Life Beyond My Wildest Dreams by William G. Borchert
Recovering alcoholics have often likened the path to sobriety to finding “a life beyond our wildest dreams.” While this is true for some, it is more of a work in progress for others. While I find it difficult to describe exactly how sobriety changed my life, I am one who has found a life beyond my wildest dreams.
I hit bottom in April 1962. I had little hope of anything meaningful ever happening again in my life. I had drunk up every opportunity I’d been given as a writer for newspapers, magazines and radio shows. I was unemployable and had lost two homes. My family was living in a small basement apartment. I was physically ill and had no solutions for my legal, financial and relationship problems.
Positive changes began to take place after a caring friend suggested I join a Twelve Step recovery program. I followed their suggestion. Gradually, I was led to a healthier way of thinking and living.
Today, I understand more about the disease that affected me physically, mentally and spiritually; however, growing up I knew nothing about alcoholism or how it had affected my family. My father was a terrible alcoholic who came from a family riddled with alcoholism. My mother’s family was the same. Back then, few knew alcoholism was a disease. Most people believed it was a moral issue or the result of being weak-willed.
Addiction puts family members under incredible stress. Normal routines are constantly interrupted by unexpected or even frightening behaviors, and the alcoholic’s constant denial of reality confuses what family members are feeling and seeing.
As family members feel normal family life slipping away, they may join the addict in bending, manipulating and even denying the reality of the situation. Parents, wives, husbands, children and other loved ones can become as sick as the addict.
Today, we know the children of addicts can be genetically predisposed. Some statistics show these children may be four times more likely to become addicted. Genetics are only partly responsible for this higher risk of addiction. Psychological and environmental factors – the home environment and the child’s reactions to that environment – account for the other part.
I reacted with terrible anger and hatred toward my father’s alcoholic behavior, swearing I would never become like him. Predisposed and filled with inner rage, I became the alcoholic while my sister and younger brother didn’t.
One of many unforgettable incidents with my father occurred when I was eleven or twelve. I was playing stickball with neighborhood friends near our apartment house in Brooklyn, New York. Suddenly, a taxicab pulled up nearby and out fell my father, so slobbering drunk that the cab driver had to help him into the house.
Little did I know that one day God would give me the opportunity to write a screenplay for a movie that would help addicts worldwide. That movie became My Name Is Bill W.
My friends couldn’t help laughing; some girls watching us play started to giggle as well. I was so filled with shame that I just took off running. I kept running until I was exhausted. Then I sat on some rocks in a barren field and cried.
This and other painful episodes helped me justify my own drinking. I became filled with resentments and self-pity. When I married and began having children of my own, it took me a while to realize I was creating the same hurt in my own family. I couldn’t believe I had repeated the pattern of addiction.
I avoided alcohol until I was 19. I had just become a newspaper reporter in New York City for what was at that time the largest evening newspaper in the world. It was the heyday of journalism and a tremendous opportunity to be rubbing shoulders with some of the world’s greatest writers and columnists.
On my first day, staff from other newspapers invited me out for a drink. These were veterans who were 20 to 30 years older than I. They didn’t ask what I wanted to drink; they simply ordered for me what they were drinking, a shot of rye whiskey with a beer chaser.
I recognized my mortal enemy at once, smiling smugly at me from atop the long mahogany bar. John Barleycorn. He presented himself as my friend, part of my new and exciting surroundings, part of the camaraderie. How could I say no, especially in the midst of men I admired, skilled newsmen who could teach me the ropes? I quickly downed the shot of rye, almost choking before putting the fire out with the beer chaser.
I didn’t get sick, and I didn’t get a hangover. Instead, I felt taller, older, handsome and smart; I was on top of the world and at peace with the universe. I was a veteran newsman, and all of New York was my oyster. It was an exhilarating experience, one that I would end up chasing to the gates of Hell.
As a healthy young man, I could handle booze almost long enough to become successful in a profession I loved. Alcoholism soon caught up with me, however. Between missing deadlines, nearly getting killed in a series of car accidents and creating chaos at home, I got caught in the avalanche of alcoholism and fell into a precipitous downward slide.
At the age of 28, no one would hire me because of my reputation as an undependable drunk. I was living in a basement, panhandling old friends for the price of another drink, and seriously considering suicide. That’s when God stepped into my life and offered me a hand. I grabbed it, and I’m still hanging onto it today.
One of the miracles that helped me was that my father found his way into a Twelve Step program and was experiencing the miracle of sobriety for himself. As a result, I finally found the father I’d never had, and he found a loving son. Our families reaped the blessings.
I write about all of this in my book, How I Became My Father . . . A Drunk. This was a book I never intended to write for two reasons. First, I never thought I would make peace with my dad, who I had come to love and respect as a sober man. We enjoyed many activities together and shared our sobriety at Twelve Step meetings. He and my mom spent a great deal of time with my wife, Bernadette, our nine children and me. We seldom talked about the painful past.
Second, I don’t like dwelling on uncomfortable situations. While I knew my past could be my greatest asset, it was also my greatest source of pain. Who wants to dwell on something painful long enough to write a book about it?
I finally decided to tackle the difficult task of writing a book, thanks to the encouragement of an alcoholism counselor I befriended in Florida. Together with my loving wife and three most beloved and trusted friends, this counselor told me that my story could help people – especially families – find their way out of the darkness of addiction and into the light of recovery. They finally convinced me to put pen to paper, and what started out as a painful journey of reliving hurtful memories turned into a satisfying and joyful experience.
Those of us who have found sobriety share the responsibility of carrying the message of recovery. As an author and screenwriter of many books and movies about recovery, this project made sense. Like others who seek to help those in need, it also brought me great happiness.
It took me a while to understand why God allows alcoholics to go through such pain and misery before leading them to sobriety. I have come to believe it is simply to prepare them to do His bidding and reach out and help others in need. It is in reaching out to others and sharing our sobriety that we find the kind of life I spoke of at the start of this piece, “a life beyond our wildest dreams.”
Little did I know on that depressing rainy day back in 1962, as I sat in a filthy room in a fleabag hotel on the Lower East Side of New York City contemplating suicide, that one day God would give me the opportunity to write a screenplay for a movie that would help addicts worldwide. That movie became My Name Is Bill W., starring James Garner, James Woods and Gary Sinise. It has since become the most watched television movie ever made.
If that isn’t “a life beyond my wildest dreams,” I don’t know what is.
William G. Borchert is an author and screenwriter who began his career writing for newspapers, magazines and radio shows. This Emmy Award-nominated screenwriter was a partner in Artists Entertainment Complex, which produced such major films as Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. Perhaps best known for writing the film My Name Is Bill W., he also wrote When Love is Not Enough. He lives in Stratford, Connecticut, with his wife, Bernadette. williamborchert.com