Recently we had the opportunity to sit down with our own Chris Harbolt, Business Development Representative for Foundations Wellness Center, to talk about how he came to be where he is today, with six and a half years of sobriety under his belt.
Homeless and nearly dead after 25 years of alcoholism and drug addiction, Chris had resigned himself to the fact that eventually it would end his life, one way or another.
But he had just enough hope to reach out to one man, a former Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) sponsor, when Chris was finally ready… when he’d finally had enough.
Below, Chris shares his powerful story with us.
You grew up in Chicago. What was your childhood like?
I really had a dream childhood. My parents have been married 55 years. Dad was a triple Letterman athlete who was scouted by Major League Baseball and had tryouts with several teams. Mom was the prettiest girl in school that everybody wanted to be friends with and every guy wanted to date. They were the power couple. Dad joined the military after school (he didn’t end up joining the Major Leagues) and started working for Chrysler. Mom went to work for GTE, which is what turned into Verizon.
Needless to say, I never wanted for anything or needed anything. I grew up in a beautiful, custom-built home in the suburbs.
From all outward appearances, I had the dream life laid out before me.
You say “from all outward appearances.” Was something different happening beneath the surface?
I was never comfortable with myself. I didn’t have any big, traumatic experiences. There wasn’t any abuse or molestation or anything like that.
That’s why, for so many years, I was trying to figure out why I went down the path that I did. I would go to meetings and hear horrible stories of what people went through when they were kids. Some of these stories you hear, you think, “God, well that totally makes sense. They are trying to get past that.” I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me, because none of that stuff happened to me.
My parents were great and I always had friends, stuff like that. I got moved ahead a couple of grades at school because I have a very high IQ and tested very high on everything. They said “He needs to start advancing,” and so I was put into an accelerated gifted program.
The first time I was offered alcohol, I tried it, and that’s the first time I actually felt comfortable in my own skin. I was 12 years old.
If you were placed ahead a few grades, then you were around people who were older than you all the time.
Yes, definitely. My wife and I have joked that I didn’t date 15-year-old girls, even when I was 15. I was always around older people. Everyone around me was always two to three years older than me.
So, when I was a seventh grader, I was hanging out with people who were partying in high school already. I was probably exposed to some things that people probably aren’t exposed to until they are a little bit older, unless they’ve got a brother or sister that’s actively drinking and using.
How old were you again when the drinking started?
I was 12 years old went I got drunk for the first time.
I was in treatment a year later.
It went bad that quickly?
Yes, I was full-blown alcoholic from the first time I got drunk. I thought, “This is the solution to how I feel. This is what I need to do, as often as possible, for the rest of my life.”
Was alcohol your main problem?
No, it progressed. Alcohol was for years, though.
Because I played sports, I did what so many people do: I looked down my nose at people who did other substances. I thought I was better than that. I thought I was above that. Then I smoked some pot and I really liked that. So then I no longer had a problem with people smoking pot, but you didn’t do any hard drugs. You know, you were a loser if you did hard drugs. Athletes drink beer after the game and we smoke a little weed on the weekend, but you don’t do anything harder than that.
And then I watched Len Bias. Bias got drafted by the Celtics, and, before he could play a game, he overdosed and died while using cocaine. So I swore I would never – I was always an avid Celtics sports fan – I said I would never touch that stuff.
Then one night, I was drunk at a party and offered cocaine. It seemed like a great idea at the time: I’d be able to stay up all night and drink more.
That was kind of the story. Every time I did a drug for the first time, there was alcohol in my system when I made that decision.
You were still going to school though, through all of this, and then you joined the military?
I actually left school my senior year, because I was going to have to take night school and summer school. I had gone to a private school for a little while – a Lutheran school – and then I went back to regular school. I was not informed until my senior year that there were four or five classes that I had taken at that Lutheran school that they were not allowed to count in public school. Because they weren’t… accredited would be the college term for it.
At the Lutheran school, I took several classes on different world religions and they counted toward history or social studies credits. In public school, they couldn’t count a class like the history of Islam toward your social studies credit, because anything that had religious overtones they weren’t allowed to legally count.
I was informed I could either take summer school and night school or come back for another semester.
I was so furious about that, that I said, “You know what? I’ll just go the Board of Education this afternoon, sign up to take the equivalency test and be done with all this.”
I already had tickets for a bunch of Grateful Dead shows that summer. I thought, “I’m not cancelling my summer drinking and drug expedition to take classes, that’s crazy!”
So what happened after that?
I went to community college for a while, on three separate occasions. After that, I figured out that I really didn’t want to go to school anymore.
By that time, I had starting using everything under the sun – cocaine, ecstasy, crack, heroin. Heroin was getting pretty bad, so I knew I needed to get sober… and find a place to keep me sober.
A girl I was dating at the time had some family in the military and we went to visit them on the military base where they were stationed. We stayed with them for a little while, and I finally said to myself, “You know what? This is what I need to do. I need to be on a base somewhere and I need to join the military.”
So that is what I did.
And then the first time I got leave, I overdosed. In full uniform.
I had been informed that the unit I was attached to was going to be deployed to Afghanistan. This is not a good place for a heroin addict to be, as they are the world’s number one supplier of the poppy plant.
Did your superiors know about the overdose?
Yes, because it was entered into the police and fire reports. When I came back, I also had a positive drug screen.
They gave me the option to choose a different MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) and go back through everything for a different MOS, or to have a general discharge under medical. I picked the medical discharge because I didn’t want to go back through.
I had realized by that point that even the military couldn’t keep me sober.
How long were you in?
I signed in 2005.
They actually sent me home and then had me come back for the hearing.
By the time everything got processed through and I went back in and got out, it was actually 2009, four years later.
I was using on and off throughout my time there.
I had brief periods of sobriety while I was on base, and then every time I’d come back home, I’d start getting high again… usually within a matter of hours.
Do you remember anything about that overdose?
I remember doing the shot and next thing I knew I woke up in the hospital. Actually, I was being brought into the hospital on a gurney from the carport where ambulances pull in.
That was my evening.
All I knew I was that I was getting high in a bathroom, and the next thing I knew I was in a carport at the hospital.
So you went into the military, and it couldn’t keep you sober. What happened after that?
I went to treatment a couple of times, and I got arrested for a burglary during that period. I went to treatment for court, and ended up walking out of treatment and getting a warrant put out for me. I had to go back to court because I had walked out of that court-ordered treatment center.
They had put me in treatment in the middle of one of the neighborhoods I used to buy dope in. As soon as they told me where they were sending me, I thought “That’s not going to work, the second I have some money, I’m out the door.”
Even though they provided all of the food as an inpatient treatment center, I managed to weasel a family phone call. I told my parents that we needed to buy our own groceries and Dad needed to send me a couple hundred bucks so I could get groceries for a week or two.
Immediately, that money went to drugs.
I’m guessing you tested positive on a urine screen?
No, someone actually walked into the bathroom and saw me.
It wasn’t just a one-person bathroom, multiple people could go in… like a department store bathroom. And I was in one of the stalls, and the stall doors were shorter than usual. There were a couple of firemen on staff there. One was the head fireman – he was 6’7” and huge – and he walked in to use the bathroom. All he had to do was look over as he was walking by my stall, and, dead on, he saw me, there was nothing I could do. I was in the middle of doing the shot, sitting there with a needle in my hand and my sleeve rolled up.
He immediately went to others at the center and said, “You’ve got a guy in there who is shooting dope in your bathroom.” They waited for me to come out and said that they needed to talk to me, and I knew exactly why.
They actually offered me the chance to stay if I gave them the rest of my dope so they could flush it.
They said, “We know you have more. Just give it to us, we’ll flush it, and give us all of your paraphernalia, we’re going to get rid of it, and we’ll let you stay. Because we want to help you, man. We understand you are sick, man, you’re not a bad guy, you’re just sick. And we don’t want to see you go die. We want to help you. We won’t even tell the court about it.”
I mean they were really cool it – they were really cool.
But the addict in me didn’t want any part of it.
“There is absolutely no way I’m giving you my heroin,” I said, “So I don’t know what you want to do at this point.”
They said, “You either have to give it to us or you have to leave.”
And the guy literally walked down the stairs with me. The whole time he walked with me, all the way to the front door, he was trying to convince me to stay.
“The second you walk out that door and it closes behind you, I immediately have to call the court,” he told me. “They’ll put out a warrant for you and you’re looking at prison time for burglary. I wouldn’t play with the court right now.”
“Look man, I got to do what I got to do and you got to do what you got to do,” I said. “No hard feelings, I understand it’s your job. Have a good weekend, bye.”
So you left?
Yes, I left.
Did you end up serving jail time for that burglary then?
No. I mean, I served jail time. I was in jail for somewhere between seven and eight months.
The court date kept getting postponed.
I hadn’t actually been sentenced to that time, but I was their last priority. I think they were looking at it like, “This idiot just walked. We gave him a chance and he walked out of treatment, and geez, the docket is really full today, why don’t we push him two weeks out?”
And every time I went to court it, just got pushed out and got pushed out So I’ve seen a five-year DUI court date postponement before, you could actually go to court for five years for a DUI and it wasn’t because of anything, it just got pushed out, and pushed out, and pushed out.
When I finally went to court, they said, “Alright, we’ll give you one more chance.”
And I went to treatment and completed treatment in Illinois.
Afterward, they recommended to my family and the court that I go to sober living in another state, because, as they said, “He’s been running around Chicago and the suburbs for years and years, so sober living is probably not a good idea anywhere around here.”
Really, the only area in Illinois where sober living is offered is in Chicago and the surrounding area. They don’t have sober living in the farm towns there; the rest of the state is kind of rural. They recommended going to a place in Florida.
So, I went to Boca in 2009 and stayed there, sober, for 11 months and two weeks.
Then I went back to Illinois for a relationship. I had been sober for 11 and a half months, I was cured! I was good (or so I thought).
I moved back to live with a girl that was a therapist for the city of Chicago who had just gotten a nice settlement. She had a nice townhouse and said, “You can move in with me, and you don’t even have to go to work right away. I’ve got money, I’ll pay for everything. We can just lay in bed watching movies all day.” I said, “That sounds absolutely beautiful. Let’s do that.”
I think it was about two or three days later, I had a drink in my hand.
That didn’t take long!
No, it didn’t. It took one fight and it took the fact that I realized the second that I walked out of the airport door and felt the icy cold on my face in the middle of December – I went from 85 degrees in Fort Lauderdale to about 11 degrees when I got to Chicago – to realize that I made a horrible, horrible choice. I instantly remembered why I hated it the place so much. It’s dark and grey and cold and I hate it.
Then, she and I got in a big fight because she found out I had been unfaithful to her during the time that I was in Florida. My immediate reaction was, “Screw you, I’m going to the bar.” And I literally walked out the door of townhouse and went straight to the bar and started drinking again.
I was absolutely black-out drunk for the next eight months.
I had a “brilliant idea” when I started waking up every morning, shaking from alcohol. I had to have a drink within about five minutes of my eyes being open, otherwise, I’d start partially seizing.
My brilliant idea was that I should detox myself from alcohol by snorting a little bit of heroin. “Then,” I thought, “I’ll be able to drink less.”
And how did that work?
In about three weeks, I was a full-blown heroin addict again – and drinking on top of it.
And it stayed that way from December 2009 until October 2013.
Another four years.
Yes, four years. And I went out to get drunk that one night.
I tell clients and sponsees that I work with all the time, “Look, man, I know your head tells you it’s just going to be one night and you just need some relief, but my one night of going to a nice bar in a nice part of town with money in my pocket and designer clothes on, ended with me on the floor of an abandoned house four years later, dying of organ failure.”
I was grey with yellow rings around my eyes, covered in abscesses and track marks, and 146 pounds when I got to the hospital. I’m almost 6’1 and I normally weigh between 200 and 220 pounds depending on where I’m at with weightlifting.
You were way underweight.
Yes, I was skin on a skeleton. I don’t say this any way lightly, but the pictures of people you’ve seen in concentration camps? That was pretty much what I looked like when I took my shirt off. You could see every bone – my collarbone, my rib cage, and I definitely had abs.
I joke about it with the guys that I give workout tips to. They tell me “I want big shoulders like you and abs with that.” I tell them, “You have abs, you just have to get your body fat lower so that you can see them. Trust me, the whole time I was a homeless junkie I had abs, because I never ate anything.”
Well, Chris, that sounds like a pretty low point to me. I’m hoping this is when you got sober for good.
Yes, it was. That was absolutely when I hit my lowest point. I had been homeless at different points on and off all throughout that entire journey. There was about 15 years where I was homeless on and off.
Those last four years, though, I was straight-up homeless and living in abandoned houses.
I looked in the mirror and no longer recognized myself. And I said to myself, “This is not the man my parents raised. What have you become?”
And that was the turning point of my life. That was the lowest I’ve ever felt in my entire life.
How old were you at the time?
A lot of people have been down this same road. People need to realize, it’s never too late to turn it around. You can always start where you are and get a better life.
Did you get sober in Chicago?
No, I had kept in contact with the guy who sponsored me when I lived down in Florida in 2009.
He passed away from cancer in 2015 with 15 years sober. But he never stopped taking my calls.
I could call him in the middle of being blackout drunk or nodding out on heroin so badly I could barely speak, and he would always talk with me. And he just kept telling me, “Let me know when you’re done. Let me know when you’re ready… when you’re really ready, because I don’t chase drunks.”
He said, “I’ll talk to you but I’m not going to try to convince you to stop because it doesn’t work from what I’ve seen. You’ve got to actually want to change. I want you to change, but that’s not enough. Your parents want you to change, but that’s not enough. People who care about you want you to change, but that’s not enough. You have to want to change, otherwise, you’re not going to really do this.”
And I finally… God rest his soul. I love that man so much. I owe him my life. Finally, I called him and said, “Man, I can’t do this anymore.”
He said, “Can you get a plane ticket to Florida? I have enough connections that I’m sure I can get you a bed somewhere. It’s probably not going to be a five-star resort, but I think I can pull a couple of strings with some favors.”
So I called my dad and said, “Can you get me a plane ticket?”
He said, “Why the hell didn’t you call me four years ago when you first started again? That year that you spent down there I think is probably the only year you’ve drawn a sober breath since you were 12 years old and tasted vodka for the first time.”
I said, “You’re right.”
“We’ll get you a plane ticket today. We’ll call you back in 45 minutes with the confirmation number,” my dad said. “If you do not get on the plane, lose our phone number. Don’t ever call us again. It’s too painful to watch you kill yourself anymore.”
And I got on the plane and came down.
My sponsor picked me up and took me to detox. When they did the physical portion of my intake at detox, the nursing supervisor and the doctor on staff reviewed everything and said, “We can’t take you.”
“What do you mean?” I said. “I just flew down here in the middle of the night from Chicago? You knew I was coming, you knew I didn’t have any money. Is this about money?”
“No, no, no, it’s not about money. We’re giving you a scholarship bed,” they replied. “But you’re in such bad physical shape that if we try to detox you here, there’s a good possibility you will die.”
“What am I supposed to do?” I asked.
“You’re going to have to detox at the hospital,” they said, “where it’s full-on medical treatment 24 hours a day.”
And I started to walk out the front door. I thought they were telling me to leave and go to the hospital. I was like “OK, thanks for nothing I guess.”
And they said, “No, no, no, don’t go anywhere. We’re pulling a van around right now. We are going to bring you to the ER. We already called them and said we’re on the way.”
They took me to St. Mary’s in West Palm. The ER doctor said, “I am going to admit you.”
The doctor really had mercy on me. He told me, “Normally, we’d probably just treat you for the physical stuff, but when was the last time you had anything?”
I said, “Before I got on the plane. Six or eight hours ago or whatever it was now.”
So he said, “Needless to say, in a few hours…”
“In a few hours,” I interrupted, “I’m going to be running out that door, unless you guys can do something about that, to be honest with you. I’ll rip all these tubes and everything out and I’ll be out the door.”’
“Don’t do that,” he told me, “I’m going to authorize that, while you’re in the trauma unit, we also detox you.”
So they detoxed me from everything. They kept me in there just about a week, which I needed for the physical portion anyway because I was damn near dead. I even had a couple of seizures – that was fun.
I had a bathroom in my room. I actually had a private room because I was pretty horrifying and they said, “I don’t think you want to be around anybody and I don’t think anybody wants to be around you. We’re just going to go ahead and give you a private room.”
They told me to absolutely not try to go to the bathroom.
“If you have to go to the bathroom, here’s the urine bottle and the bed pan,” they said. “And don’t worry about it, we are used to cleaning stuff, just go.”
Of course, I was too proud to do that, so the second I had to pee I told myself that it was only 15 feet away, I was grown man, and I can walk to the bathroom and pee. I walked two steps, and the next thing I remember was being lifted back onto the bed face first and having a needle jammed in my shoulder, because I had been on the ground, seizing.
Thankfully, my nurse Julian just happened to walking by my door at the time that happened. “You’re lucky,” he said. “You was flopping like a fish and I walked by and seen you. I told you, ‘Don’t get out of the bed. You’re about to die. You can’t be walking nowhere, you were almost dead when you got here.’” He was a Jamaican guy, he was a really, really great guy.
There was one other time they had to stop me from seizing. I was about to vibrate off the bed.
After I was discharged from the hospital, another guy that my first sponsor had sponsored picked me up. He brought me to an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting, and that was it. I got a scholarship bed at a halfway house in Boynton with a twin bed and a Big Book. That was exactly what I needed.
I didn’t need any luxuries, I didn’t need another omelet chef, I didn’t need a horseback ride and I didn’t need a massage.
I needed someone to say, “Do this, or die.”
And I finally had had enough pain by that point that my only answer to everything I was told to do by people who had come before me was “OK.”
I tell that to the clients, the guys that I work with and the girls that I know in the fellowship that are having a tough time getting sober.
They say, “How did you finally get sober, man? I’ve heard your story and it’s crazy. It went on for so long and you went to treatment a bunch of different times and you almost died all these times and were homeless in Chicago on the street. How did you finally get sober?”
I say, “One word: OK.”
That changed everything.
I stopped thinking that I was different than other people. I stopped thinking that I was smarter. I stopped thinking that I could somehow find a way to make it work. I stopped thinking that I could do it on my own.
Every time someone who had been sober longer than me told me something to do, I said, “OK.”
I was out of road.
Thank God for that. I remember you have said, “I have no doubt why I made it out.” In other words, you knew that you had been saved for a reason. You could have easily died – you were that close, inches from death.
I had wrecked six cars while drunk. I had nine overdoses on record – and probably another at least half dozen where I didn’t go to the hospital, I just woke up on the bathroom floor six hours later. And I’ve had guns pulled on me more times than I can count. There are about 30 times right off the top of my head that I should have been dead.
So, there is no doubt that the big man upstairs was looking out for me, and it was exactly for the reason that I am living life now… to help other people.
You are helping people get into treatment and sober living and you have sponsored a ton of people and are very involved with AA.
Yes. Today I have an amazing life where I get to help people every day. I have a beautiful wife, a successful career in treatment, and recently opened a sober living home for women.
So you really feel that this is why you were born and why you went through everything, to help other people get out of addiction?
Yes, absolutely. Not even a doubt.
What would you say to someone who is out there now, someone who is lost in the dark side of addiction?
If you’re struggling, please reach out, and be ready to watch your entire world shift, in the most beautiful way you could ever imagine!
My first two weeks after moving into the halfway house, I was taken through the 12 Steps. This resulted in an absolute white-light experience, which not only completely removed any desire to drink and use, but changed my entire perception of this world and everything in it.
This can happen for you, too. The same opportunity is open to everyone. You just have to reach out for it.
That is very powerful. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Chris.
Thank you for the opportunity to share some hope.
If you are currently struggling with addiction, whether to drugs or alcohol or both, there are thousands of people across the country waiting to help you. If they can do it, so can you. But you need to be really ready, as Chris’s first sponsor once told him. It’s not enough for other people to want you to be clean and sober, you have to want it and be ready for it. If you are, don’t waste another moment of your life. Fill out the form below or call us at (855) 807-0846, at any time, day or night. We are here waiting to help you, every step of the way.