One Day at a Time, A Recovering Alcoholic’s Story
I met the subject of this New Horizons story, John H., while on assignment for another story. His intelligence and honesty struck me and when he revealed some hard things about his life I knew I wanted to write his story. This is the result. This account of his struggle with alcoholism is written mostly in John’s own words. After all, he’s lived it, and because he came out the other side to become a treatment specialist at a detox unit, he can speak with the authority of someone who’s been there, done that. I lost track of John after the story appeared. I don’t even know if he’s still around. I really like him though. Maybe I’ll make a call and see if he’s still in town. I have no doubt that if he’s still living, he’s still helping others out of the dark and into the light., because that very service is part of his own recovery process.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
“I always knew I was going to die drunk. Now I know I will die a drunk, but hopefully a sober one. And there’s a difference.”
The bittersweet words belong to John H., an Omaha resident and recovering alcoholic who works as a treatment specialist in the detox unit at the Omaha Campus for Hope, a Catholic Charities counseling and shelter site formerly known as St. Gabriel’s. It is precisely where John finally got dried out some 11 years ago after decades of abusing alcohol and other drugs. If nothing else, his journey from client to staff member there proves addicts can make a fresh start if they really want to.
Born into a family of heavy drinkers in Chicago, John tried quitting booze several times but could never stay on the wagon more than a few months. His drinking wrecked four marriages, strained relations with his children, cost him several jobs and sent him on an odyssey around the country as he fruitlessly searched to escape his worst enemy — himself and his addiction. He suffered frequent blackouts, developed cirrhosis of the liver and squandered opportunities in a constant quest for getting his next buzz or fix. In the end, it took a savage assault that nearly left him dead before he realized a higher power was looking after him and he finally accepted the fact his life was too valuable to waste away in a permanent vodka-induced stupor.
Omaha Campus for Hope
Today, John shares a modest home in north Omaha with his youngest child, Shawn. The house, whose exterior is ablaze in color from all the flowers John has planted, is mere blocks from both his job and from the scene of his catharsis. A witty and intelligent man with an Irishman’s gift for turning phrases, John works one-on-one with active drunks and drug addicts in trying to help them kick the habit. In detox he sees desperate people contending with the agony of withdrawal.
“Getting clean hurts,” he said. “It’s easier to stay clean than it is to get clean.” It is not a pretty sight between the night sweats and the hallucinations, but it is exactly what John himself went through himself and that experience allows him to empathize with clients and, hopefully, use his own story as a model of sobriety. “I love it,” he said of his job. “Where I work we try to share our experience, strength and hope. That’s all we can do. I think sometimes it helps if clients know you’ve been there yourself. I let them know I have.”
As he sees it, the job boils down to providing unconditional support to those with no where else to turn. “We can’t fix anybody,” he said. “What we try to do is help them fix themselves by talking straight to them. No alcoholic-addict gets clean and sober until they hit bottom and the only place they can go then is up. What we try to do is raise their bottom so they don’t have to go so far down. We never see our successes. They go out and lead normal lives and we never see them again. We see the failures. We don’t really consider them failures as individuals, but they’re people who just haven’t got it right yet and keep coming back.”
He said the last thing users need is reprimanding because that only exacerbates the depression and self-loathing that accompany drug abuse. “Alcoholics-addicts have no self-esteem and no self-worth. I think they know what they’re doing isn’t right, but telling them that won’t do any good. They’re already down and all you’re doing then is deflating their own low opinion of themselves. Besides, they have a disease. It’s not a matter of choice after awhile.”
With the perspective of time, John has come to understand how and why drinking overwhelmed his life. The roots of his problem extend to early childhood, when he and his siblings were weaned on alcohol as a rite of passage.
“Both of my folks were alcoholics, as were my grandfolks and aunts and uncles. From a very early age there was always drinking around me. Being the oldest of four kids, I saw how my folks would pour some Rock and Rye in a glass and stick their finger in it and rub my sisters’ and brother’s gums. So, I suppose, that’s when I started drinking too. My folks were also the type of people who gave us a small glass of wine or a weak high ball with dinner when we were children. The assumption was, ‘Well, they’re going to drink when they get on the outside, so they may as well learn how to do it at home.’ The whole family drank. It was just the status quo. There were lots of arguments because of the booze. It got very, very ugly at times.”
Drinking shadowed every family activity, even the clan’s shared passion for the Chicago Cubs. One of his clearest schoolboy memories is coming home after class and finding his mother well on the way to tying one on while rooting for the Cubs. “We lived in a 3rd floor apartment within walking distance of Wrigley Field and in the summer I can remember coming home from school and entering the apartment, which had no air conditioning, and there would be my mother in her bra and half-slip with a quart of beer in a Pilsner glass in one hand and an iron in the other while watching the Cub game on television.”
Wrigley Field and surrounding neighborhood
His own serious drinking habit developed in his teens. “In retrospect, I know now that I was more than likely an alcoholic in high school,” he said. As a young man, he somewhat successfully masked his drinking but in reality he was what he calls “a functional alcoholic.” He adds, “I could still maintain some decorum of sensibility and reasonableness. Then, by the end of the disease, I would just fall off the edge of the world when I drank.” Bothered by the turmoil in his family, he often stayed away from home. He left home for good at 17 when he and his girlfriend eloped the night of their high school graduation. The young couple lived in Texas and a number of other places before the marriage collapsed. He worked his “way back up north” and it was in Kansas City that he met wife No. 2. She was an Omaha native and her desire to return to her roots first led John here.
In his mid 20s John and his second wife suffered the loss of a young child to cancer, an event that may have triggered more intense drinking in the grieving father, who acknowledges he was bitter and inconsolable over his son’s death.
With no real skills to speak of, other than a gift for gab and an intimate knowledge of liquor, he gravitated to the one line of work he seemed eminently qualified for — bartender. He was a natural, plus the job gave him access to all the booze he could guzzle on the sly, only he didn’t always get away with it. “I was a good bartender at first until, toward the end, when I became my own best customer. Then it was not so good. It got me fired a couple of times,” he said.
Between bartending gigs he put his people skills to work selling women’s shoes and hawking greeting cards as a traveling salesman. For several years he hit the road selling door to door, relocating several times along the way. including to Atlanta and Nashville. When regular jobs like these petered out, he always went back to tending bar. All this moving around, he said, was his desperate bid to find “the geographical cure for alcoholism,” which, of course, doesn’t exist. By the time he moved back to Omaha in the 1970s, John had been through three broken marriages and several careers. He was back to tending bar again and his drinking was worse than ever. He was descending into a kind of oblivion whose end result was inevitably going to be imprisonment or death.
“Alcoholism is a progressive disease. It keeps getting worse. By the time I finally got help there was no high, there was no enjoyment, there was no pleasure in drinking. I drank so I didn’t get sick. It was pure maintenance drinking.”
His first couple attempts at getting help did not take. “I was in two treatment programs. First, I went to Immanuel Hospital as an out-patient and after a few weeks, I said, ‘I’m wasting your time and my money because by coming in only a couple times a week I keep going right back to the same environment doing the same things.’ Later, I went to Immanuel as an in-patient and I stayed there a month. I stayed clean and sober for, oh, maybe three months and then I went back and stayed out for maybe eight years.” Why didn’t these tries at sobriety work? “I wasn’t ready,” he said. “It wasn’t anybody’s fault. It was on me. Alcoholism is a disease where you’re not going to get clean and sober until you’re ready to get clean and sober. It just depends on you. It’s strictly up to you.”
For a long time, he convinced himself he could control his drinking by moderating it. He knows now he was fooling himself. “I will never control it. Even now, going on 11 years of sobriety, I don’t control it. Abstinence is the only thing that will work for me. So, as long as I don’t take the first one (drink), I don’t have to worry about the last one.”
The leap from dependency to sobriety is a great one because it involves changing an entire mind-set. As John explains, an addict is obsessed with the acquisition and consumption of his/her drug of choice. “Your life revolves around the alcohol or drugs. You wake up in the morning planning on using. I would wake up at a quarter to six. By the time I got up, got dressed and walked to the liquor store on 30th and Laurel, it was 6 o’clock. I would get a half-pint of vodka. That was my breakfast. I would drink it on the way home, come into the house, smoke two cigarettes and start getting the kids up for school. Then I would go back and get a larger bottle and get serious about it.”
As the disease evolves John said an alcoholic alienates and isolates himself more and more from the mainstream of life until he or she is totally, utterly alone. “You start out drinking socially but you eventually hit a point where it’s just you and the bottle. You weed out people one at a time because you don’t even want your fellow drinkers to know how much you’re drinking. I had a drinking buddy for, oh, like 19 years. He had an old, battered pickup truck and we would drive to a park and sit there and drink. He and I would take turns trying to get sober. He did get sober a year before I did and that was the longest year I ever spent in my life because now it was just me and the bottle.”
Just as in the classic 1941 drama about alcoholism, The Lost Weekend, John said the shame of addiction led him to try and conceal his drinking from disapproving spouses and the disorientation of drunkenness put him on constant edge.
“You think you’re hiding it, but you’re not hiding anything. Everybody knows you have a problem except you.” In his case, he usually confined his drinking to public settings, although he sometimes snuck a bottle home. “I would very seldom bring a bottle in the house. I would just go up to the store and get some and drink it on the way back. I could kill a pint of straight booze in a few blocks. When I finished it I’d just throw it in the alley. Once in a while I would bring a pint home and hide it somewhere. I would go to bed, wake up an hour later and take a couple nips, then go back to bed and wake up another hour later to take a couple more. Well, you do this three or four times and you get paranoid, and you move it. Now, the next time you get up you can’t find it. You don’t know whether you can’t remember where you put it or whether your wife found it and threw it away. And you sure enough can’t ask her, ‘Did you find the bottle I hid in here last night?’”
By 1990 John was a wreck. He was separated from his fourth wife and raising their two oldest children alone. He functioned, but moved through life like a ghost. Life was a blur. Everything was muted and dulled in a kind of permanent haze or fog. He was about to get a rude awakening.
On a September night he walked from his house to fetch — what else? — a half-pint of vodka on his way to a meeting at the Viking Ship community center in nearby Miller Park.
“I was cutting through the park and I saw three guys sitting on the side of a hill and one of them stood up as I approached and asked me if I had a cigarette. I reached down to grab one and as I looked up I got hit in the face and that’s the last thing I remember for a month,” he said.
Immanuel Medical Center
The beating he absorbed at the hands of the strangers, who were never apprehended, left him with five fractured ribs, a jaw busted in three places, broken bones above and below his left eye (whose sight is permanently damaged), a broken nose and countless cuts and abrasions. Amazingly, he managed walking home, where his kids answered the door to find a grotesque figure sagging on the porch. They did not even recognize their own father for all the blood, bruising and swelling. He was rushed to St. Joseph Hospital, where he drifted in and out of consciousness and needed weeks for his concussion and other injuries to heal.
What happened to John that night had nothing at all to do with his alcoholism, yet he attributes the event and others following it with finally getting him to make the pledge to stop drinking stick.
“I have very mixed emotions about it,” he said of the beating. “It was a negative event but it had a positive result.”
Before he could make the commitment to stop drinking, he still had one last bender to go on.
“My jaw was wired shut and when I got it unwired I went out and got drunk that night, and I drank for a couple months. My last drunk was like a two-week drunk and it was a real bad one. Eight consecutive days are a total black out. Then, I finally got sick enough that I quit. In the meantime, my wife filed papers with the Douglas County Attorney that I was a danger to myself and others, and I more than likely was. Sheriff’s deputies came to my house and hauled me off in handcuffs to the psyche unit at Immanuel Hospital (Medical Center).
After his release from Immanuel John checked himself into then St. Gabriel’s detox unit. Before entering detox, however, he had a whole weekend on his hands at home, which posed yet another test to his resolve. “I had free reign to do what I wanted and yet I found myself not even wanting to drink. Even in my fuddled-up condition I thought, ‘There’s hope now.’ That was the start of it.”
Upon completing treatment at St. Gabe’s, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, whose program he continues in today and that he intends participating in the remainder of his life. These days John is a content man who finds love and support among both his AA family and his own family. His son Shawn is living with him and sharing in his new life. He said, “Shawn got a lot of the benefits of my being sober. I’ve taken him places and done things with him that I never did with the older kids, who were out of the house by time I got sober. There was some resentment by my older kids, but we’ve been able to talk about it and work our way through it.” John’s dream is to one day retire to Mesa, AZ, where his beloved Cubs have spring training. Until then, he remains ever vigilant.
“Recovery is a continuing process. The first time I think I’m recovered, I’m drunk. I was an alcoholic yesterday. I’m one today. I’ll be one tomorrow. They’ll always make the stuff. They’ll always sell it. I’ll always be addicted to it. That doesn’t mean I have to give into it, though,” he said.
He realizes that without the support of his AA sponsor and circle of friends, he would be lost again. His philosophy about sobriety reflects the AA creed.
“It starts with attitude. And for the first time in my life I am comfortable in a sober world. I am not comfortable with my sobriety in that I take it for granted. I do what I have to do to maintain it.”
That means attending daily AA meetings. For John and others like him, sobriety is a one day at a time thing,
“All it is a daily reprieve,” he said.
- AA marks 75 years of helping alcoholics ‘rise from the depths of hell’ (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Getting Sober: Hope In the Rooms and Online (beliefnet.com)
- Alcoholism: The Basics (addictionts.com)
- A Dry Drunk is a just as mean as a wet one (spreadinformation.wordpress.com)
- Alcoholism and alcohol abuse (addictiontreatmentnow.wordpress.com)
- Is addiction a brain disorder? (theage.com.au)