Dear Clayton: I have no idea whether or not you’re an alcoholic.

In normal situations, it would absolutely be none of my business. The issue of whether someone has an alcohol use disorder is properly a decision made and acknowledged between that person and their family members, and possibly their doctor.

But arguably this is not a normal time for you, given what happened a little over a week ago. A San Antonio police officer found you dazed and disoriented in the backyard of your Northeast Side home, sprawled on the ground, your forehead bleeding, your breath redolent of alcohol and your incoherent denials of having been involved in a hit-and-run crash so pathetic that they would be funny if they weren’t so tragic.

By now seemingly everyone in San Antonio knows — and has probably viewed the humiliating body camera footage the police released four days after the incident — that you, City Councilman Clayton Perry, were allegedly involved in an accident in which police say the driver of a Jeep Wrangler plowed head-on into a Honda Civic on a road not far from your residence, then fled the scene. You were then found passed out in your backyard by a cop who asked a series of increasingly amused questions, which you couldn’t answer.

Though the police officer departed without making an arrest, you have since been charged with failing to stop and provide information and may potentially be charged with driving while intoxicated.

Fortunately you didn’t kill anyone with your vehicle during this debacle — in 2020, 958 people died in Texas because of drunk driving accidents.

I watched all this unfold with the same rapt, horrified attention as the next social media-loving Joe, but with an added element of painful fellow feeling that is best summed up by a text I received from a friend who also belongs to Alcoholics Anonymous: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

What she meant by that phrase, Clayton, is that without the help of our respective Higher Powers — I also choose to call mine God, not for any specific religious inclination but because it’s a nice, short, handy word — we could both very well be in your shoes.

I got sober more than 12 years ago. Thank heavens, my drunken escapades were never captured on video and shown for all the world to see. 

But I remember well the sharp embarrassment and regret — I call it the “toad of shame” — that would squat on my chest the morning after a night of heavy drinking, when my drunken actions and words had devolved into mortifying behavior.

Unlike lots of folks who end up in AA — and like, I think, many female problem drinkers, though I don’t have data to back it up — I drank for many years without having anything in the way of negative consequences.

It wasn’t until my late 40s that my love of alcohol — top-shelf Chardonnay mostly, but, really, I’d drink anything — began to translate into what I came to think of as my “incidents”: Nights where I slurred my words, got sloppy or (worse) stumbled around drunk in front of my aghast teenaged son. Fortunately, the latter only happened a handful of times. But once was enough.

Over the last five years of my drinking, the incidents increased in frequency, befuddling both me and Mark, who’d been my steadfast drinking partner since our courtship days. Over those five years, I cycled in and out of AA, unable to admit I had a problem. I’d never gotten a DUI (mainly because Mark did all the driving.) I’d never called in sick to work because I was hungover. I never had the shakes, or drank in the daytime. I never experienced blackouts, those episodes when a drunk’s memory tape simply stops recording. No one in our social circle knew what was going on, because I did most of my heavy drinking in the privacy of my own home. Even toward the end, I looked great on paper. I was what they call a high-functioning alcoholic.

I would attempt to control my drinking — I’ll only drink on the weekends! I’ll put Sprite in the wine! I’ll stop at just two! — and it would work for a while, but inevitably things would spin out of my grasp and once again, there I’d be, lying in bed the next morning, the toad of shame hunkered on my chest, breathing its fetid yellow breath in my face.

I don’t know if this is ringing any bells with you, Clayton.

Then, in September of 2010, after a very boozy and fateful night at the Majestic Theater, where I finally and completely blacked out during a performance of Jersey Boys (I don’t remember a blooming thing, none of the singing or dancing), Mark had finally had enough. He was leaving me.

It was the worst — and best — night of my life. Because several days later, after consulting with a counselor, at age 52 I finally got honest enough with myself to pack a bag and head to rehab (to the shock of my newspaper editor), where a series of seemingly supernatural things happened that I won’t go into here but that changed my life forever.

In sum: I admitted I was an alcoholic, that I was powerless over alcohol, and that my life had become unmanageable.

And all I can tell you, Clayton, is that while it’s been hard work and life is still life — meaning, sobriety isn’t automatically all unicorns and puppies — getting sober is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. I can truly say today that I’m actually grateful for my disease of alcoholism, because it’s given me the life I have now, which is pretty fantastic.

Mark agrees. (Oh yeah, he came back to me.)

And here are some other things I know about alcoholism: It’s the only disease (absent a few other forms of mental illness) that tries to convince the sufferer he or she doesn’t have it. It’s the disease of denial. And it’s the only condition that demands a self-diagnosis; meaning, other people — family members, friends, judges, bosses — can’t convince you you’re an alcoholic. You have to acknowledge it to yourself, right down to the bottom of your feet. That can take some doing — especially for high-functioning drunks like me — but it’s the only way recovery works.

And that’s where your initial, cavalier reaction to what’s happened to you troubles me. In a statement you released, you referred to your role in the car crash and what came after as a “hassle” — which sounds like the kind of minimizing alcoholics do regarding their bad behavior. Such as: When I was in my disease, I’d take the empty mini-wine bottles I sometimes hid in my closet to Woodlawn Lake, to surreptitiously toss in the garbage cans, so my spouse wouldn’t find my empties in our kitchen trash. That tended to upset him, so I was only being thoughtful, I told myself.

See what I mean?

Lots of people are weighing in on your fate right now, Clayton. Quite a few say you should resign your position on the council. That you’ve tarnished your reputation as a local leader beyond saving. On Monday, just hours before City Council planned to ask you to resign, you requested a “sabbatical” to seek help, though you didn’t indicate if it was for alcohol abuse treatment. 

That’s a good start, perhaps. A little humility might help.

Along with all the judgments, there’s been a good deal of schadenfreude — the German word that denotes joy or glee at the misfortune of others. It’s an ugly little emotion that folks like to indulge in, especially when the high and mighty take a fall.

A friend of mine on Facebook posted in the days after your public downfall that there is a way out for you, Clayton, a way to reclaim your dignity: Just admit you have a drinking problem and join a 12-step fellowship.

I think that might be true. After all, Americans have always believed in second acts. Most of us are suckers for a good redemption story. And that’s what you’ll find in AA — person after person sharing their own personal redemption story. There’s even an acronym for it: ESH. We share our experience, strength and hope.

Again, I have no idea if the fellowship is a fit for you. Word on the street — or at least from another local opinion columnist — is that you were known around City Hall for crowing about your hard-partying ways.

It’s totally up to you.

What I do know to be true: Since your very public implosion, you’ve endured no shortage of mocking, tut-tutting, eyebrow raising, mean laughter and online crowd shaming. That’s not what you’ll find in the rooms of AA. Quite the opposite. You’ll be welcomed with open hearts and ready arms, an unquestioning acceptance you’ll find nowhere else. Because we’ve all been in your shoes before — maybe not so publicly, but we’ve all hit a personal bottom nonetheless.

There’s room in the lifeboat for you, Clayton, should you decide you want it. 

Melissa Fletcher Stolje, columnist for the San Antonio Report, on Friday.

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje has worked in Texas newspaper journalism for more than three decades, at the San Antonio Light, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. She holds bachelor’s...