John O'Connell

Staying sober through the higher power of hope, and friends


I will have been sober for exactly 32 years this week.

It’s a joyful anniversary, one that I’m sharing only to inspire others who may need to quit drinking but don’t think they can.

It is possible to quit, no matter how much you’re drinking or how much of a mess you’ve made of your life so far. It’s not too late. It never is. While the addiction seems impossible to overcome, it’s that very hopelessness that’s the real disease. Alcohol is how we’ve chosen to medicate the overwhelming anxiety; the merciless, unrelenting feeling of unworthiness; and the frightening sadness that drags us into the deep, dark pit of depression. We see no life without alcohol.

Certified addiction counselors and medical professionals know the science of physical and mental alcohol dependence and the proven methods of recovery. Anything that sounds like advice in this column comes from my time in the dregs of doom and the sunshine of sobriety, not clinical training.

Recovery is a two-part process. The first part is to recognize there’s a problem, and it’s one that you can’t solve yourself. This doesn’t happen all of a sudden; like waves that flow in and out along the beach, teasing the broken shells, the realization comes and goes.

Even when you stop denying that there’s a physical and psychological dependence, it’s even harder to admit that you can’t fix it alone. Alcoholism is a lonely disease. It should be called lonelyism. You shut yourself away mentally, afraid someone will find out, as though everyone doesn’t already know. But since you’re walled in, you can’t admit that you’re powerless to recover by yourself, because if you can’t stop drinking without help, and you’re always alone, you’re lost. So you drink more. It’s an insidious disease.

You are Part Two of the salvation process. No, not you, the “problem drinker,” but you, the reader who loves someone who can’t help him or herself. Thirty-two years ago I was sweating in a boiling-hot car with the windows up, shaking, drinking scotch through a straw. Life was close to over. I prayed for mercy.

Sufficiently self-medicated to get through a few more hours, I came to fully embrace Part One, mentioned above. I went to see my best friend, knowing that I didn’t have many more minutes of life left in me. “Help,” I said.

He did. And his wife did. They moved heaven and the insurance company to get me into detox that night and rehab after. I never drank again. Had it not been for them, this week would be the 32nd anniversary of my death. I would’ve been found alone in a sweltering car with an empty bottle.

Their kindness saved me. I became a recovering alcoholic. One day at a time, with the help of God, family, friends and my own hard work, I enjoyed two consecutive 20-year careers, as a corporate human resources interviewer, manager and director; and as a newspaper reporter, writer, editor and executive editor — and an elected leader of journalism and community organizations. I’m filled with gladness, the kind that calmly smiles through lesser problems (and everything is a lesser problem than sucking whisky through a straw because your hands shake too much to put the bottle to your lips). I empathize with the desperate; I exalt the kind.

There are people I hired in my HR days who prospered because I took a chance on them. There may have been a hungry family that got fed because I wrote about a food drive. I may have inspired a reporter, guided an editor to improvement, forced a story to be fair, revealed a local hero, changed a life. Without sobriety I wouldn’t have met the sweetest love of my life, nor traveled the world. None of that would have happened.

I’ve never publicly shared my story. Until now, few knew. I tell it on my anniversary as a celebration of hope. It’s meant as a message for readers who think there’s no chance they’ll get better, and for those who love them but don’t know how to help. To the former, try doing what I did: When your denial cracks just a little, cry out. To the latter, start with the resource box above.

You can stop drinking and live a full life of love. I’m sure of it.

Where to get help

• Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (LICADD), 1025 Old Country Road, Suite 221, Westbury, (516) 747-2606.

• N.Y. State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS),; 24/7 HOPE line: (877) 846-7369.

• Nassau County Office of Chemical Dependency, 60 Charles Lindbergh Blvd., Suite 200, Uniondale, (516) 227-7057.

• Your employer may have an Employee Assistance Plan. You can call in confidence.

John O’Connell retired as the Herald’s executive editor in 2016, and is now a freelance photographer. Comments about this column?