Today H.T. Riekels is a vegetarian Buddhist working 60 hours a week as a restaurant manager, spending his rare spare time blogging, biking and deepening his spiritual studies.
Quite a contrast from a few years ago, when he went to jail for crashing his mother’s car while drunk and ended up broke and homeless.
“The guy I used to be is dead,” H.T. says with cool detachment. He didn’t just stop drinking after decades of alcoholism, he transformed his entire life.
“It’s one thing to just beat the substance abuse,” he said. “It’s a totally different thing to go to the root of what’s wrong.”
What was wrong for him, as with many addicts, was a potent combination of being an egomaniac with a massive inferiority complex.
H.T. is one of my husband’s oldest friends. They met in preschool in North Muskegon, Mich. and have stayed close for four decades, though for a time John nearly wrote H.T. off. John felt he’d lost his friend to drinking and found it painful to try to maintain the friendship.
H.T. started drinking in high school but says, “I wasn’t one of those wastoids.” It was when he got to Michigan State University and joined a fraternity that he feels he began to get in trouble.
He recalls his desperate desire to belong, and an atmosphere where it felt cool to drink and smoke pot. He suffered a couple of panic attacks at MSU, which he thinks were related to his drinking, and his drinking had interfered with work and with his relationship with a girlfriend, yet he convinced himself it was just a typical college phase.
He even quit drinking for a month to try to convince himself he was in control.
H.T. dropped out without graduating and moved to Chicago, becoming a roommate in an apartment John got after finishing at Michigan.
He realized then he had a problem, “but we were young guys living in Chicago.
“I thought, ‘I do drink a lot but I’m a functional alcoholic,’” H.T. remembers. He held a job, paid his rent, had friends.
He met his wife, Robin, in a bar. They were married for three years.
He describes gravitating toward other drinkers who validated his lifestyle, and says he and Robin had little in common besides drinking and sex.
“Were either of us doing this for the right reasons?” he asks, adding that alcoholics often make choices so their lifestyle reinforces that their behavior is normal. Everyone around them drinks so they’re just fine, right?
When their marriage ended, he acknowledged he was an alcoholic, but didn’t care.
“ I thought, ‘I don’t care if I have a problem. Fuck it, I deserve this.’” He said. “I pretty much had a death wish but I was too wimpy to go through with it.”
H.T. lived many more years this way, sometimes hoping his life might magically get better or looking for outward things like women or jobs to rescue him, embracing the knowledge that he drank too much.
He moved back to Muskegon, living on his own for a while, but ending up living with his parents because he couldn’t keep a place.
Then came the day when he took his mother’s car, drunk, without permission, and crashed it. He didn’t have a license at the time.
The jail time meant he had to sober up for the first time in a very long time.
“I had no reason to hold on to my previous life,” H.T. said. “The freedom of that allowed me to get there.”
“I didn’t have anything to lose,” he said. He was broke before the crash, and not wanting to go back to his parents, he was homeless.
Having a clear head, he began to think differently. H.T. realized his expectations of life were phony, and he was using them as crutches.
“I went, ‘That’s all bullshit. There’s no script. There is no way it’s supposed to be.’”
If he continued to believe things were supposed to be a certain way, and he wasn’t living up to those plans, “you’re doomed to failure every time.”
He resolved to stop drinking. But first, he tested himself. His first day out of jail after three months in, he went and bought a bottle.
He got drunk and slept outside that night. Hating it. “I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Everything I found appealing about it before wasn’t there.”
He knows he was playing with fire. He hasn’t told many friends he drank that night and he certainly doesn’t recommend it for others who’ve dried out. But for him, it put a period on the end of the sentence. He felt freed from alcohol for good.
H.T. didn’t feel a sense of urgency about rebuilding his life. He was staying at a homeless shelter, didn’t have a job or money, but his days felt full. He was applying for jobs, but also just walking around feeling grateful. He read at the library. He meditated in the park.
“I’d never been happier in my life,” he said.
H.T. said he learned from Deepak Chopra that people battling addiction often suffer a fundamental lack of joy in living. Substances dull the pain of life without pleasure. When H.T. first began rehab, his counselors offered him antidepressants to cope.
“I just thought, ‘How about I figure out what’s wrong and fix that?’”
With that, he set out to find satisfaction in his life, beginning with simply enjoying being alive.
After landing a waiter job, he saved up to buy a bike for transportation, the first time he’d ever saved for a major purchase. He got a small apartment, the first time he’d ever lived alone.
He bought a computer and began adding to his music collection, then combined the two when he started blogging about prog rock, first for Progressive Archives, then on his own blog, The Bodhisattva Beat.
“Writing about the music I love has taken over a large part of my existence,” H.T. said. That’s been part of building a new life, letting it unfold in new directions, rather than trying to regain what was lost.
Moving to Ann Arbor, a more cultured city than Muskegon, gave him the opportunity to study Buddhism at a temple instead of from books and to wait tables at better restaurants. After establishing himself locally, he got promoted into management at Mediterrano in Ann Arbor.
He’s gotten his driver’s license back and bought a car, but continues to bike for transportation and pleasure when he can.
“It would be unnatural not to regret, but honestly I really don’t feel I could have done it any other way,” H.T. said. “I wish I could have burned my life to the ground earlier.
“Wish as I may, the road I traveled was of my own making. It couldn’t have happened any other way. Oddly enough, I am also grateful. Had I not gone through that hell, would I have been driven to the same revelations?”
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