By Hank Center

My Harrowing Journey To The First Three Steps

I returned to South Carolina because I had nowhere else to go. My life in the city had ended badly, as the life of an addict is wont to do. I was the perpetual latch key child who couldn’t find his footing. Bouncing from city to city, up and down the east coast, I would always land in my home state, each time a bit more bruised and broken until finally I just did not have the strength, neither physically nor mentally, to pack up and move again. Skinny and pitiful, I was afraid that one day I would walk into another trap house and never again find my way out. Legal trouble began to haunt me and federal probation imposed a set of rules and regulations that I could not follow. I craved stability and normalcy but was so far separated from that world I couldn’t remember what it consisted of or how to get back there. My life plan was whatever or whoever showed up next.

A dozen attempts at 28-day treatment programs, 12-step recovery meetings, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, groups, and churches availed me exactly nothing. And sometimes I was trying. I lost faith in myself, any possible help, and God.

My last resort was the home of a cousin, the last family member that was speaking to me. She invited me to come for a visit but it was clear, although not spoken, that this was a temporary situation. I was determined that this geographical was the one that would work. I would finally get my life together here and create something nice for myself. I had big dreams but no real plan to get there. That wasn’t anything new, there was never a plan.

As I drove onto the island from the mainland, I crossed a bridge, a wildlife preserve that, of course, I should one day hike (everything was going to happen one day), another bridge, and then I saw a sign for a restaurant. May as well start there. I had been a waiter or a bartender since college and I needed a job. When I was greeted, I simply told the manager that I am new in town and need a job. She asked me if I knew how to tend bar. Yup. This is surely my lucky day. My new life starts in a bar. But this time it will be different. I made up some rules for myself: I won’t drink at work, I won’t do shots with customers, and I won’t hang out after work. I will show up, do my shift, and get the hell out. This lasted for three days until I finally, ever so casually, asked a co-worker if there was a bar where I could stop on my way home. He mentioned a place, I stopped, and immediately met my new best friends.

A couple of guys at the end of the bar, also in the restaurant business, asked me to join them in for beer and a shot and in the next couple of hours, we had pooled all of our money, drank everything we could get our hands on and was invited me to their house to drink more. The older of the two, 10 years younger than me, fell in the parking lot and scraped his forehead, a real gusher. The other one fell trying to help his roommate and cut his arm. They started wrestling in the gravel and were covered with blood and booze. It was chaos. I was so happy to have new friends.

A couple of nights later I found drugs. And just like that, the shit started all over again. Go to work, go to the bar, get drunk, buy drugs till I was flat broke, pass out, wake up, do it over again. I had lost years in this cycle of misery. The difference this time was federal probation.

One of the stipulations of my probation was random drug tests. I really couldn’t see that would be a problem. It takes three days, according to my extensive research that consisted of asking a couple of random people in a bar, for cocaine to exit the human body. That and plenty of cranberry juice and I should be good to go. All I had to do was stop using for three days and drink some juice. Ok, no problem. Except for the stopping part.

There is such a thing in the probation system called “home visits”. The first one surprised me. The doorbell rang, I opened the door and there stood my probation officer. He went over some details of probation, looked around the place, and pulled out a drug test kit. The only drug tests I had until then were associated with rehabs and had to be sent out to a lab. The results would be returned in about three days. So imagine my surprise and panic when he explained that these results would be instant. I failed that drug test and made up some excuse about how drugs were still in my system from a very long time ago and the next drug test would be clean. I failed that one, too. I also failed the next five and was placed in yet another rehab for 28 days. I told my downstairs neighbor that I was going to a spa for a month. They rolled their eyes. The nerve.

I was determined this time would work. I followed directions, got a sponsor, went to meetings every day, and performed every service job available. I stayed sober for six months, the second-longest time I had managed over ten years. But when I relapsed this time, something had changed. I couldn’t sober up. I had always managed to get a few days together and to keep a job. But now, I tried and failed, made a vow after the declaration and said endless prayers but every day I would end up drunk, high, crawling through the carpet just in case I had dropped something, and would end up weeping and wishing death would take me and then, ultimately pass out. Every morning, the first word out of my mouth was F#$% because I knew I was going to have to start over again. It was exhausting, I was getting sicker and sicker but just couldn’t die. This went on for four months and my ultimate surrender was to the bottle and pipe. I knew I couldn’t stop using so I stopped trying.

On the last Monday in January of 2006, three angels dressed as US Marshals showed up at my door. I wasn’t sure what a probation violation meant but I think it had something to do with spending two years in lock-up. I was so grateful because I knew I couldn’t take care of myself, there was an eviction on my door, and I thought this was a great solution to the problem. I knew that If I could get two years sober, I could probably keep the momentum going. It was the best I could come up with.

I came to several days later, vaguely remembered some procedural stuff, changing into a scratchy uniform, and sleeping through meals. I think I ate something, returned to my bunk and slept for another few days.

When I finally woke up, I sat up on my bunk. I noted, happily, that it was the top bunk although I have no recollection of how I got there. But as I sat, I had a dawning realization of being in jail, memories of the last few months and a moment of clarity that showed me, in a quick but vivid recall of the tumultuous journey of destruction that had been my life. I not only saw but felt the pain of the people I had plowed over and hurt. I saw a collage of bad decisions and justifications for each one fall away as false. I saw the judge who sentenced me to probation and realized that even the prosecutors didn’t want me in jail. I wasn’t the focus of the case they were working on but a byproduct of the investigation. They just wanted me to do my probation quietly and to be done with me. What put me here, on this bunk, for the next two years, was failing nine drug tests and sabotaging every opportunity probation had given me to pull this wreckage together. There was absolutely no-one left to blame. I saw, for the first time, that my life was a mess and no-one else was at fault. I had a problem that I couldn’t fix because I did not have the power to fix this problem and what I needed was a Power greater than myself that could fix this problem. I was, at this moment, willing to do whatever I had to do to stay sober.

Later, I recognized this process as Steps One, Two, and Three and also that the one missing piece of the many years of trying to get sober was never completing any step-work.

This became my mission…because now I was willing to do whatever I had to do to stay sober.