TJ’s wife called him crying. She’d just gotten a call from their oldest son’s school about something he’d said to a classmate. Their son, 10 years old, was having trouble with bullies, and he’d told one of the bullies he wished he would die. He’d also recently told Bekah, TJ’s wife, that he wanted to bring a gun to school.
TJ dropped what he was doing and picked up his son from school. They drove to an empty parking lot and TJ talked to him about the difference between reacting and responding, something he’d learned in Alcoholics Anonymous.
“To react is to not think,” TJ told his son. “To respond is to get some input and make a sound decision. Jails are full of people who reacted one time.”
He said a prayer and then pulled out a blank pad of paper. At the top of the page, TJ wrote, “I’m resentful at.” He drew a line down the page and asked his son for the names of the children bullying him and what each person was doing that made him mad.
Once the second column was complete, TJ said, “Son, you understand all these kids are doing the same thing? It’s all the same thing.” They’re affecting your character, your self-esteem, your ambition and security, TJ told him.
Then he flipped to a new page. “Ok, now let’s talk about your part.”
But his son couldn’t see his part. He was sure he didn’t have a part at all. He was the one being bullied.
So TJ pressed. “You want to bring a gun to school. You want them to die,” he said to his son. “That’s your part.” It was slow and steady work. Name by name, column by column, TJ led his son through the inventory process described in the book Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I showed him what was shown to me. You’re not mad at these kids. You’re mad at their behavior. And you’re mad at their behavior because it’s affecting your ego,” says TJ.
Finally, after explaining what an amend was, TJ had his son write a letter to the boy he’d told he wanted to die, outlining what his part in the relationship was.
The whole process took several hours. His son was resistant, throwing the pen a couple of times. But TJ stayed the course and by the time they left, the letter was written.
TJ contacted the other boy’s father and asked if he could bring his son over to read the letter right then. In front of the boy, the boy’s mother and father, and TJ, TJ’s son read what he’d written. Then his son asked to say a prayer before they left.
The next day, when TJ asked his son about the other boy he said, “Dad, we’re friends.”
Talking about the experience he shared with his son, TJ chokes up. “To be able to be a dad and to be able to teach my son the principles I learned in Alcoholics Anonymous is priceless.”
Meetings won’t keep you sober
But before there were parking lot talks about spiritual principles with his son or prayerful encounters with other parents, there was active addiction, chaos, and despair. After leaving Jacksonville, FL where TJ was on the verge of homelessness, jobless, and selling cocaine, he landed in Dickson, TN where his uncle lived. TJ wanted sobriety but couldn’t get a hold of it. There was relapse after relapse.
“I went to a lot of meetings, but meetings don’t keep you sober.”
“I didn’t understand recovery. I went to meetings. I went to a lot of meetings,” says TJ. “But meetings don’t keep you sober. It’s the program that keeps you sober. It wasn’t about going to the meeting. It was about what I did after the meeting, what I did before the meeting, and how I lived my life outside Alcoholics Anonymous.”
A friend he’d met in A.A. took him to a meeting at Discovery Place and a seed was planted. Several months and relapses later TJ, then 28, would finally check into Discovery Place.
“I felt an immediate brotherhood when I checked in,” he recalls. “I wasn’t a number.”
During his thirty days TJ noticed that the people who stayed around Discovery Place were also the same people who stayed sober. So, he stayed around, too. He commenced on a Wednesday and was back on Friday night for alumni night. TJ volunteered several days a week, an opportunity Discovery Place offers any alumni so former guests can stay connected. He attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, worked the Twelve Steps with a sponsor, and volunteered to drive the van at Discovery Place. In two years, TJ missed only two Friday night alumni meetings.
TJ was jumping back into life headfirst, and life was about to get even bigger.
Learning to balance a new life, new responsibilities
The same week TJ commenced from Discovery Place in February 2006, he returned to his local church in Dickson. There, he saw a woman he’d met when he first moved to town the year before. They started talking again.
But TJ had a girlfriend. He also knew there was something special about this woman at church. After talking with his sponsor, he let his girlfriend know he had feelings for someone else, and he let the woman at church know he’d been dating another woman. TJ’s sponsor had told him if the woman from church was still interested in him after learning about the girlfriend, he should invite her to the next alumni night at Discovery Place. She was still interested and she showed up to Discovery Place that Friday night.
“Am I seeking a relationship to fulfill something that is missing that I need to be seeking God to fill?”
Four months later TJ proposed to Bekah, the woman he’d met at church. Two months later, at the end of July, they were married.
“It wasn’t a decision I made by myself,” says TJ. He talked to his sponsor, his sponsor’s sponsor, other men in his sponsorship line. He asked himself some hard questions.
“Do I love Bekah or do I love the idea of Bekah? Am I OK being alone? Am I seeking a relationship to fulfill something that is missing that I need to be seeking God to fill? Is the relationship selfish? And what am I bringing to the relationship?”
TJ and Bekah quickly began to build their life together. Less than a year later Bekah was pregnant, and the couple had their first child in October 2007.
“It was very scary for me. Before I got married my responsibility was a truck payment and a 50-dollar weekly rent ,” says TJ. But after getting married, there were new bills, and now a baby on the way. Bekah told TJ she wanted to quit work so she could stay home with their son.
So 21 months after leaving Discovery Place, TJ was now a newlywed, a father, and the sole provider for his family. “And the most important thing to me at that time was maintaining my sponsorship family, my sobriety. After I became a father, I didn’t let that interrupt my meetings,” says TJ.
When TJ went to meetings, he would often take his infant son with him to give Bekah a break. “He led our Ala-Tot meeting,” TJ jokes. “He got passed around the rooms and held. I think that sculpted him. Until he was four or five years old, he went to meetings with me. He still knows the Serenity Prayer.”
Their second son arrived in 2011 and a third in 2012. With each new child TJ’s schedule stretched a little thinner. Together with his sponsor, TJ inventoried all of his responsibilities as a husband, father, employee, and as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.
“It’s really about priorities. I was careful not to make Alcoholics Anonymous my hideaway,” says TJ. “I saw that happening with a lot of people. They’re going to three meetings a day but their dishes aren’t done and their wives need help at home. I can practice principles at my kitchen sink, too.”
When balance goes belly up in sobriety
As TJ’s family grew, and thus his responsibilities, so did the need to find greater balance. There were commitments he had to step away from. There were things he would have once said yes to that now he needed to say no.
And even then, the idea of a balanced life was still sometimes just wishful thinking. By 2016, the couple who’d met and fallen in love at church was now talking divorce.
“She felt like she was getting seconds, and I felt like she wasn’t supporting me,” says TJ. But all of that would come to an abrupt stop. If TJ and Bekah couldn’t find balance, balance would find them.
That year TJ was trying to get a new business venture off the ground, conducting interventions and helping addicts and alcoholics find recovery. During a client transport, he was threatened by the individual he was transporting. TJ shot him in the leg.
While police processed the scene, TJ found himself sitting in the back of a police car having what he calls “a little spiritual awakening.”
“If I had to work in a factory I would do it to save our marriage.”
“What’re you doing? You’re about to divorce your wife and for what? Because you’re so focused on trying to build this dream that you have but you’re neglecting your family?” TJ recalls asking himself.
“I came home that Sunday and said if I had to work in a factory I would do it to save our marriage.”
TJ walked away from it all and started a job doing manual labor until the next opportunity presented itself. A couple of months after the shooting, TJ found another job in the recovery field where he still works today.
Now 12 years sober, he still has a home group in Alcoholics Anonymous, still meets with his sponsor once a week, and still makes recovery an integral part of what his family practices, like walking his son through a resentment inventory. “What was neat about that was I never told him we were doing an inventory. I just did the process with him,” says TJ. “As my others grow up and we talk about conflict resolution, I’m able to talk to them about being rigorously honest, open-mindedness, brotherly love, and I’m able to bring them up with the principles that back up the Twelve Steps. It absolutely makes me a better dad.”