An Undercover Addict Comes Out of the Shadows
There was the night he raced a car drunk through the streets of LA.
And the time he woke up in the middle of a New Orleans street with no idea where he was.
[caption id="attachment_5869" align="alignleft" width="354"] Mike Gilman, now nine years sober, told himself he was having fun when he was using drugs and alcohol. “But was it fun? No. It was scary.”[/caption]
And his 130 mph motorcycle ride on a country road, the front of the bike shaking so violently he could barely maintain control.
“I’ve always pushed it to the limit,” the 55-year-old said. “The alcohol and drugs just gave me the ability to push it over the limit.”
Yet as it all happened, “it seemed normal to me. That was my life. And that’s why it took so long for me to get help.” He told himself it was fun. “But was it fun? No. It was scary. It was an adrenalin rush that I didn’t get caught, I didn’t kill anybody, I didn’t die. I pushed it once again so why not the next time. Why should I quit?”
And after all, how could he really be said to have a problem if he was making six figures as a respected manager in the airline industry?
As far as he could see, there were no repercussions. “I was so good at hiding it. … You could look at my life as the highest functioning alcoholic you’ve ever seen,” he said.
Gilman is retired now and nine years into sobriety. And he’s ready to share his story in hopes of passing along some hard-earned advice to those who think they are fooling others but only end up fooling themselves.
“It will catch up with you, the alcohol and drugs. You‘re not going to escape its wrath. It doesn’t matter if you’re a successful businessman or down and out stealing stuff to get your next high. It’s gonna come around and it’s gonna grab you and it’s gonna grab you hard. It’s a matter of time.”
A Path of Destruction
Gilman’s problems with substances started early, and, in retrospect, seem almost inevitable.
His father was one of 13 siblings, all of them alcoholics, as are most of their children, Gilman said.
“The key lesson about drinking,” he believes, “is some people, like myself, don’t have that ability in their DNA to control it or to say one is enough or two is enough.” Research, in fact, credits our genetics with about half of our addiction risk.
Drinking was also engrained in his family culture, and it made for a tough childhood at times.
“We lived up in the Northwest and my dad would use hunting as an excuse to drink, and there were several nights during hunting season where I would sit outside the tavern for six, seven hours at a time — a kid sitting out there in the parking lot and eating what they called Blind Robins, which were salted fish, and beer nuts for dinner.”
Gilman’s first drunk came at age 8, thanks to an unattended keg at a going away party for his Vietnam-bound brother. His first high came at 12, and at age 15, his father kicked him out of the house for dealing marijuana from his bedroom.
By 18, he was in the Air Force, married and a new father.
“You’d think these responsibilities this early in life would sober me. Not a chance.” Before long, he said, “I had done every drug, with the exception of I’d never placed a needle in my arm.”
It was a path of destruction, he said, “but my destruction was other people’s lives, not mine.” Eventually, his addiction would factor into the end of three marriages, and alienate him from his six children — a wound he’s still working to heal.
‘Perfect Cover for My Addiction’
After the military, Gilman decided to study, “of all things,” criminal justice. That led to a job in a small town police department — and lots of access to confiscated drugs and teenagers’ kegs. “Perfect cover for my addiction.”
Not long after, at age 23, he was hired as a state corrections officer. “My first week there I found that there are more drugs in prison to confiscate than on the streets.”
At age 28, with the help of a friend, he landed a job in corporate security for a major airline and through some twists and turns ended up a few years later as a flight attendant.
But the party ended in 1994 when random drug testing was instituted. “I was down to coke and weed,” he said, “and only on vacations.” Then came a memorable return from a vacation in Jamaica that scared him somewhat straight.
“My girlfriend informed me she forgot the last two joints we bought in Jamaica in the luggage, and of course we get there and the DEA had their dogs going up and down the row of people. My heart was pounding and my career flashed before my eyes as I prayed, Please don’t sit on my bags!”
The dog handler noticed Gilman’s airline badge and began to chat with him, telling him that his girlfriend wanted to become a flight attendant. The dog, meanwhile, sat on Gilman’s bag and began to bark. But the handler was distracted and kept jerking the dog back as he talked. Finally, with a “Have a good day,” the handler moved on.
“I quit all drugs that day,” Gilman said, “and then I upped my alcohol to make up for it.”
A Moment of Clarity
As Gilman’s drinking took off, so did his career. He became a flight attendant supervisor and then a hub manager. The best part of the job? No random Breathalyzer tests for management, and corporate events with booze flowing.
Then he won a spot in the company union, where he defended the rights of the flight attendants. “Everyone trusted my word,” he said. “I managed to be loved by both management and the union.”
Ironically, he said, many of the cases he defended were of flight attendants caught drinking or stealing liquor from the plane. And he won all of them — and was usually drunk doing it.
There were a few attempts to quit over the years, including some attendance at AA meetings, but each time he reverted to his old patterns, convinced he didn’t really have a problem.
“I would sit there and listen to those people who said things like, ‘I’ve got 10 DUIs, I lost my house,’ and I was thinking, ‘They’re drug addicts and alcoholics. That’s not my life. I’m fine.’”
In 2007, he married his third wife, and a month later, he almost killed his stepson. It was his moment of clarity.
He was scheduled to pick up the boy from the airport that day, but it didn’t stop him from getting hammered. He hit a concrete post with his new pickup before even leaving the airport, but he refused to let his stepson drive. “After about five near misses, he’s just screaming at me, ‘Pull over!’” At least, that’s what his stepson told him the next day. Gilman remembered nothing.
Three days later, he called his employer and requested addiction treatment.
“I knew everyone in HR through the years of working with them, so this was hard for me to do. They thought I was joking.”
He went to inpatient rehab, so defiant (and showing it) that he was voted least likely to maintain his sobriety.
But over time, instead of dismissing his troubles as he usually did, he found himself beginning to question, “Am I fine?”
“I started reflecting back on every instance and, boy, did I get lucky or was God watching over me? But that luck is going to run out.”
He came to accept that the deck was stacked against him genetically, and that helped him accept that he could never drink again. His treatment also helped him forge a strong sense of personal responsibility for his actions, and he traded his reliance on substances with a reliance on a higher power — in his case, God.
Just as valuable was an innate determination and stubbornness. “My attitude in life is that no one, and I mean no one, will ever have the satisfaction of saying, ‘I knew he couldn’t do it.’"
Telling His Story
Gilman wishes his story ended there, riding off into the sunset of a successful recovery, but a year after rehab, he was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer, which doctors believe was directly related to his drinking. He was given a year to live.
He endured 33 rounds of radiation treatment and 12 rounds of chemo, refusing to break his recovery by accepting morphine. He made it through treatment, “and eight years later, I’m still here.”
But he feels that the cancer and the addiction will always be with him, and he remains vigilant against both.
Gilman said friends have been urging him to share his story, but he had wanted to wait until his 10th year of sobriety before going public. “That seemed to be the magic number, in my mind. But my fiancée said, ‘You know you’re not going to drink again, so get out there and tell your story.’”
So now he’s opening up, hoping to demonstrate to others how much there is to lose by turning to substances and how much there is to gain by reaching out for help, finding some higher power to call your own, and committing to change. He knows many of the connections to the important people in his life, including his fiancée, and the sense of contentment he now feels would not be possible without his sobriety, and he hopes others are as lucky. “If there’s one person I can help, I’m happy.”
He finds himself thinking these days of those it’s too late to reach, such as a childhood friend who drove under the influence and ended up sparking a horrific crash that killed seven people. The friend survived but will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
“Those are all the effects that are coming. They are coming. If I had continued my life the way it was, it wasn’t if it was going to happen. It was going to happen,” he said. “There but for the grace of God go I.”
By Kendal Patterson
Follow Kendal on Twitter at @kendalpatterson