When someone in recovery celebrates their first anniversary, seasoned veterans ahead of them often caution about how the second year is tougher than the first. Stay the course. Keep focused.
The theory is the pink cloud goes away and a deeper understanding of just how much work is involved becomes clearer in year two. You roll up your sleeves and get to work if you want to remain in recovery.
Hey. Throw in a pandemic, a shut down of in-person meetings and an out-of-left-field career change just for giggles.
Welcome to Tom’s world.
Tom K. is a man with a kind face, an easy to flash smile and an empathetic ear. At 48, he’s been around the block, and is no stranger to the challenges of early recovery. The wrinkles around his eyes give testimony to his walk thus far.
Working on his third year of abstinence, still in the middle of a pandemic, he’s also working on living in the moment. At Aurora. Right now.
Which, as it turns out, is just the right place to be.
Alumnus and Member Care Specialist
As an alumni member and current employee of Aurora’s ranks, Tom is a Member Care Specialist. In his job description, he helps newcomers to the centre settle in, find their way around, figure out the schedule, understand which groups meet where – basically everything expected of them now that they have decided to fight for their life.
He is the consummate fit as an employee. Been there, done that. And not too long ago, either.
Tom is quick to downplay any notion that he has a wild story. In fact, last fall he was asked to share his story to the members at the centre – a stressful but important hurdle to get through along the path to recovery.
“For me, when I did tell my story, it was tough. My perfectionism still comes into play and I really wanted to make some profound statement. But my story isn’t flash and bang like a lot of people here have.”
He learned a valuable lesson as his sharing ended, when the members lined up and surrounded him with appreciation, hugs and thanks. He knew then that flash and bang is not required to make a huge difference in somebody’s life.
Small Town Life
Tom is a small-town kind of guy, raised in Komarno, Manitoba. He did his elementary years in a two-room schoolhouse: grades one, two, three in one room, and four, five, six in the other; before moving on to high school in Teulon, a half hour’s drive from Aurora’s front door. His was a classic Canadian boomer family, his mother and father working at a local hospital – mom an X-ray technician, dad in systems and maintenance. He has two younger siblings, and a grandmother who, at 98, “can still clean my clock at crib anytime.”
After high school Tom went on to the University of Manitoba, working on a golf course maintenance crew to pay his way. He earned an Arts degree, majoring in geography, minoring in anthropology. He married his high school sweetheart, a friend since kindergarten, 20 years ago. They have two daughters, 14 and 17.
Drinking was not much of an issue until his mid- to late-20s, when he went back to school to Red River College to become an expert in turf management on golf courses. It was there he discovered another, stressful side of himself. One that needed to excel, to be top of his class. Bar none. And the price of perfectionism was steep.
“That’s when the perfectionism came into play. When it came to the college and doing that for my career, if I could get 100 percent on my exam, there was no reason I shouldn’t get one.”
He graduated from there with the gold medal – highest in the class.
Prophetically, the gold medal looks a lot like an AA chip, he says with a knowing shrug.
The stress of being tops in his class, then climbing the ranks at his job, led to a need to blow off steam, and alcohol became the perfect means. There was a lot of stress, a lot of steam to release.
“Alcohol was the only way I could shut things off.”
No flash, no bang. But there was a crash coming.
From beers, to beers and vodka, from mickies to 26 ounces, and then at the end, 40 ouncers, straight out of the bottle. Daily drinking. A life of quiet desperation in the garage, isolating away from the family.
He tried to hide the evidence.
“I had to make sure I got the empties out on garbage day myself, because if I missed a week it’s hard to hide 12 bottles in the garbage if they are sticking out all over the place.”
His seven-year journey took him to detox wards, more than once. To having his licence revoked as a precaution given the amount of alcohol he was consuming. The sweats. Blood pressure through the roof. Needing fluids pumped into his body to stop him from further damage. To walking away from work. To a treatment centre and a devastating relapse after two years of abstinence. To being legally unable to be around his family. The edge of oblivion. Physically, mentally, spiritually, bankrupt.
Finally, in September of 2018, a last desperate landing at Aurora.
The fight was out of him, he says.
“I had to make a change. I was going to be dead. I was to the point where I knew the alcohol was going to kill me and I couldn’t stand to see everything falling apart around me, and that was dying in itself. I was ready to end it. I wasn’t sure how and I didn’t have a plan, but I was fully prepared to … this was it. I’m losing everything.”
Transformation at Aurora
His perfectionism would rise as he applied himself at Aurora, and he would hear about it, too.
“I worked my tail off to the point where some of the counselors were saying ‘Tom, you’re pretty hard on yourself.’ It was like I was studying for an exam again. I guess the exam is life.”
He began to see, hear, and finally accept that recovery is a process, not a destination.
“I can’t put my finger on it, but something clicked. It clicked. When I came out of Aurora I took the tools that I had learned and I expanded on them, I worked on them.”
Continuing care sessions. Twelve step meetings. Staying in contact with his ARC buddies. Getting a home group. Most gratefully, reconnecting with his daughters.
Walking The Walk
Like so many who have made it through their second year without substances, there have been many strong lessons along the way. His father died. His family is still not fully united. A pandemic means way more solo time than most people in recovery are comfortable with. But he is at peace, just for today, and focused on recovery first and foremost. He has a sponsor. He is working through the steps. He talks the talk, and walks the walk.
“It’s like you have a set of weights, but if they are sitting in the box and I look down at my arms and there is no change, well it’s because you are not using the tools you were given or have in your possession. They are in your toolbox. I have to flex those muscles to make it work.”
Among his tools are getting in better shape physically, so he has his own gym schedule.
“I feel the change physically and especially mentally, I’m focused,” he says. “I have a very solid recovery. I’m very confident it is working well.”
He’s all about finding as many tools as he can to get well.
“Twelve Step is kind of my core, but I will take any form of recovery program that is out there. They all work. I will take my pieces and I’ll build my armor from all kinds of recovery strategies.”
“When I left Aurora, I started into the reading and educating myself, learning. I got into the addiction itself. So, I got into Gabor Mate. I wanted to read what the doctors said, I wanted to read what the addicts said. Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie. I wanted to see what my wife’s side of it was. Then from there to mindfulness and meditation. Then into ego, and consciousness and that is where the Eckhart Tolle comes in.”
“I’m my own project. I learn, I start practicing my stuff. I learn, I practice and then it starts to become natural. I love what is happening to me and I know it’s going to continue.”
From Member to Employee
A year after completing treatment at Aurora, he started working at the centre. His relationship with his alma mater recovery centre is precious to him. He works two jobs and though it takes him two and a half hours a day in commute time to be there for the members, he won’t give up his shifts at Aurora.
COVID or no COVID, Tom, his second year behind him, is staying true to his calling: to help others.
“I see the eyes when a newcomer comes to Aurora, whether I pick them up at the airport or just when they walk in the door. I see that same look in their eyes that I had when I walked in. That frightened, confused, exhausted look. I tell them, ‘You know what? It’s going to be okay. You’re in a safe place.’ I let them know that I did my treatment here, and sat in the very chair that they are sitting in. I get that connection really quickly with members here. It is so rewarding it is indescribable. It keeps me going.”
No flash. No bang. Perhaps.
But an attitude of gratitude, a teachable philosophy, and a two-plus-year-old resume of strong recovery to prove to himself that people can and do recover.
By Jeff Vircoe