Tom Sloan’s story written by Elizabeth Barton
I had my hand on the doorknob, about to go in, but suddenly I was overcome with shame. Here I was once again: about to take a new beginner’s token and start working the program anew at 53 years old. The shame was overwhelming, crippling. I couldn’t breathe. It told me to turn back. It made me believe I could never get a handle on my life and my recovery. So I started back down the sidewalk.
Then, suddenly, the lightbulb above my head went on, and I had this moment of clarity. Where do you think you are going? You have nowhere to go and no one to turn to. If you leave here, you are going to die, I told myself. And I knew it was true. I would’ve died. I had pushed this envelope too far, farther than anyone I ever met. Almost everyone I had originally come into recovery with had died. If I hadn’t turned around and walked right back into that recovery room, death would have been the next step for me.
Shame is a difficult sentiment to subdue. It’s different than guilt in the way that it makes you believe you are the bad thing. Guilt is recognizing the things that you have done to be bad, but shame convinces you are a bad person because of the things you have done, the things that the disease has made you do. Addiction is a disease and when the symptoms of the disease rear their ugly heads, you feel shame and guilt. And you’d do almost anything to stop feeling those emotions, including putting the drug back in your system. There is no denying that the lying, stealing and cheating that accompany addiction are symptoms of the disease. They are ugly and vile symptoms, but they do not define us as addicts. They do not define me. They are part of the disease.
My first admission to myself that I had problems with addiction was when I was 32. I was an alcoholic. I told myself I could just quit drinking, and for three years, I was successful at it. My life got exceedingly better just by removing alcohol from my life. I stopped getting into fights and car wrecks. Things were looking up.
But it couldn’t last. While I had been abstaining from alcohol, my drug use, specifically opioids, had escalated, and after three years, I found myself back in jail for my seventh DUI. I was at a loss for words. The symptoms of addiction, the pain and the shame, crept back in. I was so disappointed in my actions that, when they let me out at four o’clock in the morning, I walked straight home, pulled the gun from where I kept it underneath my mattress and shot myself.
Waking up in the psych unit at the hospital with a gunshot wound is pretty sobering, and it forced me to really open my eyes to the idea that I had once again been struggling with addiction. At the time, I couldn’t call myself an addict, but I knew that I had a problem and knew that I couldn’t continue living this way. I spent 28 days in an inpatient treatment program before leaving, resigned to never using drugs again.
This is when I started going to the 12-step program meetings, hearing the same messages every time: Get a sponsor. Read the literature. Find a higher power. Work the steps. Going to meetings became my sole focus — to the point where it became fun for me. I would get the chance to socialize with people who knew me and who understood what struggling with an addiction is like. I would listen to people share their stories and the bits of wisdom they picked up through their recovery. I had this idea that as long as I came to meetings I could stay clean.
Unfortunately, after 18 months, I was back to my old habits. For the next 17 years following that, I started this cycle, where I would get clean for a while and adhere to the steps of the program only to turn right back around and halt all of the progress I had made. Later, I would come back to meetings, grab a new beginner’s token, and tell myself: This time it is going to work. This time I am going to stay clean.
Throughout this endless cycle, I was in the real-estate business with a woman who became my wife. She had never experienced any form of addiction before meeting me. When we fell in love, I truly thought that she was going to be my salvation from this disease. I think she viewed herself in that role as well. She went to meetings with me and was greatly involved in my recovery. We got married and became very successful in our careers. The money was rolling in. We were both driving new cars and had the big house on the hill. Life couldn’t have been going better, except I was still going through this cycle of relapse and then a period of recovery and then relapse again. I had become very skilled at telling her the same old lies I’d been telling myself for years: This time I’m going to stay clean.
This persisted for seven years, but eventually she had enough. She worried that staying with me meant losing her children, and that wasn’t a chance she was willing to take.
I knew that the program was successful without a doubt. I just couldn’t get it to work for me. But, if anything, this program has taught me to just keep coming back. Keep going to meetings. Keep working the steps. And then I had my moment of clarity. At 53 years old, I walked back into the recovery room; I grabbed my beginner’s token, and I faced the shame that had weighed me down for so long. I remember sharing that night and telling everyone, “I’m going to do exactly what you suggest. Read the literature. Get a sponsor. Find a higher power. Come to meetings every day. And when I relapse it’s not going to be my fault this time.” That was the attitude I went into it with.
I got a sponsor. I called him every day, and he became involved in all of my decision-making. Being vulnerable in front of another person in that way is very daunting. I went to my meetings every day. I did everything I said I would. Eventually, I felt something change within me. I started to recognize these feelings I had for others in a capacity I hadn’t felt before. I was developing empathy for these people who were going through all these similar things I had been through my entire life.
Before, I was so focused on becoming successful in my outward life, whether that meant making tons of money, driving new cars, or having a big house, that I never bothered to look inward at myself. I never came to terms with what was really spurring this self-destruction. Addiction is a coping mechanism to bury the emotions we don’t want to feel. For years, that was my way of distancing myself from these emotions. So in losing that mechanism, I had to learn how to deal with the shame, guilt and self-hatred I had kept buried for so long. This empathy that I recognized within myself drove me to work harder, and as a result, I continued to make progress and recover. I was finally focused on recovery and not on the outward desires I had yearned for in the past. This new outlook was due to the 12th step in the program: to have a spiritual awakening. My newly found empathy for others was my spiritual awakening after getting this far through the program.
Additionally, the 12th step has us work with other addicts and guide them through the steps. I started doing service work and sharing my story with others. I wanted to give people hope and open their eyes to life after recovery. To show other addicts they don’t have to keep living with this disease. My life now is beyond anything I could’ve imagined when I was living in active addiction. My ex-wife and I remarried and live our lives both focused on addiction recovery. She works with the significant others of addicts, starting her own 12-step program for those who have been affected by codependence and their partner’s addiction. It can be difficult working with addicts, especially getting them to see past their denial and open up to another person. It can be equally difficult with their codependents.
As of November 2016, I have been clean for 11 years. It took me 32 years to get that. It’s just amazing how much better life becomes. I feel very fortunate to have gotten to this point in my recovery, especially being my age. It’s not often addicts get to grow old. This disease has killed so many, and it will kill more until we, as a society, do something about it.
This story originally appeared in Facing Addiction in East Central Indiana, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Dr. Adam Kuban and the Louis E. Ingelhart Scholars at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.