It’s Time to Leave the Capsule if You Dare

I’ve always looked up to astronauts, even if I consider them to be brave and foolish in equal measure.

They aren’t just tough — they’re smart, and courageous. They further the cause of science and advance the nature and purpose of the human race. They brought us Velcro, those pens that write upside-down, and that ice cream that’s overpriced and underwhelming. They competed for the right to slingshot around the earth at twenty times the speed of sound in what’s essentially the front half of an RV with a bunch of solar panels on it. Heroes-with-a-capital-H.

Yet despite these qualities — their strength of will, and of character, their dedication and patience, the intelligence required to qualify — not even astronauts are immune to alcoholism.

Buzz Aldrin was one of the greats. The man’s such a hero nobody calls him by his real name anymore. He’s not an Edwin. He’s a Buzz. He went to the moon and back, flying through nothingness in a craft not much bigger than a hot tub where there was nowhere to relax, or stretch your legs, or just get some time alone (unless you didn’t mind exploding).

After his return, he was appreciated with the appropriate amount of fanfare — but he wasn’t as happy to be back as we were to have him. There were no more great adventures for Buzz; he’d done the impossible, and there were no more dragons to slay, no more lands to conquer.

He had trouble connecting with other people who hadn’t lived through what he’d lived through. He didn’t find certain things important anymore. He felt empty. And if you’re reading this entry, given our community, you can probably guess where that emptiness led.

It takes all kinds.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a hero (or a billionaire, or a mental patient, or a college student): alcoholism doesn’t discriminate. Our purported reasons for drinking may vary, but the results are generally the same.

It’s a good thing that Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t discriminate either. I certainly did.

When I first (and second, and third) found myself in these rooms, I didn’t think anything “AA” applied to me. The people I met were a little further gone, I thought. They were strange. Most were religious. The majority of them were as far from 20 as I was from the womb.

They’d faced problems I’d never had to consider before. Some of them struggled with mental illness, or with food insecurity, or had been drinking to mask the pain of abusive relationships. These people had real problems. They were real alcoholics. I didn’t need (or want) to be there, and my indifference toward the meetings I did attend was palpable. Eventually, they didn’t want me there either. So I’d leave.

I didn’t take the time to study Alcoholics Anonymous. I judged it in its entirety — contempt prior to investigation, if you will — based on a small number of meetings that I’d only chosen because they were nearby. I couldn’t relate to the people I’d met there in any real way, and I’d damn sure convinced myself that I wasn’t that kind of alcoholic.

What is it they say about Americans? That we all think of ourselves, even the poorest among us, to be temporarily embarrassed millionaires? I was a temporarily alcoholic drinker. But in like, the Jack Kerouac way. It was cool.

In my head I’d built myself up to be an astronaut-level kind of guy — AA’s slogans and hand-holding were beneath me. My alcoholism was just a chapter in my life. It wouldn’t last.

I wish I’d paid more attention. I would have learned enough about myself and about my drinking that the next decade’s trials and tribulations wouldn’t have taken me by such surprise. I did pay enough attention, though, to know exactly where to go once I started taking my drinking seriously.

If you put nothing into it, you get nothing out of it.

Buzz went from ticker-tape parades to selling Cadillacs — and he wasn’t a very good salesman. His life, he thought, was essentially over. He felt he’d accomplished everything he set out to do, and nothing else felt quite so important or meaningful. He didn’t want to be a guy who went to the moon; he was the kind of guy who goes to the moon. He didn’t want that part of his life to be over. His drinking found him at a low point, as it tends to do.

In turn he found this program. If it can help Buzz, it can help me, right? And maybe you as well. If it’s true that the bigger they are, the harder they fall, Buzz is an example of someone who fell further than most of us ever will (both figuratively and literally).

If someone facing that kind of existential dilemma, someone who left the Earth and subsequently never really felt at home there afterward, can find hope and reason and purpose in recovery, maybe I can too. Maybe you as well. It just takes effort. It works if you work it, right?

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