Suicidal to survival: One man’s story of recovery


PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Addiction and depression are topics that are often intertwined with mental illness and suicide. 

There’s a stigma surrounding addiction. Many people think those struggling with addiction can just stop, but it’s not that simple.

Part of the population is more susceptible to diabetes and other health conditions — just like some people are more susceptible to addiction.

Steve’s story

Steve Harris grew up in Southwest Portland and had a comfortable life. Like most people, he grew up in a home where there was alcohol.

He started drinking and smoking marijuana in high school.

“As time went on that became my focus,” he told KOIN 6 News.

Slowly, Steve started to give up on his education, opportunities and hobbies because drinking became more important.

While Steve was struggling internally, the outside world didn’t know, not yet at least. Most people who saw him out would think “Oh, Steve’s not abusing.”

By the time he first got married, his wife told him it had gotten out of control and that she had enough. That marriage ended.

He got married again, but his drinking didn’t get any better.

“My drinking became where I couldn’t control it anymore,” he said.

It got to the point where he would only have three drinks and he’d start to slur his speech because his body couldn’t handle it. This is known as reverse tolerance.

At that point, he still had a job, so he said everything still “looked okay,” but he knew.

He went into an outpatient treatment center where they gave him all kinds of advice and resources. However, he developed the idea that the problem wasn’t his drinking, it was that he wasn’t eating before he drank.

This is how a brain with addiction will trick someone into continuing on with the habit.

“One night, I lied to everyone and went to a bar,” Steve recalled. “I ordered a cheeseburger, French fries and a Coke. Then I started drinking, and a couple hours later, I was sitting in a little park by my house. I had beer in the car with me and it hit me — what they had been talking about in treatment.”

“I realized I cannot, not drink,” he said.

Afterward, he went home and wrote a suicide note. Fortunately, his wife found the note — but when he heard sirens coming, he ran and hid.

Lines for Life: Call 800.273.8255 or text ‘273TALK’ to 839863
Oregon YouthLine: 877.968.8491 or text ‘teen2teen’ to 839863
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
OHA: Suicide Prevention

At the time, he was in his early 30s. About two days later, the mental health specialist came to his door, but he refused their help. That week, Steve talked to a counselor and checked into an inpatient treatment center.

“What’s important about all this is the fact that I had the information all along,” Steve said. “I just didn’t put it to work.”

Steve got sober and had been for 20 months when his wife said: “You’re still an ass, you just don’t smell like alcohol — get out.”

According to Steve, it was because there’s a lot of work involved when recovering from an addiction, and he didn’t apply it.

Steve turned to alcohol again

He thought he could get through his addiction on his own, which is a common problem with substance abuse and depression. But he couldn’t. In fact, he started to drink again.

“I was 19 floors up in a condo and I was thinking about suicide again. I don’t really remember all of it because I was intoxicated, but I remember picking up the phone and starting to call places,” he said.

Steve went to an early morning support meeting that used to be near 8th and East Burnside. He met several guys who stayed sober the night before while sleeping under a cardboard box.

“And here I am up in a 19th-floor condominium,” he said.

Steve then went to another meeting and did something that he said changed “everything.”

“I went up to someone and said ‘I drank last night. I don’t know what to do.'”

They told him to go to the 5:30 p.m. meeting. After that meeting, two men came up to talk to him and they went out to dinner.

“They talked to me and I listened to them,” Steve recalled. “They knew what they were talking about — that there was hope.”

They emphasized that things got better for them and that things could change for him too.

“I felt like the scum of the Earth. Inside, I felt like the worst person,” Steve said. “My second family with kids was over, but these guys said ‘It will be okay, just do these simple things.'”

So, Steve did.

At this time in his life, he was sleeping in a sleeping bag in a studio off of Hawthorne. His mentors suggested starting off with simple tasks like making his bed — even if that bed was a sleeping bag — and said it would lead to change.

Steve took what he learned in treatment and applied them

Steve said there were still dark days, but his mentors just kept reminding him: “Just do the next thing, just do the next thing. It will be okay.”

Then, in 1995, Steve had a few drinks one night and he thought to himself, “What am I doing?”

He said he was slacking off on doing the really simple things. He bought some beers, had a few and then had a couple more the next day. He even thought his actions were “insane” because his life was really good.

In some ways, it wasn’t the worst thing to happen to him.

Quickly, he got back on track.

Where Steve is today

“Today, there are three simple things that I do every day,” he said. “I read a couple of daily passages, I put a coin in my pocket to remind me and I make my bed.”

Steve doesn’t sleep in a sleeping bag anymore. He and his wife have a nice bed. The two met 21 years ago and they’re still happily married. In fact, they recently celebrated their anniversary because they met at a recovery event.

He realizes today that life is what it is.

For example, he went to a group therapy meeting on Monday that didn’t go well, but he said it’s important to remember that not everything will always go as planned.

“There’s been some dark times in my recovery,” Steve said. “I have to remember, ‘It’s okay, hold on.'”

When Steve starts to have those feelings of discomfort, he reaches out to friends for support and guidance — even if it’s just to let them know what’s going on in his head.

“The stuff that goes through our heads is the stuff that causes us problems. The thoughts of wanting to drink is normal, but those thoughts mean something,” he explained. 

The way Steve described it, we all get these subliminal hits: seeing a beer truck, seeing a marijuana sign, hearing the sound of a drink opening. They’re like pieces of paper that start stacking up.

So when people talk about what’s going on and people let others know they’re thinking about drinking or using — then they get rid of one of those pieces of paper.

Steve said it’s important to stay on top of your addiction and the triggers in order to manage it.

“If we had any other disease like diabetes, you have to do some simple things and really once you figure it out, you know what to do,” he said.

Talk about your struggle, ask for help

Whether you have depression or struggle with substance abuse or both, it’s important to find someone you trust to talk to because you’re not alone.

“We think we can do this ourselves and our ego and our pride get in the way,” Steve said. “We think we’re different and we’re not.”

Even those in long-term recovery think they know what to do and he said even they can be subjected to going backward.

Steve has been in recovery for 23 years and said it’s important to share your story.

“Those two guys that helped me in 1989, one of them told me ‘I only ask you to give what was freely given to you’ and I really take that to heart.”

About six years ago, Steve recalled a moment when he was out doing yard work. He became emotional after his wife came out with their granddaughter.

“Because I thought how lucky am I that I’m mowing the lawn — that I’m happy. I’m sober and that I can get through whatever happens today.”

Steve now works at Serenity Lane Alcohol & Drug Treatment Services. He said there are more therapies, more knowledge and medicine than ever before, so there are many ways to get on the road to recovery.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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