When I was 12—maybe 13—I spent weekends at my friend’s house mixing drinks. By high school, all I loved to do was drink. That, and drive fast cars. It wasn’t a good combination. I was 19 when I got my first DUI, but it didn’t stop me.
I moved from Georgia to New York City with a Datsun 280Z and a job at Windows on the World restaurant at the World Trade Center. I was young and good-looking and felt like the world was mine.
Unfortunately, my drinking got to the point where my mom forced me to go to a treatment center. I went, but I didn’t feel that addressing my drinking problem was paramount. I didn’t yet know what the consequences of my alcoholism would be.
After a year and half of sobriety, I started drinking again. I began trying to steal from my mom and got another DUI before going back into treatment. I actually did well for a while after I got out. But then a terrible thing happened. A girl I knew in Pennsylvania was shot. I decided to drive from where I was in Georgia to be with her.
I stopped for a bottle before I even got on the expressway. I’d drink, stop in a town, party with the people there, then drive a little more. I never made it to Pennsylvania. I turned around and checked myself into another treatment center.
Each time I came out of treatment, I’d tell myself I’d just smoke a little weed and that would be it; but smoking weed always led to drinking. Then I’d tell myself, “I’ll just drink a couple of beers.” It was an illusion that one day I could drink as a normal person.
It wasn’t until my fourth DUI that I ended up at Phoenix House. I was in a 12-step program, going to meetings and staying sober. But a guy who tried to sponsor me said, “You’re going to relapse.” When I asked him why, he told me, “You’re not working the program—not doing the step work, not being honest, not doing what’s suggested to you. All you’re doing is going to meetings.”
I knew he was right when I woke up in a hospital handcuffed to the bed with a sheriff standing over me and no recollection of what happened.
I’d heard stories about people doing terrible things while drunk—running someone over or killing somebody. All I could think was, “This is my damn story.” I was prepared to do 25 years. But then the sheriff told me that the charge was DUI and driving with a suspended license. A judge sentenced me to a year of treatment at Phoenix House Residential Program at Citra, and I said, “Thank you, God. I’m going to work this program.” I knew I would never again have this chance: a whole year to focus on myself.
As soon as I got to Phoenix House, I started holding meetings every Tuesday night, and my sponsor held them every Friday. Those meetings helped a lot. So did the fact that I had great counselors. I was honest with them, which made it easier for them to help me. That taught me that if you are honest, you can go a long way.
The structure of the program helped, too. I learned to follow directions and do things just because I was supposed to do them, which builds character and integrity. Everyone was assigned a job, and if you didn’t do it, it didn’t get done. From that I learned that responsibility is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.
Phoenix House also showed me that people do right when they start seeing results—and results start with your own thinking. That’s why even people who came in with a rebellious attitude started to change. They were able to change their thinking, and that helped them change their results.
Changing my thinking was the focus of my time at Phoenix House until I reached the point where my counselors thought I was ready to look for work. I had become a certified mechanic a few years before and wanted to run my own car shop, but there was a rule against working for yourself. I pressed the issue, though, until my counselors said, “OK, we’ll give you a chance to go in front of the whole staff and present your case.” Most people stop right there. But I went in front of the staff, took their questions, and we worked out a system that allowed me to do it. I incorporated myself and my business name, got business insurance and a license, did all the necessary paperwork. I did everything they wanted me to do in a week, and I realized, “I’m ready for this.”
Today, I’m six years sober and still own my own business. And I’m doing something I never thought I’d be able to do again: I’m driving.
In Florida, four DUIs means permanent revocation of your license. Being a mechanic and loving cars, that was a real dark spot for me. But by the grace of God, I got my license back through a program that lets you drive again if you have five years clean and sober.
I’ve also made things right with my family. My mother went from not trusting me to leaving me in charge of my grandmother’s property. And I went from not even knowing I had a son to seeing him every day. I found out about him when he was 3, and he stayed with me during summers and school breaks. But mostly he lived with his mom. Unfortunately he was around when I had my last relapse, so he got to see his dad at his worst. Now he’s 25 and looks up to me. I try to guide him as best I can. We also have fun together, going out to eat and catching a movie every now and then. He works for me now, and it’s a wonderful thing because at the end of every day he says, “Love you, Dad.” It’s a great feeling for a man who had absolutely nothing to offer him just six and a half years ago.