Finding the Off Switch

Morning sunlight reflected off a delicate lattice of frost on the truck parked next to mine. A pair of 240s hammered in the distance. Talking guns. I looked at my watch and counted. Four Minutes. The amount of time an Infantry platoon has to close with and destroy the enemy while he is fixed by direct fire.

It takes four minutes for a pair of M240 Limas to expend sixteen hundred rounds of 7.62 link at a sustained rate of fire. It’s a beautiful chorus. Beautiful or terrible, depending on which end of the gun you’re on.

Over and over, like chanting monks: 

Lay down and die . . . Lay down and die . . . 

It is an unnatural human reaction to run to that sound. The sound of pain and violent death. It is a certain type of man that goes in search of suffering. These past few years, I have met many men like that.

They aren’t addicted to suffering because it is their job. This is their job because they are addicted to suffering. As if there were some mystery there to explore. Some secret they would kill themselves to learn . . .

I went into a period of forced abstinence for work a few months ago. One of our “backpacking excursions”. I enjoy time in the field, contrary to what most would believe, because of the sobriety. I never miss nor crave a drink when I lack access to it. It was the thing I missed least in Afghanistan, behind rain, privacy, and sleep.

When we returned from the field I stopped at the liquor store and bought a fifth of Wild Turkey. It lasted two days.

I didn’t drink the whole bottle. I poured it into the sink. That day, for the third time since I’ve been doing this job, a Soldier I knew drank himself to death. They found him cold in his bed, asphyxiated.

The enormity of that realization hit me hard. The fact that it keeps happening. Standing at my kitchen counter with a mouthful of whiskey, all I could taste was hair spray. I spit it down the drain and upended the rest of the bottle.

My sobriety lasted until the weekend. When I did drink, I wasn’t trying to get drunk. A few weeks later I did, while celebrating with friends. I regretted it.

I’m not exactly dry these days. Perhaps damp is a better word. I still enjoy a night cap, but a glass of wine is hardly the same thing as drinking a fifth every two days. The drinking I do now makes the last five years seem implausibly mad. More often, I chase my sleeping pills with ZzzQuil.

I love you . . . You giant fucking Q . . . It’s the thirteenth fucking step.

I allowed my job and my habits to interrupt my life. To speak for me.

More than anything, I drank to put myself to sleep. I have a difficult relationship with sleep. I have to fatigue myself. To wear myself down to the last thin membrane. Otherwise, when my head hits the pillow, the circus music starts. The light show of past, present, and future, shot through a Techni-color super-collider that can split and fuze reality in ways Jesus couldn’t fathom with a head full of acid.

. . . Like a first explosion of salvia divinorum.

It has always been this way. Long before Afghanistan. Even as a boy I laid in bed at night staring at the ceiling. Counting my breaths. Attempting to zeroize my head.

These days, without the sauce, I lay in bed waiting for the melatonin to kick in and listen to my tinnitus. Some nights, when the pills wear off, I wake around one-thirty or two. I lay there with my eyes closed and listen to the ‘eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee’ that accompanies the silence.

Machine guns are loud forever.

The collision of bad coincidences that led to my newfound maturity came after some other changes. I cut several things out of my life. Lifestyle addictions. Not the least of these was Facebook, and all of the people I associated with it. I warned everyone in advance. I gave them my contact info and told them to stay in touch.

I haven’t heard a fucking word from anyone. Not a text. Not an e-mail. Not one carrier pigeon.

Radio silence.


I am an analog man in a digital world. Even at work, when my bosses and peers are bombing me with text messages and e-mails, I respond to most of them face-to-face. People treat me much different in person than they do digitally. They are less confrontational. Less passive-aggressive.

My work evaluations describe me as a “take charge”, “no-nonsense” leader. Those that drink with me know that, even then, the guard is up. It takes an heroic amount of alcohol to knock me off my game.

When it does, it isn’t pretty. Near fatal, actually . . .

Then it stopped. All of it. The roller-coaster came to a halt. There was no trascendent moment. No ephiphany. I was clear as winter morning. Sobriety did not lead me to a moment of clarity. Clarity made me sober. This was acid clarity, without the voices. There were no cartoon wallpaper explosions of mathematic heiroglyphs. The ride just stopped.

There was no mystery. No secret. Just a lot of bad noise . . . and then silence.

I put aside the things I did not need. What I invite into my life is there because I choose for it to be there. The people in my life are ends in themselves, not merely means. I enjoy their company for its own sake. My life doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.

I was through with the enormous effort of expediting my end. Through drinking myself sane. Through being frustrated over my failed suicide-by-Afghan. If that nearest miss hadn’t killed me, then the end I chose wasn’t choosing me.

It wasn’t mystical. It was just time to move on.

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