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The Road Less Travelled: How "Die Living" Saved Me From Myself

  • 13 min read

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference." -Robert Frost

My name is Paul and I’m an alcoholic. 

I have been in recovery for roughly 4.5 years. That means I haven’t found it necessary to drink for that period of time. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about myself during that stretch and I learn more every day. Primarily, I learned that for me drinking was a way to mask my fear. In one form or another, fear has been the major driving factor in my life. Fear that I would not get something I wanted or felt I deserved, fear that I would be rejected, fear that I wasn’t good enough, fear that I would lose something valuable to me, fear of change. Fear manifested itself in many ways and pushed me into an isolated place. Isolation became my comfort zone. 


Fear manifested itself early on in the form of anxiety. When I was in elementary school, I had such anxiety that on several occasions I made myself nauseous and threw up on the cafeteria floor. I had no idea what was actually happening, I just knew I didn’t feel good. My mom would come pick me up from school and take me back to my comfort zone. In Junior High, I was shy and sometimes awkward around people I didn’t know. I tried to be the person I thought they’d want to associate with, not my actual self. Playing sports helped me be comfortable around the guys, but girls were a wholly different world. Things changed in high school. I discovered alcohol. Suddenly, I could let my inhibitions down, fear was pushed to the back of my mind, and I could actually let loose and talk to girls. Occasionally I was even comfortable doing it. 


My drinking continued through college. I was a better partier than student but I managed to graduate. I somehow convinced myself that I was no longer letting fear drive my life and applied to the Marine Officer Program. I always wanted to serve. Both grandfathers served, and I was raised with a strong belief that serving your country and community was honorable. However, my packet was not selected and it left me feeling a sense of rejection coupled with a need to serve. So, shortly after graduation, I joined a major metropolitan police department. 


I very quickly got into enough car chases, foot chases, fights, and hairy situations to convince myself that fear was no longer a concern for me. It didn’t occur to me that being prescribed anxiety medications and throwing back a few every night after the shift was simply covering up my fear. After one encounter in which another officer and I had to go hands on with one particular bad guy, I had to get blood work done because we both ended up with open cuts. Sitting in the emergency room the nurse informed me that my liver levels were elevated. However, since I was a cop, she said that was “normal.” That just confirmed to me that my drinking was normal- it’s what cops do. Carry on, continue drinking every night, don’t bother to think about why, just continue on with the “hard boiled” cop stereotype. The problem was inside. I was still the fearful little kid who used to cry and beg to go home during sleep overs, but I had convinced myself that destroying myself was making me a man. 


Fast forward a few years. I was drinking a fifth every night. By myself. Drinking became my new comfort zone. iIsolated from just about everyone, I watched TV or endlessly scrolled the internet, alone. I saw places I wanted to visit, adventures I wanted to have, but that would mean being sober long enough to actually make plans that required me to leave my comfort zone. I made little conversation with my coworkers. I lost track of most of my friends. That, or their significant others didn’t exactly enjoy my company. I can’t really blame them. I didn’t enjoy my own company. 


By this point I knew I was in serious trouble. My solution had now become my biggest problem. I would try to cut back, to make marks on the bottles and not drink past that point each night. I would go on benders and call in sick with the craziest excuses. I would emerge out of blackouts, which became fairly regular, and swear I’d never drink again, only to be drinking again the next day. My then girlfriend began expressing concern so I tried an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I heard a lot of similarities in what other people shared; the isolation, the depression, the self-loathing. But what my brain concentrated on was the differences. These people were all old, they’d been to prison, they’d lost jobs, families, the whole damn country song. That wasn’t me. I was young, had a promising career, and was college educated. In less than 3 weeks I was drinking even more. Within three months my girlfriend had left and I was about to be run out of my unit at work. I finally had a breakdown. 


The pain was enough that I finally realized I did not want to drink anymore but I was scared to death of the thought of a completely sober life. I went to a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor. She recommended a treatment facility and AA. I told her I had tried AA and that I wasn’t like the people in that meeting. I had a job, I hadn’t lost everything. 


She replied, “yet.” 


I hadn’t lost those things “yet”. But I would if I kept going down that path. I knew she was telling me the truth. She also said that I did not have to hit a bottom- I could simply stop digging. That floored me. A week later I was in rehab and this time I was listening for the similarities and not the differences. I got a sponsor and “worked the steps.” I learned how to just not drink for today. I learned to ask for help when I needed it. “Rub some dirt on it” and “suck it up” sometimes have their place, but even the toughest of tough guys have to ask for help sometimes. I also learned that I just wasn’t the tough guy I thought I was. Hell, I had no idea who I really was. I did begin to learn that being honest and consequently being vulnerable was a version of tough I had never imagined. 


I had quit working out and eating healthy towards the end of my drinking because going to the gym and meal prepping was really cutting into my drinking time. About a year into sobriety I ballooned up to over 250 lbs. and was on three different blood pressure medications. I had worked damn hard at getting my mind and spirit right, but I let my body down. I went back to CrossFit and started eating better. I saw results. That encouraged me to continue. I realized I could see results a lot faster when I wasn’t pouring down empty calories every single night. Plus, no hangovers. Around that time, I first came across SOFLETE and was immediately struck by the motto: “DIE LIVING.”


I continued to work on my diet, my fitness, and my sobriety. However, I began to realize that fear was in fact still running my life. It took a few years of being sober to realize that I had bought into so much of my own bullshit that I really wasn’t sure what was real and what was shit I made up in order to just justify my own behavior and beliefs. I wasn’t the strong heroic crime fighter I was trying to portray. I was just a dude who liked to help people and wanted to be accepted but was still governed by fear and anxiety. I was still in my comfort zone, I just looked a lot better in it. 


I don’t like being out of my comfort zone. I’d justified staying there because I convinced myself that I did enough risky things at work. I was still manufacturing my own bullshit and then buying it wholesale. I had spent too many nights drinking on the couch. I was through watching life happen from the sidelines, isn’t this one of the reasons why I got sober? That’s when I stumbled across a post in the SOFLETE Team Room that looked like a perfect opportunity to aggressively address this defect; a four-day trip to Colorado to hike Mt. Sneffels with strangers from the internet. 


I knew this opportunity was going to be the perfect. I reached out to Doug and explained my situation. He was extremely encouraging so I made all the plans. Fast forward and the next thing I know I’m on a plane bound for Denver despite having never made any travel sarrangements before. Some background: I haven’t flown since I was about 12 years old, I’ve never been to Colorado, I’ve never been in the mountains, and I have a slight fear of heights. Convincing myself that the plane was in fact NOT going to plummet to the ground each time we went through turbulence or banked was a step in the right direction. The smaller plane ride to Montrose, CO was a tougher sell mentally, but I made it. On the plane I met Robert, one of the other guys who signed up. He turned out to be a very cool dude on a similar journey, which was also reassuring to my anxious self.


Once on the ground, we met Doug, loaded our gear and took off for Ouray. Ouray is a badass little town nestled in the San Juan Mountains. Coming from a big city, I’m not used to not locking my car or encountering homeless looking folks not in some sort of mental crisis. Doug basically left the car windows rolled down on Main Street and The “homeless” turned out to all be marginally employed outdoorsmen couch surfing while they waited on a rental to open up. They’re what Doug referred to as “gun loving hippies.” They were all extremely nice people. 


We had about six hours to kill before the rest of the group started showing up, but clearly not one to sit around, Doug insisted we rent a Jeep and hit the trials. After scooping up Ben on the street, we headed to Black Bear Pass. Getting up in the mountains on trails that were at some points just wide enough for the Jeep was incredible. The views were the most majestic this Texas boy had ever seen, but that didn’t help when I would occasionally look over the ledge to several hundred foot drop below. Doug would reassure me that we were fine by telling me little things like “This whole mountain is slowly washing out. See all those rocks just below us? They just fell there. At any moment, there could be a rock slide and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Then he would laugh. I realized that was the only thing I could do: laugh and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. 


Soon enough we met with the rest of the crew; Mike, Holly, Allen, Kate, and Ryan. They were all very nice and friendly but I quickly deduced I was out of my element. These people all seemed genuinely confident and successful and while this sort of adventuring was brand new to me, it seemed old hat for them. My awkwardness and self-doubt began to creep in. Regardless, we headed to the AirBNB. Nestled atop a ridge, it offered a breathtaking view of the mountains. I couldn’t believe people actually get to live out there and see this sort of beauty every day. Despite everyone being as nice as they could possibly be and being in the most beautiful place I’d ever been, I wanted to bail. I was at peak discomfort. I was the kid who cried and called his mom to pick him up and I wanted to go home. I went into one of the bedrooms and got my shit together. One thing with being an alcoholic in recovery is when you’re stressed the hell out, you obviously can’t take a drink just to take the edge off, you actually have to go through the emotions and process them. I used the tools I was taught early on: I called people and was honest with where I was emotionally. They reminded me that this situation was exactly what I was there to face. I prayed and I meditated and was able to get to a comfortable place. I decided I could stick it out. 

The following morning, we went to Telluride, rented mountain bikes, and hit the Prospect Trail. I was assured that this wasn’t a “technical trail” and that it would be fun. I hadn’t ridden a bike since college and certainly never on a trail that took a gondola ride up a mountain to access it. Once I figured out the bike’s gears and long dormant muscle memory kicked in, I was digging it. Flying down the narrow single-track paths, I found something that I hadn’t experienced since I was a kid: a pure adrenaline rush. I’ve been in more than a few car chases and foot pursuits at work, but in those situations, I always had to maintain a certain amount of professionalism. This was having fun for the sake having fun. This was letting loose without the help of booze, my crutch for so long. This was a freedom I hadn’t experienced in a long time. Perhaps I was digging it a bit too much and ate my shit towards the bottom of the mountain and got a nice road rash. A nice little outward scar to go along with the inner healing.  


Living at sea Level my whole life, I had no idea “altitude sickness” existed. I assure you that it does. I was warned multiple times to stay hydrated and I tried my best, but leaving the mountain I began to cramp up, bad. At dinner, we decided that the local hot springs would help all of us. There are two different hot springs in Ouray, one of which is a “clothing optional” place called the Orvis Hot Springs. In keeping with the theme of the weekend, we ended up at Orvis, an interesting place to say the least. It was beautifully maintained and hlandscaped, which is more than I can say for some of our fellow patrons. 


Early the next morning we set out for Mt. Sneffels. Mt. Sneffels is what they call a “fourteener”, meaning its peak is over 14,000. We rode up in the early morning dark and since no one wanted to risk their vehicle getting caught in a mountain trail they couldn’t get out of, we parked safely below the trailhead. I don’t blame them one bit. However, this made the trek a few miles longer. I was already getting winded in the first mile or so and we hadn’t even reached the actual trailhead. I was sucking down canned oxygen and water, determined to make it up this fucking mountain. 


Once we made it to Yankee Boy Basin, I was stoked. The splendor of the view was something out of a movie, complete with waterfalls. I never thought I would have an opportunity like this. This was the adventure I always wanted to while watching the Discovery Channel shitcan hammered at 3am. I couldn’t wait to reach the top. We ascendedt up the “standard route” which I assumed meant it would be a fairly easy. That optimism was quickly dimmed when we reached the scree portion of the mountain. Scree is basically medium to large rocks and you had to traverse them to proceed up the mountain. I was told this was a “scramble”. In reality, we bear crawled up a damn mountain for about a mile or so as the mountain got suddenly more upright. Most of the group had gone on ahead. Only Robert, Doug, and myself, the “sea levelers” of the group had started to fall back. 


I made it to the bottom of Snake Couloir (Apparently a nearly straight up rock slide is called a "Couloir") on Sneffels and estimated I was about three-fourths of the way to the top, but now it was getting more and more vertical and I suddenly became aware of how high I actually was. But I bear-crawled my happy ass up the couloir and soon enough I was at the top only a hundred or so feet from the summit. To summit Mt. Sneffels requires going up and through a v-shaped notch. On the ground, this doesn’t look difficult at all. I watched as kids and older folks passed through the notch. However, when I made my attempt, I made the mistake of looking to the left-It was at least a 500-foot drop with nothing at all to stop you. I was instantly petrified. I tried to tell myself that all that was stopping me from summiting was this stupid notch. I had come a very long way to do this. Then a sleet storm rolled in. 

I was instantly hyper-aware that I was a very long way from the ground and this was becoming dangerous. Even the more experienced hikers changed their demeanors and immediately began to quickly descend, telling us rookies it wasn’t worth it and emphasizing that conditions can get very bad very quickly. I still wanted to crest the summit, but with the iron stained soil rapidly turning white with slick round balls of ice we were getting the hell down. 


Going down in a sleet storm was wild. I spent the majority of the time sliding on my ass back down the couloir. I was then hit with two hard facts: I hadn’t completed what I had set out to do and I was also out of water. I felt defeated. Why did I come all this way only to get 98% of the way there? As I descended alone, I started to feel miserable. I retreated to my old, comfortable, isolated and dark place of not being good enough. A few of the guys had waited for me as we started to level off and when I mentioned I didn’t feel right, they quickly sat me down and soon agreed. I’m not sure what the hell happened; dehydration, altitude sickness, not the proper fuel, or some mixture of everything of the past two days. Doug and Ryan stripped my pack off and fed me energy bars and water. They helped me to the trailhead and a very nice family offered to take me down to the rest of the mountain in their ATV. I wanted to hike back down, but everyone agreed that this was not the time to let pride get in the way. 


When we all went to lunch, I saw everyone was enjoying their adventure but I was feeling like shit, physically and mentally. After I got some food and water and got to lower altitude, I started feeling physically better. I then checked myself mentally. I may not have summited, but I realized I did pretty damn good. I stopped beating myself up long enough to realize that I made the right choice not to summit with the storm coming in. I had climbed a fourteener for my first mountain hike, that's not a small objective. Moreover, I did a lot of things on this trip that were my first. Just going on the trip was a first for me. I realized the journey was in the adventure and the adventure was in the journey. I got my ass off the bench and for the first time was taking part in my own life... and it was fulfilling in ways I never thought possible.


To say I had an amazing time would be an understatement. I did things I never thought I’d actually do. I met amazing people who were as friendly as they were supportive. Each of them are extremely impressive individuals and whether they know it or not, they introduced me to a whole different level of living life and I am indebted to them. Doug, Ben, Ryan, Allen, Katie, Robert, Mike and Holly, Thank you. I am certainly not “cured” of anything, least of all my alcoholism. I still have my fears and my comfort zone is still there, quietly beckoning to me. But life is finally beckoning to me too and it’s out there for the taking.