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My year in the Twin Cities recovery community

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I was supposed to die on October 14, 2015.

I was 33 years old, married, and had a 10-week-old baby. I had a good job, a house, friends, and a good family. I also had some seriously untreated depression and anxiety issues, and a crippling case of alcoholism.

On October 14, after spending 28 days in inpatient treatment, relapsing, and basically turning my life and the lives of those who cared about me into a metaphorical dumpster fire, I found myself standing on a hotel balcony, thinking that it would probably be easier to try to fly than it would be to bring myself back from the edge.

SPOILER ALERT: I didn’t do it. The next day I called one of the very few remaining friends that would still speak to me, asked for help, and started my first year as part of the Twin Cities famed recovery community.

One of our state's biggest claims to fame is that we are a hotbed for recovering addicts and alcoholics. With our numerous inpatient treatment centers (Hazelden, New Beginnings, Recovery Plus, Minnesota Teen Challenge, among many, many others), sober living houses, and a seemingly endless number of Alcoholic and Narcotics Anonymous meetings throughout the state, it’s no surprise that people travel from all over the country to Minnesota with the goal of getting their lives back on track.

But while recovery is often talked about through a lens of triumph and inspiration, the reality is that getting started isn’t fun. In fact, I hated every second of it.

After my friend picked me up from the hotel, I checked into Mission Detox in Plymouth. While there are numerous detox centers throughout the Twin Cities, the reality is that it can be surprisingly difficult to get into one of these facilities. On the day I went in, I waited over six hours while friends worked to find an open bed that could accommodate me.

For many alcoholics and addicts like myself, this challenge can ultimately prove to be the difference between getting help and staying in active addiction. When someone reaches out to you for help, it’s likely that you're working on borrowed time, as the addicted brain’s instinct is to isolate. Had Mission Detox not had a bed available, I might have taken a second try at balcony diving, or at least headed back to the liquor store.

While detox is helpful in providing addicts with a place to dry out under supervision, it’s far from a solution. For anyone who has never been to detox, allow me to describe it: It sucks. It’s kind of like a friendlier version of jail. Your personal items are locked up, you’re provided with medications to help with withdrawls or other health-related issues that may arise from detoxing, and you're basically contained in a room with a bunch of other folks just like you.

You can read, watch TV, and play cards, but for me, my time was spent vomiting and drowning in my own anxieties and shame. Sure, groups bring meetings into these facilities, but the reason I was there was solely to stop drinking for the moment -- not to get better.

My next step was to find a treatment center that could take me in once I was released. I have the good fortune to have solid health insurance, which means I didn’t have to pay out of pocket. However, many centers don’t accept insurance, costing individuals and their families tens of thousands of dollars for intensive inpatient treatment, which even then can be a challenge to get into. Some people are forced to wait several weeks before a treatment center can take on a new patient.

This can be a big problem because, again, an addict's brain is strong. While some may simply go back out and use again, others resort to our addict-like instincts, which is to think we can manage our addiction without help. It’s that overconfidence and ego that ultimately led me to relapse after my first trip to treatment, and has produced similar results for many friends of mine with similar struggles.

Ultimately, I ended up leaving Minneapolis and heading to St. Cloud, where I entered treatment once again. The center I went to, Recovery Plus, is a rarity even among addiction services facilities, as it is a dual-diagnosis facility that treats both chemical dependency and the mental health issues that are contributing to the abuse.

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, mental health disorder patients are responsible for the consumption of 38 percent of alcohol and 44 percent of cocaine consumed in America. Many people are quick to want to point the finger at drugs and alcohol as the problem, whereas the reality is that these things are just a symptom of the bigger issue.

For me, drinking was a way to deal with social anxiety and depression (yes, I know that alcohol is a depressant. But I’m also an addict, so I don’t always let things like “common sense” slow me down). While other people drank to feel buzzed, relaxed, and happy, I needed it to feel normal. The same can be said for those who use benzos like Xanax or Valium, or drugs that help with low energy and lack of motivation like Adderall, cocaine, and crystal meth.

While inpatient programs vary from place to place, the basic structure is fairly consistent. Much like boarding school, you spend your day with a group of peers and a counselor working to develop skills and techniques that will hopefully help get you on the path to long-term recovery. The most eye-opening part of treatment for me was the range of individuals in terms of ages, ethnicities, education, and socioeconomic backgrounds who I would have never thought I shared something in common with. 

Treatment was a positive experience for me. That said, much like detox, it wasn’t a solution. It’s sort of like living in a bubble for 28 days, where life on the outside doesn’t really matter. Work, relationships, legal circumstance, money problems -- none of these things were on the top of my mind while I was in treatment. But life doesn’t stop just because you try to hit pause, and I quickly realized that transitioning to the outside world was going to take support.

After some research, I ultimately moved into a sober living house in St. Paul owned by a company called Stepping Stones. There were eight guys living in a single house on West Seventh Street, and our shared objective was to keep ourselves -- and each other -- sober. In the beginning, I called it “the saddest frat house you’ll ever visit.” There were set requirements for attendance at AA and NA meetings, house chores, and sponsor contact. While each person should make the choice whether or not AA or NA is right for them (the AA public relations policy is attraction over promotion), I personally found that having a built-in support system in the house was crucial to my early sobriety. In fact, it saved my life.

Three days before last Christmas, I had a breakdown. I was depressed, sad, lonely, and guilt-stricken. I knew I didn’t want my life to be the shit-show it had become while I was in active addiction, but I couldn’t think of a solution other than drinking. That night, one of my housemates, who had his own struggles and experiences, noticed that I looked agitated and upset. He walked through the snow at 2 a.m. with me, listening while I rambled about how scared and hopeless I felt. He didn’t have any harrowing words of wisdom, but having someone who has been through the experience and understood my struggle was the thing I needed to survive the night, and ultimately not pick up a drink.

The sober living experience was interesting. At times it was fun, like when you get a bunch of recovering addicts together to watch the Vikings lose in the playoffs (though we all agreed in retrospect that pissing off a room full of addicts and alcoholics may have not have been the best idea. YOU HEAR THAT, BLAIR WALSH?). Other times, it was inspiring, like when one of my housemates got a job as a chef at a very upscale restaurant in Minneapolis. And occasionally it was heartbreaking, like when we’d get together for our Sunday night meeting only to learn that one of our roommates had relapsed and was moving out. Honestly, it was the best three months of my life... that I never want to do ever again.

After I moved out of sober living, I forced myself to get involved in the recovery community. I’ve volunteered at the same detox centers where I was once a resident, answered phones to help direct people to meetings, and offered a helping hand or listening ear whenever it was needed. Have I done recovery perfectly? Absolutely not. I’m an addict, which means my nature is to be self-centered and drawn to chaos. However, by forcing myself to do things I ordinarily wouldn’t want to do, I was able to start to push back against my natural instincts (which, if you haven’t figured it out, are usually very wrong).

I’ve been to outpatient treatment programs, like Club Recovery in Edina, attended meetings (a quick look at aaminneapolis.org or aastpaul.org will bring up an insanely comprehensive list of meetings of all kinds, including all men, all women, candlelight, speakers, you name it), and leaned on the recovery community that I had heard so much about all these years. The reality is that there is no “how-to guide” for recovery, and I failed just as many times as I succeeded. But ultimately, the biggest lesson I learned is that the Twin Cities recovery community is as expansive and supportive as advertised, if you’re willing to do the work that comes with it.

My name is Patrick. I’m an alcoholic. And I couldn’t quit on my own, nor could I remain sober alone. Thanks, Minnesota.