Shattered Dreams - The Lure of Booze and Drugs

Many cruisers have to interrupt their travels to fly home and replenish their cruising kitty. My husband and I had to interrupt our Mexican cruise for an entirely different reason: his relapse after nearly 11 years of sobriety. Although it may seem like the following is all about him, don't be fooled; I was just as much a part of the insanity that ensued. We both wanted to write this article as a cautionary tale of some of the obstacles that can occur when you go cruising.

We married 5 1/2 years ago after meeting through an ad in the Personals. From the first, we talked about going cruising. My husband worked as a maritime electrician on the docks in L.A. Harbor while I was an advertising executive. We were both in recovery: he in AA, and I in Al-Anon. I moved aboard his 45-foot ketch a week after we married, and we concentrated on paying off our bills to save money for a two to three year cruise. We were both much more interested in our cruising plans than in attending our support groups.

Unfortunately, two years after we married, my husband was seriously injured on the job and retired on permanent disability. After his initial surgery, one of the first things I asked the surgeon was if my husband could still sail. The doctor assured me that he could, so we continued with our plans. After several surgeries, my husband had recovered to the point that we signed up for the '98 Baja Ha-Ha.

My husband's best friend had always planned to come cruising with us. Twenty years before, he and my husband had sailed in the Sea of Cortez for a few months. They remembered having a grand old time, drinking and carousing their way through their cruise. My husband had many happy memories of this time, and though both he and his friend had stopped drinking at the same time a few years later, they were both viewing this trip as a return to those carefree times.

Before the start of the Ha-Ha, we took a shakedown cruise to the Channel Islands. The trip was strained for several reasons. For one thing, my husband had been prescribed Vicodin for his considerable back pain, but the painkiller made him irritable � and at times uncontrollably angry. And his best friend had developed a daily marijuana habit that he had to give up in order to be on the boat with us. This enforced abstinence made him tense and moody. My husband and I quarreled frequently, and I wasn't able to control my own temper. Our friend was often caught in the middle. We made it through the cruise, but once back in our slip our friend announced he would not be going cruising with us. He then moved off the boat.

My husband and I decided to sail with the Ha-Ha anyway, and another friend volunteered to join us for the sail from San Diego to Cabo. We left with the fleet and had a good sail to Turtle Bay. However, the beach party in Turtle Bay awoke powerful feelings of nostalgia in my husband for those fun times of old in Mexico. So a week before his 11th anniversary in AA, he started drinking from a bottle of Damiana liqueur we had on the boat. Ironically, this liqueur comes in a bottle shaped like a naked woman, because that's what booze was to him � his mistress.

My husband and I were on different watches, with my husband purposely avoiding being alone with me. I had no idea that he had started drinking again. I was so absorbed in living our dream that I didn't allow myself to see what was happening. Looking back, I see now that the only way I could continue the cruise was by pretending that everything was fine. I knew there was something wrong, but I dreaded facing reality. So I didn't.

We arrived in Cabo on a beautiful morning, and were thrilled to have made the cruise down so smoothly. Our crew was a very easy-going quiet guy, and he was able to put up with the squabbling and continual disagreements between my husband and I. Both my husband and I were deeply unhappy, but neither one of us could face that our dream cruise was not going as planned. Here we were, in paradise at last, but it wasn't solving our personal problems. When my husband and I had had fights in the past, each of us thought that "It will all be better when we get to Mexico. The pain will be less, we won't be as uptight, controlling and angry, and we'll relax, ease up on each other, and start enjoying our great life."

We both read Latitude 38 avidly. My husband started reading in 1978, and had dreamed of going cruising since he was 22. I had come to the joys of sailing later in my life, but when I stepped aboard his boat for the first time, I knew I was home. The cruising dream grew in me as a natural progression of our relationship, and I took Coast Guard classes, women's sailing seminars, and medicine-at-sea classes to try to make up for my lack of experience. My husband had been sailing for 35 years, so I felt tremendous confidence in his skills as a sailor and navigator. And to tell the truth, he's still a great sailor � even when stoned out of his mind on painkillers!

When we arrived in Cabo we took a mooring off the Hacienda Hotel, and my husband seemed particularly anxious for me to get off the boat that morning. So our crew and I left to check the boat in and arrange for a slip in the marina. When I returned to the boat, I soon understood why my husband had been anxious for me to leave. He was, as the expression goes, drunk as a sailor. It took me about 15 minutes to figure it out, however, as I had never seen him drinking and he was trying his best to act normal.

Later on, I learned that as soon as I'd left the boat he'd called a panga to take him to town. Once in town, he headed straight for a liquor store, where the bottles of booze, he later told me, looked "like jewels." He immediately bought a bottle of his favorite, a liter of Bacardi añejo rum, and headed back for the boat. By the time I got back to the boat, he'd polished off two-thirds of the bottle and was well on his way to a blackout. As he said, "If you're going to drink, you might as well go all the way!"

I had always promised myself and my husband that I would leave him if he ever started drinking again or if he ever hit me. Sadly, I packed my bags doing my best not to antagonize him. Our crew opted to leave with me, and we departed the boat laden with luggage. At that point my husband threatened to just take off and sail the boat to Puerto Vallarta by himself � and for some reason I believed him. I was terrified that he would hurt himself and/or damage the boat.

I went to the Grand Poobah of the Ha-Ha and the Cabo Isle Harbormaster and explained the situation. Both men were extremely kind, and understanding � and their advice that night literally saved me and my husband much pain and untold grief. I wanted to call the Mexican Navy to stop my husband � as I mentioned, my own behavior was as crazy as my husband's, and I was sober. But I shudder to think what would have happened if I had involved any Mexican officials in our mess. As it was, the Poobah and the Harbormaster calmed me down and convinced me that the worst that would happen that night was that my husband would pass out � and that's exactly what happened. Except he threw up all over the boat before he did so.

Meanwhile, our crew and I went in search of a hotel. Sometimes God smiles kindly on drunks and fools, for that was surely the case that night. The first hotel we went to was too expensive, and the second was all booked � but they recommended a third hotel which had two rooms for us. Nonetheless, I was feeling miserable, numb and desperate, for I still loved my husband very much. But here I was in Mexico, without a home or a husband, no job, and only a few of my belongings. I knew I could fly to my mother's house and stay with her, but at 44 years old it was bitter to even think about having to run home to Mommy. I entertained the thought of staying in Mexico.

I'd also have periods of strength, too, and tell myself, "I'm not going to lose the whole dream, dammit!" One of the owners of the hotel I was staying at was an American woman, and we started talking. Soon I was pouring out all my troubles. It turned out that she had two years of sobriety in AA, and was able to offer me comfort and hope. I went to bed that night feeling the presence of a higher power in our lives, and with a renewed faith that things would work out.

The next morning our crew got up early and took a panga to check on the boat and my husband. He told me my husband wasn't aboard but the boat was fine � yet a bit smelly. He also told me that the boat had been moved into the slip I had arranged for in the marina. We were expecting more friends, who were coming down to help us sail to Puerto Vallarta, to arrive in Cabo the next day. I had almost called them several times to tell them not to come, but a little voice inside kept telling me to wait.

Eventually, I went down to the boat in the marina and this time my husband was there. He had woken up with a killer hangover, realized that this was not what he wanted in life, and moved the boat into the marina so he could look for me. After a wary greeting, we started talking. He told me he didn't want to drink again and that he wanted to go to an AA meeting that night. I told him that I would stay with him if he stopped drinking. Although alcoholics make many promises they can't keep, he kept this one. He went to the English-speaking AA meeting in Cabo with my new friend, and I moved back onboard the boat. We put our poor crew on a plane, greeted our newly-arrived friends and prepared to depart for Puerto Vallarta.

All's well that ends well, right? If only. While drunk, my husband had hidden his Vicodin (from me) in the bilge. During the sail over to Puerto Vallarta, he forgot to retrieve it, and it ended up as so much white powder floating in the bottom of the boat. My husband wanted to vacuum up the powder and make a big brick out of it! At this point, his drug addiction kicked in with a new ferocity. In the previous few years he had developed a 6-8 Vicodin ES habit a day, supposedly to control his pain � but more for the pleasurable high it gave him.

In Puerto Vallarta, my husband started chasing drugs. Mexico is a very frustrating place to be a drug addict. The doctors can't or won't prescribe Vicodin and the Mexican government tightly controls all Class II drugs. But any alcoholic/drug addict worth his salt can find his way around these obstacles. My husband found a doctor who helped him simulate his Vicodin high with a 'cocktail' of different drugs. By the time we sailed down to Barra de Navidad, he was taking Tylenol with codeine, Valium, a muscle relaxant � and injecting some drug we still haven't identified.

I knew about the codeine, but the tricky thing about an alcoholic with a severe injury is pain control. When does enough become too much? Since my husband was still hiding from me whenever he could, and since I was still in major denial about the problem and stubbornly

holding on to the idea of a dream that no longer existed, we struggled along.

I didn't know my husband was injecting drugs, and he hid it from me by pleading pain and spending lots of time flat on his back in the air-conditioned aft cabin. However, his shambling gait, bloodshot eyes and slurred speech, and my fixed smile and painful excuses told everyone else that there was something seriously wrong with both of us.

My husband felt desperate and misunderstood, and I felt lonely and betrayed. Things came to a head on Christmas Day. When my husband wasn't hiding in the aft cabin, he was working obsessively on the boat. I asked him not to work on the boat for Christmas, as I wanted to have a special holiday, one of my first away from my family. But when I returned to the boat after going to the pool alone, I found him cleaning the side of the boat. In an angry way, I asked him to stop. In an equally angry way, he told me to get off his back. I went below to change and leave again. I was so angry that I was shaking, and thought the best thing to do was to get away and calm down. As I walked by him on the dock, I told him I was going to "cool off".

"Here," he replied, "cool off!" And he pushed me into the water of the empty slip next to us. Talk about a wake-up call!

So, there I was again, moving off the boat. I felt weary, numb � and finally ready to give up the damn dream. After a short, futile conversation the next morning � when I asked him to consider going to detox back in the States � I took a five-hour bus ride to Guadalajara and a plane back to the U.S. the next morning. No angel intervened this time, and I resigned myself to another divorce � this was my second marriage � and starting my life over.

I told myself there would be new dreams, further happiness, another job, a new home � but it was small consolation for all the loss I felt. Despite our problems, I liked and loved my husband, and wanted to be with him. I knew, however, that his addiction would destroy him and I wasn't willing to go down the drain with him. I felt terrible abandoning him, but I reminded myself that the few simple limits that I'd set had all been violated in just the last month. I had to trust that my husband would hit bottom at some point � I hoped before he hurt himself or anyone else.

Within an hour of arriving at my mother's house � yes, my worst fears realized, but how comforting to have somewhere to go! � my husband called and told me he wanted to come back to the States and go into detox. I agreed to help him. When I picked him up at the airport, he looked like someone who had hit bottom. Having thrown away all the syringes the day I'd left, he went immediately to his doctor. He then checked himself into a wonderful rehab center where they medically detoxed him over a weekend. He ended up at the center for three weeks, and spent the next nine months in their outpatient program. During that time, I also participated in the program and learned some hard truths about my own behavior. We both had to learn anger management, the art of stepping back during heated confrontations, and we had to start learning to trust and respect each other again.

So what happened to our cruising dream, you ask? Well, we kept the boat in Barra de Navidad and spent the next 9 months in the States, intermittently flying down to the boat. The staff of the marina: Frederico, the Harbormaster, Secundino, the Dockmaster, and Vanessa, the Office Manager, were wonderful. They looked after our boat, maintained her carefully, sent us regular reports on how our boat was doing, and generally took care of us. We felt badly about the chaos we had created during the holidays, but they took it in stride and never made us feel uncomfortable. They were so glad to see my husband clean and sober, and me so much more relaxed and happy, that they made us feel good about solving our problems!

The many months of professional help we received in the States paid off in our being able to return to the boat last November, still married, now dedicated to our own recovery and to our marriage. We plan to cruise up into the Sea of Cortez for the next seven months, then leave the boat again and return to the States to remodel our house. Summer in Barra taught us that hurricane season is God's way of telling older cruisers that it's time to go north.

We're grateful for AA and Al-Anon in Barra, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, and La Paz � our cruising destinations. And "Thank God for the kindness of strangers," to quote Tennessee Williams, himself no stranger to these kinds of problems. We have written this with our names withheld, not so much because we are ashamed of our problems � although there is a little bit of that � but because our programs suggest it's better to remain anonymous to the general public.

Thanks in part to the wisdom of the Grand Poobah and to the encouragement we get from Latitude, we are on the high seas once more. We're glad to share our experiences if they will help others. To those reading this that know exactly who we are, thanks for your support. We are now experiencing the real dream of cruising and we are looking forward to meeting up with our friends again and making new friends in the dawn of the millennium!

� anonymous

© 2000 Latitude 38