Baseball is finally here, which usually brings me great joy and hope. For one thing, the weather will be getting warm soon. For another, this could be the year that my Cleveland Indians win the whole fucking thing.
Sadly, there’s a story that, at least for me, has tempered that joy and hope. Earlier this spring, it came out that Josh Hamilton relapsed on alcohol and cocaine. By now, you’ve heard the details.
This news struck a chord with me, as I also happen to be an alcoholic and addict. I have been since I was probably 18 or 19 – and a serious one for the past few years (I’m 27 now). I have tried to quit a few times over the past decade, having made as serious an effort as ever to do so over the past six months. I’ve lost count of how many times I have relapsed in the last four months alone. And who knows how many times I “tried” to stop drinking over the past ten years but didn’t? I honestly have no idea.
What needs to be remembered – and what the Angels organization apparently never bothered to learn in the first place – is that addiction is an extremely personal thing and that there’s no way anybody on the outside can know what is best for Hamilton right now. What also needs to be understood and stressed emphatically is, near-miraculous baseball comeback aside, what’s most impressive is that out of the last 3,452 days, he has been sober for roughly 3,449 of them.
Nobody can take those 3,449 days away from him – he earned them. He worked for them. He suffered for them. If you aren’t an addict, you might not understand this. If you are an addict who has tried to get clean, you understand this too well.
Right now, 3,449 days clean and sober with only three slip-ups seems about as likely for me to accomplish as it would be for me to jog to Goodyear, AZ from Colorado Springs (I don’t jog); get Terry Francona to watch me throw a bullpen session (I topped out at about 73 mph in high school – it was on a pitch that ended up hitting a car); and have him announce that I would be replacing Corey Kluber as the Tribe’s Opening Day starter.
Not too long ago, I successfully took it one day at a time for 53 days. I was sober for 53 days and it was one of the most difficult things I have ever done, but I honestly felt good. I hadn’t felt that good since high school. And still, even though I was acutely aware of how good I was doing and how proud my friends and family were of me, how my brain was starting to come back online, and my body didn’t feel like it was fighting a war against itself using scorched-earth tactics – still, I relapsed on Day 54.
And when I first relapsed, it wasn’t like I just went to a bar with Ian Kinsler to have a few beers the way Hamilton in 2012. Sure, mine started that way on a fall Saturday watching football, but it quickly transitioned into something much darker. It ended when paramedics took me out of the hotel room I was holed up in on a gurney.
Ok, that was just a bump in the road, I thought. I got back on the wagon or the horse or whatever, and soon I broke again. And then again, and again, no matter how badly I didn’t want to drink. Of course, I did want to, even at the same time that I didn’t want to at all.
What I really wanted was to stop wanting to drink, after long stretches in my life where I felt like I needed to drink. There are few things that have made me feel more hopeless than trying to stop feeling like I needed to drink.
I had been relapsing hard right when the Hamilton story broke. If anything, it fueled me instead of deterred me: It helped me justify the shitty bottle of rum in my hand. But as we both work toward regaining sobriety, I’ve come to remember how immensely I still look up to this man. Just consider how many days he hasn’t drank or used – there’s a silver lining in this story. Hamilton has come back from this type of thing before, many times over and long before it was being documented because he happens to wear a major league uniform. He can do it again.
I want to believe the same thing about myself. I want to stop. I’m on the right path once again, and this time I believe that I can stay on it. I have a reason this time, and it’s not just that doctors keep telling me that I’m going to die young if I keep going at the pace I had been for a long time, or at any pace at all after the damage I’ve done to my body. I hate myself in large part due to the person drinking has turned me into, but I believe that conquering addiction requires something you love enough to fight for, to sacrifice for, to change for.
My reason is a secret, for now, but we know Hamilton’s reasons: God, family and, baseball. That first one has drawn the most scrutiny, because faith has become such a fundamental part of his story. But before it was the driving force in most of his life decisions, it was the thing he credited for saving his life. It was God who Hamilton once prayed to at his absolute lowest to “take [him] away from the nightmare [his] life had become.” Later, after a failed attempt at suicide, it was God who he thanked for rebuilding his life. And because he has been so public about his faith, and because he has now relapsed on three separate occasions, it’s naturally led some people to question just how genuine that faith truly is.
I’m far less skeptical than most. Part of this may be because those of us who have been struggling with addiction for so long are so desperate to find something to have faith in, and God – whatever one understands “God” mean – is the only thing that makes sense to turn to. But more than anything, I believe Hamilton because of a moment when I asked myself the same thing Hamilton did when he almost took his own life: “Why was I even alive?"
It happened at three in the morning, as I sat on the floor of my apartment sipping on a bottle of the most expensive wine I had ever bought – it cost nearly $13 with taxes. I was watching “The Muppet Movie,” of all things. I was also sobbing uncontrollably.
I decided to get a blue box out of my closet and so I crawled there, because I couldn’t bring myself to stand up; it felt like my whole body was weeping. Inside that box was a 9mm Smith & Wesson. I took another sip of wine and loaded two bullets into the clip – two, just in case one couldn’t do the job. For some reason, in this moment of ultimate weakness, I believed I was strong or tough enough to possibly survive a single bullet to the brain. I didn’t want to take any chances.
I knelt on the floor and set the pistol on the ground in front of me, wailing like a banshee that had been set on fire from what I imagine was a combination of Kermit singing “Rainbow Connection” and contemplating the lead pill I was about to fire into my skull.
It was then, around 3:45 in the morning, that I got a text message from an ex-girlfriend whom I hadn’t talked to in probably seven or eight months. “Jer, are you ok?” it read. “I just had a dream that something horrible happened to you.” I ended up calling her and she talked me down.
I have a hard time buying that as a simple, random coincidence.
But whether or not that truly was divine intervention matters less than it being something I was able to cling to in a time of extreme need. Similarly, it doesn’t matter so much whether the object of Hamilton’s faith is real and true so much as he believes it is. As long as he still trusts in the reasons he has to be sober – God, family, baseball – then he will not go back down that rabbit hole where people get lost for years – where he got lost for years – and sometimes never come back out of.
I am still climbing out of that rabbit hole, but I can see a little light and there’s something very important to me standing in it. It is going to be my reason – my equivalent to Hamilton’s God, family, and baseball. Maybe this time, the reason I have chosen to get sober will give me enough strength to get through today. Maybe even through tomorrow. Maybe even past the 54-day mark, beating my previous record.
And maybe, just maybe, it will give me the strength to stay sober to see the Indians win the World Series this year. Or maybe next year. Maybe in my lifetime.
Hamilton is a beacon of hope to those of us who have felt hopeless for a good chunk of our lives because of addiction. I hope I have the strength to do what he’s done – not to win the American League MVP Award, but live a life where I control my addiction instead of the other way around.
Unfortunately, it is not all about strength, or even desire. Drug and alcohol addicts are just as human as everyone else. We struggle and we fall, sometimes in the exact way we know will harm us, and everyone around us, the most. When I was clean and sober for those 53 days, I wasn’t all of a sudden an angel, but I felt like a man. Then on the 54th day I made a mistake that took away that feeling once again. I was too weak to resist the thing that tempts me and hurts me more than anything else in this world.
I failed myself each time I relapsed. I guarantee Hamilton feels the same way, only on a much larger level. Thanks to his stature and overall significance in baseball, he might feel like he’s failed millions of people around the world. In reality, he has done the opposite.
It is often said in baseball, if you fail seven out of 10 times, you are a success. Hamilton, in his battle with addiction, has failed three out of 3,452 times. He is an unbelievably tremendous success. And he’s an inspiration to millions of us struggling with substance abuse every day, because we understand that addiction never goes away.