“You ever see people that walk around town talking to themselves? That was me.”
My name is Scott and addiction carved my family to shreds. This is my second-chance story. I got arrested for my first drunk driving in 1986 and they sent me to this two-day program where they give you a quiz on your drinking and I come from such a screwed up background that I didn’t realize the answers I was putting down were aberrant.
I was like, “Yea, I do that and I do this and I do that,” and the counselor questioned me on it. I distinctly remember this guy asking me, “Says here you drink in the morning?” My response, and I wasn’t even being facetious was like, “Yeah, but not every day.”
I knew the guy was trying to make a point, but I just saw this type of behavior all the time. Like beer was a breakfast beverage—that’s what it was. It’s not like you waited until noon to have a drink; it was okay to drink beer in the morning. That’s how I was raised. I saw my old man do it all the time. He would drink one cup of coffee and crack a beer. And it was the good stuff, too—Piels.
Needless to say, this counselor sends me to a church basement where the recovery program is. They give you these cards for attendance and if I could’ve sat out in the parking lot, I would’ve. I wasn’t interested. I was just a young kid and you weren’t going to tell me that this wasn’t going to work, quite frankly because it’s all I knew.
I got these cards and I split, and I crawled in there—I crawled into the same place eighteen years later. People had written me off. I was thirty-nine years old, I’d been living out of my car for a while, I had no bank account, I had no career, [and] I had no more friends. Through this weird series of events I walk into a crisis center—not because I really wanted help—just because I had nowhere to go. I was going to take myself out, but the idea of my mom having to sit there by my casket and explain to people that this dude could’ve done something with his life? That brought me more pain than the pain I was in. I really don’t have the verbalization skills to articulate to somebody the kind of pain I was experiencing, and loneliness.
I’ll never forget this: I go into this crisis center in this hospital which is the same hospital I was born in, and I went to make a phone call to my mom. I remember saying to the nurse that, “I think there’s something wrong with your phone.” She looked at me and she said, “Oh, we forgot to tell you that they’re blocking your phone calls. They’re not taking your calls.”
So I’m thirty-nine years old and I’m puking blood all over the place all the time, and I live out of a 1995 Buick Regal. Other than that, things were really clicking for me at this point. And I wasn’t laughing then. Leaving the planet was really my predominant thought. Now the staff at this hospital’s talking about my life in terms of what homeless shelter they wanted to send me to, [and] that really wasn’t on my list of things to do. It wasn’t on my bucket list of things, and I was scared.
I had one friend left; he’s a full-blown alcoholic. A lot of the guys I ran with are dying now. His wife called me and she said, “Why don’t you come here?” It was the only offer I got. In hindsight I probably should’ve gone to the homeless shelter because this place was full-blown alcoholism.
I remember they had given me the church basement meeting list. I had no intention of going, but I literally and figuratively had nowhere to go and I had to get out of the house. I looked at the thing and there was this meeting, kind of local, but I was walking—it took me an hour to get there. What it did was, it infused me with hope. That’s what happened that night. The idea that I was ever going to live a life abstinent of alcohol was a foreign thought to me; I had never considered that.
I remember distinctly putting my hand up and saying I was an alcoholic and what I experienced was fear; there was no relief. It dawned on me a year later, I was walking around and I just laughed, because the thought I had was, “How am I ever going to make it through a wedding?” I mean, it’s a ridiculous thought because nobody was inviting me anywhere ever again. My social calendar was clear—forever, but the idea of having to interact with people without some kind of substance scared the shit out of me. And I’m forty years old at the time—thirty-nine years old. I turned forty when I was counting days. I had never gone any significant period of time without alcohol.
They told me to make ninety of these meetings in ninety days, and I hadn’t gone ninety days without a drink since I was nine years old. They also tell me—they have this type sponsorship thing in this place—and they tell me, so, “Now you want me to walk up to a dude and start telling him stuff about myself.” That was less likely than me not drinking, but I had no other option. The guys in the meeting, they seemed like they were straight-up dudes, unlike the people I was running around with.
I was looking for something and I basically tripped in the door and found something I didn’t even know I was looking for—but it started slow. Painfully slow. That’s what happens when people write you off. Nobody’s hugging you and kissing you and saying, “Hey, we’re proud of you.” They don’t believe you anymore.
So that’s the first hurdle, and one of the best ways to get over that hurdle is, they said, “You can go do something with this.” Matter of fact, they said no matter how far down the scales you had fallen, you’d see how your experience could benefit others, and I found that to be true quite early.
Interestingly enough, one of the ways that I’m able to do that now is I can stand up in front of a room and share. I had had so much anxiety I had never stood up in front of a room before in my life, and then I found this new skill that I have. Somebody told me very early, “Dude, people listen to you.” And I was like, “Why? Why would they listen?” Because I’ve always been kind of a direct, frank, open person, and beating around the bush doesn’t even make sense to me. It just is how I am—I’m direct. In case you didn’t notice, there’s a lot of BS in this world, and I just ain’t really down with it.
It was a long journey and it was horrible for my mother, you know? My parents were older; they were told they would never have children. My dad actually was on a battleship in World War II. I recently acquired his discharge papers from 1946 and right on the bottom they ask you what your future career goals are and he wrote down, “Accountant.” He was a twenty-one-year-old guy who grew up without a father in a poor home, but he had a plan. And he went, came home utilizing the G.I. bill, went to St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, and he executed the plan because he was a real smart dude—smart.
He got a job with the accounting firm Peat Marwick Mitchell, which is now part of KPMG. If he had hid in the corner, he’d probably be wealthy, but he couldn’t do that because he had a big mouth. Long story short, the last time I saw my dad alive the police were taking him out in handcuffs. He died alone in the squalid room over a bar. I didn’t know where he was living; I didn’t really care. Honestly, when he died it was a relief. I carried that guilt for a long time, but it was just so volatile that’s what happens.
My mom sent me over there to get his stuff. I would say “belongings,” but it was more like shit. There was a hot plate and a black-and-white TV. If you were making a movie where an alcoholic goes to lose everything, it would be this room. I went right downstairs to the bar and got drunk, and that was my time to take the beating.
I was a kid. My parents had come down from Jersey City. They had raised the money and got together with some people to build a new church—St. Benedict’s in Holmdel, New Jersey—so I went to a grammar school there. I was a really good student and I was voted the kid most likely to succeed, and it happens to be a really good all boys Catholic prep school in Monmouth County—Christian Brothers Academy—and I went there.
The volatility in the house had really started to escalate. Some people act out—I shut down. I didn’t talk. My old man told me to shut up when I was about eight years old and that’s pretty much what I did for the next thirty years. “Yes,” “No,” “Please,” “Thank you,” and “I hate the Yankees”—that’s about it. That’s all he got out of me.
When you’re quiet, and you can do it in the classroom, and you don’t really cause any trouble, people leave you alone. I really desperately needed to ask for help; I just had no idea how to do it. I worked my way through high school and I came to the end. A hundred percent of the kids that go to this school go to really good colleges. So they’re all doing college visits and the fabric of my family was coming apart, so I was on my own and I was really screwed up. I finally jumped in the car, I grabbed a twelve-pack of Piels, and I drove up to Rutgers University and that’s how I made my next life decision. I tossed a few beer cans out and I said, “All right, I’ll go here.”
I went up to Rutgers and Rutgers is really big. Great school, but it’s big. And I felt small. I didn’t know how to talk people; I didn’t know how to connect with people. I would call my mom and she’d be crying about what was going on in the house. I felt guilty leaving my mother and sister there, and my own drinking and substance abuse really took off.
I started to bounce in and out of college. I bounced in and out. [I] go to community college, get a crappy job, and come back. That cycle went on for years, and I was back up there again and it was 1990. I get in trouble in the dorm and they send me to see this alcohol counselor, not coincidentally. She’s got my folder out—my “screwing your life up folder,” I like to call it. And the evidence was starting to pile real high. I had already gotten one drunk driving arrest—there would be more—and [when] she looks at me she made an ominous prediction. She said, “Guys like you get lost.” I didn’t say it, because I’m not rude, but I was thinking, “What do you know about guys like me, lady?”
I had gotten into this relationship with somebody relatively normal because part of me, like the guy I am now, was still surfacing every once in a while. This young lady had a plan. Literally, she had a life plan. My plan was there’s nickel beers at the corner bar—that’s about as far as I advanced. And when you’re in your twenties, you feel like you’re going to be in your twenties forever. Figuring out the future didn’t seem all that imminent to me. I had no self-esteem, no belief in myself, and I just figured I had some time.
I went to her apartment and we got into an argument, probably because I couldn’t deal with being in a relationship with somebody who’s trying to call me on some stuff. She wasn’t trying to call me, she was trying to encourage me to be me, and she saw this stuff was getting in the way. I remember I went to the bar that night and I drank myself into a blackout and I didn’t pull out of it this time. Fifteen years later I was living out of a car. That’s how I ended up in the crisis center, and that’s how the whole thing started.
They instruct you to go out and make amends. The first guy I ran into and made amends, he looked at me like I was a ghost. He said, “I figured you were dead.” I gave myself a lot of opportunities to end up that way, but I didn’t.
So I start this thing on my friend’s floor, he’s drunk every day, and I was just walking around. You ever see people that walk around town talking to themselves? That was me. I would just leave the house and walk around town. One day a guy I used to run around with pulled over and I told him to go away and he did. But I knew that he was screwed up and I noticed he didn’t look screwed up.
I don’t know what the time period was, but he pulled over again and he said, “Get in.” I really had no desire to go back to his house, but it was cold so I got in. We drove for about 100 yards and I said, “Are you going to the church basement?” And he said, “Yeah. Are you?” And we hooked up.
This guy had a small business that he had destroyed. So we start going to do the ninety days. They instruct you do the ninety in ninety days clean, which I’d never done before, and he looked at me and said, “Man, I’ve been self-employed my whole life. I could probably do this, too.”
And then he went about the business of doing business. He started stacking chips, making money, because that’s what you’re supposed to do in our society, right? It’s really easy to tell people you’re okay when you buy a new car, you get a new haircut, a clean pair of shoes, and people think you’re okay.
My story is I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do, but I kind of in the back of my mind knew what I had to do. But anyway, I got this crappy job and I started doing service in this recovery program. I dialed in to a purpose. I always liked having a purpose—I played a lot of sports, I was a pretty good athlete—and I started doing some stuff.
It was slow, but I lived right by a rehab in Keyport, New Jersey, and one night a dude came up to me and said, “Can you pick me up?” I had my car back on the road and I was like, “Yeah.” I had to find something to be grateful for and I was grateful I had a driver’s license. The fact that I have a driver’s license is a joke, because I’ve been in an untold number of car accidents. I got into one where I had to get plastic surgery on my face. Most of the people figured that’s how it was going to end for me.
So I was like, “Yea, I’ll pick these guys up,” and I started doing that. I started doing a lot of that stuff and I liked it, but I really had to figure out what I was going to do with my life. So at about two years sober, I went back up to Rutgers and I picked up the ball where I dropped it.
When I went back I was forty-three years old. Being a broke forty-something-year-old college ain’t as romantic and glamorous as it seems, you know? I guess a lot of people get inspired by that, but I was living it. I would vacillate from, “Thank god I’m back here,” to, “Oh my god. What am I doing here?” Sometimes that would happen per hour.
I was watching my buddy build his business and it was messing with my head, because you get to a certain age [and] you think your life’s going to look a certain way. I don’t know how it’s supposed to look. A picket fence, a dog, whatever the hell you’re supposed to have—that’s what he was doing.
I was watching it, and it was kind of messing me up. I knew he was struggling with the drinking especially. I had started to convince myself that he was doing it successfully based on his material success, but I tried to separate myself from that and do the school thing.
I started doing that and I really didn’t know how I was going to play it. Am I just going to lie and just write off twenty years of my life? I saw my old man have thirty seizures. What am I going to do? Not tell people? Just write that shit off? That’s just not who I am. This stuff stuck right in my craw. I was always the guy who was looking for a purpose, and now I found one, and now you want me to not talk about it. I just can’t get down with that, you know?
So I’m back at Rutgers and I was sitting there waiting to go see a counselor and this professor comes out and says hello to me. I said, “Yea, I’m coming back after a little brief eighteen-year hiatus.” And he says, “What’ve you been doing?” So I told him. And I saw the secretary’s jaw drop because I was a little crazy back then, and she’s like, “You gotta write that down.”
They have this adult student newsletter, so I wrote it down, and my story was featured in this adult student newsletter. And then I figured out how I’m going to play this. I’m just not going to hide, because that’s who I am. That’s who I am. This stuff carved my family to shreds. I’m going to do something about it. I’m not even really sure what, but I got to do something about it.
I did find something out about college: it’s a lot easier if you buy the books and you go to class. Even though my brain was like mush when I started this thing—I hadn’t read a book in twenty years—but I was always a good student and I dropped in there. It took me a while to clear the cobwebs out, but as I got towards the end I started to peel off A’s. And because Rutgers has this little program where if you’re out over ten years they’ll give you academic amnesty, then they’ll base your GPA on that.
There was a whole bunch of stuff, just the bureaucratic nonsense of trying to clear up eighteen years of damage at Rutgers. They kept changing my financial aid, but whatever. You just keep grinding.
My buddy that I started this thing with—the ninety-day guy—he bought this big house on a hill. I would look at that house thinking, “Man, he is just putting it all together.” And there I was, a forty-five-year-old college junior, and I was in the classroom and we took a break and I went to check my phone messages. They found him dead. Probably within a year of buying that house.
At that juncture I just realized that you have to just embrace your own journey. Stop comparing myself to other people. My life course is forever altered; it’s just going to be different than anyone else’s. Or different than a lot of people’s, especially guys I went to high school with.
So I went along and it came around towards the graduation and then they featured my story on the Rutgers website, which was pretty cool because I got a whole bunch of positive feedback from that.
I ended up speaking at a couple rehabs, a couple prisons, and some stuff. I remember I took this thing, where I would go speak to the convicted drunk drivers, and when they heard about it they thought I had gotten arrested for drunk driving again. They couldn’t process that I was going there as a speaker. I would say it’s a 180-degree change [but] it’s not—it’s like a different universe.
If I had to calculate the number of times I drank and drove I would put it at between 14,000 and 15,000 times—like whacked out of my mind. So doing that type of stuff gave me a sense of purpose, but also people were looking at me like, “This dude’s changing his life.”
And I wanted my mom to see me. That’s really what I wanted, because my existence for about twenty years was a living hell for that woman. I couldn’t even tell you the war stories. I came home drunk one night and burnt the house down with me in it. Thank god she wasn’t there. I came home with a hankering for French fries and we moved back in six months later. It was just one thing after another thing after another thing.
She had gotten really sick. I guess it was after I was two years sober. She saw me two years clean. I remember one night she came to the two-year celebration and I was helping all these guys from the rehab. The speaker got done speaking and about ten guys in a row put their hands up to say that I had helped them. And she wasn’t hearing a lot of nice things about me for a long time. That was pretty powerful.
What it did was, it brought me and my sister together. I remember about the last year of her life she was in the hospital, in and out, in and out, in and out. Just being able to show up is a miracle, because I hadn’t shown up for things in a really long time. Then the last night I saw her, the doctors were trying to tell me she was getting better, but I caught a look in her eye one day. Then I had heard her praying, and I realized she wasn’t praying to get better.
I walked in the room the last night she was alive, and I ended up in there alone, and I could feel it in the room. I was watching her and her head started to go back and forth, and I was having this weird moral dilemma because I had heard her praying. And I was like, “Do I go get a doctor? What do I do?” Around that time, she calls my name. I walk over to her and she holds my hand. She was the nicest human being I’ve ever met in my life. She was really totally ill equipped to deal with alcoholism.
She apologizes to me for not being nice the night before, and I just laugh and go, “You got a lot of nerve, old lady.” I looked at her and I said, “You don’t want to do this anymore, do you?” And she did not give me the answer I wanted. I wanted to hear, “I’m going to fight.” She told me, “No.” I gave her a kiss on the forehead and I told her that was okay, and she died three hours later.
That’s the kind of thing that never happens to somebody in active addiction. And the only reason why that woman died in peace is because I’m a sober guy and she saw her two children come together. And it’s been a long journey.
I just celebrated nine years clean in September. I kind of feel like the story’s just beginning, man. You know? I’m really just figuring out who I am. I sincerely hope fifty is the new thirty, because somehow my birth certificate is saying that’s my age, but since I don’t remember the nineties I’m lopping ten years off. Having a sense of humor helps. None of the stuff we have to deal with a lot of times—it’s not really funny. Sometimes keeping things in perspective and just being grateful for a second chance, because this has always been about, for me, number one, breaking the chain, and number two, it’s about redemption.
It’s about me becoming who I’m supposed to be. I ran into a guy when I was making amends with people. He’s a high school teacher and he was my next-door neighbor as a kid. He encapsulated my life in basically one sentence, which [you] obviously can’t do. He said, “You were the kid from the neighborhood, bro, that everybody knew was going to be successful. I wrote you off.” And I ain’t really the type of dude you want to write off.
I think about my mom every day. I think about my dad every day. I’ll leave you with this. About six months before my mom died she turned to me in a hospital bed out of the blue, and she apologized to me for not getting me and my sister out of the house. It caught me off guard, but I regrouped and I had to ask her, “Why?” And she told me she was afraid, mostly financial fear.
I was looking at her, at that time she was eighty-four years old, and there’s no more fear, man. Just regret. I started this journey with a lot of regret. I most certainly don’t want to die alone in a crappy room over a bar like my dad, but I also don’t want to be taking my last breaths with regret.
So I would say the first nine years my mindset was, “I’m not going to end up like my dad.” But it’s kind of shifted to, “I got some things I got to accomplish.” And I got a chance that a lot of people don’t have. That’s what it’s all about—becoming who you’re supposed to be. I think that’s really what it’s all about—what it’s supposed to be about. Most people don’t do it. They just live this life of quiet desperation.
It seems to me the desperation in our society ain’t that quiet right now. There’s people screaming for help right now, you know. And sharing stories sometimes inspires somebody.
Photographs taken outside the Lindenwood Carpender House at Rutgers New Brunswick, where Scott returned to school after 18 years to finish his degree.