Ed. Note: This is the second in a series about Joel’s journey from addiction to recovery. Please be aware that some of the language is disturbing and graphic.
I laid down on my stiff cot in Eagleville Hospital outside of Philadelphia one spring night, expecting to have another panic attack. My roommate was complaining about severe back pains every time he took a break from vomiting into a bucket on the floor. I spent what seemed like an eternity wishing a nurse would come in and give me some Valium, and then a tiny yet sincere prayer flashed through my thoughts. It said something like, “God, help me.” To say the least, I wasn’t much in favor of God, whatever that was, up to this point. I don’t know where that prayer came from.
My overwhelming fear was that at some point soon I’d have to deal with life as I had created it. I had a feeling of imminent doom. The tide that was life had risen to the edge of my little mattress and wasn’t about to recede. This was the moment I had been trying to avoid for years. Then an answer to the tiny prayer came to me in the form of a serene feeling. I let the water lap at the arch in my back and I fell asleep. I woke up the next morning, surprised to find I hadn’t drowned. In fact, I had just slept better than I had in four years.
I went to get breakfast that morning with Ryan, an Irish mixed martial arts fighter and heroin addict from Kensington, Philadelphia. He had checked himself in to Eagleville to try to avoid more prison time. He’d broken probation by submitting a “hot” urine, and he didn’t want to lose his 2-year old daughter. He was 23, I think.
On the walk to the dining hall, Ryan asked me how I was doing. I was experiencing withdrawal from alcohol and a kind of methadone called Suboxone. I was going through it, as they say. All of my muscles ached and felt like they were about to burst, and my legs must have weighed 100 pounds each as I dragged them across the pavement, but I said, “Couldn’t be better.” He could tell I meant it and he grinned. I can remember his grin like I’d just seen it yesterday.
I wonder if he’s still alive.
Most of the people I was in rehab with were from North Philadelphia. Every time I told someone I was from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, they’d ask me if I was Amish as if it were a reflex. It must be the blonde hair. There were people there of all ages, all different skin colors, and they each had an interesting story to tell. It didn’t matter if their stories were true or not.
My story started in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I partially grew up in the city of Lancaster, but for most of my life I’ve lived with my mother and my little brother in the rural areas of the county. After my parents divorced, when I was six years old, my father moved back to the city, where I would spend the occasional weekend. I didn’t appreciate the divorce at the time, but it was for the better.
Everything seems to work out as it should in the end. At least that’s how I choose to look at things these days. My father re-married into a family from Massachusetts when I was twelve. That family has had property on Block Island since the 1950’s, and that’s how I got to know Block Island. Oddly enough, I’ve been pretty close with my step-mother, her father, and her two sons since I was about five years old. (That’s an interesting twist to the story that doesn’t need to be visited at the moment. I’ll just say that my three little brothers are my closest friends today, and I’m very fortunate to be able to say that.)
My brothers and I are fairly intelligent people, but only one of us received particularly outstanding grades in school. He’s currently studying physics at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst. I lost the desire to do well in school around seventh grade. I was a B student and I was enrolled in honors classes until my senior year of high school, but I never put forth much of an effort.
I played football from the fourth grade all the way through my senior year. That seemed to really keep me in line. After the football season of my senior year ended, I started getting into trouble. Some friends and I broke into the high school building through a door on the roof late one night, planning to pull off a senior prank.
We went a little overboard and found ourselves suspended from school, banned from the graduation ceremony and banned from prom. We were lucky we weren’t arrested. We were good kids for the most part. The president of our class even started a petition to lift the ban from graduation and prom, with no success. My general attitude and self-respect began to deteriorate after that series of events.
The following summer, I moved to Block Island with one of my brothers to stay on our grandfather’s boat. We stayed until late August, drinking excessively every night and partying on the beach with our friends. That was probably the best summer of my life to that point, but Block Island was also where I learned to drink “professionally.” It seemed as if excessive drinking was the norm on Block Island, and I loved that.
I went back to Lancaster to go to college that September. I was an art student during my first semester. Nine and a half out of ten art students at that particular university were female. Art school was a fine decision on my part. Around that time, I began partying and smoking as much pot as possible. I went to class consistently that first semester of college, and I had already earned 13 college credits in high school, so I was doing well. However, there was something missing.
There seemed to be a hole in the spot where my heart belonged. I could feel it every now and then, and it would make a heavy burning sensation below my breast plate. Sometime during that winter I experimented with every drug known to man to try to make that feeling go away. I had some life-changing experiences with LSD, but not quite as life-changing as the experience I had with Oxycontin.
I was hanging out with some old friends from high school when they got out these tiny green pills. I didn’t know what they were, but they looked fairly innocent. We crushed them up, rolled up some dollar bills, and passed out until morning. I was about the happiest I’d ever been for the next 24 hours. I couldn’t feel a thing. In fact, my body felt completely weightless.
My two friends may have done it a few more times, after which they stopped. I couldn’t stop. I spent all of my money, as well as borrowed money, on my new favorite pastime over the next five months. I only occasionally went to class after that endeavor. Soon I was driving to North Philadelphia to find what I needed when I couldn’t find it in Lancaster.
After the first year of college, I spent another summer on Block Island on the boat, thinking it would be a good opportunity to quit my new habit. I felt like my body weighed a thousand pounds for the first two or three weeks on Block Island. I was withdrawing. It seemed like I had the flu for two weeks. The dealer in Lancaster told me once that it took six months to become addicted, and I’d mistakenly believed him. I was really sick. The spiritual pain that I felt before, from the hole where my heart belonged, became worse.
During that summer on the island, I drank Jack Daniels from the bottle after work until I passed out almost every day. When I couldn’t scrape enough money together for that, I found half-empty bottles on the beach that were left there after parties. I still didn’t think I had any problems with alcohol. I was just having a good time. I was a drug addict, after all, not an alcoholic. Drug addicts are rock stars and actors, I thought. Alcoholics are all old people who push shopping carts around the city.
When I returned to Lancaster after that summer, I borrowed a few thousand dollars from the bank and spent it all on those little pills. I threw up everything I ate for the next three weeks. At this point, I still thought I was really cool, as long as I had enough money to support my habit. Otherwise, I’d be curled up in the fetal position somewhere, crying in a puddle of self-pity. For some reason, a very attractive, incredible young lady fell in love with me around this time. That would likely become one of the worst decisions in her life.
I managed to continue my drug habit, bouncing around between my mother’s house and my father’s house, visiting a rehab for a few days, until finally neither my mother or father would allow me to stay in their homes. I promptly found a cheap apartment with some college guys and got two jobs in order to support myself and my addiction. At 19 years old, I was still attending college for the most part. They kept letting me back in, gladly taking my borrowed money.
When I turned 21, I really wanted to stop doing drugs, but I didn’t know how. I had been going to a therapist for six months, using the whole time. I found a doctor that would prescribe me Suboxone, which prevents the brain from accepting opiates and quells opiate withdrawal symptoms. Suboxone has even lengthier withdrawal symptoms, but it’s legal and it helped me stop using.
I was content for about a week, and then I felt that old ache in my gut again, so I decided to start buying fifths of cheap vodka at the liquor store every few days. I was buying another fifth every day within a month. I remember being overcome with fear when I realized, if I didn’t stop drinking then, I would be in a lot of trouble. In response to that fear, I finished the bottle of vodka I had in my hand and drove to buy another one. A few months later, I wrecked my car while driving drunk. Now that I didn’t drive, I could drink all day long without fear of the law.
I tried to stop a few times, but I more or less drank myself to sleep on a daily basis while taking the Suboxone for about a year. Around March of 2012, my girlfriend of almost four years came over and told me she was seeing someone else. After she left my house, I shoveled a wad of Orbit in my mouth and went to class. I was attempting to finish my seventh semester of college. Somehow I was two semesters away from a Philosophy degree, and three semesters away from a Bachelor’s in Economics.
I was delusional, over-weight, anxious, sick, and I couldn’t write in the morning because my body was shaking too violently. I would call an ambulance every couple of weeks, thinking I was about to die, and every time I’d get the to the hospital, they’d tell me I was fine. They told me I was just having panic attacks. I wasn’t able to make the connection between liquor and panic attacks. As it turns out, drinking exacerbated the spiritual and mental issues I’d already had. There came a point where I couldn’t drink enough to put out that ache in my gut.
Regardless, I was under the impression that I’d convinced my mother I had quit drinking. She worked at the university I was attending, so I saw her a few times a week. I remember her telling me one morning that I smelled like alcohol. She had that awful worried face on that made me want to cry. I told her, “Yeah, it’s getting really old. I think I’m ready to be done soon.” “I bet,” she said.
About two months later, I called my mom and asked her to take me to a rehab. She’d had one lined up for months, and came to pick me up that weekend. On my first night in Eagleville, I was lying in a stiff cot, listening to my roommate complain every chance he got, when that tiny but sincere prayer flashed through my thoughts. That’s when I stopped fighting and surrendered to the current of the universe.
It’s much easier to swim downstream than it is to try to swim upstream. Today, I only occasionally feel the ache in my gut. Instead of trying to make it go away, I realize it’s part of my human existence. In a way, it’s the sensation of being the center of the universe.
I’ve never shared that story publicly. To see it in writing makes me feel nauseous, and I’ve omitted the most distasteful details. Recounting my past disregard for my own life sometimes scares me stiff.
Looking back on it, it’s a miracle for me to sit and watch the snow come down outside, or to be able to sit still at all without having to ingest any chemicals. It used to be obvious that I was high or drunk if I were simply sitting still. Sometimes I wonder if things might have been different had I a made a few better choices, but never do I ask myself why it happened to me. There is no good answer to that question.
It didn’t happen to me because I’m black, white, rich, or poor. Nor did it happen to me because I grew up in a single-parent household, or because I grew up in the inner city. I grew up surrounded by farms, Amish people, and rich white kids. Instead of feeling sorry for myself or asking myself questions that have no answers, I’ve been determined to use my experience to help others. Being of service to others, especially those who have shared my experience, helps keep me sober. Since there are no rehab facilities or prisons to visit on Block Island, writing is the only way to do that.
Understanding and compassion are addiction’s greatest enemies. Judgment and apathy are its greatest friends. Cheers to those who can relate to my story and are still alive, and to the more unfortunate who have inspired me to begin this series.