Friday, October 2, 2015

"I didn't choose this business, it chose me."

I was presented with an award this past Monday at the Moments of Change conference in West Palm Beach, Florida, and it still kind of feels like a dream.

Winning the Heroes in Recovery Award is something I never could have imagined ten years ago, when my wife and I first started dealing with our son's addiction. Ten years ago I was lost, wondering where in the world I would find enough strength to help my son. Today I am actually helping others, and have the great pleasure of knowing and working with so many amazing people. It's all kind of surreal, but in the best way possible.
My Heroes in Recovery Award

I heard someone say something during a presentation at Moments of Change that really resonated with me:

"I didn't choose this business, it chose me."

Like so many others who go through a loved one's addiction, I was thrown into a situation I was completely unfamiliar with, one that scared the hell out of me every single day and made me question my parenting skills for the longest time. But somehow I managed to navigate through the storm, and now helping others do the same is my passion. I hope to make it my full-time job someday.

I want to thank everyone at Heroes in Recovery and Foundations Recovery Network, not only for the award but for the opportunity to come to West Palm Beach and accept it in person. What you all do is amazing, and I'm honored to be a teeny tiny part of it.

I will cherish my Heroes in Recovery Award forever.

"We only have what we give." --Isabel Allende

Me with my wife and Foundations Recovery Network CEO Rob Waggener

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Support SLAM and Win a Trip to NYC

Kristen Johnston is a badass.

Not only is she a person in recovery and the author of a brutally honest and funny memoir--Guts: The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster--she's also co-founder of SLAM NYC, an organization committed to starting the first sober high school in New York City.

And oh, yeah. She's an Emmy Award-winning actress, too.

Last month, Kristen's sober high school dream began to come true. The John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School on Staten Island became the first school in New York City to begin active development of a dedicated program for students in recovery. SLAM (Sobriety Learning and Motivation) has created an alliance with Lavelle Prep to get students supported as soon as possible with SLAM’s vision.

To celebrate this monumental event, Kristen and SLAM are hosting a free event on Thursday, November 12, at the St. George Theatre on Staten Island. In addition to a screening of the powerful documentary The Anonymous People, there will also be a Q & A session with recovery experts, celebrities, and Borough President James Oddo.

Sounds like a great time, doesn't it? Well, maybe you can go!

Because so many people have expressed an interest in attending this SLAM celebration, Kristen has decided to donate two round-trip plane tickets to NYC, as well as a two-night stay at the Wythe Hotel, a stunning new hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. To top it all off, the lucky winner and their guest will be Kristen's dates for the evening.

So, how do you enter to win this fabulous prize?

To enter "The Lottery," all you have to do is go to SLAM NYC website and donate $25.00. After making your donation, either tweet Kristen (@kjothesmartass) or direct message her (if you follow each other on Twitter). Include one word--"Lottery"--and your first name and last initial only (or your Twitter handle). If you've already donated to SLAM and want to enter the contest, you can. Note that all entries have to be submitted by noon EDT on October 12th, and the contest is only open to folks in the continental United States. The winner will be chosen on the afternoon of the 12th. (For more details about the contest, please visit Kristen's blog.)

After almost a decade of relentless determination and hard work, Kristen Johnston and SLAM have achieved an amazing goal that will help countless young people live better lives. I can't even begin to tell you how important this is. By donating $25.00 and entering K-Jo's cool contest, you can help SLAM continue their incredible work--and maybe win a fun trip to the Big Apple in the process.

So, what are you waiting for?

"There’s nothing as unstoppable as a freight train full of fuck-yeah." --Jen Sincero

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

If Someone You Love Is Struggling with Addiction, These Books Can Help

Greetings to all of my readers on what can only be described as an absolutely gorgeous late-summer day in suburban Detroit.

I wanted to bring to your attention a new blog I wrote for the website. It's called "6 Essential Books for Those with an Addicted Loved One." This is a topic I've wanted to cover for quite a while, so when the opportunity presented itself I jumped at the chance.

The six books I discuss in the blog are books that have literally changed--and even saved--my life. If you are the parent or loved one of someone struggling with addiction, I highly recommend that you check these books out. I can pretty much guarantee that you'll get something out of each and every one of them.

Here's a direct link to the blog: 

Happy reading!

P.S. Are there other books you'd put on this list? If so, let me know if the comments below.

"Knowledge is love and light and vision." --Helen Keller

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Seven Years Sober Today

I just posted this on one of the online recovery forums I help moderate. I thought I would share it with you as well.

Just wanted to share with you all that it was seven years ago today that I quit drinking.

I quit drinking because the family therapist at my son's rehab facility told me and my wife, "Be the change you want to see in your son." My son was addicted to heroin, and as his addiction progressed I started to use alcohol as a crutch. I was self-medicating to help me forget about my son's self-medication. How messed up is that??

My father was an alcoholic, and I was definitely heading down the wrong path with regards to alcohol. A glass of wine after work became two glasses of wine. Then it was three or four. Then it was a whole bottle. Or maybe I'd finish a bottle and then open another one. I credit my wife for noticing that my wheels were coming off and expressing her concern to me. I needed to quit drinking. Period. The family therapist's advice was just the final kick in the ass I needed.

My wife never drank much at all, but she quit drinking at the same time. We both figured it would be the best way to set an example, not only for our addicted older son, but for our younger son as well. It's the least we could do, right? After all, parents are the most powerful role models children have.

Over the last seven years I've learned that alcohol is overrated, being sober is only as dull and boring as you make it, and life without mind-altering substances is so awesome. And real. I credit my wife and the family therapist at my son's treatment facility with motivating me to change my life.

To anyone who's reading this and struggling with any kind of substance use disorder, please know that you can get clean and sober, and it's so damn worth it.

Peace, hugs, and much hope to everyone.


"Don’t. Give. Up. Because guess what? Me too."
--Anne Lamott

Monday, September 7, 2015

I'm Not as Strong as I Sometimes Appear

I haven't put much thought into this post. So if what I'm writing ends up sounding like some kind of stream of consciousness rambling, I apologize.

One thing I've heard a lot from people over the last couple/few years is how strong I am. How I've gone through difficult things in my life but have handled it so well.

Here's a secret: I'm not as strong as I sometimes appear. In fact, I'm really not that strong at all.

I've been going through some tough times of late. I haven't written about them because I just don't want to. But over the last several weeks I've come to view myself as something of a hypocrite, because I can't seem to practice what I preach.

I write blogs that tell people how they should act. Live in the moment. Don't let the small stuff bother you. Practice self-care. But recently I've done anything but those things. Instead, I've let the shit going on in my world get the best of me.

Yesterday, while my wife was out of town, I honestly thought I was going to have a breakdown. I confess: I served my younger son his dinner with tears rolling down my cheeks.

Today? More of the same: stress, anxiety, fear, and lots of self-loathing.

I'm kind of a mess.

Maybe it's some kind of reaction to my being completely off of Klonopin now. (It's been a little less than a week.) I've also reduced the dosage of my anti-depressant--with my doctor's permission--so maybe my body and brain are adjusting to that, too. I'll give it another week or so and see how things are going then.

But the main point of this post is to come clean and let you know that I'm not this pillar of strength with a big shield that allows me to repel all the troubles and negative feelings that come my way. Not even close. I'm just as vulnerable as anybody else; at times, maybe even more so. I still carry around a lot of baggage, and sometimes the weight of that baggage puts a tremendous strain on me.

I know that it's okay to hurt. I know that it's okay to cry. I know that this, too, shall pass. But that doesn't make it any easier.


"If you have a body, you are entitled to the full range of feelings. It comes with the package." --Anne Lamott

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Guest Blog: Guns and Mental Illness

It's been less than a week since a gunman took the lives of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward as they reported a story for WDBJ in Roanoke, Virginia.

Parker and Ward were just the latest victims of a troubled individual with a gun, something residents of the United States have grown far too accustomed to over the years.

Columbine. Virginia Tech. Fort Hood. Aurora. Sandy Hook. Charleston.

Just when we think things can't get any worse, two young people with the best years of their lives ahead of them get shot and killed on live television. God help us.

In the aftermath of this senseless shooting, Alison Parker's father, Andy Parker, has become what CNN calls "perhaps the world's most visible advocate for gun control." In an opinion piece published in The Washington Post, Mr. Parker has vowed to do "whatever it takes" to end gun violence.

Andy Parker is on a mission. And Anne Slease is ready to help.

But wait. Who is Anne Slease?

Anne Slease has been a middle school English teacher for over 20 years. Though she's written many short stories and essays for her students, it wasn't until her own personal life took an unexpected turn that she considered writing for a broader audience. Just weeks after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Anne began writing about her troubled relationship with her older son Jake, then 20, on a blog called Still Hopeful Mom. It had been two years since Jake walked out Anne's door, refusing to accept his mental illness.

Anne's experiences with her older son, mental illness, and guns have frustrated her. "I am not really a political being," she told me when she shared her blog post with me. "But these two issues, unfortunately, have set me off over the last few years. If our story can help someone else, it's worth it."

Which brings me to Anne's incredibly powerful guest blog. When I read it, my stomach dropped. I urge you to read it and--more importantly--share it with everybody you know. I believe it's something every American should read.

Thanks so much to Anne for reaching out to me and letting me share this with you.

An Open Letter to Mr. Andy Parker, Father of Slain Journalist Alison Parker

August 31, 2015

Dear Mr. Parker,

First, let me extend my deepest sympathies for your loss of your beloved daughter Alison. No parent should ever outlive their child, but to lose a child in this horrific way must be the worst hell on earth. Please know you and your family are in my thoughts and prayers.

I am writing in support of your mission to do "whatever it takes" to stop guns from getting into the wrong hands in our country. Mr. Parker, five years ago, a loaded handgun got into my 18 year old son's hands.

My son was an outpatient at a mental health facility being treated for what at first was diagnosed as depression. Though he'd been physically threatening to me and his younger brother, he was able to charm the intake nurses into admitting him to the day program rather than the inpatient program of this reputable facility. He was to attend sessions between 9:00am and 3:00pm Monday through Friday for three weeks. And because he had just turned 18, he was grouped with adults of various ages and diagnoses.

During this program, my son befriended a fellow patient who met him in the mental health facility's parking lot during a break one day and sold him a loaded handgun.

My son came home intending to kill himself, however, that's not what happened.

My younger son, then 13, found the gun in his older brother's room, and, thinking it was an Airsoft gun, held it up as if to shoot it. By the grace of God, my older son came into the room just at that moment and stopped him, admitting that the gun was real and that it was loaded.

Mr. Parker, my two teenage sons kept the secret of this loaded handgun in my house for several weeks. I had no idea it even existed.

Thankfully, my younger son eventually did tell me about the gun before anyone used it. Unfortunately, though, when my older son was faced with the choice of being admitted to a different, hopefully better, mental health facility as an inpatient or leaving my home for good, he chose the latter. He walked out my door on December 31, 2010.

Today, my son is in prison.

Mr. Parker, I am writing to you because I want to be sure you know our story, just one of so many stories that have not ended well in our country. It is the story of gun control as well as mental illness.

The issues are intertwined, yes. However, it is not as easy as requiring universal background checks to curb the gun violence in our country.

My son would have passed a background check. He'd never had more than a speeding ticket in his life. But Mr. Parker, remember, my son bought this gun illegally, so a background check, even if it would have flagged him, would not have been done anyway.

The heart of this matter lies so far beyond gun control itself. While I am a firm believer that we do not need the same Second Amendment that once allowed our country's citizens to protect themselves against the British so long ago, there are so many more things to consider.

First and foremost, our country's mental health care system must change. We need to identify mental illnesses sooner and much more comprehensively. American teenagers need to be educated about the signs of mental illness and what to do if they recognize them in themselves or others.

Secondly, the stigma associated with mental illness in our country must end. People need not fear what others will think of them. Mental illness occurs in one out of four adults in our country, yet people are ashamed and afraid of judgment. Years ago, people whispered the "C" word. Now they boldly announce: I have cancer. Why can't people see that mental illness is a physical illness just like diabetes or cancer? And it is treatable, very treatable, but they have to seek the treatment, thus, they have to challenge the stigma. And the three in four American adults who are not diagnosed have to end the stigma and embrace our loved ones with support rather than shame.

Finally, our insurance companies must be forced to provide proper and thorough treatment for our mentally ill population. Even if someone is brave enough to seek treatment and is diagnosed, there is no guarantee that they will receive the essential care they need.

Mr. Parker, I stand beside you in your commitment to stop gun violence. I urge you not only to advocate for legislative measures with gun laws, but also advocate for our mental health community. We need better preventative measures to identify and treat mental illness. We need more comprehensive insurance coverage for it. And we need to encourage our citizens to recognize and end its stigma.

If there is anything I can do to help you continue your mission, please let me know. You have my deepest sympathies as well as my utmost respect.


Anne Slease
Wilmington, Delaware

Anne Slease is a mental health advocate, active with her local NAMI chapter where she has spoken at events ranging from police officer trainings to candlelight vigils. She writes for the International Bipolar Foundation website as well as Amy White's website, Far From Paradise, while she still maintains her own blog, She and her younger son, Luke, were recently part of a documentary called Semper Est Sperare (Always Hope), a film about mental illness and its stigma by director Tim Hill. And Anne has written a young adult novel called A Brother's Oath. Loosely based on actual events, the novel tells the story of Dylan Truman, a high school freshman, who witnesses his basketball star older brother, Cole, spiral into the depths of mental illness following a serious knee injury. Dylan must decide if a brother's oath is worth keeping.

Anne Slease with her son Jake on Christmas Day, 2012.
This was the last time she saw him before he was arrested.
(Note: "An Open Letter to Andy Parker, Father of Slain Journalist Alison Parker" Copyright © 2015 by Anne Slease. All rights reserved. Republished with permission.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Finalist Essay: Charlie Lockyer

Charlie Lockyer's entry for the My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest was unique among the 10 finalists. Why is that? Because not only has she has been affected by her older brother's addiction and her mother's addiction, she has faced addiction herself.

Charlie is a brave young woman who is studying psychology at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I am thrilled to share her incredibly brave and honest essay with you.

Breaking the Circle

By Charlie Lockyer

Andrew has always been THAT guy. The one you want to be with. Good looking, funny and surrounded by friends. Pushing everything to the limit and rarely getting caught. He is six years older than me, and when I was growing up he was my hero. I wanted to be just like him. He was also my protector from life with an alcoholic mother. She was verbally, physically and mentally abusive and he was the buffer between real harm and the quiet of my family's own dysfunctional kind of normal.

In the final years of our Mom's drinking, Andrew began to steal her booze. I learned that he would sell the booze, and use that money to buy weed. In my eyes this impressed me even more. It was a cunning business venture and the adults had absolutely no idea. When our Mom finally entered recovery, our world began to change. My parents' eyes were opened to the three of us wild children, and a budding business died. Even though he was put out of business, Andrew continued to be wildly popular and continued to use a variety of drugs. I grew up to be almost exactly the opposite, even though I desperately wanted to be like him. My idolization of him eventually led me to my own downfall.

In every branch of my family tree, and perhaps even down into the roots, there is addiction. It is simply how our brains seem to be wired, so to speak. When the concept that my siblings and I might have a greater likelihood of having addiction issues, we all reacted in different ways to that knowledge. My younger brother completely accepted it, and has the foresight, even at 16, to want a life free from mind-altering substances. I was neutral, and while I had an intellectual understanding of what I was being told about my chances of developing a problem with substance misuse, it wasn't resonating emotionally. I was working on my anger and PTSD in therapy, but was still too confused to really listen or care, and the need to feel connected to my peers was so strong. Andrew, however, denied the possibility that addiction could be genetic flat out. In order to repair our familial connections, we all went to therapy as a family, but Andrew refused to participate, driving himself away from us rather than forgive and learn to move on from our broken pasts. He seemed to let it fester.

Andrew's thirst for adventure and need for excitement led to him join the military by the time I was in high school, and I was desperate to follow. There, too, he was still Mr. Popularity. I struggled in high school and was not so well liked. I was awkward because I was trying to be someone I wasn't. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. I had few friends, and I couldn't figure out why I just didn't fit anywhere. I looked at the differences between my older brother and I, and found a key. I didn't touch drugs. I didn't go out of my way to avoid them; I just never took up people's offers. Andrew would come home and tell us all about his adventures on and off base. More and more often, these adventures became centered on his bar crawls, his drunken antics and sneaking drugs that would be undetectable on drug screens. I feared for his job and his life. He flew planes, shot guns and was in uniform. I was also enchanted by it all. It became glamorous, death defying and he was always the center of it everything. The drugs and alcohol were main characters--a central theme. None of it would be possible without that fuel. It was the adventure and glamour I wanted--but also the way he fit in anywhere, with anyone. After Andrew left the service, he continued, this time on the rave and festival circuit, with X--sometimes real and sometimes synthetic. The raves look incredibly fun, and the different music festivals he posts about on Facebook and Instagram look like such a great time. He presents as happy, like he is living life however he wants it--as if he is in control of it all. I wanted that more than anything! But it’s an illusion, like all of those pictures. I only saw what I wanted to see.

My Mom received a phone call one day. My siblings and I had a very complicated relationship with my Mom--she was an active alcoholic during most of our childhood, and has now been in recovery and has been sober for more than eight years. It was Andrew, admitting that he had a drinking problem and that it was out of control. He was going to start going to meetings and getting help. I didn't really think too much about it, until a month later, when he was back to raving and bar hopping. I asked him about it, and he told me that he isn't an addict--it isn't possible for him to be an alcoholic. He told me that addiction is in no way genetic, he had overreacted, it was under control and he had taken a break and it was all good. No problem. Looking back on my own experiences, he is wrong.

My life was great--I had gotten into a college I believe to be prestigious, and that was a perfect fit for me. The school was heaven, and I loved it. I was away from my family for the first time, and I wanted the kind of friends my brother had. Andrew's voice got louder than what I learned from my Mom's recovery. After years of being on the sidelines and winning dodge ball games in gym simply because nobody noticed me, I found somewhere I could start over and be just like him--be popular and cool. So when my friends partied, I partied too. I began drinking socially and smoking pot. For a month or so, my life was well balanced. My studies and my partying didn't impact each other. As the semester ground on, my drinking became uncontrollable. In a very short time, I was beginning to lose control over my life. Alcohol became my higher power--when I felt any negative emotion, my automatic thought was that I needed a drink. When I was happy, I wanted to celebrate by drinking. My older brother made it all seem normal, that I was just being a college student, that it wasn’t a problem at all. But the path that I was on led me into a dark place--I nearly lost my place in the freshman class, as well as the few friends I made. My grades slipped, and I was losing everything I loved. Within four months of me first raising a bottle to my mouth, I was drinking every day, smoking weed any time I could get my hands on it, and it was escalating fast and destroying my life. The smallest tension became a huge argument and lead to explosive confrontation. Who was I? Many members of our family struggle with addiction, but nothing impacted me like my brother's use. He continues to make that life look glamorous, but now I know better. Alcohol and drugs are not going to win me friends or fill up any empty spaces in my life. It took nearly ruining my own life to realize that Andrew isn't right about a family connection and substance abuse disorder, and I had to nearly destroy my life to see just how the four generations before me prove us both wrong.

I still love and adore my older brother. He is brilliant, funny and THAT guy--even clean. Especially when clean. He was my hero, my protector, and he was exactly who I wanted to be. I no longer idolize him, or want to follow in his footsteps. I am so afraid that he will use some combination of booze and synthetic drug and he will react badly to it and die. That is one of my worst fears. He still has not let go of his anger from our pasts, and refuses to seek treatment for his PTSD. He uses to mask his feelings with others but with his family he rages. He drinks to the point of blackout every time. He has driven wedges between himself and all of us, even though we love and accept him for who he is. He has separated himself from us, much like our Mom often tried to separate from the family in our younger years. This brings back awful memories for me, my own PTSD. He and I no longer have a relationship, because I cannot build a bridge without a foundation. I miss him, and love him dearly, but his addiction and his refusal to get help has created a chasm between us. He seems to walk down the path our Mom took, and that is the circle of addiction that I want to help people break free from.

Today, I have found myself again. I am in early recovery, and am working on bettering myself as well as my life. I am coming to terms with the consequences of my downward spiral, and accepting them with as much grace as I possibly can. I am still attending my dream college, however my major has changed, and my life plan has as well. I began to form a new plan with a new dream. I am now majoring in Psychology, with plans to work with addicts, and the families of addicts. I want to help families like mine, ravaged by addiction issues, because I understand them personally. I know what it is like to be the child of an addict, and to be the sibling of an addict. I want to work with people with substance use disorders because I know what it is like live with one. While in college I will be advocating for sober living environments. My dream is to help people who are affected by the disease of addiction, fight stigma and get on with the business of living. I want to be THAT woman but for all the right reasons. The first president of the school that I attend said in his final commencement speech, "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity." I am not going to be ashamed. Not of who I am, of my addiction, of my family--as long as I am present in my life and do my best I will have won.