Addiction is a dark disease that can tear people, families and friends apart. Too many years I lived two lives as an on-air reporter and person suffering from addiction. I think it’s important for those still living a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde life to read this personal essay. There is hope. There is recovery. There is relief. It shouldn't have taken a DUI for me to change, but I believe I was given a second chance to help others. I wrote this personal essay in February of 2019 when I was 6 months sober! I can’t change what happened the night of August 8, 2018, but I can change what happens from this point forward! That night, I had my last drink.
“How did I get here?”I thought staring at the gang signs etched above my head. My fingers touched the engravings and I couldn’t stop my imagination from wandering: “Who slept here before me? Who put each of these markings on the bunk? What tools did they use? Did they scrape the back end of the plastic toothbrush against the concrete floor to create a mock-shiv and then scratch the metal? Who is Eli and what does 6/28/18 signify?”
Jail House 9 was on lock down as my mind-raced. The 200 plus prisoners all sat on their beds. There were eight rows of bunks with three cots stacked on each other. A sea of orange jumpsuits piled into a warehouse. We all had different crimes, different backgrounds and different sentences. But the orange uniform reminded us we were all criminals stuck in the same place.
As the duty officer made his rounds, he checked everyone’s laminate name badge and placed a check mark by their name. He went row-by-row. I closed my eyes trying to picture the night that landed me in Maricopa County Jail.
The only recollection I had was sitting on my couch finishing my second bottle of wine, blinking and then sitting in the back of a cop car. The swirl of the red and blue lights flashed off my forehead. The officer sat in the passenger seat as I tried to wiggle my hand free from the cuff. He wrote that I tried to evade police, that I got a DUI and that a breathalyzer reading showed .24.
“Excuse me sir,”I softly said tapping on the glass. “That’s not true!”
He looked annoyed and I quickly realized the monster he wrote about who terrorized two blocks of downtown Phoenix was me. I stopped writhing my wrists against the metal and sat back as tears trickled down. I was a Northwestern University graduate. I worked as a broadcast reporter. I tried my best to be a model citizen. I tried to be a good son and friend. This had to be a dream. Right? This was a dream. I couldn’t possibly be the monster. Could I? The denial sat in a mixture of dark mind tangents.
I gazed down at my Superman blue t-shirt. How ironic. How many people did I disappoint? Did I really drink and drive? I could have killed someone. What are my parents going to think? What are my coworkers going to think? How will this be reported?
The tears continued to fall, not because I was a victim, but because I didn’t get help! (I fully recognize I am NOT a victim and that my drinking created victims.)
“We’re booking him,”one officer said and off to 4th Avenue Jail we went. I sat in a drunk tank, allowing sobriety to push the toxins out of my system. The ceiling was coated with toilet paper that had been dipped in water and thrown onto the tiles. What I thought –or hoped –was peanut butter was smeared across the white bricks.
An officer took me to a cell of solid concrete for 12-13 hours. I tried falling asleep but couldn’t stop my mind from taking off. Time stood still as my head sped in infinite circles. I laid in every possible position: on a bench, on the floor, against the bench. The sobriety sank in and I realized this was definitely no dream.
Around 2 p.m. the next day, a guard came to get me for group court. I walked to the room and sat in the back. A lawyer my family hired pointed to a back room and shut the door once we entered. He read the police report out loud.
Tears erupted and I couldn’t believe what was on the paper. In my drunken stupor, I had driven from my apartment to a fast food restaurant across the street. I bumped my car into another car in the drive-thru and then erratically drove back home. A police officer yelled at me. I looked him in the eyes and took off. Officers followed me to my apartment complex. I almost hit a woman on a bike. I pulled in to a parking space and surrendered. The severity of the night still haunts me. Someone could have lost their life because of my alcoholism…and I don’t remember a night that some people remember vividly.
“The felony is the worst thing,”my lawyer said. But to me, the worst thing was that I could have killed someone.
I walked back into the court room. My Superman shirt turned backwards so it wouldn’t be seen from the surveillance video. The judge released me on my own recognizance. But before I was let out, I went back to the cell for processing. Three hours later, the door to the street opened and my mom yelled at me from a nearby parking lot.
Most nights leading up to the DUI, I self-medicated anxiety and depression by drinking to the point of blacking out. Some people knew I had a problem, but most didn’t realize the extent. I knew I had a problem. I knew I needed to get help, but I cared more about what people thought about me. My selfishness is the reason someone could have died.
"I walked up to the warehouse-like door.
a buzzer sounded and the entrance opened.
nothing in high school, college or real life prepared me for the other side."
The next morning, I reached out to Desert Cove Recovery and begged for help. The rehab admitted me for 37 days. The program tore down all my pre-conceived notions of alcoholism and addiction. I realized the terror and destruction that I created from drinking and the demons I had discharged on the world. I received education on grief, shame and how to effectively handle situations without numbing the pain. I made friends with former felons and heroin addicts. I realized some really good people make horrible mistakes.
Some people get trapped in addiction. I learned how to let go of the past, how to release resentment and how to remove the darkness from my life.
As part of my recovery, the therapist told me to have a creative outlet, and that became writing. I completed a fictional novel with real life undertones which I hope to publish one day! I also wrote this essay which I hope helps others.
Five months into sobriety, my case went to Maricopa Superior Court. The unlawful flight felony was dropped to a misdemeanor and I pled guilty to extreme DUI. The punishment included nine days in jail. I self-surrendered the next morning.
I got to the jail at 10 a.m. and, after going through processing, shackles were buckled to my legs and handcuffs were placed on my wrists. Instead of feeling sorry for myself or worrying about the next nine days, I felt peace. I felt acceptance and I was ready to serve my time.
The bus took off to a nearby complex. A guard walked me to Jail House 9. On the way, I picked up a pink blanket and sheet. “Any advice?”I asked her.
“This is run like a prison,”she said. “Stay away from the racial gangs and keep your head down. You’ll be fine.”
I walked up to the warehouse-like door. A buzzer sounded and the entrance opened. Nothing in high school, college or real life prepared me for the other side. I walked over to the “bubble,”a fortified office where the guards monitor the area. I knocked on a slot in the wall that turned. A piece of paper that read, “E82”appeared in the slot. I turned to one of the inmates in orange and asked, “What does this mean?”
“It means you’re in Row E, section 8 and bunk 2,”he said. “What’s your race?”
This threw me back for a moment.
“I’m white, I guess,”I told him. Which was true. My grandmother was Spanish, but the rest of my DNA was of white-European descent.
“Oh, you’re in Woods,”he answered.
He disappeared into the bodies of inmates and two men walked over to me. The Woods is the all-white gang.
“We’ll help you,”the two men said grabbing the blanket and sheet. Another person picked up a mat and I followed them to my assigned bed. The men tied the sheet around the mat and threw it onto my bunk.
“Let’s go over the rules,”one of them said to me pulling out a piece of paper numbered from 1-30. “No stealing. No lying. White boys 30 and under must work out every night. You have to shower every day. If someone calls you a ‘b****, you have to fight them.”As he finished the list, I kept my face and demeanor serious. “We will take care of you. The Woods stick together.”He handed me a bar of soap and I returned to my bed.
For the first three days, I stayed on my bunk. I only got up to use the restroom, get food (served twice a day) or work out for 20 minutes with the other “White Boys.”I tried my best to keep a low profile. No one (but one duty officer) recognized me from the news and I was thankful. A few times I wanted to break down crying, but I didn’t dare. With the open concept, prisoners were constantly walking by. I thought often about my journey to alcoholism.
I remembered my first college party involving a tub of jungle juice. Six cups of the red liquid and I blacked out. This occurred for much of my twenties. When depression surfaced, the drunkenness became worse. I started drinking alone because I was too overbearing with some friends. I tried to control my self-medication, which only perpetuated it. When I was 25, after a break-up, I climbed to the top of a parking garage and sat on the ledge. In a storm of darkness, I couldn’t see through the pain, but something kept me from leaping to the concrete ground. I knew there was more to my story, but I didn’t know this would be the path and I wasn’t done drinking. For the next five years, alcohol became my dark escape and passenger. I lived in a web of lies and hid it from as many people as I could. This may surprise some, because I was so happy on-air and did fun stories. What viewers never saw was the person who couldn’t shake depression and drank alone at home.
“E82,”a guard said at me banging the side of the bed. I quickly opened my eyes. “You’ve been sleeping all day. You okay?”
“Yes, I am sir, thank you,”I said.
“Let me know if anyone messes with you,”he replied.
Most days, you could only tell the time by the skylight or by the electronic video call machine near the television that had a clock.
The food is solely sustenance. That’s what I told myself every time I forced a piece of bread or slop into my mouth. “This is strictly to live. Don’t think about it,”I would repeat. Eyes closed, I forced myself to chew and swallow. The pieces of meat and sauce may have been unrecognizable, but at least there were oranges and cookies to accompany it. I lost eight pounds in jail and I shared my packets of peanut butter with my bunk mates.
The man lying on the bed under me was an Army veteran. His story is the epitome of addiction. As a staff sergeant stationed overseas, he was shot by a sniper. The two-inch bullet, still wedged in his spine, hit him perfectly so he wasn’t paralyzed or killed. He retired from service and was given a prescription to OxyContin. But when the pain went away, he was hooked. His addiction led to divorce. He photoshopped prescriptions and got caught. The veteran with PTSD was sentenced to one year. He told me he was grateful for being locked up, because it helped him escape the pills.
As someone on the outside, I used to look at prisoners as second-class citizens who were scum. I didn’t realize that most of the inmates are good people who made mistakes. Once they have come down from substance abuse, you see them as humans. There were occasional fights in the bathrooms, but for the most part everyone was just trying to serve their time and leave.
On the fourth day, I got sick. And not slightly sick. I had the full-on fever, phlegm-filmed throat and deep sounding cough. I thought I was going to die that night, not from getting shanked or beaten-up, but because my head was pounding. I also didn’t know that we could ask the guards for a toothbrush and toothpaste, so I had been four days without cleaning my teeth and they were starting to get sensitive.
Taking showers wasn’t so bad. I used to be terrified in high school gym to strip down and rinse off after class, but in jail, I just went in and out without hesitation (…gratefully using the soap provided by the Woods). The entire time I kept my head down. I didn’t want to glance wrong at someone or be put on another “race gang’s”radar. The blacks referred to themselves as Kin Folk. The Mexicans (from America) were Chicanos. The Mexicans (from Mexico) were Paisas. The Native Americans were Chiefs. Other races chose a gang. We all were prisoners, but even in uniformity we were divided.
On the fifth day, my orange jumpsuit started to smell. If you had work release, part of your day was occupied by leaving the warehouse to go work and come back. If you worked in the kitchen or laundry room, you could get a change of clothes every day. Since I had such a short sentence, I wasn’t eligible to work. The jail changes out the uniforms every Wednesday morning, and since I checked in on a Wednesday morning, that meant a full week with the same socks and underwear. I showered twice a day, but the body odor still soaked through the cloth. A couple of times the bathroom toilet water flooded the floor, and on my way to using the “pee only”side, I stepped in liquid. That meant my socks had to dry on the edge of my bunk and then I could use them the next day.
What I’ll say –and I don’t mean this sarcastically or flippantly (recovery is an honest program) –is I am incredibly grateful for the experience. At 3 p.m., “E82 time to roll-up”came across the intercom.
I said good-bye to the few people I made contact with –including the sergeant –and walked towards the door. A group of 15-20 inmates sat in a cell waiting for the bus to come and get us. We were shackled again and taken back to the original white walled cells. For 11 hours, we waited in different areas to get processed out.
The bathroom was at one end of the building and the tables where people ate was at the other. In the middle, were the rows of bunks. One television was on the wall above the tables and it was usually on Cartoon Network or AMC. Re-runs of Cast Away, Jaws and the Godfather played during the day. Family Guy aired at night. One morning, infomercials played for two hours –which I imagine is exactly what awaits in the reception room to hell.
Some nights the inmates would make jail hooch. They would peel oranges from breakfast and place them into a sock. They would squeeze the juice into a bottle and let it ferment. The addictive part of my mind wondered what it tasted like, the sober sense of me didn’t care to find out.
I picked up the Grapes of Wrath, a book I finished in high school, from the small library of 50 books. I forgot that the protagonist, Tom Joad, was released from prison at the start of the story. Every time I went through a rough patch in jail and prayed to God, the answer I needed to hear came from that novel. If John Steinbeck were still alive, I would write him a heartfelt thank-you. Who knew a book written decades ago would be so comforting behind bars?
There were two moments of beauty that occurred before leaving. The first was when everyone got called out in groups of five to get their clothes. They came back holding plastic bags with the belongings they had on day one. As the orange jumpsuits came off, personality and originality returned. Inmates became individuals. Color returned to the bleak room. People came to life putting on their jeans, gym shorts, button-up shirts, polos, jackets and caps. The second form of beauty came in the final hour. Everyone sat in a circle, ready to be released. Conversation shifted to first meals and the first thing people would do.
As I sat there, I prayed and thanked God. Because one year ago, I would have thought about getting drunk and playing the victim. I would have told everyone that I didn’t deserve this treatment or complained about being locked-up. But in that moment, I didn’t want to drink. I realized I made it through hell and I couldn’t wait to get home and sleep in a normal bed.
A younger prisoner said, “I can’t wait to get some 40’s from the gas station.”
Another said, “I am going to get so loaded!”
“Don’t end up back here,”I told them both and they blankly looked at me.
I will never forget the doors opening to freedom as the cold air brushed across my face.
Truly amazing things happen in sobriety for those willing to ask for help. Addiction is a daily struggle that I take one day at a time, but the gifts of overcoming hell are far greater than another shot or rum and coke. My biggest lessons include gratitude, humility, kindness and honesty. I am grateful for rebirth, serenity and a second chance.
To the people from the DUI night and to the Phoenix Police: I am incredibly sorry. You are the reason I am sober!
To the addicts and alcoholics still suffering, you never have to use or drink again!
No matter what hell you are going through, take comfort in knowing someone, somewhere in the world has faced the same hell and made it out the other end a stronger and better person. There is help, ask for it!