Do I Belong? My Journey to Sobriety

By Sharif 04/07/17

The end was drawing near and I would stand on the edge of the subway platform and contemplate jumping in front of the A train, but I didn’t have the guts.

A man in hoodie crouching on a bridge, depressed.
Who am I?

The desire to escape was there from the get go. I was five years old when I tiptoed out of the apartment and shut the front door behind me, muting the sound of my warring father and mother. He was threatening her with divorce, and she was threatening him with suicide. I sat on the cold stairs and breathed a sigh of relief. I wished I was anybody but who I am. I fantasized about a strange family walking by and rescuing me, taking me far far away. Oddly enough my wish came to pass.

My biological parents were Egyptians; my father worked with the airlines, my mother kept the house. He would invite airline hostesses and pilots and they would drink and drink. My mother was left out of these parties. After they left I would gather the left over liquor, combine it and then pretend I was a cowboy in the Wild West. I would shove the swinging doors of the saloon and saunter up to the bar and chug the glass down. The liquor and the fantasy felt great.

The mirror was my best friend. It was the perfect escape hatch from the sickening world I was in. After dressing up as my favorite comic book hero, I would spend hours in front of the mirror talking to myself. One time, I used green toothpaste as hair gel, thinking that it would turn my hair green. When my father walked in and saw me draped with the living room curtain (The cape of the Green Hornet) and with green toothpaste in my hair, he flew into a rage and busted my lip. He dragged me to the barbershop and ordered the man to shave my head. I’d have taken me to a child psychiatrist or at least had a sit down talk. When I went to school on Monday, I wore a cap to hide my bald head and my shame. I got a rise and a laugh from the other students. The attention felt great. I was somehow asserting my existence.

I was nonplussed when my mother and father divorced. They were not meant for each other and I wasn’t meant to be with either of them. My father introduced me to an American friend of his. I was told that he would be my foster father. Father dissolved the marriage and the kids as if he was liquefying a business partnership. It was ‘drop in a cup and add water’- Instant Adoption American-Style! I never shed the proverbial tears of separation from the homeland. Home was somewhere else.

The plane took off for America. The door to the plane opened and I stepped out to face the desert heat. What? I had no idea Las Vegas was also a desert. I ran away from one desert, and here was another one. I was bummed for days. I wanted green trees, rain and snow and all I got was more sand. My new parents were awesome, they changed everything about me: my name, my clothes, even my religion. I worked hard on assimilation, not a bad thing especially if you are desperate to blend in. Upon further excavation of my past, I felt a tremendous amount of shame about who I am.

I was shutdown during junior high school, quiet, secretive and addicted to The Worldwide Wrestling Federation on the boob tube. The mirror of fantasies became my most trusted friend. I didn’t see a pimply faced, bushy haired, awkward teenager, I saw a popular young man about town, a star singer, a great athlete and a superhero, adored by all the pretty girls. When I got into high school and discovered wine and marijuana, things changed dramatically. All of a sudden, I had a lot of friends. I was told I was funny and charming. I moved from the back row to the front middle row in the lecture hall. I raised my hand and shared my opinions. I liked the attention and chased notoriety to death’s door. I meant to fit in with the nerds or the jocks, but I ended up with the outsiders. They were teenagers like myself, smart, rebellious, fun-loving and self-destructive. David, a kid from Detroit became my best friend in my senior year. He was the smartest kid I ever knew: he taught me how to go on a date and how to love baseball and how to hustle. Out of everyone in that school, David was the one to reach out to me but my taste for cheap wine and marijuana started getting in the way of our friendship. He didn’t partake like I did. We went separate ways.

My adoptive parents ran a car leasing company servicing the great stars that played the Las Vegas strip, big names like Sammy Davis, Jerry Lewis, Joey Bishop and Sarah Vaughn. I can’t tell you how many cars I wrecked while working for them. Five months after turning 16, I got my driver's license. I totaled five cars and got numerous violations and eventually was sent to jail for five days without bail. I was clocked doing 105 miles an hour in a construction zone on the outskirts of Bakersfield, California. I was driving Sammy Davis’s Mercedes 600. I celebrated my 16th birthday wearing an orange jump suit in the San Bernardino County Jail. The common denominator in all this was alcohol and drugs. My perplexed adoptive parents didn’t know what to do with me, they demoted me to the service yard with the sole purpose of washing cars. I wasn’t allowed to drive anymore.

I decided to run away but I didn’t get very far. I found a shack out in the desert about five miles from their home. My first abode was a sanctuary where I could get high and drink with my friends every day without any interruptions. At 17, I was packing a gun and trying to sell drugs, but my place was getting robbed every other day. I ended up selling my gun and giving up the place. I still maintained a presence in school, I was kind of driven by something. I wanted to be somebody. If I was a Nobel Laureate writer or an award-winning actor or a prolific movie producer, you wouldn’t see me as the lost youth I was turning out to be. Reality is a sobering thing. I was getting very poor grades and the school was threatening me with expulsion.

As if she heard my silent cry for help, my biological mother showed up on my doorstep one day. She saw the squalor I was living in. She was determined to help me leave Las Vegas. She had met a decent man with a healthy bank account, and unlike my deadbeat father, he was willing to help. God bless them both, they made me their rescue project, they arranged for me to go to a theater academy in New York City, but the admission was by audition only. I sobered up long enough to learn my lines and ace the audition. School was fun and I was managing my drinking throughout most of the first and second year. I studied hard. I was rubbing shoulders with the people that would eventually command great careers. The thought of success made me very fearful. I made some headway and managed to stay sober for the final performances.

Around this time, I met an aspiring 20-year-old singer, Teresa. She was a runaway from North Carolina and had came to New York to be a singer. It was a match made in hell. She was beautiful and talented and very outgoing. Problem was she couldn’t stay faithful in a relationship to save her life. Having no self-esteem and knowing nothing of boundaries, I went along with her infidelities. I needed to belong to someone or something despite of the hurtful betrayals. I didn’t know it at the time but she was an alcoholic as well. I found out one day that she no longer was holding a job but was part of a prostitution ring. You would think I would make my way to the exit as quickly as possible. Not me. Forever a sucker for punishment, I hung out for a few more years of heartbreak. I witnessed firsthand her fateful deterioration from alcohol and cocaine and I swore that that wouldn’t happen to me.

I quit drinking and drugging and focused on my schooling but the financial pressure of working while going to school was wearing me down. I began repeating the same pattern of drinking and drugging, this time only on weekends. I drove a taxicab in Manhattan at night and went to school during the day. One day I went to give the taxi dispatcher my card and waited for an assignment. He passed my card back to me and told me to shove off and not to bother coming back. I asked him what the problem was. He informed me that the night before, I pulled into the garage after my shift with two fenders missing from the front end of the cab. My response was: this man doesn’t like me, he is a racist, and this was really unfair. Little did I know that I had become one of those black out drinkers. I knew I was driving the cab the night before while I was drunk and high on LSD. The only way to erase that memory was to go and drink some more.

I finally graduated from Art School with a film degree. I thought I found my niche but the nagging drinking problem was rearing its head again. I could put it down long enough to get my life together, but I was barely equipped with the tools to deal with the demands of life in the world and I needed something to help me keep up the façade.

I was invited to debut my film in an important film festival. There I found myself rubbing shoulders with some of my idols in the field. You wouldn’t know it by the way I acted but I really felt inadequate and terrified. I never thought I earned the price of admission. Someone introduced me to heroin. It was instant love. I could talk to people and look them in the eye and I stopped feeling these gnawing feelings.

My life was now an express train heading for a major wreck. The conductor had left the controls and the train was running away, gaining speed toward the crash site. While those other filmmakers went on with their lives and chucked the one-time flirtation with dope as a reckless fling, I got hooked. I went from being a film director to a film editor to a messenger in the film lab, all that within a period of one or two years. Alice, the woman I was living with at the time, was also an addict and a very talented artist. Her wealthy parents found out about her drug problem and sent her away to a famous rehab in Minnesota. Once again I was abandoned, I was left out in the cold. Self-pity went hand in hand with addiction. I tried to thief around but I was really bad at it; I begged but I was even a worse beggar. I tried my mother once again, I told her the whole truth, she was horrified, she had no idea that I was an alcoholic and addict. When she discovered I used the money she loaned me to buy dope, she was furious. She hung up the phone on me. The end was drawing near and I would stand on the edge of the subway platform and contemplate jumping in front of the A train, but I didn’t have the guts.

I wanted to quit but I had no idea how to do it. I tried going to soothsayers, hypnotists, even a Voodoo priest who lived uptown. The Voodoo priest poured champagne all over my body and bathed me in flowers; I liked the aroma of the flowers and the taste of champagne, but the next day I was back in the bar. I went to an AA meeting, the talk of rigorous honesty and God frightened me. I wanted a faster easier way.

I called my old roommate, Alice. She told me she was doing very well in Minnesota, she was sober and clean, and that amazed me. If Alice can get sober why can’t I? She offered to talk to the folks at the facility where she was recovering. I felt a ray of hope. I knew in my gut that if I had a chance, I wouldn’t blow it. Maybe that’s where I belonged. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I remembered what she said before she hung up: you can’t do this alone. I knew she was right. There was no more wind in my sail. I used my Christmas bonus to buy a one-way ticket to Minnesota. That was the first act of willingness.

The intake was horrendous, the detox lasted months, and I was about to be ejected because I had no coverage and no money. Several incidents happened that were nothing short of miracles. The first was a call I made to my mother and brother. Amazingly, they accepted my collect call. They were relieved that I was in a hospital and decided to help me pay for the hospital bill. As long as I was trying they would meet me halfway. I wasn’t out of the woods yet and my counselor called me into his office and said, we have to let you go. I asked why, I thought I was paid up. He said it wasn’t enough, my parents only paid for half the cost. I stared at the snowy landscape out of his window and asked him if that was a frozen lake out there. He nodded his head. With a flat determined voice, I told him that I would walk out and kill myself if they threw me out. I said I’ll end up dead anyway if I am sent back to NYC. He reiterated that I had to come up with the rest of the money to stay in the rehab. I told him I came here with the shirt on my back, what can I do? He promised that he would talk to the hospital administrator and get back to me tomorrow, but cautioned I shouldn’t get my hopes up.

Late that night, I got out of bed and snuck out of the rehab center. I headed for the frozen lake. I had heard about a hole in the ice where the fisherman caught Wolli. I was going in that hole if it killed me. The sky was bright and there were a million stars hanging out, indifferent to the rest of the world. I saw a yellow, warm light in the distance; some one had a fire going. I was drawn to it. It was two fellows from my unit, they were out there in the middle of the lake, burning their fourth step inventory, they had just shared it with each other, and they looked relieved. They asked where I was going dressed in my flimsy pajamas. I opened up to them about what was going on.

One of them said, Hey, don’t quit before the miracle happens. I had no idea what he was talking about. Then his buddy said, if your solution is to kill yourself then at least wait till tomorrow, maybe you’ll change your mind, or maybe your Higher Power has something else planned for you. That made sense, I had nothing to lose, death can wait till tomorrow. But life might also be a possibility. I returned back to the unit with them, we had hot chocolate, chatted and went to bed.

In the morning I went to see my counselor. He closed the door to his office and said I have something that you might find interesting. He had a green card in his hand.

He told me that The Rehab Board had met and decided to offer me a chance. He handed me a green card. They’ll give you this, they call it “A Life Saver Loan,' they have never done it before. He leaned back in his chair and said, they will allow you to finish your treatment. In return, when you leave and if you continue to stay sober, you can pay the hospital back. Do the best you can and take as long as you want to. Why would they do that, I asked. He looked me straight in the eye and said: because they believe in you.

Nobody has ever said that to me before. I could see the hand of a Higher Power in this, it floored me. I was wanted, I belonged, and someone was giving me a break. I took my green card, my contract to recovery, and walked out of his office.

I left the hospital and went to work on my recovery. I stayed sober. I got a job that I held for 15 years. Every month I sent over my $50, or $25, or whatever I could afford. Whenever my faith wavered, I would look at that piece of paper and remember where I came from. I paid my Life Saver Loan within six years. I am forever grateful for all those who helped me and told me that I belonged.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix