How I Got Sober: Harrison

By The Fix staff 03/08/17

Everyone was so warm and happy and I didn’t understand how they could be so happy if they were like me.

A man atop a snowy mountain, raising hands in victory

Harrison is 26 years old and has been clean and sober since April 25, 2013. He received treatment at Freedom Recovery Center in Prescott, Arizona. This is his story:

I was a heroin addict and a blackout drinker but I grew up in a home with two sober parents who met in AA. My Dad’s an addictionologist who worked as a medical director for treatment centers most of my life. From the time I was young he told me I was at risk for becoming like him and my mom. He was always very open with me; we have inside jokes about how frequently he lectured me. He would come to my school and give lectures there too. It stuck with me—I was strongly opposed to using drugs and was judgmental of those who did. My parents separated when I was 10 and it was a lengthy and turbulent divorce process.

I had a lot of mental health issues as a kid. I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and PSTD. The love affair with alcohol and drugs started from the very first time I used at 17. I’d been on all kinds of medication, hopping from therapist to therapist, but nothing worked as well as drinking did. From the first day I used until the day I got sober, I never went a day without being drunk or high. It was what I wanted to do; the only way I could breathe; the only way I could feel better. I looked more attractive, my opinions mattered and I was funny; I found who I was supposed to be. Questions I didn’t even know I was asking got answered.

I went off to college and was able to live life the way I thought I should and I balanced that for a while. I was primarily just drinking and smoking weed but then I started experimenting with cocaine, ecstasy and hallucinogens. I thought, if alcohol and weed answered questions, what would cocaine answer? What would I see if I took a bunch of hallucinogens and ran into the woods at night? I thought the drinking and smoking weed was the white light moment until I found opiates through prescription painkillers. The world opened up in a totally different way. Everything was softer and came into focus more clearly. I was more motivated and doing better in my classes. When I was working, I was getting affirmations from my bosses about how much better I was doing. I didn’t know what was wrong with me but I knew what fixed it. The painkillers lasted on and off for a few months until it got too expensive and I started getting sick. I was getting them illegally, going into some pretty dangerous places, doing dangerous things to get money and stealing from a lot of people.

It got too expensive so I switched to heroin. The lectures from my dad flooded back. That marked the beginning of the end—a three-year decline into insanity and being actively suicidal for years; crime and distancing myself from my family and hurting a lot of people that I love. I started drinking more than I ever had because heroin wasn’t enough anymore. I was sick all the time. I was drinking a liter to two liters of alcohol a day while using heroin. I would wake up in strange places and be told it was three days later than I thought it was. My friends started dying. I tried to overdose and I couldn’t. I would get more and more angry each morning I would wake up, not understanding why I was still there. I was angry with a god that I didn’t believe in and felt like I was trapped. I kept thinking about all those lectures my dad gave me. He had always told me, “You can tell me; I won’t judge you. You’ll always be my son. I just want to keep you safe.” I kept him at arm’s length though because I didn’t want him to see. I didn’t want to give it up because I thought if I gave it up, what did I have? If I was feeling that way doing the thing that’s supposed to fix me, what would happen when it was gone?

The decline progressed very far and because I wasn’t using sterile equipment to inject, I developed an abscess in my arm. I thought the way to deal with it was pretending it wasn’t real and would just get better on its own. I ended up in the hospital with cellulitis; my whole arm was swollen. I couldn’t even bend my fingers. They took care of the abscess and I broke down to the doctor who said they had an outpatient program there. I took the pamphlet and said I would call. As I was leaving, I’ll never forget his exact words: “You’re not out of the woods yet. You still have a chance of developing sepsis, a blood infection, and you’ll only have a 50% chance of making it.” That was right after him telling me I was lucky he didn’t have to amputate my arm.

I continued using until one morning I woke up in a panic attack, believing I had sepsis and was dying. My roommate took me to the emergency room. I was trying to get past the locked door from the waiting room; I didn’t think the doctor was coming fast enough. I thought I would die within minutes. Doors opened and they escorted me back and used chemical restraints because I was frightening the staff so much. They injected me with something and I was out of it for hours. I woke up with both my parents in the room with the doctor and there was no hiding it anymore. I remember looking right at my dad as soon as I was conscious and just crying. It all flooded out of me. He kept asking what’s going on, and I just said I need help. That’s all I could say. My mom was speechless; she couldn’t say anything. That was the moment I just broke. I knew there was nothing left. For the first time, I was finally afraid of dying and I hadn’t been. I’d been trying to for so long and something changed in that moment where I wanted to live again.

I went into an inpatient program in Wisconsin. The first time I was in a meeting there I said, “I’m Harrison and I’m an addict and an alcoholic,” and I remember something feeling really right about that. I was so desperate and afraid that I didn’t resist much until they told me to come out to New Freedom. Suddenly I [felt like I] had big important things to do when they said it [the program] was six months [long]. I had to go back to school and start working again and get my life together. My counselor brought me back down to earth pretty quickly. He told me if I left at that point, he was pretty certain I wasn’t going to come back and I was going to die.

I was terrified when I got to Freedom. It didn’t help that Phoenix was 120 degrees that day. Ten of the other guys in the New Freedom House and the two house managers came to pick me up as I was anxiously waiting at shuttle station. They all hopped out of the van and I saw a couple of guys I was in inpatient with. They gave me hugs and all introduced themselves; they got my suitcase and said, “Get in.” They were all laughing and having fun and smiling, and the comfort started to creep in. I thought maybe this was right. Everyone was so warm and happy and I didn’t understand how they could be so happy if they were like me. The first night, they take you through the AA book and talk to you about alcoholism and addiction as they see it. They completely understood what I had gone through and somehow they didn’t have to get high or drunk anymore and were still happy. My perspective changed in an instant. Suddenly, I believed these guys and the house managers were key to me being able to find something else—some way to get on with life and be happy and sober, which was still very foreign to me.

Shortly after, I did my intake at Freedom Recovery Center (New Freedom is the sober living house; Freedom Recovery Center is the outpatient treatment facility) and met with my counselor who was one of my closest allies in my recovery. I’ve been in therapy since I was 10 years old and I’d never had a connection with a therapist like I did with him. He knew me through and through, inside and out; I felt unbelievably supported. I got a sponsor and worked the steps. They have all these rites of passage at New Freedom as you progress through certain parts of the steps. You gain privileges back and are recognized as someone who is knowledgeable; you’re pushed to start helping other people. There is a sense of brotherhood.

We would go to AA conventions and roundups all over Arizona. We even went to the international conference of young people in AA with 8,000 other people. We went to the Grand Canyon and also on hiking trips through the local mountains. We did some rock climbing too. I was not a physically active guy. I used to hate the sunshine when I was using. I remember the first time I walked outside during one of those camping trips. I got out of the tent and sun was shining on my face and had this moment of pure gratitude for being in nature and being able to appreciate and enjoy that.

I go to regular meetings and I have a home group as well as service commitments. I still have a sponsor who I talk with regularly and I sponsor other men. I have continued with therapy on and off just as an outside source of support. Besides working with other alcoholics and addicts, the biggest, most important practice of mine is meditation. Meditation is crucial to my sanity. It gives me a sense of stability, clarity and focus. One of my more common symptoms these days can be anxiety and it treats my anxiety better than any other practice that I’m aware of.

When I talk to friends at home who are thinking about getting sober, they always tell me they feel so alone and they’re afraid. I tell them once you get sober you never have to be alone again. It’s always here for you; the fellowship is always here.

Want to learn more about Freedom Recovery Center? Reach Freedom Recovery Center by phone at (855) 379-0075. Find Freedom Recovery Center on Facebook and Twitter

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

The Fix staff consists of the editor-in-chief and publisher, a senior editor, an associate editor, an editorial coordinator, and several contributing editors and writers. Articles in Professional Voices, Ask an Expert, and similar sections are written by doctors, psychologists, clinicians, professors and other experts from universities, hospitals, government agencies and elsewhere. For contact and other info, please visit our About Us page.