#SECONDCHANCES: After 20 years of alcoholism, Retreat gave me my life and my marriage back

Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on gratitude. Retreat asked three alumni to author a collection of original columns explaining why our leading substance abuse treatment gave them a second chance at life. The result is our special series, #SecondChances.

By Michael W., 48 former Retreat patient at Lancaster County, PA

Second Chances

Back in the 1980’s, Debbie Gibson was the queen of pop.

As a teenager growing up in Pennsylvania, my friends and I loved jamming out to Gibson’s music. We knew the words to all her chart-topping hits: “Foolish Beat,” “Shake Your Love,” and “Electric Youth.”

I always looked up to her. I think it’s because she isn’t just a gifted vocalist, but because she also wrote all her own lyrics. In her heyday, Gibson was a self-starting singer-songwriter who did it all. That was impressive to me.

Writing the lyrics of my life, however, hasn’t always gone as smoothly. For more than 20 years, I was addicted to alcohol. Take it from me — when you’re living with substance abuse, your life isn’t a continuous high note. The choruses and verses that define your existence are constantly in chaos, roiled by an all-consuming disease that’s fueled by every drop of liquor that touches your tongue.

For more than two decades, that was my life. If you had to compare it to a musical genre, it was like living with blaring heavy metal in the background — grating, frenzied, and drowning out everything else.

My name is Michael. I’m an electrician, an aspiring mechanic in my free time, a father, a husband, and a family man. I’m also a recovering alcoholic. This Thanksgiving Day, November 22nd, will mark one year, nine months, and 18 days since I entered into sobriety.

My story

To understand the roots of my addiction, you have to go back to my childhood.

My dad, who passed away in 2001, was an alcoholic. I had my first drink when I was 12, when a friend of mine whose mom was an alcohol abuser shared some of her liquor with me. By that time, I had already developed a penchant for smoking marijuana with my friends — a habit I abruptly ended in 1995 after I took a hit of a joint laced with hallucinogenic PCP. The combination of the weed and the PCP made my heart feel like it was beating right out of my chest; the sensation was like tumbling in free-fall.

Around the same age, an off-duty cop sexually molested me, and threatened to lock me up and hurt my family if I spoke out. I can still see my molester’s face, hear his voice, recall his license plate number. As a law enforcement agent, he was supposed to protect kids in our community — not use us as sexual tools.

From ages 12 till 15, I drifted in and out of juvenile detention facilities for various crimes. I broke into schools, I stole things, I shoplifted. Before my 16th birthday, I had already spent more time behind bars than most people ever will.

When I finally got out of the system, that’s when my heavy drinking really kicked in. I always thought I was in control of all those Bacardi Light Rum’s; in fact, it was the other way around. They were in control of me.

In spite of all the tumult during those years, somehow I met my wife Tracy, fell in love, got married, and had become a dad to five beautiful kids.

Like many people burdened with substance abuse, I made choices I’m ashamed of. I wasted paycheck after paycheck on alcohol — instead of mounting expenses like my mortgage — which ultimately left my family in Chapter 13 bankruptcy. I grew violent, unable to control my temper. My alcoholism perverted me into someone I didn’t recognize — a manipulator who took advantage of others to quell my insatiable craving.

Somewhere in that cavernous darkness was a spark of Michael deep down, struggling to break free. All he needed was a lifeline, but it wasn’t one that I could supply. I was already too far gone, no matter how hard I tried.

The year 2012 was when I finally hit rock bottom. Consumed by my ego, I left Tracy to pursue other women outside our marriage for two years. I even slept with my friend’s wife. To this day, despite my multiple confessions to him that it happened, my friend doesn’t want to believe it; it’s too painful for him to accept.

A rare moment of humility came for me in December 2014, when it dawned on me that leaving Tracy had been a terrible mistake. I mustered the courage to ask my wife for forgiveness and, somehow, against her better judgment, she agreed to give me a second chance, in spite of my ongoing active addiction. That woman is the definition of amazing.

Getting back together with Tracy doesn’t mean I treated her better, though. Once, during one of the many late-night confrontations we had over my alcohol abuse, I slammed the door on Tracy’s arm, leaving her with a sizable bruise. I was so blacked out when it happened that I don’t even remember doing it. The black and blue marks on her arms the next day were all the proof I needed, though.   I no longer was a threat just to myself; because of my addiction, I had become a threat to others, including the ones I love the most. I had to do something.


Entering Treatment

Two weeks after that incident with my wife, I drove myself to Retreat in Ephrata, PA. Twenty days of inpatient treatment later, I emerged a changed man.

In addition to medical detox, group therapy, and private clinical work, I particularly enjoyed our art sessions. Art was a time for me to zone out and focus on creating things. Reminding myself that I had the power to make something, no matter how simple, just with my mind and with my hands, put me back in control. Reasserting my power helped me take those first steps toward sobriety.

I still have some of the collages I made during those art sessions; one of them is hanging on the wall in my basement right now. It’s a collage of a football, composed of logos from the North Carolina Panthers and the Dallas Cowboys. The Panthers are my team; the Dallas Cowboys are my best friend Justin’s.

During my recovery, I’ve made friends who are in my life to this very day. Five times a week I attend local AA meetings, and I hear stories of tenacity that leave me inspired. At Retreat, I met people whom I consider my brothers and sisters. We’re linked by the inexorable bond that only sobriety can engender; after all, it’s almost impossible to understand how substance abuse feels unless you’ve lived through it firsthand.

The decision to entrust my life to Retreat not only restored my marriage and helped me rebuild my relationships with my kids — it’s probably the single most definitive reason that I’m still here today.


Finally free

I haven’t been the best father, and I certainly haven’t been the best husband. Through my 20’s, 30’s, and well into my 40’s, I battled a beast that lived deep within, usurping my body every time I took a drink. Although that beast lived within me, it didn’t represent my better angels.

Going on two years sober, I finally feel like I’ve gotten my life back. But I also have come to accept that I’m never going to be fully rid of this disease — it will always live in the shadows, hoping to lure me back into its clutches.

On a few occasions when stress has been high, I’ve come close to relapsing. That’s when I call my sponsors and my Retreat family. They help me to reject temptation and stay the course. This fight is a lifelong struggle, but it gets easier every time I reaffirm my promise to say no.

Along my 12-step journey, I’ve recently begun the ninth step: Making amends. That means I’ve reached the point when I’ reach out to people I’ve hurt along the way, to tell them how genuinely sorry I am. I’m going to start with my wife, by apologizing for everything that I’ve put her through. I’ll give her a big bouquet overflowing with roses (her favorite flower), and — provided I don’t choke up too much — I’m planning to tell her something like this:

“Tracy, since the day I met you, you’ve always stuck by my side and been my best friend. I’m so sorry for crossing the line, for cheating, and for all the other things I did. I can only hope that you’ll forgive me for the pain I’ve inflicted on you and our family. I will do my best to make sure none of it ever happens again.”   This Thanksgiving, as I look around the holiday table and consider the things I’m grateful for, I’ll remember how Retreat gave me my life back. And I’ll look at Tracy and think about the lyrics of my favorite Debbie Gibson song, “Lost In Your Eyes.”

“And if I can’t find my way, If salvation is worlds away, Oh I’ll be found, When I am lost in your eyes,” one of the verses goes.

At various times in my life, salvation has seemed worlds away, and the path forward through the thicket, totally obscure. Through it all, Tracy has always been my North Star, guiding me home.

So here I am: Michael again, free of the liquor and everything it did to me. Tracy, now when I look at you, my mind isn’t clouded, and my vision is clear. It’s finally lucid enough to let go, and, as Debbie Gibson said, to get lost in your eyes.