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The Golden Ticket by Daniel Zamora

Hello! My name is Daniel and my sobriety date is 9.10.2014.

Life in full, active addiction was governed by fear, anxiety, despair, and desperation. 

Agony, really. 

It didn’t start this way.

In the beginning, oh, it was a thrilling adventure. 

The trouble is that the fatality of this disease came disguised as relief and fun. 

Drinking began at fourteen years old, and now in sobriety, it’s clear that I drank alcoholically straightaway. Coming to consciousness as a young person in the 1980s, I gained awareness about my sexuality at an early age. Having been raised in the Catholic church, I relished the concept and love of God, songs, stories, ceremonies, and the pageantry of the faith. I even enjoyed CCD and Confirmation classes – and loved posing philosophical questions and exploring topics with our priests. Despite this childhood happiness in the church, it soon became clear that a future life as a gay man was NOT going to go well; most notably, it guaranteed an eternity in Hell. I was a quick study and understood that even expressing a concern about MAYBE liking boys would be self-sabotage. Desperate, I began seeking successful gay role models…and couldn’t find anyone. This was before the internet (!), and gay characters on television seemed to be around purely for comic relief or were easily dismissed and ridiculed. There were no LGBTQ+ characters in the books on my shelf (though later learning that many of the authors of favorite childhood books were in fact gay, was a delight). What’s more, I would have DIED before walking up to a librarian or bookseller to ask, “Do you have any captivating books with dreamy, righteous, superpowered gay guys that possess an incredible, unshakable love of the Universe?”. My parent’s Encyclopedia Britannica collection yielded little explanation. I recall looking up the term “homosexual” after I’d heard it on an episode of 20/20 one Friday night. I was hoping to discover a source of scientific knowledge and was instantly crushed when all that was found in the ‘H” volume was something like ” Homosexual – of, or pertaining to, the same sex.” It’s quite amusing now. It certainly was NOT then! How times have changed. 

My parents were (are) endlessly supportive, but early on I recognized that their life paths were vastly different and I simply did not have the skill set to broach such serious subject matter. Amidst these internal struggles, the AIDS crisis began to unfold its terrible fury onto the world and was being labeled as “The Gay Cancer.” The disease was everywhere – on the news, in the newspapers, the tabloids, the conversations of my relatives, the chatter at school, and for a while, there was a great fear that it was transmittable by mosquito bites. Going outside to play meant exposing myself to insects and risking death. Overwhelmed by the enormity of this all, fear and uncertainty became deeply rooted and I was in anguish for my mortal life and eternal soul. This fate seemed inescapable: Before entering into an Eternity of Damnation, I was destined for a dark, desolate life, during which I would inevitably become incurably ill and physically ghastly, eventually perishing from a disease that was customized for gay people for our inherent immorality.

I was about twelve years old. 

At this age, “the actor” whom we in recovery sometimes refer to, began to appear. Much of life’s energy went into masking the unspeakable torment just beneath the skin’s surface. It takes an incredible amount of effort to appear “normal” and I couldn’t share what I was feeling as it would reveal my true self, and thus, the inevitable horrid life of dejection and alienation I’d imagined would begin right away. Already the creative sort, I threw myself into drawing, painting, and reading. I drew, painted, and read, over and over again. I devoured books and lost myself in the fantastic adventures of the wonderful, complex, and sensitive characters inside. I could see these people – they were my friends – and their magical adventures were as real to me as brushing my teeth, school, and chores. Every straight-A report card, birthday, and Christmas, my wonderful Mom would drive me to the bookstore (my Wonderland), where I would proceed to spend hours painstakingly selecting new lifelong friends. Surely, somewhere in these pages were people like me! My parents encouraged creativity and reading. My father, the Athletic Director for our school district, before leaving for whatever game we were going to, would always ask with a smile and a jingle of his keys, “Do you have all of your books?” Many pictures of childhood reveal me peering out from under a book or holding a stack. Equipped with a flashlight, I read late at night waaay past bedtime and was forever getting busted by my Mom. I can still hear her voice: “Danny!” she would gasp, “You need to go to SLEEP!”

To this day, my parents are highly social people. They are not drinkers and aside from literally one or two occasions that I recall, never have been. Ironically, they often received bottles of premium alcohol for various special occasions from friends and colleagues. As a result, a full bar was a presence in our home, filled with all types of mysterious spirits, many of which were years old.

When I was fourteen, while Mom and Dad were away for a weekend, in an effort to impress peers, I impulsively snuck out about half a bottle of vodka and drank it at an unchaperoned neighborhood party. The suffocating fear and anxiety that had become part of everyday life just VANISHED. My tightly wound shoulders dropped, surprising me with the realization that they were usually up to my ears with tension. I remember laughing and laughing that night. I was filled with tremendous relief and felt that the Golden Ticket had just been discovered – like Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. Newfound freedom had presented itself and it was wholeheartedly embraced. I’d found a way to live! And not only would fear be eliminated, but life was also going to be FUN. Never mind the fact that I was horribly sick later that night and the next morning – it was easily worth it. I would do better next time. And the next time. And the time after that. Right then, I secretly vowed to drink forever; after all, it was the only way and seemed easy enough. You just pick-up something with alcohol and drink…I could do that blindfolded. 

My substance use disorder ebbed and flowed for the next twenty-six years. I got a scholarship to college to study art and architecture. That first semester of school, I found an LGBT student group and happily became socially active, excited to be comfortable and safe among people like me. I made good grades, found excellent friends, studied fascinating things, and even had the opportunity to study abroad. It was a good life, filled with love, learning, and opportunity. And also filled with drinking. Unbeknownst to many people, my internal world was a battleground. I struggled to maintain the goodness in life, and for a while, it seemed to work.

In the year 2000, still suffering from high anxiety, no doubt made worse from drinking, I was prescribed Xanax by a doctor and was casually told to “be careful” with them because they were addictive. 

“Yeah, yeah,” I thought. “You’re prescribing the pills, how dangerous can they be? You’re a doctor!” Naively, I had just unknowingly become a statistic in what would later be referred to as “The Opioid Crisis”. 

Years passed in this internal war – my body, mind, and soul were the battleground. Thankfully  love from family and friends was steadfast. I silently struggled and shared nothing of my condition – I had it “under control.” At a loss for what to do after graduation, I took an exciting job one semester before completing my courses at school – with the intent of returning “after a year of working and figuring out the next real move.” The actor reigned on, while my truer self bore witness, attempting to instill the love present in life. More time passed and various levels of professional success and money were experienced, all absent from sustainable personal fulfillment. (NOTE: The fact that I worked with some wonderful folks and engaged with lovely clients was a godsend, and I remain grateful for that to this day.) I hungered for the return to the worlds of art, photography, and contributing to creative teams; meanwhile, the emotional cost of not having finished school ate away at me daily. The life and identity I’d created were exhausting to maintain, and the fear was always still at hand. Self-worth and self-esteem were constantly in question. I tried to balance out the darkness with healthy practices like eating cleanly, running, swimming, and volunteering. By most accounts, I generally appeared healthy. Of course, drinking and pill popping were influencing my trajectory and had consequences. In my twenties, I went to jail three times – all alcohol related. Under their influence, I was quick witted and brazenly sharp tongued, lost a couple of good jobs, forgot things, behaved recklessly, broke commitments, made unwise choices with personal relationships (romantic and otherwise), and at my worst, was full of shame, rageful, inconsolably depressed, confused, and helplessly LOST. Eventually, a long relationship ended, collapsing after years of dysfunction. I entered an out-patient rehab program for the wrong reasons – to get out of work. At this point, I didn’t want to die, but I wasn’t keen on living either. I hadn’t yet hit my bottom, but I was close. 

Despite myself, I grew very curious about the information presented to us in the out-patient program, finding much of it fascinating. The more information presented about the science of substance use disorder, the more my life began to make sense. This wasn’t a moral failure. It made sense that there was no safe way to consume poison, no matter how fancy the glass or how expensive it was.  Prescribed medicine could be dangerous (this sounds so naïve now). I learned that “passing out” – something that had been happening almost every night for years – was the body’s defense mechanism to prevent any more toxins from entering the body; that is, the body was rendering itself unconscious in order to survive. I was AMAZED. Additionally, countless themes within the stories we shared as patients were compelling – and so very familiar. I enjoyed the sessions and marveled how in some ways, they were like taking a college class, only in this case, with urine tests.

I drank and took pills for almost two more years – at as heavy as before the program, though the most miserable in many ways, and necessary to reach bottom and receive “the gift of desperation.”

The circumstances that led to my recovery were many. After the time as an outpatient, changes in people, places, and things began taking place. I had begun to reexamine many aspects of life and live from a place of gratitude. Newly single, I began branching out, doing things like joining a book club, volunteering with personally meaningful causes, becoming active in healthy, socially conscious communities. These groups were filled with sincere, caring, mature, and joyful people. Healthy, fun, smart folks. They did cool things and followed through on their word. It was a welcome, far cry from bar life. I eventually started attending 12 step group meetings and making friends there. My days were brighter. Nights grew quieter. The high, feverish pitch of a painful life was slowly cooling. I was still using, but the pull was weakening. I understood so much more about the disorder and the possibilities of a healthy life. At one point in 2014, I began seeing a handsome English friend who’d had six years sober. I learned more about his journey and was moved by his perseverance. He knew about my struggles/recent life developments and was supportive, patient, and understanding.  One Saturday night, he suggested that we attend a “Birthday Night” at Lambda Center Houston – a beautiful center established for the support of the LGBTQ+ community either in, or seeking, recovery. By now, I was already in love with Lambda and quickly agreed to go. Birthday Night is a brilliant custom that involves people celebrating annual milestones (“birthdays”) in recovery within a particular month. Upon the announcement of their sober-birthday date, the celebrant gets up, goes to the podium, receives a hug and a sobriety chip, and usually shares a little about their journey thus far. It was my first Birthday Night and it was a BLAST. So funny, incredibly touching, sincere, and heartfelt. In many cases, I felt that I had already known these people for a long time – and that they knew me. The things that these people shared were incredible, in some cases, even unbelievable. The strength within their stories reminded me of the heroic, fantastic journeys from the books of my childhood and adolescence. I was spellbound. At one point in the evening, a person celebrating their first year of sobriety got up to the front and shared. I identified with everything that she said, from the second she started to the moment she ended. Right then and there, I wholeheartedly resolved to begin the journey into a healthy, sober life. A short time later, I reached out to some new friends and family. In a heartbeat, my dad drove into town, and I re-enrolled in another out-patient program – this time to end the use, address past and present pain and issues, get sober, and reclaim my body, life and soul. One moment at a time, one day at a time.

My life has changed in fundamental ways in sobriety. Recently, I read a quote by Joseph Campbell that read “I don’t believe that people are looking for the meaning of life so much as the feeling of being alive.” I am alive in ways that are simply not possible without recovery and community! The feelings and acts of connectedness and gratitude have been foundational in my daily program. These things manifest in myriad ways, one of the first being that I no longer feel sentenced to another day of life in sickness and helplessness. Mostly, days are joyful, and when they are not, that’s okay too. Life can be enjoyed as it presents itself in real time. Once enslaved by substances, I am not a slave to my emotions either. I developed and tuned skills to right-size challenges and reach out when in need of perspective and support. Today, life is filled with good council and populated with people that have my best interests in heart. Unmistakably, I am here for them too – as a better son, brother, friend, partner, team member, and even pet daddy! Once fearful that being sober would hinder my creativity, today I produce artwork with a zeal and gusto that hadn’t appeared in years. Notably, in the fourth year of sobriety, I re-enrolled in school at Texas A&M University – College Station and finally completed my undergraduate Global Art and Design degree. Turns out, I’m a MUCH better student with good health and experience!  I became immersed in the studies and pursued my passion for Interdisciplinary Media, Art, and Photography (in my case, digital illustration combined with original photography). I got 4.0! Additionally, during the year back at school, I became one of the founding officers for the Aggie Recovery Community – a student organization for Aggies either in or seeking recovery. It was a privilege to work alongside such capable students, faculty, and even addiction scientists. We worked with other estimable organizations and attended sober student conferences – I had NO IDEA of the magnitude of the sober student culture across US college campuses and it was wholly inspiring. This opportunity to live shamelessly and visibly in order to offer support and information was a tremendous blessing. Had such resources been available in my previous time as a student, my life’s trajectory may have been forever changed, and it was our mission to actively and positively represent a sober student community. The Aggie Recovery Community even held the first ever Sober Tailgate at the University and it was wildly successful – our motto summed it up: “Good. Clean. Fun.” 

Another hallmark of today’s healthy life was a recent trip to Big Bend with my adventurous, supportive, and nature-loving boyfriend. Together, we hiked the Outer Mountain Loop trail – a 33 mile journey that took us a few days. In the throes of illness, just something like getting a glass of water or answering the phone seemed very difficult, or at least, inconvenient. And yet, there in Big Bend, under the Sci-Fi skies, I found myself carrying a 40lbs backpack for miles over challenging terrain, very dusty and happily chomping on fruit leathers. Exhausted, we fell asleep under violet blankets of stars. It was exhilarating, something that NEVER would have happened without recovery.

This shared mission of bright sobriety continues to live on in me in all aspects of life as I walk this path with dedication, sincerity, compassion, and integrity. I was honored to be asked to contribute some of the story of my experience, strength, and hope with the Bigger Than Depression community. And I’m forever grateful to be sober today! Wishes of health and happiness for us all.

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