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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Marching to the Beat of a Different Drummer

May 27, 2020

Many businesses have been severely affected during the COVID-19 crisis. Restaurants and live-music venues may have been hit the hardest. On the other hand, grocery stores and liquor stores have seen phenomenal sales increases. Reports indicate that liquor stores are up anywhere from 27 to 40%. That’s great for the package store retailers, but there’s a high likelihood that rehab centers will be overcrowded once this is all over.

I am fortunate that I won’t have to worry about that. I have been clean and sober for over 37 years. It’s something that I don’t normally write about—not because I am embarrassed or ashamed, quite the contrary—it’s just a topic that I usually reserve for one-on-one conversations with people who come to me (or have been sent to me by a loved one) to help counsel them. I typically don’t give advice. I just tell them what it was like for me during active alcoholism and drug addiction, what happened, and what it is like now. With all that is going on in the world, now seems like a good time to tell that story on these pages.

I had an amazing childhood. Despite the loss of my father when I was six years old, my childhood years couldn’t have been more fun, enjoyable, and meaningful. My mother raised my brother and me on an art teacher’s salary. We didn’t have a lot, but we didn’t miss much. I had great friends, but there was always a voice deep inside me that told me that I didn’t belong. Eventually, I started hanging out with older kids and drank my first beer— a Miller pony— when I was 14-years old. Five years later I was sticking needles in my arms because I couldn’t get the cocaine into my system fast enough. I was an alcoholic and drug addict from the time I took that first drink.

I started working in the restaurant industry at 19 years old and instantly fell in love with the business. I knew what I wanted to do for a living, but I had no idea how to reach that goal. I had been living with my mother but came home one day and everything I owned was in garbage bags on the back porch and her locks had been changed. She had reached a point where enough was enough. It was a tough move for her, but it ended up being the beginning of the end for me, and a blessing.

I was fired from several jobs, and moved from friend’s couches to other friend’s couches until I was finally evicted from a ratty trailer park. Without the love of a caring grandmother I would’ve been living under a bridge.

On May 25th, 1983, at 2 a.m., I was driving 90 mph down 4th Street in Hattiesburg, MS—loaded—with my car lights off and three police cars in pursuit with their blue lights on. I got a DUI that night. Surprisingly—other than my marriage and the birth of my two children—it was the absolute best thing that has ever happened to me. I haven’t had a drink of alcohol, or anything stronger than an aspirin since that night.

Days later, I ended up in rehab in Jackson. I spent nine weeks in a six-week treatment center.  I was a hard case. It was a lifesaver. When the rehab center told me that I would be going to Omaha, Nebraska for a secondary treatment they handed me a one-way ticket, drove me to the airport, and put me on a plane to the Midwest.

When I arrived at Saint Raphael’s Halfway House in Omaha—a facility operated by the Catholic Church and located in a former mortuary—I had to go through an interview process with the clients, who were a dozen or so young men, all in their early 20s, like me. During the interview they said, “You have to get brutally honest with us, or we are not going to let you in.” All I have been given was a one-way ticket to Omaha. I didn’t even know where Omaha, Nebraska was on a map. I had no choice. I got gut-level honest in that room with those young men for the first time—maybe ever—in my life. I was admitted.

I arrived in Omaha on a Friday afternoon. Once I was shown around the facility I asked if they were able to go out at night. Yes, they said. It’s Friday night, we’re all going out tonight.” Excellent, I thought. I had been living in clubs and bars for several years. Though the previous nine weeks I had been confined to a rehab center. A night on the town would be nice.

“So where are y’all going tonight?”

“It’s Friday. We are going to the skating rink!” he said with no sarcasm or irony in his voice.

“Skating?” I was 21-years old. I hadn’t been skating since I was in the six-grade. How lame, I thought. This is what sobriety is going to be like. Hanging out with a bunch of guys at a skating rink. There was no way this lifestyle was going to offer any fun or good times.

But anything was better than sitting alone in a creepy mortuary in Omaha Nebraska on a Friday night. So, I went skating. Granted, I haven’t been skating since, but I am here to tell you that something substantial changed in me on a skating rink floor in Omaha Nebraska in August 1983. I had fun. There were no alcohol or drugs anywhere in the vicinity, and I had fun anyway. I learned that evening that it’s not what you do, but who you’re with and how you feel on the inside when you’re doing it. It was that precise moment that I realized, maybe I can have fun, maybe I can have a normal, enjoyable life without alcohol and drugs. As it turns out I haven’t missed a thing. My life—for the most part—has been a blast.

I don’t have many regrets, but I wish that someone in that halfway house would have asked me to make a list. A simple list where I dreamed big of all of the best things I hoped to get out of life going forward. I would love to be able to look at that list that 21-year old Robert would have created in 1983, today. Mainly because I would have so undershot what life has gifted me.

I’m not talking about material and monetary things, but relational and spiritual things. The things in life that truly matter. Life is good. It’s not without problems and hardships, but I know how to handle those issues when they arise and do my best to live in the solution, every day.
I have always believed that life is problems. A successful life is problems well handled. In the end, I have to give credit where credit is due, and that’s with God, a few basic principles, and all my friends who are also in recovery.

At 21-years old, I had resigned to myself that I wasn’t going to live to see 30. In actuality—and at the rate I was going—I probably wouldn’t have lived to see 25.

In the early days of sobriety, I probably spent a good bit of wasted time lamenting the fact that I had the incurable disease of alcoholism. Today it never crosses my mind. Again, I haven’t missed a thing that life has had to offer. Seriously, not a thing. Actually, I have had a much fuller life without alcohol and drugs. I am an alcoholic. Big deal. I don’t spend any time lamenting that fact. Some people have psoriasis. Others have diabetes. Still, others have cancer. Some people rub a cream on their problem, others take insulin. Still, others take radiation treatments and chemotherapy. I’ve got it easy. I just work a simple 12-step program, maintain a spiritual relationship with God, and don’t drink.

If you are early in recovery, I hope you’ll take the time to make a list of all of the things you want out of life going forward. Dream big. Seriously, dream bigger than you could ever imagine. Then fold up the list, place it in a drawer, and just don’t drink. Then pull that letter out in five, 10, maybe even 37 years, and I guarantee that you, too, would have grossly undershot what life would have gifted you.

If you’re having trouble with alcohol or drugs, you need to know that there is a solution, and a better life out there. I am free to talk anytime, day or night, 601-270-7129.

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