Ben Russell

Ben Russell
St Paul, Minnesota,
October 02
armed with weapons of mass procrastination.


Ben Russell's Links
Editor’s Pick
MARCH 8, 2011 1:33PM

Is sobriety ever a choice?

Rate: 22 Flag

It’s snowing again.  I kick my boots out on the cement doorstop and heave-open the clunky maroon door.  As I pull on its cold brass handle, it resists, as if actively shielding the old building from winter’s ferociousness.  I enter the corridor and take a deep breath.  A feeling of nostalgia returns as I scan the familiar scene.  This place is more than just a work environment for me.  I am back at 1221 Wayzata Blvd., and this is where my journey began. 


I got sober, but not by choice.  My relocation to Minnesota happened due to a series of what seemed like nonsensical events piling up at the end of summer, 2009.  I had spent the summer in northeastern Wyoming, working on a dude ranch as an assistant chef, and living what I believed to be a ‘rock star’ lifestyle.  I arrived in Minnesota in late August, no more a person than a hollow vessel. 

August 26, 2009 it was, to be exact.  My mother had flown out to Wyoming the previous week where we started our road trip back across the country.  She was convinced I had a drinking problem and that I should go to treatment.  I should say that at this point in my life I was pretty used to such scrutiny from my mother.  Its how things were supposed to be, right?  Obviously, my mom couldn’t be expected to understand the culture surrounding young people and alcohol these days.  My ultimate goal was to do what I had to do to please my mother in regards to drinking.  If that meant checking into a treatment center for thirty days then so be it.  Whatever would get me back to life as I knew it.  

Somewhere in South Dakota we stopped for a night.  At each stop we had been going online and looking at various treatment facilities.  I was hoping to end up somewhere like Eric Clapton’s Crossroads facility or some upscale spot in southern California.  I had this delusional fantasy of meeting Lindsey Lohan in treatment and riding down Sunset Blvd. with her, living happily ever after.  My prediction could not have been farther from the truth.

My mom stumbled across a small, spiritually-based recovery center known simply as, the Retreat, located in Wayzata, Minnesota.  It seemed only seconds after she found the website she was on the phone and booked me a spot.  After only one more day on the road, we spent our last night together in Mankato, MN.  It was during this night that some of the fog seemed to have been lifted from my perspective.  This was not to say that I was any closer to accepting myself as an alcoholic.  I had a sort of subconscious and unsettling notion that something was changing in my life that I couldn’t control.

As we pulled into the drive of the Retreat, my new home for 30 days, the tape kept playing over and over again in my head. If only I…If only I…  I couldn’t deal with reality.  The reality that I had screwed up once again.  The reality that I was being dropped off in a state that I had never been to and my mom had every intention of leaving me here.  The reality that I did not know anything about what lay ahead of me.  Of course, what I never could have believed was that it was going to be the best thing that ever happened to me.

The time I spent in treatment is not easily describable.  I remember feeling that each day progressed at the rate of an elderly snail.  The reality that I had nowhere to go did not sway me from constantly thinking about life on the outside.  It seemed that my mind was fiercely determined to live everywhere else but the present moment.  In doing this, I refused to acknowledge a lot of the help that was available to me. 

Despite this relentless effort by my consciousness to thwart off forces of positive change, the spiritual nature of the environment fostered by the Retreat was too powerful not to diffuse certain elements of recovery into my soggy skull.  I was introduced to a 12-step recovery plan that demanded I proclaim belief in a ‘higher power.’  Though I had never been diligent in any sort of religious practices, I certainly sensed notions of God being forced upon me at this point.  God had always been a source of apathy for me.  Though I had no just reasons to disprove His existence, I had no strong convictions to all of a sudden drop to my knees and beg his forgiveness.  Up to this point, everything that had happened in my life could be explained in a logical fashion.  Most recently, I went to college.  I partied.  I made a mistake or two along the way. 

The amazing thing about the Retreat was its uncanny ability to allow alcoholics to figure things out for themselves.  There were no doctors, psychiatrists or therapists to constantly probe us about the un-pleasantries that made up our lives.  It was just us drunks and addicts (40 to be exact), sharing stories about our pasts that seemed to blend together in an appallingly harmonious fashion.  I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but my thirty days taught me that there were other people in this world who thought, felt, and even acted just as I did.  It validated my identity as an alcoholic, whether I consciously accepted it or not.

My most vivid memories of treatment are of sitting in the leather chairs of the meeting room, struggling to stay present for the conversation, mind fluttering between thoughts of when we were going to get our next smoke break and when it was my turn to talk.  The experience challenged every natural inclination in my being.  I came to understand that living sober was not just about abstinence, it was about learning how to live a spiritual and disciplined lifestyle.  My time at the Retreat served as a thirty-day crash course in this new way of living.  Fortunately, I was able to stay present enough to absorb enough wisdom to be able to apply it to life outside the walls of my cozy room in Wayzata.


I started working at the Retreat last October.  When I first heard of the job opening, I jumped at the possibility of not only being able to reconnect with the staff, but also to meet some of the new faces entering the recovery community.  To the new guests, I represent someone who has recently gone through the hardships fought in early sobriety.  For me, working there serves as a constant reminder of how far I have come. 

Over the last year and a half, I have been a part of a journey woven of spirituality, sanity, and reason.  While new to me, this is not an original struggle.  Many before me have encountered relationships destroyed, families ruined, and lives lost.  This may seem grim, but it is their struggles that serve as a constant reminder to me of why I must keep trudging this very road of recovery.[i] 

Today, the life that I live is directly attributed to the grace and humility earned as a result of working this program of recovery.  From beginning and ending each day with prayer, to attending AA meetings on a regular basis, each action I take today contributes to a more disciplined lifestyle.  I do not claim to live on a higher plane of existence than anyone else, nor do I feel that I have reached my potential for growth.  I remain grateful for everything that has happened and the way in which it happened to me.  If that same series of nonsensical events had not transpired in the way they did, I would probably not be sober right now.  I may not even be alive.  However, as long as I am, I will continue to strive for progress.

[i] W, Bill. Alcoholics Anonymous: the Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism. 4th ed. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 2001. Print.

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
Welcome. There are many of us here.
In answer to your question, I do think sobriety is a choice. You can die on the streets, having lost everything, or you can make a change. I feel great compassion for addicts and alcoholics, but I can only offer to help. The choice to show up at a meeting or check into rehab is a choice.
To answer your question~~YES.

I've been clean & sober for 28 years and, I was not forced into it in any way.
On my own, I went to a couple of group meeting and, after listening for a short time, I realized that these people were realting experiences which were just like all those things that were fucked up in my life.
After a very short time, I DECIDED that I wanted to quit using alcohol and/or other drugs.
I guess the title was a bit cut and dry...but what I am getting at is a larger question. For me, getting sober cannot be grouped into the same category as brushing my teeth or eating that last slice of pizza. It is a choice that carries a lot of gravity, more so than any other 'choice' I have made. I guess it's not as much about whether sobriety is a choice or not, it's about the actions taken upon sobriety to achieve a life with greater purpose.
I don't know the answer to your question. I simply wanted to say that I find all alcoholics to be rather extraordinary people. However, I now only keep company with ones who are no longer drinking, a delightful bunch. If that makes me judgmental, so be it. You're my kind of guy.
Well there you go!!! That didn't take long, considering your first blog was yesterday. Congrats on the Editor's Pick and your continued sobriety!! Your writing style is amazing and heartfelt. Just keep going. You are definitely the path that was meant for you!!! rated~
Give my heartfelt regards to your mom. She came through for you. Big time.

Great writing.
Excellent writing. A very compelling read. To answer your question, the answer is Yes and No depending on the person. I quit almost 5 years ago on my own accord and it was and continues to be a fantastic choice. Good for your mother! But you were a good son and went along with her plans. Your story is inspiring, especially for one in their twenties. There are many alcoholics in their 20's who have a hard time wrapping their minds around the fact that they really need to abstain from alcohol. I think you will be a powerful force in this area. Thanks so much for sharing. At second thought, YOU are inspiring. All the best.
You have written your story beautifully. Yes, it is a choice to live your life with all the pain and joy that comes with it and to allow yourself to feel every part of it. I wish you the best. ~r
Great post, great writing, great story. I don't drink and haven't ever really gotten into it. I chose to be this way for a number of reasons. My grandfathers were both alcoholics and as a child I witnessed my one grandfather struggling with the DT's. My father wanted us to see it, I was probably 6 or 7, I don't really remember. He wanted us to know what alcohol was and what it could do. I also had my mother tell me stories of her dad and what he did as a drunk. I realized in college that drinking was something that I could do or not, that it was expensive for a kid like me and so while I can drink, and have drank, at this age not anymore. It doesn't fit with my current health situation and it just never meant much to me in the first place. That is my personal experience, I judge no one. I understand it is a disease. I really do.
Thanks for sharing this. My Dad was an alcoholic for years and as a kid I never knew it. I know I lean in that direction, and have to be careful with the drink myself. -Erica
Keep trudging the Road of Happy Destiny. You are on the right track.
First, congratulations on your EP, my friend. I find it significant that you got it on this piece - a recognition of how far, indeed, you have come in your writing and personal accomplishment.
Ben, by choosing sobriety, you chose the life and the priorities that go with it, which are very different from what they would've been had you not made that choice. However, when you put the word ever in your question, I feel confused. I can see alcoholishm as not a choice, but rather a circumstance. Sobriety to me is always a choice -although sometimes its window of opportunity may be ever so small. You were blessed, lucky, wise to have grabbed that opportunity and make the right choice to become sober. Consciously. Willfully.

Was it the same when you were an alcoholic? Did you chose to be one, or did you allow circumstances lead yo into it?

I haven't been around alcoholics much so I cannot speak with authority, but I do not judge either. I find those who have gone your way fascinating and try to learn from them. They have a dimension I lack, yet I can relate to.

Excellent writing.
Thanks for sharing your story. This year will be lucky number seven for me. I'm thankful each day and believe that I made the right decision. Keep at it and live the example for others.
Brave story, thank-you for sharing!
I get confused about this issue because I am not an alcoholic. I can enjoy a drink but it doesn't alter my life or become an obsession. I have been involved with alcoholics who have chosen to never have another drink. I have an addiction to sweets and I could easily become a pot head again if it was legal. I can't resist those things. It is difficult for me to be around someone who can't control their liquor or has to abstain completely. I guess it is an individual journey and you have to decide if the substance is destroying your life or not. It makes you decide who your friends are.
I echo all the positive comments made to you. You have a real gift and a nice way of telling it. And your mom gets kudos too for taking action and hanging in. I live in a college town and consequently am around a lot of young recovering alcoholics who remind me of you. As Trudge164 said "keep trudging..."
You speak clearly of your journey and have wisdom beyond your years. It shows have far you've come that you are willing and able to go back to the Retreat and help others. Your ability to both write and give personal witness to others may prove to be the greatest gifts you can share. Keep being your best self. R
"Today, the life that I live is directly attributed to the grace and humility earned as a result of working this program of recovery." Well said. Sounds to me like you've got a great foundation for sobriety. You're not alone. Keep coming back. SO glad you're here.
I am so happy to find you here and read your story. I am also so happy to see the path you are on. I wish my husband had had that strength you show so well here, maybe then he wouldn't be slowly drinking himself to death.
Good for you and your mom!
marytkelly took the words right out of my mouth! I could not have said it better. Excellent writing skills.

Is sobriety ever a choice? Maybe not initially, given the chaotic storm that is generally present. I believe it most definitely is long-term.

Awesome job! Keep charging ahead.
Thank you all for commenting! This was such a surprise to return home to after work last night. I feel extremely encouraged and humbled by your thoughtful praise.
Ben- great post. I know exactly how you feel, and when i first tried to get sober i was forced into it by my family. It never lasted more than 30 days for me, it wasn't until I made the choice for myself that I actually found sobriety. thanks for sharing
XJS AND ME- i dont know what your problem is but everyone handles recovery differently, and for you to post anything negative to a fellow alocholic is seriously disturbing to me. Do you think you're better than everyone because you weren't forced into recovery?
This is wonderful writing and the fact that you shared such an intimate detail of your life with us shows great courage. -R-
You have one incredible "mama hawk" you call your mother. What she did for you is life changing. Not many parents would go to such lengths to bring their children to a treatment facility as your mom did. She has my utmost respect and awe. And that you went with her speaks to your relationship, trust and respect for her (and ultimately for yourself). You did good, Ben! Keep up the honorable, life giving work! Virtual pat on the back and a big squishy hug.
This was beautifully written and so insightful. Congratulations on getting through the program and finding yourself in a better place - though you're right - I guess we never stop growing, no matter who we are. I think it's wonderful that you're back there helping others, too.