Chicago, Illinois, United States
Stories about addiction are often filled with despair, but they don’t have to be: this is a true story in two parts. The first is the perspective of a patient, and the second that of his doctor, as they chose to be hopeful.
The Two Doorways. James McNeill Whistler. 1879/80. The Art Institute of Chicago.
In my own eyes, I was a drunken loser for over thirty years. I have needed to use this term, to allow the truth of it to help me successfully complete a journey to sobriety.
I grew up in less than ideal circumstances, married young, and had three children before the age of twenty-five. I started drinking regularly every day and my life began a downward spiral. I lost a great job, deserted my wife and kids, and was even homeless at times. By the time I was fifty, my life was in terrible shambles.
I decided I was going to sober up because I didn’t like myself anymore. I thought I could do it myself, but on the eighth day of my first try at sobriety, I had a seizure and fell off the back of a parked truck. When I woke up in the hospital emergency room, the attending doctor explained what had happened to me and that I would need medical help to sober up in the future. I was sent on my way a few hours later, told to take it easy for a few days, and get help from a doctor. But at this stage of alcoholism, most people are broke and have no insurance. This was also my situation, so in my desperate state I thought I would just try to fix myself.
I tried to open the door to sobriety in all sorts of ways. After five years of unsuccessful attempts, I had one last trick I wanted to try. Since I also had some other health issues, I went to the County Hospital feigning stomach cramps and hoping for treatment for my real issue, my need to get sober. I was sent home without much of an explanation, but two months later I received a notice in the mail of an appointment with a primary care physician in the outpatient health system. I had two initial visits with a physician assistant. On my third visit, I met my doctor, who asked me what she could do for me. I bared it all, and told her that I wanted help getting sober. I needed someone to open that door to get me the medical help I needed. This was the beginning of the greatest friendship in my life. With my doctor’s support I completed detox and my journey to sobriety began.
As I continued on this journey, I became more aware of just how lost I was. I sat back and took a completely honest look at myself, which is a hard thing to do. Nobody likes to admit they have been dishonest or delusional. But when I was able to do this, my whole world changed. I had a new purpose in life. Even though I was diagnosed with diabetes, kidney disease, hypertension, and alcoholic cirrhosis, I was able to talk with my doctor, ask questions, and I knew she was in my corner.
But this would not be the end of the journey. I had one last party, almost drinking myself to death. A friend dropped me off at the curb outside the emergency room, and although I wasn’t sure what was happening, I just knew something wasn’t right. I was diagnosed with an abscess on my right leg, not yet deep enough to require an amputation. After the required seven-day detox once again, I was released with a new batch of appointments and a better understanding of what I had done. I felt I had lost an opportunity for myself and that I had let my doctor down. I didn’t go back to see her for a year after falling off the wagon. When I did return, I asked if I could start fresh and assured her that my drinking days were behind me. She explained the results of my last hospitalization, that my body was shutting down and I now had only 25% of my liver working.
That made everything clearer to me.
I am grateful for this education because I started to understand the seriousness of my situation and began to embrace my health. Four months after finally sobering up for good in August 2009, I had a stroke. Even though I had a second stroke while still in the ICU, I have no noticeable residual effects. But even with all these challenges, I never considered drinking again. It just wasn’t a thought, and still isn’t. I was so happy with my new life, and things were about to get even better. People noticed huge changes in me, changes that weren’t even visible to myself.
A few years after I stopped drinking, a friend of mine mentioned she was going to get her GED, as she had never finished high school. I told her that I would go with her, as I never went to high school. I approached the GED course as just one more new adventure. I finished the course and passed the test on the first try with a score of 640 out of 850, more than what I needed to pass.
This was a huge turning point in my life. I had an emptiness inside until I took this course. All my questions slowly started to be answered and my studies acted as a reset switch. Everything became so much clearer to me. For the course I also had to become computer literate, which was easier than I thought it would be, and opened up a whole new world. Through my new found skills, I was able to locate my kids, who hadn’t seen me since they were small. I have since become reunited with them, and have met my grandson, who is now sixteen years old. I took a chance in contacting my children. I didn’t know if they would welcome me into their lives. I took full responsibility for my past sins and they have surprised me with their enthusiasm in getting to know their lost and formerly despondent father. My siblings have been supportive, as well. I had no contact with them for years either, and they had no idea I was in such dire straits.
I have successfully continued my journey to sobriety and enjoyed many great accomplishments. In addition to connecting with my family, I was able to get my driver’s license back after twenty-five years and bought a van. I have lived in the same place for five years, which is another first for me. Without the help, empathy, and friendship of my doctor, none of my successes would have happened. A big part of my transition to a stable and alcohol-free life has been her kind, helping hand. While she frequently tells me that my success is due to all the work I have done, I know that I wouldn’t be here if she had not taken a chance on me.
|Bust of Louis Pasteur, Dole, Jura, France.
Photograph by Christophe Finot,
taken May 2007.
This is the story of how I met a wonderful person who inspires me to find joy in my work, even on my darkest days when I am drowning in paperwork and held hostage by seemingly futile checkboxes mandated by an entity that does not know how to be a physician. This person reminds me that heroism is doing the right thing when the obstacles seem insurmountable, because turning back to repair the destruction of a life lived under the influence is nothing short of heroic.
My own childhood was joyful — all my needs were met, my parents were nurturing and loving, and they treated each other with kindness and respect, even when they did not see eye to eye. My family had close bonds with our friends and neighbors, and I grew up feeling sheltered by an entire village; my tribe always had my back, and there were multiple people I could rely on for solace and sage advice.
My tribe — a multicultural hodgepodge of family, friends, and neighbors — taught me that challenges are a normal part of life, and that the art of living lies in solving these challenges gracefully, and coming out better than the way we went in — stronger, wiser, happier, more grateful and self-reliant. I find it very unpleasant not to be able to feel my feelings, even the bad ones, which is one of the reasons why I do not really enjoy drinking alcohol. I do not know what it feels like to walk in the shoes of someone who struggles with addiction. I have suffered loss in life, and I have experienced my fair share of negative emotions, but I was provided with the right tools to help me overcome them without self-destructing in the process.
There is a statue of Louis Pasteur next to our old hospital building with the inscription “One does not ask of one who suffers, what is your country and what is your religion? One merely says, you suffer. That is enough for me. You belong to me, and I shall help you.” That is what my community did for me, and it is also what I need to do for my community in return.
All of that sounds very pretty, but living it is another matter: people who are under the influence of a mood-altering substance are not pleasant. They are angry, belligerent, tearful, euphoric, and sometimes all of those things at once. They are not in control of their emotions or thoughts. They make rash decisions that put their lives and the lives of others at risk, spreading mayhem and misery everywhere they go. It is really hard to remember my ideals when the person who is doing the suffering is also the one inflicting it.
Holding the door to recovery open for someone who struggles with addiction can feel like an exercise in futility: how many chances should a person get? At what point do I say “enough”? Camus suggests that one must imagine Sisyphus happy with pushing his boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down before reaching the summit. Disheartening as it may be to try to help someone get sober, only to see them relapse again, we are often the only vestige of human connection that remains, the shamans who wrangle with the evil spirits that spew out of them. At the end of the day he would have to go home with all his demons: I held no power over them, but much like a movie in which a supporting character helps the hero discover his own strength, having another human by his side unwilling to flinch reminded him that he was not dead yet: the love that he feels for his children and grandchildren has no bounds, and in the end it was the only thing stronger than all the hurt and disappointment. He asked for forgiveness knowing full well that he had no right to ask. He invested years in becoming a person worthy of their love, and in rebuilding relationships long ago destroyed.
When a loved one struggled with addiction, I made the choice never to stop giving people chances to recover, because I have yet to meet a single person who struggles with addiction who does not also feel lonely and deserted by their tribe. Even if I don’t much like them while they are intoxicated, I choose to stand by them. It does not matter how many times they fall off the wagon, or who they voted for, or their country or religion; they belong to me and I shall help them.
The Greek gods punished Sisyphus with a meaningless task, but I have been rewarded with the joy of bearing witness to someone’s resurrection. All I had to do was not turn my back.
IRENE ALUEN METZNER, MD, FACP, is an Internist at Cook County Health. She practices both in the outpatient and the inpatient setting. She is an Associate Program Director for the Internal Medicine Residency Program at CCH, and the Chair of the Stroger Wellness Committee.
GLENN YOUNGKRANTZ has been a tradesman for most of his life. He has experienced the ups and downs of homelessness and sobriety, completed a GED course, and has now been sober for ten years. He considers himself a cat person. This is his first publication.