Returning to Discovery Place After Relapse

Man walks alone from dark to light after relapseDave L. can tell you where he was and what he was thinking the day he realized his son was an alcoholic. Luke, Dave’s oldest son, had been working for him at the time when he called out sick from work again. It wasn’t a huge red flag—not a stolen credit card, a call from the police department, or even a family argument—but it was out of character enough that it gave Dave pause. This wasn’t the Luke he knew, the gregarious but disciplined former college athlete. This was a Luke that was slowly and subtly coming undone.

For years, Dave and his wife, Amy, had watched their daughter, Luke’s younger sister, wrestle with addiction. After each new rehabilitation center she would relapse and the dance would begin again. With their radar fixed firmly on her, Luke was the last one they suspected would ever be an addict. Sure, he’d struggled in college with partying but they could write that off to his age and his environment. And maybe he ordered a few too many drinks when the family went out together, but they saw what addiction looked like on their daughter and it didn’t look like Luke.

So when the day came that Luke called out of work again, Dave remembers standing in his driveway, the pieces of a years-long puzzle finally clicking into place. He stared up at the sky and said to God, “‘You’ve got to be kidding me. Two? I’ve got two of them?’ I was hurt. I felt betrayed by God. I was like, ‘You can’t do this to me. I can’t do this. I can’t do two.’”

It wouldn’t be too long after Dave’s appeal to God that Luke would first arrive at Discovery Place. No one could have suspected then, however, what would follow in the years to come—that Luke’s struggle was, in many ways, only just beginning.

The beginning stages of alcoholism

Luke, now 32, was born and raised in an affluent community just outside of Nashville. Palatial homes in gated communities with perfectly manicured lawns were the norm. Nice cars, fancy vacations, and private educations were standard. For Luke, whose father owned a successful physical therapy practice, these exterior cues translated to him early on an idea of who and what he should be.

But what would come to define Luke more in those early years was not what he saw in his environment but what he felt about himself. A target of sexual abuse at around six years old, some of Luke’s earliest memories are of feeling dirty, used, and unlovable. “[The sexual abuse] ignited the first stages of alcoholism,” says Luke. “I lost myself at a young age and spent life desperately trying to get it back.”

Convinced that love was now outside his reach, Luke took on a chameleon-like persona—be all things to all people. Jock or prep, nerd or class clown, Luke could find a way to connect. “Up through high school my drug of choice was winning your love and approval. I thought I was damaged goods,” he recalls. “I allowed you to tell me who I was. To win people’s approval was everything to me.”

Dave and Amy remember Luke as popular and outgoing, but also very sensitive. “Luke’s antenna was always up,” says Amy. “He had a lot more fear than I knew but after childhood it seemed like he was invincible.”

That invincibility showed up on the football field. Luke started playing sports at a young age, and he excelled at football. It wasn’t uncommon to see Luke’s name and photo in the Saturday morning paper for something he’d done in Friday night’s game.

The sport was interesting and entertaining enough, but what appealed most to Luke about football was how it seemed to earn him acceptance in his parents’ eyes. The need to please, or to fill a role, was a powerful motivator, and Luke stayed away from drugs and alcohol throughout high school.

He earned a full-ride to a prestigious, private university in Alabama to play Division I football. But it all looked and sounded better than it felt to Luke. “I remember going down there and thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m about to do this. I don’t like this school. I don’t like this sport. And I’m about to sign my life away to it.’”

At his first college party, Luke drank for the first time. With that drink, the weight of the world was suddenly gone. He would chase that feeling for more than a decade.

The All-American dream becomes a nightmare

Drinking became Luke’s priority his first year at college. In his mind, he was catching up on lost time. In reality, he was missing football practice, couldn’t make grades, and failed NCAA drug tests.

“On the outside I’m this All-American kid living the All-American dream, and inside I’m crumbling,” says Luke. “Drinking blotted out what other people thought of me.”

At home, his sister’s addiction was ramping up, and Luke was able to hide somewhat in her wake. The decision to leave his university after the first year and transfer to another school, however, did not go unnoticed. Not only was he leaving his full-ride but he was also leaving football.

“I think it’s really tough when you’re good enough [at a sport] to keep going but you decide you don’t want to do it anymore,” says Dave. “That’s the first time I saw him going through a low time, when he gave up football and decided to transfer.”

“I was totally a lost soul. I had no idea who I was.”

For most of Luke’s life up to this point, not only had he been a star athlete, but his life had been governed by the structure and discipline that playing a competitive sport requires. At his new school, a large, public university with a reputation for being a party school, the structure and discipline were gone. The reins were off. And the perks of being a well-known athlete had vanished.

“[Now] I’m just a somebody. I’m a nobody,” recalls Luke. Amy remembers him calling her, agonizing over the decision he’d made to leave football. Even though “football player” wasn’t who Luke was, it was something he had successfully been.

Over the next several years, Luke failed out of school multiple times. But it was all still under control, he thought. “It was always, ‘I’ll figure this out tomorrow,’” he says. “I was totally a lost soul. I had no idea who I was.”

Luke was eventually dismissed from the university, never earning his degree.

“The only thing I did right during that time was come home,” says Luke, “because I knew otherwise I was going to die.”

Checking into Discovery Place

Back home outside Nashville, Luke moved in with his parents and started working. He’d graduated from drinking to also using speed and painkillers.

For Dave and Amy, who were now in the thick of their daughter’s addiction, Luke was still flying under their radar. His addiction, they would come to learn, looked a lot different than their daughter’s. “This whole time, as far as any kind of addiction, it’s like, no, he had a hold on it,” says Amy. “It was like [Luke saying], ‘Something’s going wrong here, and I’m going to quit it.’ Luke’s going to take the bull by the horns. ‘I got this.’”

But Luke didn’t have it.

“My family already had a tornado on their hands [with my sister]. I’m back at home. I’m depressed. I’m blaming it on them. The world’s against me. Now I’m just trying to protect the only thing working for me,” he shares.

Then one night, it all came to a head. Luke’s younger brother was at home with some of his buddies when Luke arrived in a blackout, high on painkillers. His brother, then a senior in high school, worshipped Luke, but this version of him was frightening and embarrassing. He was out of his mind. Luke’s brother asked him to knock it off, and when Luke didn’t, he knocked him out.

The next morning, as Luke was piecing together the events of the previous evening, he found his brother crying in his bedroom. “If my brother still thinks I hung the moon, then I’m OK. Then that was shattered,” says Luke. “He looked at me and said, ‘What happened to my older brother?’”

Luke checked in to Discovery Place for the first time that day.

Luke’s first relapse

Dave and Amy were no strangers to Discovery Place. Two of Amy’s brothers had also come through the program. At their commencements, Dave and Amy had been moved by the deep sense of respect and brotherhood that everyone seemed to have for one another.

“We’d seen tons of treatment centers because of our daughter. Just seeing the way they were so close [at Discovery Place], the way they bonded, and it’s just men—it was different than other places,” says Amy.

Luke was open to quitting drugs and alcohol but surrender was something else altogether. “I would go to treatment, do my time, come back, problem solved,” recalls Luke. “I had no clue about recovery or the disease of alcoholism.”

“I had no clue about recovery or the disease of alcoholism.”

Sure that he had just fallen on hard times rather than believe he had a problem, Luke did what he’d come to do best: check boxes, play a role, tell you what he thought you wanted to hear. He completed his thirty days, went to Long-Term Recovery, and spent two months in a nearby sober living house. “I’m getting the response I want,” says Luke, “and everyone is happy.”

Then Luke decided he’d had enough and it was time to get back to Nashville. “I can remember thinking, ‘I’m better than this. I don’t need this. I’ve done y’all [Discovery Place] a favor by being here.’” So Luke left. He was using again in a month.

Back to Discovery Place

Almost exactly one year later, Luke checked back in to Discovery Place.

“There was something attractive about Discovery Place. The unconditional love was overwhelming,” says Luke of his decision to return. “I was met with nothing but love and the answer at DP.”

This time, tail tucked a little more firmly between his legs than last, Luke got back to work on his recovery. While he now believed he had a problem with drugs and alcohol, he still saw recovery as some sort of equation to be worked. “If I get a sponsor, do A, B, and C, then, boom, I’m done,” says Luke. There was still no surrender.

After his second time through, Luke did what he said he would do. He got a sponsor, worked the steps, went to meetings, and didn’t take a drink or use drugs for nearly three years. He earned his business degree, got a corporate office job, was in a relationship, and settled into a condo in a nice part of town.

“And I got miserable, miserable, miserable. I was going through the motions, not trying to change. I got the things back, but I still had Luke. I didn’t get step one, and I’m just crossing my fingers hoping it’ll all work out,” he says. “I’m dead inside.”

Just before his three-year sobriety anniversary, Luke relapsed. Meth, crack, heroin, Luke had a death wish. Within three months, he’d overdosed three times.

“It took three years to build that life and only three months to destroy it.”

“It took three years to build that life and only three months to destroy it,” he says. “I went through 75 thousand dollars. I lost the job, lost the apartment, lost the girlfriend, and most importantly, I’m hopeless.”

Luke hatched up a half-baked suicide plan and before he could carry it out, his family caught wind of it. When Luke arrived back at Discovery Place for the third time, it was not without incident.

“I am a visual of a man experiencing step one. This thing [addiction] has me by the neck. I can’t imagine life without drugs and alcohol,” recalls Luke. “I’m acting like a crazy person—no shirt, tearing grass out of the ground, screaming.”

And no sooner had Luke arrived than Luke left. In his agitated, meth-riddled state of mind, he walked off the property.

Starting over after a second relapse

“I was begging him, “Go back, go back,” shares Dave after receiving a call from Luke telling him he’d left Discovery Place. “It was awful.”

Dave spent the rest of the day on the phone with local police trying to get Luke picked up for any charge possible, anything to get him off the street. Finally that afternoon, an encounter with local law enforcement landed Luke not in jail, but in the suicide unit of a nearby hospital.

Following his discharge, Luke went straight to Discovery Place.

“I fell in love with Discovery Place the first time I came here. I always felt loved and accepted,” says Luke. “They accepted me at my very worst every time, and said, ‘Welcome home.’ They let me know it’s OK to be broken.”

Each time Luke had left Discovery Place before, despite his best intentions, he’d sunk a little deeper into the disease of addiction. And each time he found himself ready to give sobriety another go, he made his way back there.

“These people got it. They knew my brain. They knew how I felt,” he says. Because nearly every employee on campus is also an alum, the guides, the staff, and volunteers did understand how Luke felt; they’d been there, too. “The man guiding me, sitting in front of me, has walked in my shoes. It’s not something you can explain. You have to experience it.”

“This is a complete change of life and the way I perceive it.”

Though Dave and Amy haven’t been through Discovery Place’s program, as hopeful but once-despairing parents, they have their own special experience of it, too.

“It’s joy. It’s real joy and real happiness. It’s like I’ve got a grin on my face I can’t wipe off from the minute I walk on campus. Even when I see [Discovery Place] from 200 yards away, it’s like everything is at ease and I’m in the right place,” says Dave. “They never gave up on Luke,” adds Amy. “They just kept welcoming him back.”

It’s been over a year now since Luke’s last arrival at Discovery Place. He hasn’t taken a drink or used a drug in that time. He works on campus and lives in nearby Dickson. There’s no longer a rush to get back to Nashville or to fulfill another role he thinks he should be playing.

“For me to hear him say, ‘I’m not trying to be you anymore,’” says Dave, “that feels really, really good.”

For Luke, now life is something he’s excited about rather than just trying to survive. “It’s the journey and I’m a destination guy. It was always, happiness is just around the corner, what you want is just around the corner, Luke is just around the corner. I never stopped to consider what I want or who I am. This isn’t a destination anymore. This is a complete change of life and the way I perceive it.”