Mardi Gras drifts on the calendar. Based on the dates of other nearby holidays, it's not as easy to remember as, say, Christmas, a date children master as quickly as their own birthday.
But Crawford Leavoy remembers that, five years ago, Mardi Gras arrived March 8. What he's blurry about is what happened in the hours, weeks, and even months that came before.
At the time, Leavoy, the current general manager of Durham's Piedmont restaurant, lived in New Orleans. For years, he was at the epicenter of the American Mardi Gras experience, the infamously booze-fueled, bacchanalian launch of Lent, during which the faithful give up something dear. In 2011, a week ahead of the party, Leavoy did what he'd been doing a lot of: he got blackout drunk.
When Leavoy finally opened his eyes around noon the next day, he was not entirely surprised to find himself in someone else's apartment. His head was pounding when he checked his phone to discover dozens of texts from concerned friends, including a few bartenders who had grown weary of watching the charming wine director from one of the city's most respected restaurants turn repeatedly into a foul-mouthed boor. There were messages from his longtime partner, too, a medical student who had spent hours trying to find him at the places he typically got wasted.
For Leavoy, this had become business as usual.
"I would get so annoyed when people told me I was drinking too much," Leavoy recalls over a stiff mug of coffee, one chilly morning at the Durham coffee shop Cocoa Cinnamon, stumbling distance from his office at Piedmont. "I thought, 'That's your problem, not mine.' I was so sick of hearing about it. But after that night, I couldn't ignore it anymore."
Terrified of losing so much that was dear to him—especially Clayton Alfonso, who he would marry in October 2014, and his hard-earned job at August, the flagship of acclaimed chef John Besh—Leavoy admitted something he had angrily denied for years: he was an alcoholic.
If he wanted to remain in his field as a wine director, not to mention grow old with his faithful partner, he needed to make some very severe changes.
Leavoy grew up in a small town near Birmingham, Alabama. A standout on his high school's debate team, he had friends who drank and smoked pot. His only vice was cigarettes. He didn't taste booze until he arrived in Baton Rouge as an eighteen-year-old Louisiana State freshman.
Underage drinking was simply part of the culture on a campus long regarded as one of the country's top party schools. Alcohol loosened Leavoy up to new experiences, like going to gay bars.
"I bought into the idea that having a drink at the end of the day signified that you were taking the necessary steps to becoming an adult," he says. "I was studying political science, but really, it was my minor. Drinking beer became my major."
Soon it wasn't just the end of the day, and it wasn't just beer. Leavoy moved on to whiskey, which, as the country song goes, is quicker for getting drunk. After graduation, Leavoy and Alfonso, who met and started living together at LSU, moved to New Orleans, where Alfonso enrolled in medical school. Leavoy found jobs at fine dining establishments, eventually landing at August. He managed to hide his habit as he rose through the ranks; in just a year and a half, he moved from busboy to wine director.
"At the time, I was drinking super classy things like flavored vodka with Sprite and a little lime. It was fruity, mysterious," he says, mockingly assigning the lofty descriptors of the expensive wine he served to the customers who trusted his discerning palate. "It got the job done."
Leavoy was good in his role, in part because of his innate ability to memorize facts and recall important details, like what a big-spender enjoyed on his last visit. And, well, there was the free wine.
"I couldn't see it then, but now I realize it was the blurring of the lines," he says. "I would 'taste wine' and 'do research,' while drinking. I got into some interesting social circles."
Not all of them were good. Buddies in the restaurant industry often cover for one another, carrying a drunk friend home or letting them sleep off a bender on the sofa. They're not inclined to get into personal business, like cutting someone off when they've had one too many. Once, a colleague at August did confront Leavoy. It didn't end well.
"He said something like, 'Jesus, it's coming out of your pores,'" Leavoy recalls. "I told him to shut up and mind his own business."
Leavoy worked hard to maintain the act. He served as a volunteer coach for a private school's debate team. He recalls traveling with the team to a big event during an especially stressful time.
"I got the kids to the hotel and thought to myself, 'There has got to be a liquor store open,'" he says. He found a fifth of Knob Creek. "The next day, in probably one of the most embarrassing things ever, the kids had to wake me for the tournament."
Looking back through the lens of intensive counseling and five years of sobriety, Leavoy is astounded he survived without so much as a DWI. He's even more amazed that Alfonso stayed by his side.
"There are a lot of memories of going out after work and getting phone calls at seven in the morning—'I'm leaving for work and you're still out.' I didn't recognize that as a problem," Leavoy says. "I don't know why he put up with it."
For Alfonso, standing by Leavoy was simply the right thing to do.
"Sober Crawford was who I fell in love with. Drunk Crawford was my worst nightmare," he says, recalling Leavoy's final collapse, which came on the heels of a fifth-anniversary celebration dinner at August. "I fought for him to succeed in rehab because that is what a dedicated partner does."
Alfonso appealed to the medical school dean, asking for Leavoy to receive counseling, a benefit reserved for married students. At last, the ordeal opened Leavoy's eyes, forcing him to acknowledge dangerous patterns that he had dismissed simply as the life of a wine director in a party town.
On his way out of New Orleans, and on his way to rehabilitation, Leavoy rode past Mardi Gras parade floats lined up alongside the Superdome.
During a three-day evaluation, his counselor encouraged extended in-patient treatment. Leavoy already demonstrated signs inconsistent with healthy detox. He didn't realize, for instance, that his flu-like symptoms and simmering rage stemmed from a sudden absence of alcohol.
"He told me that if I was agitated or didn't feel right, I might need to go to the hospital. I laughed. I was always on the cusp of flipping out," says Leavoy. "It was the fear of being alone that got me to be aggressive about a solution. Retrospectively, it was one of the most amazing talks I've ever had."
Leavoy had to muster the courage to ask his father for help after learning his insurance would not cover treatment. His father said he would help with whatever he needed. As Leavoy recalls the talk, he pauses, collecting himself.
"I was amazed," he says. "There's so much selfishness in drinking, but that was the most generous thing anyone could have done."
During the first few weeks, Leavoy compared himself favorably to other patients. They struck him as more desperate, further gone. He treated it like summer camp, he says, but he soon started to feel better, like he had some control of his situation for the first time in years.
Leavoy was more fortunate than many addicts, who come home to find little more than the wreckage of burned bridges. John Besh had held his job, allowing him to return to a good position in a prominent restaurant. Alfonso welcomed him home.
"This was, hands-down, the most difficult thing I have ever had to do," Alfonso says. "But I'm so glad that Crawford got the help he needed and that I stuck through those dark times. We are married and living life to the fullest."
After rehab, Leavoy began running to lose a few pounds. He hadn't run since he was a kid, when he tried out for his middle school track team but was told he was too slow. It strengthened his body and cleared his head, helping him stay clean. He earned membership in a rarified club—getting and staying sober in New Orleans.
"I don't live in a fairy-tale world. Sobriety is a fragile thing, and I am faced every day with a decision of whether to pick up a drink," he says. "There has to be some level of getting right with the world, understanding that you're not at the center of it. You have to accept the world as it is."
In April 2013, Leavoy's world shifted 850 miles northeast when Alfonso accepted a medical residency at Duke University. They came to Durham to look for a house and felt an instant connection with the food community. Leavoy was glad to see plenty of running clubs, too. They had dinner at Piedmont, which had declined as other hot restaurants opened downtown. They were not dazzled, but Leavoy sensed promise.
A month later, Piedmont hired a new chef, Ben Adams, who has since left to launch Picnic. One of the first people Adams hired was Leavoy, who started July 1. The team was a fine one: less than a year later, the INDY raved about Piedmont's astounding turnaround. Two days later, The News & Observer awarded the renewed restaurant four stars.
Surprisingly, Leavoy does not find working in a restaurant with a bar, or buying large volumes of wine, a challenge to sobriety. Though he hasn't had a sip in five years, he pairs wines with food from memory.
"If you're on balance and find your way on the beam, you can do anything you want—including going to bars. Bars do have non-alcoholic options," he says. He's created dozens at Piedmont. "I didn't know that at the time."
Settling in Durham gave Leavoy a chance to return to coaching debate teams. He interviewed at Durham Academy during that first visit and became a part-time coach. In July, he became the highly competitive team's head coach.
"Yes, I have two full-time jobs now," he affirms with a grin. "And I run thirty miles a week."
A year ago, Leavoy decided to step up his running program and finish a marathon. He almost did last fall in Savannah, but race officials shortened the distance by about two miles due to worries about high heat and humidity.
Maybe the temperature was meant to be: on February 28, the fifth anniversary of his sobriety, Leavoy returned to New Orleans to run that city's Rock 'n' Roll Marathon. Conditions were good. Leavoy missed his goal of completing the course in three hours and thirty minutes by two minutes, but that was merely a detail. Two weeks later, he ran in Cary's Tobacco Road Marathon.
"The goal of New Orleans was never to have some epiphany about the anniversary or sobriety," he says. "But the fact that the date and location had such significance really was another one of those things that cannot be just a coincidence. I went with the desire to stay in gratitude for what I've been given."
When Leavoy ran past Jackson Square, he began crying. He was moving past the bars from which he used to stumble at dawn, drink in hand. When he saw his husband at the halfway point, he knew he'd make it.
"I went from falling down in the French Quarter to running through it," he says. "I felt gratitude in ways I cannot describe."
Crawford Leavoy blames no one but himself for becoming a belligerent drunk. But there likely were genetic predispositions pointing him toward alcohol abuse—and an abundance of environmental contributions, too.
"That's New Orleans in a glass," Leavoy says. "A loving bartender will take your messages when you've passed out drunk."
In recent weeks, as Leavoy trained for the Crescent City's Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, he has been candid about his sobriety. Still, colleagues in the local culinary community have expressed surprise that an associate widely admired for his ability to recall small details about customers and friends went through such a difficult time.
Hai Tran, the sommelier at Herons at The Umstead Hotel & Spa, was reluctant to consider if his own coworkers struggled with sobriety issues and the proximity to alcohol.
"It really is up to the respective individual if they are able to continue in this profession once they have dealt with such personal demons," he says. "I commend Crawford for conquering his own demons instead of letting it own him."
According to Paul Nagy, an assistant professor at Duke Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, a person's ability to recover from addiction is as "individualized" as someone's ability to recover from heart disease, diabetes, or other chronic conditions.
While it typically benefits recovering alcoholics to distance themselves from triggers, such as easy access to booze in a high-stress workplace, Nagy suggests that becomes less urgent with time.
"One to five years into recovery, many people have developed skills for managing life without substances and ideally experience that life in recovery has become 'worth it' enough to diminish the risk associated with historic vulnerabilities," says Nagy.
Leavoy's experience appears to be a textbook example.
"I was ready to stop lying to everyone, including myself," he says. "People say, 'Man, you got sober in New Orleans?' The bigger thing is I stayed sober in New Orleans, and I'm making a conscious decision every day to stay sober here."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Starting Line"