Sobriety And Beyond - Things I've learned staying sober 13 years
BEYOND sobriety lies serenity, and beneath all true serenity lies a deep spiritual life through which must run “the golden thread which binds the hearts of men about the feet of God”
-Father John Doe, Sobriety And Beyond - 1955
January 28, 2010 I boarded a flight from Atlantic City, NJ to Fort Lauderdale, Fl. My sober friends back home had arranged everything and shipped me off to Florida like a 220 lb FedEx package. A FedEx package with a beard. And a camouflage jacket. And a headache. The package sat in the bar in Atlantic City. The package may or may not have smoked crack in the airplane’s bathroom over Georgia. An unruly, disheveled package that was not taking any of this seriously.
At the foot of the escalator a man stood with a white sign that said THOMAS RAMSBURG. I almost shit my pants. The last thing you want to see when you’re high on crack is a placard with your name on it, in public. Was this guy a cop? I still needed to ditch the paraphernalia and eat the rest of the pills I had before I got to the treatment center. Anyway the dude said he was there to drive me.
Whoa. Check this shit out. Weird.
He asked if I had any luggage, and I held up the plastic Walmart bag in my hand. Great, all set. We were off. Now, this was going to be my 11th time in treatment and I definitely was not expecting anything different other than the fact that this was the furthest I’d ever been from home.
Florida? You might as well have said we were going to Mars. My entire world consisted of Philly, Jersey, New York and when I couldn’t avoid it…Delaware. Florida was a place, I knew that. I’d heard of it. The only reference point I had was the intro to Miami Vice. So, Ferraris, jai alai, flamingos, white leisure suits. I stepped out of the car in Lake Worth, FL and I saw literally none of that. It was same thing I’d always seen back home. A make shift hospital setting, with a tiki hut out back where you could smoke cigarettes. And there were palm trees. Cool. Here we go again. Same shit, different state. I made up my mind to stay in my room and only come out when it was time for a meal, or to smoke out back. Which, by the way was fine with the facility, as long as my insurance was paying.
But one day they loaded us up on a white van and drove us to the local twelve step recovery clubhouse and I went to my first meeting in Florida. I had a glimpse of what a new life might look like and I made a decision to give it a shot. I stayed. I went to a sober living house. I walked to work at a telemarketing company and I got by. Barely. After about four months I formulated a plan to move out of the halfway house, get a cheap apartment. I had every intention of drinking again, Once I got away from the sober people and just worked my job I’d mind my business and go to the beach, just drink on the weekends. Shit would be sweet. Had the cheap place picked out, a few days from dipping out of halfway.
And then my brother John emailed me. He let me know that my cousin Jeffrey had passed away. Now, Jeff and I were years apart in age and we didn’t run the streets together. But the streets we ran were the same. And our family loved us both. Last I’d heard, Jeff was away in treatment somewhere too. John let me know he’d come home, and my aunt Linda had found him in his room, overdosed. I know how much she loved him and how hard she’d tried to help. Like me, Jeff had been in and out of the program. A vision of my aunt finding her son like that flashed in my mind and something inside me broke apart. A sense of dread filled me. Darkness. Impending doom. A demon lurking in the shadows waiting for me to take my next drink. My next pill. My next hit of crack. A shot of dope. Certain death. I shit you not, a voice spoke to me. “Tom, you’re thousands of miles away from home. You don’t know anybody. You are about to do the same thing you’ve been doing for the last twenty years, and you know goddamn well how this ends. You wind up homeless. You steal. You hurt people. You’ve burned every bridge, and now you’re gonna wind up on the street here in Florida, alone. You’re family has had enough. They love you, but no ones gonna lend you a dime. They’re done. Even your friends from the program back home figured the best thing for you was to fly across the country. This is the end of the road. When the money’s gone, when the drugs are gone and you have no where to go suicide will look like the best option. Dude. You’re totally fucked. These people in recovery have been telling you what you need to do for decades. But you think you’re smarter than everybody. That you’re cooler. You’re tougher. They haven’t read all the cool books you’ve read. They’re square. Nerds. They sit in church basements and drink coffee and talk about God. They’re suckers. They’ve been duped. But you’re wrong. How’s all of your tough guy, street wise, book knowledge working out for you? You’re forty and you live in a halfway house with a bunch of 20 year old kids. And you’re about to start drinking again. Real cool. Real smart. Real tough. Jeff just died.” A vision of Aunt Linda and Jeff again. “You’re next.”
In that moment I fell to my knees and said the first honest prayer I’d ever said in my life. I begged whatever power was keeping the people in the program sober to help me not drink. I promised I’d do anything I needed to do as long as I could live. I prayed for my cousin. I prayed for his mother.
I stood up and walked outside into Florida sunshine and started walking to the meeting house. On that walk I had what I can only describe as a spiritual experience. I noticed the green of the grass. The way the palm trees swayed. I saw white birds with long orange beaks. I saw lizards. The sky was a deep blue and I could smell the ocean. I saw all of those things, but also, I was all of those things. I was a part of this place. I belonged here. I was ok. And that’s all I ever wanted. To just be ok. To belong. I had nothing but the clothes on my back and a cabinet full of macaroni and cheese and that was all I needed. It was a few miles to the meeting house and I felt like I was being carried. My feet never touched the ground.
I walked in and sat down and I listened. I asked a man to sponsor me and he gave me a list of ten things to do each day. I’ve done those ten things daily for thirteen years. I did everything that man told me to do without question. For the first time in my life I was willing. I wanted it bad. And thank God I got it. I got it for free because that’s how this thing works.
I sit here tonight and type this out on a computer my wife got me because she loves the shit out of me. How the fuck did I get so lucky?
The same friend that helped get me on that plane back in the day told me not too long ago that my life today is completely unrecognizable. That I’m a changed person and that he was proud of me. I don’t know what to say to that other than I’m the product of all those recovered addicts and alkies that came before me. They prescribed a program for living and I simply followed their suggestions. My job now is to be the best version of myself I can be for my wife, my kids, my friends and my community. To be of service and help the next guy. To give away what was so freely given to me.
I don’t know why I got to live and Jeff didn’t. But I know I owe it to him and to Aunt Linda to make something out of this borrowed time. After a couple years, she was down here in Clearwater and drove up to see her. I had a whole speech planned out. I handed her my two year medallion and I wanted to tell her it was for Jeff. But I didn’t have to. She knew. I could see it in her eyes.
Every year now she and her friends knit hats that they stuff with socks, gloves, and toothbrushes. These are given away at a needle exchange in Philadelphia to help addicts living on the streets in memory of Jeffrey.
That’s Aunt Linda and Jeff’s brother delivering hats at Prevention Point.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from my time in sobriety it’s that we’re all one. I don’t care who you voted for, what football team you root for, or what kind of food you eat. We’re all out here walking. Noticing the green of the grass, the trees, the birds, the blue sky, the mountains, the ocean. We’re all part of it and it’s all a part of us.
Yours always in prayer, meditation, and heavy metal-