For Joey Fiorello, the moment of clarity came when he woke up in the hospital. At that moment, he realized he was completely helpless. Not just against the drugs, alcohol, and pills that had run his life for years; he was also helpless against the straps that tied him to the metal bed.
He had spent his adolescence jumping from treatment program to treatment program, showing up at AA meetings drunk, and battling depression.
That night, the manager at the halfway house where he was staying had called the cops because Joey couldn’t walk or talk because of the drugs. When the cops picked him up, Joey slurred, “Just kill me. We would all be better off.”
They had him committed instead.
Joey cursed at the police and doctors and demanded someone give him a phone. He needed to call Steve; Steve said he could call anytime.
At that moment, six years after his first sip, two years after his first suicide attempt, Joey was finally ready for help.
A nurse came in. He thought she was cute. Despite the late hour, she was able to get Steve on the line.
“Are you done yet?” Steve asked.
Finally, Joey’s answer was yes.
It started early. When he was 13 Joey would ask for a sip of wine at the dinner table. By 14, he would sneak a glass or two before bed, by 15 he was hiding whole bottles in his room.
“Alcohol made me feel good,” he said.
Joey’s family was “old school Sicilian.” You know the type: the furniture’s covered in plastic, the dinner table seating determined by birth order, and children were encouraged to be seen and not heard. No one drank heavily, so they never noticed the bottles missing from the basement.
“The alcohol masked his feelings of inadequacy. It helped Joey feel like he fit in. At the religious school he attended they taught him drugs were bad.”
He agreed. Until he tried them.
“It took me a little longer than others to get into marijuana,” Joey said. “But once I did, I was off and running.”
Smoking marijuana led to dropping acid. Joey snorted the pills his dad took for epilepsy, drank cough syrup, and huffed glue. It got to the point where there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do.
When his dad confronted him about all the empty bottles in his bedroom, Joey said it was just a phase. He was just experimenting. But by then the depression and suicidal thoughts had taken over.
“Alcohol and drugs made me feel better at first. But they stopped working long before I ever wanted to admit it.”
His dad threatened to kick him out. His mom said everything would be okay. She gave him money to cover his speeding tickets and DUIs; he used it to buy more drugs.
Joey knew what he was doing was wrong, but he couldn’t stop.
“At some point you don’t think you’re worth saving,” Joey said. He got to that point when he was 17. He wrote a letter to his family, took too many pills and washed them down with too much alcohol. He tried to go to sleep.
“I let everyone down who cared about me. It seemed like life would be better if I wasn’t there.”
To put things in context, this was 20 years ago. The internet was just gaining popularity. There was no Facebook. No blogs. He had no way of knowing there was a whole community of people out there just like him who were waiting to help.
After the doctors cleared his system they told Joey he needed professional help. His dad dismissed it. His mom was desperate to try anything. Joey told the doctors he would handle his addiction his own way.
“I’m a very stubborn Italian and I knew it all,” he said.
So everyone settled on outpatient therapy. Joey would attend group and individual therapy sessions, then use his lunch breaks to get high.
Not long after his suicide attempt, Joey confronted his father. His grandfather had given Joey’s dad a ring with their shared initials: JF. His father had promised Joey he would have the ring one day. But when Joey demanded it – he was 18, a man now! – his father said the ring would go to his brother instead.
“That was like getting stabbed in the chest,” Joey said. “I fucking hated that guy.”
Their relationship turned violent. Eventually, even his mom agreed Joey couldn’t live at home anymore. He was given a choice between attending recovery facilities in Minnesota or Florida. He chose Florida, but not for the weather.
“I thought Florida would be good for my drug selling career,” he said. Growing up, Joey had loved watching Miami Vice. At 13, he made his mom buy him white pants and pastel t-shirts. “I thought: I’m going to the cocaine capital of the world!”
He brought a small stash to get him started. Eventually, he was kicked out of the center. It got to the point where there was nowhere else to go.
That’s how he ended up at the halfway house and the AA meetings where he met Steve. He told himself he only attended the meetings for the free coffee.
But people were nice to him. They invited him to dinner. They went out for coffee. Steve even gave him the key to his house.
“I was like: ‘you know I rob people, right?’” Joey said.
But despite the love and acceptance, the depression came back. Not that it had ever really left.
That night at the hospital, after hanging up with Steve, Joey made a promise to himself. This time, he was going to try to get sober. Really try. He was going to listen to people. He wouldn’t just show up at AA meetings, he would actually participate.
He was going to give it his all. And if that didn’t work, he would end it. For real this time.
Every day, Joey worked toward recovery. Slowly his mindset started to change. With the help of doctors at an inpatient residential treatment center, he was able to face his addiction and make peace with his hate, anger and prejudices.
“My worst fear happened and I didn’t need to get high. I realized it didn’t matter what happened. I wouldn’t have to use again.”
This time around, he actually listened to the guys at the AA meetings, the ones who’d been alcoholics for longer than he’d been alive. They knew the path he was on. They told him his scrawny 5’5, 117-pound frame wouldn’t last a minute in prison.
One day, at an AA meeting, he was taking out the garbage and one of the older guys pulled him aside.
“He said: ‘hey, did you notice you were smiling?’ And I just stood there. I hadn’t noticed.” Joey said. “But I knew what he meant. I might just be getting better.”
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His relationship with his dad also started to change.
On his one-year anniversary of sobriety, his parents, siblings, grandparents and cousins came to Florida to celebrate. During a lull in the festivities, Joey’s dad pulled him aside. He had tears in his eyes and something in his hand.
It was the ring. He told his son he had finally earned it.
It was the last time Joey saw his father alive. He died four months later of a heart attack.
“The last letter I got from him, he said he was so glad we had a relationship. He wrote ‘I love you. I care for you. I believe in you.’ Things had really changed between us.”
During his recovery, there was always this nagging voice in the back of his mind. He was good now, but if anything happened to anyone he loved, he wouldn’t be able to cope. That would be what sent him back to the bottle.
After his mom called to tell him about his father’s death, Joey went to a meeting. The next morning he was on a plane home.
The day of the funeral, his step-uncle sidled up to Joey as the family walked to the gravesite.
“Joey,” his step-uncle said. “You’ve been a through a lot. You need some Valium?”
It wasn’t anything malicious; his step-uncle didn’t understand recovery. Joey said he was okay. Later on that night, sitting in his dad’s room praying, it clicked.
He really was okay.
“I was like, holy fuck, there isn’t anything I will go through that will make me want to use,” he said. “My worst fear happened and I didn’t need to get high. I realized it didn’t matter what happened. I wouldn’t have to use again.”
Sometimes there’s this perception that once someone gets sober, their life instantly becomes perfect. But there were no white picket fences for Joey. He had a son and then split with the boy’s mom. He got jobs and lost them. He was in a few car accidents.
But he stayed sober.
“The biggest thing to realize is that recovery is a process. It’s not like you go to detox for five days and then you’re all better. If you’re going to make those changes in your life, there are no shortcuts.”
“No one takes shortcuts with their drug use. I stole my family’s credit cards and cash. I would steal aluminum gutters. Trust me, I put everything I had into using,” Joey said. “Now all of a sudden you can’t call your sponsor every day? If you didn’t have heroin or didn’t have cocaine, you’d call everyone in the tri-state area to find it.”
He worked a few odd jobs to get by. Then after five years sober one of his therapists approached him. ‘You’re working with all the young people,’ the therapist said. ‘People are always talking highly about you. Why don’t you come work here?’
So he did. He started at the bottom, checking people into their rooms, doing intakes, driving the center’s van. Little by little he started learning every aspect of the business. He eventually left to start his own treatment center. Now he works for another company, doing outreach and serving as a resource for people in need.
“As hopeless as anyone feels,” Joey tells patients. “You can get sober. You can get better. Recovery is possible.”
After getting clean when he was 19 years old, Joey just celebrated his 20 year anniversary of sobriety.
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