I was invited to share my story of recovery form addiction recently at the
Refuge Recovery Saturday Night Speaker meeting online.
With over nine years of freedom, there's a lot to be grateful for. Always encouraging full disclosure about our real lives here, I offer the recoding of that share, and a written version.
If you or someone you know or love is in trouble with substance abuse. Please reach out and connect with me or one of us in a program of recovery. All are welcome to attend any Refuge Recovery or 12-step meeting without obligation and free of charge.
Addiction Creates Suffering (a day in the life):
3 a.m. I come to. On the couch, still dressed and dirty, tv on, there’s a little left in the glass so I drink it, take a look around and try to piece together the night. Looks like there was some attempt at eating, a fifth of Jack on top and a couple of champagne bottles in the trash.
6 a.m. I’m up and in pain, everywhere, and I know what’s next, I get in the shower and the convulsions start. Like someone belting me in the gut with a baseball bat, Dry heaving, uncontrolled loud wails, accompanied with bile, shaking head to toes. I pull it together and looking in the mirror see “that guy”. I remember a time when I used to say, as I looked down the bar, “If I ever wind up looking like that guy, I’m gonna quit”. Now I’m looking at him.
6:30 a.m. I’m running through ways of getting out of going to work and explaining the sounds in the shower must be some kind of acid reflux problem – I’ll see a doctor about it, someday. (These are called acute withdrawal symptoms)
6:45 a.m. first stop, the liquor store, head down, hoody on, a bee line to the soda isle for ginger ale then a quick loop around the side for a half pint. In my truck, I stretch around like I’m looking for something in the back seat so I can duck down and slug half the bottle and chase it with the soda. Sometimes it won’t stay down so I crack the door, cover my mouth and re-swallow what doesn’t spill out of my mouth. Then pour the rest into the soda can for the ride into town. I ditch the empty in the store’s garbage can and head off.
7:15 a.m. I hit the gas station I know sells booze next. Same program but this time two sodas and a pint.
12:00 Noon. A couple of beers with a taco and if I can swing it, I’ll pick up another pint and sodas for the rest of the day. Either way, I’m only going to function for a couple more hours.
3:30 p.m. There’s place that has half pints in the freezer, nice treat for the ride home
4:00 p.m. Have a seat at the bar, like it’s my first, well deserved cocktail of the day. A double shot and a beer lands in front of me without asking. This will be the first of 3 or 4 rounds. Depending on my mood and means, a call is placed for some cocaine.
6:00 p.m. I’ve got half the bindle in me before I have to get home and share the rest. Picked up a fifth on the way and a couple bottles of champagne for her. Dinner is optional as a bag of chips.
How the hell did I get like this?
It all started off so normal. I just wanted to fit in, just wanted to be cool and be liked by the people I looked up to.
I came into this world as an accidental surprise to my family. Mom and dad had a girl and a boy, all set, then me – six years later. I grew up thinking I was older than I was most of the time and when I got treated like a baby and left out of things, it hurt. I think that hardwiring is still problematic for me at times. I’m adverse to being part of teams or groups to avoid that feeling. But I’m clever and found ways to feel like I was the one in control, that’s where the real hustle comes into play later in life.
I wanted to get the attention that my older brother got. He was always in trouble and I thought that was cool. I wanted to be just like the guys on the Lynyrd Skynyrd album cover from as early as I can remember, complete with that pack of smokes with the skull and crossbones on it. The problem is that I was a loving, sensitive little guy, and that wasn’t going to cut it with my tough-as-nails dad.
The first time I remember being left alone with him for an evening, we bonded over a few beers and then a bottle a champagne and maybe more. I was eleven years old. By the time my sister got home I was well into vomiting in the bathroom. I don’t know if this was some kind of reverse psychology to teach me about the effects of alcohol but all I knew is it was how I could be cool with dad. At other times, riding in his truck I could have a beer between my legs too, and when I snuck down to his shop, and the fishing trips. I was already learning how to moderate so I wouldn’t be a pain in the ass or get him in trouble with mom.
And when I wanted friends, I figured the same technique was how it worked. I started smoking pot in grade school, it wasn’t hard for me to find, and from this I had my own little clan of secret keepers. I was cool and I felt like I belonged to a family of my own. The buzz of drinking and the lofty, giggly high from weed made everything in life seem more interesting and fun. But life was already interesting and fun. I grew up in a really great area to be a kid. A small, rural area on the California coast. Tree forts, bicycles, surfing, skate ramps… we always stayed outside until the streetlights came on. Smoking pot and drinking were just something that went along with being in the clan, and eventually it would just be weird not to.
It was rare that those things would get me in trouble or even cause any interruption in daily life. Once we started getting cars and girls, though, the stakes were raised a level. It was fairly lawless in this area back then and you could get away with huge parties. Keggers! And always up to outdo the last one, some of the beach bond fires we had looked like a mini-Burning man!
Growing up in this small town, you get to know lots of people, which also means you know lots of people who die. In high-school one of my surfing buddies got killed by a drunk driver on his bicycle, and another died in a drunk driving accident of his own, one of my best friends made it out of that car and watched him go. And another thought it would be a good idea to go buy some crack and not pay. He was shot through the back window of his car and later died. All these things happening around me had no effect on my usage, in fact it seemed the right thing to do to get together and drown the sorrows in alcohol.
As my life started taking shape, the things I took on took drugs and alcohol right along with them. At fourteen, my first real job was washing dishes in a busy local restaurant. I learned early on there that if you bust your ass, the servers and cooks would leave a few beers for you in the walk-in refrigerator out back. Again, alcohol equals “good boy”. Then we’d ask one of them to buy up for us after the shift so we could go get wasted.
That’s about the time I discovered LSD and mushrooms. And my fantastic revelation about this whole universe being some kind of make-believe dream world had begun. The idea of heading off to college was for suckers. I was heading off to follow what was left of the Grateful Dead!
That world somehow meshed with discovering the punk-rock scene in San Francisco and I was either one place or the other, tripping out on these shows where the lines between the stage and the crowd are very blurry.
I learned to be independent and self-reliant, and just didn’t seem to have any resistance to throwing myself into wherever or whatever came next. I moved to Lake Tahoe to snowboard and be a lift operator for a winter and followed that with a couple seasons in Europe living out of a backpack, train cars and nightclubs. Smoking hash and drinking legally there until I could back home.
I began my construction apprenticeship under my dad and brother (another career that has drinking beer after your shift as a built-in perk) and later went on to start my own company.
As my own boss, I had my first taste of real lack-of-supervision. I could party all I wanted so long as I kept the wheels turning and brought home the bacon. My work ethic has always been strong, so the money followed. And I was in control – just the way I want it.
I was in a rock band, had kids, got married, bought a house – all that shit. There were two new cars, a ski boat and a Harley in the garage. I worked as hard as I played and partied, never stopping. I could afford cocaine and everything!
Everything I got into had to be taken to the breaking point, from business to pleasure.
And it was never going to be enough. I was never content. I was angry all the time and at the things that got in my way. Like my wife. And my kids. I really tried to cover it up – I even went to church and read a good portion of the Bible there for a while.
Then, right around the time planes brought down the world trade center buildings, my world came crashing down too. I had terrible, violent fights with my wife while the kids, two and three years old, hid in their rooms. The police were at our house a couple times a month. There were restraining orders and then a divorce. And my attitude was if I can’t have it all, no one gets anything. I all but burned my own house down. I spent every last dime partying and hid or destroyed anything with value.
I’m not sure what lead to my finding out about the Friday night Dharma Punx group in the City but what I saw there was like nothing I’d seen before. Sometime around 2006 I’d start sneaking away by myself up there like I had some secret peephole into another world. I’d stay sober just long enough to soak it in. It was all backwards and I dug it. This skinny little dude would sheepishly appear and the whole place went dead silent. Like the exact opposite of going to a show where the front man comes out and everybody goes nuts – but in reverse.
I sat there in meditation for a half hour or 45 minutes, I often thought I was gonna lose my mind or pass out – or both, but I listened, and the teacher made what I was feeling seem normal, even kind of interesting. I had a few seeds planted in my head that would later save my life. He said things like; “You hold the key to your own prison door” and “You don’t have to believe everything your mind tells you”.
It felt good to hear. I was relieved for a while there. But on the way home, I would stop off and grab a bottle of booze or hit a few bars. You know, to really enhance that spiritual experience. I kept going the wrong way down this road for another eight years. I had discovered the slowest path to spiritual death imaginable.
I took a yearlong course and became a certified massage therapist and “holistic healer”, even took a course in Reiki. I would fast for weeks on end and maintained a steady diet of hummus, Kale and whisky. Naturally none of this shit was working because none of it was addressing the problem, but hey, at least I was in control, right? And I was helping others – so how bad could I be?
So… yeah. Once I was out of money again, I sold everything and moved into a make-shift garage-apartment with a few necessities. While living within crawling distance of two bars and two liquor stores with my ex-bartender wife, I heard some news from back home that would spiral me into an even deeper depression. My lifelong friend had hung himself and died. He had an open casket funeral, and against my will, I got a good long look at him there. He was an artist, a musician, handsome and funny, everybody loved him. I saw him there and thought maybe he’s got it right. There weren’t many days after that I didn’t consider the option myself. I had a .38 revolver and kept it loaded by the bed. On particularly desperate occasions, I would press it tight against my head or into the roof of my mouth. I found the hammer pulled back a couple of times in the morning and would realize just how close I came. I didn’t know to be relieved or disappointed that I didn’t succeed. But I didn’t – I couldn’t do it because I didn’t really want to hurt anyone else, and I couldn’t figure out how to pull off one job without the other.
One day I had had enough. After years of unsuccessfully drinking myself to death like a couple other of my friends now had. I said that’s it! I’m just going to sit here and strap myself to this chair until I kick alcohol. I had made countless vein attempts to reduce, scale down, replace or modify my use in the past, so this was going to have to be it. Hell, only a few people die from withdrawal and I’m tough, so here it goes. By noon my (now former) wife was begging me to stop and just have a little alcohol, I was shaking uncontrollably, raining sweat, and not making coherent sentences. She wanted to call an ambulance and I told her Death was coming, they’re not going to make it. I don’t know how, but she got me into a car and to the local triage hospital herself where I have vague memories of bright lights and an IV going in.
The next day, I was released with a course of Librium and as the doctor closed the door behind him, he said, “Listen this is going to help you feel better for a few days but it’s not going to solve your problem. I’m giving you a personal referral to a rehab and you must go there if you want to live – I know, I’ve been sober for twelve years and I know where you’re at. Now take these, make that call and do not drink while taking Librium!”
I should have listened. Especially to the part about not drinking while on Librium. By the time I remember what happened next everybody was super pissed off at me and my wife was packed up and gone – no telling where either. Just the hell away from me. I picked up a DUI a week or so later and got the whole nine yards.
Somewhere in this time, June of 2014, my mom had given me a gift. Some new book she pre-ordered from that Noah Levine character. She asked if I was still going to that Dharma Punx group, but I hadn’t, not for a long time now.
AA wasn’t going to work either; I had failed at this too. One night I let everybody in the group have it – it was all their fault, then I started crying really hard. I had an out-of-body glimpse of who I was in that moment and ran out. I sat in my truck for a minute deciding if I was going to drink or drive off the cliff. Then, some dude came out and knocked on my window. “You alright now?” I told him how humiliated and embarrassed I was. That I had burned this bridge too and I can never go back. And what he told me right there led to a change that would keep me sober to this day. He said, “You don’t know – you might have saved someone’s life tonight, it ain’t all about you… Besides, they want to know if you’ll help make coffee next week”.
Something clicked in that moment. I didn’t want to kill myself. I just wanted to kill the alcoholic I’d become. I had been believing everything my mind had been telling me and it was wrong I had lost sight of self-worth, but others hadn’t, I was worthy to them just by being there.
My mom had asked a couple times by now if I had checked out that book she got for me and I just told her I didn’t have time. She told me Noah was coming to town for a book-launching event and really pressed me to go, which I thought was kind of weird, but ok. Besides, the guy who saved me in the parking lot was going too and I was out to prove him wrong, since he said I couldn’t even put a week of sobriety together and basically gave up on me until I went to rehab. So, I went up there to SF Dharma Punx. I got there early to find a place to park and yes, I had actually been sober for an entire 7 days this time. I figured I better at least open the envelope that had this book inside and have a look before I go to this thing. I pulled out this nice leathery feeling book, kind of thicker than his others and read the cover: REFUGE RECOVERY; A Buddhist Path to Recovering from Addiction. I was cooked. This guy I respected went and wrote a book on recovery. Just for me. I knew right there I couldn’t turn around.
As Refuge Recovery continued to grow, so did I. Meditation had meaning, these four truths are about my recovery, and the eightfold path is the map to this new-found territory. Wisdom and compassion were my headlights. I learned to trade thoughts of a bullshit buzz for peace and tolerance through this practice of present-time, non-judgmental, kind awareness. This is the way to be a real spiritual badass, I had it all backwards, and I totally forgive myself for it.
An old sweetheart of mine and I met in the store one day, right around the time of that meeting with Noah. We admitted to each other right away that we had both recently hit rock-bottom and were seeking a life of sobriety. We would stay up late talking addiction, life and recovery and she went to meetings with me. We were in this together for ourselves, and not to be outdone or done-in by the other. It didn’t take long for us to become romantically involved and we vowed to hold friendship and sobriety as our foundation. This would be the first sober relationship we’d each ever had, there would be some blind navigating to forge here, we had the guidance of the Dharma.
We became partners in service as well, starting Refuge Recovery meetings in our hometown, and two other locations in San Francisco over the next couple of years. It was wonderful to be a part of this growing movement and people we spoke to were excited, curious, and gracious about it. We printed flyers, talked to local drug counselors, therapists, and community centers. It felt like the right thing to do. Here we are enjoying life, like we got a free pass, and we can let anyone else in who wants it. It was up to us to let them know the door is open.
That Dharma Punx meeting became the San Francisco Against the Stream Meditation Society (ATS) and I was happy to be involved helping with the move and building improvements. I had become part of a community and it was almost surreal to walk into a room full of people I know and trust, that were happy to see me.
In 2018, my beloved Sangha at ATS San Francisco came apart over controversy and the community became divided and angry. Refuge Recovery as we knew it got pulled apart in the battle as well, the meditation centers and treatment centers ended, and many friendships dissolved in the toxicity. This brought my forgiveness practice to its knees. It also created bonds with those of us who hung in there, because we don’t step on our fellows when they’re down. That’s not what recovery people do. If you fall in the pit, we jump in to pick you back up.
During the second year of my Buddhist meditation teacher training, now through Noah himself and a small cohort, a new board of Refuge Recovery was formed. It felt good to have hung in there through the storm with them. I know they have a solid plan of growth with structure and even though I feared the 2020 Covid Pandemic would be a hinderance to progress, the online community has really taken hold in new and exciting ways.
In retrospect, I think all that drama in the communities hurt me more than I knew. My defense mechanism had been re-engaged and I hid behind my walls. I was barely making one meeting a week and eventually stopped attending – for several months in following the pandemic. Although I kept my commitment as a mentor/sponsor to a couple guys, I took a step back from group recovery and stayed away too long. New resentments arose and older ones started to return and get sticky, I was out of shape in spirit. I found the more I tried to control, the less grateful I became. The less grateful I was, the less generous, and therefore less received.
It took wise friendship to wake me up, again. I’m thankful to have a mentor I can trust to tell me when he thinks I’m “in the red” in my recovery because I’m slacking off on my practice and being in community.
When I returned, I felt like a stranger already, my ego was put in place, and I was ready to receive treatment for my wounds instead of sitting around licking them myself. Those times that I was strongest in recovery, I was most regular at meeting attendance and most accessible to those I could offer myself to and most in service to the community. I know better, it’s up to me to stay in community, and to step over the self-centered preferences that lead to trouble.
I learned that what I may feel is lacking in a meeting is what I should be bringing into it. This thing is ours, collectively, Like Grateful Dead and punk shows; what’s happening on stage is happening in the crowd. I have my family here, lost loved ones here, I stay within reach, share my thoughts, achievements, and losses, keep a service commitment, and show up to meetings regularly. I believe if I suddenly stop showing up, people will come looking. That’s the kind of insulation being in community can provide.
The Buddha described the Sangha, the association with wise fiends, as the whole of the Dharma. Those successful in recovery know that a fellow recovering addict is our lifeline. Whether we need them, or they need us. No matter what. It’s up to each of us to recognize when Mara is getting in the way of doing good, being kind and living a life that leads to liberation.
May we all do what needs to be done to free ourselves from the suffering of addiction, and may our recovery be a benefit to this world.