“Being sober has been amazing, but there are some scary parts, too.”
Nearly one in ten Americans struggle with an alcohol or drug addiction, and due to massive systemic failings in our healthcare and judicial systems, only 11 percent of people with addiction issues are able to get treatment for their problems. In 2015, a staggering 50,000 Americans died from a drug overdose, making addiction statistically more lethal than gun violence. We talked to four recovering addicts about how their addictions started, the moment they realized they needed to quit, and how their lives have changed for the better after they did.
I grew up very poor in what you might call “white trash America,” and I was the first person in my family to get a degree and a white-collar job. I have alcoholism on both sides of my family, but when I went to college, I started drinking a lot. My mother told me we had addiction in our family and warned me that I was engaging in risky behavior, but I didn’t think it was real. She’d never gone to college and had no idea that binge drinking was part of the culture, it was a rite of passage for me. I thought she was crazy!
It started with alcohol and slowly progressed. I went from a college kid binge drinking to a full-blown addiction I hid from everyone. I wanted to appear to society as someone who had her life together, but I was sneaking vodka in my pink lemonade at home and drinking every day before I went to work.
My mental health started falling apart. I began having panic attacks before big meetings at work, and my ability to do my job was deteriorating. I decided to go to a psychiatrist to get help with this, and I answered honestly when she asked me how much I drank. She looked at me and told me I needed to get help for my addiction, and at the time, even though it made sense, I just kind of shrugged it off. In my mind, being an alcoholic and a drug addict meant you lived on a bench, smelled, and drank out of a paper bag. Those people didn’t look like me. I didn’t think someone who had the kind of life I had could be an addict.
I started slowly. I started going to support group meetings sporadically. I tried to quit drinking on my own for about three months, but I just couldn’t stay sober. I decided to go to an outpatient program but then relapsed again. My therapist suggested I go to an inpatient rehab. I lost my job while I was in there but didn’t care. I really needed to be there. It was a place where I could finally deal with all the underlying trauma I’d been pushing down my whole life. I got the tools I needed to actually feel my feelings and not ignore them through substance abuse.
Being sober has been amazing, but there are some scary parts, too. I had a lot of friends who I thought I was really close with, but when I look back, all of our deep bonding conversations happened at 3 AM while we were wasted. All we did together was drink. When I got sober and tried to go out with them, it was really awkward and forced. In general, I’m OK with not seeing my party friends as much.
I have a picture-perfect family: two loving parents, a little sister, and a close-knit network of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I excelled in school, played sports, and had plenty of friends. Despite all of these things, I was unhappy and hated myself from a very young age. I always felt inadequate, and it led me to find an escape from that feeling.
I started taking drugs recreationally like any average high school kid—smoking weed and drinking on the weekends and sometimes during the week. The problems arose when I decide to make drugs and drinking a huge part of my identity. I liked being known as a guy who just loved to party, because it made me feel like I was finally good at something.
There were always those little moments throughout my use that I had to step back for a second and think, What the hell am I doing? The first time I injected heroin, I remember thinking, I’m about to do this, and my life will never be the same. I did it, and I was right.
I didn’t make the decision to go to treatment myself, so when I left for treatment, the thought of stopping was nowhere in my head. But at some point while I was there, I decided I would give this sobriety thing a try, and it was truly the best thing that ever happened to me. I am almost certain I wouldn’t be alive today if I didn’t stop when I did. With the tidal wave of overdoses happening right now, I could have easily died or killed someone on the road.
I vigorously work on myself and my relationship with the world around me. I’m not religious or even spiritual, but I do work a 12-step program. I think of my brain as a computer. I programmed my brain a certain way through my thoughts and behaviors, and reprogramming takes some knowledge, patience, and a whole lot of effort. I found out early on that when I put in the work, I get results.
I also surround myself with people who are trying to do the right thing and are sober. I do have friends who are social drinkers, but I mostly surround myself with men and women in recovery.
Keeping myself busy works for me. When you stop doing drugs and living that lifestyle, it leaves a huge empty space. What do you do when you’re bored? Happy? Sad? Drugs used to be the answer to that question for me. I am a musician, and I’ve always been passionate about music. I pour as much of that energy into music as I can. It allows me to create something and get outside myself, even if only for a little while.
I went through a period of what I now recognize as intense addiction when I was 19. I’d partied pretty hard in high school, and when I got to college, that behavior increased. Throughout all of this, I was still fully functioning. I was on the dean’s list, I went to all of my classes, my teachers loved me, and my family thought I was thriving. But I really, really wasn’t.
It started with binge drinking, which is pretty standard on all college campuses. I didn’t have classes on Mondays or Fridays, so every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night I would get blackout drunk and load myself with every drug I could find. Coke, molly, or my favorite, meth-cut ecstasy, which made me feel like I was living inside Rihanna’s “We Found Love” music video. I would just dance and dance and dance until I passed out, sometimes in bed, sometimes in the corner of a random house party. I also did a lot of psychedelic drugs. I didn’t really like tripping, but I liked being the kind of person who tripped a lot.
I was on acid for probably the 29th time when I knew I realized I needed to reevaluate my life. I’d quit drinking a few months earlier after getting dragged out of a concert and waking up in the drunk tank, but I’d replaced alcohol with molly, coke, and candy flipping almost every night of the week. On this night, I’d taken mushrooms and then chased them with a full drop of acid. I was having a bad time. Curled up in my bed in my dorm room with the door locked and the covers over my head, I felt out of control, like the world was caving in on me, and I couldn’t handle it. I kept repeating “I want to be sober, I want to be sober” over and over again. I was afraid I would be tripping forever and was imagining my parents standing over me in a hospital bed crying because I was stuck in this state forever.
When I woke up the next day, I felt awful. But I was sober! In that moment, I realized what a fucking gift it is to be sane and sober. I’d never fully appreciated how beautiful it was to experience the world without a haze of chemicals blocking my view, and that shift in perception changed everything. I stopped trying to hide who I was behind all these substances and just let myself be in the world from then on.
On April 15 1993, I got my third and final drunk driving charge. I’d started a binge on April 12. I got drunk and didn’t go to work, which was standard. I woke up the next morning and continued to drink, then went to see Guns ‘N’ Roses up at the palace in Detroit. I was so intoxicated I missed the entire concert and couldn’t find my friends. They found me hours later lying in an empty parking lot with no shoes, no shirt, and my pants unbuttoned. They took me home, and I just continued to drink. The next morning, I was leaving a local bar when I got a flat tire. I pulled into an oil change facility and ended up pissing all over the guy’s desk, and he called the police.
I never thought I could ever get this when I was using drugs.
Every time I’d stopped in the past, it hadn’t been my decision. It was always for someone else’s benefit or to get me out of trouble. This last time was different; I quit for the first time for myself.
I’d lost everything in my life at that point. I had no education, no faith in God, my health was deteriorating. I was having liver problems. I was a mess. But I had the desire to get better, and that’s all it took. I went to jail, because I had to pay the price for my actions. I had to clean up the mess I’d gotten myself into, and in that process, I started to find this desire to learn why I was this way. Why did I hate myself so much? Why did I want to kill myself? Why did I have no self-esteem or self-respect? I started to learn about addiction and the power of trauma.
For the past 24 years, my life has been completely different. I have four amazing kids, a beautiful supportive wife, an abundance of solid, sober friends, a faith in God, and an education. I started a treatment program that, since 2001, has saved thousands of lives across the world. I’ve even been able to regain my athletic career through Iron Man triathlons. My life is now dedicated to helping other people achieve the things that have been graciously given to me. I’m happy to wake up in the morning, and I have a life that consists of empathy, humility, and gratitude. It’s amazing. I never thought I could ever get this when I was using drugs.
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