An Addict's Recovery Path Leads Him to Help Others

There's a reason this outreach coordinator is able to guide addicts toward their paths to recovery: He used to be an addict himself.

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- Posted on Feb 26, 2018

David Stoecker

I love my job. I’m the advocacy and education outreach coordinator for the Missouri Recovery Network, a state-funded nonprofit that aims to increase awareness of the realities of drug and alcohol addiction and advocates for quality treatment programs. I travel all over the state, helping communities establish recovery programs and provide other services that addicts need. I train people to revive overdose victims, and I spread the word about what it takes to get people into recovery and committed to sobriety.

I bring a special experience to my work with addicts.

I used to be one.

A decade ago, I was the last guy you’d hire for my job. I was in my thirties. I’d been using drugs and alcohol since I was a teenager. I smoked dope, shot up meth and ground-up pain pills, sold drugs, drove drunk and served a 16-month prison sentence for burglary.

I hated myself, hated God and hated the world.

Today I’m happily married with two kids. My relationship with God is the foundation of my sobriety. I’m blessed to have a job that enables me to heal the kind of harm I caused all those years that I misused drugs and alcohol.

How did it happen?

I tell my story everywhere I go in Missouri for two reasons. One, I’m living proof that even the most incorrigible addict can get sober and stay sober. More important, I’ve learned some essential lessons about addiction and recovery—the hard way. I know what works and what doesn’t. I’d like to share three of those lessons with you. I hope they’ll help you, your loved ones and anyone else you may know whose life has been harmed by the destructive disease of addiction.

1. Nobody wants to be an addict. Compassion can kick-start recovery.
My own journey to sobriety began with an unexpected offer of friendship. All my life, I believed the worst about people, especially myself. I was sexually abused as a child, my father was an alcoholic and my mom had to work so much to support her family she wasn’t able to take care of my two siblings and me—she sent us to live with her parents until she earned enough to afford a house.

My grandfather beat me severely and sometimes kept me out of school until my bruises healed. My main memories of church were of my parents shouting and cursing at each other in the car on the way there, then smiling and acting all holy when we walked into the sanctuary.

I trusted no one and assumed the world—especially churches—was full of judgmental hypocrites.

Imagine my surprise when a guy named Nate at the Ruby Tuesdays restaurant where I worked in Springfield, Missouri, kept talking to me as if he was actually interested in getting to know me. And Nate was a Christian!

I was in my mid-thirties by that point and trying to straighten out my life—sort of. After failing to graduate high school, serving that prison sentence and working a series of dead-end jobs, I went back to school and set my sights on becoming a social worker to help people like me. I swore off hard drugs (mostly), but I still got blackout drunk every night. I cursed a blue streak and made sure Nate knew I thought Christians were full of it.

He befriended me anyway. Nate’s wife, Becca, would come by the restaurant at closing time, and the three of us would talk. I kept trying to bait them by making fun of Christianity. They responded by inviting me to their church. I laughed off that invitation for months until Becca mentioned an upcoming church barbecue. I’m a sucker for good barbecue.

“I’m not drinking any of that Christian Kool-Aid,” I said.

“You don’t have to,” she said. “Just eat the barbecue.”

To my amazement, everyone at church was as nice as Nate and Becca. No judgment. No hard sell. Just good conversation—and barbecue.

For the first time in my life I felt as if someone liked me just for me. I didn’t know it then, but that was the start of my recovery.

2. Addicts need spiritual grounding.
There’s a reason 12-step programs begin with turning to a higher power. Addicts misuse drugs and alcohol for one reason—to fill a hole that, in the end, only God can fill.

That was my story. By the time I met Nate and Becca, I’d been feeling like a giant black hole for decades. Drinking and using drugs numbed my pain and gave me at least the illusion of belonging. If you can call hanging out with other addicts belonging.

I thought I was too broken even for God. That’s why I lashed out at other people’s faith.

Then one night, after I started attending Nate and Becca’s church occasionally (“Just to hang out, not because I believe any of this baloney,” I told them), I pulled out of the parking lot of a bar where I’d been drinking. I was drunk. In my rearview mirror, I saw a police car pull out behind me.

I panicked. I had been volunteering at a drug treatment center as part of my social work degree. I was so good at rationalizing my addiction, I didn’t even recognize how crazy that was. All I knew at the moment was my future was about to collapse. That cop would pull me over. I’d get busted, lose my volunteer work and flunk my degree.

I was startled to hear myself praying: “God, if you get me home without getting pulled over, I’ll go to Nate and Becca’s church every Sunday.”

I turned a corner. The cop turned the corner too.

I promised to give up drugs, then turned another corner. The cop stayed right behind me.

One by one, I swore off every bad behavior I could think of. Drinking. Driving drunk. Cussing. The cop followed me all the way home. I pulled into my garage—and the police car disappeared into the night.

I promptly passed out. When I woke up the next morning, I told myself all those promises were stupid. I got ready to go to a Super Bowl party. I was driving to the party, looking forward to getting wasted, when a song came on the radio I didn’t like. I looked for another station and landed on a patch of dead air. For some reason, I waited to see what would come on.

Out of nowhere, a song started up. The lyrics were loud and clear: “I wish you could see me now. I wish I could show you how I’m not who I was.” It was Brandon Heath, a Christian singer. The words kept repeating. I found myself pulling to the side of the road. I heard a voice: Go home, David. You can do this. I burst into tears. Then I turned around and drove home.

Next Sunday, I went to Nate and Becca’s church and joined the Celebrate Recovery group, a 12-step program rooted in Christian principles. I’ve been sober ever since.

Not every addict needs a dramatic spiritual awakening like that. But only an authentic relationship with a higher power can occupy the void that drugs and alcohol fail to fill.

3. People in recovery need to help others.
Addicts face a long list of things not to do. Don’t drink. Don’t use. Avoid triggers. What should they do instead?

Maybe this sounds counterintuitive, but I think people in recovery, even the ones who suffer most, need to reach out to others. They need to form new, mutually supportive friendships. They need to volunteer and become useful in their communities. They need to practice being a positive influence on other people, especially other suffering addicts seeking relief.

That’s what I realized as soon as I entered recovery. Except for Nate and Becca, almost all my friends were drinkers, drug users and partiers. I had no hope of staying sober if I hung out with people like them. I would have to find new friends.

And I had to find new things to do. For decades, I’d spent my free time looking for a fix, getting high or getting drunk. Just because I’d heard God’s voice in my car, and just because I’d committed to going to church and attending Celebrate Recovery, didn’t mean I suddenly felt great about myself and was ready to live a new life.

What was I going to do with all those hours I used to blot out with drugs and alcohol? I knew I needed more God in my life, so I started with church. How could I spend more time around church people? I joined a Christian softball team. I volunteered. I didn’t think I had much to offer, but I knew church was a better place to hang out than a bar.

Right away I found out that it felt good to do things for other people. I felt useful. Needed. I’d never felt like that before. Never.

I wanted more. Outside church, I found there were few organizations that give addicts productive things to do. So a few friends and I started an organization of our own. We called it Better Life in Recovery.

We hosted some gatherings and volunteered at a local school cleanup day. We expanded to bowling nights, movies, 5K races, river cleanups, speaking in schools—anything we could find that was positive, helpful and would keep us surrounded by good people. The organization grew and caught the attention of the Missouri Recovery Network. That’s how I got the job I have now.

My main message as I travel around Missouri is that people with substance use disorders are not evil, hopeless or lost souls. In fact, they are closer to recovery than they think. They have what it takes to get sober and become positive members of their families and communities. Turning to God starts them on the road. Not all people in recovery find church. But they all find something greater than drugs and alcohol to believe in. If they surround themselves with people committed to sobriety and if they get out of the house and make themselves useful, they stand a high chance of success.

Family members and communities can make all of that possible by doing what worked for me. Look for what’s good in addicts and help them see what you see. Introduce them to positive people and find ways for them to help serve others.

Above all, never give up. That night I got followed by the cop car, anyone would have thought I was a hopeless drunk. I was a drunk. And a drug addict. But not hopeless. Less than 24 hours later, I was hearing the voice of God and deciding, once and for all, to get sober.

We do not know when that moment will come for someone. But there are ways to make the moment come faster—and make it last. That’s what recovery is all about. Addicts hear the call of God and respond. The rest of us become voices amplifying that call. Together we are louder and brighter than the dark song of addiction.

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