This is Tony’s story. Portions of the content may be triggering for some readers.
Let me talk you back to a time when I’m in a house with no plumbing, no electricity, an overwhelming smell of urine as I’m sitting around a table with 4 or 5 people I’ve never met before. Fleas and bed bugs are biting me around my ankles. The only light coming from the room is lighters flickering as we light the crack in our pipes. I get up to try to leave, but I forgot I have rented my car out to the drug dealer so I can stay longer. I sit back down and continue smoking crack. The voice in my head is telling me, “Tony, get up and leave. Go home to your beautiful home and beautiful family – they are waiting for you. Just stand up and go home.” I stand up this time and my car is outside, but I sit back down and continue. I cannot stop. I will not stop. My desire to use has completely taken over my life. “How did I get here?”
Like most kids, I began experimenting with alcohol and drugs in high school. My desire to be liked and fit in would lead me to try anything and say anything so someone would like me and include me in what they were doing. My first serious drink and drug use came at a Halloween party my freshman year and I will never forget this evening. I was one of those wallflower kids too scared to talk to girls, dance, or just be part of the group. My friend Jack was the opposite – the group always seemed to be hanging on his every word and laughing at his jokes. So when Jack asked to go out back and smoke a joint, I didn’t hesitate. Then it led to taking a drink, lots of drinks. I don’t remember much more of that evening, but what happened on Monday at school would change my perception of drugs and alcohol for a very long time. As I walked down the hall I was greeted with cheers, high fives, laughter, and praise. People kept saying, “Dude, you were insane the other night” or “Tony, you are the man!” I had arrived. I had all the attention I needed and I was on my way. I played along like I remembered what I had done, the girls I danced with and kissed, and all the other antics I had been a part of that night. All I could think about was when I can do it again. Well, I didn’t disappoint because I did as much as I could, as often as I could.
There were consequences for using and drinking through high school. I was one of the top basketball players in the county, and when I decided to skip class to go get high, I was suspended from the team and was no longer eligible for any postseason awards, including Player of the Year in the county. This would totally disappoint and destroy my father who was my biggest fan. I remember him throwing the newspaper at me and saying, “No awards! It’s like you don’t even exist.” Fortunately, I was also one of the best golfers in the state, so I put basketball behind me and went to college on a golf scholarship. However, drugs and alcohol continued to grab a hold of me, which meant my grades were slipping and my scholarship was always in jeopardy. My college experience and being away from home only fueled my progression from alcohol to marijuana, then trying any drug offered to me. It went back to always needing to fit in and thinking drugs and partying were the only way people were going to like me. When it came to my life outside of partying, I would do just enough to get through school and still use.
Wanting to escape my small hometown in Ohio and the reputation I built, I decided to move to Florida. So I grew some pot in my parents’ backyard, packed my footlocker full of pot, and drove my way to Florida to stay with relatives. As each set of relatives got tired of me and suggested I move on, I did and eventually settled in Orlando. The party was non-stop, a different bar every night. We called it the “circuit” and it seemed never-ending. I met my wife to be, Tracey, while working at Disney World and that didn’t slow me down. Right about that time my brother, Tom, past away from AIDS. I didn’t want to feel the pain of his death, so my use accelerated. My cocaine use was out of control, so much so I got arrested for possession and went off to rehab so I could get the charges dismissed. When I got out of rehab I thought I was changed man and I remained abstinent from drugs and alcohol for ten years. I realized those drugs would kill me, but my addiction was only hiding in other things like sex, gambling, work, porn, and diet pills. Also, I always thought someday I could at least return to smoking pot once I was successful, the kids were gone, and I was retired on a beach someday.
That day came on my tenth anniversary while celebrating in St. Martin in the Caribbean. I was a successful realtor and sitting on the beach when I was approached by a trinket salesman who also was selling marijuana. I smoked some and I thought, “I’m ok – I can finally smoke again.” I returned to Orlando and my use progressed back to smoking pot every day. One day I could not find any marijuana and I was introduced to crack.
This was the beginning of a decade long nightmare. In the next ten years, I had lost my wife, my family, my home, many jobs, tens of thousands of dollars, and what was left of who I was. I was Baker Acted, arrested twice, had a restraining order put on me, two failed rehab attempts, and hospitalized twice. During this dark period of my life, I also lost my other brother, Jay, to a heart attack. This plummeted me even further into my addiction. My health was deteriorating, yet I could not see the problem.
My life was in complete freefall. Every time I would try to get it together, my addiction would come up and bite me. In December 2015, I was on my way to the mall to buy Christmas presents when the voice in my head told me, “One hit won’t matter.” Eight hours later, all the Christmas money spent and I went home feeling totally disgusted with myself. I said, “I will never do this again. I quit.” My plan was to give up my debit card, car keys, and not leave the house. After a few days, I started to feel better, so I went to the bank for a new debit card, called a locksmith and for a new set of car keys, and told myself what I always would tell myself, “This time it will be different.”
It was early January 2016 and my parents were visiting. That Friday morning I was dropping my daughter off at school at 8 am and had every intention of coming right back because the school was only three miles away from my house. In a matter of minutes, I found myself in that house with no plumbing, no electricity, sitting around a table with 4 or 5 people that I’ve never met before – I didn’t return home until two days later. I crawled into bed Sunday night totally full of shame and guilt again.
I woke up to an argument between my father and Tracey – they were arguing about where to bury me. “He is going to be buried in Ohio with his two brothers,” my dad yelled. Tracey was crying and yelled back, “he is going to be buried here in Ocoee so his children can visit his grave.” I started to cry as I stood on the other side of the door listening to this argument about the end of my life and hearing the pure agony I brought to the people I love most. I sat on the end of the bed with my head in my hands and said, “God help me.”
I reached out to pick up my phone and called my insurance company to ask them for a rehab away from Orlando. My options were Lakeview Health in Jacksonville or another facility in Ocala. Two days later, I arrived at Lakeview Health where they gave me a tour of my new home for the next few weeks. To be honest, I picked Lakeview for the great amenities and facility. One thing I remember was hoping to get into shape with the help of their personal trainers at the wellness center since I had reached more than 300 pounds. I looked at my wife and she was crying. “You don’t want to stay, do you,” she asked. “We can get to Ocala by 10 pm and check into the other place.” At that moment I felt a calmness come over me and I let go of any reservations. I said, “Honey, I’m right where I need to be.” She handed over my bag and pillows, and she left.
I completely surrendered when I was in treatment and was willing to do anything to become sober and keep my sobriety. My counselor, Juan, helped me understand I had a disease and my childhood experiences were very important to who I am today. One of the most influential moments was the family session I had with Dr. Jerry, and I have difficulty expressing in words the impact it had on me. Everything I learned about myself and my introduction to Alcoholic Anonymous prepared me to face the world. I would walk around the parking lot after each meal three times a day and didn’t miss a day, rain or shine. Not only had I begun to get spiritually fit, and was getting mentally and physically fit. I would use the fitness center every time I had a chance. The personal trainers, Dan and Shane, were awesome and had me set a goal for myself – it was to do one pull up. With no upper body strength and over 300 pounds on my frame, they told me it would be a long term goal. I continued to work hard and learn about the causes and conditions of my disease. As I was getting to the end of my time at Lakeview Health, I wasn’t sure I was ready to leave, but Juan reassured me I was ready and I truly trusted his guidance. I was also given a workout plan from Dan to reach my pull up goal. One of the best suggestions in my aftercare discharge was to make it to a meeting as soon as I got back home. So I packed up and headed home, forever grateful for the 35 days spent with the staff at Lakeview Health.
I left the facility at 2 pm, and by 6:30 that evening was at the Dr. Phillips AA Group. That voice in my head was back, but this time it was saying, “Raise your hand and introduce yourself.” I did just that. What AA has given me was what I always wanted since I was a 13-year-old boy – it was acceptance. I wanted to be part of the group and liked for who I really was, not for what I could get or do for you. Along with attending an aftercare program for two weeks at La Amistad, I attended 90 meetings in my first 90 days and I continued on my post-meal walks. Those walks turned into runs, and today I’m proud to say I run 25-30 miles a week; I’ve even run a couple of half marathons. I returned back to Lakeview a year later and walked into the fitness center to see Dan. He said, “You look great!” Then I walked up to the pull-up bar and did FOUR pull-ups. I have lost 50 pounds and feel as physically fit as I ever have. I have a sponsor and started working the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, completing them about the same time; today feel as spiritually fit as I ever have. Once a month I speak at Orlando Behavioral Center and Detox sharing my story and bring them the message of Alcoholics Anonymous. I enrolled at the University of Florida’s School of Medicine and completed the necessary course work to become a Certified Addiction Professional, which will eventually earn me a Master’s Degree in Addiction Counseling and Recovery. I have an overwhelming feeling to reach out to help others and give away what was so freely given to me – healing of my spirit, mind, and body to give me a new life.
I returned to work as PGA Class A teaching professional, teaching golf lessons. My life is surrounded by recovery, and my sobriety is the most important part of my life. Through the 12 Steps, I repaired and I am continuing to repair those severed relationships of my past. I am excited about the new relationships in my life. Through the grace of God, I can give to others what they deserve – the best version of myself.
I want to thank everyone who got me to this point in my life. I truly am thankful to my parents, my ex-wife, children, and friends. I know they all worked so hard to get me clean and sober, but could not. However, what they did was keep me alive so I could find a power greater than myself, who then could keep me clean and sober. For this, I am eternally grateful.
This is Tony’s story. Portions of the content may be triggering for some readers. Let me talk you back...
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