“It felt like every time I drank I was crushed by this wheel. Every time I stopped drinking, then I had to pull myself out from underneath of this wheel. When I was at the top again, then I drank. Then all of the sudden I was crushed by it again.”
I‘m Gavin. I’m in recovery. I’ve been in recovery for about seven years and six months. I stopped drinking in February of 2008. I grew up in the suburbs just north of Philadelphia. I grew up in a really normal, typical, middle class household with two parents and a younger brother. I had a really good upbringing. I’d say for the most part, growing up I was really a normal child and really happy.
Probably around the age of twelve or thirteen I guess, when most people start to exhibit tendencies, it seemed like everybody had something that they gravitated towards or they latched onto a little bit. There were people who were really good at academics, really good at extracurriculars, really athletic. It seemed like everybody had something that they could dig their hands into, and I guess I lacked that identity a little bit from an early age. I wouldn’t say it was necessarily a cause for concern or anything like that, but it was at that point that I started to look for things outside myself to try and make myself feel better. Usually that leaned more towards the admiration of other people around me.
When I was in high school, I was involved in a car accident when I was sixteen. I was the driver. It was a car with three friends in it. We were joy riding over a couple of hills in the countryside and I lost control of the car. The car swerved off the road and crashed through a fence, started flipping over, and flipped over about three times. After that, I crawled out of the car. Another guy crawled out of the car. Two other guys, they remained in the car. They had serious injuries. One had had a crushed artery in his leg and he couldn’t move. Another had been impaled by a fence post through his leg. I don’t necessarily tell that story to say that it’s a cause or a reason, but it was traumatic and it was at a point in my life where I didn’t have a good sense of self to deal with everything that had happened because of it. Luckily, the four of us all lived, but it was traumatic, and about a week or two after that, I found out that my parents were splitting up.
I don’t think the two events were really tied together, but in my mind they happened so sequentially I thought that I caused this car accident to happen, and afterwards, they decided they were going to split up. I tied it together in my mind that I was somehow responsible for my family splitting up. I was convinced of this and no one could really talk me out of it.
The rest of high school was tough. After high school, I left home, went to college, and just decided I was going to put everything behind me a little bit. I carried around a lot of guilt and I carried around a lot of shame about what had happened. I didn’t really know a good way to deal with it, so I just never talked about it. I didn’t talk about it with family. I didn’t talk about it with friends. I just kept it really deep inside.
When I got to college, there was a whole new group of people to be exposed to, people that didn’t know about the car accident, people that didn’t know about me from growing up. I felt safe and anonymous within a crowd and drinking was a big part of college life when I got there. I fooled around with drinking a lot in high school, but it wasn’t really until I’d gotten to this point, where I was off on my own, that I was free to drink as I wanted to drink. At first it was just for fun all the time. Then slowly, over time, I started to get into trouble with the cops. I think maybe the second or third time, I got arrested. I spent a night in the drunk tank and the school that I was attending, the dean of students, remanded me to go see a drug and alcohol counselor, when I was about twenty.
I sat down. I told this counselor how much I drink, how often I drink, how much I think it takes to get me drunk. I answered these questions all thoroughly and honestly because I didn’t know that I was supposed to lie. Afterwards, they made me go to drug and alcohol counseling for the remainder of the semester if I was going to stay at school. Even at that point they used the term ‘alcohol dependency’ or ‘alcoholic,’ and it stuck in the back of my head, but this was maybe five years before I ever decided to start going to meetings. I wasn’t nearly as far gone as I thought you needed to be to have a drinking problem, so I walked out of the treatment and I didn’t think twice about it. I just went back to drinking every day. I think it’s really easy when you’re a college kid to get away with it, because a lot of people will look at your age and they’ll say, “This is just because he’s young,” or, “This is something that he’ll get out of his system. Eventually, he’ll grow out of it.”
I can remember shortly after turning twenty-one I went to the doctor. I had developed a tremor in my hands. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking and my knees wouldn’t stop shaking. I noticed that anytime I drank the shakes would go away. It was at that point I started to think more so that maybe this wasn’t necessarily a problem, but maybe this was just something that I needed to have in my system. So at twenty-one, it became less about drinking for fun. It became more about drinking for maintenance. That’s how I approached drinking for the next few years, which was really easy to hide in college. Afterwards, people graduated. They went onto these grand plans, pursued careers, moved across the country, started families. I moved into the basement of my mom’s house, took all the money that I had, and drank it away for the rest of the summer.
Afterwards, I decided I needed to get a job, so I got some mindless job where I was sitting at a desk and just answering emails all day. I’d drink every night until about two or three in the morning. Then I’d get up, go to work. I’d smell like booze. I found out long after I ended up leaving this job that often co-workers would say, “It smells like Gavin drinks his breakfast.” I narrowly avoided a DUI one time coming home from work. I worked in a very large, open air office space where everybody can see what everybody else is doing, and I would nod off at my desk all the time. In order to protect myself from losing my job, I spread a rumor that I had narcolepsy. It didn’t work. They fired me anyway.
So it was after I lost this first job I decided [at] my next job I needed to get myself together a little bit. I had to exert some willpower. I had to put some maintenance on my drinking and I did everything that you hear people in recovery do, that they try to set up rules for themselves. No drinking in certain places. No mixing. If you’re going to go to happy hour, make sure you go straight home afterwards. If you’re going to go out late at night, go to the gym, go straight home, eat something. Every time I’d set one of these restrictions, all bets were off as soon as the first one got thrown down. It’s crazy, because the last year-and-a-half that I was drinking, the frequency with which I was drinking had actually gone down, but the behavior, in between, became more and more bizarre.
I got really used to waking up outside. I woke up outside all the time. I woke up in the back seat of my car. I woke up on the steering wheel of my car. I woke up on front lawns. I woke up on park benches. I woke up on train tracks. If I wasn’t waking up outside, I was driving drunk. Driving drunk was pretty commonplace and I never really knew how it is that I got home. I just always knew that I got lucky and I got home. This is the way the last year of my drinking went. I often talk about this idea of a wheel. It felt like every time I drank I was crushed by this wheel, I was kind of crushed by this wheel. Every time I stopped drinking, then I had to pull myself out from underneath of this wheel. When I was at the top again, then I drank. Then all of the sudden I was crushed by it again.
It all culminated one day when I didn’t really know what else to do and I was standing in my kitchen. There was a set of steak knives and I grabbed one of the steak knives. I turned it in towards my chest and I had the handle of the knife in my hand. I knew that was the lowest point that I was going to get to with this, that that seemed like the best option at the time.
I knew I needed to stop, so I decided, I think it was Lent that was coming up, and I decided that I was going to quit drinking for forty days. I don’t know what was going to happen at the end of that, but at some point, I thought I was going to be better. I was going to be cured. So forty days, how hard could it be? I made it two days and I walked past this bar in my neighborhood. I went in to get a cheeseburger. I came out of a blackout the next day. I was so distraught that I drank against my will, that I went back to the same bar and started drinking again around noon. Then spent the rest of the day drinking drunk in one part of town. Then drove to another part of town, popped my car on the side of the curb, and got kicked out of three bars in my neighborhood.
Then I woke up the next day and I didn’t really know what to do. I knew I didn’t want to kill myself. I had a few family friends that had gotten help going to meetings, so I thought maybe that was going to be the answer. I looked online and I found there’s a meeting not too far from my house. It was a Tuesday night group, and I went. I did some reconnaissance from the other side of the street and showed up. I told them I was new. They all went around the room and talked about what their experience had been like, drinking in their life. Every time one of them spoke, the stories were so bizarre. They didn’t connect with anything that had happened to me, but a lot of the same feelings were there, that I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to be like these guys and I didn’t want to stick around these rooms.
So I left and I was hell-bent on going back to that same bar. Going back in and drinking, but something stopped me. I went home and I locked myself in my room. I didn’t leave for a couple days. Then when I finally came out again, I went back to the meetings. I’d show up late, leave early, never hit the same one twice. I tried to avoid people as much as possible. Then I ran into one guy in the back of one of the rooms one day. He could tell I was new and he started shaking my hand to introduce himself, but when he introduced himself, he wouldn’t let go of my hand. I was trying so desperately to get away from this guy, as much as I could, but he started grilling me, asking me questions about how long I’d been coming around for, and if I had a sponsor.
It was at that point I was like, “Oh, God. This guy wants to sponsor me.” So I of course lied and told him I had one. He asked, “Who’s your sponsor?” I pointed to some guy on the other side of the room and I was like, “That guy over there. That guy. He’s my sponsor.” It turns out the guy I was talking to actually sponsors the man [on the other side of the room]. He knew I was full of shit and said, “Well, if you’re going to work with this guy, you might as well go over and let him know that, so he’s aware.” So I’m all embarrassed. I walk over, I introduce myself, and I asked, “Would you sponsor me?” The guy said he’d be honored. I didn’t really know what that meant at the time, but that guy still sponsors me today.
What life was like first coming into recovery? I’d never call the guy. He would call me. When he’d call me he’d ask me how my day was. I’d tell him I was fine and then he’d tell me about his day for twenty minutes. At the end of the conversation he’d say, “This is good. We should do this more often.” I didn’t want to stick around. I really wasn’t convinced I was going to stick around. I thought at some point I was going to pick up again. I had a plan that in like three months or four months or something like that, some unknown amount of time, I was going to go back to whatever I was doing before that wasn’t working.
I physically had gotten better in the first couple days, but whatever it was that was bothering me for all those years, I was still carrying it around with me. It wasn’t until I sat down with this guy, talked about my experiences in my life, and things that had kind of driven me to drink in the past, [that] he opened up about his own experiences. It was the first time in a really long time, probably the first time I can ever really remember, when I had to sit down and be open with another man and be open about how I was feeling, how things affected me, and it had a profound impact. At a certain point, I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but after all these conversations, I actually not just physically felt better, I felt like I could walk around and I felt like I could look people in the eyes again.
I think it was at that point when I started to realize how much better my life was getting, just in this short amount of time. That became the gas that kept me going.
It’s been seven years and not all those years have been great. I think I’ve experienced the normal amount of pain that a human usually ends up experiencing in their life, but at the same time, I’ve gotten to experience a lot of good things.
It’s funny, because whether good things happen now, or bad things happen, I have kind of the normal reaction to it. I remember when I was drinking, I’d have no reaction. I’d be at funerals and I’d feel nothing. I’d be at weddings and I’d feel nothing. Nowadays I have the ability to walk through situations that I used to drink over.
Nowadays, it’s not so much just about me helping myself, but there’s been this whole other network of people that it’s opened me to as well too. It’s given me the opportunity to help out other guys and talk about things that have happened to me. Somehow it connects to them. Then they get better and they go help other people.
The entire experience has been pretty rewarding. I can’t think of anything that I’d want or anything that I could get that would make me reconsider, make me change, or make me go back to the way things were. I think I’ve got it way too good now to ever try and go back to that.
Photographs taken on the roof of Gavin’s home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.