He had seen so much of it as a kid. A lot of families in St. Margaret’s Parish had fathers who drank hard, wore down the people who loved them, ruined Christmases.
“God, I don’t want to do that,” he remembers thinking.
He had his first beer at a party when he was 16 or 17. He loved the taste of it, loved the way it made him feel. For a few years, he had it under control. And then he didn’t.
It wasn’t an everyday thing. He’d go on benders that started Thursday night and ended when he showed up at his laborers union job, late, on Monday mornings. He’d function fine at the office, coach Little League and youth hockey, work on political campaigns.
“But when I’d go to a barroom, the rest of that stuff was left at the door,” he says. Sometimes he was a happy drunk; sometimes he was a pain nobody wanted to be around. He was broke, cashing checks at the corner store to cover ones he’d written the week before. He shuffled his drinking buddies, so most of them didn’t see how bad it was. Others saw all too clearly.
“A couple of people in particular, I’d let them down,” he recalls. “I was supposed to take them somewhere or pick them up for a big event, I’d go to the barroom and stay out till 2 a.m. I’d show up late for dinner at my mother’s house, and I’d see the look in her eyes.”
Even she couldn’t get through. He was in his 20s, living with a couple of friends, having a good time. Getting wasted Christmas Eve and showing up halfway through midnight Mass — that’s what 23-year-olds do, right?
Everybody hits a different bottom. For some people it’s jail or losing family or hurting some innocent stranger. Some have to lose everything, and some just need a good fright. He’s still amazed he made it all the way to 28 without killing himself or somebody else. He drove drunk all the time. Not just buzzed, but blacked out. “God was on my side,” he says now.
The end came one lost April weekend in 1995. Another bender. Another series of blackouts. Another close call on the road. He woke up Sunday morning and went right back to the bar. He was tossed from a Bruins game. Across the street at The Harp, he ordered a vodka and soda with lime and fell asleep. He woke in his bed at 9 that night, crying, feeling utterly alone. “My life was out of control and I didn’t know where to go and who to turn to,” he says.
He thought about moving to New York, running away from himself. Instead, he called his boss, who didn’t need to be told what was going on. A counselor gave him a quiz to see if he had a problem. “I passed the test,” he says, and was admitted to Gosnold, a detox place on the Cape. Even then, he didn’t quite get it. “What am I doing here?” he thought, as they went through his bag looking for bottles. “Then some guys who had been through it came and spoke to us,” he recalls. “A light went off. I wanted to make it.”
He’s Marty Walsh, and he’s an alcoholic.
Once he stopped drinking, “I was on a pink cloud,” Walsh says. He was a better son, a better brother, a better coach. Staying sober, once a constant battle, still requires daily focus. It helps that the payoff has been huge.
Two years after he left Gosnold, the kid from Dorchester who seemed headed nowhere good won a special election and became a state representative. Now, 18 years after his last blackout, Walsh is running for mayor.
With his campaign kickoff at the Strand Theatre in Uphams Corner on Saturday, Walsh, 46, will join an immense field vying for the job. Over the next five months, they will each make their case and point to what their rivals lack. Marty Walsh will come in for his share of attacks. He has shortcomings, of course; we all do. But he does have one thing on his side which is absolutely unassailable: courage.