My name is Josh. I’m 39. I’ve been sober just about nine months. I live in Chicago. I know the editor of this paper, Mike, and he encouraged me to write this—for various reasons, many of which you probably already know. Mainly because, apparently, this publication works hard to help addicts and their loved ones get through the mess. Josh is my real first name, but I convinced Mike not to use my last name because, well, let’s just leave it at that.

I wanted to be a writer before, and after, drugs. Yeah, drugs. About that. I started using in high school. I grew up in a city about four hours east of Chicago. Rougher around the edges, more fragile. Less inspired. More broken down and vulnerable. Very blue collar and in many ways desperate for something that wasn’t coming back. As you can imagine, the people mirrored the place. By the time I was a teenager, my parents were at each other’s throats; my two sisters and I watched them fight like animals—watched my father eventually beat my mom up, more than once. Cops. Charges pressed. Dental work. Reconciliation. Repeat performance. On a loop. All through my middle school years. And most of high school. My dad eventually went to jail. I was drinking by ninth grade, using by tenth, horrible grades, no future. No goals. No dreams. Out late at night. Terrible friends. No guidance. All raw emotion and reaction. No perspective, no restraint, no self-control. You’ve seen the movie. We all have. The only surprise, and I mean this, is that I’m sitting here writing these words. There’s no way I should be alive. Much less sober. Much less writing and thinking about a sliver of a life that might just happen if I stay this way.

Naturally, I didn’t graduate from high school. Not that I didn’t spend three years telling everyone I was smarter than them and possessed some heretofore unknown expertise that would allow me to elude all of the consequences that were apparently coming my way if I didn’t stop living how I was living—everything a mere reaction, a countermove to the world around me, birthed in retreat and the anger and pain that subsidized it.

I dropped out between Thanksgiving and Christmas my junior year. I knew that most of my teachers and everyone else, while having spent so much of their time trying to steer me in another direction, were likely, some of them, also slightly relieved. I can’t blame them. At a certain point, there’s only so much someone can do. I heard it put this way in rehab once: When helping you is hurting me, it’s time to say goodbye. It makes perfect sense. And seeing what I’ve seen—in terms of how many people and how much debris is piled up behind me—I wish such a realization would come to more addicts at an earlier stage in their regression.

But drugs and substances are that strong. More so, however, the tentacles of pain, uncertainty, confusion, anguish, longing, etc., that inspire the type of emotional, existential detachment that leads to addiction is rooted even deeper. And sober people, “normal” people as they say, have a responsibility to recognize such a truth, and not sit by thinking someone will grow out of it, or something will run its course. Because chances are, it very certainly could not. And I promise you, the alternative is a tsunami compared to the slight disruption on the surface of the water that is persistence, concern, care, understanding, and raw effort. Additionally, the word that comes to mind is “now.” Don’t wait until after the fact. There really is no after, to be honest. Everything is already set in motion. After just equals years of cleanup. And cleanup can last forever.

A Blank Canvas

I admit that my situation is probably a little darker than most, but perhaps not. I’ve known a hundred times more addicts and idiots, criminals and deviants of all make and model, than productive people. My life was pretty much determined before I was ten years old. And probably the biggest, and most relentless, hurdle I’ve had to clear since then has been accepting such a reality and using the gravity of it as a propulsion system to swing around the dark side of that moon. It hasn’t been easy.

As I stated previously, if you see something—do something. Don’t wait. I ended up being addicted to drugs, and pretty much everything else, for more than 20 years. Every single person I know from my other life (which, by the way, is still so close I can almost feel it brush its fingertips across the back of my neck when I walk down the street) is dead or hell-bent on getting there as soon as possible. Are we responsible for so much of it? Of course—absolutely. But I had no one step in for me in those initial years. And a lot of my peers either had no one stepping in, or someone only half-stepping in.

In rehab, which I’ve been to so many times I literally can’t count, I’ve seen every type of parent, grandparent, significant other, caregiver, child—you name it—practice every type of after-the-fact response ever known (though this is never a child’s responsibility). Most of it is genuine but clueless. Some of it is selfish and passive-aggressive. Almost all of it is too little too late.

Before I forget, I guess this piece should have an overarching purpose. I doubt any addict (or soon-to-be addict) will read it, but maybe the person you’re thinking about will. And to that person, I say: no matter how screwed up you are, and how painful it all is (whatever it is), if you go down the road of substance abuse—you’ll lose everything. And I’m not even talking about the present. I mean the future. You’ll lose a life you haven’t even lived yet, and how sad is that? A blank canvas ready and willing to be painted however you want—and you just put a match to it. I got sober at nearly 40. Great. Now what? I’m almost 40. Look at what I’ve wasted—and what little I have to build on. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very grateful to be sober, but my god, I lie in bed most nights and nearly choke thinking about what I’ve thrown away. I can’t get any of it back. And the scar it left on my history reaches into my present, and certainly pollutes the path ahead. But this is my reality now.


With a Gasp

I can’t say when it all slipped to the point of no return for me. I wouldn’t have seen it anyway. And yet there I was, thinking everything was temporary, or easy to reverse. What a joke. You turn around and you’re 30, 40, a junkie, a prisoner, a homeless person, a sign holder, a fast food worker, a temp, a construction worker. Anything to make a buck—a buck you then go waste. A job you then lose. A cycle you then repeat.

“The life” ever-present around you; the people of that life always within reach even though you should have left them alone a decade ago. But you don’t because you’re scared, and immature, and lost. And you think they’re all you’ve got, when they’re the worst thing that ever happened to you and the single largest obstacle in the way of any hope for recovery.

And then you sit up with a gasp in the back of an ambulance with a needle sticking out of your chest. But you’re actually not really surprised, or even disturbed, because it’s the third time in two months. You’ll even do it again on a sidewalk in two weeks for good measure. Another question: do I have HIV from all these needles? I don’t know, maybe. So far, no. But who knows. It’s not like I didn’t share needles. It’s not like I had regular medical checkups. And STDs? Of course, many. I also probably have half of my teeth; I’m set for some implants soon if I can get it worked out with Medicaid and a local dentist that does some pro-bono work for people like me. One thing’s for sure: no post-op meds, and probably no numbing either. Lovely.

And I’m sure you’re wondering. Kids? Yep. Two, but likely three. I know of a girl in another city, and I heard years ago she got pregnant by me—had the kid. I never even knew her name. We had sex and got high all weekend in a crack house. So yeah, I guess three kids. But again, who knows.

Real talk: If you’re trying to help people like me, don’t stop. Keep trying. Always keep trying. Whatever it is that you’re able to do for the person you care about who is caught in this chaotic web, do it. Don’t second guess yourself. It’s like when someone’s in a coma—sometimes they wake up and say they heard you, heard what you were saying, but they were trapped in another place trying hard to get out. That’s what it’s like. So just know that your person hears you. They’re trying, even when it looks like the exact opposite. Your instincts are right—your persistence will translate to their strength at some point. Not every time, but it’s always worth it. And you never know what word or words, what moment, what argument is going to be the factor that tips the balance towards good.

My story isn’t original, but I’m starting to ever-so-slightly believe that perhaps I am. Perhaps I’m original. And perhaps, my story can be retold. Perhaps I can retell it—reshape it—relive it. At least from this point forward.

This Mike Chalmers dude—your Observer editor—yanked me out of a boxing gym once and gave me a lecture that nearly had me in tears. I mean, there’s tough love, and then there’s that lecture—believe it. And thus, I ignored just about every word of it, at the time. But one thing he said, tipped the balance for me. And it’s why I’m writing this for him today.

He said, “That’s what you were. But it’s not what you are.”

Mike, I know I didn’t say it at the time. But I’m saying it now. Thank you.

I can’t make any promises, brother—at least not yet. But I’ve spent almost a year attempting to fully digest what you said—what it means to me now, and moving forward.

I look at it as the footers—the foundation—for the structure I’m giving to my recovery. A structure that will one day have walls and a roof, and then windows so I can look out at the world and contemplate. And then a front door, and then a porch. And then stairs—that I can walk down when I’m ready, step onto the sidewalk. And rejoin the world.


— ARTICLE BY: Josh, from Chicago, via Detroit. He requested that The Observer use these pictures of a white wolf—his spirit animal—which symbolizes, among other things, resilience.

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One Response

  1. Karen G

    Build those stairs, because you deserve to walk down them. Step onto that sidewalk, because it will not crumble under you. Join the world because you deserve to take in it’s beauty. You deserve to smell that flower, to hug that tree, to lay down on the grass and look up at the clouds. And you might not believe it now, but the world deserves to know and share in YOUR beauty.


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