Recovery Spotlight: Tony W

I prayed this morning. I overdosed on heroin last week and right now I am in jail but I prayed this morning. I’ve been working a 12-step program for over a year and though my current circumstances might not reflect what you would normally consider progress, I can tell you with much certainty that I am operating with more piece of mind, love and hope today than I ever have before I started this journey of connectivity and self-discovery.

My name is Tony and I am an addict/alcoholic. I was raised by addicts/alcoholics. Growing up I experienced violence and manipulation at a level I would sell my soul to keep my son from being exposed to. Most of these experiences I used as excuses for my drinking and drug use. I watched the adults in my life use alcohol as a social lubricant or a way to cope with anger and frustration. I saw that it could be put to use in just about any situation.

My family was different. None of my friend’s fathers were in prison. A police presence wasn’t required at any of their homes to subdue the violence throughout the week. There were consistencies in the lives of my peers that my siblings and I weren’t accustomed to. For example, clean clothes, regular meals and structure. I developed a deep need to feel apart of and to be accepted or deemed normal. I went to great lengths to hide or disguise the chaos of my home life. I don’t believe I was ever very successful at this but it was the effort on my part that became essential. This is still something that seems to be a reoccurring theme in my behavior no matter how hard I work a program. Recovery is a process.

They say your secrets keep you sick. I had been manipulating the perception of others for so long it became difficult for me to develop a solid value system or any genuinely honest relationships. Self-acceptance was a foreign concept to me. Alcohol helped. By the time I was 14 years old I was smoking weed and drinking every day. I was no longer living at home. Some of my friend’s parents looked after me but no one ever felt it their place to discipline me. Those circumstances left me with next to no limits or restrictions in my life. I did what I wanted and at the time all I wanted was to stay drunk and high on whatever drugs and alcohol I could get my hands on. I felt alone. The people who were supposed to love me were unavailable. They were caught in the grips of the same disease that haunts me today. At the time, I couldn’t see that and there was no consoling me. I found my solution to these issues in bags and bottles.

I was incarcerated for the first time at the age of 15. I was on probation for a possession charge I caught a year earlier and couldn’t manage to produce a clean urine. I was confined to three different juvenile facilities that year. There was no rehabilitation, no life lessons. I wasn’t “scared straight” despite my involvement in that very program. I was released and sought out harder drugs that stayed in your system for a shorter amount of time. There was no one close to me who could not benefit me in some way, shape or form. If you couldn’t provide me with the means to drink or use or give me a place to stay I found little use in you. I maintained that lifestyle for years until I discovered opiates. I remember snorting long lines of prescription pain pills and thinking that this was how I was always supposed to feel. All other drugs fell to the wayside. I quit drinking. I remember thinking I would grow up now, it was time to be a man. I sincerely wanted to be the best father I could be; however, nothing changed for me. I continued to be the same selfish, insecure child I had always been.

The first time I shot heroin I overdosed. I woke up half naked in the shower with cold water running down on my body. Everyone stood over me with a look of panic on their faces. The severity of the situation completely escaped me. From that day forward I was an intravenous drug user. I was not able to keep a job or stay out of jail for more than a few months at a time.

By the age of 22, I was sentenced to five years in DOC for a probation violation. Prison was an eye opener for me. I witnessed men bludgeoning each other with cans of fish and sticking sharpened steel into one another. Men that fed on even the slightest display of weakness. There was an air of hopelessness that could permeate your spirit. I did what I could to keep that from happening to me. I developed a routine, I got my GED and I became healthy. I was determined to take control of my life. I went through withdrawal in county jail and was dead set on never feeling that way again. I vowed to never touch another opiate for as long as I lived. It wasn’t such a hard decision as I was living amid the consequences of my heroin addiction.

I was released in 2012 on the 7th of February.   I was drunk before the sun went down that day and entering into a habit I had no idea I was developing (physically and mentally). The way I saw it drugs were my problem, not alcohol. I wasn’t sent to prison for my alcoholism so it seemed like a luxury I could afford.

Shortly after turning 20 years old, the girl I had been dating since before I dropped out of high school ended up pregnant. I found a job and I worked hard. I started to rebuild my relationship with my son. I helped him with his homework and went to all the parent teacher conferences. I paid my bills and I maintained a savings account for the first time in my life. I went on vacations and spent time with friends and loved ones. I put forth most of my energy at work just trying to get ahead and looking to make up for lost time. I wanted more than anything to feel like a good person. A man who provides for his family and puts others before himself.

I started going to church with the girl I was dating at the time, who was a Christian. For the first time, I felt genuinely open and encouraged to build my faith. As a child, God was presented to me in conflicting ways. One day he was a loving and forgiving God and the next he was a vengeful and punishing God. To me faith and guilt were synonymous with each other. It was difficult to build a relationship with anything on a foundation like that. Needless to say, my spiritual experiment was short lived.

It didn’t take long for my drinking to get out of hand. What started as a weekend thing slowly drifted along into the week. There was Monday night football. Then came wine with dinner every night, I liked to think of myself as a classy guy having one or two or ten glasses of cheap merlot with my evening meals. Looking back, I don’t think there has ever been a mind-altering substance I’ve put in my body that I didn’t eventually abuse.

I went two years without using opiates before I was involved in an accident at work and prescribed pain medication. This is usually how I explain my lapse back into active addiction back then, but the truth of the matter is my mind had been consumed with the idea of using for months before that injury. Using was how I had been coping with life since before I even had a clue about who I was or wanted to be. Issues large and small had always been dealt with in the same way. I was having thoughts… I was terrified to voice in fear of being judged for the person I was and not who I was trying to be. I was too proud to seek the help I needed. I justified my actions. I couldn’t understand how I could be so well adjusted in every other aspect of my life and still not be able to control my drug use. I allowed myself to forget about the sense of urgency my addiction instilled in me. The ravenous hunger it creates.  It took me less than six months to run my life back into the ground. Everything I had spent the last three years fighting for was gone.

I violated my parole with seven new convictions ranging from misdemeanor theft to 2nd degree burglary. By the time I was dragged from the stolen vehicle I had driven into the side of a house, attempting to outrun three police cruisers and two state issued SUVs, I realized that I was completely drained of all hope. One of the arresting officers that day hadn’t buttoned the holster over his gun when he secured his weapon. I remember wondering whether I would be able to remove the gun from the holster and if I was able to remove it would I have enough time to shoot myself or would I have to shoot him first to give myself the time I needed to take my own life. Ultimately, that line of thinking just left me feeling more broken and I decided against it.

That was a new bottom for me. I had thrown away a better life than I had ever experienced before. I shattered relationships that I invested more of myself into than any other thing in my life. I was heartbroken and full of shame, guilt and remorse. My son was 7 and though my presence in the past few months had dwindled I knew my absence in the next few years would be impossible for him to understand.

I was sentenced to 9 years for the new charges I acquired. Prison was easier the second time around. It took me a little time to stop feeling sorry for myself but eventually I pulled it together enough to stop drinking and using while I was incarcerated. A longtime friend started writing me letters about recovery working in his life and about the 12 steps. He wrote about God and the power of prayer. This was someone I had used with, someone I broke laws with. A person I know had experienced the same level of hopelessness I was feeling at that moment; yet, he had found happiness. I still recall the impact that had on me.

Shortly after I filed for a sentence modification and was granted an 8505. An 8505 is the beginning of a process that gives inmates the opportunity to complete a long term 6-month drug treatment program in place of having to serve the rest of their sentence in prison. At that point, there wasn’t much I wouldn’t have done to get out of prison. I went into treatment thinking I would do what I had to do to be able to do what I wanted to do. I went in thinking drugs were my only problem. For the first month, I gave the bare minimum. I was afraid to get real with anyone, including myself. I didn’t want to deal with the things I had been through or how alone I’ve always felt. I didn’t want to talk about God or give up my old ideas.

Participating in 12 step meetings with outside speakers is what initially began to change my perception on how to proceed with my recovery. I met men who had been in my shoes and come out better on the other end because they were willing to put in the work. They were willing to go to any length to stay sober. For me it was other addicts and alcoholics who set the example. They said that drugs and alcohol were just a symptom. They spoke about powerlessness and unmanageability. They told me about the necessity of a higher power and explained to me that my higher power could be anything as long as it wasn’t me. They said I could “choose my own conception of God” – that was huge for me.

For the first time, I recognized that I had always felt God in my life. One of my favorite lines in the Big Book is “we were fooling ourselves, for deep down in every man, woman and child, is the fundamental idea of God.” Once I let go of all the preexisting concepts that I allowed others to place on God for me, I was able to start developing a relationship with the God of my understanding. Mind you this was just a start. An uphill battle at that. A life running on my will alone is a hard habit to break. Heroin was much easier to put down.

I completed treatment on March 3rd, 2017. On April 9th of that same year I was one year clean and sober. On June 9th, I was being narcanned for a heroin overdose. About three months later it happened again. When my prison sentence was suspended and I signed the papers to go into drug treatment the Judge informed me that I had 22 years of back up time hanging over my head should I violate the conditions of my probation. In other words, a relapse for me meant the end of my life as I knew it whether I lived through it or not. I was given a second chance after my first overdose. The fact that I was still able to justify my use knowing the consequences would be so severe just solidifies my belief that addiction is a disease. Normal people don’t throw their lives away without cause.

Initially I was desperate to find the one specific event that triggered my downfall, or maybe a list of things I could do differently to ensure that no other slip-ups would ever occur. I came up short on answers. Ultimately, what I have come to realize through my experiences and after seeking the advice of my sponsor and other people in my recovery network whose opinions I respect, is that for me it comes down to where I am drawing my energy from. Who’s will am I living on? It’s become blatantly obvious that when I am not tapped into something bigger than myself I end up in all the same places.

After my first relapse, a close friend and I spoke about the level of honesty that is required to stay sober. We spoke about lies of omission and complete transparency when it came to discussing all matters that affect us on an emotional level. It has taken me several mistakes and many years later to realize the expectations I place on myself when I try to solve all my problems on my own are unrealistic. For me it’s about accepting the support that’s offered and asking for help when it’s not. It’s about making myself available to help others, staying connected with my Higher Power and constantly working to improve that connection. The God of my understanding is one I don’t think I am meant to understand.

Today, I know love and I know hope, where I knew none before. Today, I am alive and I have options; tomorrow I’ll wake up and I’ll pray and I’ll keep working towards my recovery.