I had my first real drink when I was 15.
I was in a boarding school near an affluent suburb in Pretoria, South Africa when my friends and I jumped the fence on Wednesday night and snuck to a bar around the corner for shots of tequila. After just a few shots, I felt the warm buzz and was relaxed and happy—it was a feeling of freedom I didn’t know I’d been looking for.
Until that point, I felt somehow disconnected from everybody else. It seemed everyone in my life was “in” on something I was excluded from, but alcohol had changed that. It was a new feeling, and I wanted more of it.
The first time I got drunk, I was 17 at a school dance and I blacked out.
My friends told me I’d been out of control, hanging off people and saying embarrassing things. I felt shame and embarrassment the next day, but I shrugged it off. It was normal to drink too much once in a while, I figured.
Getting a formal diagnosis of depression at 18 was a confirmation I was different, and it gave me another excuse to drink. Of course, I have to drink all the time, I thought to myself. I have depression.
With that, I started taking anti-depressants, but I didn’t stop drinking.
In college, I would get drunk and insist on driving, wrestling my keys away from well-meaning friends. Getting pulled over by police officers for driving drunk didn’t stop me—I somehow managed to bribe my way out of trouble for it whenever I got caught. No matter how many car accidents I got into (and there were several), I thought it was all just part of being a wild kid.
When I graduated the pattern continued. I got a full-time job at a bank and on weekends, would drink more with diminishing returns.
I was in pain nearly all the time and I started to realize I might need a change of environment and some new friends. Maybe then my life would be better.
I moved to Canada to be near some extended family, but the change had no remedial effects. If anything, my behavior was getting more dangerous. Soon I was smoking weed to take the edge off my hangovers, which were getting worse. On big nights out, I’d do whatever other drugs were around, including cocaine. The tipping point came when I blacked out on a subway train in Toronto and woke up on the platform alone, asleep on a bench. My phone, wallet and jacket were gone. I’d been robbed.
After three years at my job in Canada, I quit and moved back to South Africa to be with my family. I was scared of myself, but I wasn’t ready to stop—and moving back in with my parents wasn’t the break I thought it would be.
“What is that smell?” My mom would ask me, sniffing the air theatrically. “It smells like weed, Paul. Do you smell
that?” Inside I boiled with paranoia and anger. All I could do was say I didn’t smell anything and stomp out of the living room.
Of course, I smelled it—I was ducking out of the house or taking drives to get high all the time, sneaking around and hoping not to be called out. My parents would never say anything to me directly, but things in the house were getting more tense by the day. My mom’s patience was wearing thin and my dad was spending more and more time in his office.
One day, my parents sat me down at the kitchen table and laid out my options.
“You need to sort yourself out,” my dad said. “Your mom and I have been thinking about a solution to some of your problems.”
What came next was ridiculous in hindsight. The first option was that I could go join a monastery in Italy to iron myself out. The second was that I could go to China to study martial arts at a camp. The third was that I could go to Resurrection Ministries, a working farm and a Christian rehab.
I wasn’t sure about any of it, but I was out of chances. Rehab seemed like the best choice.
Getting to the farm put my privileged life in perspective immediately.
From the very first day, I was put on pig duty, ordered to root around in the mud with hordes of snorting hogs, shoveling shit. And these were enormous pigs.
One of the other guests told me before I’d arrived, one of the pigs had flipped a 100-pound bag of concrete mix into the air with its snout. It fell on another pig, killing it instantly.
I was in a world unlike any I’d been in before.
Every day, we were expected to be up at 4:45 am without alarm clocks. If any of us were late, nobody got morning tea. It was the only comfort we were allowed, so getting it was a big deal…unfortunately, I was late a lot and the group started to turn on me.
In the fields, there were snakes everywhere. There were electric fences to keep out animals. There were cows with massive horns, ready to
charge and gore you. My life flashed before my eyes multiple times a week there.
Every day, the people in charge and the other guests called me out on my bad attitude. I was lacking an “attitude of gratitude” for our cigarette rationing system and made the mistake of showing the owner as much—and she chewed me out so loudly that everyone in the valley could hear it. The other guests complained about my bad cooking—hell, before rehab, I could barely chop an onion. Wherever I turned, I was getting broken down. There was no salvation coming, and everything was new, uncomfortable and awkward. I hated it.
After the first six weeks, I was finally allowed to have contact with my family again, and my parents scheduled a visit about a month or so later. The prospect was both exciting and terrifying. To compound my anxiety, I was wrestling with step three: turning my will and life over to God, which I stubbornly refused to do. All I wanted was to get out of there and go back to my old life.
One day, the owners approached me with an unusual request. “Can we pray for you?”
I was taken aback. I wasn’t getting on with the people who ran the ministry, but I wasn’t particularly getting on with anyone else either. Even so, here they were, inviting me in. The prayer aspect seemed strange, but I didn’t have a lot of people in my life showing me much love up to that point, so I said yes. With that, the group gathered around me with bowed heads and outstretched arms.
They prayed for God’s peace to come down and for the Holy Spirit to move through me. Fat chance, I thought. Like
always, my mental chatter was incessant and the volume knob was cranked to 11.
But something remarkable happened. I felt something. Something was flowing through me, calm and transcendent. For the first time I could remember, the chatter was quiet.
That night, I even shocked myself while journaling. Today was the happiest day of my life, I wrote. Before that day, I’d have called you a liar if you’d said the same thing to me.
When I was finally face-to-face with my parents, I could tell what a toll my behavior had taken on them. I was mostly glad to see them.
“I can’t wait to get home again,” I said. Their faces went blank.
“You’re not coming home,” my dad said. “You’re not staying with us anymore. You need to get a job and be a productive member of society.”
My final safe place had been removed.
After my parents left, there was more work to do. I thought I’d be out of the program in just a few months, but I wasn’t ready. Soon the program’s recommended six months were behind me as well. All I knew was I had to keep going. I had a lot of things to unlearn.
After 10 or 12 months, I broke down and told my parents everything—all the drugs I’d done, all the mistakes I’d made and how often. For the first time, I was letting them in. Maybe I’d been wrong about the world leaving me out of things my whole life. Maybe the problem was
that I couldn’t be honest and open with myself, so I couldn’t be honest and open with others.
I’d been hiding from life, but I decided to stay as long as it took to learn not to hide anymore. Even in the darkest valleys, I felt some benevolent force urging me on. It ended up taking 18 months.
As it turned out, rehab life was not so different from sober, mature adult life on the outside.
When I left rehab, I got two jobs waiting tables, covering all seven days of the week. I was relieved to see my parents were still there to help me, despite everything. They lent me an old car and I had just enough cash flow to fill it, eat, pay rent and repeat. I got up at dawn, worked nonstop and ate plenty of instant noodles and beans.
I was working my program in earnest, going to meetings, talking to my sponsor and above all praying to God. At work, I served customers, washed dishes and scrubbed floors. It wasn’t glamorous, but I was at peace. I could finally see my life unfurling in front of me.
Despite having very little, I had been blessed with a renewed purpose. I was grateful for what I did have. For the first time, I was actually a part of my life, and God was at the center.
Written by Paul Roux
Today Paul uses his background in financial planning to help others in recovery take control of their money. He aims to deliver a message of hope to those who feel hopeless. Paul wants to inspire and empower people financially, so they can achieve their true purpose in life.
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