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- Mental Health
I was handed a joint and a beer when I was 16, and did not put them down for 10 years.
I was on my way to the Washington, DC area, riding in the passenger seat of a 1978 Datsun 280sx, flying down Route 95 South. I was looking forward to a week away from home and school for spring break, and the person who handed me the joint and the beer thought he was doing me a favor. What happened was in no way his fault. In fact, if he had known the devastation that this was to wreak on my life, he would have slapped them out of my hands!
I often wonder… if I had known… would I have turned away the offer? Or, being young, would I have been sure that “it couldn’t happen to me” and tried it anyway?
That doesn’t really matter now– it is what it is. I believe that I am a better person for having walked through the fire of addiction, and am grateful that this journey only took me 10 years. Many people are trapped in their active addictions for much longer!
Many years ago (when I was newly in recovery), a friend suggested that when I share my story, I should start at the very beginning… literally… with my birth! I was born to a very dysfunctional couple. I did meet my biological father a couple of times after I was an adult and sober. He told me the story of what happened, though I can’t say that I trust his version of the events. He blamed my mother for it all, and told me that she was mentally ill, but he did not say not what her illness was. I assume she was bipolar, due to the mood swings that were reported by my biological father. She was also an artist, a dancer, and a heavy prescription drug abuser.
From what I was told, her mental illness and addiction led her to abuse me, which led me to the emergency room, and to child services when I was only six months old. Thanks to the intervention of Dr. Henry K., who was working at the hospital where I was taken, I was removed from my abusive parents. After being treated for my injuries, I was put up for adoption.
While I won’t go into the details of my adoption, I will say that this was the best thing that could have happened for me. I wound up part of a great family! They were loving, compassionate, and accepting, and there was never any attempt to make me feel as if I did not belong or as if I were different from them.
Although I did meet my biological father, I always considered my adoptive family to be my REAL family. That said, in spite of the best efforts of my family, I always felt a bit…off. I looked different, with red hair and blue eyes. I hated sports, probably because I was very awkward and lacked coordination, and I was a lot younger and sometimes had a different (i.e. unusual) way of looking at things.
Unfortunately, the kids at school were not as kind and accepting as my family, and I was teased for my differences. This was made worse when I started at a new school. Halfway through third grade, I switched schools. My previous school had not been a good fit with my dyslexia. On the first day, the teacher introduced me to class saying that I had “…a learning disability, but that does not mean he’s retarded.” Note, this was 1972, a time not as enlightened as today. Of course, all the kids heard was the word “retarded” and this set the stage for the rest of my school career.
Needless to say, by the time I was a teenager and was taking that ride to DC, I felt that I didn’t quite fit in anywhere, although I was most comfortable with my older siblings and their friends. I had tried beer before, and even had a few mixed drinks and wine. But when I took that first hit of the joint and the first swig of beer somewhere on Route 95 South, it was like I found the answer: here was something I could do, and do well! Here was a way to fit in!
I spent that first week partying all I could. There was no ‘ramping up’ for me; I went from zero to sixty immediately! I drank beer like it was soda, would smoke up and then go ride the Metro into DC to wander the museums and explore the city. Then, on my next-to-last night, there was a party. I was hammered before it even started, then I had some harder stuff, and that led to my first blackout. The next day I had my first real hangover. Most people would have quit right then and there, but I could not get enough of it!
That was April, 1979. For a while, as I finished high school, my addiction was intermittent, meaning that I did not always have access to pot, pills or booze– but when I did, there was no holding back. Then, in September of 1981, I started college…and the rest of the 1980s is a blur to me!
I do know that my addiction to drugs and alcohol took me to dangerous places. I often went to the housing projects in Newark, NJ to buy ‘supplies’ and on one occasion, shots were fired at me. I was never robbed, but to this day, I don’t know why not. I also went to some after-hours places where I was advised “not to look at anyone.” But did notice a lot of cocaine and other substances.
In spite of my addiction to drugs and alcohol, I was able to hold down jobs and graduate college. It only took five years, but I made it! I spent the summer after graduation basically homeless and broke. Finally, I was able to sell my car to get some cash, and although I had been living on peanut butter sandwiches (jelly was too much of a luxury), the first thing I did when I had money was get beer, not food!
Eventually, I found work on Wall Street, where I often bought drugs in back alleys or in the backrooms of bars, where I was sometimes asked if I had a badge (and searched for one). I narrowly avoided arrest on several occasions. I endangered my job by doing coke in the bathrooms, and by being obviously drunk while at work. I believe the only thing that saved me there was the fact that it was the 1980s and many of my coworkers and bosses were also drinking their lunches. I noticed that this leniency went away by 1990.
It should go without saying, that during my active addiction I often drove drunk, and it is a miracle that I never had an accident or killed anyone! On more than one occasion, I had to drive with one eye open, because I was seeing double. There were also trips on the Garden State Parkway in the early hours of the morning, when I had to drive right down the white line in the road, so that I would not go into the woods.
Then there was the time I lost feeling in my legs while driving drunk and stoned during an ice storm (in a car with bald tires). Crazy stuff, but I never got a DUI! In fact, the only time I was ever pulled over for DUI was by a cop that I knew. We had actually been drinking in a bar the night before. He knew I was only a few blocks from home, and he cut me a break, and followed me home instead of arresting me. After he watched me get out of my car, he told me that if he saw me driving again that night, he would have no mercy. I listened and avoided the DUI. Today, I realize that if this had occurred in 1987 instead of 1986, the officer would have had no choice, as the DUI laws got much stronger at that time.
While my addiction was active for about ten years, there were times when I tried to quit on my own. I could stay dry for a few hours or for a few months (like when I got sick and could not drink for six months – but I did smoke plenty of pot). Somehow, I always went back when I started to feel better and figured that I wasn’t really an alcoholic, and could ‘handle it’.
Ultimately, my addiction led me to a disastrous marriage, which was really two drowning people who tried to grab on to each other to stay afloat. It didn’t end well. However, some good things did come from that marriage. The first is that this relationship led me to get clean and sober and stay that way. That led to the second amazing thing that came from the marriage: our daughter, who has grown into an amazing person, and who has never seen me drunk.
While I will not go into her story, it was my ex-wife’s struggle with addiction that moved me to get help for myself. After she had a blackout that left her wandering a bad neighborhood (she was rescued by a recovering alcoholic) and had started treatment, we were advised by a psychiatrist to both look into no longer drinking, and to maybe give the 12-steps a try.
Later, when talking about this with my sister, an RN, she said she thought I had a cold while my wife had pneumonia! This gave me pause, as I knew that if a cold is untreated, it can turn into pneumonia. So, in April of 1989, I quit everything, yet again. I was determined this time, after all. I was doing it to support my wife in her recovery. This resolve lasted less than a week.
It was one of the first really nice days of spring, and my manager asked me to take some financial securities to a client at 8th and Broadway. I had worked as a bonded courier a few years earlier, and was still technically bonded, which is why I was chosen to make this emergency run. Because it was time sensitive, I took the subway from the World Trade Center to make the delivery, which went well. For the trip back to the office, I decided to walk, seeing as it was so nice out.
Remember, I had just recently given up drinking…again, but the weather was so nice, that I decided to stop and get a ‘tall-boy’ of beer. I could lie and say that my last drink was an event worthy of police, firefighters and reporters…a story filled with whiskey and depravity, but it was just a beer, and I didn’t even finish it. I drank half of it, and became disgusted with myself, because there I was…drinking again! In the past, I would have just said “oh well” (or something like that) and just kept going, but that time, I did something different and I threw the can away! So far, I have not touched another drop of alcohol or gotten high since.
While I make is sound so easy, it was not! I did not go to rehab, which was just getting to be more popular then, and I did not go to meetings. I detoxed on my own, and did not miss a day of work. I was helped by the fact that I had tried to quit a few times already in the previous months, so I had cut down a lot, but still…it was not fun. I had the shakes, sweats, and dealt with sleepless nights and bad dreams. I did not say much about it, not even to my wife, I wanted to tough it out on my own. I did drink lots of Coke (the soda) and water, as I did not drink coffee back then, and I ate a lot of snacks, putting on a lot of weight.
I managed to limp through the next five months without drinking, though I did take a few of the pills my wife had around…so I was not entirely sober! My wife did not stay entirely sober either, which actually helped me to stay away from the booze itself, as I felt responsible for taking care of her. It was not a fun time for me, and I often caught myself saying that I would try a 12-step group, if I did drink again.
Then, one night, when I picked up my wife from her meeting, I wound up talking to a guy about my own addiction, and how I had been dry for five months, and how difficult it was. He told me that there was a better way, and encouraged me to try the 12-step meetings, not to wait until I drank again, as that might be too late.
I thought about it for a few days, and realized that I was in bad shape, and decided that it was time. So, on a Monday night, September 11, 1989, I dropped my wife off at her meeting and went to another one (as was suggested by my new friend). This other meeting was in the New Dorp section of Staten Island. As I drove to the meeting, I was still on the fence about whether I really needed to go, thinking, “I can do this myself!” However, when I stopped at a red light, waiting to turn left for the meeting, I heard someone calling to me. On my right, was a young woman who was in ‘business for herself’ and she was waving a bottle of Jack Daniels and asked me if I wanted a ‘date’! I have to admit to being tempted, as my marriage was NOT in a good place! Instead, I made the left turn and went to the meeting!
The meeting was held in small church. Walking up to the door, I stopped and was about to ask a guy who was standing outside, smoking a cigarette, if I was in the right place, but before I even opened my mouth he just nodded and said “You are in the right place.” and he shook my hand as he directed me to the meeting room. Once inside, I sat at an empty table and put my head down. I was nervous and sweating, and when I looked up, I saw the table was filled with guys, and one of them asked “Is this your first meeting?” “How could you tell?” I answered, and they all just laughed!
I do not remember much of what was said during the meeting, but I do remember later talking to one of the men at the table, and saying “I’m not sure I belong here, I have been dry for five months.” Then he asked if I had enjoyed those five months, and I told him, “not really.” Then he told me something that has stayed with me ever since: “No one comes to these meetings by accident, so if you’re here, why not just stay here…instead of trying to come back once you wake up in the gutter again!”
I decided to stay.
I have been sober since that night. It has not always been easy, but it was easier than having deal with the endless cycle of addiction, recovery and then addiction again. Often, during the first few years, I questioned whether or not I really belonged in the meetings, but every time I questioned it, I was reminded of what I was told at that first meeting: “No one comes to these meetings by accident.”
With the help of the people in my 12-Step group, I found a reprieve from my addiction. I was never, and will never be fully cured. I have to pay attention to my disease every day, but it is not always a struggle!
My recovery has led me to restore relationships with family and friends, including making amends with both of my parents, while they could still understand what I was saying, before being taken by Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Recovery has seen me through leaving Wall Street and starting over in publishing, only to leave New York, and move to Philadelphia, where I earned a Master of Divinity Degree. It also helped me deal with the failure of my intended new career to come to fruition, after I graduated. Then, I was hit with divorce, the loss of my older brother, and becoming a single parent, all at the same time. My recovery helped me meet those challenges as well, without drinking. But it was close!
One day while I was on my way to school in Philadelphia, I got it into my head that I was going to drink! I thought it through (like I was taught to do) and knew that it would not help me, but I was in such pain that all I wanted was that oblivion, not to feel anything for a little while. I actually started looking for a State Liquor Store, when I looked up and saw a bumper sticker on the van in front of me for “AA Motorcycle Repair”! That brought me to my senses and instead of the liquor store, I went to a meeting, put my hand up and got the help that I needed to stay sober!
My recovery has also helped me to meet the greatest challenge of my life: raising my daughter from a toddler to an adult as a single father. Of course, I did not do this alone. I had lots of help from other parents (single and otherwise) who offered me advice, a kick in the butt when needed, and a break every now and then! Being sober also allowed me to rebuild a relationship with my ex-wife, and this has helped us offer support to our daughter as she faced her own struggles with addiction and recovery and the impact it has had on all of our lives. I was also helped by having been in a 12-step group myself for so long. This gave me an understanding of the disease. Although I still felt guilty about not being able to save my daughter from her addiction. I knew that there was nothing I could do to fix her, but I could take care of myself, with help.
My experience with recovery has taught me that no matter what challenges we face in life, they can be met, and the good news is that we don’t have to face these things alone. No matter what we are going through, someone else has already been through it and understands. All we need is the courage to ask for and, accept the help of others!
And that is how my recovery has worked all these years, through the help of others, not only those who share the journey of recovery, but also the other people in my life: family, friends, co-workers, and people from my church, along with professionals. Those are all people that I can count on now, because I am sober.
This help, and my faith in a Higher Power (God) has kept me sober for all these years. Recovery has seen me through the loss of people close to me, a failed marriage, failed jobs, failed relationships, serious injuries, and a loss of hope. There have been times when I took my recovery for granted, and those moments when I did not feel that Higher Power in my life. But through it all, I have never been alone! Even when I was not on speaking terms with the Almighty, my Higher Power still spoke to me through the people in my life.
I have also been fortunate to have built a strong relationship with a good woman who accepts me as I am (even when I am a jerk), and supports me when times are tough, and nudges me back on track when I begin to drift. She is kind, compassionate and smart, and has helped me to become a better person.
Recovery has been a great gift, which has taken me to places beyond my wildest dreams. No, I never got rich, famous, or successful at business, but my life is richer and fuller today than it ever would have been if I had never gotten sober. It is a gift that I treasure and guard, one day at a time.