To give you the story of my life, I must start by awakening your fear. Because fear is where I lived – and almost died. Fear is what I fled from, and finally it became the impetus for change and courage, sobriety and serenity.
That is my whole story.
To share it with you, I would try to recreate a moment when you were truly, deeply afraid so that you could remember how the fear felt – the electric anxiety, the breathless sense of catastrophe coming, the pursuit by someone who would reveal you as an imposter, the leaden sense of doom. I would have you recall an instant when you could taste the dry musk of your own fear.
I drank to quiet that fear, to escape that thirst. I drank, and drank, and drank.
And for a while, I thought it helped. When I needed courage, alcohol gave me confidence; when I needed to be sociable, it offered me ease and charm. When I craved relaxation, it subdued me and delivered a stupor that seemed enough like peace to satisfy me, temporarily.
Until I needed to drink again.
And then, one day, the drinking robbed me of everything – my job, my intimacy, my freedom, my achievements, my joy. I did not know how fearful I could be, until alcohol made my life almost too frightening to live. Viewed from the outside, I had a life that should have been, and at times was, an existence to envy. I grew up in an upper middle class family – loving, supportive, ambitious and no more dysfunctional than most families – but I never felt that I really belonged, at home, at school, in the social circles in which my parents moved. I remember feeling different from a very young age, and as early as kindergarten or first grade, I had convinced myself that I was on my own and needed to figure out the rules of this world. I was an artistic kid but a terrible team athlete. I loved sailing, water-skiing and swimming but could not play baseball, basketball or football to save my life.
I had dreams and passions that seemed always to get stifled for reasons I did not understand. I was restless and dissatisfied with my life and felt I had to prove my worth to my family, my school, my community, my country and even to be an acceptable part of the world. But being such a harsh critic of myself and having such unrealistic, perfectionistic goals were not the only pressures I faced. By the time I graduated from high school, I had gone to 10 schools in 12 years, because my family moved so often as my father pursued his career. School changed almost yearly, leaving me to fend for myself for a sense of continuity and consistency.
When I was in seventh grade, an incident occurred that prompted a major change in me. I was in gym class, and we had been told to run eight laps around the track. By the time the other boys had completed the eight laps, I had finished only seven. It seemed pointless and humiliating for me to keep everyone waiting while I ran the 8th lap, so I lied and told the coach that I had finished. All the other guys immediately admonished me and condemned me. They called me a liar and a cheat –and I was.
That happened on a Friday. The following Monday, rather than confront the fear of facing my classmates, I pretended to be sick – and stayed home all week – hoping that they would all forget me and I would not have to face the consequences of what I had done. While I stayed home, I berated myself for being a disgrace and performing so unsuccessfully in my day to day living.
As an escape, I watched movies and retreated into fantasy. I dreamed I was like James Bond, leading a life of adventure and intrigue all over the world. The “fantasy me” knew the major cities of the world intimately and spoke several languages, and to keep the portrait alive, the “real me” memorized the maps of the capitals of Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. The “real me” studied the histories and the cultures of the world, learned to speak several languages and, as I got older, did everything possible to travel around the world – going to places in reality and, if not, then through movies, books and pen pals.
As a teenager, I resolved that I was going to become as close to the “fantasy me” as I could. For the next six years of junior high school and high school, I “coped” with real challenges by escaping to my fantasy world whenever I felt frightened, unsatisfied or trapped. When I started college, I was panic- stricken that I would not succeed and would never be worthy of anything. However, during the next four years I was the Chief Justice of the Student Court, an honor student, involved in everything and, I thought, very happy. After my freshman year, I realized that I had not had to retreat to my fantasy life because once I was away from my family and in college, I felt free to become my true self. I sought earnestly to study, work hard and do anything that would prepare me to become the man I had dreamed I could be. I graduated summa cum laude, gave the commencement address at my graduation and seemed on top of the world with a bright future. Notably, I had not started drinking heavily or frequently; I was meeting life on its own terms.
I took a year off between college and law school to study and teach English in Japan. Once I got to Japan, however, I again was gripped with fear that I would be a failure; that I would not succeed – though I did not even really know what success would look like or be. I doubted myself and felt that I would never amount to anything. It was there, in Japan, that I drank – a lot – in part to fit in with the habits of those around me. After my year in Japan, I arrived at the University of Florida on a Sunday and started law school on a Monday. Apart from a great culture shock, I experienced the now-usual panic of facing a new challenge, sparking familiar feeling of being a loser again, a failure and unworthy of contributing anything good.
Even so, I was accepted to clerk with a Japanese American law firm in Chicago. I lived with my grandparents, and there I truly discovered the magic of alcohol. Every day after work, I would come home and have cocktails with my grandparents. My grandfather was a prominent lawyer in Chicago, Harvard-educated and a hero to me. I would drink Scotch with him, talk about the law and enjoy the feeling of having finally arrived. When I went back to law school, I stopped the daily drinking, but I sensed that alcohol had an unnatural power over me.
Still, I kept up an almost impossible pace in school. I taught legal research and writing; I was elected to a national office as the Treasurer of the Association of International Law Societies, and I served as the Editor in Chief of the Florida International Law Journal. I also worked as the graduate intern in the International Student Center. My longtime dreams all seemed within reach. I had wanted to become a successful international lawyer, and at the end of law school, I was hired by an international corporate firm in Chicago, earning one of the highest starting salaries in my class.
Once again, the familiar doubts and fear reappeared, despite my bringing in new clients, representing Japanese businesses and international companies in matters far above my skill and experience level. Rather than take things on moderately, I learned to fake expertise well. Key to my strategy was to drink heavily to manage self-doubt but carefully so as not to arouse concern among clients or colleagues.
However, I knew deep inside that I did not drink like normal people. I often liked to drink alone and finally decided to try Alcoholics Anonymous. That experience taught me that terrible things happened to alcoholics, and I concluded it was better not to associate with them or I would end up like them. This particular form of denial went on for a few more years, and though it freed me to drink, it condemned me to isolation from a community that could have supported me, if I had been ready to face my alcoholism.
Beginning in 1988, I practiced law in Chicago for about 14 years, specializing mostly in business and corporate law but also handling a substantial amount of international law, real estate and immigration law. I was a very competent lawyer during that time, but I was also an adept drinker, consuming scotch whiskey daily in the early years and switching to vodka and rum later. By 2000, my drinking was affecting my work and my relationships, actually everything. Alcohol had taken over my life, and I had to hide this from everyone. I lied to my partner, I lied to my family, and I lied to my law partners and clients. Soon I was lying about my work and started to falsify documents to match my lies. In 2002, my deceit was uncovered and I was fired from my firm.
I spend the next year and a half drinking, trying to work as an investment banker and going in and out of detox and treatment. I went to a 28 day treatment program in Chicago and felt good for the first time in years. It was recommended that I go to a halfway house, but I was not willing to listen to the wisdom of others. Overblown ego and arrogance are the hallmarks of good lawyers, but that was all I had left. I wanted to go home. After leaving treatment and seeing the wreckage of my life, there seemed to be only one way to cope with it – keep drinking. I was drunk again three days after treatment. I was sent back again for a week and then went to a halfway house, where I lasted two days and was kicked out for drinking. I simply was hopeless – my life seemed lost forever.
Finally, I was sent to treatment in St. Pete Beach, Florida, not far from where I had gone to college; there I got sober. I was in treatment 71 days and then began working at the treatment center. I concentrated on my recovery and had a good sponsor. We did a fourth and fifth step together on a cloudy day on the beach and were both crying in the end. He said, “No wonder you could not stop drinking … but you never have to drink again.”
I said, “I may have to go to prison.”
He replied, “Then you will go sober.”
Suddenly the sun came out, and we both sat in marvel at the timing as rays of sunshine burst through the clouds.
Getting sober was not easy for me, as it has not been with most people – ego, fear, doubt, delusion and denial have been the hallmarks of my resistance to surrender. But the very first thing that ever stuck in my mind and kept me from giving up completely was a phrase that my aunt, a recovering prescription drug addict, had told me back on Labor Day weekend in 1995: “Never Give Up Just Before the Miracle Happens.”
Years later, I heard an AA member comment that a priest told him that “Miracles in AA are commonplace! Commonplace!” So I have prayed for miracles, and I have remembered that for me “Life is a miracle.”
I wish I could say I lived happily ever after, but my story is real life, and alcoholism is a subtle, cunning foe that would have me dead. After working in treatment for a year and a half, several difficult things happened, and I once again found myself hopeless and alone. I don’t remember the details, but I drove myself to the beach and started drinking in my car. I passed out and was awakened by the police and arrested for DUI. (Until then, a DUI was the only thing that had not happened to me as a result of my drinking.) Even so, the treatment center I was working for wanted to keep me on staff and sent me to its center in Laguna Beach, California. I sobered up. Again.
The last weekend of April 2006, I attended an AA convention called “Miracles Happen.” I was profoundly moved by it and prayed for a miracle. About 20 minutes later, I received a call on my cell phone from an old law partner in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune had an article in it that I had been indicted for document fraud. I flew to Chicago and pled not guilty. Once again, I was so full of fear and doubt – I was hopeless. I drank on a rampage and was near death several times. I was facing years in federal prison.
Finally, I did what so many of us do. I crawled out of bed shaking, in pain and begged, begged God to help me. I always believed in God, but I never believed He cared if I drank. I promised I would do anything as long as I could be shown it was worth it, in other words, as long as there was hope. I learned that night that hope does not abandon us, we abandon it. I woke up the next day feeling much better than I anticipated and had surrendered to my fate. For the first time, trusting in whatever outcome would come and still hoping for the miracle that I had prayed for. I wanted the miracle to be that I was miraculously exonerated.
God had other plans.
I was sentenced to 24 months in federal prison. I felt that God was with me and though I still hated the idea of prison, I felt hope for the first time. It was a hope borne out of nothing but being sober and believing that a power greater than me could restore me to sanity. I arrived at the Pensacola federal prison camp, was strip- searched, had everything but my recovery Bible taken away and was put into the population.
Every morning I would wake up at 5:00 a.m. and go out to the weight pile to lift weights. Every morning I prayed that I would get a miracle that would allow me to escape my circumstances, but after about two weeks, I just prayed for a sign that God was still with me. That evening, I was told that I had been accepted to the Drug and Alcohol Program which would get me out in nine months.
Now, this is hard to say, but after praying for weeks and weeks for the answer to the question, “Why, why did I have to go through all this?”, the answer that came to me was that I needed to spend some time in the worst and most unimaginable place to know that God will always be with me and will always protect me in all times until the moment I am taken from this life. Now, I don’t know how that came into my heart and mind, but from that moment, I totally surrendered to who I was, and to where I was, and from that moment, I have been trying to be the best that I can be. I realized that when I surrendered to who I really was, I became the person I always wanted to be.
In undergraduate school I had been selected by the graduating class to give the closing speech at graduation. That was in 1984. In 2008, I was again chosen by the graduating class of another educational institution to give the closing speech at graduation – but this one was in a federal prison camp. When my group finished the Drug and Alcohol Program and I spoke before the other 90 inmates and 25 staff, it meant more to me than the speech I had given at my college graduation 24 years earlier.
Since then, I have been asked to come back to organize AA and NA meetings at the federal halfway house and lead a group every Monday night. I have worked at a law firm, stayed active in AA with my sponsor, have sponsored others and helped out in various service positions. I started running and have run several marathons, over 50 half marathons, 30 5K, 10k, and 15k races, and numerous Olympic distance triathlons – all this from a man who as a boy had lied to cover up his less-than-perfect ability to run.
Ever since I first became sober, I had wondered why it took so long for me, how I could prevent others from going through what I put myself through, and how to provide better, more effective treatment. In 2011, I started Absolute Adventure Radical Recovery for Interventions and Addictions treatment with virtually no money. I became certified in Florida as an Addiction Specialist and became a board-registered Interventionist.
When I returned to freedom I believed that I could make a difference and began doing interventions all over the United States. No one yet has thought of an excuse that I did not use at one point or another not to get sober. Over 100 interventions from 16 year old crystal meth addicts to 78 year old alcoholics to 44 year old prescription pill addicts, I have not lost an intervention yet.
My belief in better things to come will never die. I remember each day that some of the best days in my life and the lives of other have not happened yet. Also, some of the worst days turn out to become some of the best days in hindsight. It is never too late for a new dream or a new plan.
Today, life can be difficult, but I always have hope – and the sure promise of a sober and serene tomorrow, as long as I have a program to work with, faith and discipline. No challenge is too great, no fear too overwhelming. I believe, truly believe, the first thing I ever heard in recovery –
“Don’t give up just before the miracle happens.”
"Never Give Up Just Before the Miracle Happens"