My sobriety began the morning of October 28th, 2002, when the nurse tore the fentanyl patch from my arm. I had spent twenty-three of the previous forty-eight hours under suicide watch in a wing of a local hospital which refused my requests to help me detox. They were not equipped, nor did they have the staff, to detoxify a broken body like mine. I had been wheelchair bound for almost two years. Although the patch was not keeping me from being sick, it continued to tease my addiction by delivering a slow and steady dose of poison to my system. I am an alcoholic and a drug addict, both one and the same in cause, though some still make a distinction because of the presenting symptoms. Whatever the symptoms of alcoholism, whatever the symptoms of drug addiction, I had them all and I was dying.
When my moment of clarity arrived, I wanted so desperately for release, and at every turn, I encountered resistance. I was told that there was not a handicapped-accessible detox facility in my entire state. I finally threatened to kill myself if someone wouldn’t help me. I could no longer live with the symptoms of my addiction, and I could find no one who was willing to help me try to live without them. The nurse who removed the patch from my arm was a psychiatric nurse. I was involuntarily committed to a behavioral health ward. My journey had begun.
Seven days later, I was transferred to a twenty-eight day facility where I was immersed in Twelve Step philosophy. At my very first meeting, I was given the directive to pray. A woman knelt down to my level and told me, “All you need to begin prayer are five words: please help me and thank you.”
By my third week of rehab, my fourth clean and sober, my emotions were as raw as my injured nervous system. I was in pain, emotionally, mentally and physically. I prayed the words but felt nothing. Finally, on Thanksgiving Day, after sharing a meal with my rehab cohort, the nurses and aides on the floor, and the remainder of the bare-bones staff who had drawn the short straw for the holiday, I returned to my room to feel sorry for myself. I had asked that my family not come to see me, in part because it was winter and so far away from my home, but more so because I wanted them to see a dramatic difference between my departure and my return, not dribs and drabs of progress from week to week. I beat myself up for not begging them to come to see me, and I beat myself up more for wanting to inconvenience them for my actions. Just for good measure, I also beat myself for not making more rapid progress.
I sat in my room, facing the institutional gray wall, talking to a God I wasn’t sure existed and if he/she/it did, would be interested in anything I had to say. I had no conception of God and I needed one. I recalled someone saying, almost in jest, that a HP can be a tree if that’s what worked. Slumped, I began to think about it. I thought of the giant sequoias that had entire ecosystems growing high up in their branches, far from sight, but there nonetheless. I wheeled around to my lone window searching the skyline, but all I could see were the brick walls of the wing across from me. In desperation, I pulled myself closer to the window, to the far right side and craned my neck. There above the concrete buildings was the very tip of an evergreen swaying slightly in the breeze. My eyes were wet for the first time since the morning that fentanyl patch was removed. My heart, hardened by the pain, softened just enough to let the miracle of nature in, and I felt something. The tree was not my Higher Power, but the Creator of the tree was. The Creator of the tree created me as well, and if that tree had a Purpose for being there, then I, too, must have a reason for Being. That’s all I needed.
That night, the topic at the meeting was Gratitude. I raised my hand to share, wheeled my way in front of the podium, and said, for the first time, I’m grateful to be alive. I meant it.