74: Starting All Over

74: Starting All Over

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

Starting All Over

It takes the same amount of energy to smile as to frown.

~Author Unknown

Ralph spoke first. “Jay, everyone is afraid to leave.”

“Ralph, I’m not afraid, I’m terrified!” It was time for me to re-enter society. I’d graduated from a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. My emotions overwhelmed me and I began to sob, feeling intense pain.

“Do you realize how much more honest you are than when you first walked through that door?” he said.

Dr. Ralph helped me regain my composure. “Thank you, Ralph. There is no way to repay you for all you’ve done for me,” I said.

His response was immediate, “Do two things — no more dope, and make a contribution.”

I’d completed something for the first time. Entering Concept House, my life had been an absolute disaster. Alcohol and drugs destroyed everything that was good, and it turned me into someone barely recognizable. I was a liar, a thief, and a person who was physically and verbally abusive. My words and actions destroyed every relationship. My behavior destroyed my career.

Rehab was not something I wanted to do. Addicts live in a fantasy world where everything is okay. But the family I’d abused and thrown away rescued me nonetheless. They insisted I enter a rehabilitation program. The choice was cleaning myself up, or returning to life on the street.

I spent the next six months relearning how to behave responsibly. At the age of thirty-seven, I felt a strange mixture of shame and wonder. It was like a new adventure, but guilt and regret accompanied me along the way. Rigorous intense therapy sessions, both individually and in groups took me to all the places I’d rather have forgotten. But this was time to face reality, and it was crucial if I was to change.

To say a metamorphosis took place isn’t an exaggeration. People who kick the habit and stay clean know that’s true. People who knew us before and after know it, too.

After leaving Concept House, I moved into a large home shared by addicts like me. We were trying to find a better way. All of us had to start over. Each day my old habits revisited my mind, and the cravings were sometimes intense. Staying off drugs and not drinking made me emotionally vulnerable. The chemicals I used to put in my body numbed the pain of daily life. Stress was washed away as troubles vanished in a fog of mindlessness. Now without those escape mechanisms, I felt all the things I’d spent most of my life avoiding.

March 31 marked the day I got clean and sober twenty-one years ago. My sister said, “We’re all proud of you and love having you back in our lives.” My ex-wife, who I’d subjected to terrible abuse, told me, “Jay, I see the change in you. It’s good that you’re a part of [our son’s] life.”

Nearly all aspects of my life have changed. When I left rehab I didn’t believe any of this could be possible. My confidence had been lacking, and I’d been unsure of where to go and what to do. I was afraid of people, never trusting anyone or anything. Somehow I persevered. Making a career change was one of the most challenging aspects of this entire process.

The change came slowly and continues every day. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about having a drink or taking a drug. That’s the way it is for me.

Twenty-one years later, I still feel uncomfortable in unfamiliar surroundings. Fear has not left me completely. I make mistakes. I have symptoms of depression. The difference now is that none of these things have led to relapse. Another difference is that I try my best to face reality with as positive an attitude as I can muster.

My neighbors say, “It’s nice to be around you, you smile a lot and make me laugh.”

“Thank you.” I say. I look into their eyes and tell them, “It’s nice to see you, too.” My words are sincere.

The old Jay rarely had a kind word for anyone. The truth is that I was a pretty nasty guy. These days, doing volunteer work and making charitable donations fills me with joy I’d never known. Before I embarked on this journey, not only was I selfish, I resented the fact that there were bills to pay. Now, being responsible is a source of pride.

A simple thing like taking a walk makes me happy. Even greeting my neighbors has taken on significance. Possibly this is because I used to walk with my head down, averting my eyes from human contact. The guy around the corner from me sits in his yard when the weather allows. We enjoy a little chat.

“Hey Jay,” John calls the moment I’m in sight. It makes me feel good.

My reply is always, “I’m glad to be alive, my friend. How are you today?”

He gets up from a lawn chair, walks over to his fence and extends his large hand. “All is well, no complaints.” Even though this has become routine, it remains a source of uplifted spirits.

The littlest everyday occurrences aren’t little anymore. I’ve learned to appreciate small things. I tell many people “simplicity is sublime.” Something inside me wants to share that perception with the world. I truly love being able to put a smile on someone’s face. Helping other people is my purpose.

I’m not a nasty guy today.

~Jay H. Berman

More stories from our partners