“Can I get you something to drink? Beer, wine, perhaps a martini or margarita for you, Sir?”
Every time I travel, I am asked some version of this phrase. I frequently eat out for business meetings, though not often enough on the rare date nights with the woman of my dreams, who actually exists. Between us, we have six children between the ages of 12 and 17. We don’t get much alone time.
“How about an iced tea, no sweetener, please.” That’s my usual response. I turned 45 this year. Tired of the “chunk in the trunk,” I’ve minimized my sugar intake and lost 20 pounds, and I am trying like hell to hold it steady. Pre-diabetes is not a word I want to hear out of my doctor’s mouth ever again. However, the main reason for my ordering iced tea is not about caloric intake, it’s that I don’t drink alcohol. Nine years ago I got sober.
“Sober” is an interesting word. It conjures up a range of images, profiles, feelings and thoughts in the hearts and minds of people when they learn about my sobriety.
Drinking is prevalent, and I am social. You can imagine that the topic comes up in a variety of situations. I can see the curiosity develop behind the eyes of some people when they discover I’m not imbibing. Some ask me if I have never had alcohol and want to know why. They want the full story. It’s like watching a race and waiting for a crash; they want the dirt on how I got sober.
Most people are respectful and/or unaffected by my response. The question “what made you want to do that?” is code for “what the hell happened” or “what did you do?!” Some people are uncomfortable. Others feel sorry for me. A few are in disbelief, as they swear I was drunk last Friday night when we went out, apparently because I was laughing and having a great time. Still others are sincere and encouraging. “Good for you, man,” they tell me.
I like the response of those who are in shock and overly impressed. “Like never? You never drink?” It’s as if alcohol and oxygen were synonymous, and survival was dependent upon them. I also like the increasingly frequent responses from the people who tell me they, too, have chosen a life without drugs or alcohol.
It has become mild entertainment, a kind of unfunded research project where I collect different responses as data. In the end, however, what others think about my choice is irrelevant. It doesn’t affect my comfort level or my decision to live this version of my life. Like religion or politics, my choice was personal. Getting sober in my early 30s was an excellent decision after five years of being “overserved.”
I am a better dad for my four uniquely beautiful and brilliantly creative, sweet and goofy children. They are the reason I got sober. I had become “that guy.” I was fat and getting sloppy. I had been an athlete most of my life, but during this five-year period I had turned into someone I did not like very much. More often than not, I felt less than stellar. I did not want my kids to remember me that way. I wanted to be a better dad for my kids and a better man for me.
The truth is there are millions – 25 million is a recent stat – of us sober people out there. Yes, some give the rest of us a bad name with their annoying opinions and judgments of what sobriety means. The uninformed still assume we all yearn for booze or that drug of choice and need to attend daily mysterious meetings in church basements, chain smoking cigarettes or vapes, and drinking bad coffee or energy drinks.
Each story is different. The type of drugs or alcohol used, and the duration and frequency of use, varies greatly. The damage caused, the risks taken, mental status, family issues, personal values, education, insight and physical health differ significantly among people who have chosen to be sober.
The solutions to the problem of addiction also differ. Twelve Step meetings don’t all take place in church basements, and they vary from dogmatic to empowering, educational and supportive. Churches, psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors and non-Twelve Step support programs can also figure into the solution. Our shared goals are healthier lives, a better quality of living and better behavior.
I have always been focused on helping people who are struggling in life. In high school, I wanted to become a teacher or a psychologist. By the time I completed college, I had the idea to run my own school for troubled kids or start an innovative, effective and cool rehab center.
I was fortunate to be accepted into a master’s program at Harvard, earning a degree in psychology and business. Studying at this prestigious school was a humbling, challenging and thrilling experience. My professors and fellow students taught me more than I could have imagined. My dream of becoming a leader and executive in the behavioral healthcare field came true shortly thereafter. In my late 20s, I founded and grew my own company in Seattle.
I have evaluated hundreds of rehab centers, treatment programs, adolescent and young adult residential schools and psychiatric facilities. I have managed companies serving a wide range of clients, from “celebrity rehabs” in Malibu, California, to organizations that address mental health and addiction issues for low- and middle-income people. Most recently, I have led the turnaround and growth of a behavioral health company in Arizona as its CEO.
My job as “Rehab Exec” is a unique and often strange job because of the skills required. Not only do I need the traditional CEO skills – financial, operational, strategic, sales and marketing, technology and customer service executive management – I also need key intangible skills. I must have the ability to gain respect and credibility from the doctors, nurses, therapists and residential staff. I must also be able to connect with staff, whether they are in recovery or not.
It is crucial that I have credibility with our clients, their families and loved ones. I must cultivate productive relationships with our referral sources, ranging from psychiatrists, probation officers, judges and tribal leaders. I most enjoy connecting with all of our constituents in an effective and meaningful way.
Crisis management is critical in the recovery field. The stakes are high for our clients, sometimes the difference between life and death. Such serious concerns obviously require close attention and great sensitivity for everyone involved. Systemic improvement, as well as an immediate response to the weekly issues presented by our clients, is imperative.
My days are never boring. Ever. I expect the unexpected, manage the business and have the honor of working with remarkable employees. Caring, smart, proactive, calm, strong and supportive are merely a few of the terms that come to mind when describing them.
Grateful is a frequent feeling for me every day in all areas of my life.