- Mental Health
- Other Addictions
In 1986, at the age of 24, I was living in a friend’s basement. At the time, I worked part-time as a short order cook in a bar and grill that featured free drinks as part of the compensation perks. Despite having two bachelor’s degrees, life just wasn’t working out very well vocationally, relationally, or otherwise. My girlfriend of the previous two years had just broken up with me, and I was struggling with mild depressive symptoms. I was just sick and tired of being sick and tired.
I had had some exposure to a few 12-Step fellowships by that time– first in 1985 (to see how I could fix my alcoholic mother), and later I connected with a 12-step group for overeating in early 1986 in an effort to recover from an eating disorder I later learned was called “bulimia”.
In the 12-step group for overeaters, my sponsor suggested I commit to a food plan and hold myself accountable by sharing it regularly. Eventually, my food plans regularly included alcoholic beverages. Soon, I was 12-stepped into an alcoholic recovery group by another person in the overeaters’ group.
The alcoholism 12-step group was like a slap in the face, in ways both positive and negative. I saw other people who shared inspirational testimonies. They also extended support and hope to me when I felt like a complete failure at life.
I got a sponsor, moved into a room in his house in order to get away from the wet places and faces my lifestyle was so intertwined with, and started working the twelve steps. After going through acute withdrawal, I found I was able to maintain abstinence from alcohol and other drugs (primarily marijuana). It was a minor miracle to me at that time.
However, the state of being referred to as “happy, contented sobriety” eluded me for over three years of my initial abstinence. During that time, I struggled even more with what I later learned were symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that originated from multiple episodes of abuse and neglect that I had experienced earlier in life.
It boggles my mind now how powerful denial can be– but at that time I did not have the perspective to describe what had happened during my childhood, adolescence and even early adulthood. I had not realized that growing up in a home with an alcoholic mother and domestically violent father had scarred me in multiple ways, on multiple occasions. I had minimized many traumas, such as having been beaten or physically violated. I did not realize how devastating other experiences were. When I was young, other individuals – including a neighbor, older student during high school, and two Catholic priests –sexually violated me. Back then, it didn’t even occur to me to tell anyone, either out of shame or isolation. As a child, I felt that I had no trustworthy person in my life to turn to.
In retrospect, I think that’s why alcohol felt like such a solution. I first discovered drinking at high school parties at age 16. For the first time in life, alcohol medicated my shame and anxiety to the point where I felt human– I could interact with other people like a fellow human being. Of course, since alcohol is no real or long-term solution, and since alcoholism is a progressive disorder, eight years of progressive drinking took me to a meaningful enough bottom to be willing to try recovery.
I had a few episodes of suicidal clinical depression. The first episode had forced me to drop-out of college at the beginning of my sophomore year, and I called it a freak occurrence. The second episode happened when I first got clean and sober, and I attributed it to exacerbation of post-acute withdrawal syndrome. The third episode, however, happened after almost three years of clean time, over four hundred 12-Step meetings, and precious little progress in any other domain of my life. The third episode landed me in the locked psychiatric unit of a local community hospital.
It was during that third psychiatric hospitalization, however, that a wise therapist first asked me a life-changing question. Instead of asking me, “What’s wrong with you?” as had been the case with two prior courses of outpatient therapy (and which was the question I carried around in my own head), this therapist asked me, “What happened to you?”
For the first time in my life and recovery, I was able to begin to talk about the abuse and neglect that had so interrupted my development and had predisposed me to look for a way to act out or relieve my own distress. I finally came to terms with the fact that I was trying to relive my pain through abusing alcohol and marijuana, through criminal activities of vandalism, shoplifting and selling drugs, and through a growing habit of “checking out” through the use of pornography and masturbation.
This hospitalization was a turning point in my recovery. Armed with new knowledge and perspective, I threw myself into trauma-resolution therapy and participation in a survivors of incest group. The gift of desperation drove my efforts. I also continued involvement in the other twelve-step groups for a couple of years. I felt like a serious reconstruction project, participating in 12-Step meetings, treatment groups, and individual therapy five or six times a week.
Finally, things began to change for the first time in my adult life and I was able to hold down a full-time job for an extended period of time. I began to experience “happy, contented sobriety” as many of the PTSD symptoms diminished. I also developed a sense of spirituality that provided me with direction and empowerment to do the next right thing. Then a series of seeming miracles happened – I started facilitating the very same men’s trauma group that I had graduated from after 18 months of participation.
I became employed with a local community mental health provider as a case manager, even though I declared on my application that I had a history of alcoholism. (That was at a time before “peer support specialist” was part of the lexicon.) I was hired to work weekend night shifts at the very psychiatric hospital at which I had previously been a patient. But that’s not all. I joined a spiritually nourishing church, got married to a wonderful woman who I met in recovery (and with whom I continue to be happily married today), and had three great kids and all kinds of bump-in-the-road adventures that forced us to grow in our respective recovery journeys.
I went back to school and earned a master’s degree and progressed in my career. I went from working as a psychiatric social worker and addictions counselor to holding the position of clinical director along with other significant administrative positions. I now teach in the MSW department of a well-known university, and have the privilege of guiding fellow-sufferers in their journeys of recovery, and fellow practitioners in learning how best to support effective treatment and recovery with those they serve.
I share this recovery story as an expression of a core tenet that I internalized along the way, empowered by the help of so many others – “CARRY THE MESSAGE OF RECOVERY TO THE PERSON WHO STILL SUFFERS – FOR THIS, I AM RESPONSIBLE.”