Confessions From *The Car*

The question actually comes up quite a bit.  "How do you routinely play music surrounded by people drinking when you don't??  Doesn't it bother you?"  "Weren't you know...a..."

The simple answer is well - Yes it does bother me from time to time.  I still enjoy performing, and I wouldn't mind having a glass of wine now and then, but I cannot drink.  

If you're still reading, I've only shared this with a handful of people, mostly my very immediate family in the last 25 years. I mean they won't whisper behind your back, so.   And when you're done reading you'll understand why I don't talk about this.  I'm far enough away from it now, that it doesn't have the same weight as it once did.  But I won't discuss this in detail beyond this writing.  And I'm not even sure how long I will leave this up.  You know how people are, and frankly I just don't want to talk about it all that much.  It's not that much fun.  But as I said in my book, my goal with the remainder of my time on earth is to look for opportunities to pay it forward.  So here it goes.  

I'm not a 'religious' person in the sense that I embrace the lifestyle that American Christianity puts forth.  I am still rough around the edges, and probably not ideally suited to sit on your church board.  I enjoy church though, and especially covet my grandmother's bible, but no one would ever accuse me of being particularly religious, in the American sense.  Especially my immediate family which would describe me, as Ralphy did his father in A Christmas Story:

"My father worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium, a master."

Which perhaps is something I should work on come to think of it.  But I am what I am, bent edges and all.  However, I am living evidence of Joel 2:25.  I had an encounter with God.  Or at least what I think was God.  Yes - you read that correctly.  And I occasionally act like it. 

I'm uncovering a difficult season of my life because maybe there's the possibility someone out there is actually still in this place I'm about to describe.  I know I survived it for a reason, and that reason becomes more apparent as I get older.  And on the 25th anniversary of this dubious event, maybe your brother or your sister are in the grip of addiction and, or dealing with some major depression.  The two tend to be roommates. Or maybe - you.

For those that lost track of me in the 1990s, it may come as a shock to hear that I haven't had a single drink in 25 years, as it was synonymous with my name for well over a decade.  A season I'd just as soon forget.

For a slight of build, bullied, insecure kid in search of an identity, alcohol held the promise of temporarily easing pervasive feelings of inadequacy, and a cancerous lack of self-esteem. It also held the illusory, Holy Grail of being considered an 'adult' by my peers.  I know.  Stupid. Same pressurized reason we all smoked.  Not stupid to a teen though.  Ah the crush to be 'older'.  If you were a kid in the 1980s, things weren't always so straightforward as perhaps they are now. 

Alcohol was a toxic, yet readily available prescription for someone self-medicating depression and anxiety.  Even though I didn't really know what those words meant back then.  Something associated with 'weak' people probably. Or somebody with a 'problem'.  Me?  I just worked hard & played hard.  In reality, alcohol was sewn tightly into the identity of manhood at that time, at least in my neck of Appalachia.  Drinking was a socially acceptable way of dealing with pretty much every aspect of life. Good or bad. Not so much now. If someone tells you how much they had to drink last night, chances are you aren't really that impressed.  But back then...

I had a desire to perform professionally after college and alcohol was just what the doctor ordered to calm the Pavlovian terror that gripped me whenever I stepped in front of people.  Alcohol also gave cover, to a degree, for doing things that would otherwise have not been tolerated of me sober.  I could throw "well I was drunk" in front of a lot of things that really were just me being a thoughtless, selfish jerk.  And it worked.  For a while. 

It was also very commonplace.  You couldn't drive a mile in West Virginia in the 80s & 90s without passing a packed bar.  It wasn't that unusual for men to die in their early to mid-50s from this lifestyle where I lived.  The connection between heavy drinking and mortality hadn't really been established like it has now. 

Besides before Facebook, it was where we went to interact with the world.  People did all sorts of stupid things back then, and short of a car accident, it was rarely met with any real consequences as long as you were drinking.  Again, that was a moment in time, things are completely different now.  Get pulled over for DUI now they don't take your cooler and send you home.  Nor should they.  But remember what the most popular show on TV was....(Cheers?)  The non-stop glorification of alcohol in beer commercials?

I spent a few years in the active duty military, planning bombing missions for pilots, which for someone struggling with alcohol addiction, was a recipe for disaster.  I wasn't mentally prepared for the things I would see and experience there, and it pushed me further and further into the darkness.  And at that time, soldiers drank constantly, or at least it seemed.  By the time I exited active duty in 1994, I was a sack of broken glass looking for a place to cut anyone unfortunate enough to get close to me.  A semi-functioning alcoholic.

There is a smaller window where we still accept young people 'sowing their oats' so to speak.  But a stumbling drunk, at age 27 had long expired whatever statute of sympathy and understanding that existed.  Even back then.  At some point, you're just an adult with a big problem you won't or can't fix.  You graduate from being the party-guy to an isolated pariah after a certain age.  It's no longer a party and neither are you.  The phone stops ringing, and people stop coming by.  Except for people who are equally or more messed up than you.  You get the picture.  The vicious downward cycle.

By 1997 I had spent a reckless decade careening from one disastrous situation to the next, not unlike the Shriners and their crazy little parade cars wildly zigzagging back and forth across the street.  Always wondering why the world seemed to have it's thumb on my neck, and the deck forever stacked against me.  Every valuable relationship seemed like carrying sand in my hands.  Most problems were either caused indirectly by my addiction or were worsened by it, which in turn caused me to drink that much more.  It was a place to hide for someone who didn't understand how the world really worked.

After a pretty serious industrial accident in 1995 in Marietta, Ohio (which oddly enough happened while I was completely stone-cold sober) - I lost use of my right arm from 1995-1996.  In the haze of medical bills, workers comp litigation, surgery, bankruptcy, Vicodin, being out of work, alone, trying to bathe with 1 arm, etc. my life careened completely out of control and kept spiraling until I hit the proverbial rock bottom.  If you've been in this place, you know there's really no guarantee you're going to come back from it, although it is the narrative we are all so familiar with in America.  But there's a reason the song says, "When you leave that way, you can never go back."  Not entirely true, but also not completely untrue either. 

I hurt all sorts of wonderful people who truly cared about me on my way down to the hole in the bowl. There are things I know I can never fix.  At one level, it wasn't really me.  But in fact - it was really me.  From the time of that accident in 1995, to the night of February 15th 1997, I was at no moment completely sober, I was just in between drinks. 

I had to learn guitar from scratch with a surgically rebuilt hand that resisted my every demand. I was in constant agony for several years from the numerous tendons that were surgically reconstructed, and when the doctor won't give you any more Vicodin, well - you make do.  Take that Tylenol with codeine and give it back to your dentist.  Just keeping it real.  The ER surgeon joked that my career as a musician was over.  He had no idea. 

I've forgiven him.

At that point I truly thought God hated me.  Just 2 years earlier I was in California showing off my songs for a handful of record industry people, earning the promise of being offered a chance to enter what was then called artist development.  In the music industry, that simply means someone is willing to invest in you.  They saw something they liked, kinda like getting through to Hollywood on American Idol.  The music industry was way, way different back then in the early 90s.  If you could just get your foot in the door, the possibilities were literally endless, but getting your foot in the door was nearly impossible.  It was just understood.  Now everyone can walk through the door, but standing out from 15 million other people who sound just like you is the challenge now.  I digress.  In 1993, even the hint of a career in the music biz was a really big deal.  But a year later in 1994 I learned quickly that the music industry is rife with change.  By 1994-5, the music industry underwent a sudden change, labels merged, the acoustic music revolution had been replaced with grunge and that was that.  Answering machines.  Poof.

 And now I had what appeared to be a life-altering disability, I was financially destitute and a need for intoxication or medication that drove my every decision.  I was convinced God hated me.  And I hhhhhated Him right back.  Or at least what I thought was God.  This angry cosmic being that routinely had fun randomly messing up my life.  To teach me another 'lesson' perhaps.  That 'god'.  I had all sorts of religious ideas about what God was and wasn't.  All were incredibly ignorant.  But I believed them all since they were from the church of my own experience, which up to that point was infallible

I became consumed in self-pity and anger.  A few years earlier, I had blown a college scholarship, numerous really meaningful relationships, a couple of legit engagements, and friendships that would never, ever be repaired.  Still to this day, there are people that I care about, who I cannot reconcile with.  I was bankrupt, suffering from neurological problems and ulcers, driving a green, $250 Oldsmobile Delta 88 with nearly 180,000 miles on the clock that should have already been crushed and stacked in a junkyard somewhere.  It had mold on the vinyl top and you had to open the driver's door from the inside.  There were stains on the seats that looked like something from an episode of CSI.  If there was an embodiment of my life, there it was in all its rusted, smelly, squeaking & leaking glory. 

I was also faced with a growing understanding that I was the common denominator in the litany of catastrophes that seemed to happen on a semi-monthly basis.  I became conspicuously duplicitous and shallow, a shadow of the bright-faced, thoughtful and tenderhearted kid who was able to charm, contort and people-please his way through his teens and early 20s.  Even at 27 my body had begun to seriously break down from the non-stop abuse.  At 25 I walked with my hands in my pockets because I couldn't stop my hands from tremoring. I smoked 2+ packs of cigarettes a day and coughed incessantly.  I frequently dug cigarette butts out of ashtrays.  It was a bad time. 

By the night of Saturday February 15th, 1997 I had burnt every bridge that I had a chance to stand on.  I was broke. I was friendless and radioactive.  Did I mention broke?  I felt like I had reached a point where there was no point in going on.  Depression plays terrible tricks on the mind and on decision-making.  Alcohol encourages those tricks to become really stupid choices.  If you know someone who is struggling mentally, try to make yourself available.  I know, it's not easy.  But you don't need to fix things, they're not really listening to your suggestions anyway.  Just be around.  You never know when you are the difference...

After a night of heavy drinking at a Valentines Day gathering, I left to swerve my way home from ditch to ditch as I so often did. But as I felt my way to my car in the pitch dark, I heard the crunch of my only pair of glasses under my feet.  As I stooped down to feel for the pieces in the mud, something broke inside of me.  

Back then glasses were ridiculously expensive, and for some reason in that moment, the sound of the crunching frames and having to drive home even more impaired than I already was, was just the last straw for whatever reason.  In hindsight it's weird that such a small relatively meaningless thing became such a life-altering event.  But when you're living on the edge, small things can suddenly become really big things. 

Unlike what people some think, I really didn't sit around thinking about putting an end to my life.  When not stupor-drunk, I pushed through each day just like everyone else.  But something cracked inside of me that night as I got in my car and twisted the key into the ignition.  Yes even the stupid ignition key was bent.  You could start that car with a flathead screwdriver.  It was like a pressure cooker that finally exploded and all the steam left.  Also the myth that there are always signs, also not true.  I can tell you that I gave absolutely none. 

Depression robs you of the joy of getting over things, then alcohol puts rollerskates on that pain and launches you to crash wherever you crash.  Alcohol had contributed to a previous unsuccessful attempt on my life once before in 1989 that I somehow survived.  That's a whole other story about grace.

I won't go into a lot of detail about what I did on this night in 1997, it's irrelevant.  But every alcoholic knows exactly how to end their life.  You just do.  And I did it.  I do remember immediately losing consciousness, and momentarily looking down at my motionless body on the floor of my living room in front of my black faux leather sofa, in my tiny little house on East Pollock Street in Paden City, West Virginia.  I always found it odd there wasn't a West Pollock street.  Anyway, the only sound was the hum of the furnace, me and the furniture.  I had purchased the furniture set shortly before I went bankrupt from the accident, and it was really all I owned other than 'the car', a few guitars and my clothes.  I bought this crazy looking lamp with like 3 long arms that looked like some sort of sea monster.  But it was mine. 

But anyway, it was done.  Or so it seemed.  And I remember the weight of what I had just done being on me.  It seemed like someone else laying there.  But I knew it was Brad Malone.  Like I had murdered my best friend and was suddenly confronted with it in all it's horror.  I was fully dressed, sober, awake, alert and completely aware of my surroundings.  I was there for what seemed like only a few minutes.  Then I was taken somewhere else.  There were no singing angels, no clouds, gates, bright white light, no beautiful flower gardens, none of that stuff you hear from people who experience near-death situations where they flatline.  There was also no devil with horns, no cauldron of fire, no smoke or pitchforks, accordions (kidding, polka fans), Taylor Swift music or any sort of other tortuous things going on.  And certainly not the 'nothing' that I had really expected.  I can't go into a lot of details about what I experienced over the next 24 or so hours because it seemed far shorter and some of it still to this day doesn't really make any sense, as things make sense on earth, other parts are simply not easy to put into words.  You wouldn't believe me if I tried.  But I was somewhere else.  I remember vividly, like it was yesterday.  It's ok now if you think I'm a kook.  Really, I'm ok with it. Someone else might read this and it could help them.  Go on with your day.

I awoke the following Monday morning around 4 am sitting in a different part of the house, sitting perfectly upright on the end of my bed with my feet flat on the floor, in just my underwear.  But I wasn't relieved to be alive.  I was covered in sweat, and terrified.  Almost hysterical.  I felt like I needed to run, but to where?  From what?  I couldn't call my parents, what would I tell them?  'Hi Mom, I tried to kill myself mom, but I apparently screwed that up again too?"  What if that got out?  People already looked at me in a negative light.  What then? People will think I'm insane, in addition to being suicidal.  I had images of being locked in a padded room in a clean, white straightjacket.  The things that went through my mind...

I had made sure that if I ever 'pulled the trigger', so to speak, there would be no outs.  So why didn't it work?  I still don't know the answer to that.  I told you there was a reason I kept this to myself for 25 years.  This isn't the kind of thing you talk about at dinner parties.

I showered, brushed my teeth and went to work at the chemical plant where I was employed as a temp.  A coworker there had routinely tried to reach out to me about God, which I dismissed outright as I did most religious people and things.  But I knew he knew God.  You just know those people when you meet them, right?  There's something different about them.  I waited in his office cubicle at 6am for him to arrive and to his shock, there I sat, imploring him to help me sort out what I had just survived.  I'm sure I sounded like a lunatic.  I'm not sure I even let him take his coat off.  I remember him telling me to slow down and that he had a friend named Mike Lenz who could help me.  I was too scared and ashamed to tell him I had just attempted suicide, so I told him I had seen things in a terrible vision.  I mean how do you explain messing that up?  After all, he might call the guard shack and have me taken to the hospital for a mental evaluation, and I couldn't afford that, even though in hindsight that really might have been the right thing to do.  I had no insurance and was clinging tenuously to a temp position that barely paid me enough to live.  I had no idea how he would react, he really hardly knew me. But he could see right away that I was really, really serious, and really shaken up.  I needed answers, and I needed them fast.  Thank God for Tim McHenry, that church, Barry & Brenda Bullman, Chris & Mike Lenz and all the others who helped me at United Christian Fellowship.  They had no idea the situation they were really dealing with. 

But suddenly, I was in a place where I was truly open to God and he met me right where I was.  My life utterly changed for a second time in just a matter of weeks.  Night and day.  Broken to whole.  Crushed to new.  Lost to found.  I'm no longer afraid to die.  I peered behind the veil for a brief moment and saw what I saw.  I just wish I'd have taken someone's word for it beforehand.

The change in my life was so abrupt, rumors swirled for months that I had literally lost my mind, had some sort of nervous breakdown, became schizophrenic, joined a cult and otherwise jumped the shark.  I get it now.  People who cared about me stood in my living room almost exactly where I had just tried to end things weeks earlier, and declared me unstable.  They didn't know. 

But I knew

Once people have you in a box and labeled, they don't always like it initially when you bust out the side and exit.  You're affecting their grip on reality.  But regardless, I never took another drink.  And now you know the 'why'.

Even though I lived, you can't do what I did without paying a steep price, and I'm still paying it here some 25 years later.  Its a miracle that my body still functions as well as it does.  A few years later I learned that I had permanently damaged my liver, and it contributed to a worsening series of neurological problems, so much so that I spent years with specialists shoving me into MRI machines, trying to sort it out.  It has been a tough road.  I thankfully have meds to control the periodic seizure-like symptoms.  Small price to pay though.  I'm still here.  I can still sing and play and tell stories.  And tell you God is good, and there's a chapter after this one.  I'm not sure what would happen if I actually drank again, I'm just too grateful for every day of life to think about opening that door again.  So it's easy for me to say 'no thanks' and watch others enjoy themselves.