I had discovered I was not a normal drinker around the same time I realized that I really liked boys.
It was clearly laid out to me on a poster that was tacked up on a bulletin board in the hallway of my school. It offered up 20 questions, such as “Do you ever drink alone?” and “Do you need a drink to build up your self-confidence?” If you answered “yes” to only a few of the questions, the poster said, you are almost certainly an alcoholic. I said “yes” to at least 12.
That wasn't good, and decided right there in the hallway in between classes that I would just drink beer and not take drugs. (For the most part, I stayed true to that promise, yet my beer drinking would give me horribly depressing hangovers, disappoint my parents, nearly get myself flunked out of college, and wreak havoc on my self-esteem, to name just a few things.)
So by 16, as a popular student and talented athlete who came from a loving family, I was carrying around two huge secrets. I thought I could hide one of those secrets by drinking any straight guy under the table.
Sixteen years later, as I sat in the gay cell in Hollywood, I felt like a complete fake. I also felt totally dead on the inside, as if I had stopped growing as a man.
The drinking needed to stop, I decided, and I had to come out of the closet. In fact, I had just done that for the first time, when a complete stranger, the police officer who took my fingerprints, asked if I was straight, gay, or bisexual. I told the truth, shocking myself after the words came out, and landed next to the drag queen.
After the jailer returned my shoestrings, I called my parents and younger brothers and told them about my arrest, drinking, and bisexuality — I still couldn't go all the way about my sexual orientation and thought that was close enough. Later my mother, in an effort to simplify things, said she would tell family and friends that I was gay, which worked for me since it was the truth.
I also called an old classmate from high school who had moved to Los Angeles. He was gay and sober. He said he'd take me to a Wednesday night 12-step meeting in West Hollywood, where I lived.
But I wasn't done yet.
The night before my first meeting, I went out for one last hurrah at a regular hang out, the Power House Bar on Highland Avenue in Hollywood. One of my favorite writers, Charles Bukowski, supposedly drank there. I consumed all the Heinekens, margaritas, and pints of Guinness I could and closed the place at 2 a.m.
Just before I tried to flag down a taxi on a barren stretch of Sunset Boulevard, my drinking buddy, who also happened to be a pot dealer, asked if I wanted a hit of acid. I said sure since I had never tried it before. But within a few minutes we concluded that he had been ripped off — we didn't feel a thing. That was good, in retrospect. It also showed how much of an alcoholic I was — up to the very end, I was still seeking a higher high.
And so at 6:30 p.m. on August 22, 2001, my friend picked me up and drove me to the 12-step meeting in West Hollywood, a place that's often derided as the hedonistic center of the gay world in L.A., where bars and clubs are jammed many nights a week with fashionable young men zonked out of their brains by drinks and drugs.
As my friend led me into the community center, he introduced me to other gay men. They hugged me, welcomed me, and shook my hand. I had never been around so many gay men in a sober setting in my entire life. But rather than feeling overwhelmed, I felt as if I was home. West Hollywood, for me, was the perfect, most safe place to be.
At my third meeting on a Friday night, I slowly scanned the community center and noticed all the handsome guys. The wheels started turning in my head and I wondered who could be my boyfriend. But as I sat there, I felt as if I had been struck by a thunderbolt, and that thunderbolt told me I wasn't at the meeting to pick up men. I was there to get sober. I obeyed the thunderbolt.
During my first two years of sobriety, I was under the assumption that once you joined a 12-step program, you weren't allowed to leave. I don't know where I got that idea, but maybe it came from one of the values that my parents gave to me: Once you commit, you don't quit. I never considered relapsing, even though I later realized that many people went in and out. Sometimes they never came back.
Over the past 12 years, selfless, loving, sober gay men and women have saved my life, and enriched it.
Without them, I would not have gotten through heartaches and professional disappointments. Without them, I would not have learned a more honest and fulfilling way to live. Without them, I would not have thrived as a man and writer. Without them, I would not be writing for L.A. Weekly. Without them, I would not still be sober.
Last Thursday was the 12th anniversary of my sobriety. I am not a saint and I still have to work on my character flaws, but I am no longer a dead man walking. I am, in fact, fully alive.
And I still live in West Hollywood, where I still attend 12-step meetings.
Patrick Range McDonald is a staff writer at L.A. Weekly who writes frequently about gay men's health.