I cannot say when the switch happened or how. I am not sure if I ever have one of the falls to the knee moment and felt embraced by the warm light of God because of a near death experience. I am not sure where the change began, or how, or what took place. In full disclosure, I did not believe in my process nor did I ever consider that I would ever find me straight or drug free. In all honesty, I believe my change came after a combination of events.
I suppose my first moment of awareness came two weeks before Christmas Eve in 1989. I had no previous thought about life or death. I never considered mortality or the consequences of my behavior. Instead, I was trapped in my own bubble and recently removed from a cocoon-like nod, which is where I hid comfortably after my first arrest.
I never thought much about how my behavior affected anyone else in the world. I only knew how things affected me. I never thought about anyone else. All I thought about was how I could maneuver through life in the easiest possible way..
And yes, safe to say I was still defiant. Safe to say that I would have remained as I was, had certain changes not applied. Suffice to say that had I not understood mortality is real; perhaps, my path would have been different or even tragic.
I recall the first glimpse of change on a Sunday morning. I was about to eat breakfast in the main room of a farmhouse, which is where I was mandated to be in lieu of jail. I was about to eat my food when one of the house’s senior members retrieved me before sitting. This is where I was advised that my father had a heart attack. This is also the last time I have ever punched a hole in the wall.
I remember my senior housemate. His name was Brian. After I punched the wall, Brian asked me, “Who are you trying to intimidate?”
Brian explained, “You just punched a hole in the wall. We have to fix that now. But your father is still sick. You have to get yourself together!”
Later that afternoon, I was driven home by someone from The Farm with an accompanying shadow, just in case I needed support or chose to run. I was quiet, however, and unsure of what just happened. I never thought much about life or the terms of tomorrow. I was just a kid. As I saw it, I had a plethora of tomorrows. I never once considered that eventually, tomorrow would run out for my father.
I was beaten and afraid. It seemed as if I were scolded and punished by life on life’s terms. I felt paused like a toddler reprimanded by an adult at preschool. I was frozen and numb in the tragic sense that I could neither move or believe the strongest man in my world was possibly about to die.
When I saw The Old Man, I walked into the room timidly, almost boyishly, and afraid of what I might see. I was afraid The Old Man might appear sickly or weak. I was afraid that I would see him as I had imagined during my long three-and-a-half-hour drive from Upstate, Hancock New York to my hometown on Long Island.
I was afraid that he would be as I feared; tied up to machines, beeping, or possibly breathing for him, and monitoring The Old Man’s life, which, perhaps, dangled by a thread.
Fortunately, my fears were inaccurate. The Old Man looked better than I expected. He did not look well but he looked at peace in a sense. He was happy to see me and told me I look good. These are words I never heard from him before. Before my arrival at treatment, I weighed only 80lbs. My skin was green and I had dark rings beneath my eyes. I would not eat. Instead, i got high or drank. As far as The Old Man was concerned, I looked really sick for a really long time.
The Old Man also told me something which shook me to the core. This shook me to the stunned and frightened inner child that I was.
He said, “I’m proud of you.”
As far as I saw, I was nothing to be proud of. I was a punk kid. I was a kid that made the newspaper because a helicopter chased me through the town. I brought shame to my family’s name. I was the sum of my sickness and the outcome of my insecurities. As I saw it, I was nothing to be proud of. I was no one to be loved. As I saw it, I was worthless and deserving of worse. at best, I deserved to die, which is why I chose to euthanize myself while getting high on a daily basis.
As I saw it, I was all of these terrible things, but yet, there he was; The Old Man at peace with a smile on his face and a warm gesture for me, his youngest son.
“I’m proud of you kid.”
Those words stayed with me, echoing in my mind with partial disbelief and partial hopefulness that perhaps if I finished and completed my program that I might possibly have a relationship with The Old Man after all.
Two weeks later on Christmas Eve, I was still very quiet and still shaken like a recently admonished and punished child. The housemates on The Farm were given permission to play dodge ball on the pond, which had frozen over, and always proved to be a fun time for us.
I grouped up with a few of my fellow housemates who like me, were mandated to the farm for one reason or another. We were all kids. I was only 17 years old at the time. I had no idea what life meant. I certainly had no true understanding of what death meant either, but sadly, I was about to become familiar with what this term meant.
On my way down towards the pond, the snow on the ground was beautiful and thick. The sky was overcast and gray. The scene was a perfect winter-wonderland; the tree-covered mountains surrounding The Farm appeared crystallized with tree branches filmed in white lace from a recently heavy snowfall. We were all bundled-up teenagers in treatment and ready to play; however, the powers that be had different plans for me.
I was interrupted by a man I will name as E.J. who retrieved me and brought me up to the house. There is more to this story but for now, I will leave it here and explain that I was told The Old Man took a turn for the worst. And next, I was placed on a bus out of Monticello and headed back home to Long Island.
I was able to see The Old Man before he passed. I was able to hear a few things that became crucial to my turning point. He told me, “I love you, son.”
He told me, “I’m proud of you.”
He also left me with a job to do. “Stay the way you are right now,” meaning sober, “And take care of your mother!”
Maybe it was this; however, this and only this would not have helped me to change. Maybe it was a cold morning I spent in an empty Church in the small town of Callicoon. I was sent here to clean the pews and ready the Church for an upcoming service.
The Church was old and the room was cold with the heat shut off.
It was February and the sky was clear blue with a bright sun that had nothing to offer except for its bright sunlight. The wind outside was sharp and whistling, crackling through the winterized frozen tree branches that shook from a nearby tree and tapped against the side of the Church.
Safe to say I was uncomfortable here. Suffice to say that I was alone, sitting in the back pew in front of a large crucifix with Jesus, nailed to the cross, head slumped down and bleeding from the poke from a spear at his side. I was humbled here and uncomfortable.
I felt as though I was placed in front of a mirror and forced to see my own regrettable reflection. I waited for a van from The Farm to come and pick me up, but time moved slowly in my discomfort.
I was cold. I was hurting. I was brokenhearted and empty. I was there in front of a statue that left me feeling exposed. I felt all of my sins here. I felt all of my regrets. I saw who I was and what I had done.
I saw my acts of violence. I saw all of my thefts, both literal and figurative ones. Perhaps it was this that helped me change. Perhaps it was the feeling of shame, which I swore I never wanted to feel again. Maybe it was my long list of regrets and the life I missed out on, but no, this would not have been enough for me to create a change.
Maybe it was a letter I received from a friend of my Old Man’s named Kenny. He was an employee that my father took special interest in. Kenny had his own problem. His problem was pointed with the needle and resulted in something tragic.
One afternoon, I was sitting at a table on The Farm and doing homework when I received a letter via my mother. This was from Kenny. He wrote, “Tell Benny I think he’s doing the right thing. Tell him to stay where he is. Tell him that life he lived won’t miss him at all. Tell him to do whatever they say.”
Kenny wrote, “Tell Benny my hair is cut short now and that he wouldn’t even recognize me. Tell him to be good and not to go back to where he was. Also, tell Benny it took me dying to find out what it means to really be alive. I don’t want that to happen to him.”
Kenny died from the A.I.D.S. virus a short while after sending me this letter. He contracted the virus from a needle.
Although powerful and impactful like punch to the face or kick to the stomach, this letter alone would not be enough to change me. No, there had to be more that turned the switch.
Maybe it was the fact that no one even missed me when I was gone. Maybe it was the fact that when I returned home to bury The Old Man at his funeral, a few of my junkie friends called me later that night. They did not call to console me in my grief. Instead, they called to see if I wanted to go on a run with them to get high. More people on a run to get high meant more money. More money meant more drugs and in the end, that’s all they cared about. They didn’t care about me. They wanted to get high and reinfect me. That one stung me. But still, I had my reservations. Meaning, not even this was enough to make a change.
Eventually, I became an important person on The Farm. I was considered a senior member. I was a supervisor. I was someone with a position and a sense of importance. I felt as though I had friends and family. I felt important. I was sober. I was clean . . .
The problem was my re-entry. I had no real strategy in place. I no means of support, except 12-step meetings, which are great and lifesaving, but 12-step meetings about recovery from alcohol and addiction only last one hour. The rest of the day was up to me. Additionally, I went to a therapist, but still, I was unable to maneuver away from the predicaments in my mind.
I was given coping skills, but what did that mean? I tried to stay away from the urges, but I felt too many of my old feelings, which resulted in links to old behaviors. I just wanted to feel better. I wanted to escape my fears of common mediocrity and boredom. I wanted something to stop the unremarkable feeling I had stuck in my heart.
Suddenly, all of my forward progress was reversed. Again, I was back to feeling alone. I went back to feeling diseased and unworthy. I let go of my mental maintenance and before I knew it, I found myself dressed in a black uniform, crawling through basement windows of suburban houses, and stealing from people.
It wasn’t long before I found myself driving to the drug spots, armed and dangerous, and shortly after, I was high and even more dangerous.
Maybe it was this relapse on April 1, 1991. Or maybe it was my return to rehab. Maybe it was my return to shame. Maybe it was the fact that I let The Old man down and failed to fulfill his dying wish.
Or perhaps it was me waking up on a bathroom floor after trying to hang myself from a noose wrapped around the sprinkler line in the bathroom. Maybe it was me coming around, convulsing slightly, and waking up to see that although I tried, I did not die. It could have been this too, but no, there was more.
On my last day in treatment, I was sitting outside the cafeteria and awaiting my next group. The facility used to be an old hotel and family resort in the small Upstate town of Kerhonkson, New York. I was by myself and overhearing a group of men discuss who they believed was going to make it when they got out.
I heard them talk about different guys and say things like, “What about Jimmy,” and then the judged Jimmy’s progress while he was a patient. Of course, the group of men having this discussion were also patients themselves. There were called, “Repeats,” because all of them had been to this facility before and all of them relapsed. I was a repeat too. I was sitting away from them but not too far because we were all supposed to go into a a “Repeat” meeting for people that relapse.
The men at the table never knew I was sitting nearby. They were in the cafeteria and I was sitting just outside. They never took into consideration that anyone else might hear what they were saying. They certainly never thought someone like me would hear them or cared of they broke my heart.
I heard one of them men say, “What about the kid.” and the table erupted with laughter. “The kid,’ was me because I was the youngest in the rehab. At first, I thought the laughter was complimentary. But it was not. I sat there away from them listening to the group of men predict my future. “That kid is gonna be dead before he gets down to the end of the road!”
They laughed at me . . .
Moments later, we went into our meeting. Previously that morning, I was told that I was on my way to being institutionalized, which meant that I would not be able to survive out in the real world. I was told that I was on my way to being mentally incapable, and that without a change, this would be me, a mope, sitting in an institutionalized chair, all banged up on Thorazine; meanwhile, the rest of the world would live on and I would be nothing more than a tragically misplaced and forgotten statistic.
The group was about relapse prevention. We were told about a success rate recovery. The counselor told us, “Only 1 in 33 people make it in sobriety.”
There were only 35 people in the room.
The counselor screamed, “That means, statistically speaking, not even two people here will make it!”
Then the counselor looked around the room. We all sat quietly with our eyes averted away with guilt because deep down, everyone knew about their own reservation.
“Only 1 in 33 people are gonna make it,” pleaded the counselor.
Next, although the counselor looked at the entire room, I felt as though he was looking directly at me. I swore there was a tunnel between his eyes and mine and I heard the counselor loud and clear when he said, “You just have to decide which one you’re gonna be.”
I decided it was going to be me . . .
I decided that I did not want the shame anymore. I decided that I did not want the pain anymore. I decided that by any means necessary, I was not going to prove those men at the table right about me. I was not going to be the beats they predicted. I would not allow myself to be what anyone else predicted and going forward; I decided that it is my job to dictate and to determine what my life is going to be. I determined I was going to me, sober, successful and happy, by any means necessary.
So where did the change come in?
Was it when I almost died? Was it when I watched a man take a bullet to the shoulder, only to realize a month later that it could have been me, but yet, I still went back to the same place to buy more? Was it when The Old Man died and gave me a job to do? Or was it when I sat on a beach one cold morning, alone as ever, wondering if this life will ever work out for me?
Truth is, my change came as a combination of all these things. The truth is I view my addiction, alcoholism, depression, opposition defiant disorder, and oh yeah, I was called emotionally disturbed and a bunch of other clinical nonsense too; however, I view all of these things as a form of sensory deprivation, which means I feel things differently. This means that I relate to things differently.
Same as when I was a kid and had learning disabilities that were never diagnosed or properly addressed; I needed to find a method to have information translated to me in a way that I could understand. Hence; this has become my sobriety. I think the real switch happened when I learned ways to translate my thought and feelings into ways that I could understand and process.
Socrates famously said, “Our mind is our predicament.”
This is certainly the case when it comes to addiction.
I needed to learn how to solve the equations in my head and stop my mind from miscalculating the inaccurate math in front of me.
I do this on a daily basis, but I advise the newcomers and the beginners that yes, the process does become easier because eventually, we become the process.
The fact that I am sober is a very small part of who I am. Instead of seeing me as a man in recovery; I shorten this by considering me as a man of value, a friend, a husband, and a father. I do not see me as an addict or an alcoholic. I am sober. I am clean. I am human, and as such, I make mistakes, but as a human, I also have the capacity to learn from my mistakes.
I am much more than all of these things, not just because of who I was. I am more because of who I am now on a daily basis.
I am someone The Old man can be proud of
I am far from worthless
I am recovery
This is me . . .