As September is “Recovery Month,” I’m sharing this story based on my interview with a man who has become a respected friend.
Some of us remember it as “The Blizzard of ’89.” To Theo, it’s the night he almost froze to death.
Not technically a blizzard, the storm was an anomaly for the Carolina Coast, especially on Christmas Eve. He’d quit his job at Dupont to drink liquor and sell blood. He’d been arrested 66 times for child support. The money was supposed to be taken out of his check, but it’s hard to hold on to a job when you keep getting locked up.
On that Christmas Eve in 1989, he walked to the club on Orange Street and got hit in the head with a bottle by a man trying to rob him. Theo stumbled into the cold and headed toward Ann Street and the place he called home.
The house had no electricity, no water, and no heat. Windows of broken glass allowed the frigid night air to permeate every room. But he figured it would be warmer than sleeping outside. Theo wrapped himself in whatever coats and blankets he could find and fell asleep.
He woke up shivering in the middle of the night and saw snow blowing in through the window.
“Lord, let me go to sleep and not wake up,” he prayed.
Theo had never prayed such a thing before. Even during his three years, six months, and 11 days in prison he’d always found enough hope to stay alive.
His prison time started in 1966 when he was convicted of armed robbery while serving in the Navy. He’d been drinking heavily and hanging out with the wrong crowd again. On a five-day leave, he planned to spend time with family in North Carolina and caught a ride from the Florida base with his buddy, John. They partied along the way but ran out of money in Georgia where John decided to rob a gas station and landed them both in prison.
Working on a road gang in Georgia, Theo was charged with insubordination and ended up in the hole for 15 days – naked, in the dark, on concrete. He got one meal ever four days. Even then, he didn’t lose hope, though he did lose 20 pounds during each of his three stays in the hole.
After a year of incarceration, Theo wrote a letter to the newspaper about conditions at the prison and was interviewed by the press. Shortly after that, he was transferred to a larger facility that held over 4000 prisoners.
“There was a killing every day.” Theo recalls. “I didn’t know if someone was going to stab me in my sleep or set me on fire.” For the first three months, he just sat on his bunk and watched. He noticed some inmates reading, writing letters, or making crafts (handbags and wallets) and started doing some art himself – painting portraits and making handbags to sell to relatives back home for spending money. Trying to stay out of trouble, Theo gravitated toward the creative crowd. Watching all the killings going on, they realized how many prisoners didn’t know how to read or write. So, he and a group of 8 to 10 inmates started a group called, “The Barons of Goodwill.” They helped fellow prisoners read and write letters. Theo believed this was his turning point.
While in prison, he took courses in electronics and welding. He started writing a book called, Choices by Chance, but since it was about life in prison, the guards confiscated it along with some of his poems and paintings. With about seven years left on his 10-year sentence, Theo was in an accident on the road gang truck which left him with 3 broken ribs, 27 stitches, and a busted shoulder. They released him from prison a couple weeks after the accident.
He planned to stay sober and live with his parents for a while. But three blocks from the bus station, he ran into old friends drinking on their front porch. He was drunk before he got home. He told his mom over and over that he was sorry. This was his first clue about the cunning, baffling nature of alcoholism.
Theo got a job welding at a factory and did stop drinking. But after about two years, he thought he could drink a little. First, he only drank on his days off. Then only after work. Eventually, he was drinking before work, then during lunch. He’d stop drinking off and on, but over time, his disease got worse. In 1983, he married a woman who also drank heavily. They argued a lot. On Valentine’s Day, he saw a TV commercial for a treatment program asking, “Are you sick and tired of being sick and tired?” He called the number and his wife listened in on the other line. When he hung up the phone, she came out and shot him four times in the stomach and legs. He decided the relationship was over. After that, Theo didn’t drink for a while, but he still hung around with the wrong crowd. He started a roofing company, but hired people who were just like him. “working to drink.”
In 1989, Theo got locked up on his birthday over child support. He went to an AA meeting to avoid the fighting, drinking and reefer in the prison dormitory. He remembers one of the men in the meeting sharing he had 20 years sober. Theo didn’t believe it. “You’re a liar,” he told the man. Someone told him to “shut up and listen.” The next time he went to a meeting, he just listened.
Theo got out of prison in October of ’89. A friend invited him to an AA meeting at Good Shepherd where he’d gone to the day shelter. He saw some guys he used to drink with there, which tweaked his interest in the program, but he continued to drink off and on. His addiction to alcohol grew stronger with each episode.
On Christmas Eve of 1989, the years of misery, broken relationships, and doing time came bearing down on him. Theo woke up to a blanket of snow on Christmas morning. He had to do something to get warm, so he walked to the day shelter knowing they were closed. The man who lived across the street from the shelter was shoveling snow. Theo thought he recognized him from meetings and asked to borrow a shovel to remove snow from the shelter sidewalk and parking lot. The work kept him warm for a while.
Then, Theo walked to the liquor house which was open. He was no stranger to drinking in the morning. But today was different. All he wanted was to be warm. When the woman asked him what he wanted to drink, he said he wanted something hot. She gave him some of the stew she’d been cooking for her husband.
Theo never drank alcohol again after that. He spent much of his time at the day shelter where he could get lunch, shower, and wash his clothes. A counselor there named Ann knew he’d had a drinking problem and must have seen a change in him. One day, she asked him to come into the office. She asked him a list of ten questions.
“Does drinking interfere with your relationships?”
“Has drinking ever caused problems at work?”
Theo answered yes to all ten questions.
“It’s like you’ve been following me around or something,” he told her.
“Do you want some help?”
Every place was full. But Ann told him, “If you don’t drink, come back Monday.”
On Monday, every place was still full. But on Tuesday, there was an opening at Stepping Stone, a halfway house for alcoholics and drug addicts. After the interview, they told him to come back the next day with his stuff. “He won’t last three weeks,” he heard someone say. But Theo lasted seven months.
It wasn’t easy at first. There were all kinds of men at the halfway house. It helped to remember he’d lived with a diverse group of people in the Navy and in prison. Theo’s three years of military service and three plus years in prison, helped him adjust quickly to the structure and routine of morning meditations and going to three meetings a day. At first, he didn’t listen at the meetings and focused on eating cookies and drinking coffee. Then, one day, this guy came up to him and said, “I’m your sponsor.”
“I didn’t ask for a sponsor,” Theo replied.
“My sponsor said you need a sponsor.”
The man turned out to be Theo’s sponsor for the next 25 years, until he died.
Working the 12 steps, Theo learned the real him, not the monster he used to see in the mirror. “I had to learn to forgive myself – to make amends to myself,” he said. All his life he’d felt like the fifth wheel, like he didn’t belong, but when he went to AA, he felt like he belonged. He’d thought that God didn’t want him, but realized that God had led him to AA, and that God had never left him. He knew that it was time to stop taking and start giving back. He knew this might be his last opportunity.
As Theo stopped blaming other people for his shortcomings and taking responsibility, he learned that he was “the author of all his tragedies.” He learned that he had to get real, that he couldn’t run from himself and had to face up to things.
Over the next few years, things fell into place. After the halfway house, he worked regularly as a welder, in apartment maintenance, and as a longshoreman. He fixed up the house he was born in, the house where he slept on that snowy Christmas Eve. Then, in 2014, Theo married a preacher. They had dated for a few months way back in the 1960s when he spent his free time in clubs and on the street. She didn’t go to clubs, didn’t drink, and focused on work, so the relationship didn’t work out back then. They finally reconnected after Theo got sober and she showed up at his church.
Throughout his journey, what made a difference in Theo’s life was the company he kept. He’s tried to impress this upon his sons, telling them to watch who they hang around and to do positive things. “If the person you hang around goes to jail or Yale, you’re going too,” he says. Theo says he’s met the best people in recovery, some of them even in prison. In recovery, he’s met people who are honest and working on the same goals. He’s developed friendships that transcend age and race.
Today, in his early seventies, Theo is “semi-retired.” He fixes up houses, tends his garden and gives his home grown produce to older people at church. He’s been teaching Sunday school at his church for the past ten years. He buys books at thrift stores and gives them out at church, to people in recovery, and on the street. Theo attends meetings for himself every week and goes to the prison every Sunday. He sponsors some men there, remembering that his first meeting was in prison. When an inmate doesn’t believe he has 17 years of sobriety, he doesn’t tell them to shut up, but he does tell them to listen. He tells them to look around for a sponsor and to get a “home group” when they get out, a group that can become like family. He tells them to stay in recovery.
(All photos in this post are from Pixabay.)