Donnie’s $375,000 a year job offered all the amenities of life: nice home in Potomac, Mercedes in the garage, membership in the right country club and a trophy wife.

That was then. This is now, as Donnie Bartlett sits in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at a church in Arlington and tells his story to a roomful of strangers.

The smoke is thick and the coffee strong. As one tells it, drunks smoke a lot and drink a ton of coffee.

“My name is Donnie and I’m an alcoholic.” It’s the standard greeting when one gets up to tell his story.

“Hi Donnie.” The response comes back in unison.

“It’s been 17 months, one week and three days since my last drink.” Alcoholics have a strong sense of time.

Donnie’s story may seem gut wrenching to many, but a lot of people in the room have heard worse. Tales of woe dominate AA meetings. Yet even though they may have heard it all, each story hits a nerve with someone in the room. They’ve been there. They’ve done that. And they hope to God they don’t do it again.

“I never thought I had a drinking problem,” Donnie tells the room. “I didn’t drink every day. I seldom got drunk. At least I thought I never got drunk.”

Donnie’s been coming to AA for a year-and-a-half now, but tonight is the first time he’s had guts enough to stand up and tell his story.

“I was an attorney, a damn good attorney, with a strong international law practice, a house in Potomac, a Mercedes and a pretty, loving wife.

In Donnie’s circle, success was measured by the location of your house, a German nameplate on the car and a wife that other men covet. The harder you worked, the more money you made, the more things you bought and the more trappings of success you displayed.

Success also brings pressure. To relieve the pressure, Donnie drank – Absolut vodka on the rocks. He could put away six or seven a night and bragged to himself about how he never got drunk.

Others saw a different Donnie. He was losing control, showing up drunk after lunch, looking like hell in the morning, missing appointments, not following through.

“Hey, I was out there doing, day after day. The drinks calmed my nerves.”

His billings dropped off. A few bills fell behind. One day he was entertaining a client at lunch when the waiter told him he had a phone call. He found the restaurant manager waiting to tell him that American Express had told the restaurant to take his credit card and send it back to them.

In the audience a few heads nod. Been there. Done that.

He arrived at his office one morning and was told the Senior Partner wanted to see him. His wife was in the office too. In AA circles, this is called intervention. The Senior Partner told him that a car was waiting to take him to the airport where a plane would take him to the Betty Ford Center.

Donnie tried to argue.

“It’s that or your job,” the Senior Partner said. “Take your choice.”

He went and took the cure. For a few months, it seemed to take. Then the pressure, a drink or two, more drinks or three, and so on. His trophy wife walked. A week later he was fired. The bank came for the Mercedes, then for the house.

Donnie walked into his first AA meeting 18 months ago and took the first of the 12 steps. He lives in a $450 a month efficiency apartment and works with Legal Aid. He hasn’t talked to his wife since the divorce. She won’t take his calls.

“Do I want to drink again? Every damn day. Will I drink again. I hope not.”

More nods. Been there too. One day at a time. That’s the creed.

Donnie finishes an sits down. He lights a cigarette and listens to the next speaker.

Later he nurses a cup of coffee at Bob & Edith’s Diner in Arlington.

“This where I’m supposed to say I don’t miss the good life, because all those trappings weren’t important. Bullshit! I miss it all, including the drinking.”

He lights another cigarette and takes a long pull.

“I guess I had to make a choice. Keep drinking and kill myself with liver disease or light up more of these and die of lung cancer. Some choice, huh.”

He stubs out the cigarette and leaves, crawling into a battered Jeep and heading back to his one-room apartment.

Jackson, who has worked with Donnie since he started at AA, shakes his head.

“I don’t know if Donnie is going to make it. He’s got the bug. He has to feel like he’s somebody important. He’s got to make it big or he won’t be satisfied. That’s what helped get him in trouble in the first place.”

Jackson should know. Nine years ago he was head of one of the biggest lobbying firms in Washington. Now he sells shoes at Nordstrom and says he doesn’t miss the old life.

“I’m sober, I’m healthy and I’m happy,” he says. “And I haven’t set foot inside the District of Columbia in six years. I don’t plan too anytime in the near or distant future.”

–Doug Thompson
Washington, DC