MENU

Success Story: An Amazing Journey to Sobriety

As I sit here writing this story, a counter on my computer desktop indicates that I have been sober 2,105 days, one day at a time. Time in sobriety has passed quickly. However, what amazes me about this time is that it is 25,000 times the duration I could go at the end of my drinking career without having the need or the craving to have alcohol.

I was struck sober, lying on my living room floor, unable to get up, bleeding from a gastric ulcer just before Labor Day weekend in 2004. That is where this amazing journey in sobriety began.

I am a grateful alcoholic. I am the third of four sons, each about two years apart. We grew up in a small town in Eastern Massachusetts where, on our mile-long street, we only had a few neighbors. Our house was on the bank of a river where we would fish and swim during the spring and summer and play in the abundant woods, riding bikes on trails and building secret forts with some older neighborhood kids. I always wanted to hang out with my two older brothers, as there were few kids my own age in the area. I always felt like an outsider. I remember at one of these forts, at the age of ten, finally feeling like I belonged because someone gave me a cigarette to smoke, or more accurately, choke on. But at least they treated me like one of the guys. As my older brothers went off to high school, I again felt isolated and alone.

It wasn’t until I was a high school freshman, when I played drums in the marching band with my next older brother, that I again began to feel the connection of associating with him and his friends. That fall, the afternoon before my first evening jazz band rehearsal, I distinctly remember my first drunk — on Orange Tango. I remember the taste going down — and coming up. What a great feeling of belonging I had had — something I had never felt before. Shortly this led to nearly daily drinking or smoking marijuana, which at times was easier to obtain. While I was still in high school and my older brothers were in college, I remember on several occasions going to visit them on a Friday, only to find myself awakening one or two days later in a dorm room, from what I now know as a blackout, unaware of what had happened in the interim. Despite my increasingly frequent substance use, I excelled as a student. I prided myself on never missing a day of school. I attended all my classes and did my assignments and readings. I was blessed with an extremely good memory. I did not need to study very hard for tests to ace them. By my junior year, I was taking all honors classes and easily passing them, putting me near the top of my class. I had one influential mentor, my physiology teacher, who encouraged me to pursue an education in the sciences, perhaps medicine. My friends were all band members who partied like me. I never had any run-ins with the administration or faculty and did not think that I had any kind of problem. Off to college I went, at a major university in Washington, DC, with plans to study chemistry with a minor in psychology in a pre-med curriculum. None of my roommates, five in a dorm suite, drank or partied like I did. Within a week I was able to find another room with three sophomore roommates who were just like me. Within a short period of time, harassing the fourth roommate with obnoxious merriment, I was able to convince that non-partying roommate to swap rooms. I structured my class schedule so as to not interfere with my alcohol and drug use, incorporating a large break between morning and late afternoon classes in which I could get all my studying done. I again excelled in school, graduating with a 4.0 GPA and several individual honors. I had completed all except two course credits for my degree within three years and spent my final year engaged in analytical chemistry research for the last two credits. I was offered a scholarship opportunity to go on to PhD studies in chemistry, but chose to continue on to med school instead. Again, in med school, I sought out and found friends who partied just like me.

Meanwhile, I met a girl from back home with whom I began a relationship during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. She was being raised in an old world male-dominated society. We would see each other for vacation breaks and long weekends. When we were first dating she would have to be back home by the time the street lights came on. We carried on this long-distance relationship for over five years before we were married during the summer before my third year of medical school. While we were dating, I kept the quantity of my alcohol and most of my substance use a secret from her. I led a double life. In one life I was the good student and boyfriend turned fiancé, and in the other I was the unfaithful drunk pothead. When she would catch me getting high, she would be irate and I would promise to abstain, only to use as soon as I dropped her off at her parents’ house. When we were finally married, she gradually accepted my use of marijuana and alcohol as normal, even participating at times. Soon we found couples who had the same interest. There were many times after getting together with another couple that I drove home in a blackout.

Though we were married, I do not believe that we were ever really intimate. I was devoid of emotion. If we got into an argument, the resolution typically came after weeks of not speaking to each other. I do not remember ever experiencing feelings as I do today. I recollect, even as a preteen, prior to my drinking career, not being able to feel sorrow at my Grandmother’s funeral, forcing myself to cry just to fit in with the family. I was, as an adult, still unable to have or express feelings with my wife, leading to a very distant relationship lacking emotional intimacy.

I matched in an anesthesiology residency after completing medical school with strong evaluations from my clerkship rotations. I made a conscious decision upon my graduation to stop smoking marijuana because of the possibility of jeopardizing my medical license if I were to get caught. Alcohol easily and quickly replaced the marijuana as I began residency. Back then, on Fridays, we would have resident “Liver Rounds” with plenty of beer and wine and occasional finger food supplied by the drug reps. I would frequently leave work intoxicated and continue drinking through the weekend if I wasn’t working. I swore I would never drink and go to work. I knew that if I did, that would mean I had a problem.

Again, I excelled in my training program, becoming the chief resident in my final year. However, I had few friends, and none of the friends I had drank as I did. I began to drink at home, frequently wondering the next morning how there could be so many empty beer cans on the counter. During residency, we had the first of four children. My son, I thought, would solve our problems and bring us closer.

After completing residency, I found a private practice opportunity that seemed like a good fit for me. My wife was pregnant with our second child. I started a pain practice as part of this small anesthesia group and became quite successful in the medical community. I still had few friends. I did become friendly with two non-physician coworkers, and we began getting together for martinis and cigars on a frequent basis. I no longer drank much beer, as it did not provide the needed effect without voluminous consumption.

My wife had a miscarriage about a year after the birth of our second child. I didn’t wish to have any more children. In my mind, we had had enough discussion about our family size, and I proceeded to go ahead with a vasectomy. Our marriage became further strained, as my wife apparently still wanted additional children. I underwent a reversal of the vasectomy, and soon thereafter, my wife was pregnant with our third healthy child. After six years, I was becoming dissatisfied with work because I didn’t feel I had adequate support from my group or the hospital. After a brief job search, certainly hindered by my alcohol consumption, I returned to the large academic practice where I trained.

Again, professionally I excelled, but socially, I was completely isolated. I left my two friends behind and made no new ones. My wife had just delivered our fourth child, and I was distant from my whole family. I rarely participated in the children’s activities. My wife, who I believe was also unhappy, frequently left the young children with me for me to supervise while she went shopping or got together with her neighborhood friends. That gave me the opportunity to easily drink at home without needing to hide. Soon, I drank daily in isolation, hiding the quantity of my drinking from my wife, secretly replenishing the supply in the liquor cabinet with bottles I hid elsewhere. I still didn’t think I had a problem with alcohol since I had never missed a day of work and continued to excel in my profession. I was unhappy and disinterested in our marriage, and my attention started to wander. I had a brief extramarital affair that lasted a couple of days while I was on vacation in 2003. It all happened while the children played together outside on the beach. My wife had made a last minute decision to stay home with one of the children, giving me the perfect opportunity to pursue intoxicated unfaithful bliss.

The following week I was called into my chairman’s office for a meeting with him and our corporate president. They asked me if I had a problem with alcohol, which I flat out denied. I told them that I sometimes would drink quite a lot on weekends, but that it was something I could control. I truly believed that I could. They offered help if I needed it, but I wasn’t ready yet. The ensuing year I tried many times, unsuccessfully, to curb my drinking. With every unsuccessful attempt to abstain, which never lasted more than a day, I became more and more frustrated. I tried to limit the quantity to only one drink daily. That one drink then became a bottomless tall glass of cheap vodka on the rocks with perhaps a splash of tonic to start — leading to me wondering the following morning where the rest of the bottle disappeared to. I began hiding bottles in the garage and under the seat of my car so I always had access to alcohol. I would never use the same liquor store twice in the same week to avoid potential criticism by the sales clerk of the quantity I was consuming.

My relationship with my wife, both emotionally and physically, was absent. I was unable to participate in any kind of family activity, especially if it interfered with my drinking. My family would watch TV in one room and I would be in another drinking to oblivion. If I watched a movie with the family, it was unlikely I would remember any details of the movie the following morning. I began a friendship with another woman during this time. We talked about our discontent with our marriages, among other things. Soon we were flirting and going to lunch together. I was very fearful of beginning a romantic relationship. Intimacy was not in my repertoire.

By this time, I could not go for more than a couple of hours without feeling withdrawal symptoms including hot flashes, sweats, palpitations, and the shakes. I would awaken during the night in withdrawal needing to take some alcohol to be able to get back to sleep. I began to need to drink just to feel normal. I was sliding down a very slippery slope without a solution. I was unable to ask for help. I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t. Alcohol had, over many years, subtly become my higher power, fully taking over my life. Every morning I would awaken with fear of going to work. My tremors would be so bad that at times I could barely sign my name, never mind perform the necessary skills for my profession. My hands would sweat so much that I could barely don sterile gloves. I was fortunate at that time to primarily be supervising three highly skilled fellows training in our practice any involvement on my part. I couldn’t wait for the workday to end so I could get to my car and have a good dose of alcohol from the bottle under the seat.

I began losing my appetite. I was unable to eat full meals. I began losing weight quickly. I couldn’t sleep without passing out into unconsciousness — which was now happening early in the evening — only to awaken in the same state of withdrawal again. One morning I began violently vomiting. I managed to crawl in the dark to huddle over the commode. I rationalized that the vomiting might be due to food poisoning. By the morning, I was severely dehydrated and could barely stand. I called in sick, the first time ever in my life. The second night, I began to have diarrhea with old, digested blood in it. The next morning I awoke with my heart racing, unable to get up off the floor, realizing that this was the end of the run. I clearly remember three distinct thoughts. My drinking needs to end. I need to be honest. I need to ask for help.

I managed to pull myself up onto the couch. I asked my wife to take me to the ER, knowing that I was having a GI bleed. In the ER I was asked about my drinking. “Social” was my response. I still wasn’t ready to be honest. Later I was discharged home with instructions to avoid alcohol or any other irritating substance. Miraculously, I was able to abstain from alcohol that entire weekend with only very mild withdrawal symptoms. Each successive day without alcohol seemed like a huge success. Nervously, I returned to work. Near the end of that workday, my chairman called to tell me that he had heard that I was in the emergency room the prior week. He asked if I needed help, and I responded yes. He arranged for me to see the hospital psychiatrist the following morning. During an hour-long interview in which I admitted I had a slight problem with alcohol, he briefly told me about Physician Health Services and gave me contact information for the associate director (AD) I should contact. I called the AD and made an appointment to see him later that day. I stopped by work later that morning and told each of my colleagues about my problem with alcohol and that I was going to be getting help. They were supportive. That afternoon, I met with the AD. He told me about PHS and what I would need to do if I wanted to participate in the program. He suggested that I might need to have an inpatient evaluation, and he instructed me to make an appointment with the director of the program. I was ready to do anything necessary to begin my recovery. One of the things I talked to the AD about was honesty and the need for rigorous honesty in order for me to succeed. I knew I could not live any more lies.

The following morning, after the kids were off to school, I told my wife that I was an alcoholic and that I was seeking help. Her response was that of surprise. She was angry — especially about the lies. She didn’t realize how much lying is an integral part of alcoholism. She then began to question me about any other lies I told in the past. I hesitated for a while, not wanting to hurt her any more. But her persistence made me remember my resolve of the previous day — rigorous honesty. So I told her everything.

I was still unsure what I wanted to do with my marriage. I knew I needed to focus on recovery and not make any other major decisions.

By this time I had been sober for three weeks and I had made plans to go for a five-day inpatient evaluation approved by the PHS director. I went to an addiction treatment facility with a program designed specifically for health care professionals. At the end of the extensive five-day evaluation, it was suggested that I stay for an extended period of time. I was told that if I did not follow the suggestions, it was likely that I would not be able to retain my license to practice medicine. My choices were limited. At the beginning of treatment, I was angry. I was in denial about the extent of my alcoholism — after all, I had been “sober” for more than three weeks prior to entering treatment — why couldn’t I just have outpatient treatment and continue to work? Here I was in an expensive treatment center insurance wouldn’t cover, and I was not earning an income, but rather accumulating expenses as a partner in our corporation. I couldn’t see how important it was for me to separate myself from outside stresses so I could focus on me. I was unwilling to really look at myself until one day, one of my group members who had been in treatment for nine weeks suggested that I read one of the stories in the back of “The Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous called “Acceptance was the Answer,” written by another physician, Paul O. I finally learned and internalized that until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober. I needed to concentrate not so much on what needed to be changed in the world as on what needed to be changed in me.

My entire view changed. I became willing to change. I became honest with myself. Over the next six weeks, with the help of my counselor and group members, I began to explore my character flaws and incorporate the principles of alcoholics anonymous into my life.

After seventy days, I was discharged and was soon able to return to work under a monitoring contract with PHS. I quickly joined AA and obtained a sponsor. I attended daily AA meetings for the first ninety days. Later, I cut back to three to four meetings a week as I returned to taking call at work. At the appropriate time, with the guidance of my sponsor, I was able to make amends to everyone I had harmed, including myself.

Initially, I had lots of fear about returning to work. I worried about what people would think, what kind of criticism I would receive. Much to my surprise, many people barely noticed my extended absence. Those who knew of my course were, for the most part, very supportive. I eased back into work with a lower level of responsibility, able to focus more on myself and my recovery program. Over time I was able to take on more work responsibilities. I have become a better and more compassionate physician than I ever was before.

I believe involvement with PHS was necessary for me to begin a successful recovery. Without the support of PHS, I certainly doubt I would have seized the opportunity to enter into an intensive inpatient treatment program. My delusion about the lack of severity of my alcoholism likely would have prevailed, as I hadn’t yet lost everything. Following discharge from treatment, the requisites of the PHS contract mandated a firm level of discipline in meeting attendance, responsibility to submit to random drug screening, workplace monitoring, as well as regular meetings with my associate director. These requirements set up the mechanics for a continued program of recovery following completion of the contract.

I am now a very grateful recovering alcoholic. My life is full of surprises all the time. I am grateful to have a program I can use to help me grow through life’s challenges. I no longer regret being an alcoholic since it is through my alcoholism that I have been able to grow and integrate a wonderful set of principles into my life.

How to make a referral to PHS

Share on Facebook
Donate 9-29-2017
Managing Workplace Conflict Main Page Ad
PHS 2017 Annual Report
PHS Michael Palmer Tribute Post Event

Copyright © 2016 Physician Health Services 860 Winter Street, Waltham Woods Corporate Center, Waltham, MA 02451-1411

(781) 434-7404  |  (800) 322-2303 x7404  |  Fax (781) 893-5321  | Email physicianhealthservices@mms.org  
This email is not secure and is intended for general inquiries only - please do not include personal health or confidential information in an email - call PHS directly for this purpose at 781-434-7404.