In the summer of 2017, I stood before several hundred local union and national leaders from the U.S. and Canada at a conference to deliver my yearly report of activity as Director of Education of our organization. Among those activities, the dozens of leadership, representation and organizing trainings conducted was what I believed was the gem of all our trainings: our SMART MAP mental health awareness trainings we had been conducting for about 5 years at that time.
What was unusual for me on that podium and the central reason for experiencing a mild pre-talk panic attack was the fact that I had decided that this was the year that I would “come out” during this presentation, as a guy who has struggled with addiction and has been in recovery most of his adult life. In construction there is a “work hard, play hard” culture - I was raised in that world - my grandfather, a tough Bronx-born construction guy would say to me, “don’t ever trust a man who doesn’t drink,” so I drank plenty, to be sure I could be trusted. I was having blackouts by the time I was 18, in trouble in school and with the law. By the time I turned 21, I was in a court appointed rehab facility. This was part one.
I came out of rehab terrified to drink. Rehab will do that to you by presenting all the wreckage drinking, and drugging has caused; so, I didn’t drink for 16 ½ years. During that time, I lived and worked and progressed in life, marriage, kids, work - all the good things in life - but I forgot along that road that I was an alcoholic and as is the case when you’re having these conversations quietly inside your head, I talked myself into a relapse. I received an absolutely devastating education on the progressive nature of Substance Use Disorders, where the disease of alcoholism progresses through the years even though you are not drinking, and when I started drinking again, it wasn’t long before I was experiencing blackouts and other consequences, which was hard to explain, because everyone knew me as the guy who didn’t drink. What followed was an 18-month odyssey of drinking, drugging, lying, and hiding, who I’d become left me desperate, alone, and terrified. I truly was a “shell of a man.”
Getting sober was never my idea, not in 1984 when I got the nudge from the judge which landed me in rehab on my 21st birthday, and not in 2003 when my life was completely out of control. As I was getting closer to accepting the help I needed, I was faced with having to tell my national union president I needed time off to go into rehab and his warm empathetic response was an “of course, take the time you need, we got you” hug that told me I wasn’t alone.
Anyone who has ever relapsed after having been sober for a long time will tell you that the road back can be long, hard, and lonely, but along that road you build experience; you find strength and discover hope. As I became stronger in mind and spirit, I was inspired by the Mohandas Gandhi quote, “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,” and that opportunity came when developing a training for our elected leadership. I designed a presentation titled: How to Represent Our Members Who Are Going Through Crisis, which started as a four-hour section of a three-day training and transformed into what is now our SMART MAP Mental Health training and companion peer mentor development program.
SMART MAP is a mental health awareness and action program that highlights the issues associated with Substance Use Disorder and suicide prevention, and trains union members on helping members and their families in need. These SMART MAP Mentors are compassionate, empathetic, and well-respected union members who together with experts in the field of mental health, support our members throughout the recovery process. We have trained close to 1,000 business representatives and organizers, apprenticeship instructors and members and have developed a phenomenal group of mental health professionals whose resources we make available to our local unions. Our union has been addressing mental health issues on a national level for 10 years and for an industry that has some of the highest rates of addiction and suicide, I feel we are in a great place ‘to be in the service of others’.
One of the most beautiful things I have found that has come from that relapse is that the more I tell my story, the more travelers I meet who have taken a similar path and who stand ready, not just to walk with me but to walk with their family in the union to help them get on their path of recovery. One of these travelers was in the audience that summer in 2017 when I came off the stage having disclosed myself as a guy in long-term recovery. He sent me this text, “Chris, I want to tell you how proud of you I am of you, it took a lot of courage to “come out” about your recovery during your report. This is a tough group to run in as a sober guy, you’re setting a good example for the rest of us trying to be good sober leaders in this organization, thanks man.” I kept this text.