In this edition of “Fit for Life,” Joshua H. Buchbinder turns over the podium to a woman who wishes to remain anonymous
Most 16-year-old kids look forward to their driver’s license, first job, and becoming an upperclassman. I was faced with the destruction and agony of being a heavy drinker and drug user. Hopeless, defeated, and shattered I disappointed my family and teachers. My parents were divorced but co-existed amicably, and I had grown up in a faith-based, alcohol-free home. At 15, the few months of summer freedom exposed me to “typical teenager experimenting” – cigarettes, weed, alcohol, and sex. This freedom transformed me into a completely different person – now experienced and worldly, or so I thought.
I thought my substance use would be casual, but that quickly changed, as did my social circle. I was no longer driven to excel as a student or community member. Long-term goals and acts of selflessness were replaced with a chemical addiction, and I started to seek out the drinkers and drug users. The weekends-only pact I made to myself melted away. I was a trained concert pianist and studying to earn my black belt in Tae Kwon Do but there was no way I could run piano scales or do katas at 6 pm when I had been drinking since 2:30 in he afternoon. Eventually, morning and lunch drinking made the first half of the school day seem futile.
I became a black-out drinker in six months. If an entire day didn’t escape me, I would have glimpses of bartering my body to drink or drug. My mom tried to nurse me out from each binge. I desperately wanted to drink “normally.”
The school called my mom concerned about the 53 days I had missed that semester. A flurry of parent / teacher conferences, meetings with the principal, outside counselors, extended exam deadlines offered me a chance to pass since I was “such a great kid.” Then I celebrated my 16th birthday in a partial hospitalization program with a fistful of meds, pending court dates, and daily urinalysis. The gig was up.
One drinking buddy had been placed in the Phoenix II program, a recovery high school in Gaithersburg, Maryland. I didn’t want to change, I just wanted to get me out of trouble. I entered the Phoenix II program under the influence, yet didn’t think I had a problem, but something caught my attention. The environment was interested and supportive and the 20 other students gave positive peer-pressure. I struggled maintaining sobriety, but I met the school’s requirements: participate in my academic and recovery classes, attend four 12-step meetings weekly and obtain a recovery sponsor. The other students challenged me to question my drinking and drugging and the thought process preceding the first drink or drug. My willingness shifted – my behavior and my responses to life changed slowly. My last drink was June 24th, 2001 and I spent the summer trying to stay out of trouble by avoiding drinking friends, tempting houses, and parties. I attended the Phoenix program’s summer school and enrolled in summer school to catch up on credits missed during 10th grade.
The little building which housed the Phoenix program burned down the first week of 12th grade but the staff continued their work and investment in the students. They were instrumental in my recovery and helped me learn about myself. I had never been interested in white-water rafting, bike riding, rappelling, or camping, but these adventures were part of the program. It transformed how I saw myself and my peers.
My science teacher recognized my enthusiasm and passion for science, so she introduced me to the bio-technology program at the Thomas Edison vocational school. She saw things in me I couldn’t see myself.
Before the Phoenix program I couldn’t see beyond next week. I became able to see a real future: college, career, relationships, and a real existence. I graduated from high school in June 2002, two weeks before my 18th birthday and four weeks before celebrating one year of continuous sobriety. The Phoenix program was able to use my primary high school for my diploma, so I was able to apply for colleges and jobs without my past being questioned – just another kid on the road adulthood.
On June 25th, 2019 I’ll celebrate 18 years of continuous sobriety, 100% free from alcohol & drugs and a completely different person. Since graduating I have earned my bachelor’s of science degree from the University of Maryland, been a top performer at the nation’s top three health insurance providers, and have started my own successful business. My husband, also in recovery, and I will celebrate five years of marriage and are welcoming our first child. These milestones may seem normal, but for me they are monumental compared to where I could be. The Phoenix program set me on a path of transformation. I didn’t plan on living such a fulfilling life, but I have been blessed with such an amazing existence. Without the Phoenix program and a moment of willingness I would have remained in a big high school to be consumed by alcoholism and drug addiction. I turned 18 sober, celebrated my 21st birthday sober, graduated college sober, and got married sober all thanks to the Phoenix Program. Every day is a gift and I get the opportunity to help another man or woman out of misery and into a new existence.