Going into rehab at 18, I planned not to “drink the Kool-Aid.” In my mind, I didn’t need help to quit doing drugs but I knew I needed to satisfy the people who were really concerned about me, namely my parents . . . and a judge. That was then . . . but in October of 2019, I celebrate thirty-six years of recovery. You could say, in my case, treatment worked.
I often think about the miracle of recovery in my life. My wife, as well as our sons and daughters, have never known me as a craven, selfish addict. Our children are now older than I was when I began my heavy drug use. They are all incredibly normal! These things, let alone a fulfilling career and modest material success, make me grateful. When thinking about my own experience of staying clean and sober through most of a lifetime, my mind always goes to the 14 months I was in treatment — not to my clinical training, not to grad school, not to the thousands of 12-meetings I’ve attended, not to the decades of 12-step work I’ve done with sponsors . . . instead, back to treatment. Why?
My feelings are not unique. Treatment center nostalgia is rather common among old-timers in recovery. In fact, people who do stay clean and sober long-term usually have detailed stories of gratitude about the treatment center or the twelve-step network that was there for them in the beginning. They take very little, if any, of the credit themselves!
There were thousands, of young people like me entering treatment centers in 1983. The program I went to was hard. “Tough love” was the theme; no quarter for self-pity or blame. I had created my own misery by doing drugs; there was no other fault. Other than a nightly written personal inventory (basically a 12-step worksheet about your day), there were no assignments.
The rehab code was simple:
1. Follow the rules
2. Share in group about the topic and your feelings
3. Be as honest as you know how
4. Be humble and express gratitude
5. Recognize drugs caused most, if not all of your problems
6. Be empathetic to others
7. Give back
8. Stay away from people who do drugs
Looking back, there was a lot more happening during treatment than I knew. It was a six-month program that took me 14 months to complete. I know now that I needed every day, every minute; that time worked its own miracles. Old “people, places and things” faded away. Connections with new friends formed, people who also did not use drugs. Personal milestones, delayed by drug use, were being achieved: growing up, for one . . . practicing interdependence (a concept learned in treatment) with a new group of friends, their parents, professionals, mentors and a 12-step sponsor. Handling adversity and stress, in general, without doing drugs was the key. Everyone in the program pressed the certainty that “getting high again – even one puff or one sip of alcohol” – would start a downward spiral that would take back everything recovery had given. The focus on appreciation and gratitude for the gift of recovery and for the people who helped make it possible left no room in my heart for carrying around resentments, as had been my previous habit.
Those 14 months in treatment continue to fascinate. It is gratitude mixed with wonder about the mystery of recovery. It’s a fun puzzle I enjoy reflecting upon. After treatment, I went on to have an accomplished career as an addictions treatment professional. Five years into recovery, I completed rigorous requirements to become certified as a professional alcohol and drug abuse counselor, while working at a private treatment center near Dallas. I earned my bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Dallas four years later. Four years after that, I completed a dual-masters’ program at the University of South Florida. In another two years, I obtained my clinical license as an LCSW from the State of Florida.
In 30+ years as a professional, I’ve evaluated and treated over 10,000 clients with substance use disorders, addiction and dual diagnosis. Countless lives saved and families restored. Giving back. I take no personal credit for any of it. The credit goes to the treatment center that saved my life. Nothing would have been possible without it!