Jon loses his way, now mentors others

It was the opposite of a happy Mother’s Day. A special trip between mother and daughter never happened because money set aside for the trip was stolen. Jon, a returning college student who grew up in Austin, remembers stealing from his mother to buy booze and drugs, and even suggesting to family members to report the mysterious robbery to police. “That Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend, she went into her room to get her money and it wasn’t there,” Jon said. “I broke her that day.”

That Mother’s Day became a pivotal point in Jon’s life when he began his life-changing transition from self-numbing with alcohol and cocaine to his current trajectory of pursuing a career in nursing.

Jon was recently awarded a college scholarship from Real Life Angels, a Central Texas nonprofit serving up career guidance and scholarships for young adults recovering from the “life-threatening disease of drug and alcohol addiction.”

Personable and self-effacing, Jon describes himself as “the guy who drank his scholarship away” when he enrolled for the first time at the University of Texas and as a “crazy crack head that’s going to school again.”

‘Losing my way’

From student body president in high school to skipping class to drink alone, Jon’s first experience on the UT campus was far from what he expected. He was pursuing a path that did not suit him and his report card reflected the mismatch.

“I had this plan. I don’t know that it was my plan but it was the plan I was on,” Jon said.  “I was so locked into it and I didn’t know how to ask for help or how to get out of the situation.”

To not excel was foreign to Jon, who had grown up earning privileges for performing well. He now found himself lying to his family about his grades and experiencing feelings of inadequacy.

“Who wants to be that guy who says, ‘I can’t do this.’? All of that stuff started to build and become a little too much,” he said.

Jon withdrew from classmates and friends and started hanging out with an older crowd.  With family crises at home and no internal mechanism to deal with the stress, he reprieved to Chicago. There, Jon bounced around living in more than 20 places all on the same “destructive” course.

After more than a decade of running, it was the lyrics of a Justin Timberlake song called Losing My Way that resonated with Jon:

It is breaking me down/ Watching the world spin round/ While my dreams fall down/Is anybody out there?/ Can anybody out there hear me?/…Keep losing my way.

“It has got to be easier,” Jon thought to himself.

Asking for Help

A weary Jon turned to family for help despite his own reservations.

“My personal experience with getting sober was that it did not work. My dad was still drinking… and my grandfather struggled with the disease as well,” Jon said.

When he finally asked for help, he got it. On the way to the out-of-town recovery center, Jon was instructed to hold off on starting the process to get sober until arriving for treatment, so he intuitively grabbed a six-pack for the road.

“I’m drinking all the way up to treatment,” Jon said. “I wasn’t thinking about 30 days (of rehab) or whatever, and then my mom pulls out her checkbook and wrote a very substantial check, and my mom doesn’t have… (that kind of money). That registered for me.”

Reflecting on this back-to-reality moment, Jon said, with a tinge of re-commitment to sobriety, “There isn’t a second check for me.”

A 12-Step recovery program focusing on sobriety, strength, and serenity worked for Jon the first go-round, a rarity in a field where 90 percent of alcoholics relapse at least once over the four-year period following treatment, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

180 degrees

Today, sober since May 2007, Jon does not miss his previous ways. But he was not the only one who had to adjust. For the first year of his sobriety, his mother called him every month to check if he had paid his bills.

“She has 10 years experience of me not paying my bills,” he said.

Making amends and rekindling trust with family members is no easy feat, especially when they still have “visual memories” of the old Jon.

“Their experiences around my drinking and using were so real,” Jon said.

People who have not experienced addiction do not grasp the full picture of recovery, Jon said.

“All they know is that I stopped drinking, I go to meetings, and so I show them through my actions that something has drastically changed,” he said.

No longer being dependent on drugs or alcohol means “everything” to Jon.

“A lot of times I don’t think I deserve it,” he said. “I understand how elusive it is, but to me, to say those words ‘I’m sober’ is something that I don’t at all take for granted.

“What it looks like for me to be a sober person is a complete 180-degree turn from where I was. The fact that I’m thinking about anyone else at all is huge,” he said.

Back in School

Jon heard about a scholarship opportunity with Real Life Angels through The Center for Students in Recovery, which hosts a regular, open Students for Recovery support group on UT’s main campus. He was not sure whether he would meet the criteria but he was hopeful that he did.

Scholarship recipients must participate in a substance abuse treatment program, graduate from high school or complete a GED, enroll in a continuing education institution, provide a recommendation letter, and must be “currently living in a manner demonstrated by a commitment to sobriety.”

Jon was awarded the scholarship and now plans to transfer from Austin Community College into the UT School of Nursing.

“I have had first-hand experience with the important role that nurses play in the recovery field, and I hope to use my experience to make a difference in the lives of others through nursing,” Jon stated is his scholarship essay.

Real Life Angels

Jon was flabbergasted when he learned the mission of Real Life Angels, which is funded by donations and run by volunteer board members.

“Knowing that people out there, (who) to my understanding aren’t 100 percent connected or affected by the disease, acknowledge and see the importance of reaching out, is phenomenal,” Jon said of the budding nonprofit.

The belief is supportive mentorship grounded in career counseling will open up more hopeful paths for addicts. In fact, today Jon helps others through the steps toward recovery.

“I think I am a horrible sponsor,” he concedes. “(Progress) happens in spite of me. It happens because I show up. It happens because somebody taught me and because the universe steps in.”

Pay it Forward

Jon admits he cannot ultimately promise his mother that he will never slip into his old habits.

“I’ve had relationships with people who have relapsed; I see it all the time,” he said, shrugging his shoulders and throwing his hands up as if to demonstrate that words cannot describe the lifelong struggle of addiction.

“I can’t promise you that doesn’t happen. All I can do is say that my intention today is that’s not what I plan on doing,” Jon said. “As the days add together and life continues to happen, I continue to have more faith that everything’s going to be OK, and everything is OK.”

Today, Jon has years of sobriety under his belt and a personal conviction to pay it forward, yet he does not think much about what his legacy will be. Rather he embraces little opportunities to do something meaningful, such as treating a patient with dignity or buying a hamburger for a man on the street.

“It’s the least I can do today,” Jon said. “I don’t know the impact I’ll have on somebody’s life, but I know we all do.”

Editor’s note: Jon’s last name has been withheld to respect his privacy.