“If we don’t tell our stories, then it’s useless. It’s almost like being a superhero and having this power, but you won’t tell anybody about it.”
My name is Mario Diurno. I’m thirty-four years old. I’m from Norwalk, Connecticut, originally. I’m in recovery. My recovery date is October 10th of 2014, but I’ve been–my journey began in October of 2004. I’ve had lengths of sobriety in that time, and probably the best three years of my life in any time I’ve been sober was in recovery, if that makes any sense. That’s the reason why I try to come back if I can, but I’ve been blessed. Currently, I’m living in a sober house in West Hartford. This has been amazing. The recovery community out here is top-notch. I have a big network. They embraced me, but I also had to reach out and do a lot of work myself. It doesn’t just come to you.
I grew up in an old school all Italian family, very old school where if I thought—if you don’t think you fit in in recovery—If I thought I was different already, being from an Italian family that’s right off the boat, that didn’t help either. My parents were a lot older. I always said, “I was an accident,” they would never agree, but I would do the numbers. My brothers and sisters were all about thirteen to fifteen years older than me, but I had a great childhood. I can’t complain about anything really.
My parents did the best they could with what they had and we always had everything we needed. I noticed from a young age that I did not like people telling me what to do. I did not like rules. I had all of those—you know how they call alcoholism—I had all of the traits ten to fifteen years before I picked up, and that’s what I believe this disease is about. I don’t really believe it’s really about the drugs, the alcohol, and the substance, I believe it’s about the behaviors. I’m not a scientist, but from what I know of all the neuro-science, or the biology, or whatever, my brain is wired differently than the next person. Today, I’m okay with that.
I grew up in the nineties. Things were awesome. I always noticed that I was different. I was always a high-energy kid, and wanted to play and hang out, and never wanted to be alone. I think sometimes I’m still like that. I’m a very big people person. I really just love people, all kinds, recovery, not in recovery, I don’t care. I love kids. I think that’s why I love being in recovery, because it’s about dealing with other people. I think that’s where I tend to do well, but the minute I start isolating and I stop making constant contact with people then that’s not a good road for me.
Growing up was fine. They always asked me when I picked up my first drink, and I usually say, “You know, we made homemade wine since I was a kid and I had to help do that, and you have to test the wine,” so I was always curious. Wine was always on the table, but as far as I know nobody in my family really struggled with this. I think the first time I really got drunk was around twelve years old. Right from the bat, right out the gate, I got totally hammered, came home drunk, I think it was me and my buddy at a keg party with a ton of older people, because that’s where I always wanted to fit in, and that day I fit in. That alcohol had me feeling like I was part of.
I had a blast, until I came home with that friend on his sister’s little bike, and my parents were at the door yelling at me, and I just ran upstairs and was like, “Are you guys done? I have to puke.” That’s the story of my life, it was basically like everything and everybody was in the way of my addiction and it was like, “All right, are you done yet? If you’re not helping fuel my addiction, then I really don’t have anything. You’re in my way.”
From then on, it just escalated. The progression for me was very fast, very hard, and I’m not going to lie, I loved it. I finally found my thing, I guess. I found something I was good at, which was drinking, drugging, and just acting a fool. I didn’t care, though. The drugs came into play right after that. I started smoking pot, you know the story, and graduated to ecstasy, PCP, mushrooms, and it’s starting to sound like that Sublime song that I love. Basically, before I knew it—I was always an athletic, pretty smart kid—and everything went out the window, everything that mattered to me. I really never had big dreams, that’s the thing.
I know it sounds sad, but I never knew what I wanted. I kind of was always just floating in life. I never worried about the future, so I think drugs and alcohol were the perfect fit for me. It worked. I barely graduated high school. There [were] some incidents in between, and I also struggled with [the] mental health issue, but again, I also think part of that is from the use. I did a lot of damage to my brain, which was probably already damaged, but… I remember one summer I was at a concert because I love music, and I played music and I love live music, so I was actually up here in Hartford at the Meadows and I tripped on mushrooms for the first time at a 311 concert.
It was awesome, but then that’s my story, once I did something once like that and I loved it, I went full one hundred percent. I think that summer, I think it was the day before junior year, my friend comes over—the same kid that I did all these first drugs with, it always ended up being the same kid—came over with a big freezer bag full of mushrooms, and he stole them from his girlfriend’s dad, and I don’t have to tell you the rest. Basically, I kind of just roamed through life. There really wasn’t any big consequences. I never got arrested. Somebody was always there to bail Mario out, and not bail me out in jail, but there was always a safety net under me. At the time, I thought it was great, but looking back now that could have killed me.
My mother was a typical Italian mother. [I was] the youngest of four; I was like the king. That fueled my addiction. The other thing is my dad was awesome, but he was so work-oriented, focused on work and providing for us, that… I also think they were kind of done parenting. They were tired, and I really ran them through the gamut. I had an open door to just kind of… I got away with a lot. Along the way, I’ve had too many jobs to list. Like I said, I really didn’t care. I never cared about money. All of my friends were going off to college and had goals, and I thought life was a joke. To be honest with you I really didn’t care. It’s almost like I was numb.
I was always the class clown, always had to be funny and loved attention. Or crazy, whatever it took to get attention, but I will say that on the inside I think I was just really hurting, almost like how you see comedians that—you always hear about those funny comedians that we love, and inside they end up being terrified with depression and suicide, and it’s just horrible, so I could relate to that. I overdosed for the first time when I was twenty-three. Nothing like that had ever happened to me. I had driven drunk a million times, I had done pretty much you name it, but once I started getting into Oxycontin when everyone was doing it, early 2000s, that’s when things started to change. I had never been hooked on a substance that physically made me sick. I didn’t even know what was going on. I basically had overdosed. I was drinking and doing a ton of Oxy and a bunch of other stuff I guess, I don’t remember.
I was in my best friend’s basement where I had actually gotten arrested that night, one of the first times for a hit-and-run, and this is where I know I’m different than regular drinkers and people, because most people would get arrested for whatever, and then they’d probably go home, but I had to get arrested. I bailed myself out, they did find some drugs on me and other things… I don’t know how I got out, but I ended up going across the street to a bar because that’s what I do, and all I knew was that it would be okay, whatever the situation was, once I could get alcohol, and it was.
My poor friend didn’t know that I was on all of these things. He just thought I was drinking a little bit. He picked me up, and long story short he woke up to me flopping around like a fish. I think I was aspirating and throwing up and choking, or something, and foaming. I don’t know, but he said there was a lot of blood and stuff. I woke up from that. They said that I was dead a couple of times, and they told my parents and family that it was basically like, “Don’t even get your hopes up,” and I woke up out of a coma for like… I think I was on life-support and intubated.
I woke up and freaked out because there was tubes and wires everywhere, but again I woke up and I didn’t get it. It almost didn’t matter, it didn’t happen to me. That’s how I am, I just wake up and in a couple of days I feel all right. Meanwhile, I had been out for like a week and a half. I just kept looking at my family and they’re looking at me like I’m a ghost. That was the first time I really kind of said, “You know what? Let me try something different, not for me, but for my family,” because I felt guilty. Even though I woke up and my first thought was, “I’ve still got like six Oxys at my house, so let me get out of here,” or, “How I can manipulate a dope fiend and get someone to get me those.”
I do believe in God, because there’s too many situations and too many close calls, and just too many coincidences, if you know what I mean, that… there’s something out there looking out for me, and I’ve seen miracles in other people, and I’ve seen miracles in my life. I knew that the situation that time, that all of the moving parts around me, and who was taking… You know, my best friend that I grew up with, who I hadn’t been in her life because of my disease, and what I had done, ended up being my nurse, taking care of me. There’s a couple of other things, but overall I said, “What do I have to lose?”
2004 was the first time I really tried this thing. I had been to one other treatment when I was like nineteen or twenty, but I was in such denial that I don’t remember anything. I had been to treatment once before, but I was in such bad denial that I really just thought in my head I was there for depression and anxiety. I was so gone that I didn’t realize why I was there. That’s when I was first introduced to twelve-step programs and other methods of sobriety, but this time around was the first time that I really found recovery.
Basically, I got plugged in. I moved to a new city. There really wasn’t much left for me where I was from. I had burned every bridge and was really embarrassed, and very shameful, of my disease. I started over. It was probably the best thing I could have done for myself. I found recovery. I found a community of people, young, old, black, white, you name it, that were sustaining long-term recovery one day at a time. Together, it was a beautiful thing.
Once again, they embraced me. I loved it. At that time, there was a big young people’s movement where there was a lot of young people that were coming into recovery. It was just a good time. It was great times. I found out right off the bat that it was okay to be sober and that it was fun. It wasn’t the end of my life. In fact, it was a new lease on life. It was almost like a birth certificate instead of a death sentence. I’m lucky. I got blessed with a good first experience. I know some people don’t, but it takes what it takes, or… I don’t know. I can’t tell you that.
There I was able to put together almost two years of continuous sobriety, but what had happened is I ended up relapsing and going back out because I stopped doing the things that got me [there] and started hanging out with the wrong people. You can hang out with the wrong people in recovery. I hate to break it to people. I just stopped doing the work. I got in a bad space. Before I knew it I had a crack pipe in my mouth again, and I don’t know how. I didn’t want to, but that’s what it is. Luckily, I do have good friends and family that I am blessed that they got me back up. I went into treatment again and was lucky enough to come right back to the community.
With that being said, my next time around was an even better experience than the first one. I found out more about myself. I was different. Something about me changed after that relapse. I can’t explain it, but it was a beautiful thing, believe it or not. Maybe sometimes it’s the best thing, if I’m lucky enough to make it, because I came back a different person. Like I said in the beginning, there was three years from like ’06 to ’09, I’m still chasing those years. It was a beautiful thing, just to kind of give you an idea.
I had gotten married in this time to a high school sweetheart. Bad idea. I had kids, did the whole thing, got the big-boy job, and things happened really fast, but throughout this whole process I was helping a lot of people, I was out there in advocacy world of recovery, and I was basically sharing my story and doing whatever it took to preserve my recovery and to help another person in recovery, on an almost daily or weekly basis. I got to see and do some really cool things that year in terms of volunteering and service. That was amazing.
Long story short, the woman I married was also an addict. I don’t know if I was naïve or didn’t really get it, but she had presented herself that she was just a normal drinker. Maybe with some of my defects I chose not to look at that. I don’t know. That ended up being a nightmare. We both relapsed and it got really bad. Just to give you an example of this, they say that when you go back into a relapse you hit new bottoms and things get really bad, and a lot of those, “yets,” and, “agains,” like I hear a guy say one time, they all happened within a short time.
The arrests started piling up. The consequences were getting worse. The things we were doing to support our habit were things that, if you told me I’d be doing these things ever, I would have thought you were crazy. It was just insane, pure insanity. Like I said, we had kids, so they were suffering. They got removed from us and DCF, Department of Family and Children Services, came. Everything that you could think would go wrong, and all your worst fears and nightmares as a human, as a parent, as a person, went wrong within about a year and a half. We were living in a very affluent neighborhood, an affluent town in Connecticut, in Fairfield County, renting, but it was nice. The next thing you know, we’re living in a crack house that was our house, and it felt like it was like The Wizard of Oz, like our house had got spun up. It used to be a nice, cozy, warm family home, and now it looked like a straight crack house.
The best thing for us to do at that time was to split. Throughout this time I had been to multiple treatments. She had been to a couple treatments. I had gone out of state to Florida, every place in Connecticut, I don’t even know. I could probably have a Master’s in the treatment field just off of that. Also, during that year my father had passed away on St. Patrick’s Day of 2010, and that set me off. That really pushed me over the edge, along with other things that were going on between me and my wife, and that was like my free ticket to just ride out.
Since 2010, until now, it’s been really hard for me to put together more than eight months. To be honest with you, I’ve had about eight or nine months of sobriety and recovery, and then I had gone to jail for some of those things I had done during that relapse, but the courts don’t care about that. That’s the other thing that really bothers me and that’s part of this reason why I do this kind of work is because our country—that’s the solution to addiction treatment.
America’s rehab is send us to jail, and there’s no treatment in jail, not for me. I think there must be about eighty percent or more of the people jail who are living with this disease of addiction. There’s just nothing. It’s just basically like we’re all pooled up there with addiction, and mental health, and God knows what else, and there’s nothing that’s happening to us that is helpful. If anything, it makes you worse, because then you come out of there and you feel like you just got dropped onto another planet. It’s hard to reintegrate back into society. Now you have a record, so there goes your job opportunity, which I really struggled with these last couple of years. You kind of just feel really hopeless and that you’re stuck, you’re part of the system, and for lack of better words you’re basically screwed. That’s a big issue that I hope to see very soon, if not one day, to get better. I know it’s not going to be solved because the prison industry is such a moneymaker, but I’d like to see that change or shift.
I went to jail and I bounced in and out of recovery, and just really struggled. Then, I went through periods where I thought, to speed up to these past couple of years, I started to believe that lie again that my head tells me that I can use safely. Just to give you an example, this is where my head goes. If I’m away from recovery and the recovery community for long enough, and I start isolating or being around normal people, I can trick myself and my head to just tell me that, “Mario, you can drink. You could have a drink here. You could have a few drinks. You can hang out with these people. They don’t know you’re an addict,” because I’m not going to let them know, so I’m protecting my disease.
That works for a little for me, I’m not going to lie, depending on what I’m doing, but at the end of the day it brings me to the same place, which is to my knees. The end of a run, to me, ten out of ten times, is plotting suicide or pretty much paralyzed with fear, anxiety, hopelessness, despair, and just not wanting to be in the world. That’s where I was at this time. Once again, I call them angels, but it’s really my sister and my brother. They’re my angels. I believe my dad is an angel to me, and my mother, and my best friends. People that are in my life, to me, I call them angels, guardian angels, whatever you will, because they’ve had that much impact on me and they really have been there when no one else has been there to prevent me from doing something that I shouldn’t do when it comes to this. I’m not stretching this. When I’m talking about when there’s a point where, that turning point or whatever you’d like to call it, where I’ve got to make a decision where I’m going to live or die, somehow somebody steps into my life from my core network and prevents that. I can’t fight that. I can’t. That’s when I throw my hands up.
Again, one of those divine interventions, or whatever you’d like to call it, happened. I had to speak up, obviously. I had to say something, but that’s all it took was just to say something, which is very hard. It sounds minuscule, but it’s very hard to just speak up sometimes because, for whatever reason, I don’t like asking for help. I got back into treatment and was blessed, not only to get into treatment, but I ended up going to probably one of the best treatments that you could go to. I told my brother—I’ll never forget this, and say this every time I speak almost—that I didn’t want to go back into treatment. I didn’t have any intentions.
I ended up in the psych ward because that’s just where I go. I’m comfortable there, and that was the first piece of it, was dealing with my mental illness, which was amazing. I’m very lucky. I was ready to go somewhere, but I knew I wasn’t really ready to be back into my old surroundings and society. I can tell, I have a good self-awareness gauge. Again, that’s the problem with our system is that there was not much for me to go for after-care for mental health and addiction. They were like, “All right. You’ll go to this outpatient.” I’m not knocking their outpatient. I had been there about ten times, but I already knew the deal. If I went to the outpatient, I knew it was a wrap. I fought and did what I had to do, and sometimes my addict’s behavior can be a benefit. They suggested going to treatment, and I was against it.
The next thing I know, I was making a list and comparing and I said, “Well, that’d be stupid. There’s no good reason not to go.” I couldn’t come up with a reason. This is the phone call to my brother explaining what’s going, because we’re close, and he said, “As long as you are going to do the right thing. We support you as long as you’re doing what you need to do for you, so yeah, we’ll send you to treatment,” because I don’t have insurance. It costs about ten grand a month.
My first reaction to that was, “Don’t waste your money.” There’s my head again, “I’m not good enough. I don’t fit in. I’m a failure. I don’t want that pressure on me. Now I have to stay sober. I’m not worth it.” I have the most loving family. Here I am today. While I was in treatment things started to change. I started to fall in love with recovery again. I remembered it was like being back in the saddle. I did so well that they had asked me to stay three months for free, which is over thirty grand. It’s a program they have where they pick a number of people, and through how you behave there and how you… they say it’s for people that really need it.
I was either really fucked up or I was doing really well, but I was so grateful because I was only able to stay there for thirty days and then it was time to go, money-wise. I stayed there for almost five months. I took all of their suggestions and I put it, early on, in their hands and said, “I can’t do it Mario’s way. I have to let them do their job and put it in God’s hands,” and I ended up here at a sober house. I know this works. As long as I do the right thing, I know this is a great environment. I also didn’t really have much of a choice because my mother had sold her house, so that helped.
I think it’s one of the best moves I ever made. I reconnected with all of my old friends through the areas I’d gotten sober before. I still have the same group—this is the one beautiful thing about recovery that I’ve never experienced—I’ve still had three main friends that I met since day one in Danbury, Connecticut, when I was twenty-three. Now I’m thirty-four, and if I could tell you the stuff I’ve put them through—they have never once turned their back on me. I’ve done some pretty crappy stuff to them. I’m not a total scumbag, but let’s just say one time I stole my sponsor’s car—well, he had let me borrow it to get a job—and ended up smoking crack all day in it with someone else. Stuff like that. I was honest after [that] and had to make it right, but these guys, and women, are probably the most loyal, supportive people that I could ever ask for. That’s the happiest thing I could tell you.
Again, like I said, I’m a people person. I don’t find that anywhere else. I’m just blessed. Throughout this year I’ve gotten to do some amazing things in recovery. I’ve got[ten] to travel. I recently went to Atlanta for almost a week. I’ve been to Philly for the first time, which was awesome. I’m going to D.C., Virginia. I work in the advocacy and recovery field. It’s not for the money, because anyone that works in that field knows you don’t get paid a lot. You don’t work there for the money. It’s personal. It’s not a job. It’s like a passion. Don’t get me wrong, this is not my program when I’m at work, it’s separate, but it’s so close to home and so close to my heart that it’s easy.
I get to meet so many people from so many walks of life that get to share their story with me, and I share mine with them, that it’s such a powerful moment. Our stories do have such an amazing power to them, but we’ve got to tell it. If we don’t tell our stories, then it’s useless. It’s almost like being a superhero and having this power, but you won’t tell anybody about it. I’m not ashamed of who I am. I’m proud. I’m ashamed of who I was when I was active, but why am I going to be ashamed now that I’m in recovery? I’ve always been like that for some reason, since the beginning. I’m okay. There’s not much stigma attached with me. I’ll tell you everything.
What I found through telling people this, you’d be really surprised in some of the places I could tell you where I’ve met people and all I had to say was that I’m in recovery, and I didn’t have to lie, and make up some BS answer about why I don’t drink, and then next thing you know the person will say, “Oh, I’ve got thirty-three years.” The UPS man will say that, or the stripper at the pole will say, “I’m actually struggling right now. Can I talk to you? I want to get into treatment.” I know that’s extreme, but I’m just being honest. My experience has been that if I open my mouth, amazing things have happened.
Photographs taken outside a church in Hartford, Connecticut, where Mario attends twelve-step meetings.