A hero’s material success leads to a tragic fall
"Hero to Zero & Back" was the title of an unfinished memoir by my Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Kevin Cronin. When I met him in 1988, he was a DJ on KSSK-AM radio. His on-air name was Kevin Richards -- probably to avoid being confused with Kevin Cronin of the band REO Speedwagon. Anonymity is no longer an issue since he was found dead in his Arizona mansion on Dec. 22, from an apparent drug overdose.
Details of his death are sketchy and sad. He had achieved his goal of material success, but in the process lost touch with the very things that had made him a hero to many newly recovering alcoholics like me. But this isn't a eulogy. It's about why 12-step programs work, and what happens when addicts forget about the basics that help keep them from relapsing.
During my stay in rehab at Castle Medical Center, we had to attend AA or Narcotics Anonymous meetings every day. One of the regular weekly meetings was held at Castle. That's where I first got to hear Kevin "share." Others refer to it as "running their story," while longer accounts of drinking histories are called "drunkalogs." As a writer, I was intrigued by the different speaking styles and tales I heard.
I'll be honest, though. As moving and inspiring as many of the stories were, it can get tedious. But it's like TV or movies. Anything that involves storytelling is going to draw mixed reactions. That's why there are many 12-step meetings geared to different groups based on age, gender or occupation.
There also are "stars" on the AA/NA meeting circuit who are sought-after guest speakers. Kevin was one of them. He had a sparkle in his eye and a comic's sense of timing. Heck, the guy was a ringer -- a professional DJ who loved the limelight. Yet he always made sure to emphasize the serious life-and-death nature of addiction.
At the time, in the back of my mind was the thought I could drink in moderation after I got out of rehab. It was inconceivable to me that I would give up partying forever. Listening to Kevin changed that. He was happy and seemed at peace with himself. He had what I wanted.
My rehab counselor had advised me to seek out a sponsor at these meetings -- someone I could talk to on a regular basis once I left the safe confines of the treatment center. So I approached Kevin after the meeting and nervously asked him to be my sponsor. I felt like a high school kid asking a girl out on a first date.
He said in AA, they tell you to say, "Yes!" when anyone in the program asks you to do something. Then he laid it on the line: I had to do 90 meetings in 90 days, and would have to "work the Steps." I had a vague idea of what working the Steps involved, which included taking a "moral inventory" and "making amends."
But the whole 90/90 plan seemed a bit rigid. I told him I'd try to make the meetings. He frowned and shook his head. "Half-measures avail us nothing," he recited, right out of the AA Big Book.
Reluctantly, I kept to my end of the bargain. It turns out the AA's "90 days" strategy is backed up by science. On the recent HBO "Addiction" series, researchers said it takes a minimum of 90 days for an addict's brain to rewire itself. In the first flush of sobriety, it's not uncommon for addicts to experience the "pink cloud" of feeling good. But experienced sponsors know that early stage of euphoria can disappear when urges are unexpectedly triggered. That's why sponsors are on call 24/7.
The other benefit of the 90/90 guideline is that it forced me to check out a wide variety of meetings. Each had its own personality. Some were rowdy, some low key. At the Twelve Coconuts meetings on Waikiki Beach, there were more homeless people, court-ordered attendees and the occasional tourist. Downtown meetings included advertising people, lawyers, judges and bartenders I knew.
Kevin kept tabs on me daily to make sure I was hitting the meetings. We also set up appointments to go through the 12 steps, one at a time. To the uninitiated, it might sound cultish, but much of it is practical advice that can benefit anyone. It's also spiritual in that it emphasizes belief in a higher power. What your HP is, is up to the individual.
It was Kevin who frequently reminded me that spiritual well-being should take priority over material concerns. Back then, he and his wife rented a tiny apartment in downtown Honolulu, where they ran a mail-order business selling Hawaiian quilting kits on the side. But it bothered him that they couldn't afford to buy a house here. They moved to the mainland, and overnight his goals changed. He went into real estate with a plan to become a millionaire.
Kevin eventually bought a real estate company in Arizona, and rode the boom in a hot market. But the business pressures caused his wife to return to Hawaii without him. He was taking prescription drugs for Restless Leg Syndrome and other stress-related problems. He stopped going to AA meetings and lost touch with his friends.
It would take a book to recount everything he went through these past few years, which brings me back to the beginning -- and the end. Kevin called me in 1998 and said he had put a gun to his head and nearly pulled the trigger.
He proceeded to tell me about his divorce, a failed rebound romance with a bipolar woman who had multiple personalities, legal and financial troubles with his business, physical problems he was taking meds for and his aborted suicide attempt. "Wow," I said, "Your story would make a great book." He laughed, "That's why I called you. Since you're a writer, I figured you could help me sell it!"
His premise was that we all start out as "heroes" in the form of the triumphant sperm that overcomes the odds to unite with that one special egg. But in his cynical view, the world beat us down into mindless 9-to-5 drones, who turned to drugs and booze to ease our pain. Recovery offered the road back. As motivational books go, it was pretty dark stuff. Then again, his writing role model was the alcoholic poet Charles Bukowski. I could see it would be a tough sell.
Nonetheless, I encouraged him to write because I thought he might do some self-analysis and see where his priorities had gotten out of whack. Instead, he went to a Maui Writers Conference writers retreat and proudly showed me what they helped him create: a glossy promotional flier with a photo of him sitting in a limo. When I suggested he might want to finish a draft before he began to pitch "Hero to Zero & Back" to publishers, he sighed, "But I don't have an ending for it yet!"
I spoke to him for the last time a couple of months ago. He was still taking the meds, still enmeshed in business problems ... still doing all the things that had led up to major car wrecks and a stint in prison for shooting at his girlfriend. I asked if he had gone to any AA meetings or tried to get a sponsor. He changed the subject. We didn't talk any more about the book. But the foreshadowing was all too clear for me.
Kevin Cronin was 58.
Rich Figel is a screenwriter and recovering alcoholic who lives in Kailua. His column appears periodically in the Insight section.