My dark chapter, his bitter dish

If a man can change over two decades, why dredge up old gunk?

Twenty years ago, I moved back to California from Washington state to take a job at Butte College. I didn’t know it at the time, but my return to California was to be the beginning of the darkest chapter of my life, a time when I lost my way, caused lots of pain to other people, and behaved abominably. Call it midlife crisis, call it temporary insanity, call it a battle with personal demons, but whatever you choose to call it, it was a bad time, and it was only luck that kept it from becoming much worse.

There are those who met me then, people whose judgment of my character was formed at that time, and for some of those people no good things I might have done since are likely to change their negative assessment of me. That’s just something I have to live with.

I was, back in that time, suffering from severe depression and a whole lot of accompanying confusion, and I did what so many people do when they can’t find surcease from pain: I self-medicated with alcohol, the depressive’s most false and inconstant “friend.”

For brief moments, the booze would lift the dark cloud that hung over me, but those brief moments were always followed by the reformation of that cloud, which had, during the time of its brief absence, become much darker. The depression would resettle, far worse, and temporary confidence or cessation of worry would evaporate, replaced by bleaker and more negative self-abegnation.

Worst of all, while drunk, I did things and said things that were utterly inconsistent with my nature. Sober, I was nearly always responsible, thoughtful, and considerate. Drunk, I was nearly always irresponsible, thoughtless, and utterly unmindful of the pain I was causing others.

On more than a few occasions, the booze talked me into getting behind the wheel of a car when I was clearly in no condition to drive. It is only through the sheerest of luck that neither I nor anyone else paid a price for that alcohol-fueled irresponsibility.

Not everyone is so lucky, of course, though most of us go through our bad patches during which we suffer and cause suffering in varying degrees to various people around us. The best we can hope for during such times is that we make our way back from the edge of that abyss, and that we don’t do too much damage as we tread the edge.

When I took on the story that accompanies this comment, there were those who said I could not do it without revisiting an episode in the subject’s life that took place nearly three decades ago. Media people are notorious for their fascination with the dark side, with snarkiness and titillation about other people’s lives.

Like me, and like even the most saintly among us, the subject of the piece I wrote this week had his darker chapter, the bitter dish that accompanies life’s banquet. His luck was not quite as good as mine, and there are those who will never forgive nor forget what happened during his dark time, particularly the family he affected in a tragic, fatal auto accident.

Small towns and small people have long memories, and there are those who, in their battles with their own demons, will judge us harshly because, in that judging, they can feel better about themselves. But, when it all gets sorted out, our secrets are pretty much the same, though the fallout from those secrets will differ from one personal chronicle to the next.

The pressure to do a positive story about this long-time Chico resident and restaurateur came from lots of people who really love the man, who urged me to write about a guy they think is extraordinary. In meeting him for purposes of writing this piece, I came to see what they were talking about, and as I worked on it, I came to know what made him seem so special to them.

The experience served to remind me of how, but for the sheerest good fortune, I escaped some of the more dire consequences suffered by so many with whom I’ve shared time on this planet.