Watching Charlie Sheen suffer through his very painful public meltdown over his addictions, recovery and problems with AA, has made me much more mindful of my own struggles with addiction and recovery. But first, shame on all those “life-style reporters” for exploiting his obviously manic behavior. Addiction and recovery aren’t about stupid cable interviews. They are about life and death. I know. I‘ve been there.
For me it began as my adolescent brain was gradually being hardwired into adult emotional pathways. The trauma of my childhood became the template for my adult emotional life. And by the time I was in college I was experimenting with drugs, along with all those other 60’s explorers. Over time though, the experimenting morphed into some ten years of recreational use. What I didn’t know then was that I was developing my own treatment plan for an undiagnosed illness: depression and anxiety.
It was a doomed plan that was to last for almost 30 years. A plan that was ultimately very destructive to my life and my family. The plan was to take something, anything to numb the pain, quiet the anxiety and relieve the stress. That part worked. Except the plan required increasingly potent medicines, at increasingly higher dosages, to work the magic. A ten year stretch of recreational use became a twenty year relationship with cocaine, and then became a post-doctoral program of prescription drugs and alcohol.
All the while my illness continued untreated: years and years of chronic depression, broken only occasionally by episodes of acute major depression. The cocaine relationship ended rather abruptly in the late 1980’s as I was about to have my first child. Fortunately the power of my desire to be a good father was stronger than cocaine. Or so I thought. I put down that drug, but within a year I was suffering acute depression, was suicidal, and desperately sought help at a major Boston hospital.
What followed for the next year or so was three sessions a week, two with a psychologist and one with a psychiatrist. Which got me through the danger, but did little to treat the problem. Eventually I returned to my normal life and my familiar treatment plan. End of first marriage, beginning of second marriage. No longer addicted to coke but starting to use alcohol as my new medicine. Only now I needed stronger medicine.
A few years further on I told my doctor at the time that I was wanting to quit drinking but having a real hard time doing so. He told me I was obviously self-medicating, and that he could help. He prescribed a drug called Serax, at a dosage of 100mg a day. Now this treatment plan was ideal - powerful, insurance-paid prescription drugs, along with increasing dosages of Wild Turkey and Jack Daniels - had the power of cocaine, at a tenth the cost and was completely legal. This phase lasted only a few more years. By then I was almost fifty years old, at the end of my second marriage, had been self-medicating for about thirty years, and was still depressed as hell!
Somehow I found my way to a psycho-pharmacologist. At the end of my first meeting with him he told me “Well, you are very lucky to still be alive. The combination of that drug at that dosage, with your continued drinking, means you could suffer from cardiac arrest, seizures or several other life-ending reactions literally at any moment. And that’s the good news. The bad news is you can’t simply stop taking the drug. You are going to have to wean off it slowly, gradually over the next six months. And, you can’t do it by yourself. You need to go into a residential treatment program. Here’s the number of a good one.”
At that point, with perfect timing, my second wife left, with our 18 month old daughter. I called that treatment program. Catch 22: “You can’t come to our program until you are off the Serax.” But I’m being advised I need to go into the program to safely get off the drug.
What followed was several months of mounting insanity. The psycho-pharmacologist was helping me slowly wean off the Serax. But I was drinking more and more to compensate for the loss of the calming effect of the drug. And my life was rapidly spiraling out of control. By December, 1997 I was broke, out of work, drinking and taking pills night and day. Late one night I got the idea to go for a ride, got in my car and drove out onto Rt. 495. I was several days into a bender, had a quart of Wild Turkey between my legs and I pushed my car up 125-130 miles an hour. Amazing how quickly cars and abutments come up when you’re traveling that fast.
So the next night, I did it again. This time getting my car up to 135 mph. I have no idea what happened after that. All I remember is two days later, when my 11 year daughter came to spend the day with me, I was totally incapable of taking care of her. I called her mother to come pick her up, but she wasn’t home. I called my best friend, told him the situation and he came right over. He got my daughter back to her mother and I was taken to a local hospital specializing in de-tox.
It was around 7 o’clock at night when I arrived there. I was interviewed/assessed and then left to sit in a waiting room. After a while I got up and left. I walked down the long sloping driveway that led out to the main street and proceeded to stand by the roadside hoping to hitch a ride. Fortunately, before long a car pulled up. Unfortunately, it was the local police, who had been contacted by the hospital about my having disappeared from the emergency room. As far as I can recall the officers calmly suggested I might want to go back inside.
I spent that night in the emergency ward, in a room with a large observation window, with a guard posted outside, on a suicide watch. When they tested my blood alcohol level somewhere around 1am it was at .39. I then spent five of the scariest, loneliest days of my life there in that de-tox program. At the end I was advised to go into a residential treatment program, but resisted and was released Against Medical Advice. On the taxi ride back home I stopped at a liquor store and bought a bottle of bourbon. After having just descended to the brink of hell and back, and after having just spent five excruciating days in de-tox, I was unable to resist the need.
Two days later I did manage to get myself admitted into that treatment program, but was told I’d have to wait another two weeks before they had a room. And I had to not drink in the meantime. That was December 13, 1997. The next day was a Sunday and I found my way to an AA meeting that night in the basement of a church in the rural town of Norton, MA. It was one of the best things I ever did for myself.
Fortunately for me, that meeting was a “Gratitude Meeting”, and in a room of some 75-80 people, each spoke from the heart about why they were grateful to be sober that night. It was very powerful. That night I also met a guy named David, a welder with wild, bright red hair. I was incoherent and could barely manage to tearfully state that I was in serious trouble. David reassured me, a total stranger, that I was in the right place and that I was doing the right thing. I went to AA meetings every day/night for those next few weeks and manage to stay sober until I got into the Intensive Treatment Program at North Cottage in Norton, MA.
Two days into the program I was served with legal papers notifying me of a divorce; ordering me to give up custody rights to my two-year old daughter; and ordering me to sell my house and car and give all the funds to my soon to be ex-wife. Not great timing.
I spent the next three months at the ITP program, living with some thirty-five other men in early sobriety. We were a pathetic and motley crew. There was a bright young kid from Brown University, who decided he’d rather smoke crack than stay in college; a couple of young local guys struggling with second or third attempts at getting sober; a couple of hard core junkies boasting about how this was their thirteenth or seventeenth treatment program; and some crazy guys released from prison directly into North Cottage.
There was also a quiet, middle–age black guy, with a powerful singing voice, who was bright and talented, but had never been able to figure out where he belonged. And there was this older, very quiet, but seemingly-wise man, who went home on weekends to visit his folks, and who failed to return one weekend. The story was he had gone down to his parents’ basement and committed suicide by drinking a jar of turpentine. And there was the young father, who came to meetings on Saturdays and Sundays with his two beautiful young kids, who committed suicide one night by taking an overdose of drugs. And the guy from that Thursday night meeting in Mansfield, who went back to his old house, now owned by his ex-wife, and hung himself in the garage.
And there was Steve, my first sponsor, who helped me through the first years of my sobriety. Steve drove a beer truck for a living, and was one of the happiest, most positive people I’ve ever met. He truly believed and constantly said “life is good”. Many days I could have killed him for that. But, he was one of the people who was there for me when I most needed it.
After three months I graduated from the ITP and was strongly advised to move into the half-way house at North Cottage. I declined. I needed to find work, earn some money, and hire a lawyer to help me fight to be with my younger daughter, who I had not able to see for months at a time.
In that first year I became a committed AA follower, because they had helped me to get sober, and had helped me stay sober for first 3 months, then 6 months, then 9 months. And I stayed with AA for several years after that, going to meetings first 4-5 times a week, then 3-4 times a week, then down to 2-3 times a week.
But the other thing I did early on, nine months into sobriety, was get into therapy. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to find a great therapist. I was also given anti-depressant medication. For me, a person who had unknowing struggled with depression and anxiety all my life, I needed the combination of AA and therapy. Unfortunately, many AA members don’t believe in treatment outside of AA. For a long time that was a real problem for me. I knew AA was helping me, but I also knew AA could not and was not helping me with my depression. Over time, as it became more and more apparent that I had gained all the help I could get from AA, I leaned more and more on the therapy and the medication to help me move forward.
One day, maybe five years into sobriety, after hundreds and hundreds of AA meetings and thousands of AA speakers, I heard a woman speak at a meeting in Newton, MA who talked, in plain and simple terms, about how AA had helped her with her drinking problems, but that therapy had helped her with her thinking problems. That was the first time in five years at AA that anyone had ever validated my own experience.
It’s now been more than 13 years since that last drink. My life is good today. And that’s weird because today I’m out of work, I’m practically broke, I have two ex-wives, I’ve had to live through bankruptcy and near foreclosures, I have two strong-willed daughters, one just recently post-adolescent, and the other just entering adolescence. Life can be hard today.
But I understand my addiction and disease of depression, I understand that drugs and alcohol will only take me straight back to the gates of hell. That for me this is a life or death struggle. And that today I have the tools and insight that help me manage and navigate the sometimes stormy waters of my life.
Addiction very nearly killed me. I’m one of the lucky ones. AA did help me get sober and stay sober. And that sobriety allowed me to find and take advantage of the right treatment plan for the illness at the core of my addiction. I am sure there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to addiction, alcoholism and recovery. For me, AA was instrumental but insufficient.
I hope poor Charlie finds his treatment plan before he too succumbs to this killer disease.