Clean Date: 10/5/98
From: Austin, Texas
Chris Gates's Humans in recovery story
My childhood was normal, functional. There were no addicts, no weirdness, nobody ever did anything funny to me as a kid. I grew up down by the University of Texas Campus here in Austin, and I was, you know… a happy little kid, until first grade. I mean, I’m wired a little differently than most people. I think I have a little bit of aspergers. I have a hard time connecting with people. So growing up, all of those kids in school made me uncomfortable. There were no drugs or alcohol at my house, so I treated it with food. I started putting on weight in the first grade. But, you know it was good. I was mostly a happy kid.
I ended up going to a middle school where all of the people in grade school went to one school and I went to another because we lived just outside the district. I know middle school now is a pin for hormonal lunatics, because I’ve got twin girls that went through seven or eight years ago. But anyway, it’s a place where even the head cheerleader feels like a weirdo on the wrong day. But, I was a weirdo. I was walking around with long hair and a tape deck listening to Deep Purple and Black Sabbath when the other kids hadn’t even discovered the radio. I started going to concerts by myself. I didn’t know any 12 or 13 year old who wanted to go, but I enjoyed them, so my parents would just drop me off and I would go. There were always lots of people smoking pot and that was weird, but by the third or fourth concert, they seemed like okay people. So, they would pass the joint around and I started smoking weed. It was super easy to get weed in Austin in the 70’s. So now, I’m eating too much and smoking pot. Cause you know, those go good together.
For me, it was this long, slow progression. I know some people where the allergy is ferocious, and they have insane trauma. Like, my wife was blackout drinking by the time she was eight years old. She was being given hard liquor at three and blackout drinking liquor her mother gave her at eight. And you know, that’s not my story. My story was that it was really fun for a really long time. I was drinking and it helped me fit in, it helped me be more social. It was exactly the social lubricant I needed. But, by the time I was 21, I was drinking so much that I was passing out. I didn't blackout, I passed out. I’m a big guy and my friends couldn't get me back to the car, so they’d just roll me on my stomach so I didn’t choke on vomit and they’d leave me wherever I fell. I’d wake up in alleyways and front yards.
The solution to that was never to drink less. There were people hanging around the punk rock scene that were doing a lot of meth. They made me uncomfortable, but I got to know them, and they weren’t bad guys. And now, I needed some help with this passing out thing, so I started to do meth. And, there were people in the meth community who were shooting up, and they freaked me out, but I got to know them, and they weren’t bad guys. One thing led to another, and it was just this progression. I needed more to be okay. I started doing meth when I was 21 so I could keep drinking, and by the time I was 27, I was still drinking, because I was doing a lot of meth. I was in L.A. by then, so it’s real meth, not biker crank. And, I made the switch to heroin after the meth guy got busted. At that time, everyone in L.A. was strung out on heroin in the late 80’s.
In the rock scene, it’s like, as long as you are producing [music], nobody says anything. I dont think it’s that way anymore, because too many people spent too much money on guys who became unproductive, and/or dead. But, back then, as long as you were showing up for the gigs, and making the records, and the records are selling, everybody looked the other way about your drug use. And, there was a certain amount of celebration around it, the debauchery, especially around the rock scene in the late 80’s. I wouldn’t say I was “friends” with Motley Crue and those guys, but I was using with those guys. We were in the same rooms, you know. My friends were in the Chili Peppers, my friends were in Guns ‘N’ Roses, my friends were in all those bands, and we were all using together and all out of our minds, overdosing and stuff. But, we’d clean up and go on tour, stop doing heroin and just do whatever drugs we could get on the road, because you couldn't get heroin on tour. But yeah, it was a mess, and definitely not sustainable. It’s startling how many people I used with in the late 80’s and early 90’s are now long term sober. It’s way disproportionate. Like out of 100 people, 90 of them are long term sober, two of them are dead and four or five of them are in prison, but very few are still using. But, at the time, nobody looked at you funny, it’s wasn't like, “Why has the accountant been up all night?”
I had lots of rock bottoms. I moved back to Texas in an attempt to quit. After my record deal went away, I got a job managing a production facility for a fashion accessories designer, and I realized after doing it for 6 or 7 months, that I made just enough money to stay strung out forever. And, that scared me to death. It’s funny because I have all kinds of baggage around religion and god, but I used to have a motto that was, “I don’t pray for parking spaces.” And that just means, I take care of business, and the good stuff happens before I even know I need it. And, as soon as I switched to heroin, I knew that deal was off. I knew that the deal I had made with the universe was over. And, I wasn’t wrong. So, I moved to Texas to try and get sober, and that didn’t work. I did everything I could think of to try and figure it out, but nobody I knew was sober. There was no “recovery” in my world in the late 90’s. And so, I didn’t know what my options were, and I can’t tell you how many times I detoxed myself only to end up right back on it [heroin] again. I just couldn’t understand what was going on with me.
I had lots of those moments - desperation - that didn’t pay off. But, the series of events that led to real change for me was… I was, uh, I was sitting in my house, working on a handgun for my dad. I was putting some sights on a target pistol for my father. And, my dealer showed up, and I found myself sitting with a gun in one hand and a syringe in another, trying to decide which one to use. And, for just a second, I swear I was looking across the room, looking at my own back, and I thought, “How the hell did those get to be my only choices?” Like, I used to have a life. And now, literally, those are my only options. Well, I didn’t choose the gun.
Later that day, I was flipping channels on T.V., and I ran across this show - this episode on 20/20, and they are doing a feature about this Jazz saxophone player. And my whole life, even as a kid, if there was anything on about music, I was watching it. Sonny and Cher, whatever, it doesn't matter, I watched it. So I start watching this thing about this guy called Buddy Arnold. And they were saying, “Oh, he played with all of the greats in the 50’s and 60’s”, and they also say “and he was a heroin addict for 30 years.” I thought, “That’s a weird thing to include.” But as it turns out, his story wasn’t about his musical career; it was about the fact that he was 10 years sober, and he had just put together an organization funded by the Grammy’s called MusiCares. I wrote down the information and I ran in the other room and got on my computer. It took a while because I thought I was willing, but I had stipulations that I had to get over. But eventually, they got me into treatment and I’ve been sober ever since.
I believe the central truth to all of this is: drugs and alcohol aren’t my problem. My problem is just functioning. My problem is just being me and showing up for life. Drugs and alcohol are just the thing that I found made that doable for a really long time, until they didn’t anymore. I can’t stop pursuing that as a solution without starting to pursue another one actively. Otherwise, I’m just left with an untreated problem. That’s why “Just Say No” is laughable. You may have well just told me, “just don’t breathe”, because when I stop using, it feels like somebody is holding my head under water. I can’t breathe, and I get panic-ey, and I know what’s going to happen when I go back, but I can’t not do it, because it’s all I got.
This is why I have to stay in action. Because, this is disease that can’t be cured, but just like being diabetic, both are chronic conditions, both left untreated will get progressive and will kill you before your time. But, both diseases can largely be managed with some daily behavioral changes. And so, it’s daily behavioral changes. And, there are no days off.
I used to think, “some are sicker than others”, meant that those who keep relapsing are sicker than me. But, the truth is, I’m the sick one. Like, I get nutty at the drop of a hat. I get disconnected. I get uncomfortable inside, I get to making dumb a** choices, and being an a**hole because the wind changed direction. So, I’ve got to stay really in the thick of it all of the time.
The people who can barely get by with working a program of recovery, whatever that is, their lives don’t change much. They are not using anymore, but their lives still look little and grey to me, and I didn’t get sober to be little and grey. I got sober to have the biggest, coolest life I can have. It means I have to be really in the thick of this spiritual process so that I can have just enough going on in here to be able to do the next scary thing. Sometimes, the next scary thing is awesome, but it’s still scary. And in 21 years, my life just keeps getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and I keep having to throw the process at it so I can figure out how to show up for it and get good at it so I can get good at the new stuff. My job is just to keep up.
My life today looks like how I wanted it to look then, but couldn’t. I'm exactly who I want to be now. I always talk about how for most of the 90’s, by the time my addiction was really rolling along, it felt like I was standing in the ocean up to the middle of my chest, trying desperately to hold my place. But when you’re in the ocean, up to the middle of your chest, the ocean decides where you stand. Sometimes, it shoves you under water, and you have no control over that. But, the more energy I put into my recovery, the lower that water level has gotten. And now, I get to stand exactly where I mean to most of the time. I have peace in my body and I have the ability to take effective action in my life. Once in a while, the waves come up and move me, but I have the tools to get back to where I belong.