Constable: How a newly sober man plans for a dry St. Patrick's Day

Last St. Patrick's Day, Connor celebrated his Irish heritage with a few beers.

“Just drinking and enjoying the time,” the 25-year-old Park Ridge man says of his time spent watching the morning parade. “Then I met up with some friends at a bar that afternoon and drank.”

Home for a quick nap, he then got together with buddies to “pregame for the bars that night,” continues Connor, who doesn't know how many beers he drank before the bars closed. “I can't even do the math. … Holidays are a big thing for me and drinking.”

Drunken Memorial Day 2018 was the holiday that nearly killed him — and saved his life.

“It started off pretty innocently,” Connor says of the May day that began with a few drinks and ended with his drunkenly stepping into traffic and being hit by a car. “I broke two bones in my neck and split open my head.”

He spent most of a week in the hospital, left with a six-week neck brace on a Friday and entered the Gateway Foundation's addiction treatment center the next day, vowing to stop drinking.

“I said that before,” admits Connor, particularly after an earlier drunken driving arrest. “I started going to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings just to get my mom off my back.”

This time, he meant it.

“I've had legal consequences before but I've never almost died before. I did recognize that I needed help,” says Connor, who asks that we not use his last name in a story about his medical treatment and recovery.

Gateway Foundation's residential care for addiction treatment provided the help he needed, even as the next holiday approached.

“I didn't want to leave (Gateway) before July Fourth because I have a history with that day,” says Connor, who went on to spend another two months at a halfway house in Des Plaines.

This will be his first sober St. Patrick's Day in years. “I would always get drunk. I don't think I've ever had 'a couple of beers,'” Connor says. “A lot of the time I would black out.”

He doesn't know if he'll go to a St. Patrick's Day parade this year, and he hasn't thought about how he'll celebrate.

But a track record with the December holidays gives him confidence. In a big family with lots of cousins about his age, Connor says he remained sober over Christmas and New Year's Eve. If he needs to get away from people who are drinking, his “exit plan” includes leaving with his girlfriend, who is committed to being sober, or spending time with his young niece and nephew in a room with no alcohol.

While opioids have been declared a national public health emergency, alcohol remains the most misused drug.

“Alcohol has been killing people for decades,” says Jim Scarpace, executive director of the Gateway Foundation's addiction treatment centers in Aurora and Joliet, which has been treating people with alcohol issues for 50 years. “This isn't something for which there is no hope.”

Of the 44 residential care beds he oversees, 40 percent are occupied by people with opioid addiction, and the rest are filled with people who have alcohol problems, Scarpace says. Opioids tend to cause harm quickly with a rapid addiction, but alcohol in large doses over time can lead to the same issues.

“The addiction is just as powerful, just as difficult to manage and just as difficult to stop without help,” Scarpace says of alcohol. Gateway Foundation offers both in-network and out-of-network insurance options, and people who want help with addiction can phone (877) 381-6538.

Drunkenness on St. Patrick's Day often is portrayed as something cute or comical. You can buy green children's T-shirts proclaiming the wearer is “Drunky McDrunkerson.” Other shirts read: “I'm the Drunker Half,” “Irish Today. Hungover Tomorrow,” “Drink 'Til You're Irish,” “Fit Shaced,” “10 percent Irish. 90 Percent Drunk,” “Drunk Lives Matter,” “Shut Up, Liver. You're Fine,” and a shirt with upside-down writing: “If you can read this, put me back on my bar stool.”

More sobering are U.S. Department of Transportation statistics that show drunken drivers cause a third of all traffic fatalities on St. Patrick's Day, or reports that more than 15 million American adults have an alcohol use disorder.

Connor credits Gateway counselors, one-on-one therapy, group therapy, and consultations with a medical doctor and a psychiatrist for giving him the tools he needs to change his old ways. He met his girlfriend at an event for people vowing to quit alcohol. He met people in rehab who support him. Once a salesman who often found himself unemployed, Connor now has a job working with special education children in an elementary school and a second gig overseeing children at a gym. Whether he's hanging with family at big events, serving as the best man in a cousin's wedding, or going to a bar to hear a friend's band, Connor says he's committed to a life without alcohol.

“People are considerate. I'm blessed to have some awesome people in my life,” Connor says. “My life has gotten so much better sober. I'm super grateful for where I'm at.”

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