Russell: September 3, 2013

People in Long-Term Recovery, Recovering Addicts and Alcoholics

“The reason that I say my clean date is September 3, 2013 is because that’s the day I was released. I named that my clean date because life on life’s terms started happening then.”

My name is Russell and I’m an addict. I’m thirty-nine years old, been in a long-term recovery, which means I haven’t used or picked up since September 3, 2013. Relapse is part of my story.

I had a pretty isolated childhood. I grew up in the country, [our] nearest neighbor probably half a mile away. Needless to say, we were poor, and because we were poor I spent a lot of my lifetime not able to have the things that other kids had, not being able to experience some of the things that other kids did. At a very young age I felt inferior. I didn’t feel like I belonged to anything. When I was around other kids I never felt comfortable.

Both my parents were home and both of them worked. They were both gone a lot also, so I was kind of left to raise my baby sister that was six years younger than me. I did that for a long time. Had a lot of anger and resentment towards my parents for that kind of thing. Always questioned “Why [am I] I doing what you should be doing?” I had to grow up real fast and having a semblance of what I thought teenagers and childhood was supposed to be like, I didn’t have that. I always felt like the world owed me something and I was out to get it.

At around age twelve my parents decided to start bootlegging. Because they weren’t home a lot, I was left to take care of that, too. At a very young age before I had ever picked up, I was taught that making money was easy, and it was okay to do those kinds of things if you didn’t get caught, or if you didn’t let the wrong people know. Before I had ever picked up I was already into a lot of negative thinking and negative behavior, and didn’t have any respect for authority. When I did pick up for the first time, it made me feel like I belonged. I gravitated towards those people because those people made me feel like I belonged, or like I meant something to them. What I had or didn’t have wasn’t important to them.

Of course that progressed from drinking into harder things. As I got deeper involved in using harder substances and also being involved in the dealing end of that, at some point I had gone so far that there was no turning back. There was really no one that could pull me back. There was only a few times that I’m ever able to recall that family tried to reach out to me, and I was so far gone at that point that there was no turning back. Needless to say, I didn’t lose it all, I gave it all away. After getting in recovery and learning about myself, [I realized] that, “Yeah I gave it all away. Nothing was taken from me. It was because of my using and my lack of choice. It didn’t matter if I had or didn’t have things.”

People would come in and out of my life and I would pretty much walk through them or walk over them if it meant getting one more. The lies and manipulation were done like most people would get a cup of coffee in the morning. It was a natural thing to wake up and get a cup of coffee, and step outside and smoke a cigarette while you’re drinking your coffee. That’s what it was like for me. It became that easy and it was without thought.

I ended up getting kicked out of high school my senior year, and shortly thereafter was the first and only time that I had any semblance of what recovery might look like. I was real strung out and I went to my father and I was like “I need some help.” He paid for me to go to a facility for forty-five days. While I was there, it was more like I was in jail than I was somewhere I could get help. I couldn’t connect with the people because they were trained clinics. If they didn’t have a background in addiction or had been some of the places that I had been, I couldn’t relate to them because they didn’t share that with me. I couldn’t connect and wasn’t receptive to any of that stuff.

The first time that I got incarcerated was in 1997. Today there’s things like treatment and other alternative programs other than going to jail or going to prison. During that time there was no alternative, so I went to prison. Through that prison sentence I wasn’t using, but I was doing self-harm. Of course that first term made me really bitter to the system, and it made me feel like the world still owed me something. When I got released I just went back to the same behaviors. Nothing that I experienced there changed my thinking or behavior. Really it only made me worse. I learned more manipulation and more ways to deceive and get those things I wanted.

I got out and I did well for a little while, maybe a year. Then two years to the day, here I was with another criminal charge and incarcerated again and of course sent back down into the system again. Again, nothing changed. It’s like a vicious cycle and my life was like a revolving door. For a long, long time I believed things like my father telling me to work hard and that getting an education didn’t really matter unless you knew how to work hard. I worked hard and I played harder.

I went back to prison again of course, and the second time around was a little bit different. I got a little taste of some recovery. I dove in to study religion and taking a look at trying to find out what fit me, and maybe was searching for spiritual healing. I learned a lot of things. I also found a lot of things that I didn’t agree with. I still couldn’t get with that whole God aspect of things. I’d heard so many people share this God concept and higher power, and I still couldn’t wrap my mind around it because all that stuff that I was reading and studying I just totally disagreed with, just like everything else in life. I’m a rebel.

I end up back on the streets on parole. The time I was on parole I did really good because I had to do what they told me to do in order to stay out, and lived in my father’s basement. That two and-a-half-year period that I was in recovery, doing recovery and doing what people in recovery do, I did really good. Then there came a point in time when I stopped going. It came that time when I was like, “You know, maybe I’m okay. I can do this on my own now.”

I got married and moved out of my father’s house and moved into our house. Over another year, I acquired a lot of stuff—cars and trucks and motorcycles and a brick home. Even with all that stuff, with some of the success, I was still miserable. I found myself not happy, not feeling good. My partner, she went out. Her sickness made me sick after a period of time, and the next thing you know after so many months I was like, “I can’t do this.” So I left. I went back to hanging out with all those people that made me feel good before. The vicious cycle continues and then I end up back in the same place around the same people. Thought I could do it different by just drinking. It didn’t take long, and I was back doing the same thing as I was before.

I made it about four years and of course when I started picking up again, the ‘just using’ part was never enough for me. I had to be in the middle of the boat. I had to be that guy that people came to that people [and] got what they needed from. Of course, I would manipulate and harm and do a lot if things that were unbecoming of a human being, to be that guy. When the authorities came in, on I think the third time, I was facing a lot more time. When the actual indictment came down, it was a class A felony. It was twenty to life. My heart stopped when I seen the paperwork. It wasn’t just out of fear of being incarcerated forever, because probably the easiest parts of my life until I got in recovery again was incarceration. Not having responsibilities, not having to live life on life terms, not having expectations put upon me… all the stuff that comes with that. That in itself is a vicious cycle too.

When I was in front of the judge for the indictment, he told me “You really need to get some help.” Here I am in front of this judge, and I’m looking like a skeleton and I probably weigh about 110 pounds. I have a picture of myself on that last day and it is like pure evil. Anyone that I show it to are like “Man, you look really mad.” I was mad. At the end I didn’t wanna live any longer. I was full of shame and guilt and hate and no semblance of spirituality, or empathy, or compassion, or love, or all those things that are becoming of human beings in our natural states. I found myself in front of this judge and he’s like, “Man, you need some help.” For the first time, I actually heard what he said because I could never recall a judge or anyone else for that matter saying, “You need help.” I was like “Yeah, I probably do.”

They sent me to a treatment program inside. I did that for seven and a half months. Afterwards, I went through the system and I ended up in a half way house in Louisville. I’d like to say my thinking and behaviors had changed, but then I got to Louisville and I was able to get out and on the streets and walk to places and come back. Again, because I didn’t have the things that everybody else had, I found myself hustling dope in the halfway house to provide for myself. I felt like it was okay because I wasn’t using it. Then I actually went to a meeting on the streets, and the speaker was saying something about when he first got clean and lived in a halfway house and he sold dope to pay halfway house rent, and he justified it because he was clean. Something about that connected with me, and so I thought about it that whole entire night and the next day, and the rest of my time there I stopped that behavior.

I was released and the reason that I say my clean date is September 3, 2013 is because that’s the day I was released. I named that my clean date because life on life’s terms started happening then. No longer was I provided meals and a place to sleep, and clothing and all the stuff that comes with being inside a facility or an institution. I feel like that was a conscious healthy decision to make. It keeps [me] accountable. I think that, if nothing else, the people that hear that part of my story understand it. Especially if they’ve had any kind of experience like I’ve had.

Now I’ve been in college for a couple of years. I’m working toward a social work degree, with an addiction CADC certification background. I’m a student coordinator in this office. This is the Changemakers office, which is a partnership in college that supports students that through their college careers. We teach leadership development and peer mentoring. We use a lot of art, as you can see, in what we do.

When I first enrolled in college I came in as a heating and air major. I took this leadership development class, and through some of the work we did in that class, it gave me the courage to change my major because working and giving back is what I’ve always wanted to do. Especially since I’ve been in the city, I’ve found a lot of support here. On September 3rd when I was released from the facility, my coworkers here threw me a surprise party.

Outside of my recovery I got a lot of support. I got people that are counting on me and that have faith and that I can make it. They’ve actually shown me some light that I can do it, that I can succeed. With my education I look at it this way: My kids are grown, my son just graduated high school. We have a relationship. It’s not the greatest, but it’s a relationship. Maybe if I can do this then he can see that it can be done, too. Kind of lead by example.

Besides this, I took a leap of faith and I [re-did] my entire resume and I work in a facility [in] which there’s recovery and homeless. With that I get to see a side of addiction that a lot people don’t get to see. I also get to see myself in a lot of those people. I’m able to reach out and plant a seed here and there. I’ve had a couple of success stories in the last year. Again leading by example, just being there and being present. Of course [I’m] the guy behind the counter with all the tattoos and the look on his face. Sometimes people say “Man, how’d you get here?” I get to share that with people.

I’m pretty transparent when it comes to that. I’m very passionate about my recovery. I get a little excited sometimes. Life’s not peaches and cream all the time because it happens. My phrase for life is ‘the joyous struggle.’ That being said, that’s what it is because it happens. Things go shitty but then things go great. What I found out is, even at the worst times, if I sit still long enough new horizons come.

This past summer I thought I was not going to take classes. I was going to work and I was going to put some money in the bank because I want to stay in college and we are all poor in college. That was the plan, but that didn’t work out because I ended a two-year relationship. In ending that relationship what I could say is it’s not like a relationship that I’ve ever ended. [We ended it] in a healthy way. We were both speaking to each other instead of cursing each other out, or anybody going to jail, or any of that stuff that came with being in the midst of addiction.

What I did was what the people in recovery had told me to do. I reached out and I cried out. I didn’t isolate, and I made phone calls and admitted that I needed freakin’ help because if I didn’t do that I would have picked up. The great thing about recovery is it’s not just abstinence, it’s also dealing with a lot of self-work. When the drugs are gone I’m still left with me. Yeah, not a fun place to be sometimes.

I’m just a program aid in the facility with the recovery and the homeless people. I’m that face that they see when they come through the door, and often I’m the face they see when they leave. Sometimes it can be a very disheartening place to be because you get to see people get clean for a little period of time, and then you may see them next day and it’s like they never came. That part is tough to get with sometimes, especially if I make some kind of connection with them. That’s the thing, it’s like all that hate and all that stuff that I had before when I was using everything else, now all that’s not the same with me anymore.

We were asked earlier today to list seven words about ourselves. I took a look at those things: compassionate and supporting and a sharer and empathetic and a learner. When I looked at those things that I wrote on that paper, as often as it happens, I find myself reflecting on them and like, “Man, you’re talking about a guy that could not stay out of the facility, and here I am in places doing things like this. That’s pretty freakin’ amazing.”

After going through the leadership classes and stuff here, I now co-facilitate the classes with the professor. It’s not a paid position. It’s heartening to me. It fills me up. I get to see other people grow. I get to see other people blossom. That’s the word I like for that because it’s like a flower to me. It changed a big part of me, and where I’m at and who I am. It’s fun to get to watch other people do that, too.

Photographs taken at the Changemakers office at Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville, Kentucky. 

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