I was at a conference a couple of years ago in a focus group with educators from around the state when a woman shared of the gang and drug-related issues in her school community. The group validated the high crime, drugs, and domestic violence facing teens in areas of lower socioeconomic status. But when I began to speak of the community I am an educator in, that is at a higher socioeconomic status, with its crippling rates of teen suicide, addiction, self-harm, anxiety, and depression, she interrupted me and said “Where are you from?...There are no problems there!” Her assumption was one that many people have; if you have good parents, live in a nice neighborhood, and go to well-off schools you shouldn’t have any problems. The opposite, of course, is quite true, and although the challenges are different, teens living in elevated socioeconomic areas are destroying their lives at higher rates than ever before. Our next blogger was one such teen. These are his shoes…
When I found out I was going to have the opportunity to write for Path2Empathy, I was honored. I asked some questions regarding content; they said, “Just write how you use your story to help people.” My first reaction was, “How do I help people?”
Nervous about my first writing assignment since dropping out of college, I asked some friends for advice. I got polite feedback but nothing concrete until I sat down with my mentor Neil. Neil has mentored me for the past three years, ever since I left Colorado Springs, CO for sunny southern California. We have a lot of fun together. We’ve also yelled at each other a lot. I call him every day, I run my life by him. He is able to give me suggestions because it’s not his life.
Neil also has a mentor, Neil’s mentor has a mentor, and so on. We’re all sober and recovering from mind-altering substances (alcohol and narcotics). March 9, 2015, was my last drug use. I’ve got a little over three years of sobriety. Neil has a lot longer than that. He’s further down the road than I am. He’s walked through a lot of the same hardships, and he’s stayed sober through them. Now I get to mentor other people who are trying to get sober.
Which brings me to my story. Three years ago, I was a wreck. What started out as a promising freshman year of college, ended with me going to (another) rehab. My parents set me up for success the best way they knew how. They loved me, they supported me, they gave my sisters and I the metaphorical White Picket Fence lifestyle. That should have been enough for anyone. My inability to live life was a mystery to me. I had a wonderful childhood. That being said, it wasn’t a cookie-cutter upbringing. I’m the firstborn; my sister Hadley was three years younger than me, and then Averi five years younger than me. Hadley was born with severe special needs; her brain was essentially that of a two-week-old infant her whole life, and she was missing her cerebellum. She died January 28th, 2011, when I was fifteen; she was twelve, and Averi was nine. Averi and I had the honor of laying in Hadley’s bed with her as she passed. Hadley’s story is much greater and far too beautiful for me to try and sum up in a few sentences. I will say that no one has ever been loved as much as Hadley. Her life and death impacted thousands of people. I’m incredibly thankful for the years we had with Hadley.
Grief is a part of my story and I thought that was why I ended up in rehab. Sex trauma is a part of my story and I thought that was why I ended up in rehab. At first, my parents did not accept me for being gay and kids bullied me in school; I thought that was why I ended up in rehab. Turns out none of those things were responsible for where I went and what I did. Long before Hadley ever died, before I knew I was gay, before kids were jerks, I had this awful burning sensation in my chest. My whole life it felt like someone had poured battery acid right on my sternum. Like barbed wire had been strung around my heart, cutting deeper with every beat. I didn’t even know it was there for the longest time, I didn’t even have the words to articulate it until it had left. If you walk around with a pebble in your shoe your whole life, you don’t notice until you dump out your shoe and say “Oh, that was in there.”
This pain manifested itself differently over the years. When I was young, it turned up as night terrors and anger. My parents and I tried to remedy this through prayer, and I saw my first therapist at five years old. By twelve I realized I was gay and started cutting to punish myself into being straight. It didn’t work. My life split in two. In public, I became the smiling, thriving son/student/friend everyone wanted. Alone, I was finally free to explore the comforting darkness that brought me a sweet reprieve. By thirteen I had my first drink. Now that was fun; finally something made a dent in that corrosive anxiety. But at thirteen it's hard to be a full-blown alcoholic. My parents quickly found out. By sixteen I got high for the first time, and by seventeen I was pretty good at hiding it.
Three weeks before I graduated high school my parents found out about the drugs I was doing. They panicked, and so did I. They were scared, confused; they felt betrayed. The son they thought they knew didn’t exist. Well, he did, but I had been living this other life since I was twelve. My secret world was the only place I could be free to discover myself. I used self-harm, drugs, lying, and the internet as the building blocks for my other life. I even had an alias; I really was two people.
I was seventeen when my parents confronted me about my drug use; I shut down emotionally. They pleaded, they got angry, they cried. I kept my stone face the entire time. After a few hours of talking with them, my mom walked me to my room. As she was shutting at the door she said, “It’s going to be alright.” That’s when I lost it. “It WAS okay! ... I’ve been holding myself together with Scotch tape and glue, and you just took it all away!” Drugs, lying, self-harm, were the only things that had ever made a dent on that pit in my chest. We had already tried the Jesus camps, the therapies, the antidepressants, new psychologists, new diagnoses. We tried putting me on house arrest, switching high schools, getting rid of friends, making new friends. All to no avail.
My parents shipped me off to my first rehab that summer. I did more and more therapy. I worked on my trauma. I learned about myself. They told me I was an addict, I told them I just had “obsessive tendencies.” Through my parents educating themselves, and discussions with my therapists, Mom and Dad began to accept me for being gay.
Post-rehab, we went on vacation, then I went off to college. I had gotten into my dream university. My parents bought me the fancy laptop, the dorm-sized coffee maker, the cute lights to decorate my room. I was completely set up for success. I had gotten all the therapy to clear my trauma out of the way, I had learned about myself, and my parents and I were on good terms. In the beginning, I was an A+++ student. I was that kid in the front of the class who raised his hand for every question. Midway through the semester I started drinking and getting high again, just like every other college kid.
By the end of that semester, I hadn’t gotten out of bed in days. At 6ft3 I weighed about a 110lbs, my pink and purple hair was falling out of my head from stress and malnourishment. My pale skin was covered in self-inflicted wounds. I was dead inside. My first thought in the morning and my every thought until I could fall asleep was “kill myself.” It was my sick soundtrack. I never wanted this. I felt like such a failure. I felt hopeless, and I was out of options.
My parents saw the shape I was in and took me out of school. They offered for me to go to another rehab. This one was geared toward trauma recovery; I agreed. I didn’t expect anything to change. My last attempt at rehab felt futile. Ever since I was little, each therapy, each doctor, each prayer was always the next “answer.” Yet any success or reprieve was short-lived. I went to rehab number two. In my last week there I admitted I was a drug addict and an alcoholic. Due to my recent discovery, my parents provided me with an ultimatum. They offered for me to go to a rehab in California, but made it clear I was not allowed to come home to live in their basement. Whatever else I did was up to me, but they provided me a way. We all cried. I decided to go to a third rehab.
I got out to California March 9, 2015. I took a few too many prescriptions drugs on the plane ride over, so March 9 is also my sobriety date. I completed rehab out there and I stood out like a sore thumb. Between my purple hair and my Walgreens’ makeup, I did not go unnoticed amidst the burly, blue-collar alcoholics. All of the rehabs I went to promoted twelve-step recovery programs. I went to the meetings, I drank their coffee, and I told them how strong they were for getting sober. At the time I thought I was different than them. I identified with how they felt, how they saw and perceived the world, but I did not identify with their patterns of use. I had never been to jail. I had never done meth. I had never lost children in a custody battle due to my using. I focused on all the things that made me unique. You see, I have ‘terminal uniqueness.’ I am so unique and so different, that whatever works for you could not possibly work for me. No one could possibly understand what I’ve been through because poor me I have trauma! I am a special snowflake and my problems are more complex than yours. At least that's what I thought.
I spent the first six months living exactly how I lived in college but without drugs or alcohol in my system. I starved for months because I was too self-indulgent to get a job. For awhile, I worked at a record store for a maximum of 25 hours a week, and I thought that was modern slavery. I had all these theories about how the human condition was controlled by nasty corporations.
At about six months sober, I was worse than I had been when I left college. I was still lying to everyone around me about how I was really doing. I began cutting again. I starved myself and binged on Dr. Pepper. The story gets darker, but you get the idea.
This didn't make sense. I had not had drugs or alcohol in over six months! I had worked on all my trauma. I did all the right therapies. I got the gold-stars in rehab. My parents loved and supported me for who I am. Yet I was in the exact same place as I was before, if not worse. That corrosive battery acid continued gnawing away in my chest.
One night it hit me. There was something wrong with me. This was the first time I really got it. It wasn’t my parents’ fault. It wasn’t Hadley’s fault. It wasn’t alcohol’s fault. It wasn't my abuser’s fault. It was on me. This is when I really took ownership. My whole life I made myself a victim. Whenever people became fed up with my behavior, I would play one of my sob stories like a Pokemon card. When you’re a teacher, or boss, or friend, it is hard to flunk, fire, or disown the kid with the dead sister.
I used to diagnose myself with a litany of disorders; I loved diagnoses. A diagnosis meant it wasn’t my fault, “Poor me! You would drink too if you had Borderline Personality Disorder!” The only self-diagnosis I had stayed away from was calling myself an alcoholic/addict. It was the last house on the block, because if I was an alcoholic… there wasn’t a medication for that. The responsibility for my well-being would fall on my shoulders, so I thought. Admitting that I had a problem with substances was my first step in the right direction.
Thankfully, I fell into the loving arms of 12 step programs. They met me where I was at. What ultimately saved me was a relationship with a power greater than myself. These programs help build a bridge between myself and my higher power. Just to clarify, a higher power is not specific to any religion or belief system. This is an all-encompassing term for whatever brings people strength. This realization saved me.
Even now, I heavily attend 12 step programs. Working the steps helped me to clean up my past, maintain my present, and be ready for the future. I now have tools to pick up when life hits hard instead of picking up coping mechanisms. Drugs and alcohol weren’t my problem, they were the solution to my problem. Booze and drugs are great medications. The only problem with substances, is they turn on you after a certain point. You reach your bottom when you stop digging. The battle I fought was agonizing. I’m lucky I made it out alive, but it can always get worse. Some people live their whole life digging. They either die before the miracle happens, or cling to the bitter end. Regarding substances, I have friends who drank and used until no vise could mask their pain. The drink/drug/etc. stopped working. How terrifying to have your only solution betray you. It would be like being stranded in enemy territory when you realize you’re out of bullets. When I got sober, drugs were still working for me. Enough amateur chemistry and I could temporarily be ‘okay’ with the life that I was living. I could cope with my parents’ tears, with scaring my sister, with hating myself. I don’t have to live that way anymore.
My story to healing, has led me to the point of empathy, using my experience to help people. This stretches beyond just drugs and alcohol. I think we all crave something more. We all want to love and be loved. These programs give me an opportunity to meet other people who are newly sober, or trying to get sober. When I work with addicts, LGBTQ+ members, or other angsty teenagers, it gives my story purpose. My pain wasn’t useless. Nothing is wasted. I now work at the rehab that I attended in California, which provides a constant influx of newly sober people for me to network with. I get to take them to meetings, play the perfect song while driving down the Pacific Coast Hwy, buy them burritos, etc. I do these things because it is what others have done, and still do, for me.
When I got out California I didn’t have anything. People who had more sobriety than I did drove me all around Orange County, took me to Griffith Observatory in LA, helped me with my rent when I came up short, listened to me cry after a hard day at work, and bought me burritos when we were out to eat. I had no way of paying them back. The only resource I had was free time. They all told me the same thing, “One day there is going to be a lil’ Holden that will walk through that door. He’s gonna be hungry and want a hot meal, and you’re gonna have an extra $8 to buy him a burrito.” They were right.
I’ve been working to better myself for awhile now and I know this is just the beginning. I am not perfect. I make the wrong decisions all the time. I have gone through extended periods of making poor decisions in sobriety. But each day is about progress not perfection. The only person I can compare myself to is who I was yesterday. When I compare myself to other people, I always come up short because I’m comparing my insides to other people’s outsides. I aim to grow a smidgen every day. As I stick around, I get more opportunities to be of service to people just as others have helped me. People notice. Employers notice. My family notices. Now I get to hold my head high, even when I’m afraid. I love myself now. And others love me. Just in the past three months, I’ve been given a free car, a free trip to Hong Kong, and a free trip to London/Dublin. I’ve been given better than I deserve.
I’m not a millionaire (yet), I’m not a famous director (yet), I’m not Kristen Wiig’s best friend (yet). Instead, I remember to call my mom on Mother’s Day. I get to send my sister handmade cards while she is at summer camp. I get to be a good employee for a job that has been very patient with me.
We build self-esteem by doing esteemable things. I didn’t know these things were important to me three years ago. I had no idea this was the magic combination to evaporate that burning battery acid feeling. I should mention that that feeling disappeared sometime during my first year of sobriety. I’m not sure when. I just remember one day when it came back for a minute and it occurred to me that it must of left at some point. That feeling comes back from time to time, and now I’m very thankful for it. When I feel that burning, that's my “Check Engine” light. It lets me know I’ve forgotten to do something or I’ve done something that I need to amend.
When I started writing this assignment I was very nervous. Neil told me “the greatest asset we have is our story.” All I know to do is share mine. The truth is, I help people, but I help people because it saves my life. When I’m tired after a long day at work and a newcomer needs a ride to a meeting but they are 20 min out of the way, I drink an extra cup of coffee and use the little gas money I do have and I throw them in the car. When I act better than I feel for those 20 min I am not thinking about myself. For 20 min I stop listening to the committee inside my head that tells me, “I’m not good enough, everyone is staring at me, that acne on my nose is so big it deserves its own time zone.” I get the chance to step outside of myself and care for another human being. My friend told me, “Rats will go away if you don’t feed them.” The less I listen to that committee, the quieter they get. The quieter they get, the better I am able to hear and see what my higher power thinks of me.
Holden McHugh- Sober Empathizer