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Matthew’s Story–High School dropout to P.h.D

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My Story By: Matthew Peters

I remember taking my first drink when I was nine, to celebrate New Year’s. It was a sip of raunchy, cheap beer, something like Rheingold or Utica Club Lite. I hated the taste. In fact, I’d go on hating the taste of beer and most other forms of alcohol throughout most of my thirty-year drinking career. Because I only had a sip, that first time there was no proverbial click: I didn’t feel at ease or at peace; indeed, I wouldn’t feel the wonderful euphoric effects of booze for another four or five years.

My experience with alcohol, and the effect I attributed to it started even earlier. When I was five or six, in addition to cookies, I used to leave a bottle of beer for Santa Claus. I figured Santa could use a cold one after leaving presents for children all over the world (for some inexplicable reason I believed my house was the last stop of the evening). I discovered the mythological status of Santa (and the

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Easter Bunny) by noticing that the thank you note I received from him matched the drunken chicken scratch of my mother.

My battles are no different from those of any hardcore alcoholic, and I won’t spend time recounting them. Suffice it to say that over the course of my drinking career, I encountered problems in every category: in school and later on the job, in my relationships, with the law, in my finances, and in my physical and mental health.
The two things I wish to highlight involve my school/job-related experiences and my mental health.

Regarding the first, I dropped out of high school at the beginning of eleventh grade. I was sixteen at the time. My mom and stepfather were in treatment for alcoholism. How I had made it to the eleventh grade is beyond me. I missed 50-60 days of each school year, from kindergarten on. A few months after leaving school, I decided in a drunken stupor that dropping out hadn’t been one of my best decisions, so I decided to enroll in a community college. I somehow ascertained that I could get my G.E.D. after completing a certain number of credit hours in college.
In order to be admitted to the community college, I had to take a series of tests to gauge my aptitude for placement. I’d excelled in grade school and had been placed in the gifted children’s program. But I missed so many classes each year it was a wonder I kept moving up. Of course, my drinking in the interim years had put the kybosh on academic achievement. I never demonstrated any potential in middle school or high school. But I did well on the college placement tests, well enough to be placed in the honors curriculum.

There was great irony in this. I had dropped out of high school failing everything, and now I was to be placed in community college honors courses. In retrospect, I’m not sure this did anything but fan my ego. In any event, though there were certainly bumps along the way, I obtained my Associates of the Arts (A.A.) degree and did well enough to get a scholarship to a prestigious four-year college. I had turned my life around. People were impressed. I was impressed. This would become part of my problem.

I worked insanely hard at the four-year college and secured a full-ride to the graduate school of my choice. It really doesn’t matter what I studied or majored in, other than to say that in some ways my

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Graduate school was a nightmare, marked by sadistic periods of hard work punctuated with weeks and months of alcohol-induced inactivity. Much happened during my years at graduate school: my stepfather hanged himself; my mother died of cancer; I nearly joined the seminary to become a priest; I got married and divorced; I succeeded wildly at first, then failed abysmally, sinking to depths of despair I never knew existed.

Eventually, I obtained my Master’s degree and my Ph.D. I still don’t believe I did it. I had taught courses at two different universities while getting my degrees. I obtained a tenure-track position at a college in a nearby town. To make a long story short, I drank away that job and any future career prospects in academia. I took a job in the field of information technology, but that ended the same way.
That was six years ago. I have been sober ever since.

Complicating my efforts to stay sober has been my battle with mental illness. Years ago I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Having a mental illness along with chemical dependency makes mine a case of dual diagnosis, as it’s called in the medical profession. Six out of one hundred Americans have a dual diagnosis—that is, they have a mood disorder accompanied by some form of chemical dependency. The list of famous people who were dual diagnosed include: Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway, Sigmund Freud, and Robin Williams.

So, after all the years I spent drinking and battling mental illness, after all the countless hospitalizations, detoxes, and rehabs, what is the one thing that finally worked, that got through to me and helped me turn my life around?

It was no one thing. It started with a deep realization when I turned forty that my life was just getting worse and worse without any hope in sight. I came to the conclusion that I had already lived half my life and it had largely been a disaster. I realized that no one could get sober for me and that no one

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was responsible for my own health and happiness except me. I saw that though I may not have been responsible for contracting alcoholism and mental illness, I was totally responsible for their treatment and successful management.

I was greatly aided in my endeavor by a loving girlfriend and her amazing family, who stood by me when things looked catastrophic. I surrounded myself with healthy people and sought treatment that aligned with my goals and needs.

I have spent the last six years healing and writing. I’ve written two novels and I’m currently working on a third. I’m also writing a play adapted from one of my books. I have a website/blog dedicated to dual diagnosis and writing: www.matthewpetersbooks.com.
There is hope. There is a way out of the madness. For me, it began with inner awareness and the help of some truly remarkable individuals.

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