Hi, I’m Eric and I’m an addict. Although alcohol was my drug of choice, I prefer to identify as an addict because my story also involves the use of some drugs and it just makes more sense to me to talk about it altogether. Today I’m 3 years sober; it’s not my first try but it’s my best effort so far and I wanted to share what I’ve learned throughout this recovery journey I’m having, but first, some background: I started using casually as an early teen (mostly pot and alcohol) during summer parties and on the weekends. The use wouldn’t be considered anything abnormal for most middle-America youths, mostly experimental and awkward, but I knew I enjoyed it right away. I never let it interfere with my academics, it was just the stuff you normally hear; I was a “socially lubricated weekend warrior”.
In my late teens and early twenties as I moved on from school and dropped out of college, my use increased as did my independence. First apartment with a friend meant the parties were now on weeknights too when we wanted and by the time we were legal to hit the bars, we already knew our favorite spots. It became the customary event to go down to the corner bar after a long day of work and celebrate our efforts and let loose. Before I knew it, I was drinking 5+ days a week. Growing up in a town where there’s not much to do (pop. approx. 10,000), my habit went unchecked and was basically the social norm for kids my age. For a long time, things were fine and my story overall is not as tragic as it could be or as the stereotype might suggest, but frequent blackouts and tons of cash flowing into the bars were not uncommon.
Things got bumpy for me in 2011 when I went out to celebrate a promotion at work and earned my first DUI. The fallout was minor despite the stigma associated with having a DUI; all in all, I lost my license for 6 months and paid some fines — my cheap lawyer earned me no good graces from the prosecution but, the penalty was still not what one would expect for how serious they drill DUIs in public school health classes. So naturally, I kept drinking…a couple girlfriends came and went who were concerned about my drinking, but I “had it under control”. The partying got more intense and I graduated to harder drugs, though I mostly partook when out of town going to dance clubs and the sort in more metropolitan areas. The drug use for me was always to ensure I could stay up and drink more, so I was no stranger to stimulants for that reason.
In 2013, on a day that I decided “to take it easy” (and not black out), I earned my second DUI. Things were a little more serious this time, where I live in NY state your second (or higher) DUI is automatically a felony charge. This was the first time I thought maybe things were a problem, but I hung on to the fact that I only blew a .09 BAC (and the limit was .08). I told myself: “it can’t be that bad; if I had just waited another hour before driving, this never would’ve happened”. My work ethic had earned me another promotion and a higher income, so this time I did some research and hired a lawyer whose suit actually fit him and we went to work. He earned me a reprieve, in that my felony was reduced to a misdemeanor but the rest of the penalties were non-negotiable: probation for 3 years, steeper fines, an ignition-interlock device (IID) and license revocation nonetheless (and for the foreseeable future). In my mind, though, it was a success; no felony meant no career blow-back should I lose my job or wish to change jobs.
In the grand scheme of things, this should have been the wake up call, but I just wasn’t ready to quit. I took up counseling (voluntarily), participated in outpatient treatment (court ordered) and ultimately succeeded in “white-knuckling” about a year and a half of abstinence from alcohol and drugs: the duration of time my probation officer kept me reporting to the state of New York. Maybe in other posts I’ll expand on my experiences with treatment this first time around or my opinions on the penalty structure in New York state, but for this intro I just want you all to know I’m qualified to call myself an addict.
Within the month after I was let go early from probation (for good behavior and checking all their boxes), I was back to drinking. That was early 2015 and I truly succeeded at keeping it casual for the next maybe… three months? But then, relationship problems came fast and frequent, I had to move twice because of my drinking and eventually wound up leaving the state of NY for the Lehigh Valley. This was to be my perfect escape from all my problems. For a long while it worked. For 2016, I was working a great job (from home), exercising and eating (mostly) healthy and rarely thought about my alcohol consumption, which compared to 2009–2013 was truthfully minimal. Then I got laid off; the career rebound was thankfully quick and before my layoff took effect I had already found another job and actually resigned. Still, the blow to my ego of not “making the cut” with an employer that I had given nearly 10 years of my life to put me in a weird place mentally and emotionally. My habits changed, I overate, overslept, drank to excess more often — it was regression for sure.
I spent the early part of 2017 trying to shape my way with a new employer, but behind the scenes my maternal grandmother had fallen ill with cancer for the second time and that spiraled me into serious self-neglect. The first half of the year flew by with me going through the motions, meeting basic requirements at work, socializing occasionally but drinking to excess any chance I got and that was how, after an awkward blind date, I earned my third DUI driving home. I was alone in the car but had no right to be behind the wheel and I plead guilty after full compliance with the police involved. Thankfully, there was no accident or injury. The fear immediately set in, would this be a felony? would there be jail time? would I lose my job? Thoughts were racing more often than not and everything felt the impact of my self-obsessed misery. I grew distant from family and friends, stopped performing well at work and was a total mess. I only drank once after my last DUI and then decided to quit altogether, cold turkey too. That was on June 25th, 2017. Here is what I’ve learned on the way:
Recovery Lesson 1: Acceptance of Self
In my early sobriety, I had no supports. I wasn’t even open about my attempt to stop until nearly 4 months after I had already stopped. There was a lot of shame and confusion early on coupled with negative self talk and blame. That was natural and mostly a result of the prolonged Pennsylvania justice system. In October 2017, the stress was too much and I was afraid I’d relapse so I opened up to my mom (and other family) about my situation and started to look for help through treatment programs. I was initially pursuing outpatient treatment but decided to fully commit and by mid-October I went into an inpatient dual-diagnosis center outside of Philly. I was there for a few weeks and the experience was mostly horrible. On the scale of addicts, my rock-bottom was pretty high compared to the lows that I saw while hospitalized. Nonetheless, it helped me to realize that maybe the label of addict was for me.
After a few weeks hospitalized, my outpatient treatment plan was established and I was on my way. I began to set my first goals on this path and I’m glad I achieved them. A big focus for me was remaining stable on my medication (my bipolar diagnosis was reemphasized as a risk factor) and to attend self help meetings. I was like a lost puppy in those first few weeks back in “the real world” but I made it to several meetings and I quickly felt stuck. Comparatively by age and the extent (or lack thereof) of my crisis, I felt like I didn’t belong. There was no divorce, no jail time (yet), no injuries or bankruptcy (yet). What did I have in common with these people? I liked to drink and couldn’t avoid driving? I didn’t realize it, but that was the addiction talking and the best thing I ever did was bring it up in a meeting and share my fear of being an impostor with that room full of strangers. To my surprise, nobody booed me out of the room or said “you’re right, you don’t need to be here”. They listened, some faces frowned and others smiled and nodded. After the meeting I was approached by a man that had caught my attention at more than one meeting for his intelligence and interesting shares; he suggested I read the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous (yes, we have a manual)…
I was still on the fence about anything new at this time, but I took a leap of faith and downloaded an app version and got to reading. The language in the book can be odd at times given that it’s 81 years old, but the contents are relatively timeless and were immediately relatable. Written by Bill Wilson, it tells the story of Bill Smith and Dr. Bob and their journey through sobriety and the beginnings of Alcoholics Anonymous.
In the second chapter, it describes a true alcoholic as “…a real Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He is seldom mildly intoxicated. He is always more or less insanely drunk…He has a positive genius for getting [drunk] at exactly the wrong moment, particularly when some important decision must be made or engagement kept. He is often perfectly sensible and well balanced concerning everything except liquor”
I immediately thought: this is me! I had excelled over the last 5 or 6 years at getting drunk (and in trouble) “at exactly the wrong moment”, when everything else was going well for me. I decided after reading this description that, if I was going to succeed, I had to have an open mind to the fact that I might fit the definition. So I kept reading. The book opened me up to understanding lots about the nature of the meetings I was going to and the people therein and really helped me to see those who were approaching me for what they were: people willing to help. It really helped me to look at AA as something other than “a cult” and I recommend it to anyone that is facing problems with alcohol and considering self help as a resource.
Recovery Lesson 2:
Once I gave the Big Book a reading on my phone, I decided to buy a physical copy and read it again. I began to attend a meeting every Sunday that studied the contents of the book and broke it down. I was immersing myself in the culture of recovery. I was motivated.
With this motivation in hand, I began to set goals. The two most important ones on my list were:
- Get a sponsor, and;
- Go to more meetings — specifically I decided I would try and attempt a “90 (meetings) in 90 (days)”
My experience with finding a sponsor was awkward to say the least. I had been out of rehab for a month and found a Saturday night group in downtown Bethlehem, PA that was mostly for youth (teens to 30-somethings) but accepted everyone (as most do). I liked that it was the only meeting where I felt like I had peers, although I wound up having more in common with the older crowd it was a warm welcome to see people my age and be social with them. The one thing I liked about this meeting was that every time I went, at the very beginning, they would make a point to emphasize the importance of sponsorship in recovery and ask those meeting participants willing to be a sponsor to raise their hand. I struck out twice trying to draw up the courage to ask someone to sponsor me, when I was going to meetings early on I tended not to stay and talk to people at the end. It was an in/out transaction for me. I’m glad that changed (along with so much else). The third week there, I decided (based on a suggestion from another) to get there early. This allowed me not only to get the (awful) cup of coffee that I so coveted but I began to learn people’s names and someone new came in and sat next to me. He introduced himself. His name was Liam and he didn’t know it but he would become my sponsor that night.
The meeting began and the usual opening ceremony ensued, by the time it got to mentioning sponsorship Liam quickly and confidently raised his hand and made eye contact with me. In that moment, I felt the spine-tingling, skin-crawling, cringe-worthy fear that I was about to put myself out there and before I knew what was happening I felt myself return the eye contact, lean forward and motion him near. I whispered with a cracked and anxious voice “Can we talk sponsorship?” and to my great relief he smiled, nodded and told me to seek him out when the meeting ended. Liam proved to be a great role model with 6 years of sobriety despite his age being 5 years less than mine and the fact that he never could even legally consume alcohol by the time he quit. He knew the ropes, what meetings were constructive, what other books were worth getting into and he kept me social in the recovery scene and my mind off of my pending criminal case. I’m eternally grateful for his guidance.
I told Liam about my 90 in 90 goal and before I knew it, 90 days went by and I had actually been to 120 meetings. I kept track with an app on my phone and that was my first tangible sobriety goal met. My confidence ticked up a notch.
Recovery Lesson 3:
Pacing My Recovery
With that initial boost of confidence from making new friends and meeting a key goal, I wanted to soar through my sobriety milestones. Life, of course, had different plans.
Shortly after beginning to work with Liam, I moved back to Central NY to pursue an intensive outpatient program that I felt more comfortable with compared to the setting in the Lehigh Valley that I was currently enrolled in. I was about half way through my 90 in 90 when I moved back, so my first order of business was to seek out all the relatively proximate worthwhile meetings in the area and possibly find an interim sponsor. After the first week back, I got settled into a daily meeting routine and decided to work remotely with Liam, but I had already met a role model or two that I planned on getting close to. I was off work on medical leave so it was easy to immerse myself in reading about recovery as well; I would eat, sleep and breathe it whenever I could. The rehab program I was in was slated to take ten weeks and met every Monday-Thursday. Outside of that, I had my meetings and my reading and I focused the rest of the time on reconnecting with my mom, stopping to write in a journal on occasion as well.
I started accepting monthly coins at the meetings I went to, for each month that ticked by. With every one I received my confidence and enjoyment in the process grew. I was experiencing what other alcoholics refer to as “the Pink Cloud”; basically, things were going so well I felt invincible.
In January of 2018, on a Friday night, about two weeks before I had court for the first time (since my arrest in May 2017) I got into a fender bender. It was minor, but it was still a shock to the “Pink Cloud” ecosystem I was in. Thankfully, there were no injuries and my car was the more damaged one. Insurance would absolutely cover it. After the police officer assessed the scene and established those facts, he ran our licenses. This is when I found out mine was not valid…I was sunk. Completely heartbroken. The officer told me that the DMV had me on record with no insurance, but since he could see my proof of insurance he allowed me to park the car and resolve the paperwork mishap after the weekend ended.
Now, to most people, that sounds simple. To me, it was anxiety inducing and absolutely, positively would fail somehow (or at least that’s how my mind was wired). I obsessed over the “what if” scenarios I constructed in my head for how the DMV may handle my situation, or more horrifyingly to me… how the Pennsylvania courts might react to the NY legal troubles. After an excruciating 48 hours though, it all basically worked out. I wound up having to go to court in NY later that winter to get the waiver of the issue from the Assistant District Attorney directly, but all my ducks were in a row and my initial reaction had worn away. Calmer minds prevailed.
This experience was a lesson in that, not only would sobriety eliminate a fear of the police but reality could sometimes be a challenge. It grounded me in the facts that, although my sobriety had been going swimmingly, life was bound to happen. It reminded me that I was facing consequences in PA and helped prompt me to have some very real conversations with my lawyer. Although it would be a misdemeanor, I was facing a mandatory minimum of a year in jail and hadn’t begun to process that fact until that weekend. It also prompted me to talk with my sober support network about my fears for a lack of meeting availability and support once I was convicted and sentenced. I was near the end of my IOP program and so I collected addresses and numbers to stay in contact and I moved back to the Lehigh Valley to finish out my lease down there and face the judge.
Recovery Lesson 4:
Learning from Failure
In April of 2018 I had my day in court. It would be a year of immediate work release (a lesser degree of incarceration than a jail cell) in Bethlehem and fines and probation. My lawyer was confident and composed throughout the whole process with the courts and he had me well prepared. The week before I got my sentence, I quit my cushy work from home (and sometimes travel) job because I found out the work release authorities would not allow a home office for employment since I had to live in their facility. I took an entry level job at a McDonald’s that was near a bus route that could get me from the facility to work every day and that was that.
Everything was real.
On April 20th, 2018 I was remanded to the custody of the Lehigh County Correctional Center and began my sentence. I could write a whole post about what a humbling hell that was, and I may someday. What I’d like to focus on here, is that within the first two months I was able to see it as the opportunity that it was.
Did it suck sharing a metal bunk bed in a room with 60 other guys? Yup.
Were there worse sentences I could have gotten? Definitely.
It was a fresh start.
I lost my meeting streak, since the jail only offered one meeting a week in the facility and I worked the day it was held. I did, however, learn a self reliance. I journaled a lot and got to read everything on my reading list. In a lot of ways, while I was regaining perspective on my situation, I relearned my independence. All in all, the time “inside”, albeit mind-numbing, went by quickly and 1 year and 3 days later I was released. Given that I left my preferred job on bad terms, I started what turned out to be an uphill job hunt. No respectable employer in the Lehigh Valley was interested in a convict with no license or no college degree and I certainly wasn’t interested in working at McDonald’s any longer than I had to. I began to worry I was getting stuck again.
Recovery Lesson 5:
Eventually, after some talks with probation, my landlord and my family…I was able to move back to my home in NY and land an entry level call center job. Plus I started college again!
When I wasn’t reading or sleeping on the inside, I was journaling and I spent a lot of time in that journal thinking about how I would spend my eventual freedom. I’ve now got a bucket list and passion projects that I’m pursuing and achieving as often as possible. Although, I’m comfortable taking my time with it all and know there will always be more to achieve.
In the Big Book, near the end, it says there will be rewards for the effort of pursuing a life of sobriety. It hasn’t been all tumultuous and haphazard but the rewards precipitate exponentially as time goes on. Now that I’m in school and getting A’s I’m pursuing a career change and learning to code, I still don’t have a license so I’ve gone to less meetings than I’d like but that will come with time. Most importantly, I’m happy that I can have confidence in my sobriety and want others to know that it is possible and there are always folks willing to help you work for it.
Although I don’t discuss it much here, I want to emphasize that when you’re struggling with anything deeply personal such as this, you may be in a dark place. Here are some resources that helped me:
None of these resources are affiliate links, I do not intend to make money off my suggestions made here.
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