From Tragedy and Loss to a Life Worth Living

From Tragedy and Loss to a Life Worth Living

By In Addiction Recovery, Relapse Prevention, Tools for Recovery
Posted January 22, 2018

When I first sat down to write this, I couldn’t decide what my focus should be. Most of the testimonies I’ve read or heard concentrate on either the struggle or the solution. I wanted to concentrate on the solution exclusively, but the problem with that is context because how can anyone know how amazing the solution is without knowing how terrible the struggle was? In the end I decided that I would weight each side of my story according to the affect it has had on who I am right now, and the context necessary to understand how I became who I am right now. Another consideration while I tell my story is that I have never told it before. No one has ever asked me, and I’m not one who typically volunteers personal information unless someone shows some interest in knowing it. So please excuse me if I’m a poor story teller. It’s my first time.

The Pressure of Perfection

I was born on March 2, 1981. My father was significantly older than my mother, divorced twice with a child in one of his previous marriages that I only found out about not even a month ago, my first and only sister. My father grew up poor, and I literally mean dirt floor poor in that he lived in a poorly constructed wooden shack with a dirt floor in the slums around Cincinnati, Ohio. His father died at 44, his mother developed MS and was confined to a wheelchair, and as a result my father started working two jobs at 12 years old. One delivering newspapers at 4am and another delivering groceries after school. He joined the military and ended up being a medic in a military intelligence division during the Korean War. He was the first in the Hamilton family to go to college, and he was still working two jobs when he met my mother. The pump on every large laundry detergent bottle sold nowadays is called the Hamilton pump because he invented it while he worked at Proctor and Gamble. James Earl Hamilton Jr. is the name on the patent if you want to look it up. He also has his name on the Dawn dish soap and Era laundry detergent patents.

My mother was the homecoming queen. She grew up in a small farming town east of Toledo, Ohio. Her father, my grandfather, was a very influential and successful farmer. She went to college to become an RN, and ended up in Cincinnati to perform her trauma center rounds. My father’s second job besides Proctor and Gamble was as a phlebotomist at the same hospital where my mother worked. He asked her out everyday he worked there for 4 months before she agreed to dinner. Then he tried to pick her up on a motorcycle and had to wait another 2 months for another shot which he did and he got. Less than a year later they married, and they remained married for 41 years.

I’m telling you about my parents because expectations were high for me when I was young. Both my parents were self-sufficient and successful, my dad was completely self-made, and they expected the same of their children. I was given every resource necessary to succeed, and success was expected. Failure was frowned upon. I met the expectations when I was young, for better or worse. I graduated #7 in a class of 210 from a Catholic all-boys college prep high school. I earned 20 college credits before I chose a college. I was an all-state baseball player, all-city football player, and I wrestled and swam in the off-season to stay in shape. I had academic scholarships to Notre Dame and the University of Michigan among others, and nearly a dozen athletic scholarships. I chose the University of Michigan and graduated #51 in a class of nearly 5000 with a degree in Computer and Electrical Engineering. My junior year in college I met my future wife. The fall after I turned 21 we married. I had no less than 3 cars at any given time, a custom built house on 1.5 acres, and a picture-perfect life as seen externally. Internally I was a narcissist. My accomplishments and lack of failure had created a true asshole. Everything I cared about was superficial and selfish. Even my wife was a trophy commemorating my self-perceived perfection. Little did I know how difficult the inevitable humbling would be. So much so that I can count the number of people who know the next part of my story on one hand. My parents and siblings still do not know. No therapist I have spoken to knows. My sponsors in the AA program do not know. It has taken a long time for me to own my story and realize that it cannot hurt me anymore…

Tragedy and Loss

In 2005 my wife became pregnant. She gave birth to an 11 week premature little girl we named Isabel. For 3 weeks Isabel lived in an incubator. There were complications. On Mother’s Day, my wife and I went to the hospital to see Isabel. The attending doctor met us as we were checking in, and told us that he was going to let us hold Isabel for the first time. My wife started to cry for joy, but I saw that the doctor still had something to say and it wasn’t good news. I asked him what had changed. He told us that Isabel’s infection was not responding to antibiotics and there was nothing else they could do for her. He said he wanted us to hold her while we still could. Isabel died in my wife’s arms less than 3 hours later.

Of course life changed immediately. Depression, no despair, was the only emotion either of us could feel. The world turned to black and white. My wife wanted to deal with her pain by trying to have another child. I could not. Then on the day of my 5th wedding anniversary, September 29, 2006, I came home from work early determined to make it a good day, and actually willing to start trying again for another child for my wife’s sake. I found my wife in our bed with another man. She had decided she would try for another child without me, at least that was the eventual blame I got for forcing her to have to cheat on me. We were divorced in April 2007, the cars were sold as was the house, and everything I had valued in my life was gone.

The Downward Spiral

the downward spiral

So here I was, 26 years old, broken for the first time ever, drowning in self-pity, and truly considering suicide as an escape. I moved in with my youngest brother. He tried to get me out of my funk to the best of his ability until one day I had a loaded gun sitting next to me as I was drinking a bottle of Vodka, trying to find enough courage to pull the trigger. I was not a drinker. I had been drunk in the past, no doubt, but I found it a disgusting feeling and it never became a habit. My brother walked in on this scene and offered me a solution to my problems sent straight from hell to destroy my life. I don’t blame him. He had already found this solution, and I had progressed so low that I’m certain he felt he had no choice. He offered me a blue pill that promised to numb me to all my pain, my first Oxycontin. I took it without question, felt amazing, threw up, then took another; and then another the next day, and the next day, and the next for almost a year with what I needed to be numb increasing steadily. After a year the price had gone from 25 cents per milligram to a dollar per milligram, and my brother had already switched to heroin and I followed. I progressed through all the misery everyone else in addiction has experienced to one degree or another. Countless jobs, jail, 5 felonies, a year in prison, 4 forced attempts at treatment, lost relationships, hustling, theft, violence, and extreme isolation. I had a period of 27 months sober from 2011-2013, but I did it completely reliant on my own willpower, and it ran out eventually. I went to a 9 month Christian recovery program, got out and went on another run, my last run. I’d say my life was like a porno movie without the sex, but that would’ve been a marked improvement.

In January 2014 my dad died. I was living near Cleveland, Ohio during my last run, and my parents still lived near Toledo. I got a call from my mom while I was at work saying my dad wasn’t going to last much longer. Of course I had to get enough drugs to survive the trip, so I drove 30 minutes further east to the dopeman in blinding snow before I drove west. I arrived twenty minutes after my dad passed, the only family member who wasn’t there to say goodbye. Shortly after my grandmother (mom’s mom) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia. In March 2015 my grandfather (mom’s dad) passed. My mom lost her husband of 41 years, mother, and father. She handled it like a champ. I, on the other hand, turned up the volume on the only solution I knew. It was disastrous as usual. My last run ended December 2016 when I finally surrendered. For the first time ever I sincerely asked for help and put in the work to find it. A marketer from The Shores Treatment and Recovery, Nate Kehlmeier, arranged for me to come to Florida. I bought the plane ticket at 8:30pm and the next day, December 20, 2016 I got on a plane to begin an adventure that would change my life forever. Of course I got lit before getting on the plane, so my sobriety date is December 21, 2016.

From Darkness to Light

My time at The Shores was nothing short of marvelous and torturous. Torturous because of my physical, mental, and emotional state; all completely my fault and normal for anyone in very early recovery. Marvelous because of the people. For the first time I had a therapist, Doctor Laura Olivios, who gave me real direction, listened to what I said, then proceeded to break it down and let me figure out for myself how I was completely wrong. It was a revolutionary improvement over previous therapists who seemed limited to asking, “How does that make you feel?” We employed simple yet proven techniques to calm racing thoughts, identify false assumptions, and reverse learned behaviors. The IOP coordinator and licensed therapist, Jennifer Wilson, was equally amazing. There was not one employee who wasn’t genuinely committed to their jobs, jobs that I admit I couldn’t begin to imagine having. The Shores gave me the basic foundation to recover for the balance of my life, and use my experiences in addiction to become a better person.

I will not claim this 12 month adventure has been easy. There was one point, the exact day I was going from PHP to IOP that I was determined to use again. But God had other plans, and He brought someone into my life on that exact day. I won’t say any names or exactly what happened that day or any day after, but this person has been a primary motivation for my recovery since their arrival, even if they are mostly unaware. The point is that anyone who has any hope of being successful in recovery will have to have people to motivate them one way or another. It is a prerequisite. Finding the right people can be challenging though.

Ultimately that one near-failure in IOP propelled me into the program of Alcoholics Anonymous head-first and without further hesitation. I asked someone completely opposite of my personality to be my sponsor because I knew I had to do something different. Little did I know how much we would ultimately have in common, as I believe is the case with many people in recovery. The first day I met with him at his house, he asked me what I was willing to do for my sobriety. I answered immediately whatever it takes. That was my level of commitment, and that is the level of commitment I have maintained for the past year. We completed my first run of the steps in 5 weeks. A month later we had a falling out and the next day I got a new sponsor. I just completed an in-depth Big Book and 12 and 12 study with him to better understand the literature. The point here is that I did the steps before understanding everything in the books. It’s the 12 steps that fit on one side of one piece of paper that will change your life, not a book or treatment center or meetings. All of that helps, but none are absolutely necessary.

The Discovery of 3 Essentials

I would like to talk about three essentials that I discovered during my time in recovery. In Appendix 2 of the Big Book it talks about two of these essentials as being necessary for a spiritual awakening. I changed the third from open-mindedness to fearlessness, so my essentials are willingness, honesty, and fearlessness… The only positive trait I came here with is willingness. I was depressed, hopeless, sick, and broken. I was literally ready to die, and I had actually tried three times before I admitted to failure in even being capable of taking my own life. I had not been able to look myself in the mirror for five years. I remember the last time well. It was the night before my first real suicide attempt. I looked into the mirror at someone I hated. I could not see one redeeming quality. I saw physical ugliness and spiritual hopelessness. I didn’t just wish to end my life to end my pain, I truly believed the world would be a better place without me. From that day until only about six months ago, I never looked myself in the mirror again. It was a self-made prison.

I perpetuated my confinement with dishonesty and violence. Sometimes I would get a text message from someone that said “I know you lied to me, why?” The thought that went through my mind was, I told you about 15 lies, so which one do you know about. Then I would admit to one lie at a time trying to minimize the number of lies I had to reveal, never knowing the lie the person was referring to wasn’t one of the 15 I remembered. That is not freedom, and it ate away at the last few strands of morality I possessed until I had none left. Truthfully, the most freedom I had during my addiction is when I was actually in prison. In the end, I was the shell of a person. I lived and breathed, but I had no soul. It was torture that I don’t believe can be properly described with words. I have a feeling that many in addiction have felt it though. Only after I tried everything except truly being willing to relinquish control and accept help, and to behonest to myself and others; only after I had my soul ripped away from me by me; only after I had tried unsuccessfully to play God and take my own life did I finally give up. I became willing.

Essential 1: Willingness

So back to the essentials… I see them in all of the steps. The first step is a willingness to admit I am a failure at life. But what does that mean? It’s a bigger admission than just my failure to use drugs successfully. My failure at life was my unwillingness to admit my mistakes and learn from them. Imagine if Tom Brady threw an interception, and then declared the game over. That’s not what he does. He goes to the sidelines, looks at the film or still shots and talks to coaches to figure out how he made a mistake, then goes back out on the field and does his best not to repeat it. That is why Tom Brady is a winner, and if you hate Tom Brady, then realize you hate him because he is a winner. He’s not a winner because he is perfect, but because when he fails, he doesn’t give up. It’s very difficult to beat anyone who never gives up. Taking the first step isn’t just honestly admitting to being a failure, it’s also willingness to not give up.

Essential 2: Hope

The second step is a willingness to accept help to overcome my failure. This step is hope. I said earlier that people must be involved in my recovery for me to be successful. This is because I was insane and I needed accountability, motivation, and direction in order to regain my sanity. Anyone who has completed the steps successfully and is willing to genuinely help is a Higher Power, and I need that to restore and keep my sanity. It drives me nuts when people say you can use something like a door knob as a Higher Power. I strongly disagree. Calling a door knob a Higher Power would perpetuate my insanity in my opinion. I need rational, practical, successful people who have been in my shoes to show me how they recovered. That’s how I understand step two. My sponsor and everyone in the meetings who had more sober time than me were my Higher Powers. They still are in many ways.

Essentail 3: Fearlessness

The third step is willingness to give up control of my life. The third step is also the first time fearlessness is necessary because not only do I have to be willing to relinquish control of my life, but I have to try to give control to something I can never completely understand, reason with, or hope to ever have any power over. There is a reason the third step changes from Higher Power to God. Because God is a Higher Power, but a Higher Power is not God, and I have to turn my will and my life over to the Highest Power. I also understand why so many people have a problem with this step. I treated my drug of choice as my god for so long, that it was difficult to comprehend a god who doesn’t require destructive consequences for relief of my pain. This is when I had to have faith that the millions, and that’s literally millions, of people who have been successful in this program had taken this step before me with the exact same kind of reservations. Taking this step took practice. I still do it daily. However, taking it is a relief that I cannot put into words. I don’t have to be in control. I don’t have to understand, plan, and manipulate every situation. It’s a ten ton weight off my shoulders everyday, multiple times per day, when I ask God to direct my course.

The fourth step explicitly calls for an honest and fearless personal inventory. This is the final step before I saw some real tangible results as far as regaining some semblance of humanity. I am confused as to why it is the stopping point for so many people. Perhaps because it requires writing something down, and we’re all exquisitely lazy? I really don’t know. I was crystal clear about what my flaws are, and who I blamed, and how I was ultimately responsible in almost all those situations; so writing it down was not difficult. I will admit that I wanted to hold on to some of my self-hatred, blame, and guilt. I felt like I deserved it. Perhaps that’s why we linger on this step, because if we honestly intend to continue then we have to attempt to let go of everything that hurts, and pain is so normal we might feel lost without it. I get that, but I will tell you that you will not feel lost without the pain. You will finally be found. This step is much easier than anyone thinks. Don’t stop here. And definitely don’t draw this step out. It requires bringing all the negativity holding you back to the forefront of your mind, and it is toxic if you dwell on it too long. The point of this step is to get to step 5. Get there.

The Payoff

The fifth through ninth steps are the payoff. This is where the results of the program become reality, and if you ever really take the time to read and comprehend the absolutely extravagant ninth step promises, you will see that it is all a result of willingness, honesty, and fearlessness. And it’s really simple because by being willing to accept the reality of any situation I can be honest, and by being honest I have nothing to hide, and by having nothing to hide I have nothing to fear, and by not allowing fear to control me I don’t have to try to control everything in my life. I don’t have to manage stories I told to different people to explain or cover-up mistakes I made, and fear the consequences of them finding out the truth, consequences which are always worse than just admitting the truth to begin with. The intuitiveness of being able to handle situations that used to baffle me is in my willingness to be honest and the fearlessness that results because there is only one truth. I don’t have to think about what to say or do if I’m always on the path of truth because there’s only one way to go. It’s so simple it’s easy to miss.

The tenth through twelfth steps are maintenance steps designed to constantly keep my selfish nature in check. I perform these steps multiple times per day, and it’s a pleasure to do it. After the first month I didn’t even have to consciously think about it. I can recognize what I have control over and what I don’t, and I am more than happy to let the guy upstairs handle what I can’t control. Of course I have made mistakes. I am so far from perfect that you could measure it in light years, but I am better than I was a year ago, I am in a constant state of improvement, and I accept that’s the best I can do. Today I have goals, I have a relationship with God that I wouldn’t trade for an unlimited supply of my drug of choice with the guarantee of no consequences, I found someone I love more than I ever thought possible, my family speaks to me again and trust is returning, I don’t have to worry about finances, I’m no longer in a state of chronic depression, and in fact my life is better than I ever imagined it could be. I still feel depressed sometimes, but it is manageable now where it wasn’t a year ago. I have a good job and some cool toys, but they don’t mean very much to me. It feels better to give my money and my time away than it does to keep it. I don’t talk behind anyone’s back unless I’m praising them or defending them. If I have a problem with someone, then I talk to them privately. The point is that these behaviors were never present prior to and during my addiction. I knew they were the right things to do, but I wouldn’t do them. As a result of this program, in particular the spiritual awakening, these behaviors are natural, almost instinctive. That’s such a staggering change to the selfish asshole I was just a year ago, that it amazes me.

The twelfth step is one I’ve really had to work with myself on. I haven’t had a sponsee. I’m not the life of the party, and I’m barely noticed by my friends let-alone a newcomer who could benefit from my help. I don’t flaunt what I have, I’m not a preacher, and I’m not comfortable in large groups of people. My sponsors have told me that I have to get out of myself. However, at the same time they’ve told me to pray about all my problems and be patient without ever offering to even spend the time to listen to any of them. I think that’s hypocritical. If I can trust God with my will, my life, and all my problems; then God will bring a sponsee to me when God decides I am ready. Until then I make sure I am available to people I care about and give my time to the Humane Society and Big Brothers of America. I also go to church and tithe. Once in a while I’ll leave a gift card for a stranger at the grocery store or pay for the car behind me at McDonalds. I try my best to be completely honest, and I admit any dishonesty as soon as I identify it. That’s what I can do for now, and that’s how I practice the really important part of step 12 which is practicing the principles of this program in all my affairs.

Taking off the Mask

I believe it is important to note that I did not have to change everything about myself to get here. I only had to remove everything masking who I really am. I’ve always been me. I just covered up that tolerable person with a lot of selfishness and pride. This program simply removed everything I’m not, all the bullshit I piled on myself so I could be relieved from pain; and it allows everything I was always meant to be to come to the surface. It’s not always easy. It’s not a solution to all my problems. I still see physical ugliness when I look in the mirror, but I can look at myself in the mirror again, and I know I have a lot more to offer than just a pretty face or body. Perfection is overrated, and fixing problems has a cost. Life is a teacher and mistakes are the lessons. I just have to be willing to learn. Sometimes the lessons are painful, more painful than I can ever be prepared for, but God only allows me to experience pain when it’s a lesson I can learn no other way. It is never permanent unless I artificially perpetuate it.

This program is real. The miracle is real. It’s not free, but it’s real. Put in the work, and you will get it. Don’t, and you won’t. It’s that simple. God knows how much work I put in to temporarily numb my pain with drugs, and how painful that work was. The pastor of my church in Ohio used to say we are punished by our sins, not for them. I believe that because I feel more guilt from the work I did to get drugs than I feel for actually doing the drugs. The drugs were a solution, and the drugs by themselves worked. It’s everything that comes with maintaining my supply of drugs and hiding that I was using them for as long as I could that tore me apart. Recovery is a life-long process, but is there anything in life that’s worth anything that isn’t? If I find someone I love, date her, and marry her; do I get to stop working to keep that relationship? If I have children, then do I get to quit being a parent at any point? This is what makes life worthwhile. It’s the work as well as the results. In recovery the work itself is rewarding, not easy but rewarding, and the results are amazing. We are lucky to have this framework for living. There is no one on this planet that couldn’t benefit from the twelve steps. Take advantage of a solution that gives and never takes. That’s the purest definition of love, and that’s what life is all about.

Thank you to The Shore Treatment and Recovery for impressing upon me the steps necessary to have the life I have now. Thank you for giving me the basic tools to find myself again. Thank you!

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