Between Straight Lines

Photo courtesy of Christopher Heimerman

Elise abruptly stopped using her brown crayon to color the space between the lines of a puppy. She brushed her wispy blond bangs from her eyes and, with a dead-serious expression, blurted out, “I have to go potty.”

My wife, our twin 5-year-old daughters and I walked to the steel door. The counselor unlocked it. But before she opened it to let my wife and our daughters go, she put a hand of gnarled fingers in front of my chest.

“You have to stay here,” she said, without a trace of sympathy.

Shame engulfed me. Then anger. Regret. Sadness. A quick suicidal thought. All in a fraction of a second.

I looked at Kayla. She looked away. What could she have said or done? Then she looked at the counselor, not me, and said, “It’s OK.”

Then she looked to me.

“Where’s the bathroom, honey?”

Shame wrapped around my throat.

“I don’t know, babe,” I croaked out.

The counselor gave them directions. I stood there, unable to move as the door latched, watching my little family through the diagonal, criss-cross grid on the tiny window of the steel door. Kayla held both of the girls’ hands as they skipped away from me, carelessly.

I might have stared for 2 minutes. It might have been a week.

I had no concept of time, yet I knew I had to run a marathon in a few days.

I was in a new sort of training. I’d spent the previous few months racking up a couple dozen miles a week in preparation for the Milwaukee Marathon. I endured many of those training runs while massively hung over. I was drunk for some of the shorter ones.

I’d tried to quit drinking numerous times, but I was convinced nothing else could numb my crippling combination of depression and anxiety. On the surface, I was a portrait of success. A celebrated journalist with a beautiful family. Under my skin, I was a ticking time bomb threatening to blow up not just my life but those most closely attached to it.

I’d tried to quit drinking numerous times, but I was convinced nothing else could numb my crippling combination of depression and anxietyI could have crashed my car while tailing a police chase, empty cans clanging under the passenger seat. A traffic camera should have spotted me when I drove over a stop sign. A bailiff could have smelled whiskey on my breath after I took advantage of a 15-minute recess during a murder trail to sneak out to my car and take several swigs from a fifth of Evan Williams. Drug counselors, advocates for abuse victims, any number of them could have detected I was shitfaced as I interviewed them, in person.

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Against all odds, I never slammed into the Hollywood rock bottom – the one where you lose your job, your family, your house, even your freedom. Nothing stopped me from drinking my way through every day.

That is, until I snapped, surrendered, and checked into rehab.

I had to quickly get over the slippery-slope thought process that I had Mickey Mouse problems, compared to the guy writing in pain from heroin withdrawals. When compared to the guy who’d been shot three times in drug deals gone bad. When I sat next to the guy who relapsed the day after he finished serving 5 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.

It wasn’t until I had months of sobriety under my belt that I came to terms with the fact that my affliction was the most common, and perhaps the most dangerous one out there. Millions of people are teetering on the edge I was toeing a few years ago: unsure whether they have a problem, reluctant to have an honest conversation with themselves, let alone anyone else.

The pandemic, civil rights upheaval, and the political war at the center of all of it have set off a chain reaction we’ll feel for years to come. Teetotalers are now casual drinkers, weekend warriors are slipping into alcoholism, and people who previously wrestled with alcoholism are five-alarm walking disasters.

I’m lucky that I got sober when I did, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay forward how I did it.

Basic exercise generates the same feel-good chemicals drinking does – only without the disastrous side effects.The first step, or 40,000 of them in a literal sense, was the marathon. I do not recommend running one the day you get out of treatment. No doctor would. You’d have to be a rare combination of stupid and ballsy, and I happened to fit that bill.

But by and large, health and wellness are part of the “cocktail” that keeps me sober every day.

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Basic exercise generates the same feel-good chemicals drinking does – only without the disastrous side effects.

I attend meetings. SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training) is my preferred system. It’s more secular and forum-based than AA, offering the chance to discuss problems and, better yet, tools and solutions in real time.

I see my therapist and – I can’t emphasize this enough – my psychiatrist. Your general practitioner or your counselor aren’t the ones who should be writing prescriptions to address your mental illness. That’s the primary job of a psychiatrist.

I got big into mindfulness, meditation and yoga. You can meditate anywhere – your bedroom, while out on a walk, or while sitting at a stop light or at the DMV. God knows you’ll have the time.

Speaking of which, rediscovering God helped, and that’s a reunion that began in treatment.

Treatment is not a silver bullet. I faltered multiple times after going through rehab.

The most important part of my program? You’re reading it. I talk about it.

Now it’s society’s turn.


Christopher Heimerman is the author of the unpublished memoir “40,000 Steps” and host of the podcast “40,000 Steps Live”, which is available anywhere you listen to your favorite shows. Read his blog and learn more about his advocacy, the book and the show at 40000steps.wordpress.com.

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