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It's the Booze Talking

Sean was one of those people who never drank in public but who was always drunk. Without too much trouble, she was managing to put down a case of beer every day and still work. Totally dependable. She'd stay up emptying the case until midnight or 1:00 a.m. and then get up four hours later, still drunk, to make it in for the early shift. Over the past ten years Sean had whittled her life down to that: the case of beer and the eight hours of work. On her days off, it was just the case of beer.

Sean was a belligerent drunk, her large blue eyes almost always clouded over to a leaden gray. She argued with her friends and her family until they stopped bothering with her. Her roommate moved out. Boyfriends couldn't begin to compete with her addiction. "I would rather give up anything than drinking. Little by little, everybody was out of my life," Sean recalls. "Even that would have been okay with me, but I was, like, in total terror. I don't really know what I was afraid of. But I was afraid from the moment my eyes popped open till I could pass out."

At her job, where the dread ruined even small talk with co-workers, Sean (the name is a pseudonym; she doesn't want her real name or place of work made public) usually wore a Walkman on her belt and headphones in her ears. That was how, one Sunday morning around 6:00 as she scanned the radio dial, she happened to tune in to a call-in show called the Clean and Sober Hour on ZETA-4 (WZTA-FM 94.9), a "classic rock" station she didn't usually listen to. But here were these people talking about drug addiction and alcoholism, in terms she understood so perfectly that she had to listen, even though by that time she had no illusions she would ever live without alcohol. She heard people she could tell were as desolate as she was A drunk, high, and crashing, calling from parking lots and bus stops and lock-ups, some asking for help, others trying to convince themselves they didn't need it.

The host was a woman named Leslie Armstrong, a self-described recovering alcoholic and addict who did not mince words when she talked about the disease from which she and her callers suffered. "You're gonna die," she warned a panicky-sounding kid who told her he'd been clean for six months but had just spent the past eight weeks on a cocaine relapse, scamming drugs and money from dealers. Now they were threatening him. "How old are you?" Armstrong asked.

"Eighteen."
"Eighteen, man. You've got your whole life and future ahead of you. You've got to make that commitment to do whatever it takes [to stay clean], get off the fence. Do you understand that? People before you have done it, myself included. I was a pretty insane maniac. Alcoholic, drug addict. And I know I made the change. Of course, I was willing, 100 percent."

Since March 1990 the Clean and Sober Hour has aired on ZETA-4 every Sunday morning from 6:00 to 7:00. Local television reporter Ron Sachs, the original host, had approached the station with tapes of a call-in program for people with addiction problems he had been conducting on WVCG-AM (1080), a "vanity radio" station in Coral Gables. As is usual with such stations, Sachs had to buy the air time and then, to recoup costs, sell advertising spots to any sponsors he could find. The audience was small, but Sachs says his phone lines were always lit. "It was an interactive program I thought was seriously needed and unique," he says now. "When I presented the concept to [ZETA-4's then-program manager] Pete Bolger, I didn't expect them to gush over it, but in fact they did. The Clean and Sober Hour was the first, to my knowledge, and now the longest-running, regular programming on the airwaves on this single subject." No one involved with the show is aware of any other program with the same format, with the exception of an occasional special.

About six months after Clean and Sober debuted on ZETA-4, Sachs took a job as Gov. Lawton Chiles's director of communications and moved to Tallahassee. Before he went, he persuaded Leslie Armstrong, his cohost and a professional therapist, to take over the show.

Sean became a listener after Armstrong had been doing Clean and Sober for about a year. Week after week she tuned in, telling herself she'd never stop drinking but hoping, in some remote part of herself, that "maybe some miracle would happen." She knew she had a problem, but what good would calling in to a radio show do her? She'd gone to Alcoholics Anonymous for a while a few years back, but she never felt a part of it and she certainly hadn't stopped drinking. Anyway, she was doing pretty well right then. She wasn't on the edge, she wasn't ripping people off, wasn't missing work. But the terror kept mounting. One day it got so bad she went to the company nurse asking to lie down for a while. When the nurse discovered Sean's pulse rate was alarmingly high, she sent her to a hospital emergency room, thinking she might be having a stroke or a heart attack. At the hospital they told her she was having an anxiety attack. She decided to see a psychologist, but she got angry when the therapist concluded alcohol was causing her problems.

Seven months after the emergency room episode, in the spring of 1992, Sean was working as usual on a Sunday morning, listening to Clean and Sober. It was an ordinary show, no one said anything especially different, but in one arresting moment Sean knew she had crossed a spiritual line. She got off the fence. "I just couldn't go any further," she recalls. "I knew, I just knew, I had to get help." But she didn't know where to go for help, and she could think of only one person to ask: Leslie Armstrong. Sean couldn't bring herself to confess her plight on the air, so she waited until Armstrong signed off and then phoned the station. Because she was at work, she couldn't talk, but she gave Armstrong her home number. Three days later, on Sean's day off, Armstrong called.

"She said she'd help me out, get me in detox," Sean remembers. "She told me she wouldn't just drop me off and leave. That night she came and picked me up and told me what to pack." Sean stayed at the treatment center for two weeks. For months after she got out, she wanted so badly to drink that she thought of killing herself. It was only the memory of the old, unrelenting fear, and the support of friends at Alcoholics Anonymous, that kept her from relapsing. (For the first time in her life, Sean actually took some advice A that of the counselors at the treatment center A to go to every AA meeting she could, every day.) A year later, she is still sober. She thinks the worst is over. But her light blue eyes, no longer overcast, make no special claim to merriment.

At 5:30 in the morning, Leslie Armstrong is impeccably dressed in black pointy-toed boots, black stretch pants, and a black bustier with a fishnet back and arms. Tall and slender at 36, she could easily be several years younger or several years older. It's dark outside, dark in the little studio at WZTA where Armstrong and her cohost this week, Steve Sawitz, sit wearing headphones and waiting for the microphone level check. They are nursing large mugs of coffee. Armstrong's long auburn hair is neatly combed, her strikingly wide gray eyes perfectly made-up. She looks like she's at a party, but her demeanor tells you to turn the music down. She's about to sit in front of a phone and a control board for an hour and talk to drunks and drug addicts about life and death.

"Well, the adrenaline's pumping this morning," Armstrong says to Sawitz, a long-time friend and fellow recovering alcoholic. In contrast to Armstrong's well-put-together look, Sawitz is dressed in khaki shorts and a T-shirt, leaning back in his chair and sucking Jolly Rancher candy, alternating swigs from a bottle of Evian and his coffee cup. But he, like Armstrong, is utterly serious.

The first strains of the opening music come up, and Armstrong, sitting straight and still, reads her usual introduction, concluding, "I'm happy to steer this discussion as we look for a solution to addiction. No one has to continue to suffer that pain, no one has to live in that misery. There's no known cure, but recovery is possible by following a simple program of recovery and by making the commitment to go to any lengths to stay clean and sober. We can help, but you have to call." She notes that the show isn't affiliated with any of the twelve-step addiction recovery programs, of which Alcoholics Anonymous is the prototype (countless spinoffs include Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous), but does make referrals to them "because they work."

The phone lines are lit up already; in predawn, far-flung Miami, an audience is gathering like wounded survivors of a guerrilla war. Clean and Sober draws a community of all-night revelers, early-morning workers, and lost and tormented souls who come together for an hour a week, drawn by their shared experience: addiction. It could be addiction to anything A sex or food or shopping A if not alcohol and/or other common drugs. Anything that takes control of their lives. Nonaddicts stumble onto the show occasionally; sometimes people phone in just to talk or to harass the hosts. But overwhelmingly the program is a magnet for strays, for people who are disappearing into their problems. "It's about, when they're at the end of the road, where do these people go?" says Eric Zimmerman, a frequent Clean and Sober cohost. He and Armstrong describe their work as suggesting alternatives, sowing seeds, being a catalyst.

"A phone call may not change [callers'] lives, but it's some kind of action, a breaking of the denial that keeps people sick," says Armstrong.

This Sunday Patrick is one of the first callers, his speech lurching and swerving like a drunk's car. All he drinks is beer, never liquor, and he can't understand why he's so hooked. "I function daily, but when I start drinking I wake up in the morning and I get the shakes," he says foggily. "I cannot function, my physical body don't function until it has alcohol in it."

"You're probably living in Hell," comments Sawitz, with the familiarity of someone who knows the place.

"I am."
Armstrong and Sawitz tell Patrick there's help for him. The first step is to get into a medical treatment program to break his physical dependence on alcohol: detoxification. Then to AA, or therapy, or both, to help him develop a support system so he doesn't revert to his old addictive habits and thinking patterns.

"I went to Dade detox [the county's free medical detoxification program] and they totally degraded me," Patrick protests. "They take all your possessions and they put you in a medical gown and your ass is hanging out just like at Jackson Memorial."

"Well, I'll tell ya, Patrick," says Armstrong, her voice quick and low. "Sometimes it's worth it to have your ass hanging out of a hospital gown if it'll save your life. If you really want to stop, whether you find county detox degrading isn't going to be much of an issue. This just sounds like an excuse to me."

Armstrong goes on to the next call, from a guy who's been driving around all night after drinking heavily and quarreling with his stepfather. He has wound up at the airport. "I've never really been an alcoholic," he hastens to explain. "I'll just have a few beers to loosen up."

Armstrong and Sawitz look at each other and smile. "Okay," responds Armstrong. "It is 6:30 Sunday morning. I'd just like to know why you're at the airport at a pay phone."

Leslie Armstrong has found herself in stranger places. In 1984 she awoke unexpectedly in Hong Kong. Those days she was working as a ground hostess for Eastern Airlines. She'd just gotten married in San Francisco and was on her way to meet her new husband in Honolulu; the honeymoon had to be delayed when she passed out after much celebratory champagne and missed the stopover in Hawaii. Usually her drinking didn't affect her work, she says, at least as far as anyone could tell. She did almost get fired, though, over the Jacques Cousteau incident. The renowned marine scientist had to change planes in Miami for a flight to the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. Armstrong was assigned to help him make his connection, but she was so hungover that she put him on a flight to Little Rock. He didn't realize the error until the plane was about to land, and he was, understandably, furious.

Armstrong later became a commodities broker, a high-pressure job that carried a high risk of both making and losing fantastic sums of money. She began blacking out almost every time she drank. This terrified her, so she took Percodan, a narcotic, reasoning she was in pain and Percodan was a pain pill. Although her office was close-knit and regularly shared happy hours, Armstrong became afraid to drink with her co-workers because she knew she'd black out and do things that would shame or horrify her later.

For the Christmas party of 1987, she emerged stunning in a new black cocktail dress, hair coiffed with a little black cocktail hat perched on top at a rakish angle. She promised herself she wouldn't drink. She did anyway. Driving home on I-95 at 3:00 a.m., she blacked out behind the wheel of her month-old Mazda RX-7. The car hit the concrete dividing wall, bounced off, and careened across five lanes of traffic to smash into an outside embankment. She came to a stop with the engine six inches from her lap, but she appeared not to have a scratch. The cocktail hat had remained at its jaunty tilt. She eased herself out of the wreckage and stood at the side of the highway, where she hailed a taxi that happened to be cruising by. The driver pulled over and Armstrong slid into the back seat. "He says, 'Where are you going, Miss?' He doesn't even mention the hulk by the side of the road."

A few months later, Armstrong went to another company shindig, a going-away party she felt she couldn't miss at a local TGI Friday's. This time she was wearing a white suit, and she remembers playing a game with the traffic signal light that's part of the restaurant's junk-store decor: when the light flashed green, everyone downed a shot of tequila. She counted twelve greens, after which she remembers nothing. She woke up the next morning on a friend's sofa. There was a black tire mark running across the front of her white suit. No one could tell her how it got there. "I said, 'Leslie, this is not normal. I can't live like this any more.'" She went home and for the first time prayed for help. "I had a spiritual experience; it was nothing less and can only be described as that," Armstrong says in hindsight. "The heavens didn't open up and angels didn't come down playing harps, but I knew it was over."

She checked herself into the drug treatment center at South Miami Hospital. While there, she decided she wanted to do the kind of work her counselors were doing. When she got out of treatment, she quit the commodities business and began a year-long series of courses in addiction therapy at the University of Miami, from which she already had earned a bachelor's degree in psychology. Her first entry-level job as a therapist at the Village South addiction treatment center represented a dramatic switch in milieu, and a drop in income, from her old world. She went on to work in treatment programs at Hialeah and Glenbeigh hospitals. Currently, in addition to working as a consultant for New Life Substance Abuse Inc., a local treatment program, she has her own private counseling practice and is working toward a Ph.D. in education (with a mental health counseling specialty) at Barry University.

At first New Life sponsored Clean and Sober, one of only two nonmusic programs on WZTA, with a portion of the money going to Armstrong. Deciding that was a conflict of interest, she soon dropped the idea of having any sponsors. ZETA-4 management considers the donated air time part of its public-service commitment, though the show wouldn't stay on the air long, says program director Neil Mirsky, if the phone lines weren't busy.

Mirsky says there's no way to measure the size of the Clean and Sober audience. "I think it's safe to assume it's in the thousands," he estimates, adding that a few Sundays back, ZETA-4 moved to new studios and the show didn't air because the phone lines weren't working yet. That day and the next, the station was flooded with calls from people wondering what had happened to the program. "Apparently," Mirsky muses, "there are people out there who really depend on this show."

This Sunday's Clean and Sober Hour is winding down. Doug, who called last week after shooting morphine, calls back. This time he's wasted on cocaine and Xanax. When he makes sense at all, he waxes pseudophilosophical, in the way that sounds fascinating only to people under the influence of mind-altering drugs. "I'm trying to figure out what category I fall into, why I still use drugs," he concludes.

"This is pathetic," Armstrong says. "You're spiraling downwards quickly. I can't come to your house and put a gun to your head and make you stop this."

"No, I'm just looking for a reason why I do this. You have a great program." Click.

Almost out of time. Next call. The voice sounds familiar. It's Patrick from a while ago, now sobbing and laughing at the same time. "My name is really Michael," he begins. "It's Michael. I'm not going to bullshit you any more. I'm playing with a .38 trigger right now, got it here in front of my mouth."

Armstrong and Sawitz sit forward, their faces tight. "Listen, Michael, you don't have to be doing this," Sawitz urges. Armstrong holds up a piece of paper bearing the crisis-intervention hotline number, which Sawitz repeats to the caller. They tell him it's a good sign that he's phoned in; it means he's got hope, even if he doesn't know it right then.

Michael's laughs and cries grow heavier. "You know what? The thing is, I don't want to do it. It's so stupid of me; it's so stupid." He trails off, muttering, then sobs a desperate "Dammit!" and, with perfect timing -- it's exactly 7:00 A he hangs up.

Armstrong signs off quickly, after inviting Michael and any other listeners to call right back and speak to either her or Sawitz off the air. Sawitz leans his head back on the chair, eyes closed, mouth slightly open. They sit grimly for several seconds, then begin to talk desultorily. Though neither says it, they're both wondering if the phone will ring. After about twenty minutes, they decide to leave and get breakfast. Michael never calls.


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