Winning the Unlucky Lottery

“I’ve met 60 year old men that have drank their entire lives and have never experienced liver failure. They’ve lost their wife in a divorce, or their house, or their job, but they never had that other thing.

It’s nice to be able to remind people that it can be worse. Not to be a martyr, but this is a real life example of what alcohol can do to you. I call it winning the unlucky lottery.”

The following post is transcribed from an interview with MHAAO Peer Support Specialist, Justin Schumacher, on 12/18/2018.

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You don’t know if you’re one of “those” people until you start using. I didn’t know. Some people have the experience of becoming physically addicted by prolonged exposure over time. For other people, it has an adverse effect from the beginning. If you’ve avoided substances, and then start using, you wouldn’t have a way of knowing if you were predisposed to addiction until it was too late.

I only started drinking when I was 28. By the time I was 37, I was hospitalized for liver and kidney failure.

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Definitely for me, anxiety and depression helped me drink more. It’s a feedback loop.

You’re anxious and you drink because of your anxiety, but then you’re anxious because you’re drinking, and then you’re depressed because you can’t stop drinking.

Rinse repeat, rinse repeat.

Possibly, if I had been treated earlier for anxiety and depression, I might’ve avoided this situation. With a drug or any other maladaptive coping strategy, it grabs onto you. All of those things that are wrong, it helps all of those things at the same time. So many people that we help who struggle with addiction, it’s really rooted in mental health.

When a neurotypical person does a drug, they get high. But a person with a mental illness starts in a deficit and drugs get them to normal. Then they get high, so it’s like getting high twice, because for them it’s like, “Not only do I feel good, which is amazing, but I feel Really good.”

Last July of 2017, I went into the hospital with a cirrhotic liver and failing kidneys. I was given until September to live.

I had made the choice to stop drinking 4 days before I was hospitalized. One of the reasons that I chose to stop drinking was that I was already turning yellow, my skin was almost Simpson’s color. So I thought, “Oh, I’ll stop drinking, and I’ll just reverse this damage. That’s how it works, right? If you have a lot of sugar and then you stop, then you start to lose weight.” That’s not how it works at all. It’s completely different. Once you have liver damage, you’ve done liver damage. That’s just the end of it.

I was put on dialysis to help. Your liver can’t process water anymore, so your body swells with water. Your legs and stomach swell. So I was at Legacy and they did what they could and they sent me home. Then I got sick again and went back to Legacy, and I almost died. I got a temperature of 105. They told my wife and mom that they needed to start making arrangements.

I didn’t experience any of it. I had the shivers, and then the next day I woke up and was like, “What’s going on? What did I miss?” They’re still traumatized to this day, whereas I only remember being cold and then falling asleep.

Oregon is very strict with sobriety dates. They denied me transplant because I hadn’t been sober long enough, and the doctors didn’t feel that I would be a good place for a new liver and kidney because it would be a waste of organs on somebody who was going to die anyway.

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They said, “There’s a chance that you may be able to get a transplant in Seattle if you’re willing to go to the hospital.” They also told me that I probably wouldn’t last through the week. They asked me whether I wanted to die in a hospital or die at home. They said that I had to make that choice. I chose the hospital.

The timeline for my transplant was really fast. The reason it was so fast was because (1) I’m white, (2) I’m male, (3) I have o-positive blood, and (4) I was about to die, so I got put up at the very very upper echelon of the list.

OHSU denied me transplant on Friday the 13th of October 2017. So I went to Seattle on October 15th. I got approved for transplant on the 22nd, and then I got a transplant on the 28th. It takes a long time to heal from transplant, like forever. I got out of the hospital the day after Christmas, and I’ve been dealing with it since, with a new liver and a new kidney.

It would be extremely disrespectful and awful to ruin somebody’s good organs because I was able to live. I couldn’t think of a worse thing that I could do. My desire to not drink comes from almost dying, and from having someone else’s organs in me. Besides, I don’t want to get sick again. Being in a hospital for 6 months is a bummer.

“I’m excited to go back to OHSU. It’s sort of like being a football player who goes and plays for the big team, and then comes home and coaches for the small team.

I get to go back. It’s not even like facing demons, it’s just like,’Hey, I was here. There’s a reason why I got denied transplant, and I’m better now. Let me help.’”

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I’ve been married for 5 years, but we’ve been together for 13. She was very supportive when I was sick. I think that for people who have addiction and alcohol problems, the shame is the worst part of it. You feel really broken in a way that people will judge you. My wife and I decided that wasn’t how it was going to be for us.

When I was in the hospital, people asked her how she was doing, and she was like, “Well, my husband’s in the hospital, and he’s there because he’s an alcoholic.” She was really just taking the power back. She said, “I’m not gonna allow you to judge me for this situation, because I’m willing to be honest about this situation.”

She’s a rockstar! Connection is everything, but to have that one very special connection, it’s life’s gloss, it makes it not so bad.

“As much as it’s sappy, it’s true that it really is just one day at a time. It’s fighting just for that day. Long term goals are great, but can we just get through today? Tomorrow we’ll worry about tomorrow.”

I have DJ’d since I moved here in 2010. It’s very interesting being in the scene because most promoters pay you in drink tickets. That isn’t an option, so my relationship to the scene has changed a lot. I don’t stay out late. I don’t take drinks for pay.

You get a little excluded, but you get respected a lot more. Everyone wants to be better, and most people who are taking things too far know that they are. When they find somebody that used to do drugs and drink, but have quit, they latch onto it and are like “Wow, that’s amazing. I can’t believe that you do that. That’s really cool.”

I DJ at Flipside on Foster and The Nightlight Lounge. Music keeps me going!

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“I think we offer a lot of hope in terms of everyone that works here. There are so many different pathways to recovery. This person did it this way, that person did it that way, this is what this person had to navigate to get there.

You almost are mentally prepared for whatever happens when you meet so many different people in recovery, because there’s always another story you can latch onto.”

Peer StoriesKaity McCraw