I met Mike Chalmers, The Observer’s editor in chief, in a boxing gym off State Street in Chicago in the summer of 2010. Since that day six years ago, when our sweat splashed the canvas with each hard right hand we threw, Mike and I have become friends in a way I think is rare to experience as adults.

Over long runs and in coffee shops, on airplanes during long flights, we’ve talked about our lives—about the places we came from and how those places have marked us. How Chicago and the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia have inked our skin indelibly. We’ve talked about books and writing, about business, about family. And we’ve talked endlessly about an issue that has imprinted both of our lives in deeply personal ways: addiction.

My name is Tim, and I’m an alcoholic—and an addict and a felon and a husband and a father and a man who’s watched addiction, and the vortex of destruction it causes, shape the geographies both Mike and I know and love. Right now, on average, twelve people are shot in Chicago every day, and addiction (and drugs and gangs and territories and profit), if not at the very nucleus of the violence, certainly plays a dominant role in it.

Six hundred fifty miles away from my city, in my home away from home, where I run the C&O Canal trail and hike Maryland Heights and eat countless meals in Shepherdstown while listening to the Town Run meander, the addiction epidemic continues as the Panhandle leads, or almost leads, the country in overdose deaths every year.

Drugs, addicts, crime—they’re literally everywhere. Which is certainly negative from one perspective, but perhaps it’s also the only way for us to truly see the problem for what it is: pervasive and enduring.

I often come to Jefferson County, to Shepherdstown, to get away from the city—to take time to stare out over the cliffs where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet, and think about what it’s taken for me to get to a place in my life where I can exist without substances. I’m eleven years sober now—thanks to God’s grace, Hazelden Betty Ford, and the help of people like Mike, who see the problem of addiction and don’t turn away from it. Being able to sit on those rocks looking down on Harpers Ferry feels like something I almost didn’t get to experience in my life.

But I did. And I do. Which is so much more than many addicts who struggle ever get to say.

I’ve thought long and hard, for years now, about how or why I’ve managed to see so many sober days, and I think the closest I can get to an answer are the words I read on a poster once: “I came. I came to. I came to believe.”

In my case, I came—begrudgingly, not willingly—to rehab.

I came to—meaning: I was awakened. I saw myself honestly and clearly for the first time as the broken, hurting man I was.

And I came to believe. I came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. I came to believe that I needed to listen more and talk less. I came to believe that the only thing that absolutely had to change in my life was everything.

In early sobriety, I once asked an old-timer how I could know if I was an alcoholic or not. He smiled and said, “Kid, most people who aren’t alcoholics never ask themselves that question.” At the time, I didn’t quite understand what he meant, but I do now. And I think his answer illustrates the problem we face in trying to understanding the panorama of addiction. People who aren’t addicts or haven’t experienced the first-hand effects of addiction likely don’t think about it much. And that’s dangerous. Because the consequences of addiction rates continuing to rise affect all of us, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

By the time this issue of The Observer hits mailboxes and newsstands, I will have taken yet another trip to Shepherdstown. I will have joined Mike at the Bavarian Inn to swim in the infinity pool and rest my elbows on the ledge, taking in a view that soothes me in ways that drugs and alcohol never could. I will have spent a few of those moments closing my eyes and breathing deeply, thinking about the place that I came from and the place I arrived in, about sobriety and addiction, about the loss of Mike’s brother to the epidemic.

I will have felt the sadness that comes with all that. But then I will have opened my eyes and gazed down at the river below me, felt sun and water on my skin, and understood that changing the narrative of addiction is possible—no matter where we live.

— Sober since January 2005, Tim earned a Master of Arts in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University in Chicago. His work has appeared in various literary magazines and across the web, and he’s currently seeking representation for his memoir: A Story Like This.

(Picture: a view of Maryland Heights overlook through the ‘train bridge’ on the Harpers Ferry side.)

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