I have no idea if most people in recovery from substance use disorder recall hitting bottom, but I sure do. It was 16 years ago this month I arrived at a federal prison in Pennsylvania facing a double-digit sentence, disbarment, and total loss of connection with family and friends. Life as I had known it was turned upside down and I had no idea if it was possible to recover in any way from the mess I created and harm I had done. In remembering those days, I recall the following words of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in what is now known as the “Merton Prayer”:
“I have no idea where I am going, I do not see the road ahead of me, I cannot know for certain where it will end”.
How things reached this desperate point remains a partial mystery to me. I am an only child raised in an upper middle-class family. I grew up in comfortable circumstances and completed my education with a JD degree. I had been a successful attorney with a wife and three children living in Fairfield County. On the surface my life looked good but on the inside things weren’t right with me. My parents, grandparents and many other relatives were alcoholics, so the drinking life came naturally to me. From my recollection I drank “normally” for many years but eventually my genes, life circumstances and lack of coping skills caught up with me. Undealt-with trauma played a part as I experienced the tragic death of a parent while in college and the physical disability of my spouse while my children were young. As life became more difficult my alcohol use accelerated. My inability to discuss and deal with those and other challenges contributed to my overall decline and the failure of my business which led to financial misconduct while practicing law and resulting incarceration.
On my second day in federal custody, I had an experience that changed everything. I awoke in the middle of the night feeling depressed and incredibly alone. I was broken and empty and cried out to my Higher Power asking for help finding a path forward. From the bottom of my heart, I promised to do whatever might be asked of me if my Higher Power would show me a way. I then experienced what some might describe as a spiritual awakening. I felt a lightning-like buzz in my cell akin to static electricity. In that very moment I felt peace and the presence of my Higher Power and knew that everything would somehow be OK.
The following day I saw a notice that an AA meeting was scheduled that evening in the prison chapel. I attended my first 12 Step meeting that night and received a Big Book and a card containing the AA promises. The meeting facilitator told me that if I read the Big Book and followed suggestions all of the AA promises would come true in my life. Later back in my cell I carefully read the 12 Promises of AA and imagined it would be a miracle if even one of them came true. I decided then and there to dedicate my life to working the AA program and had a sense there might be a reason to have hope.
With time and effort things slowly began to turn around in my life. In addition to working the steps of AA I made another change as I understood I would never be successful in the way I once anticipated. I made the conscious decision to shift the focus of my thought process from one of aspiration to acceptance and service. How that might unfold was unclear, but I was confident this was the right choice for me. I resolved to evaluate every choice moving forward, large or small, by one criterion. That standard was to always try to do the right thing regardless of what my preference might be. Nothing more and nothing less. This simple shift was a game changer as my “do the right thing” pledge has morphed into my superpower. As long as I try to do what’s right each and every day I now know my life will be manageable and I can handle the challenges life brings to me.
Today after 16 years of recovery my life has come full circle and I am blessed to have a life that is working for me. After 10+ years of incarceration through serendipity I was discharged on parole in 2016 to a newly opened sober house known as the Lighthouse. I was the first Lighthouse employee and that opportunity led to my new calling of service by helping others on their recovery journey. I still serve as a recovery coach for the Lighthouse and am incredibly grateful for that opportunity. I am also grateful to enjoy wonderful relationships with my children and with many friends in recovery. By the way, the 12 Promises of AA all came true for me. I still begin each day with the intent of honoring my pledge to try to do the next right thing when I have choices. This works for me and begins with remaining abstinent, attending AA meetings and remaining active in the recovery community.