L. Robert Veeder (He, him, his)
My wife says that I never have a bad day. That’s of course not literally true, but I am a pretty incurable optimist. I laugh as often as I possibly can. I love watching old silent films, Charlie Chaplin is a personal favorite, but lately my daughter and I have been on a Buster Keaton kick. I almost always have music playing around me- it’s a personal goal of mine to listen to as much music as possible while I am alive, and truthfully, I love all of it. That’s true. I meet a lot of folks who say they love all kinds of music, but then almost immediately start listing the exceptions. I don’t really have any exceptions. I’ll gladly listen to opera, bluegrass, jazz, funk, whatever. There’s a good place for all of it. Of course, I certainly have my preferences. I’m a big fan of the Grateful Dead, and I try to catch Phish whenever I can. We even have a sober jam about once a month at our house. It’s a great time, almost completely egoless. Nobody cares how good you are. You can play whatever, or just hang back and sing. The only rule is that you don’t get to hang back and do nothing, but it’s a blast and truly some of my favorite times to be alive. I play a mean blues harmonica, but probably prefer pickin’ my banjo these days. I also play a squeeze box, and can bang out enough chords on our old piano to keep me dangerous. I am a self-taught piano player. I learned how to do that in prison where I played for the prison’s gospel choir, which is frankly just as romantic as it sounds. I’m not a half bad juggler, and many years ago even did a bit of street performing, where I earned about as much as a good poet. I still like to go toss the balls around every once in while though, and usually have a magic trick in my pocket for the kids.
It wasn’t always like this. As far as bad days go, quite honestly, I think I have earned the right to say that I’ve had some of the worst. I am very familiar with what it means to be truly hungry. I’ve scratched myself to sleep at night from scabies, slept a number of weeks sweating all night in a well-hidden boiler room when I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I could go on and on, but truthfully, none of that stuff can compare to the loneliness, the living sadness, that you walk with hand in hand every waking moment when your life is slowly, steadily, and predictably going to hell from addiction, and there just doesn’t seem to be a way to stop it.
The truth was that I did have choices. I did have power in my life. I could have done things differently, but I didn’t see it. I couldn’t see it. I refused to look. I remember coming home to stacks of mail piled up on the counter- and I was just so afraid to open them, notices; I didn’t know what to do. There didn’t seem to be anyone willing to listen anymore, not that I wanted them to- that would have meant the cold hard truth of having to change.
I had tried all of the traditional paths. I tried finding Jesus. I tried 12-step meetings. Treatment centers. I had tried cold turkey. I tried just smoking pot. I tried only getting high when I left the house. I tried only using at home. Just nothing worked. Nothing seemed to stick. And I mean, I’m not talking about a little bit here. I did this particular cycle for years!
Finally, I had resigned myself to this. This was who I was, and who I was going to be in the world. I hadn’t given up on staying sober. It had given up on me. This was who I was going to be- perpetually intoxicated. What did it matter? I was just hurting myself. I really believed that. It seems so crazy to me now, but I truly believed I was just hurting myself.
Then one fateful and terrible evening, I was leaving my last bar for the day. I was tired, and lonely, and I just wanted to go home and sleep it all off- unfortunately, that wasn’t what happened. It was unfortunate for me. It was just devastating for so many other people. One of the often-quoted sayings in Alcoholics Anonymous literature about recovery is, “We will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it.” But I can tell you quite honestly, even with as magical as my life is these days- I will always regret that night. Always.
Out of respect for my own victims and their families, friends, and loved ones, I’ll spare the details. For the significance of this story the only thing that needs to be known is that I was drunk, I was driving, and six people lost their lives that night. Two other people were very severely injured. It was my fault.
It doesn’t get worse than that.
I really don’t think it does.
I was put on suicide watch in the county jail. That’s where your cell is made out of windows so everyone can watch you all of the time, and they give you a suit made out of paper towels so you can’t hang yourself. It didn’t matter, my life was effectively over. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew that I couldn’t live being this…this person…if I could will myself to not live another breath, another moment, I certainly would have. What do they do to you after six people are no longer alive because of you? I really had no idea. Prison for the rest of my life? I thought that was probably the only reasonable decision. In fact, the very idea of it came with a huge sense of relief. At least this way the world would finally be safe from me. I was afraid that if they let me out, I might drink again, I might get high again. I always had before. Why should this time be any different? And there it was…the undeniable truth. All of my life I had been waiting for things to get bad enough to stop me, and here I was with people actually dead because of me, and even THAT wasn’t enough.
My recovery started as a simple experiment. I had decided that since I was effectively already dead I had nothing to lose; I would finally take all of the suggestions that everyone else thought would save me my entire life. I would go to meetings. I would work steps and get a sponsor. I would not use any substances no matter what. I would attend religious services and practice meditation. Anything.
I would brush my teeth twice a day. I would floss! Anything. You get the idea.
Sometimes when I am sharing this at public speaking events, I tell people that I still am simply running that same experiment. When I was released, I went back to college to study addiction. I had been in and out of recovery meetings my whole life and frankly I had heard a lot of things that simply didn’t add up. I wanted to understand the science behind addiction. Even there- I didn’t know how to go to college. The only college I had ever taken seriously were the classes that they offered in the prisons where I lived. (I managed to complete an associate’s degree in applied science in culinary arts, and a second associates in horticulture, but that’s a story for another time.)
My wife and I had moved from Charleston, South Carolina to Rochester, New York and I attended the State University of New York where I completed a bachelor’s degree in Health Science with a concentration in Substance Abuse Counseling. I was hired almost immediately to a local outpatient clinic where I was employed as an addiction therapist for about five years. I loved that work. I loved facilitating groups and loved the community of people that I got to work with. However, there were so many restrictions in what I could do to help people, and frankly, so much of my time felt wasted doing paperwork to appease billing, when I really had gone into this field to help people struggling with substance use disorders. I was constantly going into work off the clock just so I could complete a pile of paperwork, so that I would have time to make phone calls and coordinate with family members and clients, and legal authorities, when what I wanted to do was help people get and stay sober. There had to be a better way.
That’s when my wife and I started talking about starting A Better High, LLC. We talked about putting a strict cap on my caseload. Instead of the thirty or more cases that I found myself trying to juggle in outpatient, I would keep my case load between 10 and 12 people at a time. But they’d have much more access. Immediate access. If they were struggling at two in the morning, I would no longer have hospital policies in the way, they could actually just call me. We could use texting as a form of support and communication throughout the day. Instead of suggesting someone try a meeting, or try a bike ride, or try talking to their doctor about medical assistance, I could actually go to a meeting with them; We could go on a bike ride together, or a hike in the woods. I could meet them at their medical appointment and be a support.
And that’s what I do. I have great days now. My focus isn’t on trying to appease a billing company anymore, instead it’s focused on helping my clients get through the next twenty-four hours.
I’ve gone on runs with clients, gone to meetings with them, hiked, played lacrosse with them in local parks; I’ve even attended Barber Shop Quartet sing-a-longs! I’ve got the best job. I love the people that I work with. I love getting to witness them truly making strides to changing their lives. It’s such an honor to me to get to be a part of that story.
And for me that is the main focus of A Better High,LLC. I am truly living a life that I love getting to wake up to every day. My goal is to help others get to exactly that place. It’ll look different for them of course, because we are all individuals, but my goal is to help others wake up to a life that is filled with love and laughter, a life that is filled with meaning and that they are proud to be alive in, a life that is chosen by them instead of by their substance use, a truly better high.