Breaking Point

By Zach W

My name is Zach, and, among many other things, I am an alcoholic and a drug addict. I’m 27 years old and my sobriety date is September 11th, 2009. One of the numerous blessings I claim is that my active addiction ended before ever taking a legal drink. I have a sponsor with whom I work the 12 Steps, and I take other people through the 12 Steps. For that I am truly grateful.

I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on the last day of May. I am my parent’s’ only child. From an outsider’s perspective, our family life looked like a dream— successful lawyer for a father, part-time human resource consultant for a mother. There’s an old saying that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and that is definitely the case with my family. You see, my father is an alcoholic. Not the loud, angry, physically abusive type, but instead the quiet, withdrawn, and depressive type. Couple his active alcoholism with my mother’s active codependency, and the outcome was a confusing and unpleasant childhood. Constant fighting, nagging, neglect, and explosive bursts of anger from both sides were the norm in my house. Luckily for me, my father sobered up in a12 step recovery program when I was five and is still sober to this day, almost 23 years later. At the same time my father got chemically sober, my mother found the rooms of Al-Anon and became emotionally sober. I credit their work in recovery for laying the foundation for my trust in it when the time came for me to walk into the humid, mildewed church basements in which I got sober so many years later.

As a child, I never felt like I fit in. One of my earliest memories is when I was four years old. I was hiding behind a tree listening to kids play on the other side and just knowing in my heart that they wouldn’t accept me. I was not like them and I had no idea why this feeling existed. It felt as if a high compression spring had been inserted in my gut and was just itching to unwind.  When I was nine, my parents divorced. My dad moved to a different state and my mother took up full-time work as a human resource manager for a large manufacturing company in North Atlanta. I was taken out of the Montessori schools I was used to and enrolled in the public-school system. This abrupt change in scenery only amplified my feelings of difference, and I could typically be found hanging out with the other nerds, outcasts, and oddballs during recess.

Having a single mother with a job in the corporate world left me plenty of time to myself, and as I hit puberty I was able to sneak beneath the radar and get away with all kinds of delinquent behaviors. Around this time, I also realized that my eyes were being drawn, not to the girls in my classes, but rather to the boys. Picture this already awkward, eccentric, introverted twelve-year-old realizing that he’s also gay. It was scary and isolating, and the first thought I had was, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to hide this forever.”

By this point I had made a few friends to hang out with outside school. It was with these friends that I first used alcohol and drugs. My god, the relief was instant. That old spring was finally unwound, and I felt at perfect peace and ease. The first time I used, I remember actually saying out loud, “I need to do this as often as possible. I want to feel this way forever.” And, for the next eight years, my mission became exactly that—to be as intoxicated as humanly possible.

I didn’t suffer many real consequences for several years, but as soon as I got my driver’s license, my alcohol and drug use skyrocketed. The bottles became larger and the drugs became harder and more frequent. The people around me became sketchier. I became sketchier. I started to lose sense of who I was. When I was seventeen I was expelled from my high school for being caught drunk and high. Shortly after that, I was picked up by the police and charged with “loitering for drugs within 1,000 feet of a school.” My mother knew exactly what to do—she took the keys to my car and kicked my ass right out onto the street, only after hitting me with a wooden cooking spoon so hard it broke in half and then jabbing me multiple times with the splintered handle. (This was the only time either of my parents physically harmed me.) Her response to my actions was well deserved and is something we can laugh about nowadays. I went to live with my father, who had moved back to Atlanta. He was about twelve years sober at this point and I got away with nothing, but that didn’t stop me! My needs were insatiable; I began stealing from him and everyone else around me to suit them. I seldom drew a sober breath, but it was still fun. The spring in my gut would still unwind while using.

When I was eighteen I extorted a relatively large sum of money from a family friend on whom I had legal dirt. With that money, I bought myself a car, rented a room in a crack house, and drank, used, and partied to my heart’s content. I spent every last cent within two months and was left with no means of income and a hugely increased need to use. During the following months, I became a common criminal; I ended up homeless and wouldn’t think twice about taking what you had to turn it into what I needed.  I cut everyone out of my life I would be ashamed to let see what I had become. Sunken-faced and skinny, I was never able to shake my conscience while in active addiction. It whispered in my ear constantly that I wasn’t being who I was meant to be, that I had more to offer the world. But that voice didn’t stop me. If I drank enough, that whisper became muted and I wouldn’t have to hear it. Then one day the voice just stayed on, as if someone had magically broken the ON/OFF switch in my head that the alcohol and drugs controlled. It seemed I had overloaded the circuit in my brain that derived pleasure from using. The relief that used to come from using never returned, and my conscience whispered to me whether I was sober or not. The spring stopped unwinding.

In November 2007 I began trying on my own to stop using, even attending a small handful of meetings. I would show up late and leave before they ended, speaking to no one. Most of the time I wouldn’t go inside at all. I would just sit in my car in the parking lot, smoking cigarettes and judging the people I saw milling around. “I’m not like them,” I would tell myself. “This is silly; I can quit on my own.” A few more months of vain attempts to end, manage, or change my using left me feeling utterly defeated. I didn’t know to call it powerlessness at the time, but that’s exactly what it was.

By the following February I had had enough, and I turned to the best resource I had. I hadn’t talked to or seen my dad in months, aside from the time I drunkenly called him at 1AM, frantically seeking advice after totaling a car I had only owned for two days. Out of pure desperation, I called him seeking a different kind of advice, and we agreed to meet at his condo after he got off work. He had long since taken the keys to his house away from me, so when I got to his condo I had to knock to be let in. The look on his face when he opened the door was a mixture of shock, disappointment, and deep sadness. I hope I never forget how that look made me feel. We sat down in his living room and I asked him flat out if he thought I was an alcoholic. To this day, he still talks about how much restraint it took him not to yell at the top of his lungs, “YES, YOU ABSOLUTE MORON, OF COURSE YOU FUCKING ARE! LOOK AT YOURSELF!” Instead, all his combined years of working a program allowed him to calmly reply, “Zach, only you can make that decision. What I can do for you is give you the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, connect you with some sober young people, and hope you figure this out on your own.” We are not saints, but in that moment, I would have to say that my dad was about as close as anyone has ever come.

A week later I sat in my first “real” meeting, less than 24 hours sober and ready to give a new way of life a shot. I didn’t know what it was going to look like, but I knew it had to be better than what I had been doing. I remember nothing about the meeting other than picking up a white chip at the end and everyone clapping for me. A young guy gave me his number after the meeting and told me to call him if I felt like using. I decided as I left that I was going to give AA a chance and stay sober. What I didn’t expect was the power my addiction had over me, and I ended up drinking on the way home! Over the next 20 months, I picked up spotty lengths of sobriety–a week here, thirty days there, and I even managed to make it to the coveted one-year mark! But, I hadn’t dug deep enough. I was still deep in the closet about my sexuality, I was almost never honest with anyone, and I still thought about using on a daily basis. I was afraid it was going to make me look bad if I said anything, and I eventually caved in to the disease.

I woke up on the morning of September 11th, 2009 feeling the deepest pit of shame in my gut I had ever felt in my 20 years of life. Truly embarrassed, I walked into my home group that night and picked up my final surrender chip. That was when the real work began. I wrote out the most thorough inventory I had ever written, and I started learning to be honest even when every fiber of my being screamed at me to lie and save face. Eventually, I came out of the closet to my closest friends, a bunch of rather liberal, yet still WASP-y straight boys from the South. They welcomed me with open arms and treated me no differently. That gave me the courage to come out fully to the entire world—family and coworkers included!

After that, I reached out to those whom I had hurt in the past and did my best to right the wrongs I had done to them, acknowledging those wrongs at the very least. It turned out one of the main reasons I had that spring-loaded feeling in the first place was because I kept all my thoughts and shame inside my head. As I worked the program, that compressed, wound-up spring I had lived with started to unwind itself naturally, without drugs or alcohol.

I live in a fully transparent world today, keeping no secrets. Letting them out into the world is the easiest way for me to find peace today. I learned to be myself and accept who I am through the process. I have lived through all sorts of life’s experiences as a sober man, and I continue to give back to the community of people who gave their time, energy, and love to me so I could in turn learn to love myself and live a sober lifestyle—chemically and morally. I take new people through the same steps I was taken through to help them achieve their own personal peace and, hopefully, their triumph over addiction. The thought of drinking or using seldom crosses my mind these days, and when it does, it scares me so badly that I waste no time in bringing it up to those who understand. I will always be an alcoholic and a drug addict, meaning I will always be powerless over alcohol and drugs, but today I have the power of choice. I am granted the power to choose whether or not I drink today. How freaking cool is that?!

I live a great life these days and generally feel in touch with reality and myself. It is as if I exist in the stream of energy that I was supposed to inhabit all along. I’m doing exactly what my conscience used to berate me for not doing; oh, how the tables have turned! I use that spring-loaded feeling in my gut as a barometer for how far away from that stream of energy I may have gotten. When it is overwhelmingly powerful, that is usually an indicator I have some work to do on myself. I’m grateful for living on my side of the street today, the side that belongs solely to Zach.

The coolest part about being in recovery is that I have a freaking army of people who care about me. I can turn to them to get perspectives and possible solutions for any issue I come across, recovery-related or not. When I recently moved halfway across the country to Austin, Texas, I immediately began getting to meetings and making new friends. We’re a friendly bunch, and I’m never without a group of people who understand me—even if they’re all complete strangers! We speak the same language in recovery. I’m still a nerd and an oddball, but these days I claim those titles proudly. I like who I am! I am truly loved, and I am sober today. For that I am an extremely lucky and grateful man.