How a Criminal Justice Innovation Helped Me Survive Addiction

Ba dump. Ba dump. Ba dump.

I could hear and feel the blood pounding through my head as it lay like a lead ball on the cold, grey concrete floor.

In February 2005, the state of South Dakota began piloting the 24/7 Sobriety Project in three counties. Later that spring, I arrived for a job in one of the three counties. In June, I was arrested for a third offense felony DUI. If convicted, it would be my fifth DUI in less than eight years. 

Upon release from jail after the arrest I was introduced to the twice daily breathalyzers. This was frightening for two reasons: (1) the court had greater control over my freedom; and (2) my alcohol consumption at this point was severe, beyond severe, really — any immediate end to use would be very difficult. The next 10 days were physically demanding as I detoxed and suffered withdrawals. I was sick to the point that I visited a physician for the first time in years. I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and depression was tossed in for good measure. The doctor prescribed an anti-depression medication. The next 10 days were worse. I was incredibly sick.

For 12 years I deeply struggled with the disease of addiction. Each year the disease went untreated it progressively got worse. The manifestation of my illness was depression, anxiety, no self-esteem, regular periods of suicidal ideations and a few failed suicide attempts, an ulcer, psoriasis, Driving Under Intoxication convictions, Driving Under Suspension convictions, an eviction, a repossession, a civil lawsuit, numerous petty offenses (bad checks), and I failed out of college three times. I had no real friends to speak of and my family was connected by only a thin thread of inherent love.

My arrival in Winner, SD from my hometown of Grand Forks, ND was the final chapter of a life rapidly nearing a grizzly conclusion.

But my life, which resembled the phoenix repeatedly rising from the ashes, had one more ascent.

During the summer of 2005, I struggled tremendously with denial that addiction was my problem; that I was facing prison time for something that I could control. Then one morning, I awoke in the fetal position on the floor of my kitchen desperately pleading for something different than the existence I had experienced for almost half my life. In that moment I surrendered to the forces that were out of my control. I called my court appointed attorney and said I was ready to plead guilty and accept the consequences.

12 days before sentencing, however, I was working at the radio station and forgot to arrive for the morning breathalyzer. I’d enter jail and await my court appearance.

On Sept. 22, 2005, Judge Kathleen Trandahl reviewed and discussed in open court my case and my life. She could not understand how someone with family and financial support, and a somewhat successful professional life was in her courtroom facing two years in prison for a fifth DUI. She wondered aloud how society failed me. However, in that moment, she was armed with a tool she previously did not have — the 24/7 Sobriety Project. I was sentenced to 2 years in prison, suspended; 180 days in jail; in-voluntary inpatient treatment; supervised probation for 5 years; daily A.A. for the duration of probation; a hefty fine; and 24/7 for the duration of probation. 

Judge Trandahl gave me the thousandth second chance most never get in their life. 

While in treatment, I learned about a sober home in Sioux Falls, SD — one of the other locations where 24/7 was operating. After serving 147 days in jail, the judge released me to the sober home where I would meet its founder, Kevin Kirby.

Every day I did a breathalyzer in the morning, attended a 12-step meeting, looked for and eventually found work, did a breathalyzer in the evening, and contemplated my future. Given my criminal history, a professional career as a radio announcer, and the restrictions of 24/7, my options appeared limited. However, the opportunity to go back to college at the University of South Dakota (USD) presented itself.

At 30 years old, I returned to college with the judge’s blessing. I would remain on probation and continue doing 24/7. My plan was to get a journalism degree and return to radio. That plan changed when one day, a professor who happened to be a former public defender, suggested I become a lawyer. Who better, she said, to be a lawyer than someone who knew the criminal justice system like I knew it and knew addiction and mental illness like I knew it. After many excuses, some convincing, and two sentence modifications, a path to law school was paved. 

947 days of twice daily breathalyzers, School was going well and my life was improving. But my recovery boiled down to forced sobriety. In June 2008, I convinced the judge to let me try recovering from addiction and living life without the breathalyzer crutch. With graduation from the University of South Dakota a year later, my probation ended May 2009. That summer I would compete for one of ten seats in the upcoming fall class at the University of South Dakota School of Law (low LSAT and criminal history did not afford traditional admission). I was number five out of 33 in the summer program and earned a spot in law school. Three years later I graduated with a joint masters and law degree. I took the bar exam and passed. But it would be another nine months before learning that the South Dakota State Supreme Court would accept a three year conditional admission to be licensed to practice law in the state of South Dakota.

On August 3, 2013, along with my wife - whom I met at USD - and family, I returned to that courtroom in Winner, SD. Judge Trandahl proudly administered the Oath of Attorney.

Today, I work for Face It TOGETHER, a national social venture working to solve drug and alcohol addiction in the United States. As Chief Data Officer, I sit seven feet from Kevin Kirby, the man that founded the Sioux Falls sober house I moved into in 2006 and who founded Face It TOGETHER. I am married, with a house, and a dog. I am once again part of my family.

I am survivor of the disease of addiction. The disease has been in remission since 2005. Surviving addiction was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. One part of the disease was the substance of alcohol, but there were so many more layers — some of which I continue to manage to this day (much like any chronic illness). But, I never could have begun to see the layers of pain and suffering without first removing the substance of alcohol from my life — the 24/7 Sobriety Project did just that. I was very fortunate, however. Not only did I immediately go into a sober home where the 12 steps were required and helped save my life, but I was able to attend a college that had free counseling for students.

The 24/7 program is not a magic pill. For people like me who are severely and chronically ill, it is but one significant piece. For others who might be at that first or second DUI, it could mean the difference between continuing down a treacherous and debilitating road or seeing an illness that can be understood and managed.

The program was created by Judge Larry Long, a prosecutor in the early 2000s looking to solve the problem of repeat DUIs and chronic alcohol addiction. By February 2005, Judge Long was now Attorney General and got support to pilot the program in three counties around South Dakota. I ended up in one of those three counties in April 2005.

While at USD, students were required to take a multi-disciplinary course that had a volunteer project component. The course I took was global health and for my project, I decided to learn everything I could about the 24/7 Sobriety Project and contemplate whether being on the program as long as I was had outweighing negative benefits – i.e., a sobriety crutch. I wrote a paper and sent a draft to Attorney General Long. He replied with very candid but respectful questions. I reached out to as many courts, law enforcement offices, lawyers, and treatment professionals across South Dakota asking if they would let me tell my story and pose my “findings” about the 24/7 program. Some groups and courts let me speak, others did not.

After getting into law school, Attorney General Long visited for an event. He and I sat down face-to-face and talked about his intentions and desired outcomes for the program. He listened to my personal experience. He genuinely wanted to know what people were feeling while standing in line and dealing with the various issues one faces in that situation.

Sitting there as a law student in a suit and tie talking one-on-one with the Attorney General was the furthest place possible from that cold, grey concrete jail cell. Today, I’m incredibly fortunate to be asked to speak at summits focused on implementing Judge Long’s innovative 24/7 program in various states around the country. As a survivor of addiction I know that no one thing can help a person get well. When you are in the criminal justice system, the odds of getting well plummet below the already dismal success rates for addiction care in the U.S. Thus, it’s better to do something than nothing. Doing nothing has a 100 percent failure rate.

In the end, the 24/7 program established disciplined structure to my day; to my life. That structure permitted the ability to focus on opportunities and accomplish attainable short-term goals. I was chronically ill, which manifested, in part, in significant and repeated interaction with the criminal justice system. To succeed, frankly, I needed more than twice daily breathalyzers and was fortunate to have additional resources available, such as regular contact with a primary care physician, one-on-one counseling, Alcoholics Anonymous, strong mentors, access to education, and viable employment connections. For 24/7 sobriety programs to be truly successful, they must not stand alone but be part of an integrated approach, especially for those with the greatest need – i.e., the chronically ill. 24/7 was a quantifiable and verifiable measure that fueled my motivation to succeed. It allowed me to prove to the judge – and to myself – that her offering of a second chance was not being squandered. 

What are You Breaking Through?

That's the questions to delegates at the 2015 TEDMED event. Thanks to the Fellowship with the Bush Foundation I am able to attend this premier gathering. TED talks are now iconic for the sharing of ideas and inspiration. TEDMED takes that speaking and event formula and applies it to health and medicine.

In just a single day, I've met and listened to some of the most brilliant innovators in health and science. As a historian of sorts, the closest comparison to what TEDMED is might be the famed academies or lectures in England in the 1800s -- minus the formal wear and with the inclusion of women and minorities.

Two incredible examples.... 

With U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy at TEDMED, November 20, 2015, Palm Springs, CA.

With U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy at TEDMED, November 20, 2015, Palm Springs, CA.

One of the speakers, Sam Sternberg, is with CRISPR and innovating CRISPR Cas9, a gene splicing and editing technology. Yes, it is possible to cut bad or defective genes with better or repaired gene sequences. This is not science fiction. And to hear first hand the discovery, development, evolution, and application of what was once science fiction is mind-blowing.

You'd likely think that someone like Dr. Sternberg is unreachable, but the wonderful thing about the TEDMED experience is accessibility to the speakers; which takes me to the second example.

The U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, gave an impassioned talk about the important role happiness plays in our health. I'm going to write separately on this topic. Following General Murthy's talk, I had the chance to spend five minutes talking to him and his chief of staff about addiction and the work of Face It TOGETHER. He was deeply interested. His office is preparing a report on the state of addiction and addiction care in the U.S. That brief interaction will hopefully lead to a follow-up conversation with General Murthy's office and input into his report.

This is the TEDMED experience. Brilliant and impassioned people from all over the world have convened to learn about breakthroughs in health and medicine and to share their breakthroughs, both big and small. 

We advance as a people and a civilization because of curiosity and drive toward something better. How are you breaking through in our home, your life, your community, or your work? What barriers are standing in the way from a life and a world that you want to live and you want to leave for your children?

The inspiration at TEDMED is that you do not need to be the inventor of gene editing technology, but simply be a compassionate and curious human being.

Squaring Chaos and Uncertainty

One of the greatest gifts of the Bush Foundation Fellowship is the ever present opportunity to grow as a leader and as a person. At times, this comes in the form of attending events or conferences, or engaging in dialogue with other leaders, or it may also come in the quiet moments of reflection throughout the day. 

As Fellows, we are assigned a leadership coach and we meet quarterly. My first coaching session was this past month. Frankly, expectations were mixed. I did not know much about the person who was assigned to me, but an impressive resume built up many hopes.

It's fair to say that neither of us expected to have the conversation we ended up having. That turned out to be a good thing. The conversation we had allowed us to get to know one another and to build trust. We were able to draw parallels or connections in our lives that could establish reference points for future conversations.

The gift of this particular conversation was a return to a couple concepts that in the last couple years I haven't given much thought -- the notions of chaos and uncertainty in our lives.

For a long time, my life was very chaotic and uncertain, but circumstances warranted little worry for the uncertainty in my life.

Then the chaos ended. Uncertainty, however remained.

After a little time of settling into new routines and a way of living life, chaos crept back in ... but for me, chaos is oddly calming. To be more precise, one can do very well with ordered chaos. In other words, we can introduce a multitude of responsibilities, demands, and desires into our life, but so long as we do so with intention, what might look like chaos from the outside world, is really very orchestrated.

The problem comes when a symbol, if you will, crashes to the floor and our order becomes disorder. Actually, this is only a problem if you are not prepared for disruptions. You cannot fully prepare for specific disruptions, but you can train yourself to be responsive in those moments when the unexpected occurs.

This takes practice, of course. So does learning how to deal with uncertainty... which is slightly different than the occasional unexpected happening that disrupts your ordered chaos. It was around the notion of uncertainty where I needed a tune-up and got it with my Fellowship coach.

The great thing about life is that there only so much we can make certain. If we knew everything that would happen at every second of every day, how boring would life be? But it is when we want to look beyond the day, or the month, or the year that we have to learn how to embrace what we cannot know. Some things are simply not in our control. Yes, we, through our intentional actions can have impact on an uncertain future, but that impact, generally, may be very small.

Of course, the serenity prayer is very helpful in this area, especially on a personal level. But what about at a leadership level?

That was the unexpected place the conversation with my Fellowship coach took me. Leaders have to constantly be surveying risk and uncertainty, but at what point is too much energy put into that exercise? 

This writing wasn't so much an attempt to answer that question today, but to identify it as an area for more inspection, learning, and application. And certainly, your wisdom and input is always warranted.