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  • Lessons Learned on the Road to Sobriety

    With April being Alcohol Awareness Month, our CEO shares thoughts on his personal journey with alcohol and the lessons learned during 6 and a half years of sobriety.

    I stared at myself through a rusty jail cell mirror … a black and white striped jump suit and unshaven face.

    Knowing your actions put you in that kind of place forces you to re-evaluate your life, your choices and what you are going to do next. It is a mental image I won’t ever forget, because it is an image I don’t ever want to see again.

    It would have been easy to convince myself that, “this isn’t me, I don’t belong here,” but it would be more lies. More lying to myself. And the only choice I had was to stop. Stop convincing myself I didn’t have a problem. Stop covering up the partying and the bad choices. I only had one choice and that was to stop and work to turn my life around.

    At the time, I had no way to know what life would look like in the future. All I knew was it couldn’t look like what it did at the time. As I look back now, I don’t recognize that person. I know it was me. I know I made poor choices, but the person is different. The inside.

    I try to learn something each day, no matter how small. In the last 6 1/2 years since I took my last drink of alcohol, the world has taught me a lot.

    I’m not perfect
    Admitting to a problem with alcohol brings on shame and embarrassment. The exact feelings I used to attempt to drink away. Anxiety, fear, nerves, shame… you name it, I covered it up with alcohol. I beat myself up for quite a while. The circumstances I was in and the choices I made bothered me. I didn’t know how to own them. I was angry that I made mistakes that impacted my family, my friends and most importantly, my kids.

    But in time I realized not being perfect is okay, in fact, it is normal. Trying to own my story and my mistakes as well as my successes combine to make me the person I am. And it is all okay.

    Acknowledging feelings is important
    It wasn’t long after I sobered up that I realized I saw the world much more clearly. Waking up without a hangover, without the remnants of a night out in my head for a few days. Interactions both socially and at work became much more clear. In the beginning I found myself very anxious, but after a few months there was a level of calm with owning my feelings. The feelings I used to run from, I could now sit with and acknowledge.

    Pain leads to growth 
    I used to drink away any pain and misery. I didn’t allow myself to feel it or to grow. But this experience forced growth. I didn’t have a choice. What I have realized since is that in any area of life, the most important changes for me have been prompted by pain.

    Narrowing priorities makes life more manageable
    When I initially stopped drinking I tried to live life the same way. Still meeting friends at happy hour, still going out on weekends when I was free… thinking the only change I needed was my drink order. That didn’t last long. First, it was never comfortable, but then I realized being out at a bar wasn’t a priority to me. There was nothing for me there. My priorities became crystal clear and doing things that support those priorities became much easier. My behavior had jeopardized my children, my family and my work. That wasn’t going to happen again.

    The only thing I can control is myself
    In a number of different settings I meet new people and this topic comes up. I never know how people are going to react, from jokes to judgement or most commonly – acceptance. I used to get very anxious about sharing this part of my past, worried how people would react…until I realized it didn’t matter. My choice was made and I wasn’t going to pick up a drink because someone I barely knew gave me a hard time about having iced tea.

    I realized that I made a choice, I’m moving forward and that is all I can do. I have no control over how other people see that choice. This realization has impacted the rest of my life though. I see that at work or in other life decisions, I can’t let the feelings or unsolicited input from others impact my choices. I own the outcome, so I have to own the action.

    Fear and shame can ruin your life 
    I lived a long time with fear and shame controlling me. It was something I never realized until I chose sobriety. Those feelings drove most life choices. Fear of failure, both personally and professionally. Shame from failures and from hiding a problem with alcohol.

    What that DUI did was uncover all of it. Forced me to face it. Forced it to be public, at least in the sense that my family, friends and employer all had to know. There was nothing to cover up any more and that really became freedom for me. Once I experienced that type of freedom, it has been clear I can’t go back. It is one of the driving forces to staying sober.

    How you respond is the most important part
    People often ask me about sharing this sort of thing publicly. Why I’m comfortable putting it out there or if I’m worried about negative responses or consequences. While there have been a handful of negative situations from sharing, there are far more that are positive. And what I realized early on was the power of it being MY story that I get to define. The bad decisions aren’t the defining moment in the story. How I respond and what I do next is what defines the story.

    There is now a different version of me in the mirror. One I can be proud of … comfortable in my own skin and confident in the choices I make.

    Photo credit: flickr.com/pthread1981

    Author: Patrick Sallee

    Patrick Sallee is the CEO of Vibrant Health. Patrick has spent his career in the non-profit world because it allows him to pursue the issues he’s passionate about: providing opportunities for children, helping others, fighting for the underrepresented, and building communities. Patrick spends his spare time with his wife Chesney, twin daughters Avery and Makenna and newborn Lowen. He can be reached at psallee@vibranthealthkc.org

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