My name is Jeff Bertolet and I’ve been sober for 6.5 years. It took me 12 years and several rehabs to finally surrender and give myself enough time clean to start to appreciate how good recovery feels and for the gifts to start happening.
My story starts as far back as I can remember. When I was growing up I wanted to be one of the “cool kids.” I hung around the older kids in the neighborhood and worked construction with older hard working, hard partying men. I remember smoking a joint in the 4th grade up in my tree fort before I knew what weed was. I just knew it was the thing to do and I wanted to try it. I also tagged along with my older brother who had keg parties. I remember it being so great sneaking beers and watching them laugh and act crazy. Back then it was very much accepted, what we were doing. The hard drugs like heroin were taboo and only bad people did them. Then I went through a phase where all I cared about was sports and thought any drugs were for “losers.” Although I was already very curious and predisposed to addiction, I was stigmatizing, and my opinions were pretty common.
Druggies were losers and beer drinking was cool. I remember even as I got back into drugs, and I got worse, I was still saying things like, “only scumbags shoot up” or “heroin is for hardcore criminals not party guys like me.” As my disease progressed I ended up a needle user with meth and coke, and then heroin in the end. I actually was the stereotype junkie. I hated what I was and still believed I was a loser, weak, and had no reason to live. That’s what I was told all my life about addicts.
Pretty much my whole drug and booze career I felt judged. Dirty looks and people avoiding me, my mom not wanting my story to get around because it was embarrassing. So often, people knew I was an addict and took advantage of me. Whether it was not paying me fairly or not taking me seriously or just treating me poorly. And I have to say at times I probably deserved it, although if they saw it as a disease and tried to help it would have made a huge difference and a lot of pain could have been avoided.
I think the biggest misconceptions about addiction are:
- We choose to be addicts/ that it’s a choice.
- We could stop if we just decided to.
- That we’re having a party when actually we’re not having any fun at all after a certain point.
- We are weak and have no willpower and if we did have will power we wouldn’t be addicts.
- All we have to do is go to rehab or a 12 step program and we’re cured.
My biggest fear in active addiction was that I would lose my kids forever and that I’d be all alone. Everybody who was close to me was affected by my disease. My kids saw, fighting and struggling to pay bills, we moved around, I was in jail and in rehab, and hospitals a lot. My kids actually just told me how bad it was growing up like that. My friends couldn’t be around me anymore. They couldn’t watch me kill myself. My Mother had it pretty bad. She bailed me out of jail, saw my behavior, we fought, she payed for several rehabs, lent me money, got taken advantage of, but finally stopped enabling me and had to set boundaries and avoid me. She also buried my older brother, her first born son, who died when his liver failed from alcohol abuse.
Usually, when I went to rehab it was to avoid more trouble. To get people off my back. To avoid jail…the last time I knew I was in a different kind of trouble. I knew I was SO sick of living that way. I was strung out and out of options. The first 3-4 weeks I was miserable, craving, sad and mad. Then I cleared up a little and felt like maybe I might be okay. Before that I always felt like it was the end of the world. This last time it started to feel like the beginning of a new life. My family and kids wanted to be around me again. That really mattered this time and I didn’t wanna ever have to go through the nearly impossible first few weeks again.
The best things that happened to me in recovery was getting to know my oldest daughter who I’d been apart from due to my addiction, regaining my other kids’ trust, being able to support all of them, and be a good parent again.
I’ve learned that I’m a good person. A good friend and parent. I’m dedicated and honest and happy. A huge thing I learned is that I can handle anything if I stay sober. I’m proud that I work very hard to stay sober and help others get sober. I’m proud that people (especially my family) trust and believe in me.
My story, and I tell it all the time, can give hope and show people that no matter how bad things get we CAN recover and actually prosper and be so happy in recovery. Every day I reach out to alcoholics and addicts and write about recovery and go to meetings a few times a week. I’m most grateful for another chance. Another chance at happiness for myself and the people who depend on me.
The biggest “thing” that happened to me in recovery is being a dad to my kids and especially my oldest daughter, Morgan, who I only got close to when I entered recovery. When I was about 5 years in recovery, Morgan was 16, she OD’d on heroin and was not supposed to live. She was in ICU for 3 months and hospitalized for 6. She beat the doctors predictions and is alive, but has brain and nerve damage. She has a long road ahead of her to be able to have a normal life and walk and talk again. She lives in Oregon and since I’m sober I’ve been there for several months trying to help her get better. If I wasn’t sober I wouldn’t be in her life at all.
I’m compelled to be in the recovery movement because I want people to recover and to understand this is a deadly disease, not a personal choice, and to hopefully show what treatment and recovery can do as opposed to perpetuating the stigma by not talking about it.
I think my story shows how bad it can get and how much better we can be. If people hear about the things I did, the person I became, and then see the type of person I am in recovery they might have hope and more of an understanding. I was a nightmare addict with no hope, full of despair and self loathing.
Today, I’m a happy productive member of society, sober and eager to help people. That is what I want people to see, that the transformation is possible.