To celebrate Malvern Institute’s 70th-anniversary helping families struggling with the disease of addiction, we will feature inspiring stories of recovery from our alumni.
By: Michael Burnette
My name is Mike and I am an addict. My clean date is April 25th, 2013. I have a home group, a sponsor, and I work the 12 steps of Narcotics Anonymous. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to share my story with you. I hope that we can achieve together throughout your reading my story some experience, strength, and hope. Just to qualify myself, I lived to use. I also used everyone around me in the process of my addiction. I’ve battled my mind and body for a long time before I found there was a better way to live and I just needed to give myself the chance to this thing we call recovery.
I grew up in an old Victorian home in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia. At a very early age, I noticed how badly my father had struggled with the disease of addiction as an alcoholic. This was something that had tormented my mother, my sisters and me for years, as the physical and verbal abuse was a weekly event in my house. I’d like to consider it an explosive atmosphere where we all walked around on eggshells most of the time. I can remember how insecure, anxious, and unsettled I had felt, and how that was just the beginning of a long road in my lacking self-worth. When I was nine-years-old, my father had realized he was losing his business, his home, and his family while he was forced into a treatment facility for veterans. He was basically given an ultimatum either go to treatment or go to jail. Thankfully for us, he chose treatment. After he had gotten out of rehab, he quickly started building his business again, most times working 18-20-hour days. After school or on weekends when I didn’t have practice or a game to play, as I was an athlete, I would go down and help him run some machines to keep food on the table for the next week. There was a lot of peanut butter and jelly, spam, oatmeal, hot dogs and baked beans dinners that’s for sure. Even though my father had gotten sober, he really didn’t follow a program, so he still struggled with all his other defects and the worst was his anger. He caused a lot of pain after getting sober just as he did when in his active addiction, he just didn’t have a drink to use as his excuse now. I resented that about him for a long time and it became paramount in my obsession of how I would never be like him when I grew up. I am mentioning some of my father’s struggles as they became my own and the denial that I carried with me held me hostage to my own reality and feelings for a long time.
When I was 11 years old, I was arrested for vandalism and theft because I was hanging around the wrong kids and seeking out negative attention. As a result, I spent the day in a juvenile detention center. My mother knowingly left me there all day so that I would learn my lesson and I’ve got to admit, I was petrified. At age 13, I was arrested for underage drinking, because – again – I was hanging around older kids, seeking out approval. This was the first of many substance arrests in the 16 years I was in denial, using drugs and alcohol to cover up my real problem, me. I was arrested in high school three more times before I was finally able to get my license the day before I graduated. When I went to college, I had to reinvent myself all over again and try to play that “fit in” role that I had become so good at. About two months into my freshmen year, I received a phone call that my cousin had passed away, directly related to this disease of addiction. That same cousin had just won Mr. Kentucky for bodybuilding that year, was an engineering major with a 3.8 GPA, and had the world at his fingertips. Yet he couldn’t escape the struggles of addiction and so it took him. This really opened my eyes and allowed me to stick to some of the basic drugs in college (Thank goodness!). Because I know that if it were up to me, I would have sampled everything under the sun and probably would have fallen to the same demise as my cousin. Although I was still going to experience a lot more pain before I would find my new way of life.
At age 21, I lost my license all over again with my first DUI. Next was the public drunkenness offenses, multiple disorderly conducts, public urination, etc. I was in so much substance-related trouble at college that I had my own lawyer at school who knew me on a first name basis and wore that as a badge of honor. After I graduated (which I still wonder how it happened), I came home and started working. Two short years after I had started a career I had gotten my second DUI. I can remember all the long talks my mother would have with me over the years about how I worried her when I would be out drinking, the times that I was injured and went through the windshield of a car, smashed my head off the side of a pool, got in fights, got arrested, and how important it was to have my license. Because without it I wouldn’t be able to keep a job, build a future, and have the things I wanted in life. After my second DUI, I was afraid of my future and how it may be altered. Not to mention it occurred out of state and I had been arrested with my dog in the truck with me. They took my dog to the SPCA and took me to jail. When I asked them the next morning where my dog was, the state troopers wouldn’t tell me. I tore a page out of the yellow pages for SPCA or rescue locations in Salisbury, Maryland. I called every number on the list and no one answered since it was a holiday weekend. I called the last number listed and this woman, Sally, answered who I will never forget for the rest of my life. She told me to send her pictures of my dog and she would find “my baby” as she to put it. She did help me find my dog and I was beyond grateful! A gentleman called me from the SPCA on that Sunday morning and said I could pick up my dog first thing on Tuesday. The only request that Sally had was that I had to meet her first and that she would like to go with me. I, of course, accepted those terms happily. When I arrived, she asked me about my life and I told her a little bit. She gave me a spiritual book that I still have today and was talking to me about finding a God of my understanding and getting sober. I told her I had given it a pretty good thought and since I was facing some legal issues again I would consider her thoughts.
Next week, I began going to meetings with a friend of mine who had been attending Narcotics Anonymous for a while and had a handful of years clean. I could identify with what people were talking about but I was still more interested in making excuses for my behaviors. For lack of better words, the pain hadn’t gotten great enough just yet. After a short few months of going to meetings and getting slapped on the wrist with some charges from my DUI in Maryland, I was off to the races again. I found myself in situations with drugs and alcohol that I would never have imagined. I would leave the bar and go to homes with people I didn’t know and use drugs I had never used all night long. I was able to justify all this thinking that I was just a weekend warrior and I partied like most of my friends. That wasn’t the case. A lot of my friends would reference “who’s going to babysit Mike tonight.” My addiction also caused many problems in relationships with the women I wanted to date. I had a friend tell me that “Mike’s Representative” shows up on first dates to meet women. You know the guy that Mike would like to be and paints the beautiful picture of this innocent woman who is soon going to find out the real truth. And so she would eventually figure me out, that I was an addict, alcoholic, liar, cheater, and dishonest in most areas of my life. You can sum up pretty quickly why things had ended time and time again.
When I was 28 and my 26-year-old cousin passed away from a drug overdose, I was really shaken. I hated heroin for what it was doing to families across the country, not just my own. I knew that he had been down a path of destruction for a long time, and ultimately if he kept using he would die. He died in April 2012 and it was another crushing blow to my family as we had already lost a handful of relatives due to this disease. He was a young, smart, talented, loved-by-everyone guy who was taken far too early an age. But that’s why this disease is so vicious because it doesn’t care who you are, or where you come from, or how much money you have, it’s not unique to anyone. It will grip up any one of us and until we lose the desire to use, we will follow down the long, slow, hopeless road to jails, institutions, and eventually death.
When I was 29, I had gotten my third and final DUI. I was on my way home from a Phillies game with a friend, jumped out of my truck at a red light because he was afraid for his life. I passed out at the wheel at a red light about a mile down the road and when the light turned green the person honked their horn behind me and I hit my gas pedal and almost crashed into the light post across the intersection. I then sped off down the road. Fortunately, that other driver had gotten my license plate and called the police. I say fortunately today about that situation because I believe that man saved my life. Although at the time, I wish he hadn’t because it was going to cost me about $20,000 in fines and lawyer fees, a relationship that was already on the rocks, and a quality of living with losing my license and potentially my job. But I can honestly say today that I am beyond grateful for that person because they offered me a life that was so much better than the one I had been living, just by simply doing the right thing and calling the police that night. I had been drinking and driving for years and it’s shocking that I didn’t kill anyone else or myself along the way.
I went to my first meeting on a Friday night, two days after my last DUI. I remember the speaker that evening had about 42 years clean and he said something that was vital for my days ahead and my understanding of my disease. His words went something like, ”Not every time that I was drinking did I get in trouble, but every time I got in trouble I was drunk.” I could identify on every single level of that statement. Not every time I was out did I get in trouble, but every single arrest I had ever had was substance related. I had been following a pattern of denial because I knew what an alcoholic or addict looked like and it didn’t look like me… or so I thought.
I went to treatment that following week at Malvern Institute, which was the perfect fit for my broken soul. I was afraid of the circumstances that had brought me there, but I knew if I gave into this thing a little bit that there was a whole lot more for me to have in life. I learned so much about my disease and the disease of addiction in the 28 days I was at Malvern. It was there that I had that special moment when I was finally able to make vocal that “my name is Mike and I am an addict.” For the first time, I had become responsible for my addiction and, since I was responsible for it, I could finally do something about it. I could free myself from the bondage of self that I’ve been trapped in for all these years. The fact that I never wanted to be my father, but I didn’t have to be him because I was my own version of an addict and that as long as I did the work I never had to suffer from that same pain again. So I continue to do the work and I continue to keep coming back because I know that it’s working in my life today.
When I went to the county prison for my last DUI, I had about 5 months clean. Once again, I was very nervous about the circumstances and the setting itself, but it was all a part of my wreckage created in active addiction. But at the same time, I was a normal guy who had done my fair share of overnight stays in jail but never the long-term time that I was now facing. I can even remember talking to my sponsor and thinking, “I was finally living right. The judge would see it and no way would he send me to jail.” I guess that shows how much I know about God’s plan for me. And I mention God because I thank my higher power every day for this opportunity at life. And when I marched into that county prison I had God with me and it was evident to everyone around me. I had fellow inmates coming up to me and asking me about my story and asking me about recovery. The sad part about the county is that 99% of the inmates are in there for substance-related issues and refuse to identify with it. But I guess I could understand that because it took me 16 years and a whole lot of pain before I wanted to look at where my disease took me.
Recovery has become a lifestyle for me and for most recovering addicts. We have to make it such because we put so much emphasis on active addiction that I need to do twice the work in recovery to keep the momentum going. Once we can arrest the disease for a long enough period, we can start to live our lives without that constant craving and voice in the back of our heads. Today, I enjoy spending time visiting treatment facilities and carrying the message. I’ve gone back to the jail as a productive member of society and brought meetings to the guys who need them. It’s about carrying the message to the addict who still suffers for me today. Patience and humility became a part of my everyday living, as the first few years, I had to practice it daily when asking for rides to meetings seven days a week for two years when I didn’t have a license. And trust me, I always hated asking for help! But today asking for help is what will keep me from going back out, so that’s what I do when I’m in need. I also like to tell myself, “As long as I don’t try to make too many decisions within a 24-hour period of time and don’t allow Mike’s will to get in the way of God’s will I should be okay.” Those of us who have achieved a life in recovery are walking miracles on this planet and I am a firm believer in that. We all deserve an opportunity in life, it’s just a matter of feeling worthy of offering it to ourselves. I mentioned earlier that I struggled greatly with self-worth. Today, my struggles are few and they aren’t self-inflicted. The choices that I’ve made, the friendships that I’ve developed with other recovering addicts, and the support that has been offered to me are the greatest assets in my daily living. I also got married this past June to a woman who understands my path, supports me on every single level, tells me when I am wrong or need to work harder, and encourages me to be the best version of myself every day. My wife was a gift that came very early in recovery and I’m truly blessed to have her by my side.
I do like to mention that I can still struggle at times. The substance was merely a symptom of all the problems I can create as an addict in recovery or active addiction. I’ve buried a sponsee, friends, and family members in the last five years that have passed directly related to this disease. Most recently a few weeks back I had to lay my best friend of 11 years, my dog Oscar to rest. That was the one I took the hardest, as he knew me both in active addiction and in recovery. But in his last days, I was able to fully be present and there for him the way he needed me to be. And when his time came, I was there to hold him and comfort him as he crossed over. Had I been in active addiction I don’t think that would have been the case. I would have made it all about me and my feelings because of the self-centeredness this disease likes to operate through. And it’s all because I chose to make a decision almost five years ago to take my life more serious, that I had a chance at this thing called life, and that I deserved what we all deserve…. A life worth living.
If you or anyone else you know is struggling with the disease of addiction, there is hope, there is help, and there are answers. We are here to help and we can only keep what we have by giving it away to the next struggling addict who decides they want to start a new way of life.