Ray is an active Run856 member, and well known for his encouragement to all 856 members. Ray reached out to me recently looking to share about how his struggle with alcoholism led him to running, and we decided to try something new here on the 856 blog. Ray is a half-Ironman finisher, and multiple marathon finisher, most recently running in the Philadelphia Marathon. Ray wrote his running and recovery story to share here. I hope you will find it as inspiring as I did!
Hi, you probably know me or heard my name, as I tend to be active in the 856 social media groups: triathlete, marathoner, alcoholic. Well, maybe you didn’t know that last part, most people don’t. I’m fortunate to say I’m a recovering alcoholic now, going on five years sober after 25 plus years of being drunk every day, and I’ve been seeing too many stories of people suffering from and dying from addictions, the grieving families and friends, and hoping if I tell my story it might connect with those struggling with their own issues, and get the help they need to beat these diseases. I’d like to talk about how I got on the path to recovery, and have stayed there. I’m comfortable talking about this to friends and small groups, but never thought I’d be telling this story to 4,000 people. I’m a bit apprehensive, but here goes.
My story goes back to the late 1960’s and 1970’s, when there were different levels of tolerance for alcohol and other drugs than today. No excuses, I own this story, just an explanation of what happened to me. As I progressed in life and career, and started moving to other cities and then countries climbing the corporate ladder, alcohol became an easy way after work to wipe away the stress. Unfortunately for me, it quickly became a crutch, and one that I was increasingly reliant on. Over time, that evening drink became two, then three or more, and eventually became a daytime thing as well. I remember knowing at age 30 I was an alcoholic, even then I understood how much I was drinking, but typical for these diseases the drug would quickly help me deny, avoid, evade, and dismiss any suggestions that I had a problem. As people dealing with addictions, the addiction is our priority: never running out of our drug of choice. You’d be amazed how resourceful, clever and deceitful we are in securing that next supply. Because we almost never run out, I can honestly say I can count the number of days on both my hands when I wasn’t drinking over those 25 years, and that was probably because I was in a country where you couldn’t purchase alcohol.
There were some ironic moments along the way. When I lived and worked in China, as my firm’s foreigner I was called a gweilo in Cantonese, which translates to something like foreign devil. Now it’s simply a slang term for expatriates, but one of the Chinese business customs is taking the foreigner out for drinks the night before the negotiations, hoping the alcohol would impair the ability to negotiate well. The custom was one individual would toast the foreigner, and the two of them would drain their glasses in a bottoms-up toast. Then the foreigner would toast that individual back, and the process would move on the second person toasting the foreigner, then the third, and so on. It never worked on me, how could it, as I was an alcoholic, and I never lost one of these contests. Oddly enough, the Chinese have deep respect for those who can hold their liquor well, but no patience for those who can’t, so it’s a fine line between being admired for a large capacity, and frowned upon for drinking to excess.
When I returned to the US, the alcoholism continued to get worse. I’m a morning person, and that first drink had now worked its way into the daily morning routines. That’s when the accidents started happening, usually bad falls late in the evening. Unfortunately, there were many of them. The first hospitalization happened when I shattered my ankle, in another fall I can’t remember. That’s why there’s an 8” metal plate and eight screws holding my ankle together to this day. Then came my first detox. Unfortunately, I didn’t want to stop drinking, and once I got out went right back to my ways again. My family tried to reason with me, and get me to stop, but I couldn’t bear not having my drug of choice: it had clouded my ability to process what was happening to me, not letting me stop, and was my obsession. That led to a very painful family intervention, where my youngest son took the lead and in a brutal exchange, repeatedly challenged me, finally asking “What’s more important, your drugs or your family?” I knew what my response should have been, but the addiction stopped me from being able to say it. Go without alcohol? Not possible. But that intervention, painful as it was, finally got my attention and started me thinking.
Unfortunately, there was a second hospitalization, this time for another serious fall on my head, where my brain was swelling, and the doctors wanted to do an emergency procedure to reduce the swelling. That was also the second detox, and I finally started to realize I was going to die, and quickly, at this rate. Many of us with addictions must “bottom-out”, to finally reach the point where we’re willing to admit the problem and get help. My bottom was being put in a room with a plastic kitchen, and I had to prove I could take plastic plates, plastic glasses, and plastic utensils to set a table; and then clear everything and put it away. I understood my motor skills were being tested, as they were likely damaged from all the falls, and I knew then I hit bottom. Amazingly, that same day a social worker came to visit me, and simply said “Ray, it doesn’t have to be this way. I can help if you want it”. I said yes and asked for help, she got me enrolled in an out-patient clinic, and thanks to intensive therapy and support I finally understood what had happened to me, what I had become, and got sober.
It’s important to talk about how we avoid relapsing, as sadly the fail rate is very high in the first several months and years. As an alcoholic, I’m never going to be cured; hence the term recovering alcoholic. There’s always a small bit of the disease inside me, waiting for the opportunity to tell me it’s OK, I’m cured now, and you can go back to having that beer or glass of wine. I can’t do that, I’ve lived this story before, and I know if I did drink that would start the downward spiral all over again.
It’s also important to note how significant social groups are in recovery. Yes, I have other support groups I stay in touch with, but these days my most important groups are the Run856 and Tri856 groups. It’s hard to explain how important and reinforcing a like, congratulations or attaboy can be, no matter what the posting, how small or slow my run was. It’s that positive reinforcement to our interactions with these groups that can get us through a day, week or difficult patch. I’m part of something, and that knowledge gives me the positive reinforcement I need. You guys are one of my keys to my sobriety, and thanks for the amazing support the 856 groups generate.
Another major takeaway from this experience, is learning that everybody has issues, whether addiction, health, money, family, relationships, etc. When you go through a process like this, and come out the other side, you learn a lot about yourself and other people, and become a bit wiser and more accepting from the experience.
I don’t celebrate big anniversaries, like the upcoming 5 years next March, instead celebrating each day, as that’s how I stay straight. But I will share my youngest son, who led that family intervention, and I celebrate each year’s anniversary with a massive chocolate dessert. It’s become our tradition, he’s one of my biggest cheerleaders, and I’m looking forward to that celebration and dessert next March.
It wasn’t easy to post this, as a private person I recoil at the idea of sharing something so
personal with such a large group. But if telling this story helps someone think about getting help, and starting to put things together again, then this is well worth it.
Thanks for listening, there’s help for those that want it.