I got started down the road to substance abuse in middle school for a few reasons. I was a scared, awkward kid who desperately wanted to be liked, but didn’t quite fit the mold that everyone else was in. I was definitely different, and not always in a way that was seen as good. I wasn’t even remotely comfortable in my own skin. So I thought I’d win my peers’ approval and acceptance by drinking. In addition to that, I was curious to see what it was like. Finally, there were some people I looked up to who had substance abuse issues of their own, and they seemed completely happy and successful. So, while I had been told about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, what I had seen conveyed a very different message..
The first time I drank, one of the worst things that could have possibly happened did happen: nothing. I don’t mean that the alcohol didn’t affect me. I mean that there weren’t any immediate consequences, at least that I could notice. After having been told what drugs and alcohol would do to me, I was anticipating some kind of instant lightning bolt of consequence. When nothing seemed to go wrong, I thought, “There’s no price to pay for this. I just did it and I’m fine. The world didn’t end. They lied to me about this.” I’ve since learned something very important about consequences. There is a consequence for every negative decision we make, but they don’t always happen immediately and we don’t always notice them right away. Sometimes they don’t become apparent until much later, and sometimes they chase you down the road years later.
I noticed that when I drank, everything seemed to get better. My pain seemed to go away. I was dealing with bullying and feeling very out of place in junior high, and when I drank, I quit feeling the sadness from that. It seemed to allow me to finally be comfortable in my own skin. I didn’t realize that the feeling was a lie. When I got into high school, alcohol was a lot easier to get, and I started using it as a way to deal with my problems. My alcohol use became much more frequent and I started drinking larger quantities. I didn’t realize how much worse I was making things for myself. None of it seemed like a big deal at the time. Alcohol then gave way to marijuana, nitrous oxide (Whip-Its), and some initial experimentation with prescription drugs.
By the time I was a freshman in college, I was using marijuana daily and drinking frequently. Later in college I got caught in the web of opiate painkillers after a friend with a prescription gave me some oxycodone. After I started on painkillers, the floodgates opened. The feeling from opiates was a step beyond alcohol in my quest to escape my pain, disintegrating relationship, and my growing dislike for myself. Somehow I miraculously made it through college with a decent GPA and managed to get my degree. I’m still not completely sure how I managed that.
Shortly after college, I got into ecstasy and cocaine. I developed a huge cocaine habit that eventually led me to getting into meth, once the cocaine ceased being effective. Right around the same time, my painkiller addiction led to heroin after it became impossible to get legitimate prescriptions and expensive to buy illicit opiate pharmaceuticals. Alcohol was there all along, in ridiculously excessive quantities. Eventually, I became willing to use just about any substance that happened to cross my path. When someone asked what my drug of choice was, I laughingly quoted the Alice in Chains song “Junkhead.” “What’s my drug of choice? Well, what have you got?”
My life was a mess. I lost jobs due to absenteeism, quit other jobs due to an inability to focus, and eventually stopped trying to get jobs. I drained a $10,000 bank account on my addiction. I had nothing to show for it but increasing health problems. There was alcohol poisoning. There were overdoses. There was one particular overdose involving a combination of cocaine, meth, alcohol, and fentanyl (a powerful synthetic opioid) that was absolutely hellish and insane. To this day, it surprises me that I made it through that one. My behavior was erratic and I became angry and unpredictable. At one point, coke and meth made me a 130lb skeleton. At a later point, alcohol made me a 215lb slug.
This went on for years. I wasted my 20’s and the better part of my 30’s. I wanted to stop but was so caught up in it all. I was making all kinds of bad decisions. I’m responsible for my own choices, but addiction and the damaged thinking that comes with it makes it a whole lot easier to make bad choices. Eventually I was no longer using to feel good, but to not feel horrible. I was drinking and using purely out of addiction and the need to avoid withdrawal. Guilt and shame kept me running back to drugs and alcohol, which led to behavior that caused me guilt and shame. It was an endless cycle.
.I ended up jobless for a long time, and thousands of dollars in debt. My thinking and brain chemistry were so overwhelmed by the substances to which I was a slave. I came to a point where I hated myself and said, “I’m never coming back from this. I’ve done too much damage. I’m going to ride this train until it crashes.” The last night I drank and used, I went on a rampage. I hurt people who didn’t deserve it, smashed up my own house, and eventually attempted to end my own life. I was arrested and charged with multiple felonies. If I had been convicted of everything I was charged with, I was looking at the possibility of a doing few years in the Arizona Department of Corrections.
That’s what led to me serving time in Durango Jail, part of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s notorious Maricopa County Jail system. While in jail, I went through hellish withdrawals. The extent of the jail’s acknowledgement of my withdrawal consisted of giving me a bottom bunk, so I would be less likely to get a concussion if my withdrawals led to a seizure that ended up with me falling out of bed. I suffered horrible insomnia and only managed to occasionally sleep for about 15 minutes at a time. It was less like sleeping and more like passing out. I genuinely felt like I was going insane. I went through a combination of the worst physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual pain I’ve ever felt. I genuinely believed that I had lost everyone and everything I loved and cared about. I found myself at a nearly unbearable low point.
I became willing to do anything to repair the damage I had done, but wasn’t sure that such repair would even be possible. While in the midst of this, I somehow found a tiny bit of sanity, which allowed me to make myself a promise to make my faith, my family, and my sobriety my priorities. A fellow inmate named Troy gave me a Bible, which I started reading. It was a welcome escape and was the only thing that gave me any kind of hope in those moments. I latched on to that Higher Power and never let go.
I eventually bailed out while my case was pending, and I moved into a place called the Phoenix Dream Center. It’s a live-in facility where people who have had substance abuse issues, people who have been in jail and prison, people who have been homeless, former gang members, and victims of human trafficking can move in and get their lives back together. A lot of good growth and healing started for me there, but it wasn’t easy.
In a lot of ways, the Dream Center is harder than jail. Our days started at 4 a.m. and ended at 11 p.m. Every moment was scheduled for us and included intense morning workouts (run by a former pro rugby star), classes, janitorial work, maintenance work, labor, homeless outreach, church, etc. We were run ragged, but the discipline, structure, and purpose were what I (and the others there) needed as part of a successful recovery.
While in the Dream Center, I poured myself back into my faith, which remains a key component of my recovery today. I started communicating again, instead of trying to run from my problems. I made exercise and nutrition a big part of my life. I started creating art and writing again. I started to laugh again. I gained back my self-respect and others’ trust. As a result of the changes that began there, I was able to restore my marriage; something I hoped would happen but didn’t know was possible.
In court, the prosecutor was seeking 90 days of jail time for me, and the Probation Presentence Writer wanted me to do six months. I didn’t want either to happen, as they could delay the good work that had begun in my marriage, and in my growth as a person. I accepted a plea deal. Based on what I said and others said at my sentencing, the judge said that he didn’t see any benefit to me serving additional time. To this day, I am grateful he listened to me and to the others who spoke. I was sentenced to two years supervised probation. I was assigned 46 weeks of one type of counseling and 15 weeks of another. I was given a permanent (“designated”) felony and lost my rights as an American citizen. I paid thousands of dollars in court fines and fees. I was given a 10 p.m. curfew. I was randomly drug tested.