In the Hot Seat
By Rhett T.
How a pilot traded the “cold seat” of a jail cell for the “hot seat” of rehabilitation.
It was “hot seat” day in treatment. It all finally started to make sense to me: the reasons I was in treatment, the harm and near destruction of my family and, most importantly, what I needed to do to move my life forward again. The weight of my past was finally lifting, and the train wreck I had become had finally stopped.
This was the first moment in a long time that I can remember actually being honest with myself and with my emotions. I let down the shield I thought protected me emotionally from the world. Finally, it was time to honestly deal with all the emotions I had neglected for so long. Up until this point in my life I had considered a man to be someone who maintains an even keel and doesn’t show a lot of emotions or feelings. I thought showing emotions was a sign of weakness. Talking about how I felt was totally foreign to me and made me feel uncomfortable. I truly thought of this behavior as unacceptable. What would other people think? How wrong I was. A real man deals with these things and is not afraid of what other people think. It was one of my major character defects.
What it was like
Let me give you some background. I knew I had a drinking problem long before my arrest for drinking and driving. I began my progressive spiral downward at the age of 13. My friends and I would steal as much booze from our homes as we could and mix it all together to create an ill tasting drink that did the job it was intended to do.
I was a troublemaker growing up. Sneaking out of the house at night, driving the parent’s car underage, getting poor grades. I was generally a bratty, spoiled rich kid. I had lots of friends and had the ability to hang out with the jocks and the stoners. I also had that underlining “uneasy feeling” about myself that magically vanished when I drank. I was tracking down the wrong path at an early age, getting into trouble and running with the wrong crowd. I never really had to pay any consequences for my actions. Sure, I would get grounded or scolded but that never did anything. It certainly did not teach me a lesson or hold me accountable for my actions. I would learn this lesson later in life.
I was extremely fortunate that my father offered to pay for some flying lessons at the age of 16. I quickly fell in love with aviation and was able to get myself focused on my future. I went to college with my private license in hand with the intention of completing my aviation degree in 4 years. In college my drinking continued. I was able to drink more and more and started to have blackouts where I couldn’t remember the night before. It was a little scary and sometimes embarrassing to hear from others the things I had done the night before. I really didn’t think much about it. I certainly did not think I had a drinking problem so I continued to stay focused on aviation. I believe it kept me out of trouble and stymied my disease until my late thirties. I knew I had to stay competitive with others which also kept me in line. However, I still had the problem of being comfortable in my own skin.
My life seemed to progress. I got a job at a commuter airline, got married, bought a house and had kids. Perfect right? Wrong! I started to hide my drinking. A little at first. My wife would send me to the store to buy beer and I would buy for us and then I would buy for me. I continued to lie to my wife about all sorts of things. This started to cause problems because my wife wanted accountability (like any sane person would) and I couldn’t provide it. I would let time heal whatever situation I had created and be back on the same road again soon after.
The DUI that I received in November of 2004 was going to ensure that I would pay for my actions. I made the decision to make the experience a positive one and to get something from it that I could use for the rest of my life. Remembering and acknowledging the past is a powerful tool for me in maintaining my sobriety. One of the harshest consequences I have had to face from my DUI was being incarcerated for 10 days. Those of you out there that have not been to jail believe me when I say that it completely sucks.
I had a positive attitude during my self-surrender, thinking I would spend 24 hours in jail and then be released with a requirement to spend nights in “tent city” for ten days. Well, that plan was washed away quickly when I learned that a paperwork mix-up had occurred and I was told to get out of my clothes and to put on the “stripes”. In this system there are two sides of the jail, the “stripes” where your typical inmates go and the easier softer side. On this side you wear the clothes on your back and the rules and environment are much more relaxed. It’s still not pleasant but it’s Club-Med compared to the “stripes”.
I got the standard issue “stripes” including the famous pink underwear. I was not going to leave for “work release” and I was going to the real jail not the Club-Med side. I couldn’t believe this; I was really going to jail. How could this be happening to me? I was floored. I had no one to whom I could complain. I could not make any calls, purchase food from the vending machines, purchase soda, purchase anything. I was going to jail and that was that. The in-processing was hell. You go from holding tank to holding tank. The tanks are small and there are a lot of people in them. There is barely enough room to fit everyone. Most people including myself found sitting space on the concrete floor. The tanks are hot and stuffy and after a few hours in tight quarters people start to get restless. You kind of get to know the men with which you share such tight confines, and I was known as the “teacher”. Not because I was trying to teach anyone anything but because, I believe, I looked out of place. I certainly felt that way. I had one guy tell me I wasn’t going to make it and he wanted to buy my glasses. Fear was close to my heart and obviously I was wearing it.
The smell is something else I will never forget. It’s hard to put a finger on what it is, but it’s definitely memorable in a bad way. After I was officially processed, I finally made it to general population and received some instructions from another inmate on life in jail. Once I got some time and space to myself I just sat there on the cold steel seat looking over the rest of the inmates. Although the cold seat was a far cry from the “hot seat” in treatment, it was similarly sobering. I was surrounded by other inmates yet I was alone. My decisions put me in this place and I was the FNG in this completely foreign world. I was sacred. My mind was numb. I was definitely wearing my fear and trying not to break down when a man approached me, put his arm around me and said “take it all in and never forget because you never want to come back”. I feebly nodded my head and said “I will”. I did take it all in and will never forget. Sometimes on my way home from work I will drive by the “institution” and see people outside waiting for their turn to go and do their time. It quickly reminds me of what drinking has in store for me if I should choose to try again.
Getting back to the “hot seat” itself, it is a reading of your assets and liabilities according to how your peers see you in front of them. It’s a very good way of busting egos and getting people to realize the potential they have within themselves.
In my case the liabilities were easy to see. I seemed to almost feel comfortable hearing what I did wrong and focusing on how to do better the next time. So, listening to my liabilities was really no big deal. The assets, on the other hand, had a different effect on me. Hearing things like “you’ve got way too much going for you to let this keep you down” or “You’re a pilot dude, you’re bigger than this” was difficult for me to hear.
I started to cry and felt as if someone had lifted the weight of the world from me. This display of emotion was necessary and I felt like a blind man who somehow could see again. I realized that although I indeed had some big boulders in front of me they could be moved and I was going to make it happen.
What it is like now
Until I became sober I used booze to numb my emotions and escape having to deal with my problems. Unless I was willing to lose my sense of self and my family this was an unacceptable way of life. I had hurt my wife like I had hurt no one ever before. I could see it in her eyes. She was truly sad and it was all because of me and my drinking. She asked such simple things of me. I was unwilling to let my own wife get to really know me and that would have to change. I had to let go of the fear. I needed to trust her with everything, all my emotions and feelings, and truly love her. I needed to be accountable for my actions for the first time in my life.
I found magical power in a thing called HOPE. I could finally accept the past and most importantly let it go and stop beating myself up for all the insanity drinking brought me. I was hearing from perfect strangers that I had more positive things in my life than even I realized. How could they know this? They didn’t even know me. How could they know things about me and my life that I hadn’t even known myself? Can’t we all laugh at the puzzle we create for ourselves? The time for hurting and hating myself was over.
Today, I am not embarrassed about the past because without it, I’m not who I am today. Today, I love me and that is a really awesome thing. I know that I have and will make mistakes. The difference now is that because of AA, I have developed healthy tools and habits for dealing with such things. I also have strength from God to deal with the mistakes or problems no matter how large they may seem. I have lived the saying “this too shall pass” and things will get better, never worse, provided I do not take that first drink.
I have learned about a thing called gratitude and what it means to be grateful. I have learned the lessons well. My time in jail will always be a reminder for me of what lies ahead if I choose to drink. I learned from my hot seat in treatment and my cold seat in jail that no matter how bad life seems I can always find something for which to be grateful. I know now how important it is for me to leave the shield down and deal with life on life’s terms. It is the foundation of my overall health and well being, not to mention the health and welfare of my marriage and every other established relationship in my life.
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