Through much of my early life, I maintained a leery relationship with alcohol. I had already observed up close the damage that drinking can do, and I wanted to be sure that I didn’t succumb.
My mother and father separated when I was less than two years old. My mother and I moved from California to West Virginia where my grandmother lived. I got to know my uncles, two of whom were alcoholics. I watched as they drank themselves into insensibility. For the first time, I became aware that my mother, too, drank to excess often.
At age six, I moved with my mother back to the west coast when my parents were reunited. They belonged to a crowd that partied and drank regularly, and I became accustomed to caring for myself when my parents were either sleeping off their binge or simply weren’t home.
Little by little, it became clear to me that my mother was addicted to alcohol, but my father, who drank as much as she did, was not. I discovered that she kept bottles hidden around the house and would secretly tipple at all hours of the day and night. Then, as I was becoming a teenager, my father went to prison for the first time. As an attorney, he had embezzled $40,000 from one of his clients. From then on, he was in and out of prison for a variety of crimes. My mother, now on her own, drank more.
At age 17, I started college at the University of California in Berkeley, only a bus ride away from the Oakland slums where we lived. The tuition back then was only a little over fifty dollars a semester. I worked at part-time jobs to support myself. Lack of money forced me to stay with my mother for the most part, but I lived elsewhere whenever possible. When I graduated from college four years later, I immediately joined the army—I was going to be drafted if I didn’t.