How I Got Sober : Terrence

How I Got Sober: Terrence

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Something that you’ll hear frequently from the podium in AA meetings is, “I didn’t come to AA because I had a desire to stop drinking. I came to get people off my back.” Sometimes those “people” are employers, and sometimes it’s the courts. Terrence was not particularly interested in getting sober until he was faced with significant jail time and thought a halfway house was his “get out of jail free” card. Turns out he got sober instead. This is his story:

I was one of those kids who got into trouble whenever I drank, because I was a belligerent drunk right from the get-go. My acting out landed me in the court system and juvenile detention centers early on and, while I was still in my teens, I was charged with OUI twice, though I was only convicted once. When I was in those juvenile centers, I could make the connection between my behavior and my drinking. But as soon as I got out, I would convince myself I wasn’t that bad, and would start drinking again as soon as I resumed hanging around with my friends who also drank. I also landed in two treatment centers during that period, once when I was sixteen and again at 18, but both times I went because my mother forced me to go.

By the time I got to college, my drinking had slowed down because, like a lot of kids in my town (a suburb of Boston), I switched to opiates—first pills, then heroin. I would go home every weekend because they didn’t have the drugs I wanted on campus. When I got home, I would sell cocaine (which I didn’t do much of) to make money to buy dope with, stock up on opiates then head back to my campus, which was a couple of hours drive away. But I would always run out, and toward the end of the week I wouldn’t be able to sit through classes because I was dope sick.

Despite my addiction, I managed to do well enough in school to land an internship at one of the Big Four accounting firms, and I took a job with the stipulation that I go to grad school during summers and work there for the rest of the year. But that summer, I got arrested with about 60 grams of cocaine, and they charged me with trafficking. When I got arrested, it totally sucked, but there was definitely a sense of relief. I knew this craziness of getting up every day, having to find money, having to find drugs that I needed, was finally over, but I was scared shitless that I was going to have to do time. I went from the police station straight to county jail.

By now, my drugging had cut me off completely from my family, and I wasn’t talking to any of them. The bail was set at $10,000 and they certainly weren’t going to pay it. But after about four months, the court dropped it down to $2,500 and my family took a vote as to whether or not to bail me out. My mother and sister were against it, but my brother and brother-in-law thought I deserved another chance. My father, who was also an alcoholic, though he’d never admit it, was the deciding vote and came to talk to me.

While I was in jail, I started reading the Big Book and I thought they were talking about me. They didn’t have any outside AA groups coming in but a bunch of guys in there were trying to stay clean and had their own AA going on. I had the same realization that I used to have in the juvenile centers—that my incarceration was directly related to my booze and drug problem. I swore to myself that I was completely done with booze and drugs, and when my dad came I convinced him to bail me out. I also totally believed that I was through, so it wasn’t a total con job.

On the way home from jail, I told my dad that I was dying for some good food, so he stopped at the local deli and gave me $20 to get some. Instead, I came out with a pack of Marlboros and a twelve pack of Budweiser. It still shocks me that I had no intention of getting beer when I went in, but that’s what I came out with. But once I had the beer, I remember thinking to myself, “I deserve this. What’s he going to do, take me back to jail?” And all the bullshit just started again. I didn’t go back to opiates because I told myself drugs were the problem, but trouble with the booze began almost immediately.

I moved in with my sister and got a construction job, but my drinking was starting to be a problem for her and her husband. One night, she took me to a New Year’s Eve party at her friend’s house and I went into a blackout. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but my sister kicked me out the next day and didn’t talk to me for a while. I couldn’t go back to my mother’s house because of the way I had treated her when I was dealing cocaine. But I worked with a guy who had gone to a halfway house and gotten sober a few years before, and he helped me get into the one he went to.

I didn’t really want to get sober, but I really, really believed that if I went to a six-month program, completed it with no problems and brought evidence of that to the courts, they wouldn’t lock me up. Even though I didn’t take it seriously, I went to meetings every night because I wanted to look good and wanted the people from the house to back me up in court.

About a month or two into my stay at the halfway house, I stopped sitting at the back at meetings and screwing around—and something happened. I can’t tell you what I heard or who said it or anything, but something just registered with me one day. I think that after listening to enough people telling stories about how they always meant to stop but just didn’t, I realized that they were just like me—except that they had figured out a way to stop, and their lives were getting better.

My life was even beginning to get better, even though I was living in a halfway house. After a couple of months, I was talking with family again and I realized that if I hadn’t stopped, things just would have continued to get worse. I might have still had reservations about whether I wanted to stay sober, but I now knew for sure that when I was drinking and drugging, things always got worse, and that when I stopped, things seemed to get better.

I got a sponsor and joined a group, and it got easier. And I actually got a job at an accounting firm while I was living at the halfway house. But I still had the idea that I was really an addict and not an alcoholic, that despite my track record with booze, if I could just stay off the heroin, I could drink like a normal person. So when people from work invited me out for drinks after work one night, I went. I pictured myself hooking up with the girls I worked with, and had this fantasy that I’d be this cool guy if I just had a few drinks—but I got hammered and made an ass of myself.

I kept drinking for a few more weeks. I didn’t tell anyone and kept going to meetings, but it was killing me. So I came clean with the halfway house and even though they were supportive and helpful, I had to leave, so I moved into a house with a sober guy. I also came clean with my sponsor and my group, and I thought they were going to kick me out of AA or something, but they just told me to stop drinking and keep coming to meetings, which I did. And I stayed sober.

Finally, my drug trafficking trial came up in mid-2008. Things didn’t really go according to the plan I’d had when I went into  the halfway house. I was given a mandatory three-year sentence (it should have been five, but I plea-bargained). It was a crushing blow, and I was devastated. In the back of my mind, I knew I was probably going to prison, but when the reality set in that I was actually going, words can’t even describe the horrible feeling that pretty much consumed me. Three years seemed like such a long time.

I went off to jail sober, but I didn’t stay that way. There were lots of drugs in jail, and there really wasn’t any AA in the facility they sent me to. My sponsor came to visit me before my own family did, and people from AA came to visit me and wrote me letters while I was in there. I was grateful for all that, but it didn’t stop me from getting high. I began to think that I was never going to be a productive member of society again, and that no one would hire me because I was a convicted felon. I got into the frame of mind that nothing was ever going to be good again, so I just kept getting high. I resigned myself to the fact that I would just go back to getting high and selling drugs again when I got out.

But a couple of weeks before I got out, one of my roommates (it was minimum security) was talking about a halfway house he was going to, and I just had that moment of clarity where I realized that when I was in the halfway house, things were actually pretty good, and when I was actively using and selling drugs, things inevitably got worse. I called up the director of that same halfway house I had been in, and they agreed to take me back. Within a week, I was ready to leave the house—I’d just done three years in jail and I couldn’t stand anybody telling me what to do—but I stuck it out.

I went back to my group and started to do the AA drill. I got the coffee maker’s job and went to detox commitments and did what I was supposed to do. I got a shitty get-well job, then started doing a little accounting for a friend. After a few weeks, I decided to contact my former bosses at the accounting firm, kind of on a lark. I didn’t expect to hear back from them because the last time I worked for then, I didn’t tell them about my legal troubles, so when I went to prison, it seemed to them that I just disappeared. I felt bad so I sent them an email, explaining everything, I mean everything. To my surprise, they brought me in and re-hired me.

I had a couple of slips when I first got out because I hadn’t gotten rid of my reservations about sobriety. But after another relapse, a guy just lashed out at me at a men’s meeting, basically telling me I needed to make up my mind about whether I wanted to be sober or not, because not everyone comes back after relapses. That was my wake-up call. Now I’ve strung together nearly two-and-a-half years. I was promoted to supervisor recently at the accounting firm and will be getting married to another recovering addict in a few weeks.

It wasn’t an easy road, but I kept coming. And that’s the single most important thing I can tell someone who’s struggling: Keep coming. If you don’t get AA—and you don’t die during a relapse—it will get you.

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Johnny Plankton is the pseudonym for a freelance business and comedy writer/editor (and recovering alcoholic) who lives in Boston. He is also a grateful member of America’s largest alcohol recovery “cult” as well as Al-Anon.