I was born in the Midwest on my own father’s birthday. He was a physician completing his residency training. My mom was a nurse and the daughter of missionaries. My parents were married during their medical training. Both had dreams of becoming medical missionaries, and soon after my birth, those dreams were realized as they moved my older siblings and me overseas to serve. Another sibling was born soon after, and we lived with other foreign medical staff families while attending school.
My father worked constantly, as the needs were great for his medical expertise. My mom raised us and also worked with other kids. My parents were very strong in their faith and commitment to serve God, feeling called to this life by him. My father, however, suffered from health issues, and because of this, when I was ten years old, we returned to the States.
The experience of returning to middle-class America from a third world country was a pivotal time for my siblings and me. We felt awkward, different, like we were from outer space. Financially, socially, and academically, we were behind and different. We wore weird, outdated clothes. We were poor at that time with little to play with or show off. We didn’t understand the little unspoken gestures and innuendos. We did not fit in, and it was confusing. My older siblings had a more difficult time making friends than I did, struggling with emotional stress, depression, and academics. I, on the other hand, did find some close friends in the neighborhood. Even though feeling a sense of embarrassment for being different, I had people to hang with. I spent more time away with friends, and in middle school, this increased. Three of us got to be close and stayed together all the way through high school.
These two friends came from strained home relationships, having both parents with difficult relationships and older siblings who exposed them to alcohol and drugs. We were around alcohol and drugs regularly, and soon, in middle school, my friends began to try them. I developed a familiarity with partying and such. We would smoke together from time to time and use oral tobacco. My friends would drink alcohol when they could find some. Early on, I resisted. My upbringing, faith, and convictions were important to me, but these friendships were even more so. I belonged, even with my differences.
Strangely, I also remained very involved in my church. I enjoyed youth activities and relationships there and became a leader in the high school group. But outside the church, I continued hanging out and partying with my other friends. Although feeling guilty at times and wanting things to be different, I continued to participate in these two different lifestyles. I soon was using alcohol nightly and smoking and using marijuana. While using these, I found something I was missing. I felt a part of something, a greater confidence socially, and a sense of being okay in my own skin. This would wear off the next day, and I would smoke and drink again.
Through the end of high school and into college, I continued this pattern of coping. I used alcohol primarily in a pattern of binging on weekends and such. This I did in secret with certain friends while keeping my reputation protected in the other areas of life. I was always chasing the buzz, looking for a sense of being okay. I never drank out of a love for the taste. It was a means to an end. Although feeling like a hypocrite, an imposter in many ways, and at times guilty over my actions, I continued.
I was able to do this while also doing well academically. I was very involved in college life and sports and extracurricular activities. I played soccer, sang in choir, served on student government, and led in other student positions. I knew I wanted to go to medical school, so I was careful to work hard. I was able to complete pre-med training, applied to medical school, and was accepted. I was on my way.
It was soon after this in my senior year that I would take a detour. Through a friend’s influence on me, I had a spiritual experience that led me to consider going into the ministry instead of medical school. I gave up alcohol and my plans in order to pursue helping others. I deferred my medical school acceptance to take a year to explore this by working with kids in a large church program. Although it was a great year personally, it did not bring clear resolution. I ended up deciding to pursue medicine and so began medical school, when similar patterns of coping reappeared.
Despite ongoing external success, I was plagued with internal fear. Spiritually, my faith suffered. It was not enough. The work stress, fear of failure, and isolation grew. My solution was to achieve and work harder. I was unable to be honest and ask for help. I received affirmation from peers and faculty, but this did not fill the hole in me. I continued to fall back into drinking, often binging, on my own. Seeking relief, I would also attend church and pray but felt far from God.
After trying to stop, I would return to using drugs again within a month. I got to a new low. I remember a sense of hopelessness, a sense that my life was a failure and that my wife and family would be better off with me gone. I hated myself. In an odd moment, I came to a place of willingness. While sitting in my office, I prayed a prayer I had intentionally avoided for years. I believed God would probably answer this one. It went something like this: “I need help. I can’t ask anyone for help. If you bring someone to me, I will be honest and admit it.” I knew immediately that the gig was up.
Within one hour, one of my physician partners knocked on my door and asked if he could speak to me. This discussion led to a conversation with the head of a physicians’ advocacy and support program for an evaluation. After admitting to my wife some of the truth, I entered a treatment program for physicians. This changed the trajectory of my life and my family’s life.
Through this prolonged treatment program, I began to wake up to the truth. I immediately felt relief. My first 12-step meeting in treatment was a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. A man was telling his story. He had lived on the streets in the drug-dealing world. I will never forget the clear sense that he was telling my story. We were so different, yet the feelings he described were mine too. I felt hope.
It has been over seventeen years since I walked into treatment, at a bottom that had me completely hopeless. What are some things I have learned and experienced? Well, I am comfortable in my own skin most of the time. I know how to ask for help or give appropriate help. I have learned about intimacy and friendship with other men and have experienced the blessing of such. I feel more now, such as joy, sadness, loneliness. I see life as more tragic now, but with that I see its increased meaning and purpose. I see myself as belonging, no better or worse. I shoot for progress, not perfection. I am willing to ask for forgiveness and own my part in conflicts. I forgive myself more quickly. I hope for more. For all this, I am so grateful!
In addition, I am more accepting of where I am in life. I care more for people. I can say “no” more easily when needed. I understand boundaries. I can give and hold back more appropriately.
What do I hope for in the future? More of this life! More surrender to God. More love for my wife and more time with her. More friendship, not with many but deeper with a few. More of my kids, relationship with them, more memories, more curiosity about them. More time. More reading and growing and thinking. To spend more time in service in ways that help those who can’t help themselves. To enjoy life. To bring a message of hope to those I find around me. To live a truly sober life!