I came from a small family unit, and I was very close to my parents and my younger brother. My dad was the superintendent of several buildings in the South Bronx. He taught me how to fix lamps and rewire receptacles; I was always good with my hands. I was five years older than my brother Rodney, and he always looked up to me. But when we were young adults he got sick, and I couldn’t protect him. He died of a brain aneurysm at the age of 25, and I was left with a feeling of powerlessness. A part of me just shut down.
Over the next two years, I began drinking more—I didn’t realize this was a reaction to shock and pain. I was present, but I wasn’t really there. In 2003, my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer. Two years later, my dad had a stroke and went from driving an Expedition to driving a wheelchair. When we moved him into a nursing home, I tried to keep it together, but I kept drinking more and more.
Six months later, I called my mom and she didn’t sound so good. I rushed over to her place and found her in cardiac arrest. Six days later, at 4:30 am, I left her at the hospital with Charles Lynch, a close family friend, while I went to work. Before I left, I stood over her bedside and said, “Mom, I’m going to be alright. Go be with Rodney. He’s waiting for you up there.” When I came back, she was gone. We were supposed to have a family reunion that week, but we ended up having it at her funeral.
After that, I began a very rapid descent into the bottle. My job ended and I was drinking every day, all day. My stepsister took my father away, and to this day, I’m not sure how he’s doing. My girlfriend had lost her father, so we were helping each other. But then, three months after my mom passed away, my girlfriend had a heart attack and died. I spent my birthday at her wake.
I was angry with God. I didn’t know about things like “grief counseling” or “coping skills.” For the next six years, I just drank all the time so I could feel numb. I couldn’t work, so I started committing petty crimes to support my habit. I was caught in the grips of an aggressive, fatal disease when my friend Charles died of lung cancer. He was my lifeline, my voice of reason. At some point, I found myself in front of a church, just pleading with God because I was in so much pain.
My prayers were answered: I went back to a store I had already robbed, and I was arrested on site and given a felony charge. But I really feel that I was rescued. God removed me from the situation I was in. I was sent to Rikers Island on September 5, 2011, and I never drank again. I looked in the mirror and it was like waking up from a nightmare. At Rikers, I got up at 4:30 am and worked till 11:30 pm. That lifestyle gave me structure again and brought back the old me.
I left Rikers on May 4, 2012. I moved into transitional housing in Far Rockaway and got back in the carpenters’ union. I knew I needed treatment, so I went to an outpatient program in Brooklyn. This fall, when the power was out because of Hurricane Sandy, I still made it to my vocational school and to treatment. I remember smiling for weeks straight because I’d shown up for myself. It was just an incredibly high feeling; I never knew I could feel that way without alcohol.
My outpatient counselor Eliouse Wesley was a Phoenix House alumna and she recommended that I do aftercare at the Jack Aron Center. So, that’s what I’m doing now. I take suggestions and follow the winners. At Phoenix House, I’m in a group called “Moving On” where I’m getting the skills I need to stay sober. Today, I’m proud to say I have 15 months clean. I chase my recovery the way I used to chase that drink.
We invite you to read the New York Times’ profile of Eley, which appeared as part of the newspaper’s Neediest Cases Fund.
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Phoenix House is here to help. Email or call our toll free number today: 1 888 671 9392.