I had three older sisters and one younger sister, two of which have passed now. They all faced addiction issues in some form or another. My parents were alcoholics and I grew up watching them drink day in and day out. That is what normal was for me. [In high school] I skipped half of my freshman year and all of my sophomore year. I stayed long enough to get through driver’s education and then I dropped out. The next day I was working full time with my dad. We would split a six pack every day during lunch.”
The early years of Rick’s life did not get easier and he found himself trying to live a life that would provide him with a change of scenery. “Starting when I was 19 I went to jail a couple of times. I spent a total of five years in prison. After that, I thought I needed a change so I got married. I don’t remember my bachelor party, the wedding, the vows, none of it. We got married, we worked, I drank, we had a boat, snowmobiles, and all the fun things. Eventually, that marriage fell apart. I moved around a lot and had a few more failed relationships. I have three kids, but I am not in contact with any of them. I wasn’t there while they were growing up and they are doing just fine. They are all amazing kids.”
Through the years Rick remembered his life revolving around alcohol, and he expressed some of the darkest times he experienced while drinking. “The thing about being an alcoholic is that when I wanted to make changes I made geographical changes, but I took the problem [myself] with me. Everything I did revolved around drinking. Any club I joined and any activity I was a part of included drinking. I learned how to drive with a beer between my legs. My second marriage ended when my wife asked for a divorce because she didn’t want to lose our house and everything because she knew I wouldn’t stop drinking. She was worried I would kill someone while I was driving.”
Attempting to find sobriety, Rick moved to La Crosse and found something unexpected. “About 10 years ago I came to La Crosse to get sober. Don’t get me wrong, I had done the rehab thing before, but it never stuck. I laughed when the county sent me to La Crosse because that is where I came to drink. I went to a sober house and stayed sober the entire three months I was there. I started to stray away from going to meetings and I moved in with a girl I met in the program. She texted me one day and said I want to drink and I said that I did too. So I left work and I picked up a 12 pack and there went that. After that I couch surfed and stayed at the Salvation Army. I kept getting kicked out of the Salvation Army because they had a zero tolerance policy and I wasn’t blowing zeros. So I started living in the woods. I was homeless for about three and a half years.”
When the body moved beyond the desire to drink and instead required alcohol to survive, homelessness and desperation represented added layers in the complexities of Rick’s life. “I lived outside and I was pretty resourceful. I thought I could do it. Drinking was no longer a choice. It was my only concern every day. I either drank or I had a seizure. So I lived in the woods after they kicked us out of tent city and I would spend my time in the parking ramps when it was cold outside. One of the hardest parts about being homeless is just having enough money to survive and humbling yourself enough to ask for money. My last year of drinking, I would drink 1.75 liters of vodka and a 30 rack of beer every day. I couldn’t go more than two hours without a drink. I couldn’t stay at the Warming Center for a whole night. I wanted to die and that is what I was working for, but some of the workers at the Warming Center would not leave me alone. Between them and some of the resource officers, they kept checking on me. They would sit with me down by my fire and ask if there was anything they could do for me. I still wasn’t ready.”
When other people and supports would not give up on Rick, the change he kept searching for finally happened. “One day, two of the kindest people that worked at the Warming Center were talking with me and they convinced me to go to treatment. I didn’t think I would go, but I did. They put me in a cab and I went to detox for seven days. I thought it was time to give my liver a break for a few days anyways. I had done that before, I would go into detox until I was feeling better and then I would drink again. They brought me back to La Crosse and I thought I would get out at the park and go buy something to drink. They had other plans for me. I ended up going to a recovery center. A week later they said I could sign myself out to go for walks. I thought they were idiots for letting me out. I walked right to the beer cooler in Kwik Trip. Then I thought [Rick pauses] maybe not today. I bought some cigarettes and I left. I did that for three more days. Then I didn’t go into a Kwik Trip for the next seven and a half months. I was thinking about a lot of things, standing in front of that beer cooler and I still don’t know why I didn’t buy the beer.”
In the days that continued to unfold Rick’s life took more unexpected turns, yet these changes in his journey led him to a place of new beginnings. “At the recovery center I built a good relationship with the house manager and all of a sudden I had been there for 30 days. So then they put me in housing and I thought these people really are crazy. Why would they trust me with housing? I kept going to AA meetings, meeting people, and doing what was suggested. I had no faith in me. My track record said that I was going to screw it up and I should have no expectations of not screwing it up. I am sober today and that is it. I decided I needed to start working so I started my own home repair business. I still have that today. I feel like I haven’t really tried for my sobriety, but after I got my first year sober, life turned into life. I stopped hiding from my problems and better yet, I don’t create problems. I spend a lot of time camping and going out in my boat now. I also do a lot of social work. I am a peer support specialist for ED2 Recovery and I work for 211 Wisconsin. ED2 recovery is a program where we get called into emergency rooms when people overdose. Someone like me comes in and we talk to them. We share that we know what they are going through and that we have been there. Then we ask if they want help.”
Currently, recovery remains part of Rick’s daily life and each day represents an opportunity to be thankful for the simplicities life can offer. “La Crosse has a great recovery community. There are a lot of people in recovery in La Crosse, but there could be a lot more. I do a lot of volunteer work. It’s nice and I feel good at the end of the day. I do not have the drug free, sober free, life down pat by any means. I wake up every morning and say I don’t think I want to drink today. I don’t think I am going to abuse any pills today. I never say I am not going to because I don’t know that. Now, I give thanks because I have heat, I have a roof over my head, and I have my two cats, Bonnie and Clyde. I rescued them off a farm. I have a couch that I sleep on and I am really simple and I don’t think about me anymore. I am not my main concern. Four years, eight months, and however many days ago I was sleeping on a hardwood floor and probably didn’t have two pennies in my pocket and today I have way more stuff than I need. Life is alright, life is good.”
A message of honesty and kindness captures Rick’s life and his hopes for those who face similar journeys throughout their lives. “I would tell people not to lose hope, but that is a useless statement. When you’re homeless, you have already lost hope. There is help out there when you’re ready for it.”
Author’s Note: Rick opened up to us in the most honest way and we remain grateful to him for sharing his story with us and so many others as they travel down life’s journey and know they are never alone.
Artist’s Note: Hope on the horizon represents everything that Rick stands for. In places where hope seems lost, Rick finds happiness and brings kindness to others. The future may be unknown, but find something worth hanging onto...