“I know how to drink. I know how to get high. I want to be shown how to live life the way it’s supposed to be lived.”
I‘m Andrew. I’m an alcoholic. My sober date is March 21st of 2006. We are here in Dover, New Hampshire, way far away from where I thought I would end up or could have ever imagined close to nine-and-a-half years ago. My story is pretty simple. I grew up in an alcoholic home and I grew up around a lot of mental illness. A lot of the things that I saw from an early age didn’t make me an alcoholic, but I would say they really didn’t arm me with the tools necessary to lead a productive life. I always try to talk a little about not my drunk log, but what happened to me. I can remember from a very early age not feeling like I fit in.
I’m somebody who’s always felt different, felt like I haven’t belonged. Growing up and being in a household with a father that was an active alcoholic and drug addict who passed away when I was sixteen as a direct result of this. He was schizophrenic. I had a very loving extended family and then my mom supporting us. My mom’s a nurse. She still is, down in Boston. She was always the one that kept things going for us. I saw from a very early age that when you had any difficulties or problems in life, you would just run. I was born in Southern Massachusetts. We moved to Oregon when I was young and stayed there for about a year. Moved back, subsequent moves, that was the story of my life for a long time, just moving.
I used my first substance that wasn’t alcohol at the age of thirteen. I had been warned throughout my life. There’s one whole side of my family, my mom’s side of the family, and they’re actually all dead from this. Me and my mom are actually the only two [alive]. I have some extended cousins, uncles, grandparents, everybody died directly from this. I had an uncle in Boston who passed away from AIDS. My other uncle drank himself to death and it was always a direct result of active alcoholism and addiction. It’s something that’s really been close to my heart and has touched me from an early age. I can remember being thirteen and immediately, just like feeling okay. The age and the anger and a lot of those issues that I never really learned to deal with sort of went by the wayside. I felt comfortable. I felt okay. For me that was a big deal.
I was a kid who was very into, just super angry music, angry lifestyle, the people that I associated with. I used to go to a lot of metal and hard core shows. That’s what I associated with—bleakness, destruction, really anti-authority—even though people had my best interest in mind. People telling me what to do. I just pushed away. I would dig in. The more people tried to help me—psychologists, social workers, psychiatric nurses, doctors, people that my mom would send me to trying to help out—the more I would just say, “No.” Just really, really rebel. From the age of fourteen on, I remember I was down in Waltham, Massachusetts and had my first drink, my first real drink. My dad used to give me beers when I was a kid, but my first real drink by my own willpower at the age of fourteen down on Alder Street down in Massachusetts in Waltham.
Man, that sense of ease that came over me. I loved the taste. I loved the way it slowed me down and it just made me feel okay in a way that I had never experienced in my life. For me to feel okay in this being in my own skin, it was a huge deal. It was a huge deal. Because I knew no other way. At that point in my life, I had no spiritual solution. I was rabidly anti-God or any conception of a supreme being or anything that was greater than me that wanted to help me. Really actively rebelled against the thought of it, so I drank. Really from that day, at fourteen that summer, I still remember it. I can still remember the brand and the green glass bottles and the sweat and condensation just dripping down them. They were ice cold coming out of the freezer, out of the fridge into the summer air. It was just, oh man. I remember my buddy John that I was drinking with. He had three or four beers. I had three or four.
That was the one thing that I never forgot and I will never forget that sense of being okay. It didn’t matter internally what was going on, externally, how I looked, how I felt. I really feel like that idea or that experience is something that’s really alcoholics and addicts are the ones that really get that. Needless to say, really from that point things really took off for me. I became a daily drinker. From fourteen I had been using other substances. From that point on, that day until a little before my twenty-first birthday, I drank the newest outside issues as I liked to call them, every day. Became a morning drinker in high school down in Cambridge and Sommerville Mass. I can remember we would drive over the line before school into Sommerville and we would go to the package store, the liquor store, waiting for the metal grate to slide up for the liquor store owner. I would see that and I would say, “Oh, it’s going to be okay.” I would wake up restless, irritable, discontent, super angry. Not even consciously understanding or knowing why.
I’m not okay, the world is not okay, it’s not going to be okay, we’re all going to die. That was really my MO and the attitude and mindset that I carried out into the world. No wonder I got into the trouble that I got into. School, with the courts, a lot of other stuff. The long and the short of it was it got to a point where I started to, I started to black out from the age of fourteen. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing the allergy, I was experiencing the phenomenon of craving, I was experiencing the fact that once I took that first one there was something different about me that called for another and another and another and I wasn’t able to stop on my own. When the idea came to my mind, that mental obsession which I didn’t find out about till much later, I was powerless against it. I couldn’t not do it.
I ended up getting into some serious legal trouble and was looking at some serious jail time. The court and probation and all that other stuff never kept me sober, but for the first time I was really saying, “Wow, this has got to stop.” For a long time I would wake up every day and I would say, I’m going to stop. After high school, I managed to, was suspended at the end of high school, wasn’t allowed to walk in my graduation. That first year in high school I had been in all honors classes. I went to a really well known high school. You had to take boards to get in. It was very prestigious. By the end I was in special ed classes and I wasn’t going to school and was getting suspended and all of that stuff. Sort of the, not the classical alcoholic, everybody is different, but that’s just my experience. All my friends went off to college.
I went off to live on my own and drink the way I really wanted to because now I was out of mom’s house and I could do what I wanted. A whole bunch of other substances came into the picture, but alcohol was my one true love. She was always there for me. That first drink. That loyalty that I had to alcohol and the way that I saw it in my relationship, the loyalty alcohol had to me, this is the one thing that’s never let me down. It always comes through when I need it. It always makes me feel good. It makes me feel okay. Even in the end when I was vomiting blood and, again, just coming to that place where I’m drinking around the clock, I’m blacking out, I’m waking up in strange places, I’m peeing my pants, that became acceptable to me. I’m now, where I would generally shower everyday, now I’m going two-three-four weeks at a time without showering. I’m not brushing my teeth. I’m not eating. I’m underweight.
That’s really as good as it got. I managed to get in and see a professional who recommended that I get into a twelve-step fellowship and gave me some good direction. Begrudgingly I went, not because I had a whole lot of options, but because I’d tried everything else. I managed to stay sober for a period of time and become really spiritually sick. Started acting out in really horrific ways. Now that I look back on it I’ve forgiven myself and been able to let that stuff go, but it was, I was just trying to fix that internal condition with things outside and it just didn’t work. I got involved in a number of really sick relationships. I attracted what I was putting out there. Ultimately, thank God, I relapsed.
It was more of the same. I was cooped up in a little, little cottage in the woods that I ended up finagling my way into and gave the guy the first month’s rent and then live there seven-eight months and didn’t pay him a dime. I just drank, again, the way I wanted to. The progression it’s something I’ve never experienced in life how quickly I got back to drinking the way that I had been and was delusional, paranoid. I was in, again this little cottage out in the woods. Nobody’s out there. I’m thinking they’re out to get me. The satellites are tracking me. The police are listening to my calls. Just really experience this delusional psychosis. The thing that would fix that was more of those substances. And, again my one true love, my baby, the drink. It got to the point where I wouldn’t even leave my bedroom. I was living by myself, peeing in empty plastic bottles of vodka because I’d drank the high end stuff.
I said, “This has got to stop.” I got to that place, seven-eight-nine months, I have no idea. It was a blackout. It was just like a lot of the rest of my drinking. It was just one more blackout. A buddy of mine had been living in a program in Chinatown, the St. Francis House. He got out and he was doing well. He was like my Ebby Thatcher that it talks about in some twelve-step literature. He met me where I was out. He loved me when I felt unlovable and just completely broken. My journey in sobriety and really recovery, recovery, recovery, recovery started for the first time. I had absolutely no idea that I could get better from this thing. In the past you remove the substances and the alcohol from my system and, again going back to the literature, merciless, irritable, and discontent, and I have no solution. I ended up going to a meeting. There was this guy there. It was a meeting in Alston, MA in Boston. He was talking about recovery and a solution in a way that I had just never experienced, I had never heard of.
I had been in a meeting a couple of days prior to that and put my hand up and just told people. I’m the type of person who, I would rather suffer in silence than to ask for help. I’ve always felt like a burden and always felt less than. I put my hand up at a meeting and I said, I feel like killing myself. I meant it. It wasn’t poor me, I need your pity. It was like, I don’t know what to do, I can’t do this again, I don’t want to do this again. My friend that I had known before I relapsed, I had known him for years. I knew how he was sober. He had totally changed. Completely done a 180. He recommended that I go check out this meeting. Really it was just a meeting of people living in the solution. People that had gone through the steps. I resented them. I resented them (1) because they had gone through the steps and I had always had a ton of fear about doing step work. Really, I’ve been around twelve-step fellowship on my own since 1995 and I used to go with my dad as a kid. Where I got sober, a lot of these twelve-step meetings they weren’t talking about getting well. It was people talking about going to jail and all this other stuff.
Things that I had experience with, that had happened to me, they didn’t say, “Hey, once you put down the drink, here’s what you do so you don’t go back to the drink, and also so that you’re not mentally ill and insane.” My experience is I put the drink down. It was easy to get sober. Sometimes it would be for a couple of hours, or a day. But it’s tough to stay sober and just have no tools to do that. I ended up in this meeting down in Boston and, like I said, this guy spoke and my friend, she always used to say the five hardest words for an alcoholic or a drug addict are, will you be my sponsor? I went up to him. I don’t know what it was. I think it was the fear that I was going to die. And I asked him to and he said he’d be honored.
It blew me away because, something’s different this time, I’m taking some action for my recovery and around my recovery. The seed had been planted. What that looked like for me was, he was my sponsor, he wasn’t my, my banker, my nurse. It’s funny, he’s actually in the medical profession. It was very interesting that he had this caring-ness about him, is the best way I can put it. He asked nothing of me or from me. Basically it was, was I willing to do anything and I said, yeah. I got right into the literature.
I used to go to twelve-step meetings and we’d read literature and it would be stories about people. I liked the meeting cause at that point you could smoke in the meetings. That’s what I’d do. I’d go and smoke and then we’d all go out to fellowship after. This time I was reading specific directions, like a recipe, clear cut directions as I found out later on. That’s when everything changed for me. I really saw for the first time that my life was completely unmanageable and that I was absolutely powerless over alcohol and other substances. I saw for the first time I had an allergy to this stuff. I talk about it when I go to meetings where I’m speaking, I’m deathly allergic to cats, deathly allergic to cats. When I’m around them I start to have trouble breathing, that’s the first thing. My eyes start to water, my chest gets tight, I get wheezy and God forbid I rub my eyes because then it’s all over.
I have asthma attacks. I have these horrific allergy attacks. When I think of it, in the sense of drugs and alcohol, it’s like, so I have this allergy, right, I have an abnormal reaction. Mentally when I’m away from it, I can’t stop thinking about it until I take that first one. When I take that first one, it triggers the abnormal reaction and I can’t stop. I got to a point where I saw that, when I compared that to my cat allergy, it would be like I know, cats bring me to the point where I almost need to go to the emergency room. I get horrifically sick when I’m around them. When I thought of it from the same perspective as alcohol because in the end I was coming out of blackouts, I would vomit, I would drink more, I’d pass back out, I’d wake up on the floor in all sorts of crazy places, in the end walking around by myself doing the duck crawl, not the duck crawl, going under the barbed wire like they do in military training camp and boot camp.
Thinking people are out there. I’m half naked, I’m sweaty, I’m… it was horrible. That would be like, “Hey, I know I’m not supposed to do this thing. I’m not supposed to be around cats.” I say, “Hey, can I come over, Jill? I’m going to swing by your house.” And the whole time I’m going over there, I’m like, “I shouldn’t go to Jill’s house. She’s got a cat there.” Mentally, and then something changes, “No, it’ll be okay this time. I can be around the cat. I just won’t pet the cat. I can stay in the corner and I can sit in my spot.” I get to your house and I’m like, “You know what? Maybe it’s not a bad idea. Something’s changed.” That curious mental blind spot. “Maybe it’ll be different this time.” The cat starts to prance over to me and starts rubbing up against my leg and I say, “You know what? I can pet the cat in safety. I can do it this time.” Not thinking of the thousands of other times that I’ve pet the cat and gotten sick and violently reacted to it. Something says, “No, it will be different this time.” I reach down, I start to pet the cat, next thing I know, the cat’s on my lap. You guys, everybody else around me at your house, they’re petting the cat. They’re not reacting any differently. You know they can pet the cat a couple of times and the cat walks away, they’re not thinking about it. But I’ve triggered this allergy. When I think of it from alcohol it’s like everybody goes to bed. I leave, everybody leaves, everybody goes to bed. They have work the next day or whatever. Next thing I know it’s three or four a.m. and the police show up to the pet shop and find me naked rubbing baby kittens all over my face, you know what I mean? When I think of it as alcohol, I set that phenomenon of craving off.
It made sense for the first time in my life. I need to be fully abstinent from alcohol and drugs. All right, cool. But how do I do that without that rage coming back? I didn’t have an answer. This guy said, I do. My sponsor, how awesome is that. He just told me he was going to guide me through some simple instructions. Not easy, but simple and, if I were to do so, I’d have my own experience. It wasn’t like a cookie cutter thing where he was like, hey this is how you’re going to feel. This is how you need to act. It was, ’cause I had had that in sobriety before in past experiences. I’d had multiple relapses over the years. When I think about it, I’ve relapsed thousands of times ’cause I said I’m not going to do it today and I would always do it.
So this guy, he just put my hand into the hand of God or a higher power and I’m forever grateful. I didn’t want anything to do with God. I was very angry. A lot of people in my life died when I was growing up. And now with what’s going on with opiates and heroin, I mean they’re just dropping like flies. But I’m no longer mad at my conception of a higher power, at my conception of God, which is really cool. For step two, this is the coolest thing. He just said, “Are you willing to believe there’s something out there?” Out of desperation and a sense of, “Andrew you’ve tried everything else,” I said, “Yeah, absolutely.” That’s all if was. That particular step, when I used to go to twelve-step fellowships and look up at the shades, the shades on the wall. You know, they’d have the steps and the traditions. I’d say, oh no, two, four, and nine, I’m not doing those. You’re crazy.
Before I knew it, I had done two. I was like, “Something’s different this time.” That feeling came back. Step three was, I won’t get into everything, but I said I was willing to believe, then I turned my will over, which is my thinking, my thoughts, my actions, right. There’s a guy that I love. He says, “Trust in God, but paddle away from the rocks, you know what I mean?” I’ve got to move my feet. I’m about to get into a car crash, saying a prayer, that’s not going to keep me from hitting that car in front of me that just stopped short. Hitting the brake and turning the wheel to get into the other lane will. That same idea, but then I got right into doing inventory. That’s where I started to get relief. It sounds bleak. It’s like people who self harm. It’s really weird saying this on recording too, but I felt like I was, it was almost like a spiritual bloodletting in a sense because I’d write this stuff down and I got to eventually see my part in it.
When he was showing me how to make an inventory, I was super angry. It was the angriest I’ve ever been in my life. Then I started to get relief later on without trying to get too specific. I saw my part and I started to feel okay. I started to come to a place where I was able to let all of these people off the hook. It wasn’t like I was consciously saying, oh yeah, I forgive them. It was like God started to work through me and I started to experience that stuff. A sense of forgiveness which, for me is what this whole thing is about. Letting myself off the hook. I beat myself up horrifically throughout my life. I was shown how to do that. Fear, sex conduct, take a look at all of that stuff.
Went through the remainder of the steps and got out and started really making a ton of amends to people. Those latter steps ten, eleven, and twelve, staying in conscious contact. Some people are really fear-based. I am fear-based and it comes out, it just comes out as anger. I’ve chilled out incredibly as a result of doing this stuff. Then really the most selfish thing is, for any of us that are alcoholics or drug addicts, we go through, somebody comes and pulls us out of the burning house, and then we don’t give back. To me that’s the ultimate form of selfishness. That twelfth step really carrying the message, practicing principles in all my affairs, trying to do right by people. When I fall on my face, which I do all of the time, I own it. It’s more of an instinct now and when I don’t act on it I get that feeling in my gut and I feel sick because it’s like, look at that knot in my stomach. I gotta make that right. I owe that person an amends. I’ve told guys in the past, if you’re not going to give this everything you’ve got, don’t even bother. It just completely changes your life when you really get into it.
Helping people has become the most important thing in my life. There’s times I’ve done things, taken jobs for money and, I have to—I have a family now. My life has changed completely. I’m a business owner. There’s a lot of things that are going on in my life that have changed, but I do better when I have less money coming in. I don’t have a lot of things. But when I’m helping people and I know I’m doing what God would have me do, it doesn’t matter. Nothing else matters. The universe and the world and my Creator have a way of really taking care of me and those around me.
As a direct result of that, I’ve seen recovery change so much since that first meeting I went to when I was sixteen years old. I showed up in the smoky room and there were the old timers and the little ladies with the blue hair sitting around reading this book, it was like cryptic. I had no idea what they were talking about. Fast forward twenty years later and my perception of recovery, my perception of reality has changed, but really it’s tangible. I can put my finger on it that the recovery community specifically where we are here in New Hampshire, the Sea Coast, it’s just incredible. People are talking about getting well. I know how to drink. I know how to get high. I want to be shown how to live life the way it’s supposed to be lived.
Having, just caring about people, to be in a place where I’m able to do that, it’s one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. Life is still life. Things still happen. Difficulties still arise. But now having that set of tools to deal with that stuff, and to ultimately turn to a spiritual solution, just the whole game changed for me. My whole life is set up now to help people. When I put my faith and trust in something greater than myself, saying my prayers and move my feet, awesome things happen.
Photographs taken at Bonfire Recovery Services, where Andrew works to provide those in early recovery with affordable housing.