Don't Drink No Matter What
The Fix interviews a courageous soul who took his first drink at age seven, and maintains his 20 plus years of sobriety today, despite battling leukemia.
Samuel Ritter sits in the brown recliner, watching a television show, and smoking cigarettes. He’s two years into a battle with leukemia, a cancer of the blood marrow and blood, and in the past two months he’s lost fifty pounds. When I hug him, it’s like hugging a skeleton when compared to his normal weight.
“How you doin’, partner,” he says, standing, smiling, and wrapping his weak arms around me.
I tell him I’m doing just fine. How’s he doing?
“I’m hanging in there,” he says and resumes his place on the recliner. He gestures to a seat.
I feel uncomfortable, intrusive, and I scan the room for open outlets for my laptop charger. Without my laptop, there is no interview, and without this interview a story will pass on without recording.
“You’re fine, bro,” he says, still smiling. I’m surprised to see him smiling like this. I know if I was in his position, I’d be cursing God, man, and everything under the sun. See, still only four years in sobriety, I have a tendency to get resentful.
Sam directs me to an outlet. I pull out my charger and it boots up, the fans whirring, the screen flashing. I tell him that it’s okay if any point in the interview he gets tired and wants to end it. He nods his head and thanks me.
And that’s when we begin.
Samuel Ritter was seven when he took his first drink. His uncle was a gospel singer, a drinker, and left bottles of whiskey around the house. One early morning before the sun had risen, small Samuel rolled out of bed, took a sip, and fell back asleep. He remembers nothing of it—just that it happened. And it would be six years before he took another at a rip-roaring drunk fest at the age of 13, where he drank Orange Jubilee.
Samuel wasn’t the classic stereotype of a male alcoholic. He mixed alcohol with bud or speed. In his own words, “he had all these other devices” that would help him drink more, for longer. And that’s when the trouble started.
“It went from recreational use to a type of necessity,” Samuel said. “I had to have something to alter my mood. Let me repeat that. I had to have something that would alter my mood. It was never one of those things, ‘I’m an alcoholic and this is a problem.’ I knew what was going on but I didn’t know what it was. I could smoke, drink, and shoot dope, and still be standing the next day. But at some point I crossed the line.”
Part of the problem, Samuel says, is that in his neighborhood people just didn’t talk about alcoholism or drug addiction. So he had an idea that something was wrong but it didn’t have a name.
“When I was drinking Canadian Mist whiskey, I’d get a half pint before I got to work to take the edge off. And that’s when I knew. Life got crazy. Life just got crazy.”
He became, in his own words, a tornado in other people’s lives. He’d stick up the dope man even though Samuel wouldn’t carry any guns and the dope man did. And after a couple hours, his “bold ass was out on the street doing it again.”
“I was putting all these people in my house in harm's way. My wife was with me when I got shot. I threw house parties for the money.”
But there was a more sinister side to his alcoholism and drug addiction as well.
“It was like a complete Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde type of deal. It wasn’t the type of thing where I’d kill somebody. But if you had something I wanted, I’d take it. That’d be alcohol, that’d be dope, that’d be your lady. When the phenomenon of craving set in, it wasn’t just for a drink. It was for drama.”
And that’s when he knew it had to end. He had just started as a brand new candidate at the local police academy when a friend called him. They had an open bed at New Choice Center for Addiction Recovery. Would he take it?
New Choice Center for Addiction Recovery turned out to be a lifesaver, literally. New Choice was where he underwent detoxification, met his eventual friend Neil who helped him greatly in recovery, and started forming a network of people who wanted to get and stay sober.
But there was just one relapse when he returned to the world and he never forgets it.
“When I got out, Neil started taking me to meetings. It was a [spiritual literature] meeting. We’d read one chapter per day and talk about it. We read repetitiously so I’d have a full knowledge of my condition. But an alcoholic always wants to prove himself the exception to the rule. There was that old threadbare idea in the back of my mind.”
He worked with a woman in recovery, who had about four months sober when he relapsed. She told him one day she had an eight-ball of cocaine and a handle of whiskey and was planning to lock herself in a hotel room for the weekend. Would he join?
“January 22, 1992. I walked up in that hotel room, took a big ole blast, took a chug, and said ‘Wow, wow.’ I stayed gone for two days. On the 24th I came back home, my wife didn’t say anything.”
Three days after walking into that hotel room is the date of January 25, 1992. That is Samuel’s sobriety date.
“I went back to meetings. I met my sponsor at the five pm meeting, then I met him for coffee and he said, ‘Are you done, yet?’ I started on my personal inventory immediately. It took one week because I wanted to get sober. I wanted to get sober bad.”
That desperation propelled him into the early stages of recovery. And support groups and meetings became invaluable.
“I kept talking because I was hurting. Someone was either going to correct me or say, ‘Yes, you’re right.’ And I had to have enough humility to take it. I was scared of the life before recovery groups and I didn’t want it back. I went to a number of meetings over and over again.”
He forged relationships with people in recovery. In many ways, they became his family.
“I think [one of the most important things] was the people I had in the recovery circles, because they wanted to get sober too. We went to meetings all the time, talked together, went to the gym, broke bread together. I saw them more than my own family.”
One person in particular who he had never spoken to changed his life forever. Some time sober, after his relapse in the hotel room, he was working construction out in the heat and nothing was going right. He was becoming frustrated, resentful, angry, and his work was suffering because of it. And then a man drove by that Samuel had never seen before or since.
The man rolled down his window, waved, and said, “Easy does it, but do it.”
Samuel chuckles when he recounts the story. “Was that a message from God or what? And that stayed with me forever. You never know when God delivers a message and how he does it.”
In recovery meetings, Samuel talks about God frequently and often, as much as he talks about his strong relationships with others in the program. He had a question about God early in sobriety that only got answered in time. He always expected to fall short of God’s grace.
“When was it going to happen—when was I going to fall short of God’s grace? But it never happened. What God did was put other people in my life, even transits and active drinkers. After I talked to them long enough, I knew I didn’t want to have a life like that.”
The first ten years, he says, were focused on fighting the urge to use something to change his mood. But he stuck around long enough, forged enough relationships that he was able to get outside of himself long enough to hear the message.
“I wanted one of the old timers to tell me it was okay to take a drink to survive, but none of them would do that. What they kept telling me was to read this or do this, and I was able to get outside of myself to hear the message.”
The next twelve years were focused on “being a part of.”
“I went to a lot of meetings. I’d share, get up, and leave after the meeting. Finally this one guy from Puerto Rico said, ‘Why don’t you join us?’ That right there really made me want to be part of this good deal.
“The thing is, in five year increments this is what happened. For the first five years, the question was, ‘Who am I and why am I here?’ The second five, it was ‘Who do I talk to?’ The third five, it was ‘Who do I let into my life?’ And the last few years have been about humility.”
We talk about humility at the close of the interview and I can’t feel humbled more than I have in a long time. The small things I get upset about are nothing compared to what this man’s going through.
And then I think that’s what he’s been talking about all along. Before every meeting, Samuel says, “My name is Samuel and I’m sober today by the grace of God.” I ask him what that phrase means to him.
“I know if I’m not open minded, I’m not going to see it,” Samuel says. “I’ve got to be humble. If I’m not humble I don’t see it. School is always in—always. And it’s through example that I learned how to be humble. It’s like the stuff you see me going through.”
Before I leave I ask him one final question: Is there anything you want to add to what’s already been said?
And he answers: “Don’t leave before the miracle happens. Because there is a miracle. And you may not see it. But others will.”
(Post script—Samuel died on May 20th.)
Christopher Tepedino is a writer based in Champaign, Illinois.