My name is Sam and I’m an alcoholic.
This is, on most days, how I begin my interaction with the other humans roaming the earth. This is also my preferred way to start my day and my interactions. As an alcoholic this is my medicine, this centers me and it’s me starting the day on the right foot.
But how did I get here?
Sometimes I don’t even know myself but I can tell you that when I was a young whipper snapper tennis player growing up in Vermont becoming an alcoholic was not on the top of my list of life goals. I was destined to follow in the footsteps of Andre Agassi, grow a mullet, wear neon pink clothes and go on to tennis stardom.
But that’s not how things worked out.
Let me start by saying I had a really, really great childhood, great parents, great sisters and really didn’t want for much. I would play tennis and golf all summer and ski every winter, in Vermont you’re basically born with skis already buckled on. There was no abuse, physical or verbal in my house, just a lot of love and laughter, my parents were hippies.
I say all this because later in life I would battle with depression, anxiety alcoholism, and a cocaine addiction.
But there were really none of the tell tale signs from my childhood that would predispose me to any of those things.
There are a few things that after several trips to rehab and years of therapy I have learned that played a role in my mental health disorders. It mostly goes back to the sicknesses that I was born with and dealt with for the first 15 or so years of my life. I was basically allergic to everything except water and air. I had severe asthma that led to extended stays in hospitals every spring and eczema covered most of my body.
This begs the question. How did it begin? And more importantly, how can you recognize it happening and stop it dead in it’s tracks.
I held on for a long time before I became open to looking at the deep rooted stuff that got me here. If you or someone you know is struggling with similar things the best thing to do is just take a look at it. That’s all, it could end up being “not much” or it could be something big. The only thing that just looking at it will do is get you headed in the right direction. All this is nothing to be afraid of and you’ll feel sooooo much better. Even if it’s just dipping your toe in the water, you will get clarity.
This all had some lasting effects on my life as I grew up. I felt very, very different from my peers for as far back as I can remember. As they were all running around the farms and fields of Vermont, I was stuck at home with asthma. And fear.
But here’s the truth: I was stuck at home more because of my own demons than because of the asthma or allergies.
The bottom line is I was scared shitless of the world and of people. In all honesty the asthma served me in the sense that I had a built in excuse to not go to birthday parties or sleep overs or on hay rides. The real reason I was “stuck” at home was because I was riddled with anxiety. I had no idea this was what was I feeling until much later in life when I actually started to work on myself. I know now that it was anxiety and, at this point, low level depression. It would escalate.
From my time in AA and my trips to rehab I have found that this scenario is not so uncommon. The source, for me the asthma and allergies, might be different but the resulting fear, anxiety and depression end up in the same ballpark.
As I got older and went on to high school the asthma began to subside and I learned how to eat around my food allergies. This did nothing for my anxiety though. I was still scared of the world and disliked, and therefore avoided, most social situations.
I had started playing and fell in love with tennis when I was about 8 years old. It wasn’t a team sport and the constant breaks allowed me to control my breathing and… it turns out I’m pretty good at it.
Tennis also worked for me because it kept my anxiety low, there was nobody else involved, it was just me out there, no teammates (no people.)
Since I was good at tennis, I started playing regional tournaments all over New England most weekends. This was my new “built in” excuse to avoid the parties and social situation that I disliked and caused my anxiety to skyrocket.
For me anxiety showed up in many forms, from racing thoughts, to elevated heart rate, blurred vision and a complete energy drain. Whether at a party, at school or at the park with friends I would sometimes get a sort of spinning tunnel vision. Not fun.
The scariest thing about anxiety and depression is where it can take you. In recent news we had three people, Aviici, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, with seemingly amazing lives let the depression win. This is what the disease wants. It wants isolation and suffering. Looking back tennis saved my life in that it kept me from completely isolating. Don’t let the disease win by isolating you. Find something that you enjoy, that is untouchable for the disease and hang onto it, do it a lot, even if it’s by yourself. Just do not completely isolate! It could save your life.
Now I’m not saying I was a complete recluse at this point. I did have a very full life and I did have friends and I did go to parties, there was just a lot of discomfort around the whole situation. As with most things in life you learn to play the cards you’re dealt, so to speak. I learned to deal with my anxiety…for the most part…kind of.
I was really into tennis and on my way to the pro tour so I really didn’t drink much in high school, but I did a handful of times. When I would drink two things would happen. One was seemingly miraculous, I enjoyed myself, even in big groups and at parties. The other was that it didn’t feel that good the next day. I was hungover. I’m not talking about the kind of physical hangover you’re thinking about.
I had an emotional hangover.
Something deep down just didn’t feel right about it. The reason behind this feeling would come to light much later in life.
Throughout high school and, for the most part, college tennis was more important to me than drinking; I didn’t want anything getting in the way of that. That being said playing tennis in college, pretty much signifies the end of a professional tennis career (dream). If you’re not on the tour, or at least trying to be, by the age of 18, 19 or 20 at the latest, it’s most likely not going to happen.
In college, the drinking frequency and volume picked up, it was, honestly, a lot of fun. I was also on the tennis team so that was a nice “governor” on my drinking.
After college is where the real fun began. My tennis career effectively ended and I began a career in banking. This allowed for a lot more partying… and party I did. Mind you all this while there was still the low buzz of anxiety inside my head. There were also a couple other fires, as of yet unbeknownst to me, getting stoked. Namely alcoholism and depression.
I previously mentioned the emotional hangover and the “not quite right” feeling I would occasionally experience from drinking. This is a HUGE red flag for any budding alcoholic. For the most part when normal people (non-alcoholics) drink they do not experience this remorse, guilt or shame. No matter your age if you experience these feelings around drinking, or anything in your life, it’s worth taking a gander at. You might be better off without it.
Fast forward about 9-10 years and I had moved to South Florida with my not- -yet ex-wife. I was married for two years and that ended up just not working out.
This is the point in my life when I can pinpoint the beginning of the really bad stuff, the consequences. I “held it together” for three years but the slide down the slope was gaining momentum the whole time. To keep a long and repetitive story short alcohol and drugs began a hostile takeover of my life.
This went on for the better part of the next ten years. Along the way I lost a couple great girlfriends, the trust of my family, numerous friendships, a career in commercial real estate, two dogs, and a few cars.
There were several (10+) trips to jail between Miami, West Palm Beach and North Carolina for being drunk in public and such things as, defrauding the innkeeper. I bet you’ve never heard of that one; I hadn’t either (it’s running out on a very large bar tab; not recommended.) There were also five DUIs, the last one being 10/26/12 when I spent seven nights in jail.
The list of consequences goes on…and on.
I fell 35 feet off a balcony that put me in the trauma unit of the hospital for five days, I gave myself oral cancer twice and did a lot of other bad things with some bad people. I also did bad things to good people that happen to be in the path of my hurricane.
Needless to say the writing was on the wall. But for me it was written in that black light marker that I could only see when a black light was pointed at the wall. Everyone else could see it clear as day though. I just refused to listen to them.
Don’t let this be you. Stay mindful of your life. I may not have been able to read the writing but I sure as shit could feel the fire. If you’re feeling the fire get a blacklight and shine it on the proverbial walls. There is immense freedom in facing and getting through your problems. I know it’s scary AF but as someone that has been through that line of fire, life on the other side is AMAZING!
Finally after years of suppressing the anxiety and depression with alcohol it all caught up with me. My disease of alcoholism had arrived and now all three of those things were at war inside me. When I would try to stop drinking the depression, at times, would keep in my dark cave of an apartment for days at at time. My only relief during these times was talking a handful of benadryl and falling asleep to SportsCenter (for whatever reason it was the only show I could watch without having an anxiety attack). This is not a sustainable solution by any stretch.
Finally on 11/21/12 I had had enough. It was 4am and the thought of what I had to do the next day was too much for me to handle. I checked myself into the psych ward in Charlotte, NC. That was my last indulgences were, a swig of Captain Morgan’s rum and a big line of cocaine at 4am on 11/21/12.
Now this person that I had become as of 2012 was nothing like the elite level athlete I had been my whole life. I was 225 pounds and full of fear, living in a state of impending doom. This fear was nothing new but the level and what I was scared of now were much different.
I was 38 years old. I had nothing and It was time for me to face my anxiety and depression for the first time in my life.
I had been to rehab 4 previous times and gone through several outpatient treatment centers. I had been aware that these mental health issues were present but…
Fuck that, I wasn’t going to deal with them. I just need to get a job, or get a girlfriend, or get bailed out one last time and everything would be ok.
Well, that my friends, is not how any of this works. You see I had all those things, and more– and guess what? I also still had the fear, depression, anxiety, alcoholism and a not-so-healthy relationship with cocaine.
The kicker to all of this is that until you face down the demons none of that stuff will stick around. The truth is when you’re in that downward spiral it’s more like a funnel that strips you of everything in your life — all the stuff. But more devastatingly it strips you of your soul, your spirit and your light. The best thing to do to stop this funnel is take action. Go to an AA meeting, call someone, google what to do, just DO SOMETHING! The littlest action in the right direction can create momentum and lead you to whole new level of happiness.
From my stay in the psych ward for 6 days I went directly to rehab and a sober living house over the course of the next 9 months. After those 9 months I didn’t have many places to go but the west coast was one option and I took it.
Having been and athlete and in great shape for “most” of my life I knew that physical fitness was going to be huge for me on my journey of recovery, I just didn’t really know how big or even what role it would play.
When I moved to San Francisco in 2013 I had no job and a clean-ish slate. One thing I did have was a new found love for training. I had experienced how integral being healthy is to being happy and for me, being sober. I took a leap and decided that I wanted to make personal training my career. The second I made that decision my life started to fall into place. I had found my passion; helping others overcome struggles and achieving their best life through fitness and nutrition.
I had spent a year learning about and treating my anxiety and depression. I had also stopped that life and soul sucking funnel from spinning. I was ready to accept good things into my life again. Personal training is in the top 3 of best things to ever come into my life.
When I got sober and started to deal with my mental health it was the first time in my life that I had surrendered to whatever came my way. Whatever things I had to face, I became willing to face.
I became ok with being a beginner at life.
Now if you can be ok with being a beginner at life at 38 years old you can pretty much be ok being a beginner at anything else. This is my message that I have taken with me from the journey of getting sober and conquering my anxiety and depression that apply to my and that I implore with my clients.
Allow yourself to be a beginner in all areas of your life and anything is possible.