I’ve told this story many times. I’ve written about it, too, a lot. It has been suggested more times than I can remember that I “write a book.” And, someday, I might just do that. Time, for the past two decades, has meant something much different to me — different than it did before, but maybe different than it does to most people. Not all, certainly… but maybe. Maybe we all experience it differently and maybe pivotal moments in our lives significantly alter that experience. But I suspect that’s not it. I think that for a few people who have been to the proverbial edge of life, time becomes simultaneously more and less precious. But even that revelation took time. It took time to realize, time to appreciate, time to navigate and by the time all that happened, 20 years have passed.
Twenty years. That sounds like a long time. When I was 20, it was a long time, unimaginably long. I literally could not imagine being 40 years-old. Ironically enough, I almost wasn’t. I almost didn’t make it to my 38th birthday. How’s that for a self-fulfilling prophecy? Those who know my story know what happened, those who don’t won’t have to be in suspense for long, but the clinical term for what I experienced is an “NDE” or a “Near Death Experience.” These are more than just a close call, a near miss or some other case where, if the circumstances were slightly different, one would have certainly died, but as it happened, escaped without serious injury.
An NDE means suffering serious injury of some kind, actually dying, and coming back. The actual experiences that those who have had NDEs vary (a lot) and the spiritual/religious interpretations are all over the map, but I’m not talking about any that. It’s not important. What is important is how one views life when coming back from such serious trauma, especially after fully realizing how dire the situation was. That, for me, did not happen until I woke up in a hospital five or six weeks later. What happened? I guess I haven’t answered that question yet. On the morning of October 17th, 2000, I fell asleep at the wheel of a 1999 Jeep Cherokee, crossed over into the oncoming lane and hit a logging truck in a glancing (left-front to left-front) head-on collision. The logging truck driver suffered minor injuries, my then 13 year-old son suffered less minor, but also minor injuries; my injuries were life-threatening, maybe life-ending.
My left leg was nearly separated from my body at my hip. My injuries included a compound, open pelvic fracture, a compound left femur fracture, a lacerate kidney, liver and femoral artery. I took something like 16 units of blood before I ever got to the hospital; I was bleeding out faster than they could put it back in. From others’ accounts, I understand that I was “brought back” a number of times. I remember almost none of it, but what I do remember is nothing short of weird. And it is nothing I could or would try to explain — and it doesn’t matter, that’s not what this is about. When they weened me out of a medically induced coma weeks later, it took some time for the fog to clear. By the time I was fully conscious, I was both grateful that I survived and pissed off that I had. I was facing a long and uncertain road of recovery.
Twenty years ago today my life changed in many ways, some of which I am still discovering, all these years later. It was, in a very real sense, the beginning of the end of an era, but it was not yet the end. The beginning of the beginning of the path I am now on was still in the future, if I could get there. When I “woke up” sometime in mid-November that year, I knew why what happened, happened. I was painfully aware that my excesses exceeded my luck, that my “lifestyle” and the warning signs I summarily dismissed for many years came home to roost. This was not another close call, it was not another near-miss, it was a direct hit and I very nearly paid the ultimate price. All that was not lost on me within days of my coming to. I knew what happened and I was done. Never again; my life would change, in the short-term by necessity, but in the long-term, I decided it would have to lest I run out of luck again, permanently. I’m not stupid. I knew.
But it was not the end. Or, if it was, it was an extended ending. Once released from the hospital, once left to set my own course — even a little — I chose the same path that landed me where I was. I rationalized that it would be different, that I learned my lesson, that I knew what my limits were. I was wrong. Nothing changed and although I did not end up in exactly the same place, the places I did end up were plenty bad. I experienced death, jails and other institutions were yet to come. I could not turn it off, no matter how “smart” I was, no matter how important anything or anyone else was. My immediate desires always dictated my next move and my next move was always immediate gratification. And drugs always did that.
I’m not sure how I can explain how I became an addict. I don’t know if it’s genetic, if it’s environment, if it’s developed through exposure, if it’s just circumstance or some combination. It doesn’t much matter. It is clear to me that when I choose drugs, they call the shots — I no longer have a choice. But I cannot explain why that is. When I came to in the hospital, I was done. The risk was too great. I meant it — I had all the reason I needed. No one in his or her right mind would continue to take those risks in light of the very real consequences. Yet, when the opportunity presented itself, I had no defense. It is impossible for anyone who hasn’t experienced that sort of powerlessness to understand, but even the smartest people in the world have made similarly lethal decisions. It is not a function of intelligence.
I didn’t know how much of my physical self would recover from that wreck. They didn’t know how well or if I would ever walk, if my colostomy would be temporary or permanent and a host of other unknown long-term issues. I went home with a lot of surgical issues left to be resolved — I had four huge screws and an external fixator still holding my pelvis together, a colostomy and a bunch of nerve damage. By the end of 2001 all of that was dealt with — even the colostomy was reversed, but I was also well entrenched back into my former life. The risk — after barely escaping with my life less than a year earlier, was equal to what is was before. This time it would manifest in the form of law enforcement.
A series of gradually more significant charges finally led up to my accepting a plea deal for the felony of receiving stolen property. That got me a few months of jail time combined with a few months of a residential drug rehabilitation program. I wasn’t guilty of knowingly receiving stolen property, but I was guilty of plenty and taking that bargain got me the least amount of jail time along with some help. In that one thin slice of time, it is what I wanted — I was experiencing a brief “moment of clarity,” I was “done.” I’d been there before — many times — but this time coincided with an opportunity, so I took it. By the time I got out of jail, I was committed to staying drug free, “clean and sober,” but I was also freshly free. Of course I celebrated. And once again I could not stop.
I stalled as long as I could. On March 11, 2003, the day of my probation violation hearing (for not reporting to rehab when ordered), I got into a residential program in Sacramento, CA. I was a mess. I was physically drained, emotionally empty. I was ready for a break, but I still didn’t want to go. I was between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Run, keep using and digging deeper, or try to rebuild. But the light at the end of that tunnel was so far off I just could not see it. I reported to the program, they contacted the court, the judge stayed my hearing until after I finished the program and I ended up spending six months there. The judge reinstated my probation — no violation.
Towards the end of that six months, I enrolled at American River College, the local community college. I needed to transition out of rehab by getting a job or going to school. Since I had no intention of staying in Sacramento, school seemed like the way to go. Besides, they were giving away money — grants and loans — and I was tired of being broke. Secondarily, I was kind of on fire with the whole recovery thing. I learned a lot about addiction and recovery in those six months and I witnessed those who were making a living in the “industry.” I figured I could do that, too, with the right credentials. ARC offered that. My first semester at ARC was a resounding success, my grades were the best I’ve ever had in any school at any time. After “graduating” from the residential treatment program, I moved into a “clean and sober transitional living” (CSTL) house in downtown Sacramento. All that success further motivated me and confirmed that I was finally, at almost 41 years old, on the right track in life.
And I was, but all tracks have side tracks and not all side tracks are good. Sometime in December of 2003, after I had nine months of complete abstinence from all mind and mood altering substances, during the semester break after my best semester in school ever, I was riding high on life, I had a little bit of money, some freedom and a whole lot of time. I spent some of that “doing recovery,” going to meetings and such, but I was somewhat bored, too. I decided to go up to Truckee and stay with my friend and do a little snowboarding. I knew what environment I’d be going into, but I was clean and sober, I had nine months, I was in control now, I would be able to resist temptation. Indeed, I was not tempted.
Or so I thought. While I believed I had regained my ability to control what I put into my body, the fact is that I likely already subconsciously decided that I could once again control my intake. It was not long before I was doing exactly the same things that got me into all that trouble in the first place. But this time, again, it would be different. I told myself I learned how to control it. I never did go snowboarding that weekend and when I returned to Sacramento, I was back on the same roller-coaster I left behind nine months earlier. I could not stop. I left that CSTL before I got found out and moved to Calaveras County where I could do what I wanted to do in relative peace. However, when my probation officer found all that out, he wasn’t cool with it. He sent the Calaveras County Sheriffs Department to find me, they tested me, Nevada County violated me and Calaveras County — just to add insult to injury, it seems — added on their own charge of public intoxication (I wasn’t in public, but I didn’t fight it).
I didn’t fight any of it because I was at that point, again (another moment of clarity) except this time with a new twist. That twist had two equally sharp edges. One was that I had already been down that road, accomplished quite a lot in a short period of time and flushed it all away in an even shorter time. Although the legal and physical consequences were not (yet) so dire, the personal ones were. The trust and faith I had built up in others, primarily my boys, was lost and it would take much longer to build that back. The other edge was the starting over again. Losing all that time, including a career path that would no longer be possible in a reasonable period of time, was crushing. I was also looking at another several weeks in jail. That was a bit of a surprise, I figured I get a slap on the wrist, an outpatient program or something less severe. Both county’s judges were not going for it. Meanwhile, that spring semester at ARC was not going nearly as well as the previous fall. I still managed to get decent (not great) grades, but I was doing it on artificial fuel.
I found my way back to Sacramento in the summer of 2004 and awaited my fate. I was sentence to 60 days in Nevada county, I would have to serve 40, followed by 90 days in Calaveras county, of which I would have to serve 60 days. I was relatively certain that I would be released early in Calaveras County due to jail overcrowding, but there was no telling how early and the worst-case scenario was 60 days. I was ordered to turn myself in to Nevada County on August 6th, 2004. I used drugs as much as I could while I got my “affairs in order” right up until my turn-in date. I would have gone to jail loaded, but I distinctly remember having no hustle, no game and no drugs to use that day — at least not the ones I wanted. August 6th, 2004 remains my “clean” or “sobriety” date to this day.
A week after being released from Nevada County, I was to turn myself in to Calaveras County. That week in between was brutal. I knew I had to stay away from drugs like my life depended on it. The judge in Nevada County told me that another dirty test would send me to prison for a year and I was pretty sure they would test me in Calaveras County prior to incarceration. I contacted my old sponsor, I went to some meetings and I kept to myself. I had to stay away from drugs at all costs. It turns out they did not test me in Calaveras County. It also turns out they were very overcrowded; I was out in eight days. I went home to my two younger sons in my little two bedroom duplex in Sacramento sometime in late September with about 60 days clean and sober, pissed off, and not too thrilled about the future — any future.
I tried to find a job, but for a variety of reasons I was not having any success. I have never not been able to find a job, but the landscape had, in just a few years, changed — a lot. That, combined with a huge gap in my resume, some dated technological skills and a felony on my record all proved to be serious obstacles to what was once a routine — and quick — process of finding employment. I went back to ARC to talk to a counselor about my possible school future. I had a bunch of college credits going all the way back to the early 80s; they don’t “expire,” what are they good for? It turned out that with just one more semester at ARC — just five classes — I could transfer to California State University, Sacramento as a junior. In all that stumbling and falling and getting back up over the past 12 months, I discovered that I have a talent for writing, so I decided to go for it and major in journalism.
My pissed-offedness subsided significantly midway through the spring semester. Things were starting to work out again, school was going well. My grades were excellent and I was able to finally parlay my old house in Truckee into a home in the Sacramento suburb of Fair Oaks. By this time, my wreck was now coming up on its five-year anniversary. In January of 2006, I first wrote about it. I wrote that life was good. And it was. But so much has happened since then. In 2007 (actually, January, 2008) I was awarded my BA in government-journalism from CSUS, magna cum laude. In the Fall of 2008, I went back to CSUS and entered the MA program in communication studies. In the Spring of 2012, I was awarded my MA at CSUS. In the fall of 2011, I was accepted to the communication studies PhD program at Louisiana State University. While I did advance to doctoral candidacy, I ended up with another MA at LSU in 2016. I worked as a journalist for a local news organization in the Sacramento area and as an undergrad instructor during my grad student years at both CSUS and LSU and, since 2015, I have been working as member of the faculty at Sac State. All of that happened because I didn’t die 20 years ago today.
The last paragraph covers about 15 years in the matter of just a few words. Of course my “recovery life” includes a lot more than just a list of a few accomplishments. There are numerous trials and tribulations, triumphs and adventures, new life and lives lost. These past 20 years have not been a cake-walk, certainly not early on, but not at various points between then and now, either. But what if I didn’t make it. There were times — many times — when I wished I did not. When I was in that hospital, totally helpless, unable to do anything for myself with both an immediate and a long-term future that looked bleak, unsure and hard, I was often pissed off that I had survived. What kind of cruel joke is this? And, while late in this essay, do not let that reflect the significance of priority — this was a monumental upheaval in my family’s lives. My parents and my kids especially paid a heavy price for my so-called “freedom.”
Ironically, I am freer today than I ever was then. I was a slave to my addiction, a slave to my sense of entitlement, my sense of comfort, my view that I was supposed to be “happy.” It took nearly losing everything — and a shitload of time to think about that — to realize what freedom really is. In a parallel universe, there is no Michael Althouse. He died in a wreck on October 17th, 2000. Today his kids are mourning him, perhaps his friends, what few he had, are remembering him. And except for those he touched, the world probably wouldn’t be much different. But how many have I touched in the past 20 years? And if that parallel universe sees me survive only to continue crashing through life, what does that world look like? In the big picture, it’s not much different, either. In my little world, however, it means a lot, in all three universes. We talk a lot about “breaking the chain” in the recovery world, but I don’t think it means what a lot of people think it does. It doesn’t mean that if we get clean and/or sober, that our kids will not have to drink or use. I think it means that when they do (because they will), they will have an example that they don’t have to chase it to the very gates of hell, like I did.
And if I survived for nothing else, that is enough.