Comedian delivers serious message
September 13, 2012
FORT SILL, Okla. -- By the time Bernie McGrenahan turned 24 years old, his life was on a downhill slide. He found himself sitting in the Los Angeles county jail in an orange jump suit, serving a six-month sentence for failing to show up for a court appearance for his third DUI.
"I shared a cell with members of the Crips and the Bloods street gangs," McGrenahan said. "It was not a good place for an Irish kid from the Bronx."
That was 24 years ago, and McGrenahan hasn't taken a drink since. Now he's a stand-up comedian and speaks about his battles with substance abuse. He spoke to some 250 Soldiers Sept. 7 at Sheridan Hall as part of the "Comedy is the Cure" tour. The event was sponsored by Army Substance Abuse Prevention to combat suicide, alcoholism and substance abuse in the military. McGrenahan told Soldiers his slide into self-destruction began at an early age.
"I started partying in the eighth grade, I'm not going to lie to you. The first time I drank my mom and dad's booze was when they went out to dinner. My brothers and I would get buzzed, underage and illegal. Eventually dad figured it out because, even though we put water back in the bottle, it was whisky and the color went from brown to yellow," he said.
When McGrenahan got to high school, he and his friends continued to drink.
"My friends and I tried to control it by drinking only on weekends. That worked for about half of a semester. By 12th grade I was drinking four nights a week, and I started to smoke pot," he said.
The drinking and drugs had other effects as well. McGrenahan went on to tell the Soldiers how he had made A's and B's in most of his classes, but when he got to high school and was drinking, everything changed.
"I had a scholarship opportunity to play baseball after I got out of high school. But my coach pulled me aside and said, 'Bernie, the scouts have been watching you all week but you've blown it. They're not coming back. You're making errors at shortstop and you're looking tired. Have you been drinking a lot?' I told him that I hadn't been drinking, but he knew the truth. I blew my scholarship because I was drinking too much," McGrenahan confessed.
After high school he started sneaking into bars with fake IDs to drink with friends. One night he went out, drank too much and tried to drive home while intoxicated. He got stopped and arrested for DUI and underage drinking. A year later he was leaving a friend's house after Sunday afternoon football. He had five or six beers and thought he would be all right to drive home instead of calling a cab or a friend. Instead, he got arrested for DUI again.
"I had a strategy. I decided if I followed my hood ornament home I would be OK," he said. "But, I still got caught."
That arrest cost him $3,500, and he had to attend court-ordered counseling for his drinking. His counselor told him that he was a 19-year-old man with a serious drinking problem.
"She said 'Bernie, your drinking affects your finances. It affects your relationships. Women have broken up with you because of your abusive behavior. You drink and drive. You go out with your friends for two beers and you never stop at two. If you don't quit it is going to ruin your life.' I said, 'Can't I just cut back?' She said, 'That's the problem. You promise to quit but you never do.' She was right," he said.
A year later McGrenahan lost his job after his boss fired him for coming to work drunk and hung over from the night before. With two DUIs on his record, he found that no one would hire him. He couldn't pay his rent and then he lost his apartment.
"I needed help so I turned to the one person I felt sure would help me -- my mother. I called her up and said, 'Mom can I borrow some money? She said, 'hell no!'" he said.
His mother did let him move in for two months. While he was home again he noticed his 19-year old brother, Scott, was drinking heavily and starting to use cocaine. He tried to talk to his brother to get him to seek help for his problems.
"He knew I had gone to counseling, but he saw it as a sign of weakness and couldn't handle that. I tried to tell him that it didn't mean he was weak, but that he had issues that were bigger than he could handle. I tried to convince him, but he just got mad at me and left," McGrenahan said. "So what did I do to relieve the stress that I was feeling? I went to a bar and had a couple beers."
When McGrenahan got home there were police cars and an ambulance in front of his mother's house.
"My sister Debbie came flying out of the house screaming 'Bernie, Scott shot himself!' I couldn't believe it. My good-looking kid brother shot himself because he couldn't face having a drinking problem.
"Do you think I went to a counselor or a minister and told them that I was hurting because my brother killed himself? No. I continued drinking heavily and driving while drunk. When you continue to drink and drive, you get caught -- I got a third DUI," McGrenahan said sadly.
He failed to appear for his court hearing, because he didn't want to go to jail. Finally, two months later, when a warrant for his arrest came in the mail, he went to the courthouse. The judge sentenced him to six months in the county jail because of the DUI and because he waited two months to show up. While he was in jail none of his party friends and drinking buddies came to see him. But his mother did.
"She made me promise I would stop drinking, because she didn't want to lose another son to substance abuse. So I made that promise. That was 24 years ago and I haven't drank or done drugs since," he said.
McGrenahan closed with a strong appeal to the Soldiers.
"I know you guys are under a lot of stress. I've never worn the uniform you guys wear to defend our country. I've never seen one of my buddies lose both of his legs or get killed. I don't know what it's like to be a Soldier, but I tell you guys, please don't ever think of hurting yourselves. You've got people in your units who care for you. You've got families who love you. Look to chaplains and the ASAP staff as people you can talk to. If you are feeling vulnerable or stressed, go talk to somebody," he said. "Don't turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with your stress and pain. That is the wrong way to deal with the issues. Don't hurt yourself; get help."
The Soldiers that attended McGrenahan's show responded positively.
"We weren't expecting the message he shared. I've had some bad experiences with people drinking too much and getting out of control. As a female I try to steer away from people who have been drinking too much," said Spc. Carson Gadd, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 100th Brigade Support Battalion.
Pfc. Meredith Saunders, also of the 100th BSB, agreed with Gadd.
"It was educational. It wasn't what we're used to experiencing, which is usually death by PowerPoint. I know Soldiers who do the sort of crazy things Bernie has done, and I hope they take his message seriously," she said.
If you or someone you know is in crisis because of depression or substance abuse, do not be afraid to seek help. Talk to a friend, family member, battle buddy, cadre leader or unit commander. Contact a mental health professional at the nearest emergency room. Another source of help is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24 hours a day at 800-273-TALK (8255).