He could empathize with the customers. He’d been in many a liquor store doing the same thing, loading up on booze as a quick fix for the stresses and anxieties of life. And it worked, for a while.
Allem, 82, can still remember his first drink: a whiskey purchased at Chevy Chase Liquors during a visit to D.C. in 1960. He was 22 and at the time an up-and-coming political consultant who’d go on to work on political campaigns as varied as Lyndon B. Johnson’s run for president and Marion Barry’s run for mayor.
“It was like electricity running through my body, and for the first time, I felt peaceful inside,” Allem said of that first drink. “All the emotions that had been building up in me through the years just went away.”
But the peace was fleeting, he said. Even though he would drink a fifth of whiskey nearly every day for another 22 years, he never felt the warmth of that first drink again.
For more than two decades, he was a secretive, functioning drunk, successful in his work but unhappy in life, frequently sick and always fearful of being found out. He took his last drink in 1982 — and stayed sober with the help of a 12-step program and fellowship.
Every Thanksgiving Day since, Allem puts sobriety at the top of a gratitude list that is shared with friends and family. Remembering the pain and isolation helps ensure that he never takes his freedom from obsession and compulsion for granted.
I talked with Allem about his experience in light of the surge in alcohol consumption that has occurred during the coronavirus pandemic. According to a report in the journal JAMA Network Open, American adults report drinking 14 percent more frequently.
For some, Allem said, the booze will probably work as expected. “They’ll lose some inhibitions, seem to have fun, fall into a restless sleep or just pass out and wake up with a hangover.”
Others will get more than they bargained for, as the quick fix becomes a permanent dependency.
An estimated 14.1 million people in the United States suffer from alcohol use disorder, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. An estimated 95,000 Americans die every year from alcohol-related causes.
Allem says people in recovery should speak out more in favor of public policies that treat chemical addiction as a disease and not a sin.
“We should make sure that future generations get the appropriate help for chemical dependency,” he said. “No more mass incarcerations of drug users. No more war on drugs.”
He is aware that many have lost their fight with alcohol and drugs. Heartbreaking relapses often end in overdose and death. Victory is not assured, but it is possible.
In helping patients appreciate how fortunate they are to have broken the bonds of addiction, Allem sometimes recalls the words on a sign that hung over the entrance of a now defunct 12-step clubhouse at 14th and V streets NW:
“It could have gone the other way,” it read.
He’s not shy about letting his children and grandchildren know about his past. He wants them to be aware of the risks they face.
“I know where their genes come from,” Allem said. “My grandfather died from this disease, and it almost killed me.”
Allem cites studies suggesting that offspring may inherit a genetic predisposition for alcoholism. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania last year identified what they called 18 “genetic drivers” of heavy drinking and alcohol use disorder — the uncontrollable drinking commonly referred to as alcoholism.
Allem didn’t have a clue about the role of genes when he took that first drink. And he didn’t think much about the impact of his childhood, either.
Allem’s father was a fundamentalist traveling preacher who moved around Tennessee and Iowa, ranging as far away as Albuquerque and Los Angeles. “My father was very rigid and impersonal, and I could never live up to his standards,” Allem said. “So I left home after high school and hitchhiked to Knoxville.”
Allem worked as a night police reporter for a newspaper and a film courier for space launch photographers in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and also began volunteering in political campaigns. By the time he took that first drink, he was married, had two small children and had a budding career as a political consultant.
He would be involved in 130 political campaigns. And the more he succeeded, the worse he felt.
“I felt like I could earn the respect of others, but never respect myself,” he said. “The more I was appreciated by others, the less I appreciated myself.” He says he thought drinking would drown out his father’s low regard for him. But the booze only made him feel lower.
Still, he managed to survive, miraculously maintain his sobriety and thrive. He became a leading advocate for science-based addiction treatment policies, founded the Aquila Recovery Clinic in Northwest D.C., and wrote a book of tips for staying sober called “Say the Second Thing That Comes Into Your Mind: The Work and Joy of Recovery.”
Watching that bustling liquor store business, Allem certainly understands the draw. He also knows that when alcohol sales spike, there is likely to be an uptick in demand for treatment. There is satisfaction in being able to help people get sober, but he’d be more pleased if the problems could be avoided altogether.
“A lot of people are suffering and not getting the help they need, and that makes them afraid,” Allem said. “Instead of exploiting their fears for political gain, we can start reaching out to help people, and by helping others, we begin to heal ourselves.”
And after 38 years of sobriety, knowing that he can help others makes him hopeful and grateful, even in this year when so many are searching for something for which to give thanks.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.