As an accomplished motivational speaker, radio personality and substance abuse advocate, Johnny Emerson Joy has spent his time in recovery lifting others up and sharing his own struggles with addiction. To help his story reach even more people, he decided to share it with The Recovery Village.
I don’t have what you might think of as a typical recovery story. As a bartender and bar manager in my early 20s, I enjoyed the occasional drink, but it wasn’t until my sister died that I became dependent on alcohol. I was just 24 when Julie overdosed on painkillers, and I had to watch the doctors remove her — my only sibling — from life support. Instead of working through my grief, I drank. Instead of feeling sad, or happy, or anything, I drank. Nine months later, my cousin Shawn lost her life to a prescription drug overdose, so I drank even more. When I thought I had lost more than I could bear, life proved me wrong. Just 12 months after Shawn passed away, my father died of a heart attack. I hadn’t been close to him for most of my life, but we had started to make amends in the months before his death. In the blink of an eye, he was gone too. I realized I would never be able to make things right with him. That pushed me over the edge.
I added cigarettes and cocaine to my regular repertoire of drugs. Receiving a $500,000 inheritance from my late father on my 30th birthday only made things worse. What can you expect if you already have a drinking problem, and someone gives you that much money? Off to the races I went. I got married, then divorced. I fractured my eye socket, cheek and jaw after falling from a barstool onto my favorite glass stein. I narrowly escaped death on five different occasions. Things went from bad to worse after I quit my job as executive director of Guest Services at a luxury hotel so I could drink more often. I started working as a butcher at a local health food store, drinking a six pack at lunch just to stop the shakes. After I finished, I would go right back to work. It was a classic example of alcoholic thinking. Why wouldn’t I down six beers and then use cleavers and bone saws?
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The Road to “Never Again”
I went through a revolving door of 30-day programs and AA meetings, but I never sought help for myself. It was always for someone else: my mom, my friends, my significant others. I’d stay sober during treatment and maybe for a few months after, but I’d always start drinking again. After falling back into bad habits following a six-month period of sobriety, I went to the doctor for anxiety treatment (likely caused by my alcoholism). He gave me a prescription for Ativan, a benzodiazepine similar to Xanax. After a few weeks, I became dependent on that, too. At my lowest point, I downed eight bottles of wine and three milligrams of Ativan every day.
I was able to keep up the cycle of short spurts of sobriety, followed by long bouts of substance use for years, but things just kept getting worse. I lost jobs. I put my life and the lives of others in danger. I burnt bridges and hurt those closest to me. It got to the point where I knew I couldn’t be alone — I didn’t trust myself. Even though I owned my own house, I moved in with my mom. “I can’t do this anymore,” I told her. “I’m either going to live or I’m going to die.”
I didn’t know it then, but this admission to her, and most importantly, to myself, would be the first step I took toward sobriety. My mom asked me if I would be willing to check into a detox clinic, and I agreed. I arrived at the center with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .52 percent. The legal limit for BAC is .08 percent. A BAC of .52 percent is usually lethal. I had built up so much of a tolerance to alcohol that I wasn’t just alive — I was completely conscious.
While waiting to be admitted, I put my headphones in and searched for something to watch on YouTube. Someone (I can’t remember who) had insisted that I listen to Tony Robbins, so I looked him up and clicked on the first video I found. Up until that point, I thought of Tony Robbins and everyone like him as a bunch of B.S. self-help gurus. Fortunately, his words reached me anyway.
I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something like this: “It doesn’t take a decade to change your life. It doesn’t take a year, a month, a week, or even a day. It takes one moment. All it takes is you, saying ‘no more, not another second, not another minute. I’m not going to live this way anymore.’ It’s really that simple.”
Call it what you want, a God thing or instant enlightenment — whatever. In that moment I was overwhelmed by the truth of his words. My best thinking wasn’t working, and it hadn’t worked for years. Alcohol brought nothing but destruction into my life. It ruined relationships, friends and job opportunities. It would ruin my chance at life if I let it control me any longer, too. It was time to do something different. That’s when I told myself, “Never again.” Not for another second, not for another minute. I was done with alcohol. I was ready to get sober.
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Life on the Other Side of Addiction
I can confidently say that my first three days in detox were the most difficult days of my entire life, just shy of witnessing my only sibling be taken off life support. My hands were so shaky that I couldn’t lift a spoon to my mouth. I tried to play a game of chess, but struggled to hold a pawn steadily. I couldn’t get over how ironic that was — if I couldn’t even control a pawn, how could I control my own life? But I endured the suffering, and pressed on.
I wrote a note to myself back then, so I could remember exactly how I felt. I don’t read it often, but I keep it in an easily accessible spot, just in case I begin to entertain the thought of drinking again. You can barely read it because my hands were shaking so badly at the time. It says: “just remember how bad you felt when you wrote this.”
After what felt like an eternity, I eventually came out on the other side of withdrawals. Three years later, I’m living the life I’ve always wanted. I’m married to the woman of my dreams. I bought the car of my dreams. My friendships don’t revolve around alcohol anymore. Things taste better, thoughts feel better, and I don’t have to worry about hangovers. As a radio DJ, motivational speaker and life coach, I get to wake up every day and use my experiences to help others. Life isn’t always easy, but now, it has purpose.
Small Steps to Sobriety
I didn’t get here overnight, but I got here all the same. By orienting my life toward sobriety, and making the choice every minute of every day to continue to not use drugs and alcohol, I’ve taken tiny, incremental steps to get where I am today. Think of it like this: If you’re a pilot flying from LA to New York, and you’re off course by a quarter of a degree every hour, you’re going to overshoot your landing by hundreds of miles. That’s what sobriety is like. As long as you make sure you’re heading in the right direction and making small changes every single day, you’re going to end up in a better place than you were when you were using. And one day, you’ll look back and be proud of all the progress you’ve made. I know I am.
Do I miss drinking? Absolutely. Do I miss it enough to go back to the way I was living before I got sober? Not a chance. I treat alcohol like someone with a peanut allergy might treat peanuts. Yeah, I might want a beer, but if I have one it’ll kill me. It’s as simple as that. Sobriety isn’t easy, but it becomes possible when you start to take ownership for yourself and your actions. If alcohol was truly the reason for my addiction, it would be forcing itself down my throat. Alcohol wasn’t the problem. I was. Once I took ownership of my decisions and finally decided to confront the real cause of my addiction — what was going on between my ears, inside my head — I understood that I was using alcohol to avoid pain. I used it to grieve the loss of my sister, my cousin and my father. It worked for a little while, but not without the tremendous cost of my friends, my family and my happiness.
If you personally struggle with addiction, I want to pose a challenge to you. Make a list of all the good things substances have brought into your life. Seriously, try it. I’ve done this with my life coaching clients, and 9 times out of 10, they look at me and laugh. But after they really think about it, they fall silent. Most of them start to cry. If you, like them, can’t think of a single good thing alcohol or drugs have brought into your life, ask yourself why you’re using them. If you can easily think of all the things that are falling apart in your life because of substances, you have to ask yourself: Why do I use them at all?
Asking these questions isn’t easy, but I promise it’s worth it. Recovery starts and ends with you. If you want to live better, do what you can today to change the course of your life. It won’t happen overnight, it won’t happen all at once, but I promise, it will happen.
Recovery can feel impossible when you’re in the grips of a substance use disorder. But with the right mindset, evidence-based treatments and support, you can overcome addiction. It all starts with you. It all starts with a phone call. Reach out to The Recovery Village today to take the first step on your own journey to sobriety.