Freedom. That’s what I have in my life today. I am free. I once was a slave to my addiction, but by the Grace of God, those days are behind me. However, as the saying goes – freedom isn’t free. You have to fight for it. You have to be willing to pay the price.
My name is Mack and I am a recovering addict.
I am proud to be an Army veteran. Just after 9/11, I volunteered to go to Iraq to fight the War on Terror. I was 20-years-old. I spent two years over there. I was infantry, so as you can imagine, I was on the front lines.
When I tell people about my military service, many of them ask me if I ever had to kill anyone. Just for the record, this is not something you should ask a veteran. It’s just bad manners. And, unless you have served in a combat zone, you cannot imagine how painful that question is … not to mention the answer. When you meet a veteran, I encourage you to simply thank him or her for their sacrifice and leave it at that –because believe me, there is sacrifice involved.
When I was in Iraq, I served my country. I paid the price of freedom for the American people. I was happy to do it and I would do it again. I have no regrets. When I signed up, I gave a solemn oath to defend America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I fulfilled my oath. I was a soldier.
I think most veterans feel this way. We are proud of our contribution and feel we did something positive for ourselves and our country … but there are conflicting feelings that accompany that sense of pride and nostalgia. After all, freedom isn’t free. You have to fight for it. You have to be willing to pay the price.
After four years, I got out of the Army. I decided I didn’t want to make a career of it. I wanted a normal life, one that didn’t involve carrying a weapon to bed with me. When I returned home, I enrolled in community college and got a job at UPS.
I did my best to adjust to life as what the Army calls a “fat, nasty civilian.” But, I struggled tremendously. I started drinking heavily and smoking pot every day. Whiskey was my beverage of choice. I used to keep a flask of the stuff in my glove compartment and take swigs during breaks at work. It helped to drown out the noise in my head and calmed my anxiety. Weed helped me sleep. I remember those early days home from the Army, I had terrible nightmares.
It’s funny how you can rationalize some irrational behavior in your head. I remember thinking back then that I didn’t have a problem with alcohol because I never drank before noon. Only drunks drink in the morning. Since I didn’t start drinking till about 3 p.m., I couldn’t be a drunk … at least, that is what I thought at the time. And, I only smoked pot at night after I got off work, so I wasn’t a pothead … right?
Although I was struggling, I managed to build a life for myself. I did well at work. I met the woman who would later become my wife and the mother of my children. I made new friends and went fishing and did things that guys in their twenties are supposed to do.
But in spite of outward appearances, I was dying inside. I felt like a chaotic mess of a person. I couldn’t get certain images and sounds out of my head. They would keep me up at night and haunt me during the day. I was always on edge and often became hostile without warning. One day at work, I put a co-worker in a headlock because he came up behind me and clapped really loudly in my ears. He was just clowning around, but it totally freaked me out.
Thankfully, my boss was a very understanding man who also happened to be a Marine Corps veteran. In a very caring way, he said he thought I had PTSD and needed professional help. At first, I was furious. How dare he “accuse” me of having PTSD? I was insulted because, at the time, I thought PTSD was a sign of weakness. I blew him off completely and went about my way.
Three years later, I had another incident – one that would prove to be a pivotal moment in my life. My seven-year-old stepson and I were playing ball in the backyard when a loud truck drove by. When it backfired, I ran to my son, grabbed him, threw him on the ground and yelled, “Incoming!” We stayed there frozen for several minutes before my son asked if there would ever be an “outgoing.” Now, I can laugh about his innocent response, but at the time, I was beside myself.
My wife talked to me that night. After years of avoiding the subject and doing her best to cope with my outbursts and substance abuse, she gave me some literature from the VA about PTSD. She looked me in the eyes and said, “Sweetie. This is not your fault. This is a totally normal response to trauma. This doesn’t make you weak. It makes you human. I think you need help.”
So, I went to my doctor and decided to talk to him about it. He said I had all the classic symptoms of PTSD. Then he asked if I had been abusing alcohol or drugs. I was honest. I told him I drank alcohol every day to numb my discomfort and smoked weed at night to sleep. I also divulged a secret – I had been buying Oxycodone from my cousin for the last three months. The pills, the weed, and the booze really helped me, I explained.
“You’re in denial,” he responded. “You have a substance abuse problem and until you get that under control, you will continue to suffer from PTSD.”
That night, I sat on the edge of the bed in total turmoil. I began to ask myself some very important questions. If I am in denial, I don’t know I am in denial… after all, isn’t that what denial is all about? How deep could the denial go? Do I have PTSD? Am I an alcoholic? Am I a drug addict? Do I need help?
I didn’t sleep a wink that night.
I will never forget the conversation I had with my wife in the morning when she woke up.
“Good morning, babe. I am addicted to alcohol. I am addicted to pills. I am addicted to pot. I have PTSD. I need help.”
“Hon, those words are like music to my ears. Let’s do this.”
We went to the doctor’s office together that morning. We didn’t even make an appointment. We discussed my “options.” In his opinion, there were no options. He told me I needed professional help and recommended that I attend drug rehab.
I was the sole breadwinner. My wife’s full-time job was taking care of the house and the kids. Inpatient treatment wasn’t an option. I found out about Intensive Outpatient Treatment (IOP), which I had never heard of before. I always thought when people went to rehab, they had to check themselves in somewhere for a month. IOP lets you attend treatment in the afternoon and early evening for several hours a day a few days a week.
I went to my boss and explained what was going on. I told him I would need to do the program and that I needed to get off early from work every night for a month or so. I also explained that I needed to take a week off to complete a medically supervised detox program, which did require round-the-clock care –but it was only for one week. So, I took a week’s vacation and my boss was totally supportive of my IOP program.
I have been clean now for five years. Today, I have a beautiful life. I am a volunteer peer support counselor and I work with other veterans struggling with PTSD. I am actively involved in my church. I spend quality time with my wife in kids and they don’t live in fear of what I am going to do next. I still work at UPS, and I am a top-level manager. Yes, today, life is good.
I will admit, it wasn’t easy to get sober. It was hard work … But freedom isn’t free. You have to fight for it. You have to be willing to pay the price. By the time I got to IOP, I was willing to pay the price for my own freedom. I had fought for America, but when I started IOP, it was time to fight for myself. I was so tired of the life I had been living as an alcoholic and an addict -it was exhausting. I was tired of being afraid all the time. I was tired of being uncomfortable in my own skin. I wanted a life of freedom, and thankfully, I found it in IOP.