“I’ve had cancer twice. I had prostate cancer in ’98 and kidney cancer—they took out my right kidney in 2007. I don’t know why I’m still on the planet, but I guess something good is going on.”
I always get a little choked up at the beginning of my story, because I really feel God’s grace has gotten me sober, keeps me sober—clean and sober—and I’m coming up on thirty-two years.
The first time I heard about alcoholism as a disease I was seventeen years old and my mother, who was an alcoholic (she’s passed on but I think she probably took it with her), had been hospitalized down in Friends Hospital in Philadelphia. We went for family day and that was the first time I heard of the disease concept of alcoholism—and I believe in that. My grandfather was an alcoholic; my mother was an alcoholic. When she passed on she had about thirty-six years of sobriety, but the pain that she went through to get that—she was in and out of rehabs and detoxes and stuff.
I remember the last time she had admitted herself to Norristown back when they had an alcoholic unit at Norristown State Hospital. She wouldn’t see my father, but I’m the oldest of six and I went over there with my brother to see her and that was one scary place. There were just a bunch of wet brains walking into the walls and stuff and there was our poor mother. She had lost weight—she was probably about ninety-five pounds. We came out there and just cried—we thought she was going to die in there—but that was what she needed to do. She ended up staying sober for the rest of her life, and again it was an example for me.
So I’m going along and I remember the first time I got drunk—I think I was about thirteen. Cocktails were a big deal in my parents’ social circle, so we were working as waiters at a cocktail party at a neighbor’s and I was stealing the alcohol. I’d pick up the half-drunk drinks and take them out to the garage and drinking them. I got drunk and I got sick and I said that I would never do that again—and I repeated that pattern for the next twenty-four years.
One of the things was it was overlaid by the craziness in my household. We never knew who was going to show up—the nice, loving mother, which she was very much at times, or the crazy drunk mother. I remember one time a friend of mine had come on his scooter, and she felt that he was a bad example for me and didn’t like me hanging out with him. So she went out the back door through the garage and picked up a hammer and all of a sudden [we] hear this crash, and she’s out there beating on his scooter. [She] smashed the headlight and all these other things—so we rush[ed] out.
It was that just sort of craziness. You’d go to take the clothes out of the clothes hamper and at the bottom of the clothes hamper there’d be a bottle and stuff. So that was sort of my life growing up—we didn’t know what was going to happen. I always said, “Well I’m never going to be like that,” and of course I became exactly like that.
Through high school it was mostly drinking and finally when I was about eighteen years old I tried drugs. I got drafted in 1968 and went in the Army and ended up, although it was the height of Vietnam—I ended up going to Germany. It was there that I really got into drugs. There was high-grade Hashish available to us and we did that like crazy. I got into a couple of scrapes, but managed to get out of them and came home and went back to college.
I remember going to college I said, “I’ve got to get my act together,” and that was probably, “I’m not going to drink and I’m not going to drug.” That might’ve lasted maybe a week, but in that week’s period of time I happened to run into my wife. I was sitting in the back of class and I was a little older having been in the Army—I was twenty-four at the time. She came in and I thought, “What wonderful blue eyes,” that she had. I had fallen madly in love with her before I discovered that they were tinted contact lenses, but she’s still with me today, and [what] an amazing journey we’ve had.
I did well in college, I graduated with honors, [and] went to work for my father’s business. My mother wanted us all to be doctors. She had been raised by a doctor, so she wanted us all to be doctors, so my father wasn’t allowed to talk about his business at the dinner table—I guess that made it exotic for us. Like I said I’m the oldest of six—three brothers and three sisters—and all of the brothers went into the auto parts business, which is what my father was in.
I continued to drink heavily and use drugs. I had made a deal with my wife when we got married. At the end in the Army we had been dealing drugs on a fairly heavy basis, and I told her that I wouldn’t deal drugs. That was a condition of us getting married.
So we got married and I’m successful in the auto parts business and we get transferred down to Baltimore—they asked me to run a warehouse down there. Again, I’m successful at it. I’m not one of those drunks that fell down the stairs—I’m one of the drunks that fell up the stairs. But the business model we were using fell apart. So I was hired by another company who had some loans against the company I was working for and they wanted me to clean it up, and I did and they gave me another job.
I was successful at that to the point that in December of 1982 I’m up on stage down in Florida and they’re making me “salesman of the year” for this company. And all I can think about while I’m up on that stage is—and this is the height of my professional career, this is getting all the accolades and everything—all I can think about is getting off of the stage and going in the bathroom and snorting some cocaine and starting to drink again.
So I got home and I had gotten a large cash award—$5,000 back when $5,000 was a lot of money in 1982—and I managed to spend it all on drugs in about ninety days. At this point, my mother’s about eight years sober, so I knew that something worked. She went to a lot of meetings and that seemed to be doing something for her. So I had a name and a phone number on my bulletin board down in my office in my house, but I’d look at it and I’d go, “Well, it’s getting close to Thursday and Thursday’s a party night, so I’m not calling him this week. I’ll call him next week.” I’d never call him, but I knew something was up.
I thought I was coming up here for my youngest sister getting engaged. I remember getting up the morning of the 14th of May 1983, and I snorted some cocaine and I smoked a joint. Then I went out and there in the living room was all of my family—my father, mother, my five brothers and sisters, my wife, and some guy I had never seen before.
My father came over to me and he was very shaky, very emotional, [and] he says, “We really think you have a problem with alcohol and drugs and we want you to do something about it.” He introduced me to this guy Tom. We went outside—it was a beautiful spring day. My parents lived across from the park, so he took me outside and we proceeded to walk around in the park for the next couple hours. I tried to convince him that I was fine, that I’d just been “salesman of the year,” my wife hadn’t left, I had a great job, I had a house and two cars, living the suburban dream and that sort of thing.
He kept saying, “Yea, but how do you feel?” Then I would say, “Well, I’m not going to do anything about it now.” Then he’d say, “Well, you just have to go back in there and tell them.” And that would’ve been hard, so finally I agreed to get in the car with him and go to Reading Hospital detox.
I very clearly did not want to stop using drugs or alcohol, but what I wanted to do was I wanted to stop feeling so empty and lonely inside. I just felt that I put up all these masks for all these people and I was just empty and lonely all the time.
I got to the hospital and as an aside, about five years later I was telling my story and my mother was there. I thought the reason they sent me to Reading Hospital was that in those days (1983) Reading didn’t use drugs to detox you, and [in] a lot of places that was still a thing. In those days, they would give you different types of drugs to detox you.
So I’m telling my story and said, “Yea, my family sent me there because they didn’t use drugs to detox me.” Afterwards my mother came up and said, “Well that’s a great story, but that’s not right.” I said, “Oh, it’s not? What’s the real story?” And she said, “We sent you there because it was fifty feet away from the Emergency Room and we really thought you were going to die.”
I didn’t die—that was the good news. One of the things that I’m saying today that I don’t usually talk about when I tell my story is that I was there and I was crying the whole time. How’d a wonderful suburban guy like me end up with paper slippers and my butt sticking out of a green gown, you know? It wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.
Finally I was there for three days and they had me on blackout and on the fourth day my mother came up to see me. I was still crying and saying, “How do I find God? How do I find a higher power?” I felt like by the time I was eighteen years old I had broken nine of the ten Commandments and so how was I going to get back, you know? She said, “Well, you just fake it ‘til you make it. You get down on your knees.”
That night I went up to the room I was staying in and got down on my knees and said, “God, I just don’t understand.” I’m sure I said the Lord’s Prayer and lay down in bed. The image in my mind immediately was all these dark clouds rolling around, rolling around, and they started to part. The more they parted, the more I saw this white light in front of me, and I just went towards that light. I didn’t think I was dying; it wasn’t a near-death experience. That light was love and kindness and just salvation.
I sat up in bed and I went downstairs and had dinner and in that instant what happened was that the compulsion to use alcohol and drugs was taken away from me—and what a blessing. I’ve come to understand that that happens probably in about ten percent of the cases, but it did happen to me.
So from Reading Hospital—I was there about eight days—I went down to detox on the eastern shore. It was really a great place on this farm down there. What it gave me was an opportunity to step back and look at my life. I don’t think I found sobriety there, but it did give me a chance to look at my life.
Of course the first thing I wanted to do was I wanted to complain. There was some guy there—he was my counselor—and his nickname when he had been in a motorcycle gang was “Spider,” and he had tattoos back when tattoos weren’t cool. Today everybody’s got a tattoo, but in 1983 you had to be serious to have a tattoo—and he was serious as hell.
I called my wife and I called my family and I said, “Listen. This is great; I’m glad I’m here; this is really helping me—but I just have the wrong counselor. You gotta get my counselor changed.” They said, “Yea, yea, fine,” hung up on me—and the guy saved my life. He absolutely could see through all my bullshit and just did an amazing, amazing job.
So I was there for thirty days, went back and got home, and I remember when I got home I had told my wife all the places that I had stashed drugs and she had gotten all the alcohol out of our house, although I was mainly a bar drinker. I got there and it was the day after I got home and I went to this one place down in my office and discovered that she had missed it completely—there was about two ounces of cocaine in there.
I picked it up and I ran into the next room where there was a sink and just washed it down the sink because I was so frightened I was shaking. I had no belief in my ability to stay clean and sober—I didn’t think it was practical.
What I did was I went with other people that had the same disease and I went every day. I’d go [at] seven o’clock in the morning, there’d be something going on, and then I’d go to work, and then I’d go in the evening to some place else. I did that—I went every day for close to four years. Then I got pissed off and I went from seven days a week to five days a week. It’s been an amazing thing.
A year or two ago I heard a writer out of Chicago named Jimmy Breslin who said—and I’m not sure I have this exactly right—“The problem with quitting drinking is that once you quit drinking you’re left with the same person that you were that started you drinking in the first place.” And I discovered that the problem wasn’t in my drinking; the problem was within what happened once the alcohol or the drugs got in me.
So I started to have to look at my life. I started to have a spiritual program, and that spiritual program was basically find a higher power, find God, clean house, and help others—and that was what I started to do.
I had somebody that was my spiritual sponsor. I remember the first one that I had—it took me about three months to get a sponsor. They said, “Well, find somebody that you like what they have [to offer],” but I had to get just the right one for me, you know? It had to be the right sponsor. I’d been watching this guy at meetings and stuff, so finally after about three months I asked him to be my sponsor. I only found out after that that he was a bartender. I mean, he wasn’t just a bartender, but the guy I asked was a bartender. He was my first sponsor for about a year.
Then in a corporate cutback I ended up losing my job. I was the odd man out because I was kind of open about what had happened and that makes other people nervous. When you’ve been drinking with people for years and years and then you go, “No, I’ve got a problem—I’m an alcoholic,” they get nervous.
So I lost my job and moved back up here—my wife and I—so my second sponsor I asked because he made me laugh. John was my sponsor for the next twenty years and died of cancer. I miss him quite a bit. Then I’ve had my last sponsor for twelve years. They help me keep my head on.
A lot of stuff has happened. Two years to the day on my anniversary—it’s a beautiful May day, I’m coming home from work, I think I’m going to take my wife out to celebrate—I get home and she’s sitting in the living room sobbing. I go in and she hands me this piece of paper—and I’ve been indicted by the federal government for conspiracy to traffic drugs. All the people that I used to hang out with before I got clean and sober have all been arrested, and I had done all the things that I was accused of doing. It wasn’t that I did not participate.
So I went to a meeting that night and I talked about how frightened I was because, I said, “I did do these things and I’m scared about going to jail,” and that sort of thing. After the meeting a guy named Luber came up to me and said, “Well, I do know a good criminal lawyer in Philadelphia. You happen to be in luck.”
He hooked me up and it went on for about a year and took all the money that I had at the time, but I ended up walking away from that without doing any jail time. So God works in mysterious ways. We tried for years and years to have kids and finally decided to adopt, and through a weird set of circumstances my son showed up and it was the most joyous day of our lives. Then it turned out that my wife was already a month pregnant with my daughter. So we have two kids eight months apart and they’ve never seen me drunk or stoned or anything like that.
I’ve had cancer twice. I had prostate cancer in ’98 and kidney cancer—they took out my right kidney in 2007. I don’t know why I’m still on the planet, but I guess something good is going on.
Circling back to the beginning, I think that the genetic connection of alcoholism is fairly strong. My daughter and son and my wife [and] a lot of my family comes to my anniversary celebrations. My daughter goes, “Dad, I’ve been to enough of these meetings. I’m gonna know when something’s going wrong, right?” And I look at her and I smile and I hug her and I go, “You got no clue, sweetie,”—but I don’t say that out loud.
That will be a journey for all of them. It’s work that I do with my sponsor and he says, “They got a higher power just like you, and they’re on a path just like you, and so you’re not the higher power. You don’t have to worry about those types of things—it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be.”
Here we sit in this beautiful building and we just had occasion to bury a young lady from the community—twenty-one years old, and just died of a heroin overdose. Since I came in, I’ve seen a lot of people die, but I’ve seen a lot of people die clean and sober, too. As they say, nobody gets out of here alive.
I just am really grateful for the path that my mother forged to open it up for me [and] the path that I forged for my siblings. I have a brother who two years after I came in came into the program, and he’s been clean and sober since, too. My nephew, who’s been struggling with drugs, now is clean just over a year. I remember that you can’t save family, so I’ve guided them to places where they can find help, but then I’ve walked away because I can’t save them.
I just was speaking to somebody last night—it was an anniversary celebration—and she was in a lot of pain because her brother was calling her up and saying, “Can I live with you?” and, “Can I do this?” and, “Can I do that?” And she’s going, “No, you can’t.”
So at times it’s painful but again, what a great gift. The grace of God has kept me sober for thirty-one years and nine or ten months—whatever it is—and I’ve had a life beyond my wildest dreams. I get to get up and be grateful every morning and that is good enough for me.
Photographs taken at Rob’s work, the Bryn Athyn Cathedral in Bryn Athyn, PA.