A Recovery Journey

Ben Spencer

Some three years ago, during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I sat on a bench on campus and watched the morning sun rise and filter through the leaves of the trees. This was beauty, and I was in the thick of it. But there was a profound disconnection between what I was seeing and what I was feeling. I was in the depths of self-pity, wracking my mind for a reason why I had stayed up the whole night binge drinking and using drugs.

I had an epiphany that morning on the bench. I realized for the first time that I was lost in a dark maze that had been created by my addiction to alcohol and drugs. But the world wasn’t ready to let me fall away completely. The sun came up that morning, as it always does.But I noticed it in a way I never had before. It meant something, even though I was incapable of comprehending the meaning just then. Life seemed to be reaching out to me.

I started using drugs and alcohol in high school. During those years I became increasingly depressed; I quit trying in school and stopped participating in sports and other extracurricular activities that made me happy in the past. I was even arrested. But I was highly functional in that I continued to get decent grades and “have fun” with my friends on the weekends.

My mother is an addiction specialist and my father is a recovering alcoholic of twenty-five years. I had been taught about addiction. On a daily basis my parents asked about my drug and alcohol use — “Ben, have you been drinking?”; “You smell like smoke.”; “You came home after curfew — what were you doing?” — but eventually the words began to lose their meaning. I thought that I didn’t really have a problem. After all, I was not living on the streets.

After spending a semester at college, it dawned on me that I wasn’t going anywhere in life but downward. I asked for my parents’ help. I willingly attended a treatment program in Montana, followed by an extended care program outside of Seattle. But when I left I was so angry. I didn’t understand why sobriety was something that had to be permanent. Why couldn’t I just take a break, and then continue drinking and using drugs recreationally like my peers?

I immediately relapsed after getting out of treatment. With the support of my parents, I returned home and started working a program of recovery. I transferred to the college in my hometown. I relapsed again as soon as I went back to school. I continued using for a year and a half. The summer between my freshman and sophomore years is when I hit rock bottom, on that bench at six in the morning.

For me, the bottom wasn’t losing my family. Of course, that was a very realistic threat if I continued using drugs and alcohol. The bottom wasn’t being expelled from school, although my grades were below average. And it wasn’t experiencing a close proximity to physical death, despite the many mornings I couldn’t remember where I had been or what I had done the night before. My bottom was a spiritual death, a complete disconnection from everything I knew to be true and valuable. I was indifferent to life, incapable of being an enthusiastic participant. I didn’t feel like there was much left to experience. And I was right — there really wasn’t much left to experience in the world of drug and alcohol use. I’d had enough.

But I continued using for another two and a half months. I still couldn’t imagine what value life had beyond getting high.Then, on October 14, 2007, while drinking and drugging on a normal weekend night, I lost faith; faith in my lifestyle, faith in my ability to continue living like I had been. I do not know exactly what inspired me to leave the party I was at. Maybe it was the memory of faces I’d seen in treatment and the voices of hope and reason that spoke to me. But as I walked across campus towards my dorm room that night, I looked up at the night sky and realized how small I am. That was my surrender — the realization that I was powerless and that it was time to start living a better life. I woke up the next morning — October 15th, 2007 — and I’ve been sober ever since. I seek help in the places I know people care, what I have come to call the daily reprieve of “Hanging out with winners”. It hasn’t been easy being sober the last three years of college, but it has been incredibly rewarding. My grades have improved dramatically, I’m a co-captain of my lacrosse team, and I mentor an elementary student. My disease no longer restrains my passion for life. Most importantly, I have my family back.

I remember hearing about promises — essentially, that life gets better and more fulfilling as you continue on in sobriety. It’s true. Life is better than I could ever have possibly imagined. There’s a reason why so many people stay sober once they have experienced what sobriety is like. I love life with every step. It’s interesting how much things can change in the span of a few years. A friend told me recently that it is as if I’ve lived two different lives — one in which I was desperately searching for my identity in the dark corners created by alcohol and other drugs — and another life in which I’ve surrendered to a new sense of possibility, opening myself to the uncertainty and beautiful ambiguity of a life free from addiction.

A single day used to be so difficult, largely because of the obstructions created by my addiction, but also because I didn’t possess the tools I needed in order to confront life on life’s terms — to see past a given challenge to a future where things would be simpler and sweeter than they once were. The foundation of sobriety has provided the tools I’ve needed to get the most from life — to live in recovery with the optimism about the potential I can realize, and with immeasurable gratitude for the grace I’ve been shown by those who became willing to stick with me, even through the hard times.

This is just the story of a kid who was lost. There are a lot of us out there. But I am convinced that if we open our eyes to the possibilities provided by life, we can find what we are looking for. I definitely have. And it all started with a sunrise.