CHRIS KELLY: Grateful Columnist Takes First Steps Into A Life Of Sobriety

February 24, 2019
CHRIS KELLY: Higher Power

“My battery is low and it’s getting dark.” — widely attributed to the NASA Mars Rover Opportunity.

The purported dying declaration of the Mars rover — nicknamed “Oppy” by its NASA family — went global on contact with social media. People across the planet poured out their hearts for the solitary traveler choked out in a dust storm 283 million miles from home.

They identified with Oppy, a vagabond stranded in a strange world it could no longer navigate, cut off from its creator and too tired to fight on. Oppy expired on Feb. 13 in a wasteland NASA calls Perseverance Valley.

Oppy’s last transmission was actually a data dump only its people could understand. They explained the situation to a reporter who covers NASA. He dreamed up the quote and should be fired from a cannon. That said, I’m thankful for his ethical lapse, which presents me a thematic opportunity to make a living declaration.

My name is Chris, and I’m a recovering alcoholic.

I say this without shame, hesitation or fear. I have a progressive, fatal disease. I’m treating it the best I can. Early sobriety is about doing the Next Right Thing. Sharing my experience in the hope that it might inspire others to reach out for help is my Next Right Thing.

When I dropped out of sight on medical leave, the rumor mill went into high gear. I was fired. I quit. I had cancer or another condition that required major surgery.

I was on a top-secret assignment, in witness protection, in jail, on the run or buried under 10 tons of cat litter at Keystone Sanitary Landfill.

The truth is much less dramatic.

I spent 21 days at Geisinger Marworth and another three weeks in intensive outpatient treatment. I meet with my counselor weekly and talk to my sponsor and attend AA meetings daily to dump data only my people understand. Unless you’ve suffered with addiction or loved or lived with an addict, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Describing the time-lapse demise of Oppy, NASA staffers sounded like the heartbroken families and friends of alcoholics in thrall to their disease.

“It’s hard, because you know it’s coming ... but there’s nothing you can do to stop it,” NASA scientist Abigail Fraeman said. A “historic” storm killed Opportunity, she said. The rover “couldn’t see the sun and the solar panels couldn’t recharge the battery.”

One night, I woke up sure I was dying. Chrissy rushed me to the emergency room, where tests showed my heart was pumping at about 25 percent capacity. A surgeon inserted a catheter expecting multiple arterial blockages and found none.

The diagnosis: Cardiomyopathy. I was killing my heart with alcohol. The prognosis: Quit or die. My battery was low. It was getting dark. Chrissy was terrified. I left the hospital on a Wednesday sure I would never drink again. That Sunday morning, Chrissy caught me chugging cheap vodka in the garage.

The depth of my shame and self-loathing in that moment is incalculable. Still it took another three months and the tough love of a gifted counselor to get me into treatment. It saved my life.

I’m no victim. Most of the wounds I collected in my drinking life were self-inflicted. Making amends to the people I hurt will keep me busy for the rest of my life. I’m grateful for the opportunity.

By the grace of God, I never had a DUI or killed or injured anyone. I didn’t destroy my marriage, disintegrate my family or demolish my career. Many of my brothers and sisters in recovery were not so blessed. They walked out of Marworth facing consequences most people can’t comprehend. Most of these struggling souls are good people with a bad disease that doesn’t discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, age or economic and social status.

Addiction is an equal opportunity destroyer.

Its tentacles reach deep in Our Stiff Neck of the Woods. The latest major study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — released in 2013 — ranked Lackawanna, Luzerne, Wyoming, Susquehanna and Monroe counties among the top 10 in Pennsylvania for excessive drinking.

Last year, Gov. Tom Wolf officially declared the opioid crisis a disaster. The state’s online Opioid Data Dashboard is a wellspring of data, but numbers can’t tell the stories of the addicts I met at Marworth.

I can’t share their stories, either. AA is an anonymous program. Some are bound to judge me telling mine as a violation of that trust. I’m new to sobriety. I don’t know what I don’t know. If I fail, it could reflect poorly on AA. I respect these concerns and discussed them with several fellow recovering addicts. Most encouraged me to go ahead in the spirit of the AA Responsibility Statement:

“I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that I am responsible.”

My name is Chris and I’m an alcoholic. I carry the scars of many storms. There are surely more to come, but my battery is recharged, I’m in touch with my Creator and I’m roving into the sun.

CHRIS KELLY, the Times-Tribune columnist, thanks God for the forgiving souls who refused to give up on him when he did.

Contact the writer:


@cjkink on Twitter.

Read his award-winning blog at timestribuneblogs.com/kelly

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