True Story: Jimmy

Monday, September 9th, 2013

jimmy picGrowing up, I had a totally suburban, “Wonder Bread” type of life outside of New York. I wouldn’t say we were rich but we were comfortable. I started drinking when I was about 13 or 14 years old. In our big family, alcohol was a social lubricant and beer was viewed as a food group. So it never occurred to me that I was becoming an alcoholic or an addict or anything, because that was just how we lived.

I was the one in the family who was expected to be a scholar, the guy who was going to go to Harvard and all that stuff. But things turned out a lot differently. I attended five different colleges, spent a semester at Oxford, did some writing, but eventually left school to go to work on Wall Street. From there I went to Madison Avenue to do advertising, and later moved to North Carolina. That was where I decided to give it up and become a chef. So I spent five years as an apprentice and then I had a pretty successful career as a chef.

Meanwhile there was a lot of stuff happening in my family that led to my being diagnosed with major depressive disorder. First my brother was killed in Vietnam in 1968 when I was 21 years old, and a month after he died they drafted me. I said, “No way.” They threatened to put me in jail but I said, “Sure, put me in jail. I’m not fighting your war.” And then they declared me unfit for military service and left me alone. After that, my younger brother went into a mental institution – he was diagnosed with six or seven mental illnesses that I’m convinced were a result of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – and he died a few years later. Then my mother died of cancer, and my father took all the family money and ran off to Costa Rica. He died a few years later as well. So it was just me left; I had nothing, and I was completely on my own.

In North Carolina I had gotten married, had a son, and gotten divorced. I reconnected with my high school sweetheart online and we started chatting, and pretty soon I flew out to Los Angeles and fell in love with her all over again. She was my one true love and still is. But when I got to LA something shifted; I’d always been known as a “heavy drinker” but everyone in LA seemed to view me as an alcoholic. Plus, the high school sweetheart (now my wife) was 35 years sober, and it was a problem for me to still be drinking so much around her. Between my history of medical issues – I had shattered my hip in North Carolina – and my history of family loss and mental illness, it became clear that I was using alcohol to self-medicate my pain.

Once I got really drunk and ended up at the hospital, and they said my BAC was .4 something-or-other, so basically I should have been dead. But there I was, sitting up and talking to the mental health staff. I had broken my ankle and they were looking at it, and right then I had an arrhythmic episode, kind of like a heart attack, and they had to immediately bring me from the mental health facility back to the hospital where it took four days for me to medically detox. That was when I really saw the writing on the wall; it was like, “Dang, I just came within a hair’s breadth of dying.” I didn’t like that feeling, and I knew I might not get another chance after this one. I didn’t want to be done with life yet, there was still stuff I had left to do.

So I started trying to get sober. I tried everything; AA meetings, the 12 steps, what have you. Finally my health insurance recommended Phoenix House Los Angeles and that was the program where a light really went on in my head and I started to change. First of all, the people at Phoenix House were talking to me and listening; they were actually trying to understand where I was coming from, what my story was. My therapist was great. I was able to open up. Second, they didn’t shove AA gospel down my throat because I told them that had never worked for me. I was so thankful that they gave AA as an option but didn’t insist that it was the 100% end-all-be-all of rehab and treatment. Nowadays, I do go to meetings. I have a sponsor. But it was the people at Phoenix House who helped me get clean: the staff, my therapist, the other clients. It was so much more than just 12 steps.

I originally went to Phoenix House for 30 days but I asked for funding for two more weeks and got it; I really wanted to stick it out and wrap my head around the treatment and recovery process. I was able to read a lot while I was there, which wasn’t something I was usually able to do. I finished a ton of books and really worked on myself. The whole treatment program at Phoenix House, it was just so different from anything I’d encountered before that I was constantly amazed. It was transformative.

I had such a great experience at Phoenix House that coming home felt like the wind had been taken out of my sails. But I had the tools to cope, and today I’m still doing well. Because of my injuries I can’t work full-time as a chef anymore, but I do catering and I’m taking online courses to keep my head in the game. I’m really interested in economics and history and stuff like that; I’m probably the most educated person you’ve ever met who doesn’t have a degree!

I’m still with my wife, my high school sweetheart; it hasn’t been an easy road and she’ll be the first one to tell you that. I know I’ve done some damage, but we’ve been able to work things out. The best part of my recovery is that I get to exist like a normal person doing everyday things, having everyday relationships, just getting to wake up in the morning and say, “Damn, I’m glad to be alive.”

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