12-step

Meet the Man Who’s Stronger Than Drugs

Though we all go through plenty of highs and lows in life, few people have seen the extreme ends of the spectrum as clearly as Willie ‘The Bam’ Johnson. For anybody who is a fan of martial arts, Johnson is something of a legend. He’s the first American in history to win be a nationally-ranked, Triple Crown martial arts champion and holds fifth- and seventh-degree black belts in karate and kung fu, respectively. Beyond that, he’s also trained in jujitsu, Thai boxing, wrestling, kickboxing and Tai Chi. To top it all off, he achieved the rank of Grand Master in 1995 and has been inducted into the Martial Arts Hall of Fame.

Still, nobody is more in awe of his ascendancy than Johnson himself. “As a six-year-old kid growing up in the city of Baltimore in a community called Lafayette Projects,” Johnson says, “there were a lot of things going on in my household.” Beyond the general struggle of growing up in a poor, hard-working family, there were also significant family dysfunctions. “I was being molested and [experiencing] things that made me feel so less-than by other family members.”

The first germ of change happened only by accident. “There was this one moment where my mom had allowed me to go to this movie called Chinese Connection with a neighbor,” Johnson says. “I went there and I got a chance to see Bruce Lee. And I didn’t see Bruce Lee, I saw me. I saw an opportunity and I found a way to get through the pain I was going through.” From that day forward, there was virtually never a moment when Johnson wasn’t honing his martial arts skills.

Although he had all the enthusiasm, finding ways to practice was somewhat challenging. “In that time, there weren’t that many schools or people who were doing martial arts,” Johnson says. “You would have to find somebody who learned it in the military or a guy who was teaching privately. I found a guy who was teaching privately and he began to help me along.” Before long, Johnson was learning privately, sitting in on classes with the permission of instructors and honing his craft. Slowly but surely, he took things to the next level.

“As I got a little older, around 10,” he says, “My sister moved out and I made my own dojo in my apartment.” He started having kids in the neighborhood over to teach them privately until a few years later, one of his younger students suggested they try offering the class in a local community center. “I went over there, the first thing the guy told me was, ‘What are you talking about?'” Johnson says. “‘You’re only 12 years old, you can’t teach no class.'”

After that, Johnson and his troupe of kids went outside to practice in the field—where they were spotted by Kenneth Parker, a counselor at the community center. As it turns out, Parker was so impressed that he talked the owner into letting him lead a martial arts class at the center for the kids. “[Parker] was already a black belt in karate, did yoga, was into holistic health,” Johnson says. “He became a mentor and kept reinforcing my creativity.”

By the time he was 17, Johnson had competed in (and won) tournaments. By the time he was 18, he had his own martial arts school in Baltimore. As the 80s rolled in, Johnson’s star was on the rise—right as crack cocaine and heroin were flooding the city streets. “I started really being recognized in magazines,” he says. “All those dreams I had as a kid were now manifesting. But because of the influx of crack cocaine and heroin, all of my friends were becoming big-time drug dealers.”

The neighborhood Johnson remembered as a kid was eroding, replaced with gun fights and drug dealers. It culminated when Johnson saw his best friend get shot up outside his home. “Friends were hurting friends, family was hurting family,” Johnson says. “That’s when my addiction really took off.” Though it included drug use, the issue was more complex than that. “I was addicted to carrying guns, selling drugs, using drugs,” he says. “I never put a needle in my arm but [I] was addicted to a lifestyle.”

At home, Johnson’s mom was struggling with cancer. In his world, he had scored his first official cover shoot for a martial arts magazine. His plan was to go to the shoot and then go out partying—but he missed the bus. Instead of shooting for the magazine, he went home to see his mother, who was particularly ill. “My mom died in my arms [that night],” he says. “Her last words were, ‘Be good, Bam Bam.’”

Things got worse after that. “When she died, I was on the path to suicide,” he says. “I was smoking everything, taking everything. I ended up homeless. I was eating out of trash cans.” It wasn’t long after that Johnson found himself serving a year-long sentence in federal prison. “When I got locked up, I had crack cocaine in my pocket after they searched me,” he says. “After all that happened, I thought, ‘I could take this crack and go crazy, or I can flush it down the toilet and ask God to give me a chance.’” He chose the latter.

Johnson started working with a drug counselor in prison and working a 12-step program. He came up with the idea for Stronger than Drugs, a program to keep Baltimore kids ages four to 17-years-old off of drugs. Despite all his success and personal achievements, his sponsor doled out some hard lessons to Johnson. “I had five kids,” Johnson says. “My sponsor would say to me, ‘Don’t come in here like you’re all clean and sober when you still have an alcoholic’s behavior. When you go home, you gotta respect women. And secondly, go get your kids and raise your kids. Pay off your child support and stop talking like you’re some gangster on the streets. When you do all that, I’m impressed.’”

When he got out of jail, Johnson made good on his promise. “I still do everything I did in jail to this day,” he says—that means practicing martial arts, trying to guide the youth away from drugs and crime and relentlessly pursuing self-development. Aside from teaching students, Stronger than Drugs remains one of Johnson’s biggest projects. “Our ultimate goal is to educate the kids,” he says. “How do we educate them so they don’t have to come in a room and say, ‘Hey, my name is Johnny and I’m an alcoholic.’” Just as every great journey begins with a single step, Johnson’s philosophy behind his recovery and his success is as simple as can be. “In the martial arts, we say that a black belt is just a white belt that never quits,” he says. “And that’s what AA is. We’re just beginners who never quit.”

An Entrepreneur in Recovery Who’s Determined to Connect the Two

As anyone with any proximity to addiction knows, the recovery world is rife with colorful life stories. Still, addiction entrepreneur Alex Shohet’s is unusually rich. “I’ve had a long and complicated career,” he says. “I probably have a story that’s out of some kind of crime novel.” Shohet’s most recent venture is The Red Door, a luxe sober living home founded in 2018 that offers recovery support while also serving as an incubator space for its members’ business ventures, creative projects and start-up ideas.

If that marriage seems counter-intuitive, that’s because it is—and Shohet understands that. “We always call it the experiment,” he says. “There’s a linear approach to recovery which is to get clean and sober and then when you’re healthy enough, go back and start working. What we’re trying to say is, ‘Well, it’s not actually linear.’” For Shohet, The Red Door represents a point on his own business and recovery trajectory some 34 years removed from where it all started. To understand it in context, it’s best to go back to the beginning.

As a young man, Shohet attended UCLA but was battling addiction at the time. “I became a heroin and cocaine user,” he says. “I never graduated. I was going in and out of treatment and in and out of whatever else.” This rocky period of Shohet’s life led to him dropping out of college and attending an inpatient program at Impact Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center in Pasadena. “I stayed there for six months and then did about 12 months of outpatient,” he says.

In 1988, Shohet left Impact with newfound sobriety. But he also had a series of unpleasant realizations after getting back into the real world. “When I was in Impact, there was a period of time where you’re supposed to go out and get a job,” he says. “The challenge with that is: what do you put on your resume? I was doing petty crimes, I was a heroin and cocaine drug addict, I’d spent six months in a treatment center for people coming out of prison. Was I supposed to write all that?”

The common wisdom of 12-Step oriented programs is that recovering addicts ought to pursue a life of rigorous honesty and authenticity. Unfortunately, Shohet found it difficult to be both rigorously honest and gainfully employed. “I’m not saying I encourage this,” he says, “but faced with the opportunity of not having work, I lied on my resume.” Shortly thereafter, Shohet found employment working with personal computers (on the strength of his uncompleted engineering degree from UCLA). Fortunately, luckier times were ahead.

With the guidance of a friend and mentor, Shohet started his own computer company and found success during the dot-com boom of the 90s. In 2000, Shohet’s sponsor died of AIDS and his best friend died from relapse complications. On top of that, his wife became pregnant right as her brother passed away. Combined with the burst of the dot-com bubble, the stress led to Shohet relapsing and finding himself in rehab once again at Beit T’Shuvah. “I went [to rehab] the first time as basically a homeless person,” Shohet says. “When I went in the second time, I went in as a yuppie.”

Though his position had changed, he noticed the same problem as before: recovering addicts were finding it nearly impossible to reintegrate into the labor force. After researching the problem more on his own, Shohet embarked on new business ventures. The first was Wonderland, a high-end treatment center in the Hollywood Hills which has since closed amidst legal disputes with his then-business partner, Dr. Howard Samuels. Shohet then split off to found ONE80Center, which also closed amidst legal troubles related to two wrongful death suits. After years of legal battles, Shohet found himself back at square one. “After the litigation was over,” he says, “I went back and started saying, ‘Well, one thing I thought was a missing element in previous versions of treatment was entrepreneurship.’”

Through all his experiences in the Wild West of the high-end California rehab industry, Shohet says he always remained focused on his social mission. “I feel like what we do [at The Red Door] is standing on the back of all the other programs that have existed before us,” he says. “In the 80s, the places with work components were Salvation Army, Delancey Street, Impact. The thing about it was that most of the kinds of employment available were blue-collar work. But there was a big part of the population left out of that.”

Historically speaking, it’s no secret that jobs within the recovery industry are some of the best jobs available to recovering addicts. Still, those jobs represent a very narrow slice of the entire labor market. “Maybe we can expand on the blue-collar work and become more relevant or more current,” he says. “People can come out of these programs and feel like they can compete and succeed.”

Despite the entrepreneurial aspect, The Red Door still has all the rigor of any other sober living home. The house has five bedrooms and five-and-a-half bathrooms and equips clients with their own customized recovery teams of therapists, psychiatrists and other treatment professionals. Above all, Shohet is hoping to change the way addiction is treated and to break down the stereotypes society has about people in recovery.

“Many addicts have an incredible amount of drive,” Shohet says. “When it’s harnessed towards their addictions, it’s very destructive. But that drive can be harnessed or directed into other things.” Speaking personally, Shohet says that his entrepreneurial journey and recovery are more or less inseparable—and he hopes the Red Door can impart that wisdom onto others like himself. “I’m passionately interested in creating things and building things and learning everything I can about business,” he says. “But I’m also an addict.”

The Sober Stand-Up Special You Have to See

The best comics make it look easy, but a successful career in stand-up comedy is much harder than it may seem. Take it from Matt Gallagher. To hear him tell it, stand-up is a circuitous journey that begins with open mics, writing material, making a set, taking it to live audiences, being a barker, getting paid, securing closing spots in shows, going on the road and finally headlining. But what allowed him to take the journey actually involved taking something away. “It only came about because I got sober,” he says. “When I say I did stand-up before, anybody from the outside would say, ‘This guy is not doing comedy.’ The old version was like watching a car accident.”

All told, Gallagher has been seriously doing comedy for about 18 years, since 2001 when he went through rehab. He cut his teeth while living in New York and facing all the terrifying possibilities that new sobriety brings. “I was either at a meeting or I was at a comedy club,” he says of the early days. “I lived in Hell’s Kitchen and meetings and the club were three blocks apart. I was doing three meetings a day and three shows a night, so it was a great way to stay sober.”

It was also a great way for Gallagher to hone his craft, as his new special A Stumble in the Woods, available on Amazon Prime, shows perfectly. Any serious comedy fans out there will notice that Gallagher’s special is unique, even amidst a recently flooded comedy market. As it turns out, his approach was different. “I didn’t work on this special or take it on the road and workshop it,” he says. “I had done it one time for a group of 15 people in a really small space.” That rawness yields a show that is equal parts storytelling and comedy, sometimes keeping the audience guessing as to what Gallagher will reveal and what he’ll withhold. “I didn’t have a concrete plan when I started talking,” he says. “When you put yourself on the spot, the stuff that pops up is really the truest stuff.”

Gallagher performed his special at the historic El Cid theater in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. “I wanted it to have that jazz, underground, beatnik-y feel to it,” he says. “It was all the stories I’m either uncomfortable with or I [felt] like people [needed] to know.” If you know nothing about Matt Gallagher, the special is also a great primer: He was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey to a widowed dad. He was raised with six sisters, two of them much older than he was. Perhaps most notably, both sides of his family had Irish Catholic bar owners.

The special begins as a relatively light retelling of a laissez-faire childhood before moving into darker territory. In one moment, Gallagher tells a wide-eyed story about how he thought priests were magical because bells would chime every time they broke the eucharist in church. In another, he regales his teacher with all the biodiversity that must’ve been on Noah’s arc (facts remembered from reading Ranger Rick magazines). Some of those early experiences with the magical thinking of religion turned Gallagher away from it in the future. “When I did this show, I just kind of embraced that I’m an atheist,” he says.

Still, Gallagher credits the 12 steps with helping him get and stay sober—and he still harbors a curiosity about the natural world that borders on spiritual. “My fascination is with the vastness of the universe,” he says with a laugh. “That to me is more powerful and interesting than any of the Abrahamic religions.” For anyone who missed it, the title of his special is a nod to A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, the naturalist non-fiction writer who chronicled his adventures on the Appalachian trail. “The title resonated most with me,” Gallagher says. “Some people didn’t get it.”

Although Gallagher portrays himself at moments in the special as the red-nosed, drunk uncle at the end of the bar (inspired in some ways by his Uncle John, described throughout), Gallagher and his stories often strike a literary vein. Throughout our conversation, Gallagher quotes James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw and also references Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. Though he explored the latter two while he was still drinking (“I was always searching for something—I kind of became a religious assassin in a way”), the ideas about mythic structure seem to have stuck. “[This special] was my little Hero’s Journey,” Gallagher says with a laugh. “I went through the underworld and I came out with the magic power of self-discovery.”

For a special that is digressive and relatively unstructured, viewers might be surprised at how neatly everything comes full circle. Beyond the allusion to Bryson, an anecdote at the end of the show gives the title new and deeper meaning. Still, I won’t spoil it here. For Gallagher, the next step in his work is to make meaning of his new life and his place in the world—a scary prospect for someone who has slain all the obvious dragons. “I’ve started working again,” he says. “I’ve been happily married for 11 years, I have two happy and healthy children. When I stop and take a breath, I see I have everything I want.”

To All the Rock Bottoms I Have Yet to Hit

My favorite thing about getting a new doctor is when they ask me about my drug history. No, seriously. It’s my favorite because I get to rattle off a seemingly endless list of narcotics that I’ve tossed into the chemical dumpster that is my body. Granted, just talking about drugs and alcohol and my relationship with them was really uncomfortable in early sobriety. Confessing my chemical sins to a doctor was humiliating but 10 years of sobriety later, I really enjoy it. “Yes but not in 10 years” was what I answered to nearly every substance my new physician dove into the drug topic.

“Alcohol?” she asked.

“Yes but not in 10 years.”

“Marijuana?”

“Yes but not in 10 years.”

“Cocaine?”

“Uh hell yes but not in 10 years.”

I really hope my doctor was playing a game of drug bingo with her medical pals because I’m pretty sure I helped her win. When you put my drug and alcohol use into the context of time—from age 14 to age 36—there’s no wonder I had a lot of time to check a lot of boxes. Twenty-two years in the biz meant I had years to make lots of things really unmanageable. It was also the perfect time to retire, as it were. With every substance known to man put in nearly every orifice I have, you would think that I wouldn’t feel the urge to explore new drunken, drugged out avenues after 10 years of sobriety. But you would be wrong.

Listen, I’m not saying I’m “planning a relapse” or even in danger of slipping (which is, let’s face it kind of a cute word for something really devastating). I’m just saying I have the brain of an addict and sometimes that brain gets really loud and says stuff like, “Maybe you should try smoking crack again? I don’t feel like we ever gave crack a fair chance! Maybe crack would work out for us!”

The truth is even though I’ve tried as many drugs as most people with the last name Sheen, there are still a list of “yets” that are a mile long. For example, I got sober before “Rosé All Day” was a thing. This is a real tragedy for a gay man like myself who loves the color pink and getting shithoused on wine during the day. Back in my era, pink wine usually only came from the fine folks at Franzia and it was served out of a box. But now the kids are all about it and I, alas, am not of one the kids, in more ways than one.

I also completely missed crafts beers, boozy seltzer waters and Moscow mules. I also never had a moment with opioids which is odd considering I’m an accomplished drug addict who loves to do things that are popular. I mean it’s an epidemic so I shouldn’t feel FOMO for not being effected by an epidemic. But that’s just how I’m wired. Like I was horrified a few years ago when I heard people were shooting up elephant tranquilizers. Horrified but also had a moment of thinking, “Ooh. I wonder what that’s like!” And don’t get it twisted, even though I never, ever shot up when I was actively using, there’s still a part of my mind that can go there and think that’s a good idea to try some day. Just the other day, someone at the hospital where I work was brought in because they had overdosed on something called “nope.” From what I gathered it’s this mega remixed drug featuring your favorite artists like meth, heroin and ecstasy. Sounds pretty dangerous and let’s be honest something I would have tried with zero hesitation in a different time and place.

The important word in all of this is “yet.” Like: I haven’t tried all of those things yet, I haven’t had my life devastated by them—yet. I haven’t relapsed yet. Beyond the substance I haven’t tried there’s the darker yets that haven’t happened too. Like I haven’t served time in jail for drugs and alcohol—yet. I haven’t wound up in a mental hospital—yet. I haven’t gotten a DUI or attempted suicide or wound up living on the streets—yet. Because what I know about my own journey with drugs and alcohol is that there’s nowhere left to go but even further down. There isn’t a right combination of vaping weed (something else I haven’t ever done yet) and Negroni in existence that will make me a functional and successful drug addict. I’m not going start drinking rosé next week and magically become this normal person who can handle his booze. Knowing this 100% is an incredible gift and one I don’t take lightly. The only places left are even more awful than the garbage rock bottom I already hit in 2009.

“Jails, institutions and death” are the yets that 12-step programs tell us are the inevitable end if people like us continue to drink and use. Sounds dramatic but just from my own Irish and Swedish family, I can confirm this. Recently, I was lucky enough to work with a patient who celebrated 30 days clean and sober. After multiple stints in the hospital, this patient had nearly died during his last stay. His body was no longer able to keep up with his addiction. It was an intense reality: either keep using or die. The room for negotiating on possible ways to make addiction work for him was closed. Remarkably, he got the message, which is why that month sober really meant something to him. I say “remarkably” because I see tons of jaw dropping cases of addiction at their absolute worst—people who should not under any circumstance go back to using but somehow do. It’s the nature of the beast.

The romance of the new highs and even lower lows quickly passes for me these days. It’s a thought. It’s a blip on my radar. It’s a minute and then it passes. I know that whatever is out there in the world of active drinking and using can stay out there. I’m just happy that I haven’t felt the real urge to go find out (yet).

A Vitamin Line For People In Recovery? Oh, Yes

Of all the medical epidemics, addiction has to be one of the most inscrutable. Though it has always been acknowledged that alcohol and drugs can have a debilitating effect on the spirit, just how these chemicals overwhelm us has been reimagined many times. In the early 1800s, temperance societies sprung up around the United States. In severe cases, people were put in sanitariums, facilities that were often poorly run and offered little hope for society beyond getting severe addicts off the streets. In 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12-step doctrine was introduced to the conversation, with the infamous “Big Book” published in 1939.

While 12-step programs remain popular to this day (though magazines like The Atlantic have questioned their efficacy as a recovery method used on their own), recent research has shifted the conversation in new directions. Beyond discussions of the spirit or the will, addiction entered the medical realm when the American Medical Association classified alcoholism as a legitimate disease in 1956. In spite of that, it still took until 2000 for the AMA’s official journal to suggest that addiction be treated as a chronic medical illness. During or since that time, you’ve likely heard any number of the following aphorisms about addiction: it is a brain disease. It is a family disease. It is a disease of isolation. In all this conversation, however, the rates of relapse according to the NIH still remain between 40 to 60%—even for those who do seek treatment.

Though all of the above approaches and adages have truth to them, new voices are speaking out about a missing part of the recovery pie: biochemical recovery. Put simply, the physical cost of addiction on our bodies and brains is often invisible. Anyone who has ravaged themselves for years with hard drugs can follow a 12-step program, get dual diagnosis support and generally do all the “right” things. Still, if that person’s neurotransmitters are depleted or their blood sugar is volatile, stable and long-term recovery may be all but impossible.

Fortunately, people like Rynda Laurel, founder of nutritional supplement company VRYeveryday and board member of the Alliance for Addiction Solutions, are beginning to change the conversation. “I’ve been interested in a holistic lifestyle forever,” Laurel says. “I was born in San Francisco and my parents were somewhat of hippies. I’ve been sober since 1992 and since day one, I was looking beyond the regular tools for other things to make me feel better.”

In her old life, Laurel worked in A&R for companies including Virgin Records, Warner Brothers Records, Geffen Records and Sony BMG Music Entertainment. In January 2018, she founded VRYeveryday, a nutritional supplement and wellness-oriented company with products designed to boost their customers’ micro-nutritional health.  So far, the company has five supplement products available for purchase: Rest Well, Serenity, Dopa Mind, Gluta Mine and Pink Cloud (a nod to the rose-tinted view of the world that newcomers to recovery often experience). All of the products are non-GMO, vegan and gluten-free, containing a combination of amino acids, herbs, vitamins and mineral co-factors.

As their names suggest, Rest Well promotes relaxation and better sleep while Serenity helps calm the nervous system. Pink Cloud contains St. John’s Wort and Valerian to boost positive emotions, Dopa Mine helps produce dopamine for motivation and energy and Gluta Mine stabilizes metabolism and helps with sugar cravings. “Researchers have found that a lot of people in recovery have hypoglycemia,” Laurel says. “That’s why they crave the sugar in alcohol.” Generally speaking, each product can be taken once or twice daily and all are made in a quality-assured manufacturing facility that has been operational for more than 50 years.

As a recovering heroin addict herself, Laurel’s supplement formulas came from reading dietary books, consulting with health experts and self-experimenting. “I did vitamin testing to see what I was low on,” she says. “You can get as detailed as you want in your own health journey by doing all the testing.” Though Laurel recommends consulting with a doctor before using these or other nutritional products, VRYeveryday can still be taken at any point in recovery. In other words, the supplements are less a targeted cure for any specific ailment and more of a safe mood and energy boost for anyone in recovery. And since the supplement world can be complex and intimidating, VRYeveryday’s goal is to be accessible. “If you want something simple,” Laurel says, “that’s where these products can also come in.”

Beyond her company, Laurel’s broader mission is to push the conversation about recovery—from addiction, mental illnesses and whatever else—towards a perspective that includes micro-nutrition and holistic health. “When you’re brand new [in recovery],” Laurel says, “you go to a 12-step meeting and there’s coffee and donuts and cookies. After the meeting, you go to a burger place. I understand all the fellowship is really important but what we’re not doing is providing anything that says, ‘Look, you have to take care of what you can internally, too.’”

Laurel’s work with the Alliance on Addiction Solutions, founded in 2007, has also focused on spreading awareness about nutritional therapy. Though many high-end rehabs offer holistic supports like yoga and meditation in addition to psychiatric help for co-occurring disorders, fewer include options like amino acid detox and pro-recovery dietary advice. Like any paradigm shift in what is now a 35 billion dollar recovery industry, these sweeping changes take time. Still, the advocacy is a necessary starting point.

For her part, Laurel’s supplements are now in 14 stores throughout Southern California (including, notably, the 12-Step Store in West Hollywood). Beyond any business gain, however, Laurel says her mission and the mission of other advocates in the Alliance for Addiction Solutions is primarily altruistic. “I want to spread the word on biochemical recovery and make sure people are addressing their nutrition and supplements,” Laurel says. “You can’t do anything else if your brain isn’t functioning because you haven’t eaten correctly or your gut is messed up because you’ve been drinking. You have to address that, and my goal is to help address that in as many ways as I can.”

3 Questions for People in Rehab to Ask Themselves (AKA Hard-Learned Lessons from my Relapses)

Twelve days after getting out of my second stint in a 30-day inpatient rehab facility, I woke up on the concrete floor in a jail cell.  With echoes of screams and cries from the back seat of the car still ringing in my ears, I sat there trying to piece together that DUI debacle—how I picked my daughter up from preschool in a blackout, how I pulled the car over to “rest” a minute, how I tried desperately to come out of that alcoholic fog and make everything go back to being okay. But mainly I just couldn’t understand why in the hell I decided to drink again. Jesus, I had just crawled my way out of that nightmare and now there I was again…only worse.

I’m certainly not the smartest person in the room, but I know a thing or two about rehabs. In the course of my sobriety journey, I’ve been to seven of them, ranging from the fancy to the basic, from one side of the country to the other. And now, with a couple years of good quality recovery under my belt, I’m putting the pieces together.

The first time I got sober in 2002, I just walked into a meeting and that was it. I was done. But addiction is progressive and chronic, and soon I slipped into a space filled with 24-hour drinking that was jeopardizing the safety of my children. And I was incapable of figuring out how to stay away from alcohol long enough to even collect a decent number of days. Believe me, I tried every time. The damage I was causing to my family and to myself had grown so out of control that even my recovery community had lost hope in me. I had to get out in order to see what I was even doing.

What have I learned from my experience? Enough to compile these questions for anyone currently in a 12-step-based rehab to ask themselves:

What’s Your Expectation?

I walked into the doors of rehab the first couple times thinking I was going to “find myself” in there. Ha! On my best days, I found the guts to look at what a mess I was and had the courage to be honest about it—to cry about it or get pissed off about it. I had a thousand pounds of bricks built up around me to keep everyone from looking at myself. Hell, we all did. Most of the things we found out about ourselves and each other were the exact same things that sent us running for a drink or a drug.

But rehabs don’t offer cures. Ever. It’s best for everyone involved to keep expectations realistic and that includes the family at home. If you think you’ll walk out with answers to all your problems, trust rebuilt in relationships and a guarantee you’ll never drink or drug again, good luck with that.

What’s Your Goal?

Rehabs are not a quick fix, and good gracious, they are full of distractions. It’s easy to get sucked into the gossip circle-jerk out at the smoking hut or hunt down the most eligible hottie of the opposite sex if you’re desperate enough. It happens everywhere. And even if you’re not participating, you have to sit and listen to the dramatic bullshit that unfolds in the aftermath. Here’s the deal: you are likely not going to meet your lifelong friend circle in rehab, so my recommendation is not to going into it trying to win popularity. At one of my stays, a counselor said to the entire group of us, “Look at the person on your left and introduce yourself. Now do the same to the one on the right. Then say you are sorry. Because only one of you will stay sober.”

Of course, none of us thought it would be us.

So make a goal to set a foundation. Do what you can to remember why you are there. Strange as it sounds, it’s easy to forget some days. Time will drag by slowly but before long, if you’re doing it right, your time will be up. Supposedly, you are ready to go back to the scene of the crime, to walk right back to where you came from…except this time you’re choosing to do it clean and sober. Make sure that rehab has done everything in its power to help you in that transition.

Are You Ready for Anything?

Any good quality rehab is going to tell you that you need more help—that 30 days just isn’t going to cut it. And at that point you will have some choices to make. By the time I got to my seventh rehab, I knew this would be coming, but I still stood out in the parking lot defiantly smoking one last cigarette before half-assing an agreement with my husband that I was willing to do whatever was suggested. I was ready, but I didn’t like it.

I’ve tried different plans upon leaving—I’ve gone home after 30 days with a plan. I’ve stayed at a facility for extended treatment for an extra six weeks, and I’ve gone afterwards to a more intensive treatment across the country for an extra 10 weeks. Every choice was a gut-wrenching, learning experience.

So I say don’t be afraid to make a commitment, but for God’s sake, stick it out. You will probably get incredibly uncomfortable. Any time I saw someone throwing an all-out blood curdling meltdown, I got really excited because I knew they were onto something. It was the bottled-up people-pleasers that scared me—probably because I saw too much of myself.

I used to have a sticker on my mirror that said, “You’re looking at the problem” but my kids didn’t get it so I took it down. Obviously, the ultimate answer here is that I am responsible for my sobriety. No one was pouring the drinks down my throat. But good God, can treatment centers learn anything from people like me? I promise you, I am not the only one who’s had to go back or who’s relapsed after treatment.

Being a mother of four kids put me in a minority at rehabs. I had a breast pump at one of them, so an aftercare program filled with messages of sober living homes was out of the question. I always understood the importance of a 12-step program, but rarely felt anyone was listening when I spoke about the reality of the newborn, the toddler, the preschooler, the daughter in elementary school, and the overworked and exhausted husband all waiting for me to get home. My treatment teams continued to preach nightly AA meetings, counseling sessions, an intensive outpatient program during the weekdays. Oh, and self-care. Meanwhile my poor kids just wanted their mom back and my heartstrings always broke at the sight of them.

Treatment centers can only do so much. They are limited by insurance demands, faculty qualifications, industry standards and patient participation. But if your aftercare advisor is searching Google for a therapist recommendation for you, there’s a problem. If your meds are way out of whack and you can’t see a doctor for a week, there is a problem. And if your small group looks and sounds like an out-of-control dysfunctional family reunion, your counselor sucks.

Not every issue is going to get addressed, but you still have the right to be your own advocate. Make an appointment to talk to the top dog if necessary. I did. But don’t forget that you don’t make the rules (I hated that part).

What a collection of knowledge I got from all that failure. Out of all of it, the one thing I’d pass on above everything else, the best gem I ever got, was from my very last rehab. It was this: No matter what else you do on your first day out, if it’s a 12-step based rehab and they recommend 12-step meetings, just go to a meeting. No exception. Leave your rehab and go straight there. I finally did that, this last time. And I certainly haven’t regretted it.

Recovery Contest Winner #7: How Nutrition and Spirituality Keep Me Sober

 

In honor of Recovery Month, we asked you to send us your stories about the impact community, nutrition or environment has had on your life since you put down substances and picked up life. Winners are not only receiving copies of our book, The Miracle Morning for Addiction Recovery, but are also being published here on the site.

This week we have Kristine Pappone.

The question I always get is: How did you do it?

After 10 years of a serious daily diet of opioids how did you get off without treatment or 12-step program and not relapse? My response goes something like this: I focused on and constantly fed my want and I wanted my freedom. I told myself, “It’s not an option to do my drugs.” Even if it meant crying all day and letting the pain bleed out of me, it was not an option to reach for drugs.

The foundation of my recovery is my Buddhist practice of chanting one to two hours a day. Having a way to access my true self beyond the conscious mind is a true gift. And given I have little patience, chanting works quickly. Each day I am engaged in helping others do their human revolution through Buddhist practice and supporting our community dedicated to peace through individual happiness.

Nutrition played a key role in both my getting off and staying off opioids. Because I’ve been in the holistic health field for over 30 years, I had the knowledge on how to detox and eat healthy. For the first year, I focused on building my brain through high protein and good fats. I also rebuilt my biochemistry through high doses of vitamins and minerals as well as amino acids. Foods and supplements continue to be an integral element of my recovery. I often suggest to those in recovery, “If you do nothing else, drink a ton of good water with either sea salt or lemon.” Hydration is not an option. Simple drink. Clean water.

My practice of kundalini yoga and being an active part of the yoga community is also crucial to my recovery. Even if I only have 15 minutes a day, I make sure to breathe deeply. It will calm my nervous system without me having to think about it.  Love it. A highlight of my recovery has been weekly EMDR sessions with a rock star therapist for the past few years. Healing the pain through EMDR has contributed to my human revolution and provided a peace within that I treasure.

I do my part of recovery with Buddhist practice, nutrition, yoga and EMDR. However, nothing is solo. My life mentor, Daisaku Ikeda, encourages me daily through his writings. And I owe each day of recovery to Dr. Gabor Mate. His wisdom and words have inspired me for the past eight years. As I come upon seven years of celebrating my freedom from opioids, I do so with a heart of abundant appreciation for all those who contribute to my recovery. And to repay my debt of gratitude through serving others.

Finding My Way in Gay AA—and Everywhere Else

The first meeting I ever went to was not a gay AA meeting. Quite the opposite. It was a noon meeting in the library of a senior living facility in downtown Los Angeles. I’m pretty sure I picked one outside of my hip Silver Lake neighborhood because I was horrified at the idea of running into someone I knew.

Once there, I was greeted by an older man in a red sweater vest who hugged me and told, “I love this meeting! I’ve been coming here for 25 years.” My first thought was, “Oh crap. I have to do this for 25 years?!?” My second thought was I better make sure I find my people.

My people, I thought, meant queer people, cool people, gay people. Thankfully, getting sober in LA meant there were dozens of LGBTQ meetings happening every night of the week so surely my gay sober tribe was out there.

I often say I walked out of the closet and into a bar, which isn’t 100% correct because I was sneaking into bars way before I was officially out of the closet or even 21. But the point is being a gay man in the 1990’s meant you went to gay bars and lots of them as a right of passage into queer culture. It’s just what we did.

If you were a young gay man like myself who already had a problematic relationship with substances since the age of 14, it also meant you drank constantly and did a lot of drugs. For me, the two were so enmeshed with one another. Gay men got drunk. Again, it’s just what we did. So at age 36 when I was getting sober with my twink gay bar days long behind me, I was forced to reinvent what a gay community looked like without drugs or alcohol.

Oddly enough I can’t remember what my first gay meeting was but I’m nearly positive it was a meeting in the community room in a park in Santa Monica. It wasn’t filled with the trashy, cool kid types I used to share space on the nightclub guest list with; the meeting was more of the cozy variety. Everybody hugged each other. Everybody clapped for each other. Folks chatted around the coffee and cake. I think there may have even been a lesbian knitting. Look, I didn’t know if these were my people but they all seemed nice enough and they all talked about staying sober, something I didn’t know my people could even do, so I decided to come back.

What happened when I came back to that gay meeting and dozens of others in Los Angeles is I eventually found my people. The only thing? They didn’t look like the gays I used to drink and do coke with. Most of them looked even better. These people had relationships, jobs and in general their collective shit together.

Plus they laughed all the time, helped people just because they wanted to and stopped smoking years ago. In short, they intimidated me. But I was fascinated that these nice, happy queer folks could stay sober and some of them even wanted to be friends.

Now, I wouldn’t be exactly living a program of honesty if I didn’t admit that part of the appeal of going to gay meetings was the plethora of cute gay boys to be found in those places. Fairly quickly, however, I discovered two things:

1) It wasn’t exactly the healthiest dating pool on earth. As my friend once said about dating in AA, “The odds are good but the goods are odd.” Nine times out of ten, the guy I thought was the cutest in the room was also the person who’d share about having three days sober and being on his way to prison.

2) I wasn’t exactly the healthiest either! Let’s just say nobody wanted what this busted lemonade stand was selling.

It was best, I realized, to focus on improving myself and try for the first time in my life to have healthy relationships with gay men.

What queer meetings did for me was something gay bars were never able to do: give me a real community. Here were people from backgrounds like mine who knew what I went through, not only as a gay man but also as an alcoholic and addict.

Plus, since my people are inherently extra in the best sense of the word, gay meetings are extra too. Many have Rocky Horror-style responses when the 12 steps are read. Others have an extensive, nearly catered snack table. I even went to a gay meeting in the Valley that had a pianist who would play intro music before the meeting started and “Happy Birthday” for people celebrating sobriety milestones. But the main thing I found with gay meetings in LA was an honesty that cut right to the chase of all the problems that plagued me and caused me to drink for decades. I laughed a lot in those rooms but I also cried a lot and learned how to call myself out on problematic behavior.

It was the sober gay men in AA who told me that I was going to be okay when I got my HIV diagnosis.

It was the queer people of AA who showed up for me when I celebrated turning a year sober.

By doing so they taught me how to show up for others too.

The more meetings I went to in my first year of sobriety, the more I discovered that all recovering addicts and alcoholics were my people, regardless of their sexual orientation. The tolerance and honesty I learned in gay AA meetings bled over into my attendance at mixed meetings. This was a good thing, especially when I moved to Colorado where 12-step groups are decidedly more bro-filled. The longer I stayed sober and the more straight meetings I went to, the less it mattered if the crowd was straight or gay. Besides, any meeting with me in it is a gay meeting.  Now my tribe suddenly isn’t just queer but all kinds of sober people who accept me and love me for who I am.

Currently, I am blessed to be surrounded a group of gay men who I get to walk alongside as we deal with life sober. It’s now my turn to tell them that they can stay sober and that no matter what they’ll be okay. Miraculously, most of them have stayed sober. This is no small feat when you consider the numbers (SAMSHA data from 2015 suggests that sexual minorities—lesbian, bisexual, transgender and gay men like myself—are far more likely then there straight counterparts to struggle with addiction, mental health and to commit suicide.) It’s a staggering thought but if gay AA has taught me anything it’s that we don’t have to do it alone, we don’t have to live a life of dishonesty and we don’t have to do it without piano music.