Natural Causes

I just published a post this morning and had no intention of writing today. But writing is how I figure out how I feel. I could not NOT write this.

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For the most part we don’t spend a hell-of-a-lot of time thinking about our esophagus. We pretty much ignore it and it does it’s job. It’s like the coil on your car engine. It never needs maintenance. You’ll need a new starter, brakes, water pump — even a new engine — because these all have moving parts. The coil, though, is just a hunk of iron, wrapped in copper wire, soaking in a bath of oil. There’s nothing to go wrong.

It’s the same with the esophagus. Mostly, it gets used for about fifteen minutes, three times a day. It has PH-Neutral foods dropping through it, washed down by water, milk, juice… It never goes bad because it never does anything difficult. The rest of the day it just gently pushes a tablespoon of slobber down your throat once or twice a minute.

… Unless you’re an alcoholic.

When you’re an alcoholic your esophagus is constantly bathed in one of nature’s harshest solvents. What is supposed to be mucous membrane has the mucous stripped off. Constantly. Eighteen hours a day it has any coating it managed to develop in the last half hour washed in alcohol. If that’s not bad enough, people often mix alcohol with acidic liquids like grapefruit juice, orange juice… even soda.

If you think the effects of alcohol on mucous membrane are a fucking joke, try this experiment at home:

1) Take a cottonball
2) Soak it in a shot of vodka or rubbing alcohol
3) Swab your rectum

What could possibly be worse for your esophagus than a steady wash of vodka and grapefruit juice? One word: “regurgitation”. After drinking that caustic combination, you mix it with stomach acids and send it back up the esophagus! Hell, yeah! We didn’t do enough damage the first time, let’s add some hydrochloric acid and do it again!

Don’t think it can get much worse than that? Two words this time: “dry heaves”. While your abdominal muscles are trying for force poison out of your stomach into your esophagus, your esophagus is trying to force it back into the stomach. The smooth muscles of the esophagus are taking a pounding and end up in complete spasm. If it happened to your calf you would call it a “charlie horse”.

All this to an organ which is required to do nothing more than swallow spit-logged donuts in most people.

In time the lack of mucous membrane on the esophagus — compounded by the stomach acid and spasming — causes the surface of the membrane to crack. This is a muscle that tries to swallow spit every 45 seconds. Think about having a cut on your finger, but making a fist every 45 seconds. Will a scab ever have a chance to form, or do you keep breaking it open?

These cracks — known as esophageal ulcers — are painful. Luckily there is a very simple and readily available painkiller: alcohol. Unfortunately, alcohol also operates as a blood thinner. So though it feels better, it’s being made worse both by the addition of the root cause of the disorder, plus the ancillary effect of accelerated bleeding. An alcoholic will typically drink themselves into unconsciousness — doing enough damage along the way that their esophagus is freely bleeding — and their stomach fills with blood until they die in their sleep. This is known as “bleeding out”, and is a fairly common death among alcoholics.

Today they found my father’s wife bled out in her bed. She’d died over the weekend — alone — and stewed in her own juices for 4 days. That’s pretty common, too. They call alcoholism: “The Lonely Disease”.

I am mad. I am furious. And I’m not mad at “Alcoholism”; I’m mad at her. I’m pissed because she believed that no one could recover from alcoholism; that no one could REALLY stop drinking. Her father never stopped, she couldn’t stop, so she believed I hadn’t. I’m resentful because as long as she was alive she could have a change of heart. She could look at me and say: “I’m sorry I misjudged you. I’m sorry I didn’t let you have any contact with your father for the last five years of his life. I’m sorry that when you were homeless I blamed you — and said it was your fault — and told you that even with all our millions we still wouldn’t help you get out of that horrible hole you were in. I realize now that you DID stop drinking, and I want to tell you how proud I am of you. I couldn’t do it, but YOU DID!”

Now I will never get her approval. And I feel cheated.

It’s ironic that she judged me so harshly because I’m an admitted alcoholic. My ex-wife drinks, though not alcoholically. The same with my brother and 2 sisters. In fact, I am the only person she may know who does not drink AT ALL — not even a sip in the last 14+ years — and she cut off communication with me because I was an alcoholic.

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June 1997: I’d been sober about 3 weeks and a young guy — John — picked up a 30 day chip. I was amazed! I thought that was an incredible amount of time, and I wondered if I would be able to make it another 10 days and pick one up myself. I gave him a ride home after the meeting. He lived in a shitty little trailer. He told me some of his story on the way home.

He was only about 5’6″, but he was built like a fireplug; barrel-chested, all muscle. His Grandfather was one of the first Navy Seals when they were commissioned during the Vietnam war. His father later became a Navy Seal. When he turned 17, John joined the Navy and became a Navy Seal himself. Shortly after that he was thrown out — not just from the Seals, but from the Navy — for his alcoholism.

But now he was sober! 30 days!

2 days later I went to a meeting and Valerie was crying, and saying that Pyro was a heartless bastard. Apparently, the night I dropped him off, John had been killed.

Pyro said” …if he doesn’t work the steps, it’s pretty natural for an alcoholic to drink. And when the liquor doesn’t do the job all the way, it’s pretty natural to go out for some drugs. And when you run out of money, it’s pretty natural to try to rob the dope man, especially if you’re built (mentally and physically) like John was. And it’s pretty natural that the dope man is going to want to keep his shit, and shoot you. And when you get cut in half with a shotgun, it’s pretty natural to die. So all-in-all, he died of ‘natural causes’. That’s how alcoholics go.”

I thought Pyro was a heartless bastard, too.

I went home and found an article in the paper about John. It was like Pyro said: killed with a shotgun. I cried and cried that night.

A month or two later, another person I knew died. Broke his neck in a car crash because of his pill use — but lived thorough it — then overdosed on pills later that night because the broken neck hurt so bad. I cried.

When the next person died, I was really, really sad. The one after that just made me sad.

When the next one died, I thought: “Hmm… Died of natural causes…”.

So I guess my father’s wife died of natural causes. But today I don’t have to.

God bless you Pattie Toler Arnold.

Bob & Pattie 2005

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21 Responses to Natural Causes

  1. Karen Halligan says:

    My husband worked with your Dad at Sperry and we stayed friends with him for years (until he moved to the Islands). What a super guy — we loved his storytelling. Is this really what happened to Pattie “Today they found my father’s wife bled out in her bed. She’d died over the weekend — alone — and stewed in her own juices for 4 days. That’s pretty common, too. They call alcoholism: “The Lonely Disease”. Good luck to you with your book!

    • AsJimSeesIt says:

      Sadly, yes. Bob died about 6 years ago. Pattie remarried a few years ago and moved to Seattle. Her husband passed back in March and she was found December 1st. She’d been dead for a few days.

      Back in early ”98 she ended up in Broward General Hospital (South Florida) with Hepatitis. Her skin was green and her eyes were yellow. Bob was unable to leave the Bahamas, so I went to help her. I was in recovery at the time, but just barely. The doctor explained that a lot of damage had been done to her liver and she would never be able to drink alcohol again. When he left the room she immediately turned to me and said: “You know, the liver heals pretty fast.I’m sure that some day I’ll be able to have a glass of Champagne at a friend’s wedding reception.”

      I asked her: “Do you have a friend who’s about to get married?”

      That’s what’s so sad about alcoholism. She got told “You almost died, but we saved your life” and she wanted to do it again. Can you imagine someone with a shellfish allergy going to Red Lobster?

      And yes:I got my lessons in storytelling from my Father and his brothers. Bob told great stories. A surprising number of them were actually true!

      Thank you for letting me know that they were loved, Karen.

      • Karen Halligan says:

        See if you can view these pics:
        If not, friend me on Facebook and I’ll add you as a contributer to this album. Karen Halligan

      • AsJimSeesIt says:

        Yes! Thank you so much!
        That ” place you worked in the eighties”: was that in Crystal City? I worked for Naval Air Systems Command — contracted through Mantech — in ”83-”84. Patty had just started dating my dad and I used to run into her at lunch all the time. I’m going to post these on FB now.

        Thanks again!

      • Lillian says:

        I guess I got to the hospital after you left. She was so mad ( I thought at me). I stayed until she was discharged. I am so sorry that she would not let you see or talk to your father.
        Having a hard time reading some of your posts. Probably should not have discovered them. Happy for you that you are still sober.

      • AsJimSeesIt says:

        There was a time that I really liked her. I certainly think that she gave a lot to my father, and for that I am very grateful to her. But yes, we had a large falling out.

      • Lillian says:

        She became hard. I don’t know why. I am still sifting through the stuff I read today. Believe me she was not always that way. I am so sorry that she closed you out. She did the same thing to me. I had the Patti that I knew when we were growing up and you did not.

        Are you ok? Fran told me your predicament. You know I am in Orlando. I am moving this month out to Edgewater. If you need a place to crash you can use our couch. We will be in a mess for a while though. I am 68 and my husband is 76. We are old and this move is taking a lot of our time. Weeding out “stuff”. However, we would be honored if you wished to use the sofa. My cell number is 407-928-5987. I loved your dad a lot and was also kept from seeing him at the end.

      • AsJimSeesIt says:

        Thank you. I just got some news that I’m trying to absorb. Thank you for the offer. I don’t know what I’m going to do.

  2. I am so sorry to hear about this. Funny, I was at God Walked Into This Bar blog (a fave of mine) and she spoke of Pattie, then when I linked here – wow…it’s you. Small world. And a sad one when we die like this, alone, in pain, hurting…ugh. I know I would have gone out in a poor fashion. I don’t think any active alcoholic leaves this world in a pleasant manner. It’s an ugly illness and it manifests in so many ways. Makes me even more grateful for where I am at, where my HP has placed me, in a position of neutrality and protected.



  3. Hi Jim, I’ve tried several times to leave a comment since I read this blog post a week ago but wordpress sometimes doesn’t want to recognize my username and password. I met Bob and Pattie in Marsh Harbour, my husband anchored the Cruiser’s Net with Pattie. We stayed at their house through Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne and became close friends, my husband returned to the Bahamas for Bob’s funeral. Such a small world.

    • AsJimSeesIt says:

      Thank you for contacting me. I have to remember there was a time that I thought the world of Pattie. She was always so much fun to be around. I guess the biggest problem between us was that she didn’t understand ordinary “family friction” and saw me — and my siblings, too — as “people who aggravate Bob”. That put her in defensive mode as she tried to protect him. I guess if that’s the worst she ever did I should find a way to forgive her. Thank you for letting me know a different side of her.

      I really enjoy your blog. You certainly have a different take on sobriety. In the last few months I have seen many people — with “good” long-term sobriety — who do it via methods other than A.A. Thank you for helping to open my eyes.

  4. Corbie says:

    Thank you for writing this; it was just what I needed to read and has stuck with me.

  5. Corbie says:

    Reblogged this on Sober in 2014 and commented:
    This is the post I was looking for the other day. Something addicts rarely think about.

  6. Hi Jim – just wanted to know how you’re doing. Haven’t heard from you here in a while. Hope all is well with you, brother.


    • AsJimSeesIt says:

      Doing real well., thanks. Have some life changing decisions to make, and as-per-usual for me, I’ve got analysis-paralysis. Just waiting for the other shoe to drop, but when it does things will be better than ever.


  7. Damn! Yeah, I know I’m late to the party here, but I’m just crawling out of the nice little isolation hole I’ve been digging for myself over the last few months. Alcoholic. You get it. But damn, I love this post! So angry and raw and passionate! It’s so easy to get numb to even the most traumatic alcoholic experiences, because yes, this is our natural state and eventually the deaths no longer surprise us. But they do affect us because they could be us. I pray I never forget that. No matter how many alcoholic deaths I have to witness, God please don’t let me become so numb to them that I think it could never happen to me.

  8. xx566819xx says:

    Hey hey, I love your blog – very thoughtful and relatable. I’ve just started and am fairly new to this – if you have a moment, please check it out. xx

  9. sara barnett says:

    Jim–I hope you are still maintaining this blog. I also knew your father back in the 80’s in Solomons, am also in recovery. At the time I was Sally Fretwell, but have resumed my maiden name, Barnett, and also go by my given name, Sara. Too old for a ‘y’ name. I hope you are well, hanging in there. I am occasionally in touch with your sister Marie.

    • AsJimSeesIt says:

      So you were Jack Fretwell’s wife? The one he named the Spinnaker Sally after? Or am I mixing two of my father’s stories?

      I don’t know how long you stayed in touch with them, but when Bob retired he moved to Marsh Harbor, in the Abaco’s, Bahamas. He bought a house there called the Blue Dolphin. Patty was kind enough to leave us the house. Of course it took a year-and-a-half to get it into our names, and it’s been a year-and-a-half process trying to sell it, but we are closing on it this week.

      Sadly, I’ve never been there, to the place my father spent the last 20 years of his life. Patty was very controlling about who could see him, who could talk to him, who could visit… Apparently I didn’t make the grade.

      I hope all is well in your world. We may well have met, back in the late 70s or early 80s, but if we did, I’m sure I was drunk.

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