My name is Dennis Phillips. I work for Island County Human Services here in Island County, Washington. My wife and I have been married for 5 years and between us we have 7 kids. I work in the Opioid Outreach Program. I go out and make contact with people who may have issues with opioid addiction and help them break down the barriers to get treatment.
How long have you been in recovery?
5 years, 5 months and 7 days.
How did your addiction start?
Alcohol always affected me differently. I guess you could say I started drinking heavy at age 15. It carried on all through high school. I was the guy at the party that always passed out. It just always affected me differently, even morning drinking. I would have morning cravings early, early in the mornings and all, even at a young age. My addiction lasted until I was 45 years old. I had the opportunity to go into inpatient treatment at the Walla Walla VA hospital and it was the blessing that I never knew existed.
What led you to seek out recovery?
I was newly married and happiest that I’d ever been in my life and I was on the verge of losing everything – again, and just seeing my new wife cry and telling me she couldn’t live with a drunk, kind of opened my eyes as to where I was. Even with drinking the non-traditional things like mouthwash, food flavorings and stuff like that, didn’t really seem to clue me in that I was on a downhill slide. But the thought of losing everything and losing the happiness that I had was enough to open my eyes.
Did you think that recovery was possible?
Never dreamed. Never dreamed in my life that I would not be a drinker or an alcoholic.
What were some of the challenges you faced?
In recovery, I would have to say that the biggest challenge was looking at myself and picking out those flaws and actually seeing what other people saw and learning how to try to make myself a better person and not knowing at all how to do that.
I still have some self-esteem issues. And just feeling like I belong where I’m at. After living so low for so many years, your confidence is shot, your self-esteem is just totally out the window. And trying to learn that I am a good person, and that I can do good things, is almost beyond me, still. I still struggle with it.
Have you been able to reintegrate?
In the past 5 years, I’ve had jobs for the government where I was a supervisor. I’ve excelled in almost everything that I’ve tried, graduated from college, got my degree, which I never dreamed in a million years I would do. I work in a program that is just stellar and with a group of people that are just amazing.
What were some of the biggest surprises in recovery?
Just being happy, being able to smile. I didn’t smile for a very long time and one of the things my mother said is ‘it’s so nice to see you smile again’. Just being happy, reconnecting with my daughters. You know, that was a stellar moment. I know there was a time (04:12 - lapse???????) but it seemed like I stepped out of treatment and I got that phone call. My daughters lived in Florida and they were like ‘hey dad we want to come spend Christmas with you’ and I was just like – that blew me out of the water and to be able to reconnect with family and rekindle all of that is the biggest blessing I would have to say.
Do you view your recovery as permanent?
Oh yes, yes. But it of course started out early on. Every day is a bit of a struggle, because you have to learn how to live life again, without forming your daily activities around getting your particular fix or drink or whatever. And just learning how to enjoy life as a normal person would.
Did you feel judged when you applied for jobs?
Honestly, when people found out that I was in recovery, I mean I never – there was never any negative aspects to being in recovery at all. Of course, I’ve shared my recovery freely. I kind of wear it as a badge of honor, and of course I’ve excelled at jobs so I don’t think recovery – being in recovery hasn’t really held me back at all. If anything it’s helped me – it’s driven me to prove myself a little more, than say, anybody else coming off the street.
Did you imagine that one day you’d be a counselor yourself?
Yes, definitely. Even when I was in the latter part of my inpatient treatment, people would come and talk to me about different issues and whatnot and it just, it called to me. And to be able to get this type of work is kind of a dream come true.
How would your employers describe you?
They’ve expressed, with my background, that doing this type of work – the outreach part especially – being able to connect with people kind of on the same level, experiencing some of the same things that these people are going through and being able to show that there is hope and there is help and that change is possible. And just my whole attitude towards helping folks.
John: Okay, I mean you’re a walking (laughs) billboard in a way for what it is that you’re selling.
(laughs) Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And I don’t know, maybe it’s easier to – well, just like an AA meeting, it’s easier for a drunk to talk to another drunk. It’s easier for an addicted person to talk to another person that’s dealt with addiction.
What would your friends say is your biggest contribution?
Helping other people. The world these days with all the electronic media and all of that stuff really keeps me connected with all the old friends from back home and my high school graduating class actually has their own Facebook page. And so I post all my little achievements on there, and everyone’s just extremely proud of me and glad to see that I’m trying to help other people.
How do you feel about your recovery?
I’m very proud of my recovery. I love to let people know where I came from and the struggles that I’ve been through. And I think that people could understand it a little more if more people were open about their recovery, because I’m sure everybody knows somebody that’s in recovery but just doesn’t have a clue.
Do most people understand the challenges of addiction and recovery?
There’s a big rift you know, some people get it. I would say the majority of people don’t and try to cast it in a bad light, I guess you could say. But the people who do understand it know that people dealing with addiction issues are people, nonetheless. They may do things that may make them seem less human, I guess you could say. But these are people dealing with a horrible, horrible disease.
What’s your advice for someone thinking of hiring somebody in recovery?
I would definitely say hire anybody that’s in recovery. I believe you’ll get a much better employee, because, in my case I was out to prove that I wasn’t that person that I used to be. So, I was driven to do a better job. Not necessarily work myself to death, but be responsible, dependable, and a valued employee.
How do you think your children’s opinion of you has changed since being in recovery?
I missed out on a lot, with my girls growing up and then when me and their mother separated of course they moved to Florida, I stayed in Texas. Which means the distance was much greater and I really missed out on a lot, but I hope they knew that I’ve always loved them. The reconnection since I’ve gotten sober has just been tremendous, and when I graduated from college, both of ‘em wrote me a letter just saying how proud they were of the things that I’ve become and the milestones that I’ve made. And of course, that just drives me harder to keep the (10:17 ??????) alive. They’re very proud of me.
Do you have a message for people listening to this interview?
I would like for people to know that addiction isn’t a choice, it ruins lives. But change is possible, and life is amazing in recovery. Probably much more amazing in recovery than it would be if I was out of recovery. Every day is a gift.